Mara starts new running career

When I retired from elite competition in February this year, it came at the end of several frustrating years of injury and disappointing performances. I was well and truly done with running. But when I returned to work, I quickly realised how much I missed running and all the positive things it brings. I’ve been lucky to have benefitted from all those positive things, and want to help other people to do the same.

So I decided to switch career paths, and have now started working self-employed on various running-related projects. This will include qualifying and practising as a coach, writing, running more myself (speed to be determined!), delivering workshops, speaking and commentating, amongst other things. I’m really excited to be starting out on this new adventure, and being more involved with the running world again.

I’ve wasted no time getting going, and last Saturday I gave a talk at the Awards evening at my old club – Headington Road Runners in Oxford where I grew up. HRR set me off on my running journey all those years ago so it was great to go back and meet familiar faces and see how the club has grown. HRR is celebrating its 25th birthday - a real milestone - which we all marked in style by dancing the night away to a true ‘80s disco (sorry, all photographic evidence has been censored). Blimey it fair took me back….

Mara retires from elite competition

“All good things must come to an end…”, and so it is for my career as an elite athlete and marathon runner. After careful thought, I’ve decided to retire from elite competition, and finally hang up my racing shoes. I’ve been very fortunate to have enjoyed several years as an athlete at the sharp end of world marathon running, which I would not have missed for anything. But I feel now is the right time to move on to new challenges, and the next chapter in my life. I will continue running as a recreational runner, and am looking forward to training and participating in running events at a manageable, and enjoyable level. I will soon return to working at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office – and continuing to represent the UK as “the running diplomat”!

The life of an elite athlete is full of excitement, adrenaline, surprises, dreams, and enjoyment. As a marathon runner I have fulfilled my childhood dream of becoming an Olympian; experienced the thrill of winning an international marathon (Osaka, 2008); represented Great Britain with pride; won a Commonwealth Games bronze medal (Melbourne 2006); and become the second fastest UK marathon runner ever (London, 2009 – 2:23:12). I feel like the luckiest person alive to have experienced these wonderful things. But I was only one small part of a long-standing team effort. I thank sincerely, and am extremely grateful to, all the people and organisations who have helped me along the way, especially my husband, Shige, and my sponsors. Without their patience, encouragement, insights, expertise, and support, there’s no doubt I would not have become an elite athlete. Thank you very, very much!

During my marathon career, I have learned many things not just about running, but about life and how to get the best out of yourself – for example creating & maintaining motivation; how to set goals and reach them; always doing your best no matter what; and how to overcome setbacks. Running is an enormous toolbox for life if we can figure out how to tap into it. Looking ahead, I hope I can help other people to get the best out of themselves, and enjoy doing it, through running.

Resting up

With the Olympics behind us now, I’ve been catching up on some much-needed rest. Getting my injured foot better has been the top priority but I’ve also been trying to recover from the 18 months of mental and physical exertion which got me to the Olympics. While still on a long journey of any kind, the adrenaline keeps you going but once it’s over and you can relax, fatigue really sets in! Fortunately we’re in August, when everyone seems to be relaxing and enjoying themselves, so I’ve been making the most of the summer holiday mood.

We have just spent 10 days in Yorkshire soaking up the beautiful scenery and incredible food scene there. Yorkshire is chock-a-block full of fresh, local food producers, and delicious cafes and restaurants. They are rightly proud of this culinary paradise they have created, and I would recommend it to anyone. Top of my list was Betty’s – the café and tea rooms I remember going to from when I used to visit my Granny in Harrogate many years ago. This time I had a “Yorkshire fat rascal” – a fruity scone served warm with a cheery face made up of cherries and almonds on top. Just the job for a post-marathon holiday!

Now I am looking forward to watching the Paralympics which promises to be another spectacular festival of sport in London.

Thank you!!

Wow, yesterday’s marathon was a tough day at the office. The Olympic marathon, a home Games, my second Olympics…it was all shaping up to be the race of my life but sadly my right foot didn’t want to do its bit, and injury forced me to end my Olympic journey before it really got going. I had been nursing a heel bruise before the race but it was at a level which was manageable, and I was confident that I could produce a good performance. Unfortunately as the race got underway my heel started hurting and got unbearable by the time I dropped out at 10km. It’s frustrating when all your hard work doesn’t pay off but life goes on and I have to focus now on getting my foot better.   

Thank you, thank you, thank you – to everyone who braved the pouring rain to come out and support me on the day. And a huge thank you to everyone who has helped, encouraged and supported me along the way. I wasn’t able this time to deliver a performance that reflected all the fabulous support you’ve given me, but I am still so grateful for your help. 

Elderflower cordial

I love cooking and baking when I’m not training. I find it’s very therapeutic and takes my mind off running for a while which is always refreshing. This year I’ve made it one of my resolutions to try some recipes using wild ingredients. We’re surrounded by edible plants but sadly I don’t know how to use them so I decided this is the year I’m going to learn.

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I’ve got off to a very modest start - my one and only success so far has been elderflower cordial! The elderflowers are all in full bloom right now and their lovely scent fills the air. The cordial was very easy to make so total novices like me can hardly mess it up. We’ve only drunk the cordial so far but I’m told elderflower cordial drizzle cake and cordial sorbet are very tasty so I’m going to give them a try soon.

I’ve made one more “wild” recipe this year – wild garlic soup. But it tasted like grass clippings so I won’t go into detail on that one! Hopefully more success next time….

The mighty Pacific Ocean

We have just spent 3 days down in San Clemente, southern California, with the staff at UKA who look after me. With under 100 days to go until the Olympics, it’s essential that I make sure my body stays in one piece and that I can train consistently without any niggles cropping up. The UKA staff do such a great job, and I’m always so grateful for their hard work, patience, professionalism, and amazing insights into how the human body works – or should work! After my mini-MOT we are now back in Mammoth Lakes for our final 10 days of altitude training.

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While in San Clemente, we took the opportunity to go down to the beach one evening after training. I haven’t been to the beach for ages so it was fab to smell the fresh sea air and get some sand between my toes! It reminded me of so many different places at once. The combination of the smell of the sea and certain plants took me back to holidays on the Kenya coast when I was small, riding camels and paddling in a sheltered cove. Then I thought of the other side of the Pacific ocean and Tokyo – our home until recently which I could picture so clearly, and running along the beach in Kamakura where I studied Japanese. And as always, we found numerous interesting things on the beach – a cluster of mussels, a poor dead cormorant, and various types of seaweed washed up. After our walk along the shore, I was struck by all the feelings and memories the sea conjured up….what a wonderful and powerful place! By contrast, our drive back up to the Eastern Sierra mountains was full of solidified lava flows, volcanoes, the odd fleeting smell of sulphur, and hot springs….a world away from the ocean but also a reminder of how powerful the earth is and how small we are on it!

Now it’s back to hard training for the rest of our trip. Soon after we get back to the UK, I will be running my first race for a while – the Manchester 10km on 20th May. I’m really looking forward to getting my racing shoes back on again and seeing where I’m at. 

Mammoth Lakes

We have just arrived in Mammoth Lakes in eastern California for a month of altitude training. It’s our first time here, and goodness me it is spectacular!

The altitude is 2400m which is higher than I’ve ever tried before so I am hoping for some good results. We had four days of snow non-stop last week but we can drive down to drier and warmer places for training so it’s ideal for endurance runners.

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We haven’t seen any bears yet but on our very first run we saw a bald eagle which was a real treat. No mountain lions yet either…It’s a very volcanic area and there are hot springs, sulphurous vents and other geological mysteries all over the place. The most recent eruption was 300 years ago which I think is equivalent to about 5 minutes ago in human time as opposed to geological time, so let’s hope we make it out alive!   

Unagi - grilled eel

On the subject of small creatures, one of my favourite Japanese dishes is grilled eel – known as unagi in Japanese. Not only are they delicious but they are very healthy too. We occasionally eat unagi at Japanese restaurants in London but it’s often not quite as tasty as what you get in a proper unagi restaurant in Japan.

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So my parents-in-law came to the rescue, and sent us, by airmail, about one week’s worth of unagi! I hasten to add it’s packaged and preserved very carefully in vacuum-packed containers…I was looking forward to unagi every night for a week but Shige is insisting on rationing it. But it’s still fan-eel-tastic! 

Toads

We have been enjoying the wonderful recent Spring weather by training in our local parks – Richmond and Bushy Parks. What I love about Bushy Park at this time of year is the grand chestnut trees on Chestnut Avenue coming into leaf. The small buds turn into little clusters of leaves and before you know it, the whole tree is covered in a canopy of luscious new leaves.

If you don’t go to the park every day you miss the transformation so I’ve made it my goal this week to make sure I go every day! Training has to be my priority but I find spending a bit of reflective time in nature every day makes me feel relaxed and grounded.  It’s easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of every day and to forget how wonderful nature is. On which note, our local road reps loop at Ham has been closed due to …..migrating toads! How cool is that?!

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There are big signs warning people that they can’t pass through one of the roads due to toads on the road and volunteers helping them across the road. Fan-toad-tastic!

Flowers and smoothies

We are two weeks into our training camp in South Africa now and enjoying the sun and fresh air very much! I did my first track session yesterday for a while which went well, though it was so hot I had to dash into the shade as soon as I was finished. By midday it reached 40 degrees so I was glad to finish early.

While not training I’ve been indulging my love of two of my favourite things - flowers & smoothies. Stellenbosch is like one enormous garden in itself – every verge, house garden, street, and square seems to be bursting with gorgeous colourful flowers. They are all so different from English flowers of course due to the different climate, except for the roses which fill the air with an uplifting, soft aroma – just what you need when you’re in a post-session daze and the sun is beating down. The other day we came across a bank of proteas – South Africa’s national flower which I’ve only before seen in florists’ windows. The wonderful flowers here are giving me lots of inspiration for making cut-flower arrangements when we get back home.

Being an athlete, naturally my life revolves around food .  And Stellenbosch seems to be smoothie heaven which suits me just fine. At breakfast we’ve been making our own smoothies to  keep us going during the day – using deliciously fresh fruit provided at breakfast. But we’ve also been regular visitors to a smoothie café round the corner. Yesterday I had a banana, wheatgerm, almond and soya milk smoothie which was so rich and silky-smooth. And of course you can’t escape berry smoothies which help keep those pesky free radicals at bay with their high antioxidant content. I can’t wait to get home and try a few new recipes of my own, inspired by South Africa!

I’m just off to the gym now…until next time!

Greetings from sunny Stellenbosch!

