MARAthon Queen: Britain’s no.2 marathoner of all-time; Japan-based, Mara Yamauchi spoke to NICOLA BAMFORD about her life as one of the World’s elite road runners and offers the RunBritain audience some inspirational advice and tips...(written for UK Athletics 09/08).
2008 has signalled somewhat of a breakthrough year for 35 year-old Yamauchi; whose outstanding victory in the Osaka International Ladies marathon (in a PB of 2:25.10) and her magnificent 6th place in the Beijing Olympic marathon has catapulted her into genuine World-Class status.
Yamauchi; whose forename derives from the “Mara River” in Kenya, where her parents lived for 25 years, has been working hard on causing some ripples of her own on the athletics radar, and now has strong aspirations of turning her presence into a tidal-wave of excitement in her future global 26.2-mile challenges.
Taking time out from her hectic training schedule, the former Ms Myers answered took part in an enlightening Q & A...
1. How old were you when you started running seriously? And what was your motivation behind becoming a runner?
I joined Radley Ladies’ AC when I was a teenager but left after about a year to pursue other sports. I then returned to running seriously when I was 18 and started university. After finishing studying I had another break from athletics due to work, and returned in 2003 when I took up the marathon. Ultimately my motivation for running comes from enjoyment, and trying to fulfil my potential as a runner.
2. Were you always a talented athlete or have you had many disappointments and setbacks?
I think I have a certain amount of natural talent but I also train hard! Like any runner, I’ve had disappointments and setbacks along the way including injuries. Most of the disappointments have been my own fault – e.g. not planning ahead, not recovering sufficiently, or not taking enough care to prevent injuries etc.
3. You’ve said in the past that you create mental barriers – tell us more...
Mental barriers are possibly the thing that holds runners back the most. I often think I can’t break a certain time or beat a certain person. But if you plan your training carefully and set goals that you believe you can reach, then it becomes easier to achieve things that previously you thought you could not do.
4. Explain how your first marathon went? Which has been your favourite marathon and achievement?
My first marathon was London 2004 and it did not go very well! I was trying to qualify for the Athens Olympics but was injured until December 2003 so had insufficient training under my belt. On race day I got a stitch twice and had to stop for the toilet. Osaka 2008 is probably my favourite because it was my first win and I ran the race sensibly.
5. Are you self-coached?
My coach is Bob Parker at Harrow AC, but because I live in Japan the physical distance means that in practice most of the time I decide with my husband Shige what training I will do from day to day.
6. Huge CONGRATULATIONS on achieving a superb 6th place finish in the Olympic marathon! How does such an achievement (which equalled the best British all-time performance) feel? Did you enjoy the race? and your Beijing experience?
I’m really happy with my 6th place finish in the Olympic marathon. Of course I was aiming for a medal so I am a bit disappointed that I didn’t make it into the medals. But I made it to 40km or so still in medal contention, and equalled the best ever performance by a British woman in the Olympic marathon which, in such a strong field, gave me a lot to feel pleased about. I’ve beaten Tomescu-Dita in the past which gives me confidence that I can be right up there with the best – I just have to go and do it now! I also learned a lot from my build-up and the race itself which is the most important thing – I can go away and keep working at areas in which I can improve and hopefully come out stronger next time. Beijing overall was great fun, I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.
7. Take us through your warm up and cool-down routine...
I do 15-20 minutes of jogging, 10 minutes or so of stretching exercises and strides for my warm-up. My warm-down is the same without the strides.
8. Describe a typical weeks’ training/mileage...
I usually do two long runs per week, one 20 miles or more, and one 15-18 miles. I do two quality sessions per week which could be track intervals, hills, long intervals or tempo running. The rest of the week I do steady running. I also do an easy run of 5-7 miles most days, and two drills and two weights sessions per week. My total mileage varies between about 75 and 120 per week.
9. Do you go on training stints to other high-altitude/warm-weather venues?
Yes, in recent years we’ve spent time in St Moritz, Albuquerque, Boulder, Font Romeu and Nagano prefecture in Japan.
10. Do you enjoy travelling for races?
Yes, it’s great to see new places though we often don’t have time to do much sight-seeing. We’re very lucky to be able to travel to races and discover new places and people.
11. Do you see your rivals as just that, or become friends?
I’m good friends with many of my fellow competitors. We all face similar challenges and can help each other out. I don’t see much point in rivalry outside of racing.
12. What tips do you have for ‘improvers’ in the marathon?
Set yourself realistic but challenging goals for the marathon itself but also for training. Then decide how you are going to reach these goals. Preparing for a marathon is not just about training – hydration, nutrition and rest are also very important. Small practical things can also really help such as drinking during training, wearing in your race shoes in advance, trying out your pre-race breakfast before training, getting regular massage to prevent injuries etc.
13. After fading to 9th in Osaka, 2007, you held back etc to win the Ladies Osaka marathon last January – explain your tactics?
I decided not to make any serious move until after 30km even if I felt good. Toshihiko Seko, one of Japan’s marathon legends, says the start to 30km is the warm-up and then the race starts, and he’s right! At the Osaka world champs I put in a surge at 29km which was way too early, so I learnt my lesson from that race.
