When Youssef Zirari ran away with the Vancouver USA Marathon last June, it was as if the Vancouver resident had come out of nowhere.
Racing a full marathon for the first time, Zirari won the 2012 race going away. But it wasn't an entirely new experience.
As a teenager, in fact, Zirari was a world champion.
In 2000, he was the individual champion and helped his native Morocco win the team title at the International Schools Sports Federation World Cross Country Championships.
A year ago — when he entered the race because he was due for a longer training run "and at the same time support the community" — Zirari wasn't well known in the local running community. Yet he won by more than 14 minutes with a time of 2 hours, 34 minutes and 25 seconds.
Given that he'd only trained seriously for about two months, Zirari was quite pleased with his results.
How does a young world-class runner wind up teaching middle school in Portland and living in Vancouver? For Zirari, it started with putting education ahead of competition.
"In my opinion you cannot balance between the atmosphere of professional athleticism and the scope of the university studies," he said.
After meeting and marrying a Vancouver woman, he moved here six years ago.
Now, at age 27, he is again focusing on racing.
A year ago Zirari hoped the Vancouver USA Marathon would be the start of his return to elite-level running. But a hamstring injury forced him to quit training in late July, and he didn't start again until April of this year.
Which means he's right about where he was a year ago, two months into serious training and ready for a good, long run to gauge his progress.
That test will again come on the mostly flat Vancouver course. Zirari hopes to finish in under 2:30.
Growing up in a nation where running is celebrated, Zirari said he was selected for the elite training program as a 15-year-old after running the 1,500 meters in 3:46.16 at a meet in Tangier. That same season, he posted times of 1:48.89 in the 800 and 13:50.33 in the 5,000 at international meets.
Zirari is only now entering the prime age for competitive running. His target for 2013 is to enter some Rock 'N' Roll Marathon Series races, run the New York Marathon, and compete at the USATF National Cross Country Championships next winter.
He would like to again experience international success. That dream provides motivation for his regular 4-mile training runs around his neighborhood. A self-coached runner, he said he enjoys the encouragement he receives from neighbors who see him on his daily runs.
"I'm trying to be professional and have fun," he said. "Step by step, I'm trying to separate my (training) steps and seeing where it takes me."
2013 Vancouver USA Marathon
Race: Marathon starts at 7 a.m. Sunday. The half-marathon starts at 9 a.m. The start/finish line is on Columbia Street on the east side of Esther Short Park.
Fitness expo/packet pickup: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday in Esther Short Park.
Registration: Late registration is available during the fitness expo. Prices are $125 for the marathon, $95 for the half-marathon, $45 for Saturday's Freedom 5K, and $25 for Saturday's Kids race. There is no race-day registration.
Saturday events: Freedom 5K starts at 10 a.m.; 1.2-mile Kids Marathon (ages 5-12) starts at 11 a.m.
Summer Brewfest: A first-time event, a festival featuring craft breweries is happening Friday through Sunday at Esther Short Park.