Chicago, USALiliya Shobukhova has only lost two marathons of the six she has run, but both of them were in London. With her 2:18:20 win in Sunday's Bank of America Chicago Marathon, an IAAF Gold Label Road Race, however, she has vaulted to the top of the list of female contenders for Olympic glory when the 2012 Olympic Games are held there next summer.
If the 33-year-old Russian were an American, her story would probably be characterised as a "rags to riches" tale of a woman from a family with three female children who went through hard times during their childhood, but also gained wealth and fame through running.
When her parents weren't paid for several months during the tough economic times that preceded the fall of the USSR, the family had to scramble to keep food on the table. For the young Liliya, still not a teenager, salvation came in the form of athletics. Shobukhova's friends talked her into going out for sports and she was accepted into the elite Russian sports program for children and deemed to be talented enough to potentially be successful in sports. Despite tough economic times, Russia still was able to maintain their sports programs.
"The way I came into athletics was by accident," Shobukhova said. "My classmates kept telling me to try athletics. I resisted at first, but finally gave it a try."
Shobukhova spent nearly 25 years in the Russian sports program, the benefits being that all her needs were met, but in return she had to do what the coaches and administrators told her. That meant racing on the track where she was quite successful, making two Olympic teams, setting a World Record at 3000m indoors and being a productive citizen for the Russian government sponsored athletic machine. From age nine until age 29, Shobukhova trained with the national team and helped them become a force in world athletics. She married and had a daughter, Anna, who is now eight. But she only got a stipend and her race schedule was decided by the Russian team coaches.
"From the age of 13, I dreamed about the Olympics,” she said. While she made two Olympic finals in the 5000m, Liliya did not win a medal.
A marathoner ‘by accident’
She began to run in road races, and "to make money to feed your family," Shobukhova said. Another "accident" resulted in her introduction to the Marathon. She had been invited to run a 5-K in New York, but the race fell through at the last minute, and was instead invited to run what is now the Rock 'n Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon. There she beat Kenya's Catherine Ndereba and was subsequently invited to debut in the Marathon in 2009 at the Virgin London Marathon.
"I never thought of myself as a marathon runner," she said, "But I wanted to try at least one for the sake of curiosity." She finished third in her debut in 2:24:24 in 2009, then won her second, her first Chicago victory in the Fall of 2009 in 2:25:56. After that race Shobukhova looked a bit stunned at her success, but her husband and coach, Igor Shobukhov, was ebullient, telling anyone and everyone: "She will be Olympic champion."
That bold prediction no longer looks like wishful thinking. Shobukhova followed her Chicago win with another in the spring of 2010 in London in 2:22:00, followed by her second Chicago victory in 2:20:25, and a third place finish in this year's London race in a then-Russian national record of 2:20:15, followed by her victory on Sunday in Chicago.
"I could have gone faster," she said after the race, "but it wasn't necessary." Igor has had her on a training program that focuses on gradual improvement and small adjustments, not major changes.
"It is the best way to get results, go gradually,' she said. "Not get injured." Shobukhova runs the same workouts, just slightly faster as she focuses on her next race, her next time barrier. For Chicago the training was geared toward running 2:19, but her racing approach is to "never be afraid to run faster if you're training shows you are ready to run that fast."
Igor did change the pace Shobukhova aimed at for the first half of Sunday's race to 1:09:30 instead of the 1:10:00 she ran last year because, Liliya said, she needed to go faster to get under 2:20. Wearing white, knee length compression socks and a look of pure concentration, Shobukhova ran 1:09:25 for the first half on Sunday and finished it off with a 1:08:55 for the final 13.1 miles, giving both coach and athlete the belief that a 2:17 goal is not unrealistic.
Career both productive and lucrative
More importantly, perhaps, it gave Shobukhova the satisfaction that all the work she has done over the years is bearing fruit. Because the family home in Beloretsk, located at the base of the Ural Mountains, is inhospitable to training except in the summer, Shobukhova has gone to various Russian training camps at altitude and sea level to prepare for both London and this year's Chicago race. She spent two months at altitude prior to Chicago doing training to prepare her to run sub-2:20.
"All these years, I was investing, investing, investing," Shobukhova said of her track career and subsequent road racing preparation. "I am happy it is finally paying off."
It has paid off in both results and financially. Shobukhova has won a total of US$1 million in prize money the last two years by winnning the World Marathon Majors circuit championship. She'll pocket another $140,000 from Sunday's victory on top of appearance fees. She's used the money to buy land where they plan to construct a hotel. Housing for her two sisters is also part of the plan. Shobukhova says she also wants to have a second child and "watch her children grow up," but first on the priority list is the 2012 Games. "I have been to the Olympics, but this time I want a medal," said Shobukhova.
If she brings home the gold, would that be it for athletics? "I don't know," she answers. "We'll have to see how it goes. If I still enjoy it, am still having success, I might go on after I'm 40, maybe run Masters." Reap more dividends from a career that has already been long, productive, and lucrative.
Jim Ferstle for the IAAF