The Olympic year – 2012 – has finally arrived! It’s been a long time coming but the London Games feel like they’re round the corner now. With just seven months to go, I’m really feeling like every day counts now.

We have just arrived in Stellenbosch, South Africa, with a large group of athletes and coaches on a UK Athletics warm weather training camp. This is our first trip to South Africa, and so far we’ve been amazed by how simply beautiful it is. The sun, lush vegetation, blue sky, mountains and vineyards make up a wonderful landscape – which is very inspiring for getting down to some hard training! “Warm” is certainly the best word to describe the weather so far – yesterday was 36 degrees and today promises to be even hotter. So we’ve been getting up early to train before the sun really starts beating down. But the evenings are cool so it’s ideal for that all-important rest and recovery too.

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I am one of just three endurance runners on this camp, as the group mainly consists of throwers, sprinters and jumpers. Having spent most of my running life hanging out with other endurance runners, it’s a bit of a shock being about the smallest member of this group by a long way! Although athletics is one sport, it’s incredible how different all the events are – and the body types required for them! Being an athletics team manager must be like herding cats…talking of which, we’re hoping to go and meet some tame cheetahs on my day off this week. I’m definitely looking forward to that, and I’m hoping they’ll give me some inspiration to run fast, fast, fast!

Mara selected for Team GB for 2012 Olympic marathon

Yesterday the BOA announced that I’ve been selected for the women’s marathon for the 2012 Olympic Games in London. I’m absolutely delighted and relieved to have made the team, especially in this first wave of selections as this means I can focus 100% on preparing for the Olympics without having to run another marathon. I am incredibly grateful to, and send a huge thank you to all the people who have helped me to gain selection. There is absolutely no doubt I wouldn’t have been able to run the Yokohama marathon and qualify there, without the help of many people, to whom I am greatly indebted.

2011 has been a year of ups and downs, or rather one long down and  then a sudden up! I started the year with 4 months off running with a chronic hamstring injury. This didn’t respond to initial treatment, so it took me until mid-June before I was doing any decent training again. June to October were tough as I trained against time to be fit for an autumn marathon. Finally in November I managed to nail my comeback marathon, finishing 3rd in Yokohama in 2:27:24.

And now being selected for the Olympics is a dream come true and a wonderful way to finish an otherwise tough year. This year has taught me to never give up on your dreams, no matter how hard the going gets.

Today is also the beginning of a new road – to the start line of the Olympic marathon on 5 August next year. There’s a lot of hard training and preparation for me to do before then, and I’m not underestimating the task at hand. I plan to prepare as best I can, and give it my all in London next summer. A big thank you again to everyone who has helped me, and continues to help me. The road to London starts here – let’s go!

Asics Grand 10 Berlin

We have just got back from a fabulous weekend in Berlin.

I won the Asics Grand 10 Berlin 10km race in 32:19. I am so happy to be back racing well again after a long time out through injury, and a poor come-back race at the Great North Run where I failed to finish feeling unwell.

This time I felt much better and more like myself again. The crowds and organisers in Berlin were first-rate and we also enjoyed fantastic sunny autumn weather. I flew through the first half in 15:45 – not far off my PB for 5km before paying a bit for the fast early pace in the second half. But I’m really happy with my overall time and of course with winning the race!

After the race we relaxed by strolling down the wonderful Kurfurstendamm – a tree-lined avenue of shops and cafes – enjoying the balmy autumn weather. Berlin is such a cool, sophisticated city, I’d go back there as often as I could!

Now we’re back in London and I’m looking forward to my next race which will be the Great Birmingham half-marathon at the end of October. 

Running with Aniko

We are in St Moritz now for a short altitude training trip.

My injury is nearly gone and I’m finally able to go some good training.

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One of the best things about training here is meeting other athletes we know, and swapping stories and tips. Yesterday I met Aniko Kalovics, a Hungarian marathon runner, and her husband at the track. Aniko was the pace-maker when I set my marathon PB at London in 2009, so she is a very special person for me! After training we enjoyed a 10 minute ice bath in the river next to the track, while munching on delicious Hungarian biscuits she gave me!

Let’s support AMREF!

My return to full training and fitness is progressing well after many long months of rehab from my hamstring injury. I’ve been doing good training now for a few months and am looking forward to being able to return to racing again soon. I was so disappointed to miss out on the World Championships again after injury meant I missed the 2009 World Championships too. I’m just keeping my focus fixed on a full return to fitness and hoping the break from competition will do me well when I get my racing shoes on again.

I have recently become a running ambassador for an African charity called AMREF. AMREF’s mission is to improve health in Africa – a critically important goal – and to realise this mission, AMREF is active in many countries in Africa in various fields. AMREF started off as the Flying Doctors – an organisation which helped to bring medical help, using air transport, to remote parts of East Africa which were not easily accessible by other means. Having grown up in Kenya, I am delighted to be able to help AMREF with their work. One of AMREF’s main areas of fund-raising is their Running Programme, in which runners raise money for AMREF when competing in running events. I’ll be helping AMREF to expand their Running Programme, and raise valuable funds for their health work in Africa. You can find out more about AMREF by clicking on the icon on the front page of my blog. Please help me in supporting AMREF!!   

Going back in time…

I’ve been travelling to Lee Valley, UK Athletics’ High Performance Centre, several days a week for help with my injury rehab.

Often the centre is quiet, with small groups of athletes getting on with their training and people just going about their business. But the school sports day season has now arrived and to say the Centre gets transformed is an understatement! Every day a new school is holding its sports day competitions, and from the crowd noise and passion those kids put into their races, you could be forgiven for thinking you were watching the Olympic 100m final.

Watching these kids somehow takes me back in time to when I was their age, and running was so effortless and exciting, indeed pretty much everything in life was effortless and exciting! The heart & soul these kids put into their races is so inspiring to watch, and really reminds me of why I run – because it’s fun, exhilarating, challenging, exciting, and all the other wonderful feelings running gives you.

But in the daily routine of high level training, when you’re constantly thinking about hitting times, your running form, any niggling injuries and so on, it’s too easy to forget what running is really about. Lee Valley often uses the fact of Olympic athletes training there to attract youngsters, but for me the reverse is true – the chance to see young kids experiencing running as it should be, is as much inspiration as I could wish for! I hope some of them get inspired and make it to top flight athletics when they’re older, but more than that, I also hope they just enjoy running regardless of whether they win and do well, or not. 

The Royal Parks

Now that I’m able to run again in reasonable amounts, I’ve been enjoying going to Bushy and Richmond Parks for my training runs. Of course, both Parks are well known and loved by runners and non-runners, and it’s hardly an original ground-breaking notion to say how beautiful they are! But having lived abroad for the last five years, I find myself being amazed every time I go into the Parks by just how gorgeous they are. When you live near them it’s easy to take them for granted, and seeing them nearly every day makes your appreciation of them somehow diminish. So it’s a real treat renewing my acquaintance with these natural treasure troves, and just taking in the sheer beauty they offer.

One morning last week I ran to Richmond Park and into the Isabella Plantation. This special gated garden isn’t really suitable for running, being small and often full of tourists and garden-lovers. But since it was early in the morning and rhododendron season, I couldn’t resist. That special combination of early morning delights – dew on the ground, a chill in the air, few people about, the sun just starting to bathe the day with soft light – together with the rhododendrons and irises in full bloom, made it truly magical. It wasn’t so great for my run actually because I had to keep stopping to enjoy the garden! Large beautiful parks are not one of Japan’s strong points, but one of the things I love about Japan is their concept of “living national treasures” – people whose achievements are recognised during their lifetime rather than after they’ve died as is often the case. If only we had such a scheme in the UK, then Richmond Park could be designated as a British living national treasure! And on the theme of rhododendrons, Bushy Park is currently out-doing its bigger neighbour in Richmond, with the most spectacular display of purple rhoddies, right on the path I take to the cricket pitches for my runs. Let’s not forget how indebted we are to all the people in the past and present who had/have the vision and commitment to keep these wonderful Parks open and looking just gorgeous for us all to enjoy. It’s a truly priceless gift.

Spring has sprung!

It’s nearly a month now since we moved back to the UK to live – how time flies! I am busy doing rehab every day for my injury and making sure I do plenty of cross-training to keep up my fitness levels. Today we walked for four hours along the Thames tow path which was great practice for being on my feet for several hours. The weather has been so nice, I thought it would be really warm but it felt like winter had returned it was so cold! Walking through Hampton Court Palace, I was amazed by how stunning the daffodils were – it’s five years since I’ve been in the UK in March and I was reminded how gorgeous they look. Otherwise I’m enjoying everything that’s wonderful about Spring in England - fresh air, longer days, balmy afternoons, trees heavy with blossom, and of course hot cross buns!

The news media here seems to have almost forgotten that one of the biggest earthquakes in history happened just two weeks ago. We haven’t forgotten Japan at all, and are hoping every day that the suffering and grief people in Japan must be feeling will soon diminish. Once the immediate aftermath of the quake is over, the enormous job of reconstruction and recovery begins, and I’m sure it will take a long, long time. Please help by visiting www.runforjapan.com now, and dedicating a run and donation to Japan. Until next time, happy training!

Japan Disaster

A huge thank you to everyone who has sent us messages asking if we are safe. Fortunately Shige & I are both safe and well. We decided recently to move back to the UK, and arrived in the UK just before the terrible earthquake struck in Japan. Shige’s family are also fine, thank goodness. Every day we are horrified by scenes of destruction and devastation on the TV, and by the scale of the disaster hitting Japan. An earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power problems – it is hard to imagine anything worse than the combination of tragedies Japan is now suffering. Japan was our home for five years until a few days ago. We are lucky to have left just in time, and to be alive and well, but it’s heart-breaking to see our home country like this. So many people are suffering unimaginable grief and shock, and we are praying that their suffering comes to an end soon. Their dignity, stoicism and strength in the face of such destruction is amazing.

Meanwhile we are trying to start up our new life in London. Ahead of the 2012 Olympics, we decided it is best for me to be near the support system provided by UK Athletics, and I am busy right now with rehab for my hamstring injury. It is gutting not to be competing, but I am putting my all into rehab and getting myself back into fighting form as soon as I can. I must say hamstring injuries seem to be of very, very little consequence compared with what is going on in Japan right now, but I am keeping my eye on my dream of running in London 2012, however insignificant that may be!   

Bernina pass

Today I ran up to the Bernina Pass! Last week I ran with my friend Minori, but we did not run the whole way to the top, so today I finally made it all the way to the top – and got the photographic evidence to prove it!

