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Moscow’s Alaska

by Boris Prokopyev

Zelenograd Half Marathon
Sun 3 June 2007

I have to admit the painful truth: in Russia running has not been very popular over the last 15 years. The number of people taking part in marathons and half-marathons is dwindling. Even the largest events attract no more than 1000 runners, and these are held in cities where the population exceeds a million, like Moscow, St Petersburg, Omsk, Novosibirsk and Nizhny Novgorod.

Although numbers are relatively low, these races, for Russian runners, have the same significance and meaning that the London Marathon has for Britons, that Boston has for Americans, and that the Berlin Marathon has for Germans.

One of these standout events in Russia is the Zelenograd Half Marathon Sprandi, which became a full member of AIMS only a few weeks before the 2007 edition was held.

Few readers of Distance Running will be able to find the race venue, Zelenograd, on any map. Don’t try. Just fix your attention on the Russian capital, Moscow. Zelenograd is a satellite city of Greater Moscow, with a population of around 200,000. It is young – younger than half of our currently active marathoners. The town was founded in 1958, when the Soviet Government designated it as a city of progressive electronic technologies.

In reality Zelenograd is an integral part of the many-millioned mega-city state that is Greater Moscow, but physically it lies 20km away. That is the reason why this small and agreeable town, whose 10-22 storied buildings tower above the tops of birch and pine-trees, has its own name. The trees that make up the forest are foremost among the town’s natural resources, and bestowed the name upon the town. In English Zelenograd means “Green City”, and woodland both surrounds and penetrates the city, covering one-third of its territory. Sometimes they call Zelenograd “Moscow’s Alaska” because it is the one district of Moscow that is separated from the nine others, much as Alaska stands apart from 48 other States of the American Union.

Zelenograd is far enough away from Moscow to enjoy fresh air, a coniferous scent and birdsong. Each time I come back here from the stuffy, gas-polluted capital I immediately roll down the windows of my car to better absorb it all. On the other hand Zelenograd is close enough to Moscow to sight the spire of the University there. From the balcony of my 14th-floor flat my glance glides along the green cover of the tree-tops – and when the sun shines brightly it illuminates the stars on the towers of the Kremlin. Zelenograd is big enough to live up to its billing as of the capital of Russian electronics and small enough to run clean through it in less than half an hour.

The limited expanse of the city required race organisers to lay out the course as three 7km laps. They also arranged it this way so that public transport is not disrupted any more than necessary. But the city authorities were keen to make the town’s central square available, along with the main thoroughfare and adjacent streets. Such a tightly-defined course has definite advantages for course logistics, and allows spectators maximum opportunity to follow the competitors’ intrigues.

Because the main half marathon event attracts just 600 runners, race organizers have included other distances within the programme, so that the whole event becomes a real running festival. It starts on the Saturday evening, the day before the half marathon, with a 2km race for women that is organized by men. It has a touching and in some way intimate name – “Our Beloved”. At the finish every woman finishing is gifted a scarlet rose.

First to depart on the Sunday morning were governmental and commercial leaders, who competed over the iconic distance of 1958m – the “Zelenograd Mile” – just half an hour before the half marathon start. Next came children under 10 years old, who ran the miniest of marathons – just 420m, 1% of the marathon distance.

Finally, at 11.00, the half marathon runners were set off, alongside runners in the 7km race. This 11th edition of the race attracted altogether 1400 runners from 37 regions of Russia and from 12 countries of the world. They were welcomed by sunny, warm weather and a fresh wind. Only two days before the event most runners expecting to take part were in a state of suspended disbelief, because for the last 10 days of May it was extremely hot in the Moscow region, as all known temperature records for the season were broken. It was 32C in the shade; and over 40C in direct sun.

Nearly all previous male winners returned, except two of them who have already retired. These included three-time winner Alexander Vasiliev, who holds the course record at 1:03.50, but the race favourite was Sergey Lukin, with a 2:10:57 marathon best. Everyone expected him to set a new course record, but after only one lap he was left unopposed, and he led all the way to his triumphal finish.
During the last lap, although there were only 600 competitors in the half marathon, Lukin had navigate his way through the crowd of back markers – and so too did the lead police vehicle. His winning time could perhaps have been improved by 30-40 seconds if he had not been impeded.

In the women’s race Alina Ivanova, with a long list of glittering career wins behind her (and a personal marathon best of 2:25:32), joined battle with course record-holder Lidia Vasilevskaya (1:10.23). Vasilevsakaya’s marathon best is also better than 2:30, but Ivanova ran out a clear winner.
Next year Zelenograd celebrates its 50th anniversary. It has almost everything necessary for its existence as a separate town: theatre, museum, palace of culture, university, churches – and its own football team. There is even a winter marathon – a multi- lap race which winds its way along snow-covered woodland paths, where squirrels scatter at the sight of two hundred marathon runners. All it lacks is history. But it will achieve it, and the Half Marathon will help it to do so.

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