The essence of one’s competitive spirit often comes from this: a joy in participating in the process. And it would be difficult — nearly impossible, in fact — to find another marathon runner who reveres the process as much as Mara Yamauchi.
Listen to the English-born runner express her thoughts after the April 20 Olympic marathon trial run in Beijing:
“I have never been to an Olympic Games before, but running through the marathon gate onto the track gave me an inkling of the electric atmosphere that is sure to fill the stadium every day of the Games. I can’t wait for August to arrive now, and am feeling suitably inspired for my final few months of training.”
Yamauchi wrote those words in her online blog. She filled other recent entries with similar examples of enthusiasm, colorful doses of details in every entry and a true appreciation for the opportunity she has to represent Great Britain in the 2008 Beijing Summer Games.
In April, Yamauchi began her final phase of training, getting a firsthand look at the 42.195-km Beijing marathon course, including the city’s historic sites, such as the iconic Tiantan, or Temple of Heaven.
She was fifth overall in the marathon trial race, finishing with a time of 2 hours, 46 minutes and 58 seconds. Reiko Tosa, Japan’s bronze medalist in the 2007 IAAF World Athletics Championships’ women’s marathon in Osaka, was fourth in 2:46.26.
Yamauchi will celebrate her 35th birthday four days before the biggest race of her life. The Aug. 17 marathon will begin at Tiananmen Square and end at Beijing National Stadium.
“I hope the next chapter will work out for me in Beijing,” she told reporters last week during a teleconference call from St. Moritz, Switzerland, where she was wrapping up a high-altitude training camp. (Mizuki Noguchi, the 2004 Olympic champ has also been in St. Moritz in recent weeks.)
For Yamauchi, the last chapter proved to be a pleasurable one. She won the Osaka International Women’s Marathon in January with a personal-best time of 2:25.10.
“That gave me a lot of confidence,” she noted, speaking of her first victory in a major race. She described the Osaka race as a quality marathon, adding Japan has a deep pool of talent on the women’s side.
“I made a mess of things last year,” Yamauchi said after the 2007 World Championships, a race in which she finished ninth. “I was determined to be stronger this time.”
Call it a valuable learning experience.
Yamauchi’s trip to China gave her a chance to get a visible picture of the Beijing course in her head, which is precisely what she wanted to do.
“Personally, I find knowing a course really helps me,” she said. “It helps my performance when I come to a race.
“See it, try to memorize it,” was her Beijing mission.
So what’s the course like?
“It’s very, very flat,” she said, “very long, straight stretches over long roads. The course has the potential to be fast, but a lot depends on the weather.”
Oh, yes, the weather. Nobody expects the runners to be shivering during their 42-plus km journey through the ancient city. The weather is expected to top 30 C during the marathon.
“On paper, I’m not really one of the favorites,” said Yamauchi, “but heat and humidity sort of equalizes everybody out. “I will adjust my race strategy if it’s 39 C rather than 31 C.
She paused, and then added: “Be prepared. If it’s cooler, you are lucky.”
Yamauchi (nee Myers) was born in Oxford, England, but resided in Nairobi for the eight years of her life. After high school, she attended St. Anne’s College in Oxford and the London School of Economics and then embarked on a career with the British Foreign Ministry.
Yamauchi worked at the British Embassy in Tokyo from 1998-2002. Then she married Shigetoshi Yamauchi, who now serves as her coach. Her primary focus now is marathon running, as she is on unpaid leave from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Since making her marathon debut at the 2004 London Marathon and placing 17th, Yamauchi has placed 18th or higher in each of her eight marathons.
Reflecting on her 2008 training, Yamauchi said it’s been a solid year of preparations for the Olympic marathon.
“I feel I’ve done pretty much the best preparation I can do,” she said.
The year began with “lots of long runs” and has “good quality long runs this summer.”
“I feel I’m in pretty good shape,” she added, revealing her recent emphasis has mostly consisted of speed workouts
After leaving St. Moritz, Yamauchi is in Tokyo making final preparations for the Olympics. She is scheduled to leave for Beijing on Aug. 14.
In the meantime, she maintains a confident mind-set about the biggest race of her life.
“I think there are many people who can win medals,” she said. “I’m one of them . , . but I’m not going to put pressure on myself and say I’m going to win medals.”
She estimated that “there are 15-20 who are right up there” with a chance to be in medal contention.
That list should include Great Britain’s Paula Radcliffe, the world record-holder (2:15.25) who has been plagued by injuries in recent months.
I haven’t been in England to monitor the exhaustive media coverage Radcliffe receives in her homeland, but Yamauchi helped fill in the blanks, explaining she’s not the big story — that distinction is Radcliffe’s burden/blessing.
“I can get on with my training, get my head down and train hard,” Yamauchi said. “The spotlight’s less on me.”
In 2006, when the injured Radcliffe didn’t compete in the London Marathon, the spotlight fell on Yamauchi. She now says she learned from that experience and how to handle the pressure that comes from intense media coverage.
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Yamauchi has been known to study video tape of top marathon runners. She’s watched recaps of recent Olympic races and isn’t afraid to ask winners questions about how they approach a race and the strategies they employ during it.
Good listeners can become better athletes, or so I’m led to believe.
Yamauchi, meanwhile, said she’s impressed by the success Japanese female runners have had in recent years, citing Naoko Takahashi’s epic win in the 2000 Sydney Olympics and Noguchi’s aforementioned triumph in Athens four years later.
The Japanese “are very dedicated and committed athletes,” she said. Then she spoke about the hard work Tosa has done in Kunming, China, and the training camp Yurika Nakamura held in Albuquerque, N.M.
“I think they’ll be up there” as top finishers, she added.