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The climb was about 500m over 21km. I really felt the altitude towards the top as my heart rate went up and up! Shige drove to the Pass to collect me and after icing my legs in a mountain lake, we drove back down to the village. Although it’s tough running uphill all the time, I really enjoyed it.

Zopf bread

We’ve been training at high altitude for a few weeks now, and finally I’m feeling like I’ve got some good form back, and my training is coming along well. Our friend from Japan, Minori Hayakari, has also just arrived in St Moritz so I’ve had some company for training. She also seems to have brought the sun with her from Japan (though not the humidity!) and we’ve been lucky to enjoy some sunny warm days. Now I’m looking forward to doing some uphill runs and building up my leg strength for November’s ING New York City marathon.

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One of the best things about Switzerland is undoubtedly its bread. When I do early morning runs we stop off at the bread shop on the way back home to buy fresh warm bread for breakfast. It’s always unfailingly delicious and fresh – a great way to start the day. Yesterday we enjoyed a special type of bread eaten only on Sundays called Zopf. It’s usually made with white flour but I always try to eat wholegrains so I buy the “rustic” version from our local bakery. It’s packed with sesame, sunflower and linseeds and I have to say, it’s the most delicious bread I’ve ever tasted!

Snowy St Mortiz

We recently arrived in St Moritz for our summer altitude training camp. This is the 5th year we have been here, and every year it seems more beautiful than the last. The Engadin Valley is a long glacial valley so there is plenty of flat terrain for running, in addition to the mountains when you want a bit more up & down. After getting used to the altitude and settling into my training, I’m planning to resume the uphill runs I started trying out recently. The Bernina Pass at over 2300m is my ultimate goal!

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Usually the summer in St Moritz is beautifully sunny and crisp, with blue skies almost every day. But this year it has been much colder, and it has rained almost non-stop for the past few days! This morning we woke up to a thick blanket of snow on the mountains around the village – looks like I’ll be wrapping up warm for the next few days! It’s strange to see Tokyo having up to 39 degree blistering hot days while I’m training in gloves and a hat.

My next marathon will be the ING New York City Marathon in November, sponsored by ASICS. This will be my first outing at this iconic race, and after winning the NYC half-marathon in March, I can’t wait to go back there. Roll on November 7th!   

Mara on EUROSPORT Video

No 1 - Yamauchi's marathon nutrition tips

No 2 - Yamauchi's marathon training tips

No 3 - Yamauchi's equipment tips

Tom

Do you prefer cats or dogs? They say people prefer one or the other, and I have to say I am definitely a cat person!

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We had three cats when I was growing up, and I loved them, but it’s years now since I’ve had a cat. So whenever we go away training and find local friendly cats, it’s just heaven!

Just after we arrived in Albuquerque we came back in the car from training one day to find Tom, a local grey cat, sitting on our doorstep waiting for us. I thought he would be shy with people he’d never met before, but not a bit of it. As soon as I approached him he rolled onto his back with his paws in the air waiting for me to tickle his tummy.

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Now he knows he gets lots of attention at our apartment, he rushes up the stairs to say hello and be stroked every time we get back from training. Very cute!   

Mara's Marathon Diary - UKA website

Mara's Marathon Diary - UK Athletics' site

19 February
http://www.uka.org.uk/media/news/march-2010/11-03-10-mara/

11 March
http://www.uka.org.uk/media/news/march-2010/11-03-10-mara/

7 April
http://www.uka.org.uk/media/news/april-2010/07-04-2010-mara/

Tramway

Recently I’ve been using continuous uphill runs in my training to improve my running action and strength. Albuquerque is perfect for this as the whole city is on a slope with the Sandia Mountains at the top and the Rio Grande river at the bottom.

Last week I ran from the river up to our apartment in the mountain foothills along Albuquerque’s famous Tramway boulevard. The rise in altitude was about 500m – enough to make it hard work but a mere doddle compared to what I gather Martin Lel and his fellow Kenyans run up the side of the Rift Valley!

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Running continuously up one straight road is mentally tough but it’s good practice for the marathon, and there are a few distractions along the way, such as a field of bison halfway-up!

I’ll do one more uphill run before London, and hope it gives me the leg strength and mental fortitude to fly along the Embankment on the way to the finish!

Never give up!!

Never, ever, give up! That’s the lesson I learned at last weekend’s NYC half-marathon which miraculously I won, with a course record to boot of 69:25!

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I was really looking forward to racing again, especially in New York city, but I wasn’t too sure of my form and what sort of result I could expect. Deena Kastor threw down the gauntlet from the start and we set off at world record pace. Going through the first mile in 5:05 I felt OK but knew this was too fast to maintain until the end, particularly on the hilly course in Central Park. I decided not to hang on to Deena’s fast pace, and just run my own race. Soon after I found myself so far behind Deena that I couldn’t even see her, and I also had two other athletes on my shoulder, sticking to me like glue! Deena winning by miles and me coming fourth in a 3-way sprint for the minor positions starting going through my head. I started getting demoralised and not looking forward to a mediocre result.

But I just hung in there and tried to work hard up and down the never-ending hills in Central Park. And then suddenly things started to turn around. As we left the Park onto 7th avenue, Deena was in sight again and I could see that the gap was getting smaller. With a jolt I woke up to the fact that my race was not yet over, and I could do much better than my mind was telling me in the early miles. From that point on I worked hard to reel Deena in and close the gap. By about mile 10, I suddenly realised I had pulled away slightly from Madai Perez, and I was going to catch Deena. For the first time, winning the race became a possibility, even a probability, which really lifted my spirits. I ran as hard as I could as I passed Deena, and on to the finish trying to maintain the gap I had built up. As I crossed the line I was so happy – I had won a tough race, finishing strong at the end, and I had turned around my mental state from nearly giving up to winning! So whatever you do, never, ever give up in a race until you’ve crossed that finish line.

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Winning the race was the icing on the cake of a wonderful visit to New York. The New York Road Runners put on a fantastic event and made us feel very welcome. We also had the chance to visit the Nasdaq stock exchange in Times Square, for their daily closing ceremony of the Nasdaq market, which was very exciting. And of course we enjoyed New York’s famous Italian pizza, which was delicious!

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Now we’re back in Albuquerque running up and down the hilly trails in the snow! I’m looking forward to my next race now, the Virgin London Marathon, in just five weeks’ time, and hoping my win in New York will give me the confidence to reach the start line on Blackheath in tip top form.

Mara wins NYC Half-Marathon

Mara wins NYC Half-Marathon on 21 March 2010
(1:09:25 (course record)

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Video&Photos: Watch race on Universal Sports

Press Conference after race
YouTube: UNCUT: Mara Yamauchi After Winning 2010 NYC Half Marathon

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WOMEN (gun times) -
1. Mara Yamauchi    1:09:25 CR*
2. Deena Kastor    1:09:43    
3. Madai Perez     1:09:45 PB   
4. Irene Limika    1:10:55      
5. Kiyoko Shimahara 1:12:41      

Mara's Marathon Diary (UKA website)

Mara's Marathon Diary on UK Athletics' website

19 February
http://www.uka.org.uk/media/news/march-2010/11-03-10-mara/

11 March
http://www.uka.org.uk/media/news/march-2010/11-03-10-mara/

Albuquerque

We’ve just arrived in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for six weeks of altitude training. This is our third visit to Albuquerque so it feels quite familiar, but somehow I had forgotten quite how beautiful the natural environment is here. The semi-desert climate provides fresh, clean air, and every day the sunrise and sunset look spectacular against the Sandia Mountains in the East, and the Rio Grande river in the West. It’s starting to feel like Spring, but the mountains above our apartment are still well-covered in snow. Every morning a chorus of birds outside our window makes sure we are up bright & early! New Mexico is famous for being a bird-watcher’s paradise and I can see why!

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Having just arrived, I’m having a few easy days to acclimatise before getting stuck into some serious training. I’m really feeling the altitude, but everyday I feel better – it’s amazing how quickly the human body adapts to altitude. I’m really looking forward to my next race now, the New York half-marathon, on 21st March. This will be my final race before the Virgin London marathon in April so it’ll be good to see how my training has progressed.

I’m just off for another run in the foothills…until next time.   

Mara wins Ohume 30KM!

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Back to Marugame

We’ve just arrived back from our third trip to the Marugame half-marathon in Shikoku, one of the main islands in western Japan.

I set PBs in my previous two outings on this super-fast course, so I was hoping for a reasonable time in what was my first race after a long spell of injury. I crossed the line in 70:46 – well outside my best – but a solid time given all the training I missed last year. It feels great to finally be back racing again. I ran a surprisingly fast first half (16:05 for 5km and 32:30 for 10km) which gives me confidence, but slowed down a lot in the second half. So there’s plenty of speed endurance work on the menu for me!

As I’ve mentioned before in my blog, Tokyo is the official gourmet centre of the world, with its many Michelin-starred restaurants. But Japan’s regions seem to do their best to keep the capital on its toes when it comes to delicious food and Marugame is no exception. The official world-beater when it comes to udon noodles, Marugame is home to a special type of noodles – sanuki udon. So we made sure to stock up on carbs at our pre-race dinner by visiting one of Marugame’s famous udon eateries, Ikasen. The queue outside the door when we arrived was a sure sign of tasty dishes inside, and it didn’t disappoint. But Marugame and Shikoku are also famous for broad beans cooked in soy sauce – shoyumame. I’m a big fan of beans because of their high nutrition content so I made sure to eat plenty of shoyumame too.

It was a beautiful warm Spring day in Tokyo today, with the temperature reaching 18 degrees – which reminds me that April, and the Virgin London Marathon, are not far away. I’m looking forward to running in London again now, and hoping that my hard work will pay off and I can fly round the marathon course on 25th April. My next training session calls, so must fly!

Winter Training

Every day I’ve been amazed by the snowy weather gripping the UK. My home town, Oxford, reportedly had 30cm of snow which is the most I can ever remember. I’m sad to be missing some spectacular winter scenery – frost on bare trees looking stark in the morning light, mist rising from the river, and majestic deer antlers poking up above the snow in Richmond Park where I used to train. Sometimes the scenery in the UK really is stunning, but for now I have to make do with looking at photos on the BBC website.

But I can’t complain as, spectacular as it may be, training in such snowy, cold conditions is always tough. By contrast, the winter weather in Japan is perfect for training. High pressure systems come and stay for weeks on end, making it sunny & bright nearly every day, even though it’s cold. The air is clear and sharp, so on most days I can see Mt Fuji in the distance as I come up the steps from our apartment onto the river bank. Now it is covered in snow and looks brilliantly white! Summer weather in Japan is a different story, with the heat & humidity sapping your energy, but for now I’m enjoying the wonderful winter weather.

