Crisis at home weighs on Japan's No 1 ahead of London Marathon

Yukiko Akaba was in New Zealand in February, training with eight other members of the Japanese national marathon squad, when the foundations of her world started to shake. "We were in Christchurch when the earthquake struck," she recalled yesterday, sitting in a hotel next to Tower Bridge, having arrived in England for Sunday's London Marathon. "We'd just finished our lunch and we were all going back to our rooms. Our immediate thought was to escape and get outside. We went to a nearby park. It was a frightening and scary experience."

It was not to be the last one for Akaba, the number one women's marathon runner in a nation obsessed with the 26.2-mile event. She was recovering from the trauma of Christchurch and back in training on the Japanese island of Tokunoshima when her homeland was struck by the earthquake and tsunami that wrought widespread devastation on 11 March. Her four-year-old daughter, Yuna, was staying with her husband's parents, closer to the epicentre, in Saitama Prefecture.

"My spirit was broken," Akaba said. "I was unstable. I was worried about my daughter." Thankfully, after a struggle, her in-laws were able to get Yuna to Tokyo's Haneda Airport and mother and daughter were reunited on Tokunoshima Island.

Still, as Akaba prepares for Sunday's race in London – together with eight compatriots who have been flown over by the organisers to press their claims for selection for the World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, in August, following the cancellation of the Japanese trial – she has other concerns on her mind. Her house has been badly damaged by the earthquake and she is concerned about the threat of radiation there.

"We're worried, especially for our daughter," her husband, Shuhei, who also coaches her, said. "Our house is in Haga-machi town, in Tochigi Prefecture, only 75 miles from the Fukushima nuclear plant. For the moment, we're trying to stay away. All outer walls have big cracks running through them. We need a specialist to come in to look at structurally how sound it is."

Akaba finished sixth in the London Marathon last year and hopes for a similarly prominent placing again on Sunday. Alongside her on the start line will be Mizuho Nasukawa, who fought back tears yesterday as she performed a cradling action to describe the fate suffered in the Japanese tragedy by one of her close friends and former high school team-mates, Taiko Osawa.

"When they found my friend's body she was holding her baby daughter in her arms," Nasukawa said.