Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

Last March, Olga Romanova, 23, sat in the Zurich airport awaiting an early-morning Aeroflot flight to Moscow. From there, an eight-hour train ride would take her to Cheboksary, her hometown, on the Volga River. If the voyage was daunting, Romanova wasn’t bothered. She was eager to get home, and the trip would provide time to rest and reflect on her remarkable 15th-place finish in the highly competitive World Cross Country Championships the day before in Lausanne.

Konstantin Selinevich, however, had other plans for Romanova. The slightly built agent had flown from Washington, D.C., earlier in the week (“Two-hundred-sixty-three dollars,” he says, “—round trip”) to scout the Lausanne competition. He also knew that Romanova had recently finished second for Russia in the European Cross Country Championships. He calculated that her talent would easily translate into a top-three finish at the Credit Union Cherry Blossom 10 Mile Run, to be held six days later, back in D.C. But first he had to get her there.

Selinevich made his pitch: “You can keep running races like this,” pointing to Romanova’s “Russia” team-issue duffel bag, “or you can come to America and make some money. Come for four weeks and see how you do.”

As close as she was to going home, Romanova found herself listening to the agent. Could she really make thousands of rubles just by running? That kind of money would set her up for years. She agreed to let him determine whether changing her ticket was feasible.

It was all the opening Selinevich needed. Within minutes, he had sweet-talked the ticket agent and Romanova’s flight itinerary said Washington rather than Moscow. “And all it cost was $100,” he crows.

“I believed in him,” Romanova says of Selinevich through a translator. She picked up her duffel bag and carried it to the gate for D.C.

Six days later at the Cherry Blossom race, one of the world’s most competitive 10-milers, Romanova took the lead with one mile to go from the favorite, Asha Gigi of Ethiopia. With a push from a strong tail wind—and incentive in the form of a $5,250 first-place check—Romanova broke the tape in 53 minutes and 49 seconds. Gigi, who had finished four places ahead of Romanova in Lausanne, took second this time, seven seconds back.

“I went past her all at once,” Romanova explained afterward, hands on hips, her body steaming in the chilly morning air. Selinevich, translating, couldn’t keep himself from adding, “And that’s the way you’re supposed to do it.”

Selinevich, a former Soviet army sergeant once stationed in East Berlin, is now an unabashed capitalist agent—literally, for some three dozen athletes from around the globe. While the Olympics and the track-and-field world championships set the gold standard for medals and international prestige, the U.S. road-racing circuit provides the basis for a remunerative athletic career—particularly if the prize money is exchanged from dollars to rubles for use in the motherland.

“This isn’t baseball-type money we’re talking about,” Selinevich says. “None of our athletes get the star-sickness you see with [Russian] hockey players. Runners have to be smart about where and how they compete.”

That’s where Selinevich comes in. He knows the circuit’s venues, race directors, prize purses, and—most important—competition. He represents an ever-rotating stable of runners, many of whom live dormitory-style for anywhere from one month to six months at a time in a refinished basement in Gaithersburg. With rarely more than each other and an always-on television for company, the runners run, eat, sleep, and then run some more with a singularity of purpose rarely seen on this side of the Atlantic.

Their home, however, is not so much a training camp as a racing stable. Travel, competition, and maintenance of existing fitness levels are the cornerstones of the athletes’ stay. When they grow tired or are raced out, they head home for a period of recharging—and more training. “This is not a glamorous life here,” Selinevich says. “But that’s OK, because they are usually too tired to do much anyway.”

Asked if she has seen the White House during the six months she has been based in Maryland, Romanova shakes her head no.

“Yes, you have,” Selinevich interjects. “We drove past it after Cherry Blossom”—her first road race in this country, last April.

Selinevich, 33, drives his white Lexus 300 much too fast: too fast for someone with a cell phone always in his ear, too fast for someone who drives so close to the car ahead, and 42 mph too fast for the West Virginia state police last month on his way to a race. But the agent, who never seems to have time to put on socks or shave the stubble from his face, has always had places to go.