The seasons change so quickly in Japan, that as soon as you’ve got used to one season, the next is round the corner. Japanese people are deeply connected to the seasons and celebrate them at the drop of a hat! With the arrival of January I was mentally ready for two months of hard training in cold weather, when our local green-grocer suddenly started stocking “nanakusa” – a set of 7 Spring herbs. Intrigued, I bought a set and started looking up some recipes. Tradition goes that on 7 January, you eat rice porridge with these 7 Spring herbs mixed into it, to pray for health in the coming year, and the arrival of Spring. After my injury last year, praying for good health in 2010 seemed like a must for me!

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But I’m not that keen on rice porridge so I used the herbs to make scallop & herb pasta with soy sauce – delicious! Now I’m looking forward to the arrival of Spring and some exciting training & races in 2010.

Mochi rice cakes

Happy New Year! As we say goodbye to 2009, and welcome in the year 2010, I’m wondering what the new year will bring. 2009 was a mixed year for us in running terms – we got off to a great start with PBs and a 2nd place in the Flora London marathon, but I’m glad to see the back of the latter half of last year, when I struggled with injury. Thankfully I am back into some good training now and looking forward to returning to racing and getting back to full fitness.

We spent the festive season in Tokyo this year, and staying with Shige’s parents near Tokyo. As ever, my mother-in-law made an array of fantastic special new year food (o-sechi ryori). I wrote about o-sechi in my blog this time two years ago, but what I didn’t mention was Japanese mochi rice cakes! Mochi are eaten all year round but especially during the new year’s holidays. They are made from sticky glutinous rice which, when boiled and pounded, turns into thick dough. Small chunks of dough are then broken off and made into rice cakes. I’m a devotee of mochi because I always eat them for breakfast before I run marathons. They’re easy to digest and full of carbohydrate so they’re ideal for marathon runners.

Mochi come in all shapes and sizes and can have many different things added to them to make them more tasty – a bit like pasta. On New Year’s Day, many people eat mochi in hot soup called “O-zoni”, but for foreigners like me who aren’t too dexterous with their chopsticks, mochi in soup can be a bit tricky to say the least. Trying to grasp a slowly melting mochi with chopsticks, and then bite chunks off, bearing in mind it is all very hot from the soup, is perfectly designed to burn your mouth, and possibly your hands too.

My prefered option therefore is toasted mochi dipped in soy sauce. Toasting mochi makes them turn brown and crispy, and brings out their almost nutty flavour. Our neighbour, Mrs Kato, gave us a whole box of home-made mochi last week so I’ve been enjoying them toasted every day - delicious! Popular toppings for mochi include sweet bean paste (not to be mistaken for chocolate!), soy bean flour, and grated radish. Another unusual type of mochi is flat, thin ones, which we dip into hot stews in winter. Mochi are rather different to any Western food, so I’m busy trying to think up some fusion recipes which will bring the delights of mochi to a Western audience!

Although it’s very cold now the weather has been sunny and dry nearly every day, which is great for running. I’m looking forward now to building up my training, powered on by mochi rice cakes!

Hagi

Last weekend we visited Hagi, a small town on the Japan Sea coast of Western Honshu, for a half-marathon race which I jogged in as a guest. Hagi is famous for several things, the most beautiful being its lovingly preserved old samurai houses. These houses are surrounded by traditional white walls which together line a network of tiny streets. The town’s lay-out has barely changed since the Edo period several hundred years ago. Being earthquake-prone and ultra-modern, Japan’s urban areas have lost a lot of their old charm to the conveniences of the 21st century. So it’s a wonderful surprise to find a place like Hagi whose citizens have bucked the national trend and preserved their town so beautifully. They are now working hard to get the whole town recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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Setting off on the 90-minute journey over the mountains from the local airport on the Pacific coast to the Japan Sea coast, I was looking forward to seeing Hagi’s old buildings which I’d heard a lot about. But what I didn’t know was that Hagi is also famous for growing natsu-mikan – large, somewhat sour tangerines which are similar to Seville oranges. Apparently the samurai used to grow and sell them to earn extra income during hard times.

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Hagi’s tangerines had just turned from green to orange, and the brightly-coloured fruit trees inter-mingled with the tiled roofs and white walls made a magical scene. Hagi’s is also famous for its historical links with the UK, and several of its citizens spent years in the UK studying railways, industry and other aspects of “modern” technology which they brought back to Japan during its revolutionary Meiji period. It was fascinating to hear about these pioneers, who were key figures in Japan’s modernisation and travelled across the world at very young ages to study things which would change their country forever.

Persimmons and oysters

I am now back in Japan and autumn is in full swing. The leaves are changing colour and the evening sunsets on the river with Mt Fuji in the background are as spectacular as ever. I can’t believe it was mid-September when I wrote in my blog about autumn in St Moritz, and now here I am enjoying autumn on another continent – it feels like two different worlds! While focusing on nursing my poorly foot back to health I’ve been very distracted from updating my blog. But autumn in Japan is my favourite season so I have no more excuses!

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One of the wonders of living abroad is the weird & wonderful foods you can eat, which you never see back home. Japan has many fruits & vegetables which you rarely see in the UK, and one of those is persimmon fruits. These delicious, sweet, bright orange fruits do make an occasional appearance in UK shops under the name “Sharon fruit”. Here they are very popular when in season in autumn, especially amongst sports- and health-mad Japanese because they are rich in iron and vitamin C. I love persimmons, cut up small and eaten just as they are – they have a strong flavour and are best left to their own devices. Eating persimmons isn’t the only nice thing about them though. Seeing them growing on trees around Tokyo with their incredible orange colour brightening up the world around them, is also a treat. Japanese people like drying them too, and occasionally you can see strings of peeled persimmons hanging out to dry like laundry!

Persimmons are also a great source of amusement in our household. In Japanese they are called “kaki”, but so, confusingly, are oysters. The only thing distinguishing the fruity kaki from the ocean-dwelling kaki is a very slight nuance in pronunciation – something to do with the emphasis being on the “a” or the “i”. It’s such a subtle nuance that even after seven years of living in Japan I can’t get my head round which is which, so I cheerfully mix and match as I please, and hope for the best on the understanding front. “Shall we have oysters in our fruit-salad today?” “Can you pass the soy sauce for my persimmons?” – no wonder Shige sometimes gives me funny looks. Ah, the joys of learning Japanese just never end – and there are many more pairs of words like this, you could almost write a book about it. After “kaki”, my favourite is “hashi” – which means chopsticks and bridge. Now there’s plenty of scope in that pair for some odd conversations. Before I get too confused, I’m off to have some persimmons. 

Autumn in the mountains

This time last year I wrote in my blog about the heat & humidity of the long Tokyo summer. As September arrives you cheerfully think the weather will cool down, but somehow the summer in Tokyo just lingers on and on. Not so in St Moritz! The summers in the mountains can be hot but since August came to a close this year, it feels like winter is round the corner! Every morning the ground is covered in frost and the Alpine forests have patches of fabulous autumn colours. One of the best things though about this change in seasons is the huge number of berries growing wild along the mountain trails. The combination of green leaves and red berries, sometimes with bright blue sky in the background, is spectacular. Some of these wild berries are edible and being a fan of antioxidants to help me recover from training, I’ve been eating lots of wild red currants and raspberries – delicious! Autumn is also the hunting season here and game has appeared on menus and in the supermarkets. I wonder if venison from a deer that has lived at high altitude would have a higher iron content than sea level deer?!

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Sadly my state of health isn’t as bright as the natural landscape round here as I’ve been struggling with a second foot injury. But fortunately this has cleared up now and my original injury is also on its way out. It was so disappointing and frustrating having to watch the World Championships wishing I was there, but my body has given me a message, and I hope the rest will mean I can comeback fresher & stronger then before. I’m also really sad to have to miss the World Half–marathon championships – it’s not often that you get to run in front of a home crowd and I really enjoyed the World half in 2005 in Edmonton. I wish everyone in the GB team all the best of luck.

While nursing my foot back to health I’ve been doing some great cross training, and there aren’t many places better to do it than in gorgeous mountains. I’m not sure “enjoying” is the term I would use for cross training, but let’s say it has made me mentally a much stronger athlete! Which is no bad thing for the marathon – I’m anticipating 42.195km of hard mental concentration to feel easy the next time I put my racing shoes on. 

Cycling the Bernina Pass

One of the things I love about the Engadin Valley is getting there – specifically having to travel up and over one of the mountain passes which act as gateways to this spectacular & beautiful place. Whichever direction you come from, from within Switzerland or over the Italian border, you have to negotiate your way up and up the mountains until eventually you reach the top of one of the passes, and the whole Engadin valley stretches out before you. The Julier, Maloja, Bernina and Albula passes are all suitably grand for the important job of guarding what lies within them.

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While I’ve been nursing my injured foot back to health I’ve been cross training to ensure I maintain my fitness. At sea level this mostly involves swimming, aqua-running and using a cross training machine, but up here in the mountains I can use these passes for cycling. One of my favourite sessions is cycling from St Moritz up to the top of the Bernina Pass. At 22km it’s not very far on a bike, but since 90% of that is uphill with an elevation gain of about 700m, it turns into a pretty good workout. I know that’s really not much in Tour de France terms, but for an amateur cyclist like me it’s a great way of raising my heart rate and keeping it high as I gain altitude. The Bernina railway which snakes its way up the valley is a UNESCO world heritage site. At one point where the railway crosses the road tourists stop and wait to catch a glimpse of the famous train. It’s not the best if the railway crossing gates start coming down just as your legs are pumping up the steepest part of the climb, but it’s always amusing to watch the tourists watching the train. I don’t have the nerves of steel required for descending such passes so Shige meets me at the top and we put the bike in the car for the trip back home. But before setting off back I make sure I have an ice bath in the mountain lake at the top of the pass - and believe me it’s cold up there!

Greetings from the Engadin!

We have just arrived in St Moritz after spending two weeks in the UK to focus on my injury rehab.

The fresh air and mountain scenery are wonderful as always, and I’m feeling re-energised and inspired to tackle my training with new enthusiasm.

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This morning I went for an hour’s walk in the mountains before breakfast. The frozen dew on the grass, steam rising off a mountain lake, and crisp blue sky were so beautiful, I couldn’t wish for a more inspiring place to do my training.

