“Eliud Kipchoge drinks Maurten, so I used it in Osaka for the first time. When you’re going for a world record, you have to read up on what other top people are doing and look for what you can apply to your own running.” So says Mariko Yugeta, as she talks about her professional approach to running, from diet to sleep to footwear to injury.
Talking to Runner’s World in Japanese in a park in Komagawa, Japan, she’s animated when discussing her training and racing. There’s almost no hint that she’s 62 years old.
Yugeta turned heads when she ran 2:58:15 at the 2017 Tokyo Marathon, the fastest time ever by a 58-year-old woman. She made them spin with a 2:59:15 at the 2019 Shimonoseki Kaikyo Marathon, where she became the first woman over 60 to break the three-hour barrier.
On January 31 at the Osaka International Women’s Marathon, she took that down to 2:52:13. She ran her lifetime PR, averaging 6:34 per mile.
It seemed like she had come out of nowhere, and everyone had expected greats like Joan Benoit Samuelson to first achieve such marks. But Yugeta’s success was the product of decades of dedication.
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Transfixed by the marathon
In high school and at university in Saitama, just northwest of Tokyo, Yugeta was a national-class middle distance runner, making the national high school championships in the 800 meters and the podium of the 1500 meters at national championship meets while in college. Her PRs for those distances were 2:16 and 4:36.
Her junior year, in 1979, she went to see the new Tokyo International Women’s Marathon, the world’s first women-only marathon. As she watched runner after runner round the final lap of the track in pouring rain, she was transfixed. “They were so strong, so tough,” she remembers. “I wanted in.”
Three years later, working as a high school PE teacher, she made her debut at the same race, finishing in 3:09:21 and swearing afterward that she’d break three hours someday.
But life went on, and a year and a half later she was married, pregnant with her first daughter, and staying up through the night to watch the first Olympic women’s marathon. Again she was fascinated, this time by Benoit Samuelson’s bold frontrunning. “We were almost the same age, and I thought, ‘If things had been different, maybe that could have been me,’” she said. “I promised myself when I was done raising children, I’d run marathons seriously.”
That took until she was 41 and a mother of four. Yugeta still did short races and a few marathons for fun in the years in between, but when she ran 3:30 at the 2000 Sainokuni Marathon and 3:14 a year later, she knew that with more serious training, sub-3:00 was still in range. “In my 40s it was hard to balance training with raising my kids and work,” Yugeta said. Despite the demands on her time, she still raced almost every weekend, everything from track events to a 78-kilometer ultramarathon, with a marathon once a month.
But things changed when she hit her 50s. With her youngest son in junior high school, she had more time to train. She added a run commute and joined a high-level amateur club for nighttime track sessions in central Tokyo. For the first time since college, she was doing organized workouts with like-minded people. Her mileage hit 60 a week—and results followed.
In 2012, at age 54, Yugeta ran 3:01 at the Ohtwara Marathon. Turning 55, she set 55-plus national records for 1500 meters, 3,000 meters, 5,000 meters, and 10,000 meters on the track. At 56 she was inspired again when she read that Benoit Samuelson had run 2:54:26 at age 57.
Delivering on a promise to herself
At 58, Yugeta finally achieved what she’d promised herself, breaking three with a 2:59:36 at the 2017 Osaka International Women’s Marathon. A month later she ran the 2:58:15 in Tokyo. “Running sub-three had been my motivation all that time,” she said, “but once I did the 2:58 someone told me it was the fastest ever by a 58-year-old and that nobody 60 or older had ever gone sub-three. I knew I had to do it.”
Yugeta studied training, nutrition, and everything else she could, looking for what she could learn from elite racers. When she read that the Soh twins, legends of Japanese men’s marathoning, had used saunas and hot springs in recovery, she added those to her regimen. She read that Yoshio Koide, the coach who oversaw Japan’s first three Olympic women’s marathon medals and the first-ever sub-2:20 by a woman, had his athletes running in the mountains, so she started running nearby mountain roads to build strength.
Despite her devotion to the extras, she has had her share of injuries, including nerve pain in her upper right leg and problems with her left hip. At 60 she fell hard during Osaka and was disappointed to finish in 3:08.
But a few months later came a major change. “When I turned 60, I had the option to retire, to keep working full-time, or to switch to half-time,” she said. “I switched to half-time so that I’d have more time to dedicate to training for the record.”
Yugeta gradually increased her weekly mileage to between 75 and 90 miles a week, partly on a cross-country course and trails. “I’m terrible on downhills and am afraid of falling, so I only run uphill on trails,” she said. “My husband drives me to the bottom of Mt. Fuji, then picks me up at the Fifth Station at about 2200 meters [roughly 7200 feet].”
She has set 60-plus national records for the same track distances she had at 55+. And then, the big prize: In November, 2019, in Shimonoseki, 40 years almost to the day after watching women run the streets of Tokyo for the first time, she ran 2:59:15 to become the first woman over 60 to break three hours. A month later she dropped that to 2:56:54 at the Saitama International Marathon. And ran straight into the pandemic.
“I was used to racing almost every week, but when all the races shut down in April, I started doing 1,000-meter intervals on Sundays instead,” she said. “Once the high school opened again I went from one quality session a week to multiple, leading the girls in 400-meter reps, 1000-meter intervals at 3:55, 6,000 meters at 4:20 per kilometer or whatever.”
Building her mileage
She also read that Haruka Yamaguchi, a high-volume amateur who had run 2:26 in Osaka last year, trained 115 miles a week. “When I read that I said, ‘If she had success with that kind of mileage, then that’s what I need to do.’”
Yugeta spent the spring and early summer adding miles each week until she hit 115 in August, an incredible training load for any amateur, let alone someone in her 60s. “I’ve always been active and have never really taken time off running,” she said. “My body’s adapted to it. I think it’d be harder for someone who started later in life, because their legs wouldn’t have the same kind of adaptation.”
Come fall, Yugeta backed off in mileage as races returned. From mid-October to mid-December she did three small marathons, all in 2:54 to 2:55. On November 14 she ran 37:57.95 for 10,000 meters, taking more than a minute off the 60+ world record. Needing to run faster than 1:59 in a 30K race to qualify for Osaka in January, on December 5 she ran 1:57:18 at the Osaka 30K.
And with that she hit her limit. In a time trial on January 3 Yugeta felt serious pain in her right hip. For two weeks she didn’t run, switching to walking and getting regular acupuncture treatments.
When January 31 rolled around, she said, “I knew I’d lost some fitness, but I had faith in having put in a long block of good training.” Yugeta got advice on taping and ran Osaka with the problem area taped, and to her relief it didn’t bother her. Starting in last place in the field of 71, Yugeta tagged onto a small group and ran evenly. In her 109th marathon, she ended up 48th of 61 finishers, beating women a third her age and bettering her own world record with her 2:52.
But with the missed time in January, Yugeta wasn’t satisfied. On March 14 she plans to run the Nagoya Women’s Marathon. “If I can get through February without problems, then I think I can run 2:50 or 2:51. Sub-2:50 is out of range,“ she said. “I’m at the edge of what I can do in training, and it’s just too risky to go for 2:40-something. Not getting injured is the main thing.”
Yugeta turns 63 in May. Having already achieved the goal that motivated her for decades, she’s thinking about what else remains. “The 65+ world record isn’t far away,” she said. “I think I can still run sub-three at 65.”
Beyond that she hopes to run the Boston Marathon for the first time. “If I run Boston I hope that I have the chance to introduce myself to Joan,” she said. “She’s in another world from me, but I think we’d have a lot to talk about.”
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