14. Do you have a large support network? Physio, nutritionist etc...
My husband Shige is my main support network – he helps me with cooking, massage, training, contacting races, finding sponsors, managing my blog etc etc. Without him I certainly would not be at this level now. I am very lucky to have this kind of support. Also through the World Class Performance Pathway I get access to several specialists at The English Institute of Sport including a strength & conditioning coach, a sports psychologist and a physiologist. All the support I get is excellent, I really could not fault it. In Japan I also get support from various people e.g. a Physio.
15. You are currently on unpaid leave from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office to focus on her running career – do you see yourself going back to work?
I am committed to going back to the FCO and still plan to do that.
16. Do you feel you’re adequately supported by the Lottery Funding system?
Yes, definitely. The support system is excellent.
17. How long have you lived in Japan for with your Japanese husband, Shigetoshi? Do you prefer the Japanese culture to that of Britain? Has living in a country which is so passionate about the marathon and has so many elite runners helped you improve?
This time I have lived in Japan since January 2006, but I also lived in Japan from 1998-2002. I don’t think I can say I prefer Japan or UK – both countries have aspects which I like and dislike. Japanese culture is very rich and has a long history, which makes it fascinating but also quite hard to really understand. Living in Japan has definitely helped my running. Of course there are things I miss about the UK such as training with my friends, but the level of competition here is probably the best in the world, which has to have a positive impact.
18. You’re a member of Second Wind AC in Japan - do you stay in contact with old club-mates from Harrow AC?
I try to go back to Harrow when I am back in the UK, and follow the club’s progress on their website. And I have met Andrea Whitcombe, one of my old training partners, a few times recently.
19. Do you like to keep up to date with athletics in the UK? Would you ever change national allegiance?
I always keep up with athletics in the UK and subscribe to AW! I don’t have any plans to change allegiance. Having British nationality is a real privilege that many people in the world would like to have. I’m proud to be able to run for GB and wouldn’t want to switch to another country.
20. What has been your favourite/which do you rank highly in terms of UK road races?
I love the Great North Run and Bristol Half-marathon because I have run well at both in the past and the atmosphere is really great.
21. How do you feel the UK road scene could improve?
To be honest I think it’s really good – there are lots of races on offer, the vast majority are well-organised, and there is good quality at the sharp end in some of them. I think some of them charge too much to enter, which I think might put off a lot of runners.
22. Tell us about your passion for cooking and your favourite pre and post-session/race meals...?
I find cooking very absorbing so it helps you to forget other things going on in your life, and I enjoy giving other people food that I’ve made. I really like making cakes though I have to find other people to eat them! I’m slowly learning Japanese cooking though it is so refined and sophisticated that it’s difficult to make it as well as Japanese people do. Food before training usually includes carbohydrate and a bit of protein, and it has to be easy to digest. Before marathons I eat Japanese mochi rice cakes and a boiled egg. After training I usually have a protein & carb. drink immediately then try to eat as soon as possible to help recovery, again including carbohydrate and protein.
23. How much sleep do you take per evening?
I try to get at least 8 hours, ideally more. I also try to sleep for at least 1 hour during the day.
24. Do you have any hobbies, or are you always too tired?!
I rarely have enough time and energy together to do anything energetic or that requires brain-power! But I like cooking and when I am having a break from training we like to go travelling and mountain-walking.
25. Any words of wisdom/motivational tips for our audience?
Setting goals is really important, not just long-term goals but short-term ones too, and they can cover many different thing e.g. in January I will run 3 times per week of 30-mins or more; by end of March I will do one long run in my race shoes to make sure I don’t get blisters; by next Monday I will go to see a Physio about my sore hamstrings; etc. I always use this kind of goal-setting and it helps me to break down long-term goals into things which are more realistic, and which help you to achieve your long-term goals.
26. In moments of weakness, do you indulge/over-train etc...?
Yes! But I wish I didn’t! Having people around you e.g. a spouse, coach, training partners etc helps because they might notice things about you that you don’t e.g. over-training.
27. Your online blog via your website http://marayamauchi.blogzine.jp/english/ is very popular – why did you set this up and do you enjoy passing on your anecdotes and advice?
A blog is a good way of keeping in touch with people, especially as I spend a lot of time away from home training and racing. There are lots of people and organisations who support me in one way or another, and my blog helps me to show how much I appreciate their support and encouragement. Also I’ve worked hard over these past few years, and I’d like to be able to help others achieve their goals by passing on a few tips.
28. What would you like to do after your running career is over? and do you ever see yourself retiring from competition?
I will retire from my current level of competition at some point – my body and mind can’t handle this level of punishment forever! And being a full-time athlete at this level requires many sacrifices from me and people around me, and I’m not sure I want that to go on forever. But I hope I will continue running for the rest of my life as it’s what I love and it keeps me healthy.
29. How would you like to be remembered after your days as an elite athlete?
As someone who worked hard and gave it everything in training and racing, but was also kind and friendly!
30. Any other tips...??
Never give up!