Athletics: Mara makes a big name for herself in Japan

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The Independent Online

"It's strange coming back as an athlete when I was here before for work," the rising British star of the marathon confessed. "But, then, if it wasn't for my work - for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office enabling me to work flexibly - I wouldn't have improved as a runner and I wouldn't be here now."

In her days as Mara Myers of Oxford University, the future Mrs Yamauchi was the English cross-country champion before she followed her career path to Japan. She ran only to keep fit, though, when she lived and worked in Tokyo. It was only when she returned to Britain and started working as head of the diversity team in the Human Resources Directorate of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London that she began to emerge as the second lady of British distance running, behind the peerless Paula Radcliffe.

Since March this year, Yama-uchi has made significant progress: the first British finisher, in 27th place, in the main race at the World Cross Country Championships; the second Briton, behind Radcliffe, in the London Marathon; the second counter, behind the victorious Radcliffe, in the British squad that scooped bronze medals in the World Cup team event held in conjunction with the marathon at the World Championships in Helsinki, where she finished a fine 18th individually in 2hr 31min 26sec; and a break through the 70-minute barrier for the half-marathon in the Great North Run. Her aim today is to maintain the momentum, with a time under 2hr 28min and a place in the top six.

Whatever happens, the invitation alone is evidence that Yamauchi has made a name for herself as a distance runner: a name she adopted when she married Shigetoshi Yamauchi. "It's great to be back in Japan," she said. "The people are so friendly and Tokyo is such a dynamic city. We are going to Meiji shrine, where we got married, to buy a good-luck mascot for Sunday."

The newspaper Asahi Shimbun has run a feature on the international diplomat who has returned as an international runner, but the focus of Japanese media attention in today's race is firmly fixed on Naoko Takahashi. The Japanese woman who struck Olympic marathon gold in Sydney in 2000, and who became the first female to break the 2hr 20min barrier a year later, is a national icon in her homeland. Today's race is her first marathon for two years.

"It's really exciting to be in the same race as Takahashi," Yamauchi said, "not just because she's a former Olympic cham-pion but also because I've learned a lot from books written by her, by her former coach and by her nutritionist, about training and diet. I doubt I'll be anywhere near her at the finish, but the great thing about the marathon is that runners of various standards can race against each other."

As a son of the land of the rising sun, Yamauchi's husband - a vital support to her in her running career - is naturally proud that his wife is competing in such a major event in Japan, where the marathon is hugely revered and hugely popular.

"I think the marathon is seen as the ultimate sport, because it requires what Japanese people appreciate - hard work, patience, effort and endurance," he said. They happen to be four attributes that have helped Mrs Yamauchi emerge as an international marathon runner at the sprightly age of 32.