As a youngster in Eastern Russia, Selinevich traveled extensively with his family. After his obligatory military tour, and while the Soviet Union downsized into Russia and other less-than-super powers, he resumed his education. A gymnast in his youth and naturally inclined toward athletics, he earned a master’s degree in sports education in St. Petersburg. But in the early ’90s, jobs in post-Soviet Russia were difficult to come by, especially those affiliated with the impracticalities of mostly defunct national sports programs.

Undeterred, Selinevich explored the capitals of Western Europe and newly opened Eastern Europe, buying furniture and exporting it for resale in Russia. “I did OK in the furniture business, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do,” he says. “You could complain, but no one’s gonna give a shit.”

What he really wanted was to satisfy both his entrepreneurial instinct and his wanderlust by seeing the United States, a place he knew only through books. But obtaining a visa to visit or work in the United States wasn’t easy in the post-Gorbachev era.

After wangling an invitation to visit from an aunt, who works for the American Red Cross, in Gaithersburg, Selinevich finally made it stateside in 1995. Working quickly, but constrained by the mandate of his visa, Selinevich saw an opportunity to turn a profit by buying and then exporting used American cars previously unknown but suddenly popular in Russia.

But these transactions proved time-consuming and forced Selinevich to remain out of the

United States for longer than he liked. After a few months, he abandoned his career as a used-car salesman: “I could have done OK at that, too, but it took so long.”

During a run of other odd jobs—Selinevich also drove a truck for a friend’s bakery in Bethesda—he brought his wife and young daughter to Maryland in 1997. Two years later, he brought his older brother, Rostov, Rostov’s wife and son, and finally, his mother. Selinevich was establishing a life in America, but his responsibilities were outpacing his income.

At a childhood running friend’s urging, Selinevich traveled to Boston on Patriot’s Day in 1999 to see that city’s quintessentially American marathon—the oldest and most prestigious road race in the world. At the accompanying expo-cum-festival that takes over the city’s convention center for three days before the race, the friend introduced Selinevich to Andrey Kuznetsov, the defending Boston champion for masters runners (those over 40). Kuznetsov, a former Soviet national-team distance runner, had been dominating the international road-racing circuit and training in Florida since turning 40 in 1997. He was competing in Europe and across North America with the help of an American agent.

Amid the noise and bustle of the expo, with well-wishers interrupting repeatedly, the taciturn Kuznetsov and gregarious Selinevich traded stories of home, America, and the pitfalls involved in making the two cultures meet. Kuznetsov complained about the difficulties he had making financial and travel arrangements. The year prior, Kuznetsov had slept in a chair in a hotel lobby two nights before winning the race.

“I didn’t know much about running,” Selinevich says, “but I knew who Andrey was.”

Sympathetic, Selinevich offered to help with a few phone calls—his English was much

better than the runner’s. A day later, Kuznetsov won a second consecutive masters title, making Selinevich’s contacts on his behalf that much easier. Soon, Selinevich took over as Kuznetsov’s agent.

“I never tried to recruit Andrey,” says Selinevich, sensitive to potential criticism that he lured the runner from an ongoing professional relationship. “I was just trying to help him out. I never planned to become a sports agent.”

For nearly three years, Kuznetsov was all but unbeatable on the masters circuit. He was a prolific marathoner, running no fewer than six a year, often beating not only the other older runners but the entire field to win the race outright. As one of the top masters runners in the world, Kuznetsov made a good living—and a good commission for Selinevich. In 2000, Kuznetsov moved his wife and two children from Russia into a home he purchased in Rockville; Selinevich assisted with the logistics.

“Kostya, he has a good way,” Kuznetsov says of Selinevich.

The two traveled to numerous events, where Selinevich never failed to introduce himself to the top Russian and Eastern European runners, who by the mid-’90s were making inroads into the longstanding African dominance of the road-racing circuit. Selinevich sensed an opportunity, particularly for non-Africans, in the less competitive women’s division. And by the end of the decade, organizers of U.S. road races, eager to establish financial parity between the sexes, were taking pains to ensure that prize purses were equal.

Having established himself with Kuznetsov as a reliable and successful representative, Selinevich now found himself assisting other Russian masters men and several top Russian women. He expanded his reach by returning to Russia on recruitment trips for top track and cross-country runners, who were essentially road-racing free agents.