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It’s been a while since I wrote my last blog. The last three months have been a hard slog of cross training to maintain my fitness, treatment and rehab for my injury, and uncertainty about when & where I would return to proper training and racing. My trip to the UK was invaluable, and as ever I was lucky to receive outstanding advice and support from the EIS and UKA staff who help me. I’m so grateful to them for their professional, positive and can-do approach. Injured athletes aren’t the most cheery people in the world, but I think I’m on the way back now, and looking forward to some good training in the weeks ahead. I’m very disappointed to be missing Berlin, and being surrounded by athletes here in St Moritz who are putting the final touches to their preparations is hard. But I know I will come back refreshed and just need to focus now on saying a final good-bye to my injury.

Foot injury

With just under two months to go until the World Athletics Championships open in Berlin, I wish I could sit here and report good progress in my training, and my hopes for a medal in the women’s marathon.

Sadly though, I have had to withdraw from the GB team with a foot injury. Berlin would have been my third World Championships marathon, and having improved by 9 places last time (18th in Helsinki to 9th in Osaka), I was definitely hoping for a similarly big move up the field onto the medal podium. I have done everything possible to help my foot to recover and keep fit in the meantime with cross training. But unfortunately I’ve decided that it’s now impossible for me to stand on the start line in tip-top shape ready to run the race of my life. Running for GB is a great honour and I don’t want to underperform in a GB vest. I just have to accept what my body is telling me and focus on getting better.

People say that what makes athletes great is not what they do when things are going well, but how they overcome setbacks. I’m now facing that test and trying to make the best of every day, to ensure that I return to my best as soon as I can. I know a day will come when I can pull on my racing shoes again, and I hope I will return fresher and more eager to win.

I read the following quote in an interview with a Japanese woman yesterday: “Every day you are the youngest you will ever be in your life. So make the most of that day”. What a brilliant motto to live by, and I’m going to use her advice as I work hard on overcoming this injury and getting back to my best.

Oxfordshire

When you live overseas, your adoptive country becomes your home in the sense that it’s the base for your daily life. But few people ever lose the feeling of attachment they have with their “real” home, or where they grew up. Although I miss my home in Tokyo when I’m away, real home for me is Oxford – where I spent many years growing up. And what a special place it is! I realise now how lucky I’ve been, living for so many years in such a beautiful place, that I almost regret now having not appreciated it enough for all those years! Oxford is famous as a university city, but it also has fabulous parks and open spaces, well-preserved elegant architecture, and a strong sense of being one whole city – a sense sadly missing in so many cities that haven’t been planned well.

But Oxford is also a jewel in the crown – of Oxforshire, its equally beautiful county. Within minutes of leaving the city, you can be in deepest countryside enjoying wonderful views. I’m sure I sound like a tourist information advertisement, but really it’s hard to get over how lovely it is, especially at this time of year when the air is fresh with Spring flowers and new leaves.

During our visit to Oxfordshire, we visited Great Milton Church of England Primary School, at the invitation of one of my former training partners at Headington Road Runners.

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We joined class 6 in their weekly running class, and after giving a short talk, Shige & I helped out with some sprints on the school’s playing fields. My old marathon legs weren’t quite up to joining in, but we did teach the children how to cheer each other on in Japanese (Gambare!!) which they did with gusto! I don’t think I’ve ever met such a wonderful group of children – they listened quietly, asked thoughtful questions, helped each other out, were energetic & polite – it was certainly inspiring for us to meet such children with so much energy and enthusiasm! Thank you to Great Milton CofE Primary School for a wonderful day – we really enjoyed meeting you all, and you were very kind & welcoming.

Our next stop in Oxfordshire was a runners’ paradise, Shotover Country Park, where we met members of my old club, Headington Road Runners, setting off on one of their regular training sessions. It was great to see so many familiar faces, and a lot of new ones, and to see that black clouds and pouring rain can’t put British runners off their training! HRR, as they are fondly known, seem to be going from strength to strength, and I’m sure running in such a beautiful city must have something to do with it. 

Meanwhile we are heading back to Tokyo, refreshed and rested, and looking forward to starting training again with the World Championships in mind!

London Marathon

A whole fortnight has come and gone since I ran 42.195km on the streets of our Olympic city, London. Athletes’ lives are full of ups and downs, but having finally nailed that 2:25 barrier with a new PB of 2:23:12, and come a close 2nd to the world’s no.1 marathon woman, the London marathon was definitely a very special day for me. Right now I think I probably have to agree with Race Director Dave Bedford that London is the greatest marathon in the world! Now I know that I can mix it with the best in the world, and that gives me lots of confidence as I prepare for the World Championships in Berlin in August. As ever, my friends proved to be suppliers of excellent pre-race advice. Following “Enjoy your debut as a vet!” before Beijing, the best advice this time had to be “Get on that podium, girl!” – brief & to the point, as advice should always be! 

But even if you have a good race, there is always plenty to learn. In the first half I was feeling good and relaxed, and was thinking I could win from an early stage. But my positive thinking made me lose concentration to the point that I ran straight past one of the drinks stations and forgot to catch my bottle. So while it’s important to dream big and think positively, you also need to concentrate on the task in hand! I also learnt that it helps if you recognise your other half’s voice to avoid appearing ungrateful afterwards (especially if said half has almost run a marathon to cheer you on). Shige was well into his usual routine of sitting comfortably in the coaches’ tent with coffee & sandwiches watching TV, when I started to lose contact with Mikitenko. With alarm bells ringing, he sprung into action and ran down to the course to cheer me on. I did hear someone call out to me in Japanese several times but was completely oblivious until afterwards that it was him!    

After the marathon was over we thought we’d have a nice relaxing week to recover – how wrong we were! England in the Spring is so beautiful, and our visits back from Tokyo so infrequent, that we couldn’t resist going on seemingly endless outings and catching up with family & friends. We were lucky that Oxford’s famous “May morning” festival fell last week so we “enjoyed “ getting up at 5am to hear the voices of the world-famous Magdalen College choir drifting through the Spring air. Adding in looking after our two-year old niece, and we are now completely exhausted! But we’ve been spending this week on a restful holiday in Berlin (and a quick look at the marathon course for August), so hopefully we will arrive back in Japan next week refreshed and ready to tackle some decent training again.   

So many people help us in our running endeavours, and we are very grateful for their help, support & encouragement. So we’d like to say a huge thank you to them! Hopefully next time, with their help, I’ll go one better! 

High Desert

Greetings from Albuquerque! We arrived in New Mexico one week ago for a month of altitude training ahead of my next race – the Flora London marathon on 26 April. After a few easy days acclimatising to the altitude, my training has been going reasonably well and I am looking forward to some final sharpening up which will hopefully get me to the start line on Blackheath feeling fit and ready to run fast! As FLM Director Dave Bedford likes to say… “this year’s field is the best ever assembled”, and he’s right! I’m trying not to worry about who else will be there - rather I just want to focus on getting myself into the best shape possible and delivering an excellent performance on race-day.

Right now though, we are enjoying staying and training in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains on Albuquerque’s eastern edge. This is the highest part of the city, and with its semi-desert environment, it is aptly named “High Desert”.

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We usually think of deserts as being very hot places, but the high altitude here means it is quite cool at this time of year. This unusual combination of desert and altitude provides a home for some unique flora & fauna, and at this time of year the Spring flowers and new leaves make it especially beautiful. It’s so different to anywhere else I have trained, and almost every day we see a new & interesting plant. It certainly feels like a long way away from Tokyo or London. This morning we ran along the mighty Rio Grande river, and saw several “road runners” – a pheasant-like bird which is New Mexico’s state bird.

The desert here is also home to some unusual animals – last week I saw a coyote, unless the efforts of my training run were making me hallucinate! And just outside the local gym where I go for weight-training, families of prairie dogs gather. They remind me of squirrels from the UK because they are so active all the time. Unfortunately we haven’t been quick enough with our cameras to photograph any animals yet but we’ll keep trying…

Every day I try to remember how lucky I am to be able to do what I love – running – in such a beautiful place. I hope the scenery & special environment here will spur me on to a special performance in London in a month’s time.

Matsue Half-marathon

Our latest foray into the Japanese road-racing circuit took us to Shimane prefecture on the scenic San-in coast in western Japan for the 30th edition of the Matsue Ladies’ half-marathon. I was returning as the defending champion and with just six weeks to go till the Flora London marathon I was certainly feeling a bit of pressure. But despite that I managed to retain my title in a time of 70:09 – not that fast but it was a windy day so I’m happy that things are going to plan. The highlight of winning was undoubtedly receiving a year’s supply of tea from the race’s main sponsor, Ito-en. Having become a devotee of catechin-rich green tea, I’m hoping that a year of drinking tea will help me to run even faster!

Our trip got off to an inauspicious start when we arrived at Tokyo’s Haneda airport and discovered that our flight might have to be diverted to another airport due to high winds in Matsue. Not being the best air traveler when it comes to turbulent flights, I just had to hope for the best. So off we went, and sure enough, as we approached Matsue the plane started swirling around and I started feeling very hot – a sure sign that worse was to come. Seeing my ashen face, Shige sprung into action fanning me with the plane’s safety card – being an athlete’s husband sometimes calls for unexpected talents. As we finally approached the ground and I thought our ordeal was nearly over, the pilot announced that it was too dangerous. So he abandoned the landing and we took to the blustery skies again for yet more punishment! By this time lots of passengers, me included, were parting company with their lunch and praying for a swift and safe return to terra firma. After two circuits of the skies above Matsue the pilot said he would make another attempt before diverting to another airport. The wind swooshed around us throwing the plane here & there, but fortunately this time we made it, and the grateful passengers thanked the pilot with a hearty round of applause.

So we arrived in Matsue thankful for being alive and appreciative of any small mercies that came our way. Matsue is famous for delicious fish and shellfish, especially clams, and also has some excellent onsens (hot springs) so we soon felt revived and somewhat back to normal. The main event for Saturday was the race’s press conference and opening ceremony, held in Matsue’s famous garden centre, Vogel Park. The huge greenhouse full of fabulous begonias, fuschias and other flowering plants lifted everyone’s spirits, and set the scene for the following day’s races. I wasn’t sure what level of competition to expect, but went out hard from the start and built up a gap on my team-mate, Yuri Kano in 2nd place.

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Although it was very windy in parts I just tried to stay strong until the end, and do the best time I could. I was feeling the effects of some hard marathon training in my legs, but it was good to break the tape in 1st place again. I hope I can come back next year and aim for a third win in a row!

