HOUSTON (12-Jan) -- At five feet, nine inches (175cm) tall, Samia Akbar has always towered over the tiny women who usually dominate in distance running. But now her rivals are looking up to her for another reason: she's beating many of them to the finish line.
Akbar can be assured that the rest of the field at Sunday's U.S. Half-Marathon Championship here have indeed heard of her. The 25 year-old athlete, who came from obscurity to finish third over 10,000m at the AT&T USA Outdoor Championships in Indianapolis last June, is a favorite to earn her first national title over any distance or on any surface.
That wasn't the case in Indianapolis. In a tight race, she stayed in a pack with three much better-known women, Amy Rudolph, Sara Slattery, and Katie McGregor, each of whom had previously earned multiple national titles at either the NCAA or professional level. Akbar was able to beat McGregor, the 2005 USA 10,000m champion, to score a personal best 32:41.84 in warm and humid conditions.
"It was kind of like, over and over again, 'Are you surprised?'," Akbar said she would repeatedly hear. "I wasn't necessarily surprised, but I was always really pleased. I just really going for it."
Coached by Scott Raczko, the man best known for training Alan Webb both in high school and as a professional, Akbar concluded her collegiate career with middling credentials. She finished a dismal 60th at the NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships as a senior in 2002, and finished up her track eligibility in 2003 with the Patriot League 5000m title and a ninth place finish at the NCAA D-I Championships at 10,000m as her best achievements. Her personal bests were 9:44.51 for 3000m, 16:20.62 for 5000m and 33:38.55 for 10,000m.
But Raczko, who coached Akbar for one season at Oakton High School in Virginia, saw something in her that she perhaps didn't see in herself. "I definitely thought that she was extremely talented from the first time I saw her," said the coach when reached on his mobile phone yesterday. "I had seen her run since high school. I thought from a biomechanical and body physique standpoint, I thought this girl could run.
Raczko told Akbar that in order for her to be a factor in the professional ranks, she'd have to work so much harder and give her life to running. "I outlined to her that there is a big difference in running collegiately and professionally and how much hard work there would be. She'd have to be more dedicated."
Although she made improvements in 2004 and 2005, it wasn't until last year that she began to gain notice at a national level. She opened her 2006 outdoor campaign by finishing ninth in the 8-K at the USA Cross Country Championships in New York, her first top-10 finish at an open USA championship. She dropped her indoor 5000m time to 16:05.33, and ran a credible 33:14 at the Circle of Friends New York Mini 10-K in New York that June, finishing 13th against a world class international field.
But when she stepped on the track at the national meet in the 10,000m she wasn't on anybody's short list for the podium. Lap after lap, she was with the leaders and permanently removed from obscurity.
"I guess, it's more like that I didn't have any expectations except that I would improve," Akbar said of her season last summer. She added, "With us, coach is always telling all of us the times will come, and just have the competitive spirit and edge, that's the most important thing."
Akbar, who has four sisters and one brother and is the tallest amongst her sisters, began to look seriously toward longer distances over last summer. After her podium finish at the national meet, she began to think that a marathon was in her near future. To get ready, she targeted the Jefferson Hospital Philadelphia Distance Run half-marathon last September as a test. She had run the race in 2005 in a modest 1:17:47, but with newfound fitness and confidence, crossed the line in 1:13:12 in 2006, a national class time. A solid marathon debut at the ING New York City Marathon in November was beginning to look like a reality.
"I think as far as the marathon goes, that's something that coach and I talked about as soon as I started running with him," Akbar said. "when I left college I thought the 10-K and marathon would be my strongest events."
It was a brave choice for Akbar to choose New York for her debut. The all-women's professional race is small, with fewer than 30 competitors in a typical year. But Akbar came through with a solid 2:34:14 clocking, earned $10,000 in prize money, and qualified for the USA Olympic Trials Women's Marathon in Boston in 2008.
Lining up here on Sunday, Akbar will be facing Olympians Elva Dryer and Kate O'Neill, amongst others, and she's ready to compete.
"It's a USA Championships race [and] there are lots of great runners there," she said. "You want to put your best foot forward and race the people who are there."
Coach Raczko said she is indeed ready. "I think she'll be extremely competitive in the race, and basically any race she'll enter now. So, she'll do her best to go right up front in the women's race and hopefully show well."
But can she win her first USA title and take home the $12,000 first prize? Akbar prefers to look past the finish line.
"I'm hoping just to keep on improving in every race," she explained. "Obviously, I want to try and break that (her personal best), somewhere in the range of 1:12. That would be great. My focus is to just be as competitive as possible. The times will come if I give these events my best effort. I just to try to approach it from that perspective."
Samia Akbar's Career Statistics Best Times:
1500m: 4:27.66 (2002); Mile: 4:58.45i (2005); 3000m: 9:11.93 (2006); 5000m: 16:05.33i (2006); 10,000m:
32:41.84 (2006); 10-k: 33:14 (2006); 12-k: 42:01 (2006); 15-K: 52:33 (2006); 10 mi.: 57:40 (2005); Half- Marathon: 1:13:12 (2006); Marathon: 2:34:14 2006.
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