A niggling knee injury and just one full day to recover from a 13-hour flight across as many time zones are mere inconveniences for Mariko Yugeta as she prepares to compete in the Boston marathon, and beat her 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 before 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 that milestone. In January, aged 62, she beat her own world record for 60- to 64-year-olds with a time of 2hr 52min 13sec at the Osaka international women’s marathon.
“My knee is not in the best condition and I would say that I’m about 80% at the moment, but I’m still aiming for the two-hour, 50-minute range,” Yugeta tells the Guardian on the eve of her trip to the US.
Yugeta, who teaches full-time at Kawagoe girls’ high school, has defied sporting logic since she ran her first competitive marathon in 1982, aged 24. Her time of 3:09.21 was markedly slower than those she has logged in recent years. “It was far harder than I’d imagined,” says Yugeta, who had been a middle-distance national champion in her student days.
She had to put her quest to break three hours on hold to focus on raising her four children. “I wanted to run more, but looking after my children meant I had very little time to myself. I jogged when I took them to play in the park and with the pupils at my school, but it wasn’t the kind of preparation you need for a marathon.”
It wasn’t until she was in her 50s, with her youngest son by then in his mid-teens, that Yugeta began to realise her potential. She joined evening training sessions with a club in Tokyo, often returning home late at night. “The pace was hard and I felt myself getting faster.”
Then in 2017, aged 58, she finally broke the three-hour barrier at the Osaka international marathon. Two years later, she became the first woman in her 60s to run a sub-three-hour race, finishing the Shimonoseki Kaikyo marathon in 2:59.15 – three minutes and 35 seconds faster than the previous record set by French runner Claudine Marchadier in 2007.
‘Middle-age should be a time to recommit’
Yugeta is not alone among Japanese athletes to be competing years after most of their peers have retired.
Earlier this month, the evergreen Kazuyoshi Miura played for an hour in a Japan Football League match at the age of 55, while this weekend, the 52-year-old keirin cyclist Keiji Kojima, who rode in the 1992 Olympics, competed in a prestigious meet against riders young enough to be his sons. The adventurer Kenichi Horie, 83, is currently attempting to become the oldest person to sail solo nonstop across the Pacific.
“Age shouldn’t be a barrier,” Yugeta says, citing British runner Joyce Smith’s victory in the 1980 Tokyo international women’s marathon at the age of 43 as a pivotal moment. “Middle-age should be a time to recommit to your sport, not to think about taking it easy or giving it up,” says Yugeta, who clocks up an average of 25km (15 miles) a day in all weathers, and makes occasional 2,400-metre ascents to the fifth station of Mount Fuji.
“People in that age group are usually at their busiest with work and family, and that can take a toll on your mental wellbeing and your body. But as soon as I break into a sweat when I run, that’s the moment when I feel mentally refreshed.”
Her training and fitness regime involves nothing that would surprise athletes decades her junior: a diet rich in protein, plenty of sleep, and an irrepressible determination that has seen her through dips in form and bouts of sciatica, tendinitis and jogger’s heel. Her reward for training is a recuperative soak in a sento public bath.
With 114 marathons under her belt, Yugeta says she has no intention of slowing down. Her statement of intent for Boston came last month, when she won in the 60+ category at the Tokyo marathon, then shaved six minutes off that time to break three hours yet again in Nagoya less than a week later.
On Sunday she is due to meet her running hero, Joan Benoit Samuelson. Yugeta, while pregnant with her first child, had watched on TV as Samuelson took gold in the women’s marathon at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.
On Monday morning, Yugeta will line up in Boston for her final competitive 26.2 miles as a 63-year-old. While her sore knee could put her dream of breaking the 2:50 barrier on hold, a new world record is not out of the question.
“I will definitely break three hours again,” she says, adding that retirement is not in her plans. “I’ll keep running for as long as I can. There are official records for the over-70 age group, and I’d love to have a go at breaking those.”