“I always liked working with Andrey and the masters. But with the women, we were winning races, setting records, really doing something. And there was opportunity, too,” Selinevich says. “I knew, at the right races, they could make good money.”

But it wasn’t until early 2000, when Svetlana Zakharova had a rift with her previous agent and transferred her allegiances to Selinevich, that his business took off.

Zakharova, 32, like Romanova, was from Cheboksary, an unlikely hotbed of Russian racing talent. She had long been one of the world’s top marathoners; last fall, she set the Russian national record in Chicago, finishing fourth in a personal-best 2:21:31 (5:24 per mile)—a time that would have won every men’s Olympic marathon until 1960. Then, after several years of fast times and fine finishes, but no big wins, Zakharova’s world changed last April.

Four years after meeting Kuznetsov, Selinevich returned to Boston with Zakharova, who shocked the racing cognoscenti by leaving defending champion Margaret Okayo from Kenya on Heartbreak Hill just after halfway. With a strong second half, Zakharova closed the win to claim the laurel wreath—and $80,000. She was the first Russian winner at Boston since Olga Markova (still running and also a Selinevich client) won in 1993.

“It took Svetlana one year to make the big break,” Selinevich says. “She was on the edge of being the best, but since Boston, she has made it.” With bonuses and appearance fees, Zakharova can make up to a half-million dollars a year. Selinevich’s fee is 10 percent of her race earnings, plus a variable percentage of her other income.

Selinevich helped Zakharova invest a portion of her earnings in 2002 by purchasing a $330,000 rambler in Gaithersburg, the top floor of which she rents to a Russian family. The basement was converted into quarters for up to six runners, each of whom pays $8 per day to stay there. In the meantime, Zakharova lives and trains in Cheboksary, from where she can now afford to commute to races around the world.

“Konstantin is honest with his athletes and always well-received and respected by race directors,” says Tom Ratcliffe, a Concord, Mass.-based agent for many top Kenyan runners. “At the same time, he is approaching the sport aggressively, working to sign athletes and then working hard to get them to races.”

Selinevich allows: “Honestly, it’s all about money—where you can make the most, do the best. These are professional athletes, after all.”

While solidifying his position as the premier representative for Russian runners, the agent leaves no doubt that he has gone American corporate. Recently, he hired a Web designer and established www.redsquaresports.com, a bilingual site that promotes his athletes, noting that it provides them the opportunity to experience “cultural growth…while enjoying an economic benefit based upon their level of performance.” He shares office space in Gaithersburg with professional hockey agent Boris Lelchitski.

“It’s not that I don’t like Russia,” he says. “I love my country. I’ve gone back four times so far this year, visiting and doing business. I’m not one of those guys who is blaming Russia, escaping from Russia, claiming all that Joseph Stalin shit. That guy is dead and buried. I’m happy just to be here, making decent money doing something I like.”

“I bought all this furniture at a yard sale for $60,” Selinevich says proudly, pointing to an oversized green sofa, pine-frame rocking chair, and coffee table in the converted basement of Zakharova’s Gaithersburg home. A large refrigerator fills one corner of the living room, which doubles as an entertainment center. The television is the focal point; it receives three Russian stations via satellite and provides the household with a window on the world. French doors provide a separate rear entrance, inside of which sits a carpet remnant and plastic sheeting that are home to a dozen pair of running shoes.

A Pullman-style hallway leads to three bedrooms and the dining area, which is actually a converted utility room, the overflow tub for the washing machine serving as a kitchen sink. The corners are littered with oversized trophies and championship bowls; Romanova’s Cherry Blossom award—a framed race poster—rests on the floor of an otherwise empty closet. The house talisman, Zakharova’s loving cup from Boston, is the only trophy truly on display—it occupies a place of prominence on top of the TV.

Russians Olga Romanova and Alevtina Ivanova and Lithuanians Zvile Balciunaite and coach Romas Sausaitis are the lower level’s summer residents. The apartment is neat, but it is clear they aren’t much concerned with the finer points of domesticity. Their primary work is done outdoors; excursions to the city health club three times a week provide a chance to work with weights and spend time in the sauna—a training staple and reminder of the life they left behind.

