Athletics: Mission Helsinki for diplomatic Mara

From the Foreign Office to foreign fields. Simon Turnbull talks to a Briton inspired by Radcliffe
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Mara Yamauchi has encountered the phenomenon of the femme formidable before. In her time as a Foreign Office diplomat in Tokyo, the runner who finished second to Paula Radcliffe in the British women's section of the London Marathon a week ago was asked to keep the Iron Lady of politics up to speed.

Mara Yamauchi has encountered the phenomenon of the femme formidable before. In her time as a Foreign Office diplomat in Tokyo, the runner who finished second to Paula Radcliffe in the British women's section of the London Marathon a week ago was asked to keep the Iron Lady of politics up to speed.

"Yes, I did some informal interpreting for her at a dinner," Yamauchi said, recalling a visit to the British Embassy by Baroness Thatcher. "That was very exciting." An Oxford woman who returned from Tokyo with a Japanese husband and a Japanese surname, Yamauchi can also reflect on the time she found herself taking a hot-sand bath in the company of Jack Straw - talking about the football club of which the Foreign Secretary and the Baroness of Kesteven, curiously enough, both happen to be honorary vice-presidents. "My father is a fan of Blackburn Rovers and I knew Jack Straw was," she said. "I mentioned it to him and he's obviously a very keen fan. He came out for an official visit just before the World Cup and we were showing him the work we were doing related to it."

Another of the highlights of Yamauchi's posting to Tokyo was helping to run the World Cup Office at the British Embassy in 2002. Three years on, the woman from the Foreign Office is preparing for another special assignment at a major sporting event overseas - running in the marathon at the track-and-field World Championships in Helsinki in August. She will be in the Finnish capital as the British No 1 or 2 in the event, depending on whether Radcliffe, now restored as the Iron Lady of long-distance running after her lapse from invincibility in Athens, decides to go for gold in the marathon or in the 10,000 metres.

Either way, Yamauchi will make the trip as the rising new starlet of British distance running. In London a week ago she finished 10th in the international women's field, clocking 2hr 31min 52sec. In doing so, she took the scalp of Tegla Loroupe, the Kenyan whose marathon CV includes two world records, two victories in New York and one win in London. She also beat Liz Yelling, the Bedford and County clubmate of Radcliffe and the first British woman to finish in Athens. Her time was an improvement of 7min 24sec on her marathon debut in London 12 months previously.

It was a major advance, but no competitive flash in the pan. Yamauchi was the first British runner home in the 8km long-course race at the World Cross Country Championships at St Galmier, France, last month. She finished 27th, 10 places clear of Yelling, who, like Radcliffe, trains full-time as a distance runner.

Yamauchi has made her breakthrough at international level, at 31, while working in the diplomatic service in London. Since returning from Japan and settling in Richmond with her husband, Shigetoshi, a student, she has been employed as head of the diversity team in the Human Resources Directorate of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. She returned to work on Monday to an official message of congratulations from Sir Michael Jay, the Permanent Under-Secretary to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

"My office is just off Trafalgar Square," she said, "quite near the finish of the marathon, actually. I work on diversity issues, such as disability, gender and race equality. The great thing is the Foreign Office has a flexible working scheme, which allows me to combine my career and my running. I work from 10am to 4pm, so I can train in the morning and again in the evening."

Yamauchi has made a bit of a name for herself as a runner once before. As Mara Myers of Oxford University, she ran for Great Britain in the European Cross Country Championships of 1997, finishing 38th. She also won the English women's cross country title in 1998 before heading off to Japan, initially for a year at a language school in Kamakura, and then for three years at the British Embassy in Tokyo. "I didn't do any serious running when I was out there," she said. "I just tried to keep my fitness going with a bit of steady running, for health reasons as much as anything."

Her emergence in the slipstream of the trailblazing Radcliffe has been achieved with the guidance of Bob Parker, the man who coached David Bedford, the race director of the Flora London Marathon, to a world record at 10,000m on the track. She has also been assisted by Alan Storey, the technical director of endurance events for UK Athletics, and Bud Baldaro, the national marathon squad coach.

"I've only raced against Paula a couple of times," Yamauchi said. "I was in the British Students' Cross Country Championship race in 1994 and I think she won that. I don't think I'm within her sphere now, but she's an inspiration. It's great for the other British runners that we have such a fantastic role model."

Yamauchi is a member of the same club as another inspirational British athlete, Dean Macey. It remains to be seen if the dashing, injury-plagued decathlete will make it to the World Championships this summer, but at least Harrow Athletics Club will have a vested interest in the women's marathon. The event has been scheduled to start at 2.20pm local time, specifically to follow the main news programme on Japanese television.

Japan has long been a nation gripped by marathon mania, and the women's marathon enjoys a particularly high profile, daughters from the land of the rising sun having won the last two Olympic races: Naoko Takahashi in Sydney in 2000 and Mizuki Noguchi in Athens last summer. Yamauchi has already received one call from a Japanese journalist since her London run, although she modestly suggested: "I don't think my time is that impressive to most Japanese runners."

It is impressive enough to have the Oxford woman preparing for the World Championships marathon, though. The race starts in the centre of Finland's capital and finishes in the Olympic Stadium, where the great Emil Zatopek completed his hat-trick of Olympic golds in 1952 with an epic marathon victory. It might have been different, though. The 2005 World Championships were awarded to London, before the proposed stadium at Picketts Lock became a £100m pipedream.

Asked whether she would rather be taking on the world on home ground, Yamauchi replied: "Oh, I can't really comment on that. I don't know enough about what happened when London were awarded the championships." So there you have it: a true diplomat - and a truly talented marathon runner, too.