Mara Yamauchi hits the streets of New York City today looking to make up for lost time and lost ground. Back in June last year, she was one of two British athletes occupying a top-three placing in the world rankings, two months out from the World Championships in Berlin.
The other was Jessica Ennis, who proceeded to win heptathlon gold in the German capital in August. Ennis also took the world indoor pentathlon title in Doha last weekend, all of which has added up to quite some comeback since the young Sheffield athlete missed the Beijing Olympics in 2008 with a triple stress fracture of the right foot that fleetingly threatened to end her athletics career.
Yamauchi herself is on the comeback trail, running the New York City Half-Marathon today in preparation for the Virgin London Marathon on 25 April. In London last year she emerged from the shadow of Paula Radcliffe, finishing runner-up to Germany's Irina Mikitenko in 2hr 23min 12sec. Her time remained the second fastest of the year but there was to be no World Championship podium placing for the Oxford woman, who has settled in Tokyo with her Japanese husband and mentor, Shigetoshi. She withdrew from the British team in late June, suffering from plantar fasciitis in her right foot.
"I've been inspired by Jessica Ennis and watching her at the World Championships," Yamauchi said. "She broke her foot in several places before Beijing and came back amazingly. I'm hoping to take a leaf out of her book in that regard."
It would be too much to expect Yamauchi to bounce back quite as quickly and emphatically as Ennis. The Oxford University graduate was unable to run between May and August last year and took until October to get back into consistent training. The loss of those five months was evident at the Marugame Half-Marathon in Japan in February. Her time, 70min 46sec, was 2min 17sec down on the personal best she recorded in the 13.1-mile event 12 months previously.
Today's race, which starts in Central Park and runs through Seventh Avenue and Times Square, will give Yamauchi a better indication of where she stands on the catch-up front. The opposition in the 10,000-strong field includes Deena Kastor, the 2004 Olympic marathon bronze medallist and 2006 London Marathon winner from the United States.
Still, given the amount of time she lost in training last year, it would be stretching it to envisage the former Foreign Office diplomat emerging in world-beating form – just yet, at any rate. While another top-three showing in London would be a boost to the 36-year-old Yamauchi, getting herself into the form of her life for the London Olympics is her number one goal.
"Given the time that I had off from running, I'm reasonably happy with my form," she said. "My training since the Marugame Half-Marathon has gone really well, so I'm hoping I can produce good performances in New York on Sunday and in London next month. The course in New York is tougher than the one in Japan but I'd like to get as far under 70 minutes as possible on Sunday, and obviously I would like to win the race.
"It was completely crushing to miss the World Championships last summer. The London Marathon was a big confidence booster for me and I was on a real high. I knew I had made a big improvement and I was really looking forward to Berlin. As my London time was the second fastest in the world last year, it was realistic to hope for a medal.
"It was a big disappointment but it was also a big wake-up call. Up to then, I had raced pretty much non-stop for three years. In 2008 I ran three marathons, so to some extent I think I had overdone it a bit. That's been a warning to me, really, for the next two years. Having lost the best part of half a year, and now with the Olympics just two years away, my priority is to stay injury-free so that I can train consistently up to the 2012 Games.
"I think training consistently over time is the way that you make long-term improvements. To be competing for a medal at the Olympics, I think I need to be down in the 2hr 20min level. That is my long-term priority. I'm hoping that my performances will improve in the long term as a result of the time I've had off. Whether that will be this year, I don't know, but hopefully in 2012 I will be able to look back and say that actually it was quite good to have that break."
In the meantime, today Yamauchi will have a bite at making a name for herself in the Big Apple, where Radcliffe has been a three-time marathon winner. "Paula has run many great races in New York," she acknowledged. "I'd like to do the same."
Live streaming of the New York City Half-Marathon is available at www.universalsports.com. The race starts at 11.30am GMT