Mealtime offers another opportunity to remember, and the women invest a fair amount of effort preparing hearty if not particularly healthful meals between workouts. Fat content is of little consequence to runners averaging between 90 and 120 miles per week. One afternoon, the Lithuanians thaw salmon in the microwave, coat the fish in a doughy batter, and then fry it in oil; the Russians opt for beef stroganoff cooked with heavy cream, topped with sour cream.

Ivanova places a plate of cheese and bread on the coffee table in front of the television; Balciunaite prepares the fish and a side dish of kasha, while Romanova slices beef and fries onions. Conversation is minimal. Balciunaite speaks Russian as well as Lithuanian, and along with Selinevich serves as the English translator for the group. But as is the case when they train, each woman seems absorbed with her work.

“Running is my job,” Romanova says without cracking a smile. It is one of the few sentences she says in English, and she states it with absolute conviction. The roommates run together twice a day, usually seven days a week.

None of them have cars. Although public buses and the Metro are accessible nearby, the women have little use for local transportation. They walk to an imported-food specialty store for familiar delicatessen items, cookies, and candies. At conventional grocery stores, they grouse about the lack of fresh and hearty breads, and register other typical European complaints about Americans’ infatuation with and dependence on processed foods.

“Ice cream here is good,” allows Balciunaite while cutting into her fish. “That’s why Americans are so fat.”

Excused unexpectedly from a recent evening workout by their coach, Romanova and Ivanova change out of their typical daytime outfits—casual running gear—and into shorts and T-shirts. Nearly giddy with excitement at the rare opportunity, the women beg a ride from Selinevich for a shopping excursion—to a nearby Target and Kohl’s.

It’s hard to imagine American runners, men or women, thriving under similar circumstances in a foreign land. The biggest obstacle for Americans, however, is the Russians’ greatest asset: their monomaniacal devotion to training. The best American runners are akin to gentlemen farmers, dabbling in the sport after college or competing during graduate school to provide a physical complement to intellectual pursuits. Some Americans earn a modest living preying on each other at U.S.-only championship races or via a dual prize structure that provides an opportunity for native runners who might otherwise be left behind. Competing on national teams, running fast, and “PRs”—personal records—are often the ideal for top American runners. The notion of earning a living on the roads is mostly a foreign concept.

The Russians, by contrast, readily accept communal living, fiscal frugality, and all the accompanying indignities. Outside of their training, which is directed by their coaches, Selinevich makes all the decisions and does all the thinking for the runners. He makes life as simple as possible for his charges. If that borders on insular and dull, so be it.

“Do you know any Americans who in their mid-20s would give up everything to live in a group house and train twice a day in order to maybe make a living?” asks Scott Douglas, author of Advanced Marathoning and former editor of Running Times. “It’s hard enough for the best American runners to live close enough that they can train together on a regular basis.”

Four weeks after the Cherry Blossom race, and with Romanova’s win there serving as currency in kind, Selinevich secured flights and lodging for Romanova and two other runners from the organizers of Spokane, Wash.’s, Lilac Bloomsday Run, a top-flight 12-kilometer race, featuring more than 50,000 runners. Wearing the mantle of a favorite, Romanova finished fourth and earned $2,500. The next weekend, back in downtown D.C., Selinevich had Romanova run the Sallie Mae 10K, where she won and earned $1,000.

It’s not always as simple as racing paycheck to paycheck. In August, Romanova traveled to Massachusetts to run the Falmouth Road Race, started 31 years ago as a 7.05-mile jaunt between the two sponsoring bars along the ocean on Cape Cod. Today, Falmouth is a world-class event with more than 8,000 runners and over $100,000 in prize money, and Romanova found herself just another name in a loaded field. The favorites were two-time Chicago Marathon champion Catherine Ndereba, former South African (now American) Colleen De Reuck, who holds the women’s world best time (51:16) at 10 miles, and a host of Kenyans. After several solid efforts against midlevel competition, Selinevich told Romanova she was ready to test herself against the best.