Mara wins Ohme 10km

15 Feb: Mara wins Ohme 10km (32:27)

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第43回青梅マラソン

Age is no barrier - Ohme Marathon

Yesterday we visited Ohme city in western Tokyo for the 43rd edition of the famous Ohme marathon race. The word “marathon” in Japanese refers to long distance road races rather than just the 42.195km long version, and the “Ohme marathon” is actually a 30km race. I took part in the 10km race and managed my first ever “three-peat”, if you’ll forgive me for using such an ungainly word, following my wins in 2006 and 2007 (last year’s race was cancelled due to heavy snow). My time of 32:27 wasn’t too bad given that I’d had a fairly heavy week’s training and did not taper much. Now it’s onwards and upwards with my training for the London marathon.

Anyway, enough about me - yesterday’s race was a showcase for one of Japan’s claims to fame – the longest average life expectancy in the world. Not only do people live for a long time, but they live healthy and active lives to ripe old ages. For starters, the race got underway with the help of Beijing Olympic bronze medalist in the men’s 4x100m relay, Asahara, who at 36 years old must be the oldest world-class sprinter in the world. Then we met the race’s oldest female participant - 85-year old Ms Yonezawa, who had a special role at the race’s opening ceremony, kitted out in her tracksuit and racing shoes. Then I met my running friend’s coach, Mr Nakamura, who won the men’s over-50 category in the 10km race in 33:28. He looks about 30 so I was amazed when I heard he was 50! But even more amazing was the over 70 men’s 10km race. A former winner, Mr Ichikawa (75) was fed up at coming second and losing out to fellow competitor Mr Ono (72) who won in 41:10. But Mr Ichikawa declared himself satisfied nevertheless after breaking 43 minutes with his time of 42:43. And not forgetting that Yoshihisa Hosaka recently set a men’s over 60 world marathon record (2:36:30), I think we can safely conclude that Japan is going to dominate the Master’s running scene for a while!

Spring has definitely sprung in Tokyo, with the mercury hitting 26 degrees last Saturday. The warmer weather reminds me that the London marathon is just round the corner, so I must dash and get my running shoes on….

Marugame half-marathon

Greetings from Kagawa-ken in Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands. As I write this blog I’m sitting in the lounge of a traditional Japanese ryokan (guest-house) looking out over a Japanese garden of bamboo and stone lanterns.

Just 48 hours ago I was running with thousands of other runners through the packed streets of Marugame city, on my way to a huge stadium complete with sub-track, seating for thousands and top-notch technology. This weekend has reminded me how Japan is a country of contrasts!

We came to Marugame for the 63rd edition of its famous half-marathon. When I ran in this race three years ago I sliced half a minute off my PB and the winner, Kayoko Fukushi, set a world record for 15km and an Asian half-marathon record which still stands today. So I knew it was a fast course, and wanted to give it everything this time around to clock a decent time. At the end of last year I had a really bad patch, with a lingering respiratory illness and the effects of three hard marathons in 2008 weighing on my mind & body! My training has been going well but with just 5 weeks of solid training under my belt I wasn’t sure what I could expect from myself in this, my first race outing of 2009. But by a happy coincidence of a very fast course, perfect weather conditions, two very easy days before the race, and plenty of male runners around me, I managed to win with a new PB to boot of 68:29!

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It’s always fantastic to win a race but I must say I’m very relieved to be back into decent form after my end-of-year blues. Being a full-time athlete probably seems like an easy lifestyle from the outside, but when running fast is your life, it feels a bit like living in quick-sand when your body goes on strike! Now I can look forward to my next marathon, the Flora London marathon in April, with renewed confidence and motivation for training hard.

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When we go to races in Japan or elsewhere, it always seems a bit of a shame if we go home having only seen an airport, hotel and the race venue. So if time allows we always try to get out & about in the local area and get a feel for the place. Hence I find myself in the lounge of a Japanese ryokan in Konpira-san, a small town of natural hot springs for refreshing body & soul, and home to one of Japan’s most famous temples.

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Yesterday we visited two primary schools in Marugame so I was ready for some relaxation by the time we arrived at the ryokan, until Coach Yamauchi told me we were going to walk up to the famous temple at 7am this morning – a walk which is surely the world’s longest staircase with 785 steps!

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While in Kagawa we’ve also managed to try out the local gourmet specialities – beans cooked in soy sauce and my old favourite, udon noodles.

Mara wins Marugame Half

1 Feb Mara Wins Marugame Half!
(with personal best for half marathon 1:08:29)
 

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Happy New Year!

Another year and another Olympics have come and gone, as time seems to fly ever faster as I get older! The end of the year is always a good time for reflection and wondering about what lies ahead. After my visit to the UK in mid-December I caught a bug which took me a while to recover from, so the festive season came and went amidst lots of rest, sore throat gargling and eating as much vitamin C as I could get down me! And here we are in mid-January and I find myself wondering what 2009 will bring.

After the Olympics last year I promised myself I would go into every race to win it, no matter what. I was really pleased to finish 6th but somehow I just can’t forget those 20 seconds to the bronze medal! Unfortunately in my first races after Beijing (Kobe 10,000m and the Tokyo marathon) I came 3rd, not 1st so my new mind-set is already under pressure! But I haven’t given it up, and my main aim in 2009 will be to go into every race to win. I’m planning two marathons so far, the Flora London marathon in April and the World Championships in Berlin in August. The London line-up includes nearly all the top marathoners on the planet, so winning would certainly be a tall order, but I’ve learnt that you have to aim high and go for it, so that’s what I’m going to do.

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(Mt Fuji and sea - early January)

I’ve been building up my training and so far everything is going well. Winter in Tokyo is ideal for training as it’s sunny and bright, but rarely rains. I confess it has been very cold, so my track sessions haven’t been the most dynamic displays of super-fast twitch fibres, but it’s going in the right direction. I’m looking forward to my next race, the Marugame half-marathon on 1st February, which is a very fast course so hopefully those fast-twitch fibres will get coaxed out of hibernation. I ran a PB at this race in 2006 so I’m really looking forward to going back.

Meanwhile I’ve been enjoying the very first flowers of the year in Japan – plum blossoms, which always bloom in January despite the cold.

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They look so delicate & pretty, and yet they must be so strong to withstand the cold – I think I like that combination of features, and will remember it when I’m out training!

Oxford

Greetings from Oxford! I am back in the UK for two weeks for my first visit since May, and it’s great to be back! It’s a bit colder than it was in May but the blue skies and bright sunny days this week have been great for training, and I’m certainly enjoying all the Christmas decorations in the streets of my home-town, Oxford.

While in Oxford I’ve been very lucky to meet the running legend and Oxford resident, Sir Roger Bannister. The Achilles Club, which continues the athletics traditions of Oxford & Cambridge universities, kindly awarded me their annual medal in 2007 for my 6th place in the Flora London marathon (2:25:41). So they organised for Sir Roger to present the medal to me at the famous and historic Sir Roger Bannister stadium on Oxford’s Iffley Road. This stadium was my local training venue when I was an undergraduate, but of course it is famous as the track where Sir Roger became the first runner to break 4 minutes for the mile in 1954. We even enjoyed a cup of tea in the brilliantly-named “sub-4 café” in the stadium’s sports centre after the ceremony! It was such an honour and really special to meet Sir Roger and receive the Achilles medal from him. There aren’t many British athletes who have such a distinguished place in history as he does.

Also this week I visited my old school, Oxford High School GDST in Oxford’s Belbroughton Road. I was a pupil at OHS from 1982 to 1991 and this was my first trip back there after 17 years! OHS has expanded a lot since my time there, but much of it was just the same, and it was fantastic to meet several of the staff who taught me all those years ago. If it wasn’t for their encouragement I’m sure I would never have stuck with athletics this far. I hope I can inspire some of the current girls to take up athletics and pursue their dreams, whatever they may be.

I’m off to London next week to meet UK Athletics and the EIS staff who help me as a member of the World Class Performance Programme. I’m really looking forward to that, and some good training sessions with my old training buddies! 

Autumn in Kyoto

Last September I was wishing away the hot & humid Tokyo summer, and longing for autumn to arrive with its cooler weather and clear, sunny days. But the pleasant weather is not the only special thing autumn brings in Japan. Perhaps the best, and certainly the most spectacular highlight is the autumn leaves, which put on a fabulous display of colour, turning whole landscapes bright red, orange and yellow. Autumn anywhere is colourful but the trees that thrive in Japan, especially maples and gingko trees, turn the most incredible colours, it’s sometimes hard to believe your eyes!

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Last week we spent a couple of days in Kyoto as part of my post-marathon break. Kyoto is of course famous for its temples, shrines and palaces, the legacy of over 1000 years as Japan’s capital, so it’s worth a visit at any time of year. But it’s especially famous for its autumn leaves, which turn the gardens of Kyoto’s temples and other landmarks into an artist’s palate. I’ve been to Kyoto several times but somehow I didn’t remember quite how amazing it is - this time I was overwhelmed by the scale and beauty of it – the weight of history and sheer effort that has gone into constructing such an array of wonderful buildings and gardens is quite over-powering.

We had the special treat of being shown around one evening by a Mr Okada, the owner of a small kimono company. When Japan hosts major sporting events such as the 2002 football World Cup and the 2007 World Athletics championships, many of the staff who conduct the medal and other ceremonies are dressed in kimonos – Japan’s national dress. Have you ever wondered where those kimonos come from? The answer is they all come from Mr Okada’s small company in Kyoto. A resident of Kyoto for over three decades, he certainly knows his way around and despite being over 70 years old, he whisked us around at a brisk pace which Shige & I could barely keep up with. He took us to two famous temples, Kodaiji and Kiyomizudera, after dark when the leaves and buildings were lit up, and wow it was an amazing sight!

The following morning Shige & I enjoyed a morning jog through the back streets and took in a few more sights. The morning light on the leaves was quite a contrast from the artificial light of the night before, but just as special in a completely different way. I must say running is one of the best ways to enjoy sight-seeing, but not if you’re doing any kind of quality session!

Before heading for Kyoto we visited Kobe, where I ran as a guest in the Kobe Women’s half-marathon race (I ran in the 10km). Japanese medalists Noguchi and Arimori also ran as guests so I confess I felt like a bit of an imposter, but it was a great day and nice to run at a leisurely speed for once! Kobe is one of the very few cities in Japan which boasts a China-town so we enjoyed a dinner of dim sum and jasmine tea before resting our weary legs.

PS And here’s to us oldies….

In my last blog about the Tokyo marathon I was so over-awed by the Japanese performances that I completely overlooked one very important thing – I am now the British veterans marathon record-holder! Hurrah!!

Priscilla Welch’s over 35 British record of 2:26:51 when she ran London in 1987 has stood for over 20 years. In the Paula era of women’s marathon running the most the rest of us can hope for is second-best, but one small advantage I have over Paula is that I am older than her – only just. We were both born in 1973, I in August and she in December.

