Svetlana Zakharova thought she was done.
A new mother with a decorated international marathon career, Zakharova seemed content to let the year-end trips to Hawaii simply fade into a pleasant memory rather than remain a regular stop on her competitive schedule.
Yet she found herself drawn back last year and announced her return by winning her third Honolulu Marathon after a seven-year absence.
So here she is once more, back to defend the title on Sunday as one of the most successful women in the race’s history.
"It’s very enjoyable here," Zakharova said through a translator yesterday. "It’s very relaxed, people are nice and it’s a lot more enjoyable than any other marathon."
While Zakharova embraces the relatively relaxed atmosphere of island life when she makes the 24-hour journey from Russia, she won’t allow herself to become immersed in it — as least not until Sunday afternoon at the earliest.
Zakharova is entered in her ninth Honolulu Marathon, a stretch that began in 1996, and leads this year’s group of elite runners.
She crossed the line first among the women in 1997 and 2002, then returned to reclaim the title last year. She has finished no lower than second her other five appearances.
Zakharova, 40, finished 11th overall (among men and women) last year, covering the course in just over 2 hours, 28 minutes and 34 seconds, her fastest time in the event.
Along with Zakharova, two more of last year’s top five women’s finishers return. Kaori Yoshida, this year’s pacesetter, trailed Zakharova by more than 7 minutes, finishing fourth.
Eri Hayakawa, who succeeded Zakharova as champion in 2003, placed fifth, another 9 minutes back.
Three other elite runners are making their Honolulu debuts — Megumi Oshima and Eri Okubo of Japan and Teyba Naser of Ethiopia, who finished second in the Los Angeles Marathon in March with a time of 2:26:20.
Although Zakharova is aware of the other entrants and is "thinking about what their strategy might be and analyzing last year," her focus remains inward once the race starts.
Zakharova’s international resume includes victories in the Boston and Chicago marathons in 2003, when she became the first Russian to win two major titles in the same year.
She set a lifetime best of 2:21:31 in the 2002 Chicago Marathon and has run in the last two Olympic Games.
Zakharova now finds Russia’s younger set of runners — some coached by her husband, Nikolay Zakharov — trying to chase her down, and has used her success to aid their development.
Through the sponsorships she’s secured, Zakharova provides gear for some of the youngsters who come from the countryside to train in Cheboksary, as she did at age 15.
"Without that they can’t really do anything," she said. "They don’t have running shoes, essentials."
Zakharova arrived here with her husband Wednesday night — giving her a few days to get over the jet lag — and said her sister helps care for her now 4-year-old daughter during her training in Kislovodsk.
While the weekend weather forecast could make for a wet morning on Sunday, Zakharova isn’t all that concerned given the conditions she left behind.
"As long as it’s not snowing, it’s OK."