Los Angeles, CA. — Aleksandra Duliba isn‘t the first, nor will she be the last blond to seek fame and fortune in Los Angeles. After all, it is the city of dreams. But the dream came to life today for the 27 year-old marathon debutant from Minsk, Belarus as she won the 28th Asics Los Angeles Marathon, captured the $50,000 Gender Challenge bonus for crossing the finish line ahead of any man on Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica, and set a Belarus national marathon record, 2:26:06 in the process. Mexican born Kenyan Erick Mose captured the men’s title in a PR 2:09:44 ahead of fellow Kenyan Julius Keter who also ran to a new PR (2:10:32).
“She made all four of her goals,” said Duliba’s manager, Andrej Baranov. “So what’s next?”
Well, it looks like the 2013 IAAF World Track & Field Championships in Moscow will be next for the star of this year’s LA Marathon. By first going sub-2:30 today she put herself in position to be selected to the Belarus marathon team heading to Moscow. That she did so by breaking the Belarus national marathon record of 2:26:23 – set here in Los Angeles back in 1992 by Madina Biktagirova in what was then a L.A. course record – only sealed her selection, though five other Belarus women will run marathons in April before the federation committee makes its final decision on April 28th.
The marathon gods were docile this day as temperatures throughout the L.A. area remained in the mid-50sF (11C), giving the athletes every opportunity to go hard and not pay a heating bill later on. With hazy overcast skies and light winds the conditions could hardly have been better.
As the seven-woman professional field came to the starting line at Dodger Stadium before a sold-out crowd of 24,000 other marathoners, they knew they carried a substantial 18:35 time advantage over the 16-man pro men’s field, part of the Gender Challenge race-within-the-race format which is now in its tenth year in Los Angeles. But with so few women from which to construct a lead pack, the advantage could well have shifted back to the men, if they could work together and use their greater mass to roll down the fast Stadium-To-Sea course.
At the starter’s command it was local favorite and American marathon record holder Deena Kastor who established the early pace. Born in nearby Augora Hills, California, Deena had turned 40 on February 14, and though she might not have been the same runner who set the American record 2:19:36 while winning the London Marathon in 2006, Deena arrived in L.A. off a solid third-place finish at the February 2nd USATF Cross Country Championship in St. Louis and a serviceable 1:12:57 half marathon tune up in Pasadena two weeks later.
But with a sub-2:30 necessity hanging over her head, Aleksandra Duliba quickly matched Deena’s strides. Then, after consulting her miles-to-kilometers conversion charts she had written on both hands and forearms, she upped the ante with a 5:30 third mile through Chinatown. One mile later, Deena had fallen off the back by 12-seconds, beginning a long solo slog which included some stomach issues.
While the women’s race was soon reduced to a duel between the debuting Duliba and second time marathoner Zemzem Ahmed of Ethiopia at mile 5, the men had begun their chase. The 18:35 differential was calculated by subtracting the men’s event record, 2:06:35 by Ethiopia’s Markos Geneti in 2011 from the women’s event record, 2:25:10 by Russia’s Lydia Grigoryeva in 2006. The difference would require a 42-second quicker split at each mile for the men to hunt down the women and win the $50,000 Challenge bonus – down from $100,000 in the last seven years.
At first the large men’s lead pack was right on schedule as their early miles matched the women’s to within a few seconds. But when 2012 Kosice Marathon runner-up Philemon Baaru of Kenya (2:07:49) seemed the only athlete willing to press the pace, the lack of confederation meant the men could never string enough fast miles together to eat into what was gradually becoming a lengthening women’s lead. And with Duliba and Ahmed willing to share the load early on, the advantage the men might have had in pack size was quickly turned against them.
The women clicked off 5:30 – 5:40 miles through Hollywood to hit the half way mark in 1:13:50. The men established their rhythm at just under 2:10 marathon pace with ten men congealed in the pack. By their half split, 1:05:04 they found themselves 31-seconds behind the pace necessary to win The Challenge. But with no guy ready to throw down a significant move, the two women up front kept adding to their advantage with each 5280-foot stretch of roadway put behind them.