On an oppressively hot and humid morning, Romanova stayed with Ndereba through the early miles and then moved into the lead when the Kenyan champion fell victim to the weather conditions, stepping off the course and onto the sidewalk near halfway.

“Olga Romanova, the young Russian winner of the Cherry Blossom, has taken a commanding lead,” the television broadcaster announced.

Indeed, Romanova led by nearly a quarter-mile and seemed poised to add to her résumé the prestigious Falmouth title—along with the winner’s check of $11,000.

“They announced that Olga was leading at six miles, saying big upset and everything, so I was waiting at the finish line,” Selinevich says. “But then I start to see all these other girls coming across, and no Olga.”

After climbing the final hill and within sight of the finish line, Romanova had inexplicably staggered to a halt. Course marshals, concerned for her well-being and blithely unconcerned with the remunerative consequences, quickly steered Romanova toward medical assistance. She put up feeble resistance.

“I thought the race was over,” she says. “I don’t know what happened.”

Romanova, less than 30 seconds from what would have been her biggest payday, recovered rapidly but returned to Gaithersburg with nothing but a headache from dehydration and a disappointed agent.

Weeks later, Selinevich is still fuming—and refusing to watch a tape of the race. “You don’t take an elite athlete off the course when she’s 200 meters from the finish line,” he rants, not yet over the disappointment of losing the Falmouth title—and his commission. “You have to let her finish.”

Anomalous results aside, Romanova has developed into a steady and reliable road racer. Since April, she has earned more than $25,000 in prize money. Add appearance money, a shoe-company-contract stipend, and accompanying bonuses—all negotiated by Selinevich—and she’ll total more than $60,000 by the end of the year. That amount is more than enough to pay for regular trips home to Cheboksary, where she visits family, friends, and her coach. “Her apartment at home is much nicer than where I live now,” teases Selinevich.

That Romanova has made such a good living without running a marathon is testament to her talent and consistency. For many nonrunners—and for some misinformed runners, too—any distance short of 26.2 miles falls short of true road racing. The marathon is the sport’s marquee event, commanding most of the media attention, corporate backing, and prize money. But because the distance is so debilitating, top runners usually limit themselves to no more than two such efforts a year.

To survive on the shorter distances requires planning and logistical wherewithal. The circuit is a hodgepodge of distances in unlikely locales. Aside from Falmouth, Romanova has run this summer in Parkersburg, W.Va., Flint, Mich., and Virginia Beach. On consecutive weekends after Falmouth, Romanova raced two half-marathons and one 10-miler. Still a few years away from her racing prime, she is considered young to compete in marathons, which require specialized training for strength as well as longer buildup and recovery periods.

“Running marathons would take away Olga’s speed and shorten her career,” Selinevich says. “It would be better if she didn’t have to race so far. If she had won Falmouth, that would be different. But for now, it is important for her to stay injury-free. Her time to run marathons will come.”

In one sense, though, that time is already here. Asked about her plans for the next few months, Romanova wiggles two fingers behind her head: rabbit ears. She is booked to “rabbit”—set the first-half pace for the lead women—at marathons this fall and winter in New York City, Honolulu, and Osaka, Japan, earning about $4,000 each time.

Of course, too many races too fast can prove detrimental to a career on the roads. Judicious decisions as to where and when to race are crucial to both the physical and mental health of an athlete. Selinevich points out that Zakharova approached him after growing dissatisfied with a prior agent “who was using her like a racing horse—you can’t do that.”

Zakharova and Selinevich found themselves in a quandary partly of their own making, however, only months after her watershed triumph in Boston. Before last month’s World Championships in Paris, Selinevich was confident of a respectable showing from his star.

“With Svetlana, now we will pick our spots,” Selinevich predicted before the race. “We’ll do no more than two marathons a year—Chicago, Boston, London, wherever she gets paid the best. She’s one of the stars of the sport, and we can run off her name. Not so bad for a small-town girl.”

But the grand plan went awry when Zakharova placed ninth in the race, running 2:26:53—five minutes off her best and more than 10 minutes slower than the world record. Selinevich fretted that not only was a prime financial opportunity wasted, but that finishing out of the top-six money winners could damage Zakharova’s marketability.

