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Russians swamp Masters field

If you are over 40 and running for money in this year's Bank of America Marathon, then you just might be Russian.

An extraordinarily tough Russian who runs more than 100 miles a week in hopes of staying in good enough shape, and in decent enough health, to compete in a handful of marathons around the world that pay money to "Masters" (over 40) runners. And if you have a solid year you might make around $30,000.

On Sunday the prize money breakdown, which is among America's best for Masters competitions, is the following for men and women: 1. $8,000; 2. $4,000; 3. $1,500; 4. $1,000; 5. $500.

But, as last year's Bank of America men's winner, Oleg Strijakov said, "This is a lot of money to us (Russians)."

The 42-year-old Strijakov, as did the women's Masters winner, 44-year-old Russian Firaya Sultanova-Zhdanova, received a bonus last year for finishing high in the overall standings. Sultanova-Zhdanova received $2,250 more for winning and Strijakov got an extra $1,250 for placing second overall.

It left Strijakov, who is returning to defend his title, smiling and saying, "(The trip to Tampa) was well worth it."

Sultanova-Zhdanova also returns but might be challenged by fellow Russians Alevtina Naumova, 45, and 40-year-old Titiana Titova.

Sultanova-Zhdanova trains in Gainesville with Tatyana Pozdnyakova, who serves as an agent for a few Russian masters runners, and who is among the most decorated masters runners ever.

Pozdnyakova, 50, made national headlines when at age 48 she not only won the Masters division of the Los Angeles Marathon but took the overall title as well, cashing what may have been the largest payday ever for a masters female runner: $100,000.

But Pozdnyakova, who will not compete in the Bank of America Marathon but will represent Sultanova-Zhdanova, was quick to say, "But you never know, it might be $100,000 one year and $1,500 the next. It is impossible to know for sure how well you will run, particularly when you are older."

The key to being a masters runner, Pozdnyakova said, "Is to stay strong in the mind and to always stay in good shape.

"When you get older, it is more difficult to get out of shape and then try to get fit again. So you must always run. It is a hard life, and sometimes you get more injuries than when you were younger. But you must stay determined, focused.

"The reason I ran as well as I did was because I have a strong mind and I stayed (physically fit)."

Sultanova-Zhdanova says she simply loves to run.

"If there are no injuries then it can be no problem to win (and make a living)," Sultanova-Zhdanova said through the translation of Pozdnyakova. "Always I want to show myself to be in the best (shape) but there are always hardships (in training over 40).

"As of now I feel good and I think I can run as well (Sunday) as I did last year (when she won the Bank of America Marathon)."

Most importantly to Sultanova-Zhdanova, winning this year would translate to $10,500.