As Duliba continued to front the women’s race, Ethiopia’s Shuru Diriba remained in third, Kastor in fourth. Tucking in behind the rookie Duliba, Zemzem Ahmed’s ran her own debut last fall in Frankfurt, 2:27:16. Diriba’s best was notched in Dubai 2009 at 2:28:26. Behind them Deena Kastor had rediscovered her rhythm in fourth and began to eat into the gap to third.
The men had a number of false alarms, as when 2:07-man Nicholas Chelimo took the reins for a short time, only to get swallowed by the larger group. Then 2:09 man Weldon Kirui of Kenya, second here last year in 2:13:40, went quickly to the front between 14 and 15 miles looking intent on stirring the pack and breaking free of their steady but laconic effort. But that attack quickly faded, too, and once again Philemon Baaru found himself lonely at the point.
The women’s race finally broke at 30K when Duliba turned the screw from a 5:39 18th mile to a 5:29 19th. It was enough to drop Zemzem Ahmed and cast the Belarussian national 10,000-meter bronze medalist free and clear. With three months of guidance from renowned coach Igor Osmak, the man who led Tetyana Gamera-Shyrkno of Ukraine to a fifth-place finish in the London Olympic Marathon last summer, and a subsequent win at this year’s Osaka Women’s Marathon in Japan, Duliba’s confidence was cresting at just the right time. But she still ran as any smart deb would, with respect.
“She was afraid after 30K, because everyone talked about The Wall,” explained manager Baranov. “But she was feeling better and kept pushing.”
As the L.A. route hit the tony Brentwood section heading toward the finish in Santa Monica, the course goes into a soft decline, helping elevate the hips perfectly without any effort from the athlete. After a series of 5:37 miles proved she wasn’t fading, and sealing off any chance the men might have to run her down, Aleksandra got a little frisky as the Belarus national record came onto her radar.
While Duliba descended into Santa Monica with visions of a $75,000 bounty, the men’s race broke down from a six-pack to two-man duel at the hill at 21 miles inside the Veteran Administration grounds. This is the last uphill on the course, and where Kenya’s Simon Njoroge broke free from Weldon Kirui last year. Both top finishers from 2012 had returned in 2013, but both were off the back at this critical point today. As the lead men passed third-place woman Deena Kastor, Kenyans Erick Mose and Julius Keter came clean as long-time pack leader Philemon Baaru began to fade.
Born in Toluca, Mexico while holding Kenyan citizenship, Erick Mose set his marathon PR last fall in Torreon, Mexico at 2:10:40. Julius Keter came to L.A. with a PR of 2:11:36 from his win at the long-ago Baltimore Marathon in 2008. Neither man was among the picks for the win, but that’s why we go racing, to find out who’s day it’s going to be.
In the final 2k, Duliba’s lengthening stride almost got her into trouble, as a right hamstring twinged, causing a rapid grab from her hand. But that tweak disappeared as fast as it had come on, and she powered over the final mile in 5:10 to notch a winning time of 2:26:06, a new Belarus national record. In 1992 Madina Biktagirova won the Los Angeles Marathon in 2:26:23. That mark has stood as the Belarus national marathon record ever since. Ironic that it would fall here in L.A.
The men’s race was decided down San Vicente Boulevard entering Santa Monica at 40K as Mose produced a downhill 4:46 25th mile to pull free of Keter. Mose’s final mile took one-second longer than Duliba’s, but he had enough strength to win the $25,000 first place prize with a new PR 2:09:44. Keter finished second in his own PR 2:10:32, with Weldon Kirui joining them on the podium in 2:10:49. Nick Arcianaga was the first American home in 2:17:05, a disappointment for the 2:11:30 man from Flagstaff, Arizona who had hopes of taking his game to the next level today.
Zemzem Ahmed finished second for the women in 2:30:32, some 4:24 behind Duliba while Deena Kastor rolled home in 2:32:39 in third, all in all, not a bad performance for the 40 year-old mom who plans to travel to Poland to compete in next weekend’s IAAF World Cross Country Championships.
But the star of the day was Aleksandra Duliba. It wasn’t just her racing savvy that impressed us, it was the efficiency of her stride and the willingness to challenge a new distance for a national record. You can tell she has a lot more ahead of her after this star-making turn in the Los Angeles spotlight.