By Justin Palmer
ROSA KHUTOR, Russia, Feb 13 (Reuters) - Britain's Lizzy Yarnold made a perfect start to her bid to emulate compatriot Amy Williams and win women's skeleton gold by building a healthy lead after the first two Olympic runs on Thursday.
Yarnold will take an advantage of 0.44 seconds over American Noelle Pikus-Pace into Friday's deciding two runs after being quickest on both slides, clocking 58.43 and 58.46. Russian Elena Nikitina is in third.
"I was just eager to get two consistent runs down, I haven't even looked at the time sheet - I don't know what the difference was between runs," said Yarnold, who is mentored by 2010 champion Williams, now retired.
"I really enjoyed both of them, I let the sled run as much as I could - it's a very enjoyable track, I've been saying it all week.
"I didn't even notice the crowds at the top, I was totally in my zone."
She was five hundredths of a second ahead of European champion Nikitina on the first slide. But the Russian was slower second time around and Pikus-Pace moved into silver position after eradicating the mistakes from a "sloppy first run".
Pikus-Pace, 31, admitted she had a "big margin to make up" on Yarnold, who won her first World Cup title this season.
"After finishing fourth in Vancouver, I've always said obviously everyone is going for that gold medal. But after missing a bronze by a tenth of a second, I'm pretty sure I'll be stoked just to be on the podium tomorrow," said the American, sporting golden dangly earrings, eye glitter and with USA face paint on each cheek.
Pikus-Pace has been in impressive form since coming out of retirement in 2012 and is determined to make it third time lucky in the Olympics. She missed the 2006 Games when she broke her right leg after being hit by America's four-man bobsleigh.
Dubbed the "fastest mom on ice", Pikus-Pace has been dealing with back issues at these Games but said she felt good. "I'm just trying to take it a day at a time. I felt confident coming into the race today."
She completed just four of eight possible training runs this week and said she was trying to stay "as relaxed as possible and give my body some time to heal".
American Katie Uhlaender, who suffered concussion in a training crash in Lake Placid in October and missed six weeks of the season, sits in fourth place while Britain's 2006 silver medallist Shelley Rudman is 11th.
The official results from heat two were delayed for some time after Australia protested against host nation Russia for "using the push track which is not open to all nations". The protest was rejected. (Editing by Robert Woodward)