The determination of a long distance runner

  • 2005-11-23
  • Interview by Tim Ochser
When 29-year-old Jelena Prokopcuka recently won the prestigious New York marathon after a dramatic final surge at the Central Park finish, The New York Times wrote that she "sent the marathon world fumbling for a pronunciation guide and a map." Since then, the runner has been propelled to instant fame in Latvia, and her phone has constantly been off the hook as journalists line up to get an interview with her. TBT went to visit Prokopcuka at her Jurmala home to find out what she makes of it all.

When did you start running marathons?

I only began three years ago. My first marathon was in Paris. But I started running when I was 11-years-old, doing the 800 and 1,500-meter.

So why did you start concentrating on marathon running?

My husband Alexander runs the Latvian marathon and my coach Leonid Strekalovskis also used to run the marathon. They advised me on this. My husband is my sparring partner, we always practice together. All my achievements in the marathon are thanks to my husband and coach.

How many marathons have you run so far?

The New York marathon was my seventh. I also won in Osaka in January of this year.

You must have been asked this question a hundred times already, but were you surprised to win?

It was a surprise but not a huge surprise because I knew I could do it. It wasn't even my best time - that was when I won in 2 hours 22 minutes 56 seconds in Osaka.

You broke away at the start of the race and kept up with the pack, but at one point you suddenly seemed to run into difficulties. What happened?

I felt very strong with about 10 kilometers of the race left, very fresh, but I started running a little too fast and I felt a piercing pain in my liver as I was coming downhill. So I slowed down and started massaging my liver by doing a special exercise to squeeze all the air out of it. Then the pain passed.

During a marathon you push your body to the absolute limits of endurance. What do you think about while you run?

I'm in a state when I run in which I am only aware of my body, my heart, my lungs, my legs, everything. I also keep an eye on my competitors and try to gauge what they are feeling. After the New York marathon, I felt amazingly fresh, and I had to walk around for two hours attending various ceremonies, which was like a mini-marathon in itself. But of course it affects you. It takes at least a week for your body to get back to normal and even longer for the mind.

Didn't you find the hills extremely trying in the New York marathon? You come from a track background and you're from Latvia, which is about as flat as a country gets.

The New York marathon route includes five bridges and many hills. There was a one-mile uphill section at around the 22nd mile which I really liked. That's when I caught up with the other leaders and with Susan [Chepkemei]. Running uphill is definitely one of my strengths. But I don't like running downhill, unlike most other athletes.

You won a record victory prize of $130,000, $30,000 more than in the men's race. You told reporters that you want to spend it on a house. Where will it be?

We want to build a new house just three kilometers from this apartment, here in Jurmala. We have the land, now we just need the house.

What was it like when you returned to Latvia?

Oh, it was absolutely crazy. I've had almost no rest. Journalists just keep on ringing me up and I keep getting invited to all these events. For Independence Day [Nov. 18] I was invited to the Latvian National Opera with the president, the prime minister and many other dignitaries.

So how do you like the fame?

It's nice but tiring.

You are from a Russian family. Do you feel that you represent Latvia when you run or just yourself?

Latvia is my country, my motherland. When I was in New York I told reporters that my victory was also a victory for my country. When I returned home I was amazed by how many people had watched the race on television in the middle of the night. Many people here were following and supporting me and I felt this tremendous energy coming from Latvia.

Will you be taking part in the next Olympics?

It's too soon to say. I ran in the last three Olympic Games. In Atlanta I ran the 5,000-meters, in Sydney I ran the 5,000 and 10,000-meters and in Athens I ran the 10,000-meters where I came in seventh. Whether or not I run in the next Olympics depends on my results in the year leading up to it.

What are your immediate plans?

In the short term I just need to rest. In two week's time I will start training again. I spend the winter in Portugal, in the Algarve, because it's too cold to train in Latvia. We live just 300 meters from the coast. The Latvian Olympic Committee has a special program to support professional athletes like myself, and they help us out a lot.