Sobanska relishes the dog days

Mike Rowbottom on the Pole defending her title in Sunday's London Marathon
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The Independent Online
It has been quite a year for Malgorzata Sobanska. And, come to think of it, for her dog.

The Pole who made her name with last year's unexpected London Marathon victory has since finished fourth in the World Championships, and as she prepares to defend her title on Sunday her faithful hound and sometime training partner Figa is not far from her thoughts.

If there were a marathon for dogs, Figa would surely have an outstanding chance of honours. Last week, for example, his mistress estimates he ran 70 kilometres alongside her in her home town of Poznan - all the more remarkable given the fact that Figa is a dachsund. But then Figa translates into English as fig - and we all know what they can do for you.

Sobanska's own performance last April was pretty remarkable as she outsprinted Portugal's Manuela Machado - who went on to win the world title - and finished just 10 seconds clear in what was the closest finish in the race's 16-year history.

Sobanska, who will turn 27 five days after Sunday's event, was far from being one of the favourites in London last year. Having started marathon running in 1991, two third places in Berlin in 1993 and 1994 had established her as a respectable competitor, but her fortitude in the final run-in down the Mall took everyone by surprise.

"I was not expected to win in London by any of the media, or my friends, or even my family," she said. "There were a few press conferences organised for me when I got back home.

"At the moment in Poland it is very difficult finding sponsorship," she said through an interpreter. "Interest is geared towards football and motor sports rather than the marathon."

But political changes in her home country have meant that, unlike previous years, athletes now need to pay no more than a nominal fee to their home federation - in her case, a token $200 (pounds 130) a year.

That has allowed her to use her winning bonus of $55,000 (pounds 36,000) from 1995 to build a house for herself and her new husband; and, who knows, perhaps a new kennel for Figa.

She had another good pay- day in Tokyo last October, where she finished the marathon in sixth position, one place ahead of the runner she identifies as her main rival this Sunday, Liz McColgan.

The Scotswoman appears to be in far better form than last year, when she finished fifth behind Sobanska in London, but the Pole is drawing confidence from recent road races in Florida and Albuquerque, where she has broken her personal bests for five and 10 kilometres.

Sobanska's fine, dark features grow gloomy at the recall of the World Championship race, which was subsequently discovered to have been 400 metres short. As the fastest finisher, she believes she would have had a medal had the full distance been run.

No such hiccups are likely to occur in London, however. And given ideal conditions, Sobanska believes she is capable of lowering her best of 2hr 27min 43sec to something closer to 2:25.

That would take McColgan into new territory if she were to maintain a challenge and give the event another finish to relish. However it turns out, Sobanska's parents will not be in London to witness the struggle.

"They don't like to watch me running and suffering," Sobanska said. "My mother particularly worries about me because I am the youngest in the family. It is probably best that they are not to be here." But it is good that she is.

n The 6ft 2in Welshman Iwan Thomas, who is aiming for a relay place at the Olympics, went fourth in the all-time United Kingdom 400m rankings with a 44.66sec victory in Johannesburg.