London

Cool Zhou ready for London challenge

Asian Games champion Zhou Chunxiu is unfazed by the prospect of her first big city marathon outside Asia as she attempts to become the first Chinese woman to finish in the top three in the history of the Flora London Marathon on Sunday.

"I am not nervous about running in a western city for the first time," said the 28-year-old. "I feel pleased to be here. This is my first time in London and I really like the city.

"As a good athlete I should be able to adjust very quickly to the environment where the event is held."

The best ever finish by a Chinese woman came back in 1990 when Zhao Youfeng was fourth in 2:29:35, a record Zhou is widely tipped to break.

She became only the seventh woman ever to break 2:20:00 when she won the Seoul Marathon in 2:19:51 last March, a time which makes her the fastest woman in the field for Sunday's elite women's race. Just nine months later she became the Asian Games champion when she cruised to victory in Doha last December in 2:27:03.

However, even those achievements are shadowed by her performances in 2005 when she made history by becoming the only woman ever to run sub-2:30 four times in a year. That included finishing fifth in the World Championships in Helsinki five months after winning in Seoul on March 13, in a lifetime best of 2:23:24, and then just 13 days later! crossing the line first in Xiamen, China, in 2:29:58.

Zhou, however, admits such a schedule was probably not ideal. "I felt quite good and the conditions were good," she said of her hectic timetable. "But we athletes in Asia need to learn a lot more from races in Europe and get more experience in the west.

"I was very tired and didn't have much ambition in the second race. We need to learn something from European athletes. In Asia we have to race a lot in a short time and I think that is probably not so good. The time between the races was too short."

However, Zhou is clearly not intimidated by the prospect of racing in unfamiliar territory against some of the best marathoners in the world. "My training has increased in quantity this year compared to previous ones, so I am hoping to make an improvement this time," she said of her prospects for Sunday's race.

Zhou was first selected to China's national team four years ago, but she has been running virtually all her life.

"I have loved the sport since I was young. I always envied athletes and watched their races," she said. "I knew it was what I wanted to do from a young age. I started running when I was about five or six. I was selected to a provincial team when I was 15, then selected to the national team in China in 2002."

In the absence of the Olympic champion Mizuki Noguchi, who was forced to pull out of the race two months ago, Zhou leads the Asian challenge this year, backed by Japan's Kyoko Shimahara, whose major marathon experience includes finishing fifth in Boston last spring.

Unlike Zhou, however, Shimahara's best of 2:26:14 means she is unlikely to be among the medallists and admits her aim is to make the most of a high quality field and London's fast course.

"It is more important for me to get a fast time out of the race," she said. "If I could win in 2:26 of course I would be happy to take the win, but to be realistic I don't think that's on the cards, so my main goal is to run a fast time.

"I am happy to be here racing against these women and hope I will be able to again in Osaka," added Shimahara, who has already been selected for Japan's World Championships team.