BBC BLOGS - Tom Fordyce
« Previous | Main | Next »

Mara ready to step out of Radcliffe's shadow

Post categories:

Tom Fordyce | 08:31 UK time, Friday, 23 April 2010

A flight from Albuquerque to Denver. A long wait. Another flight to New Jersey, another to Lisbon. Six-hour taxi ride to Madrid, two-day drive in a hire car to Paris, an endless queue at the Gare du Nord. Emergency hotel. Taxi to Le Touquet, specially-chartered prop plane across the Channel to Shoreham and finally a private car to London, just in time for Sunday's marathon.

Starring in your own special version of Planes, Trains and Automobiles is not the ideal preparation for running 26.2 miles. Not even Paula had to deal with the aftermath of an erupting Icelandic volcano. But Mara Yamauchi was doing her best to look for silver linings in the ash cloud that almost ended her marathon hopes.

"There were times when I thought we wouldn't make it," she admitted, appearing simultaneously weary and delighted to be within touching distance of Tower Bridge. "And there were times when I thought I'd be the only one to make it, and I'd win by 10 minutes."

Six days on the road can do strange things to anyone's well-being, let alone an elite athlete for whom the right combination of taper-week training, rest and low-fat carbs is an absolute essential.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions

"Being at Gare du Nord train station in Paris, when we were trying to get a room in a hotel or a train, and nobody could help us, was the low point," she admitted. "I did lose grip on my senses, especially having to pay one euro to use the toilet after queuing up for half an hour.

"Physically it was pretty exhausting. We've been on flights and in cars almost continuously since Sunday evening. For the last four nights we've had four or five hours sleep, so I need to get as much rest as possible."

Yamauchi, fortunately, is not the type of athlete to throw a star-shaped wobbly. Her own globe-trotting journey from club runner to the world-class elite, one of the more unusual stories in sport, has given her a very different perspective on such travails.

The 600 Euro taxi bill for the Lisbon-Madrid leg is dismissed with a philosophical shrug and recounting of the driver's reaction when she told him the destination ("'I'm so happy you're in my taxi! I'm going to make a week's wages in one night!'"), the subsequent hardships thrown into relief by another taxi-based conversation.

""The driver who took us to Le Touquet was a Cambodian man in his 60s. He told me about how he lost his wife and all his children in the war, which kind of put life's ups and downs in perspective."

Yamauchi has never been one to take the easy route. Eight years ago she was a career diplomat, working for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in Tokyo, happily settled down with her Japanese husband Shige. Running was for fun, and nothing more. The idea of succeeding Radcliffe as Britain's premier distance runner was as far-fetched as the idea of a volcano stopping play.

Yamauchi had been a talented runner as far back as her student days at Oxford University and the London School of Economics, where she was coached by the same man as Dave Bedford - long-distance legend, supposed inspiration for the 118 boys and now race director for London. But a year after coming home 38th at the European cross country championships in 1997, she abandoned athletics in favour of her burgeoning civil service career.

It wasn't until her 30th birthday in 2003 that she returned to serious training, and only in 2004 that she ran her first marathon. She got a stitch and had to stop to go to the toilet. Despite that, she clocked a very respectable 2hrs 39 mins, and an idea took root: take unpaid leave from work, train as a full-time athlete, and see how far she could go.

The results have been remarkable. As the graph below shows, she has improved her personal best steadily with every passing year, to the point where she finished second behind Germany's Irina Mikitenko in London last year and lines up this time around as a serious contender for victory.

A graph showing Mara Yamauchi's progression in the marathon

Her secret? Hard work, attention to detail, and more hard work. No-one ever said marathon running was glamorous.

"It's not rocket science," she has said. "All elite runners simply have to train hard and ensure other aspects of their lives support their running.

"Beyond that, I've had a lot of support from my husband. I've paid more attention to recovery, which enabled me to train without injury for long periods of time, and I've built the confidence to risk setting off at a fast pace in big races."

Yamauchi had hoped to build on that second place with a strong showing at last summer's World Championships, only for two different foot injuries to rule her out - "completely crushing". Her preparations for London have also been affected by the long lay-off, but she has drawn strength from both a recent course record at the New York half-marathon and the deeds of another Briton in Berlin.

"I was inspired by Jessica Ennis, because she broke her foot in several places before Beijing and came back amazingly. I'm hoping to take a leaf out of her book."

The forecast for this Sunday in London is not ideal for marathon runners - 21 degrees, winds of up to 10mph, clouds building during the day to stoke up the humidity.

Yamauchi won't mind. For one thing there's Paula's shadow to step out from; it's five years since Radcliffe ran in London, but in the public's mind, she's still the one to beat.

More simply than that, she's just glad to be here. No matter what the sages might say, sometimes the journey is nowhere near as much fun as the arriving.


  • Comment number 1.

    Great article as usual Tom.

    I'm a big fan of hers, she seems like an intelligent, hard-working genuinely nice person, I always like hearing her being interviewed. She's also an inspiration to all those who have lingering dreams they wish they'd followed when they were younger.

    Tom did you ask her what happened from 2006-2008? How come her PB only improved by 3 seconds then and suddenly two minutes from 2009-2009? It seems a little strange.

  • Comment number 2.

    ganbare Mara - Paula who?

  • Comment number 3.

    0darroch - there is nothing strange about a marathon runner who doesn't improve their times for a couple of years and then makes a further breakthrough. There are so few opportunities to make everything come together, it is probably more unusual to continue to improve in a straight line fashion year after year. Just what are you suggesting?

  • Comment number 4.

    I believe that pace the claims of Bedford's enormous ego, the 118 boys were actually based on Steve Prefontaine.

    Best of luck to Mara by the way; she always seems far too nice to be an elite athlete.

  • Comment number 5.

    Just what are you suggesting?
    Indeed! Having met Mara, I know she is utterly opposed to performance-enhancing drugs. Wishing Mara all the best for Sunday!!!
  • Comment number 6.

    @Herbie0 and Alan Fox,

    My apologies for not being clear, I was definitely not suggesting that she had been taking performance enhancing drugs, I know full well that she is firmly against them and would never do that. It just seems strange, to me at least, (NB: strange, not suspicious) that she would have no improvement at all for two years and then a comparatively sudden two minute improvement. It suggests a drastic or substantial change in her training regime, or a change in lifestyle, hence my question.

    It was purely an observation, not loaded with any accusations.

  • Comment number 7.

    0darroch - I hear you - no Mara offence intended. The guys are right - elites average two marathons a year, so the opportunities for PBs are limited. In the period you refer to, 2006-8, one of her marathons was London 2007 - which was the hottest one on record, and so not ideal for a PB, and another the Beijing Olympics - humid, smoggy, a shocker for fast times. She ran 2.46 there, which was a great performance (enough for 9th overall) but not about clocking a quick time.

    All make sense?

  • Comment number 8.

    It would be absolutely fabulous if Mara were to win tomorrow (though she's up against some ferocious opposition). She's such a nice woman and has worked so hard. All the very, very best.

  • Comment number 9.

    Perfect sense, thanks Tom. Let's hope she improves it again on Sunday, conditions should be pretty good, if a little damp.

  • Comment number 10.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 11.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.