Visually impaired marathon runner Misato Michishita revealed how coronavirus pandemic struggles helped her find new sources of strength that she hopes will aid her quest for gold at the Tokyo Paralympics, which begin in 300 days.
In a recent interview with Kyodo News, Michishita, who holds the marathon world record for the women’s T12 class, said her single-minded obsession with Paralympic gold is what has kept her going for the last six months amid coronavirus-related restrictions.
“The gold medal is still my one unwavering goal,” she said, her focus firmly on the race that will start and finish at the National Stadium in Tokyo on Sept. 5, 2021.
An obsession to win at home has helped her drag herself out of bed on chilly mornings and has pushed her to slog along quiet trails known for occasional encounters with wildlife with her guide, who keeps her safe and aware of her surroundings with the help of a small piece of rope that connects them.
In the spring, she avoided Fukuoka’s running mecca, Ohori Park, to practice safe social distancing, instead running on a track around a reservoir four days a week. It was an unwanted change to her routine but it kept her happy, Michishita said, adding, “I was just grateful to be able to run.”
The 43-year-old is looking to capture her first Paralympic gold medal next summer to add to the women’s T12 class world record she first set at the Hofu Marathon in 2014 and the silver medal she won at the Rio Games in 2016.
At the Beppu-Oita Marathon in February, Michishita rewrote her own T12 world record for a second time with a time of 2 hours, 54 minutes, 22 seconds.
Having overcome a slight slump in form, Michishita found herself clocking the best time of her life in what was positioned to be her last race ahead of the Tokyo Paralympics.
Fifty-one days later, the Tokyo Games were postponed. Michishita heard the news while at her home in Dazaifu, Fukuoka Prefecture.
It was not unexpected with the global virus outbreak spreading, but the finality of the decision came as a shock and made her ill “like a child who gets a fever if they think too much,” forcing her to rebuild her training schedule from scratch.
Encouraged by support from those around her, however, Michishita resumed her training in isolation at home.
Under World Para Athletics rules, visually impaired athletes compete in three classes based on their impairment, from the most severe in the T11 class to the least severe in the T13 category.
Michishita, who has a form of corneal dystrophy, competes in the T12 class in which athletes are assessed as having “a visual field of less than 10 degrees diameter.”
Some athletes are able to run unaided, but those who suffer from relatively severe visual impairment like Michishita tether themselves to a guide who helps them stay on course and avoid obstacles and other competitors.
The tether that connects the athlete and guide has hand loops on either end and cannot exceed a maximum length of 50 cm — a proximity much less than that recommended in a socially distanced world.
Social pressure made Michishita hesitant to run outdoors with her guide Noritaka Horiuchi, but he eventually convinced her to listen to her gut and remain honest with him, something that was easy given the bond that was formed by winner silver together at the Rio Olympics.
During the few months Michishita was forced to adapt her training, she built up her leg strength on a tough circuit that includes a 900-meter uphill section.
She also increased her strength training from two days a week before the COVID-19 pandemic to nearly every day because “I wanted to rebuild my body,” which resulted in her increasing her stride length.
She reaped the benefits, shaving more than 30 seconds off her personal best over 5,000 meters in July. She is currently running about 800 km a month, approximately the same workload she was at before the coronavirus disruption.
“Now I know even if I can’t run as much, some of that can be compensated by strength training. It was good in the sense that my knowledge and experience increased,” she said.
Michishita is planning to take part in the Hofu Marathon in Yamaguchi Prefecture in December and said her goal there is to set a new personal best for the race.
“If I can succeed, it will give me momentum for next year,” she said.
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