“It was the worst thing that could have happened,” Selinevich lamented. “To finish ninth does nothing. No money. No medal. And she had to run hard for that, too.”

Within hours of her finish, Selinevich was working the phones, talking to Zakharova, her coach, and the race director of the Chicago Marathon. In rapid order, Selinevich put a new plan together: In October, Zakharova would run Chicago, where she finished fourth last year, earn a sizable appearance fee, and have a good shot at one of road racing’s top prize purses. The downside? A second major effort just six weeks after her unsuccessful bid at the World Championships.

On a hot summer morning at Rockville’s Quince Orchard High School, while the Russian women jog lightly around the grass athletic fields, Kuznetsov completes his weekly track workout. At 45, he is nearly at the end of his career as a winning masters runner; he has been fighting a chronic calf injury for several years. But for now, he still travels the world to race and make money to support his wife and two daughters. In the past 12 months, Kuznetsov has run marathons in Beijing and Panama City; he returns to Russia periodically to train at altitude and coach at a training camp in the Caucasus Mountains near the Black Sea.

Kuznetsov’s short hair is mostly gray, but his body is wiry and lean. On the Quince Orchard track, he completes five 1,000-meter intervals at a pace faster than 4:50 per mile—a workout that exhausts his American training partner and one that would challenge any accomplished collegiate runner. Seated in the stands, Selinevich watches casually, most of his attention focused on the cell-phone conversations he holds in rapid succession.

Kuznetsov will obtain his green card this fall and be eligible for U.S. citizenship. But like his racing compatriots, he sees competing abroad as merely a job—he is eager to return home to Russia for good. He will remain in the United States only until his younger daughter, now 10, graduates from high school.

“After that, the girls may stay here,” he says. “I don’t know. But for me, my friends, my life is back home.”

Following their respective workouts, the group reconvenes at the house, where the women prepare a light lunch of cooked cereal with a healthy dollop of butter. Afterward, the group quietly savors sweet tea and imported candies while watching a Russian news channel.

The apartment is in uncharacteristic disarray, with running shoes, bags, and boxes piled in every corner. The rooms are empty of personal effects but for uniforms, racing flats, and a couple of oversized trophies, the jetsam of months of road racing. After four races in as many weeks, Romanova and Ivanova will fly home for two months of rest and training of about 100 miles per week. Several days earlier, at the half-marathon in Virginia Beach, Romanova dropped out 10 miles into the race. Her season is over.

“Olga needs some time to recover,” Selinevich says between phone calls. “She’s got those marathons to rabbit in the fall.”

Ivanova’s season ended on a more upbeat note. On the same weekend Romanova struggled at Virginia Beach, she set a course record at the Park Forest Scenic 10 Mile Run outside Chicago and won $5,000. Her husband and son await her in Russia. But she will return to Gaithersburg in December to travel to the Honolulu Marathon, where she finished third last year in 2:31:12 and earned $5,000.

Selinevich puts down his phone momentarily and announces in English that he has just spoken with a top-ranked tennis player, a Russian woman with whom he has a budding business relationship. The prospects cheer him from a darker mood—he’s upset about the practices of a competing agent.

“Some of the girls, they’re shy—they don’t know this guy is trying to steal them away from me,” Selinevich says, obviously angry. “This is not the way to do business. But if they want to leave, of course, they will. The other side of this business is frustration.”

The moment passes, and Selinevich’s fury fades again, slightly. “You know, I’m not really making such big money doing this,” he says.

Despite Ivanova’s win, it was a bad weekend, with Romanova’s second “DNF”—did not finish—and Zakharova’s misfire in Paris. And now his girls are going home. Although Selinevich, too, will be going to Moscow in the coming month—to scout the national championship track meets—the lonely weeks before the fall marathons loom before him, when the house will be nearly empty and his pace less frenetic.

“If I ever did something else, in another sport, I’d still want to work with runners,” Selinevich says finally. “It’s not a lot of money, but I’m enjoying it, I have good friends in the sport. And that’s more important than the money.”

“Besides, these girls need me. What would I say to Olga? They trust me.” CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.