NEW YORK -- There was less than a kilometer to go in the New York City Marathon when 41-year-old Lyudmila Petrova of Russia -- the winner in 2000 -- realized she wouldn't be able to beat the runner on her right.
That was 37-year-old Derartu Tulu, who on November 1 became the first Ethiopian woman to win the New York City Marathon. Tulu, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, beat Petrova by a mere eight seconds -- a minuscule margin in long-distance running -- to take home the gold medal, a $130,000 prize, and the distinction of winning the marathon in the year of its 40th anniversary.
They invite me -- London and New York -- and I serve them faithfully. They invite me, I run. Every year.
Petrova came in second, repeating her performance in the 2008 race. The third-place finisher was 34-year-old Christelle Daunay of France. (In the men's race, 34-year-old Meb Keflezighi, born in Eritrea and raised in the United States, took first place; Kenyan Robert Cheruiyot, 31, came in second; 37-year-old Jaouad Gharib of Morocco finished third.)
With an average age of 37, this year's three female medalists -- each of whom has two children -- have prompted observers to wonder to what age women marathoners can continue to deliver championship performances. Petrova, who will collect $65,000 along with her silver medal, speaks about her sport in businesslike terms.
"For me, this is work. I can't give it up. I don’t see where else I can earn more, and so far I'm doing well at it," she says. "When the time comes, the time when I’ll have to give up and won’t be able to earn anymore, then I’ll leave. I’m thinking about it, actually. It's time."Elite Club
Petrova is a member of an elite club of world-class women runners from Russia who are making their marks in long-distance running.
At present, four Russians dominate the ratings of the World Marathon Majors, an organization uniting the five premier world marathons: Berlin, Boston, Chicago, London, and New York.
Irina Mikitenko currently holds the top position in the body's 2009-10 women's ratings, followed by Lilia Shobukhova in second place, Silvia Skvortsova in sixth, and Lidia Grigoryeva in 10th position.
Tatyana Petrova, the winner of the 2009 Los Angeles Marathon and a favorite to win the New York race, was forced to withdraw because of injury.
The World Marathon Majors series is equal to the grand slam tournaments in tennis, and the New York City Marathon is considered its crown jewel. Over the past decade, the winners of the New York race have seen their earnings rise through not only prize money but also commercial endorsements. A record 43,741 runners -- one-third of them women -- participated in this year's race.
Petrova led the race nearly until the finish line, prompting many TV commentators to marvel at her age, viewed as unusually high for a champion marathon runner. But the Russian runner dismisses such concerns.
“Last year they were in shock, too, when I finished second," she tells RFE/RL. "I'm a seasoned runner -- 41 years old. The others are young, and still I placed second. The same happened this year. Nobody discusses my age, they just say, 'Well done, Lyudmila! We're very happy for you.' "
Petrova lives and trains in her native Chuvashia, in central Russia. She has two daughters -- ages 17 and 20 -- whom she has raised on her own since 2005, when her husband was killed in a car accident.
Petrova appears to avoid the official Russian sports establishment, saying she trains by herself at least five hours a day, and works with a manager she trusts.
She is upbeat and confident that this will not be her last appearance in New York. She has been a regular competitor at the New York and London marathons, and doesn't intend to quit now.
“These are the most prestigious marathons, and that's just how it worked out for me in my life," she says. "They invite me -- London and New York -- and I serve them faithfully. They invite me, I run. Every year."
The 2009 New York City Marathon was one of the slowest on record, and Petrova acknowledges the pace worked in her favor. But does she expect to ever repeat her 2000 performance and take home another New York City gold medal?
"Well, I didn’t think that I would place second last year. I'm beginning to adjust mentally to the fact that time is running against me," she says. "Younger runners are climbing up the ladder. But it just so happens that I placed second this year, as well.”