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So until her next outing over 26 miles when she will be 35, I can enjoy a few months of being a British record-holder! The Olympics showed that old ladies can run fast, and I hope Paula and I, as vets, will inspire many older runners out there to reach for new heights! 

There's no stopping the Japanese women...

Last Sunday I ran in the 30th and final Tokyo International Women's marathon. As anticipated, the organisers laid on a fantastic day of top quality racing and post-race partying to bid a fond farewell to one of the oldest women's marathons in the world. Joyce Smith, the British winner of the first and second Tokyo marathons, was invited as a special guest and fired the starting pistol to send us all on our way. And anyone who thought the poor performances by the Japanese women in Beijing marked the end of their domination of marathon running was in for a surprise!

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I crossed the line in 2:25:03 - a new personal best, and a time which makes me the 15th fastest marathoner in the world this year. But it was still only good enough for third place! So who was in front of me? Two Japanese runners who are relative new-comers to the marathon and have plenty of room for improvement. The winner, Yoshimi Ozaki, running in just her second marathon, set off with the leaders at a scorching pace, going through half-way in 71:08. But she took it all in her stride, and after struggling through a bad patch, she flew through the final 15km to an incredible 2:23:30.

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Hot on her heels was my team-mate Yuri Kano, who reduced her PB to 2:24:27, in what was her fourth marathon. And just behind me came Yoko Shibui, who paid for her fast early pace (70:07 to half-way) but still hung on for fourth place in 2:25:51. Crumbs, it was fast out there today, and after their Beijing blip, it looks like the Japanese women are back in business. They will certainly take some beating at next year's world championships! 

It's time for me to have a good rest now - after Osaka, Beijing and Tokyo, I definitely will not be doing any more marathons this year. But it was great to finish off my 2008 marathon racing in front of my "home" crowd, and in such illustrious company. I really wanted to win, so am disappointed that I didn't reach that goal - my only consolation is that my time was the fastest third place finish ever in this race. I'll have to be happy with that for now, but will look forward to my next marathon after a long rest! 

Run Tokyo!

With just five days to go until the Tokyo marathon, I’m getting really excited about putting my racing shoes on again, and looking forward to translating all my hard work in training into a good result. After some solid weeks of training, I’m feeling fresh and in good shape, and hope that all the miles in the bank will translate into a PB and hopefully a win! It’s a tough field with 2:19 PB-er Shibui, multiple World & Olympic medallist Derartu Tulu, and former Boston winner Zakharova, amongst other top runners on the start list. But I’m confident that I can give them a tough time out there! The weather has got a lot cooler in the last week so conditions should be good for fast times.

Tokyo is a very special place for me – not only is it now my home, but when I ran Tokyo in 2005 it was the first overseas race I had been invited to, and it turned out to be a big break for me. Running in the capital of marathon-mad Japan, with thousands of people on the streets cheering you on, is an experience I will never forget, and I hope it will help me fly along to a fast time on Sunday. The course passes many of Tokyo’s famous landmarks including Tokyo Tower and the Imperial Palace, which look fabulous at this time of year with the autumn leaves and blue sky.

This year is the 30th and final Tokyo Women’s marathon so the organisers have expanded the field – because it’s the last Tokyo marathon demand for places has been huge! Many of my friends and team-mates are running too, so I’m certainly looking forward to the post-race party! One of my friends was diagnosed last year with breast cancer but she got through it and is now in great shape and back running full marathons again. Toeing the line with her will be really special and certainly puts running and life in perspective. And one of the stalwarts of the Tokyo marathon, Matsuda Chie, has run nearly every Tokyo marathon since it began in the 1970s. Her racing uniform is a specially painted  fabulous floral outfit and even though she’s in her 60s, she looks like a million dollars!

Meanwhile the big boss (Shige) is getting a bit nervous and planning his route for dashing around the streets of Tokyo to watch the race. Never one to miss out on an opportunity to buy a new gizmo, it looks like his next purchase will be a mobile phone with a TV so he can watch the race on the train as he zooms around Tokyo. All that’s left for me to do is run fast! 

Kumejima Marathon

Last weekend I took a break from hard training to participate as a guest in the Kumejima marathon. Kumejima is one of the many islands which make up Japan’s southern-most prefecture, Okinawa.

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Just 60km square, Kumejima is a tiny sub-tropical paradise surrounded by white beaches, crystal-clear ocean and blue sky. It feels like a million miles from the busy, crowded streets of Tokyo, and it’s hard to believe you are in Japan! There were several events on offer, and I chose to run in the half-marathon, using it as an easy steady run.

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Kumejima’s population is only 8000, but just under 2000 runners participated in the marathon, so it was all hands on deck for the island’s mayor and his staff to organise the day’s events. Even in October, temperatures often reach 30 degrees so the day’s proceedings got off to an early start with the marathon participants setting off at 7:30am.

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The half-marathon got underway at 9:00am, and we were treated to a spectacular course through Kumejima’s sugar-care fields, along the rugged coastline and through various small towns where the residents were all out in force to support the runners. This race is popular because it allows runners to compete for up to 7 hours – most races in Japan have a much shorter cut-off time due to traffic restrictions. Seeing some of the runners complete the marathon in 5, 6, or 7 hours on a hot day was very inspiring!

But once the running was over, we discovered why 60% of this race’s participants are regulars – they don’t come for the running as much as the post-race party. In an ice bath after the race a fellow runner told me it was good, but I didn’t know quite what he meant until proceedings got underway at 3pm.

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The local organisers laid on nearly four hours of continuous entertainment including traditional Acer dancing, Okinawan shamisen music, a live band, cream cakes for anyone who happened to have a birthday on race day, and on & on it went, all washed down with not just beer but free Kumejima Awamori – Okinawa’s famous drink which, at typically 60% proof, is not for the faint-hearted (I’m not sure I would recommend it as a good drink to consume after a marathon on a hot day, but it certainly helped the party along!!).

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What a show! Okinawans certainly know how to put on a great event and let their hair down – which might explain why they have the longest average life expectancy in the whole world (Japan is the nation with the longest, and Okinawa is the longest in Japan). A huge thank-you to the organisers, runners, and supporters who made it such a memorable and fun day! I can’t wait for our next visit!

Meanwhile back in Tokyo I have resumed my training with my batteries recharged and all systems go! It’s only three weeks now till my next big race - the Tokyo women’s marathon on 16 November. I can’t wait! 

Kobe 10,000

Last weekend we visited Kobe for my first race since the Olympics – a track 10,000m at Kobe’s Universiade stadium. I felt a lack of speed in the final stages of the marathon in Beijing so I’ve been focusing on my speed in training and decided to enter this race as a sharpener. I was hoping to run a PB (31:49) but the windy conditions weren’t conducive to fast times and I finished 3rd in 32:14. Two Japan-based Kenyans took up the race from the start and my plan was to stick with them no matter what. But I made the mistake of letting them open a gap on me in the early stages and paid for that by running alone for the rest of the race. It was still a good sharpener, but I know I have a lot to learn on tactics especially in track races!

Kobe is the home of my kit sponsor, Asics, so we met up with some of the staff who look after us while we were in Kobe. It was great to catch up with them and compare notes about Beijing and upcoming races. One of my team-mates from Second Wind AC, Akemi Ozaki, ran in the 5000m. I’m getting back into my training in Tokyo again now. Thankfully the weather has cooled down and it’s just right for training – still quite warm but not humid. 

Obuse

On my day off this week we visited Obuse, a small town in Nagano prefecture. It has become famous because a few years back the local residents decided to make a big effort with the town’s appearance – banning garish advertising boards, putting all electricity cables underground, making signs around the town consistent in colour & design, and restoring the buildings to their original style. The result is a charming, beautiful little town which has deservedly become popular with tourists. It is also famous for chestnuts and snacks & sweets made from them, and also for the Hokusai museum which houses the work of one of Japan’s most famous woodblock print artists.

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I’m all in favour of democracy and free choice, but when it comes to managing the landscape, I’m definitely in favour of strict rules & regulations! Japan is a wonderful country in many ways, but I have to say the preservation of city and landscapes, or rather lack of it, is one thing I am definitely not a fan of! So much of the landscape in Japan is ruined by electricity cables, advertising boards, and an apparent free-for-all when it comes to architectural styles. Of course this is a matter of taste, and I’m sure many people like the landscape as it is. But for me, towns like Obuse show how beautiful it could be if stricter rules existed and were enforced on managing the landscape. Perhaps I am being a boring Brit, but I wish the movement which has made Obuse such a charming place could spread its wings a bit more in Japan!

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We’re into our last few days of training in Nagano now, and I’m looking forward to racing over 10,00m next weekend in Kobe. I’ve also decided on my next marathon - the Tokyo women’s marathon on 16th November. I ran this race in 2005, placing 5th, and am really looking forward to racing again in what is now my home town. This year will be the last Tokyo women’s marathon, so it should be a really special event.

Trail run

In Japan if someone older & wiser than you invites you to join them for a drinking session, it’s difficult to say no. If that person is someone who has been kind to, and looked after you, then you can forget completely about saying no. So it came to pass that last Saturday night Shige found himself drinking with the father of the family who run the B&B where we are currently staying (athletes are forgiven for skipping drinking sessions, thank goodness). There are only two things that need mentioning to predict the size of Shige’s hangover the next morning: 1) the B&B father is a tall, strapping ex-downhill skier who regularly drinks with his buddies; and 2) the drink of choice at such occasions is shochu – a very strong brew made from potatoes, known as Japan’s vodka.

So I prepared myself for nursing Shige the next day by going to bed early. Anticipating a quiet day, the most I expected him to be up for was going to watch a trail run competition which was taking place in Sugadaira. But somehow he took leave of his senses and decided to enter the 5km – advertised as being “for children & beginners”. Things got off to a bad start when we arrived at the start – the bottom of a very steep ski piste. It made the start of the Southern Cross Country at Parliament Hill look positively gentle! Shige decided to tackle this hill by dispensing with any warm-up and waving cheerfully for the camera once the gun went. With our usual roles reversed, I realised how much Shige usually does at races – carry my bag, buy drinks, sooth my nerves (or in his case hangover) etc etc.

