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112th Boston Marathon

For her, Boston is gold standard

Heartbreak Hill spelled doom for Jelena Prokopcuka (2) last year in the Marathon. Heartbreak Hill spelled doom for Jelena Prokopcuka (2) last year in the Marathon. (File/John Blanding/Globe Staff)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By John Powers
Globe Staff / April 19, 2008

She'll take Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island. Already has, in fact. John Hancock's town is another matter. "I won New York twice," Jelena Prokopcuka observes, "but I didn't win in Boston."

Not that she hasn't come close the past two years. In 2006, Prokopcuka (Pro-cop-CHU-ka) chased Kenya's Rita Jeptoo all the way to Copley Square in the closest finish (10 seconds) ever in the women's race. In last year's demi-hurricane, she led for much of the way before Russia's Lidiya Grigoryeva ran her down.

Monday's Boston Marathon, though, could be her moment. The 31-year-old Latvian is healthy and altitude-trained after three weeks in Colorado's mountains. "This year," she says, "I am more expecting."

This may be Prokopcuka's best chance of the year to win a major prize, since she won't be going to the Olympics. August steambaths in gray air are not her style.

"Beijing will be very hot weather conditions," says Prokopcuka, who competed in the last three Games on the track. "I cannot run in those conditions, so I have no chance. It would be very bad for my health, too dangerous. I don't want to spend my energy and my health when I have no chance."

Bypassing an Olympics is a big deal for a woman who essentially is Latvia's entire distance team, and some eyebrows have been raised back home. "Some people in our country say, 'Oh, she thinks only about money, not about patriotism,' " says Prokopcuka, who holds every national record between 3,000 meters and the marathon. "They don't understand that if I get injury, no one will give me money. So I have to think about myself."

Prudence is part of her evolution from track racer to marathoner, which began after her experience in Sydney, where she ran herself ragged doubling in the 5,000 and 10,000. So Prokopcuka's coach suggested marathoning, but the distance terrified her.

"I was so afraid because my husband, Aleksander, is a marathon runner and his friends told me about the dead point at 35K where you can't run," she recalls. When she made her debut in Paris in 2002, she was fretting that she'd keel over at 21 miles. When she didn't, she kicked into high gear and finished fifth in 2:28:36.

That day made Prokopcuka a player on pavement and a fixture in the World Marathon Majors, where she finished second to Ethiopia's Gete Wami in last year's standings. Her breakthrough came three years ago in New York, where she stormed from 17 seconds behind with 3 miles left to beat Kenya's Susan Chepkemei by 14 in 2:24:41.

"The first time I won New York, it was like magic for our country, because before, people thought it was impossible for our athletes," says Prokopcuka, the only Latvian to win one of the Big 5 marathons. "When I did it, people were not believing."

Prokopcuka, an ethnic Russian (nee Chelnova) who was born in Riga, belongs to the first generation of Latvian athletes since World War II that competed under their blood-red and white flag instead of the hammer and sickle. When independence came in 1991, the changeover was wrenching for many. "It was a difficult time for my parents," Prokopcuka says. "One life, then another life."

But for teenage athletes like herself, who might never have had a chance to compete for the massive Soviet Union, independence provided immediate opportunity. Prokopcuka ran the 5,000 in the Atlanta Olympics at 19, was back for a double shot in Sydney, then finished seventh in the 10,000 in Athens in 2004.

She made her Boston debut that year and nearly melted into a puddle on a scorching afternoon when the temperature soared into the mid-80s. "With 1 mile to go, I was ready to drop out because I was so exhausted and dehydrated," recalls Prokopcuka, who finished fourth, nearly six minutes behind winner Catherine Ndereba. "After that marathon, I was crying almost one month."

But she was back in 2006 for a three-way duel with Jeptoo and Japan's Reiko Tosa, then again last year, despite missing a month's training with the flu and bronchitis. "It was awful," Prokopcuka says. "A month before the competition, I am considering not to go to Boston."

She certainly hadn't planned on leading the way to what she called Breakheart Hill as her rivals tucked in behind. "I didn't want to do this work because I didn't feel I was strong enough to run in front on such a windy day," Prokopcuka says. "But if I didn't run in front, we would run seven minutes per mile. I cannot run so slowly, so I decided, OK, in front, in front."

Leader of the Pack is not her game, but if everybody else is dawdling, she'll take off by herself, as she did twice in 2006 in New York, where she won by a full minute. "It was a very interesting situation for me, because I cannot understand why I am alone," Prokopcuka says. "Maybe I am crazy. Maybe I did something wrong."

By now, she has New York figured out. She trains at altitude in Switzerland, bides her time on race day, then uses her track speed to make a decisive uphill move inside Central Park.

What she's learned about Boston is that she has to be a downhill racer, too. So Hancock arranged for her to train in Boulder and near the California coast in San Luis Obispo, where she practiced on undulating terrain. Prokopcuka arrived here Wednesday night, revved and ready.

This is the race she has circled for 2008. She has been to Olympus three times and she has won New York twice. "At this moment," Jelena Prokopcuka says, "Boston is something special."

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.

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