By Barbara Huebner, NYRR
Years ago, Aleksander Prokopcuk passed a young woman early in a 35K handicap race, in which the fastest runners started last. That was hardly a surprise: He was the Latvian national record-holder in the marathon.
He was more surprised when, late in the race, he realized that she was right behind him.
“That girl could run a good marathon,” he thought.
Three years later they were married, and Jelena Prokopcuka will toe the start line of the TCS New York City Marathon on Sunday as a two-time champion and a contender to return to the podium for the fifth time in six appearances here.
Not long after they wed, Aleks started trying to persuade Jelena, a 5000-meter Olympian for Latvia, to try the marathon distance. Reluctantly, she made her debut in Paris in 2002, running 2:28:36. In 2005, the three-time Olympian on the track ran a national record 2:22:56 and won the New York City Marathon for the first time. She won again in 2006, and she took third in 2007.
Then, she largely vanished for almost four years.
After one unsuccessful pregnancy and then the birth of her son Victor, now 3, Prokopcuka (pro-kopp-CHEW-ka) returned to New York in 2012 and was standing in line at customs when she learned that the marathon had been canceled because of Hurricane Sandy. Last year, she finally made it back to the starting line, persevering late in the race for a third-place finish that was surprising even to her.
“At the finish, I asked my husband, ‘I’m really third?’ It was so unexpected,” said Prokopcuka at a press event today. “I understood I was third, but I didn’t believe.”
The 38-year-old can hardly believe she’s still competing at all, much less at this level.
“When I was 22 years old, I was married to Aleks and I was thinking about finishing my career to help him,” she said. “It has happened different, and he helped me.”
This year, Prokopcuka may have lost the element of surprise that she had going for her in her 2013 comeback, but she gains an advantage thanks to the weather forecast. Accustomed to running along the Gulf of Riga in Jurmala, Prokopcuka has already been training in temperatures of around 25 degrees Fahrenheit, often in a brisk wind. So while a predicted 22-mph headwind does not excite her, she knows that she is more adjusted to the likely conditions than are many of her rivals. “I am not afraid,” she declares.
A 2:24:07 second-place finish this March in the Nagoya Women’s Marathon means that Prokopcuka comes into New York more confident than last year. She also says that she feels stronger, which should play well on a challenging course where she hopes to hit halfway in 1:13 or perhaps a bit faster, then power through to the finish.
“I like the second part of New York,” she said. “It helped me two times to win. It helped me to get third place last year. The New York course is, a tough, difficult course. You can use it very well.
“If I am ready, I can run. I’m ready.”