The World Record fueled by regret

Mariko Yugeta is 62. The first woman in her 60s to break three hours in the marathon. A world record holder. The force that has driven her is regret. Regret for the unfinished business of what she couldn’t achieve in her first marathon almost 40 years ago. A sub-three. That lifelong pursuit of a dream has brought her to an unexpected view from the top of the world.

In high school and university Yugeta competed at the national level as a middle-distance runner, even making it to the Japanese National Championships. She was captivated by the first Tokyo International Women’s Marathon in 1979. Five years before the women’s marathon became an Olympic event, Yugeta sat in the seats at the 1964 Olympic Stadium in pouring rain and watched the women finish the elite marathon, still a rare sight in the world at that time.

“All the women who finished seemed to have a glow about them. They looked like they’d felt true happiness. I thought, ‘I want to do that too!’”

In 1982 Yugeta ran the Tokyo International Women’s Marathon for herself, finishing in 3:09:21. She was 24.

Yugeta on one of her regular training courses, a winding, hilly country road up into the mountains. She runs hills regularly to build strength in her legs. "You can't do good training on flat ground. The benefits are greater when you train somewhere with ups and downs."

“I did it not knowing anything about how to run a marathon or nutrition, and I ran out of gas in the second half and slowed way down. All the other athletes I’d been competing against on the track had broken three hours, but I just couldn’t do it. It was endlessly frustrating. All these years I’ve kept running, that feeling has never gone away.”

For the amateur runner, a lot of things in life come before one’s marathon time. Marriage, childbirth, raising four children, work as a PE teacher. But even as she put everything she had into life’s great race, Yugeta never forgot that goal of her youth and the regret of not having achieved it. It took almost 40 years after her first marathon to finally reach her dream of going sub-three. It wasn’t until later that she found out it was the fastest time ever by a 58-year-old woman.

“That was the first time I realized I could aim for the very top of the world.”

At that moment the finish line became Yugeta’s new starting line. Ever since then she has kept breaking records, becoming the first woman 60 or older to go sub-three and taking it all the way to 2:52:13 at the Osaka International Women’s Marathon in January this year at the age of 62.

Talking to Ryuichi Akagawa, a friend who happened to pass by during the photo shoot and who sometimes paces her in workouts. They both got very excited talking about the race in Nagoya the week before.

Asked about energy supply during the race, Yugeta says, “I don’t want to start a race with my stomach feeling heavy, so I’m careful not to overeat beforehand.” It was always a challenge to find the right balance between efficiently putting energy into her body and not putting too much strain on her digestion. When Eliud Kipchoge broke two hours, his act of taking what had seemed an impossibility and making it possible was a great inspiration to her. It also motivated her to find out more about Maurten.

Yugeta was interested in what energy gels Kipchoge had used in his run and wanted to try them herself. In her world record run this January she took a Maurten gel just before 30 km and quickly felt her strength renewed. At March’s Nagoya Women’s Marathon she used Maurten drink mix before the race and gels at the 22 km and 32 km points just before the toughest parts of the course. She felt extra power to keep pushing on through a tough race in strong winds and finished in 2:54:31.

A good luck charm with messages of support from her high school students. It's always attached to Yugeta's race bag. The students tell her how much what she is doing inspires them.
Yugeta's finisher's certificate from her 2:52:13 world record at the Osaka International Women's Marathon this year.
Yugeta's stretch board. Using it regularly stretches her hips, buttocks, hamstrings, calves and Achilles tendons. It's one detail crucial to maintaining her light and supple form.

What does age mean to Yugeta, who has been running for half a century and set her personal best for the marathon while in her 60s?

“I’ve never really felt it. I run track workouts with the high school students I teach and can hold my own against 17-year-olds, so I don’t really think about age.”

At the same time, she’s highly conscious of maintaining a body that can run for the rest of her life.

“Blood circulation and flexibility are crucially important. That’s where the aging process really affects people.”

Yugeta focuses on getting the nutrients she needs from the food she eats. She consciously eats things that are good for the blood and muscles, like liver, tuna and chicken. She drinks two liters of water a day and does a regular stretch routine to maintain flexibility in her lower body. It’s this kind of attention to the small details of her daily life that keeps her form supple and lets her do mileage on a par with top professionals, up to 800 km a month.

With the world record now in her hands Yugeta is already reaching for the next goal, going under 2:50 for the first time.

“I was really disappointed that I didn’t do it in Nagoya this March! I’ve decided to do one more marathon this season, in April, to go for it. I want to find out how far I can go at 4:00 per km.”

Having fun pushing the limits of what’s possible in what she loves to do is what makes Yugeta smile the most these days. From her view at the top, she keeps looking even higher.

The outfit that Yugeta wore in Nagoya earlier this month. She ran with two Maurten gels in the side pockets of her shorts.