Mara Yamauchi has encountered the phenomenon of the femme formidable before. In her time as a Foreign Office diplomat in Tokyo, she acted as an interpreter for Baroness Thatcher at a function at the British Embassy in the Japanese capital. In her time as a marathon runner on the streets of London yesterday, the Oxford woman found Irina Mikitenko to be something of an iron lady too. Still, in finishing runner-up to the Kazakhstan-born German in an event she described with not-too-little justification as "the world's greatest marathon," Yamauchi showed mettle of her own as she stepped up to the plate, on to the podium and out of the shadow of someone by the name of Paula Radcliffe.
For 20 miles of the elite women's race in the Flora London Marathon, while the challenges of the other major players wilted under the strain, Yamauchi matched the dogged Mikitenko, the naturalised Frankfurter who missed the Beijing Olympics because of injury but finished last year as champion of the World Marathon Majors series, courtesy of victories in London and Berlin. It was a supreme effort by the Oxford University graduate, whom, having left her diplomatic career for life as a full-time runner, has spent the past three years living in Tokyo with her Japanese husband and mentor, Shigetoshi.
Since revisiting her youthful talent (she won the English cross country title in 1997), Yamauchi has been steadily rising through the global marathon ranks. She finished sixth behind Radcliffe in London in 2005, ninth in the World Championship race in Osaka in 2007 and sixth in the Olympics in Beijing last year. Yesterday, though, at the age of 35, the woman who was born Mara Myers took a significant step up in class. In the final six miles she lost 61 seconds on the relentless Mikitenko, who crossed the line victorious in 2hr 22min 11sec, but Yamauchi's time in second place, 2:23:12, improved her personal best by a margin of 1min and 51sec. She also achieved the first podium finish by a British athlete other than Radcliffe in the elite women's or men's sections of the London Marathon since Liz McColgan was runner-up in 1998. Perhaps more significantly, Britain's No 2 marathon woman claimed the scalps of the three runners who finished on the Olympic podium in Beijing eight months ago.
Constantina Dita of Romania, the winner in the China, dropped out at halfway. Kenya's Catherine Ndereba, the silver medallist in Beijing and the reigning world champion, finished seventh. Zhou Chunxia, who took bronze on her home soil in Beijing, was 12th.
All of which gave Yamauchi considerable satisfaction, not to mention hope that she can challenge for a medal at the World Championships in Berlin this summer and, of course, in the London Olympic marathon in 2012. "I think the field today was as good as, or probably better, than any championship marathon," she said, "so that gives me a lot of confidence going into the World Championships in Berlin. If I can keep on improving to 2hr 20min, I think I can challenge for a medal in 2012."
By then she may have gained a big enough profile for the British public to be on first name terms with her. "There were a few variations on Mara," Yamauchi said, after acknowledging the "fantastic support" of the home crowds lining the 26.2mile course. "I think I was called Maria, Mary, Marie, Myra, Maura. Anyway, there were a few Maras in there too."
Mara was asked about contending with the huge public profile of Radcliffe, an absentee yesterday because of a broken toe. "I'm not aiming to get the same level of attention," she said. "Paula's CV is totally different to my CV. I'm not going to get drawn into a Mara v Paula kind of confrontation, if that's what people want. Great Britain could win two medals in the women's marathon in Berlin. That would be a quite good result." Yes, quite.
London Marathon: Results
*Men 1 Samuel Wanjiru (Ken) 2hr 5min 10sec; 2 Tsegaye Kebede (Eth) 2:05:20; 3 Jaouad Gharib (Mor) 2:05:27
*Women 1 Irina Mikitenko (Ger) 2hr 22min 11sec; 2 Mara Yamauchi (GB) 2:23:12; 3 Liliya Shobukhova (Rus) 2:24:24.
*Men's wheelchair 1 Kurt Fearnley (Aus) 1hr 28min 57sec; 2 David Weir (GB).
*Women's wheelchair 1. Amanda McGrory (US) 1:50;39; 2 Sandra Graf (Swit).