Mariko Yugeta, 63, prepares to run a marathon under three hours | Japan

A An annoying knee injury and only one full day to recover from a 13-hour flight through so many time zones are just simple inconveniences for Mariko Yugeta as she prepares to compete in the Boston Marathon and beat his own world record again.

The Japanese runner will line up in Monday’s race alongside women half her age, and they will do well to keep up.

Less than a month away from her 64th birthday, the PE teacher from Saitama, near Tokyo, is a long-distance running phenomenon. In 2019, she became the first woman over 60 to complete a marathon in under three hours – and is still the only athlete to achieve this milestone. In January, aged 62, she broke her own 60-64 world record with a time of 2h52min 13sec at the Osaka Women’s International Marathon.

“My knee is not in the best condition and I would say I’m around 80 per cent right now, but I’m still aiming for the two hour and 50 minute range,” Yugeta told the Guardian on the eve of his trip. in the USA.

Yugeta, a full-time teacher at Kawagoe Girls’ High School, has defied athletic logic since running her first competitive marathon in 1982, aged 24. Her time of 3:09.21 was significantly slower than those she has recorded in recent years. “It was a lot harder than I imagined,” said Yugeta, who was a national middle-distance champion when she was a student.

Japan’s Mariko Yugeta competes in the Nagoya Women’s Marathon. Photography: Mariko Yugeta

She had to suspend her quest for a three-hour break to focus on raising her four children. “I wanted to run more, but taking care of my children meant that I had very little time for myself. I jogged when I took them to play in the park and with the kids at my school, but that wasn’t the kind of preparation you need for a marathon.

It wasn’t until she was in her 50s, with her youngest son then in his mid-teens, that Yugeta began to realize her potential. She joined evening training sessions with a club in Tokyo, often returning home late at night. “The pace was tough and I felt like I was getting faster.”

Then in 2017, at age 58, she finally crossed the three-hour mark at the Osaka International Marathon. Two years later, she became the first woman in her 60s to run a race under three hours, finishing the Shimonoseki Kaikyo marathon in 2:59.15 – three minutes and 35 seconds faster than the previous record set by the French runner Claudine Marchadier in 2007. .

“Fifty should be a time to recommit”

Yugeta is not alone among Japanese athletes competing years after most of their peers have retired.

Earlier this month, perennial Kazuyoshi Miura starred for an hour in a Japan Football League match at the age of 55, while this weekend 52-year-old keirin cyclist Keiji Kojima , who competed in the 1992 Olympics, competed in a prestigious face off against riders young enough to be his sons. Adventurer Kenichi Horie, 83, is currently trying to become the oldest person to cross the Pacific solo non-stop.

“Age shouldn’t be a barrier,” Yugeta said, citing British runner Joyce Smith’s victory in the Tokyo Women’s International Marathon in 1980 at the age of 43 as a pivotal moment. “Midlife should be a time to recommit to your sport, not thinking about taking it easy or giving it up,” says Yugeta, who averages 25 km (15 miles) a day in all weathers, and occasionally ascends 2,400 meters to Mount Fuji Fifth Station.

“People in this age group are usually the busiest with work and family, which can negatively affect your mental well-being and your body. But as soon as I sweat when I run, that’s when I feel mentally refreshed.

Her training and fitness regimen involves nothing that would surprise athletes decades younger: a high-protein diet, plenty of sleep and an unstoppable determination that has seen her through lows and bouts of sciatica, tendonitis and jogger’s heel. His reward for his training is a recuperative bath at a sento bathhouse.

With 114 marathons under her belt, Yugeta says she has no plans to slow down. Her declaration of intent for Boston came last month, when she won in the 60-plus category at the Tokyo Marathon, then cut that time by six minutes to break three hours again in Nagoya under a week later.

On Sunday, she is due to meet her racing hero, Joan Benoit Samuelson. Yugeta, then pregnant with her first child, had watched on TV as Samuelson won gold in the women’s marathon at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

On Monday morning, Yugeta will line up in Boston for his final 26.2 miles of competition at the age of 63. While his painful knee could put his dream of breaking the 2:50 barrier on hold, a new world record is not excluded.

“I will definitely take a three-hour break again,” she says, adding that retirement is not in her plans. “I will keep running as long as I can. There are official records for the over 70s, and I would like to try to beat them.

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