A decade ago, Yoko Aoki would never have been able to imagine the current life she has.
Without any major sports experience, her day-to-day lifestyle used to be far from that of an average athlete. Now she runs long distances every day, supported by a team that allows her to compete in blind marathon races with the hope of representing Japan at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics — which will begin 500 days from Saturday.
“My life has changed a lot. I never expected this,” the 42-year-old Aoki said. “I don’t think I’ve changed. But I can do a lot of different things that I couldn’t do before because I have a goal I want to achieve.”
Aoki’s vision was impaired by an injury she suffered after graduating from high school. She attended a vocational training school and learned how to use computers while training to walk again. Aoki said she has no problems in her daily life, including working in an office.
One day, her co-worker told her about a blind marathon club, which opened the gate for her to become a para athlete.
“I just wanted to run or walk with an assistant as exercise,” Aoki said. “I could not run or walk by myself, but I could easily find a person to escort me by joining the club.”
Since then, blind marathons have become a major part of her life, and four years ago the Japan Blind Marathon Association chose Aoki to receive special training. She clocked her career-best 3 hours, 13 minutes and 36 seconds at the Hofu Yomiuri Marathon in Yamaguchi Prefecture last December, recording the all-time third-best race in a Japanese women’s blind marathon.
The International Paralympic Committee defines three categories of blind marathon according to the severity of impairment: T11 (very low visual acuity and/or no light perception), T12 (0.03 or lower eyesight and/or a visual field radius of less than 5 degrees) and T13 (from 0.04 to 0.1 eyesight and/or a visual field of less than 20 degrees radius). For T11 and T12, to which Aoki belongs, blind marathoners must be accompanied by an escort runner.
During a race, the pair hold opposite ends of a meter-long rope as the escort runner helps to set the pace and shares information on upcoming obstacles and the status of other runners.
“The most important thing for the escort runner is caring about the runner’s safety,” said Yoshihide Fukuhara, the head coach of Aoki’s Team OYO (the initial “O” refers to the first character of Aoki’s maiden name, Otokozawa, and “YO” is from her first name), who himself is also a blind marathon runner.
“The escort runner’s vision has to synchronize with the runner’s mind. Good escort runners provide the necessary information and know when to spurt.”
Aoki, however, claims anybody can become an escort runner. According to Fukuhara, a blind marathoner will use several different escort runners between starting their daily practice and taking part in competitive races.
For example, Aoki runs about 10 kilometers every morning with a rotating set of running partners. For daily training, escort runners do not require the ability to run a marathon.
“What I want from them is that they want to run with me at daily practice. I have about 15 running partners to support my daily practice. They are all volunteers,” said Aoki. “Of course, we need fast and experienced guides in the competition, but for daily practice, the priority is people who can come to my house and run with me early in the morning.”
Makiko Yokoyama is one of them.
“I have no background in track and field,” said Yokoyama, a frequent participant in Aoki’s training camps. “I consider myself more of a friend of hers than a practice partner. You need to have understanding from your family and workplace to serve as an escort runner because it takes up time. But there’s a feeling of achievement that comes from seeking a goal with your other teammates.”
A blind athlete can have up to two guides in a race. Exchanging is allowed once, at either the 10-, 20- or 30-km point. If the escort runner retires at any point during the race, the blind runner is also disqualified.
Any rule violation by the escort runner, such as doping, results in the disqualification of the blind athlete. Escort runners are not allowed to help their blind athlete, even when they fall down, or to cross the finish line first.
Aoki’s ultimate goal is to qualify for her first Paralympics next year and compete for a medal. In T12, Rio Paralympics silver medalist Misato Michishita is Japan’s frontrunner. The 42-year-old holds the current world record of 2:56:14, which she achieved in the 2017 Hofu Yomiuri Marathon.
“Aoki’s best time is about 20 minutes behind Michishita. We have been aiming for a finish within 3 hours and 10 minutes since last summer,” Fukuhara said. “I expect the medal range is around the 3-hour mark, and hopefully Aoki can shorten her time by 10 more minutes. Anything can happen in a marathon. We want to cut the gap with Michishita to a few minutes by the Paralympics.”
At Feb. 3’s Beppu Oita Marathon, Aoki led Michishita midway through the race, only to finish in fourth place following winner Michishita, Hiroko Kondo and Mihoko Nishijima, all of whom represented Japan in Rio. Aoki’s time was 3:17:19, about 10 minutes slower than Michishita.
“That race was a trial. Based on what we had done, we went with an aggressive strategy because we wanted to know how much we could achieve at that stage,” Aoki said. “But the race was so tough that I felt damaged. I even worried that I couldn’t run again.
“I’ve gotten a lot of advice from people surrounding me. Now I can think of this as something I have to overcome to progress. Since (the Beppu Oita Marathon), I’ve paid more attention to each practice in order to think about how I can improve.”
Yasuhiro Ukitsu, a member of Team OYO, saw plenty of positives from Aoki’s fourth-place finish.
“She was too exhausted to move after the race. But since then, she has become physically tougher,” Ukitsu said. “She runs to her limit, then takes a break and goes farther. That’s a change she has shown since the race.”
Aoki’s upcoming challenge is to compete in the blind marathon world championships in London on April 28. The race is the first step for Aoki to earn a berth at Tokyo 2020.
The top four finishers will earn berths for their respective countries, which doesn’t necessarily guarantee a runner’s individual qualification. That said, finishing first among Japanese runners would earn Aoki an influential recommendation from the JBMA.
Japan will have another chance to add to its total berths at next year’s World Para Athletics Marathon World Cup in London, and domestic qualifying will take place at the Hokkaido Marathon in August, the Hofu Yomiuri Marathon in December and the Beppu Oita Marathon in February 2020.
“First of all, we have to get a berth for Japan. Then hopefully I can qualify for that berth,” said Aoki, who is confident about her improvement since her enhanced training began. “My time has improved from 3:39 to 3:13 in the last four years. I think more about running. I care more about my physical condition. I need less time to fix my running form. That is how I feel I’ve improved.”