I reckoned if I got to the finish 30 minutes after the start I’d be there in good time, but 50 minutes after the start there was no sign of Shige….images of him collapsed on a faraway mountain started flashing before my eyes, when he finally came into view, looking very dehydrated and like he would never do a trail run ever again. After staggering back to the B&B with his commemorative T-shirt, he slept all afternoon and evening, so it turned into a very quiet day after all. And the thing Shige found most annoying about the whole day? Some chap at the finish quizzing him about his run before he’d had chance to get his breath back. Hopefully from now on he’ll stop trying to engage me in long conversations in the 60 seconds I usually have between intervals in my track sessions.

Flowers in Nagano

Two days ago we drove up into the Nagano mountains for three weeks of altitude training at our usual base, Sugadaira. I was looking forward to escaping the lingering heat and humidity in Tokyo, and I’ve certainly had my wish granted! On morning runs I have to get wrapped up in a hat & gloves and the night-time temperature is dropping right down to a few degrees above freezing. It’s wonderfully refreshing to run in clear, cool air again, and enjoy some mountain scenery to boot!

Flowers are something we usually expect to see in Spring, but autumn in Nagano brings an array of spectacular flowers. The most striking and popular are cosmos flowers which grown on roadsides everywhere, and come in a variety of white, pink and red colours. They look so delicate but stand really tall, it’s almost hard to imagine how they survive, especially on windy days.

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My training has been progressing well since Beijing and I’m starting to feel back to normal again after a few hard-going weeks! I decided after Beijing that I needed to work on my speed so I’ve entered a 10,000m race on 11 October in Kobe. This will be my first track race for a long time so I’m looking forward to it, and hoping that all my marathon training will mean I’ve got the endurance to do a good time. I won’t be back at my best by then but it’s a step on the way. I was hoping to run the World Half-marathon championships on 12 October, but I won’t be in good enough shape by then for such a big race, and don’t want to pull on a GB vest unless I’m at my best. But I wish Liz, Wendy and Michelle in the GB team all the very best of luck for a great race!

Autumn in Tokyo

The seasons in Japan change very quickly, so people say, but summer can’t change quickly enough into autumn for me! After Beijing we had a nice break in Hokkaido, Japan’s north island, which is cooler than the rest of Japan and less humid. Since returning to Tokyo I’ve been getting back into my training, but goodness me it is hard work in the Tokyo summer! It’s already mid-September but the hot, humid days continue as if it were mid-summer! I have to admit it is getting cooler, but I’d be delighted if autumn arrived tomorrow. Wishing time and your life to fly by is probably the worst thing anyone could wish for, but humidity just makes me lose my common sense and will to live!

The summer here is so hot and sticky, that the Japanese have a whole set of special words, food, clothes etc for it. “Natsu-bate” means endless fatigue brought on by hot, humid days, poor sleep, dehydration and other heat-induced menaces. And Japanese are big fans of “unagi”, grilled eel with a thick brown sauce, which is supposed to give you stamina to endure the long hot summer. I wasn’t keen on unagi until I discovered that it is packed to the brim with vitamins, minerals, and other good stuff, so I got over my reluctance and now eat it whenever I can. Then there is “cool biz”, the summer dress code for salary-men who are allowed to wear lightweight suits without ties to save on air-conditioning and their sanity!

As you can see I am not a devotee of the Japanese summer. But autumn is round the corner and is a wonderful season in Japan. It is still warm enough to enjoy being outdoors, but it is not humid and a refreshing breeze makes the air feel fresh and cool. The leaves changing colour is the highlight of autumn in Japan, as the species which grow well here, such as maples, change to spectacular red and orange colours. Autumn food is another highlight in the land of the most Michelin-starred restaurants! Chestnuts, persimmons and fish such as saury are fresh and delicious in autumn. And of course there is the rice harvest – rice is the staple food in Japan so being able to eat the just-harvested new rice is another treat.

We’re going to Nagano next week for altitude training and to escape the last few days of summer. Hopefully by the time we return to Tokyo autumn will have well and truly arrived!

Roll on London!

After four years of excitement and build-up, the sports extravaganza we all know and love as the Olympics has come and gone. Beijing certainly gave us a show to remember, with some truly awesome performances from the world’s top athletes. I don’t know how it came and went so quickly, but it was certainly a momentous two weeks that we won’t easily forget!

This was my first Olympics as an athlete. I’m so proud to be able to say I was part of Team GB, which had its best results for 100 years, and produced some really inspiring performances. To compete in the Olympics is a lifelong dream for many athletes, and I feel very lucky and fortunate to have had the opportunity to run in my GB vest on the world’s top sporting stage. Many, many people helped me on my journey to Beijing, and I’m indebted to them for their dedication and support behind the scenes.

My preparation for Beijing went very well, and I gave it everything on race day. Finishing 6th in probably the best field ever assembled for a women’s marathon, and equaling the best performance ever by a British woman in the Olympic marathon are new milestones for me, and a big improvement on my performances to date. Of course a medal would have been the icing on the cake, and against the backdrop of Team GB’s huge medal haul, 6th place may not sound like anything special! But I gave it my best shot, and don’t feel I could have done any more this time. I am still improving at the grand old age of 35, and this race gave me plenty of food for thought for the future. “Enjoy your debut as a vet!”, one of my friends wrote in a good luck card – I can assure you there’s life in the old dog yet! Constantina Tomescu ran a brilliant, brave & gutsy race and thoroughly deserved her gold medal.

The Olympics was a fantastic experience for me, but crumbs it is cut-throat out there! If there is one thing I have taken away from competing in Beijing and coming 6th, it is the frighteningly high standards the world’s top athletes reach, and the massive gulf that exists between winning and losing. The women’s 10,000m and men’s marathon were mind-boggling - how they run that fast is beyond me. There were plenty of other examples of outstanding performances – Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, Chris Hoy, Rebecca Addlington and others.

It’s sad to see the Olympics over, but the excitement and build-up for London 2012 seems to have started already! It looks like London is not going to waste a single day of its four years as host city.

Thank you very, very much to everyone who cheered me on and supported me in various ways – I am really grateful for your encouragement and support!

Roll on Beijing!

How time flies! Two months ago we came to St Moritz for our final phase of training for Beijing, and we are already into our final week here. I can’t believe the time has passed so quickly – I guess I should remember the saying “Time flies when you’re having fun”! I’m not sure I would describe long tempo runs and 40km long runs as “fun” but I’ve been very lucky to be able to train in this beautiful place surrounded by mountains and gorgeous scenery. “Yamauchi” means “inside the mountains” in Japanese, so we certainly feel at home here!

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Our training has gone as well as we could have hoped for so I’m now focusing on my final few sessions, heat acclimatisation, and getting to the start line fit and healthy. I feel confident that I’m in good shape, and I hope our hard work will lead to a good result in Beijing.

The IOC has put strict limits on athletes’ blogs during the official Olympic time period which starts tomorrow and continues until the closing ceremony on 24 August. I also want to focus 100% on my performance so I’m going to make this my last blog entry for a while – we’ll meet again in cyberspace in late August! I’m always grateful for any encouragement and support so please cheer for me on 17th August!! I know that anyone watching in the UK is going to have a long night because of the time difference – I promise I’ll try to make it worth it!

Classic Cars

We’re into the final few weeks of our altitude training in St Moritz now. After a spell of glorious sunny weather every day, the rain and clouds have now returned. I’ve heard that some of African athletes don’t train when it rains – I guess that’s a good way of stopping yourself from over-training or catching colds, but I’m not sure how they would get any training done here right now! Meanwhile in Beijing it is over 30 degrees and 80% humidity…

The St Moritz tourism authorities seem to have something up their sleeves every week to attract visitors, and this week’s highlight was the 15th British Classic Car meeting. Over 200 classic cars converged on St Moritz for a three day extravaganza of motoring in the mountains.

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This morning between training sessions we watched the sturdy old cars as they set off on their “rally” over the Julier and Albula passes. From Rolls Royces to Aston Martins, cars of all shapes and sizes sped off along the mountain roads, their occupants of course dressed for the occasion in groovy leather helmets and goggles. I imagined that a lot of these cars had come with their owners from the UK – a drive in the summer sun across Europe sounds wonderful! – but in fact many had Swiss number plates. With lots of hooting and waving, they disappeared over the horizon on their Alpine journey. They were very, very cool!

Meanwhile training continues apace, and St Moritz is filling up with athletes from all over the world. With less than one month to go now until the opening ceremony, the excitement is really building.

Sun & skaters

We are already half-way through our training camp in St Moritz – how time flies! So far all is going well and I’ve been able to do lots of consistent, quality training. High altitude and mountain terrain takes its toll, and I’ve had some days when I’ve been really tired, but overall things are going to plan. After a rainy & cool start, the sun is out every day now and it feels hot in the middle of the day, so I can really get into my heat acclimatisation now. St Moritz calls itself “The Top of the World” but it also has a symbol - the sun – which is just what I need for getting used to running in hot weather. One of my GB team-mates, Mo Farah, is also training here and he seems to be enjoying the sun too!

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St Moritz is a paradise for inline skaters and race-walkers because the long, mostly flat Engadine Valley provides many miles of well-paved roads. And we were treated to a skating extravaganza yesterday when the World Cup of Inline Skating came to St Moritz.

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The 42km course was mostly downhill - starting at the top of the valley at the Maloja pass, and finishing down the valley in La Punt. The skaters certainly made the most of the downhill course, reaching speeds of up to 80km per hour on the steepest bits. That’s another sport I won’t be taking up soon!

We also visited the next door village, Pontresina, a few days ago when it was hosting a small festival. The streets were lined with stalls selling local produce such as cheese and dried ham, and the mountain air was filled with the sounds of live music! The big hit amongst the locals was an open baguette sandwich with raclette cheese – too many calories for me, but it certainly smelled nice! They were also selling another local speciality, bread made from dried figs, which is perfect for filling up on carbohydrates after a hard session.

Looking back over my blog, readers could be forgiven for wondering if I ever do any training – I always seem to be writing about days off and excursions! In case you’re in any doubt, I assure you I am training very hard, but my training, eating, & sleeping routine is too boring to write about! I’m just off for my afternoon sleep so I’ll sign off there!

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Buongiorno!

Yesterday I had my first day off since we arrived in St Moritz so we ventured over the border into Italy for a day out. It’s always tempting to train at your maximum when you are at altitude to make the most of it, but I’ve learned in the past that rest and breaks from running are so important for staying fresh and keeping up your motivation for training. With Zara Phillips also now out of Beijing, every week seems to bring sad news of another GB medal hope falling by the wayside, so I’m reminding myself every day that the most important thing is to get to the start line fit & well. Our training regime is hard work for my husband, Shige too, especially cycling up and down mountains at altitude, so it’s good for him to have a day off too!

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After leaving St Moritz, we drove over the spectacular Bernina Pass before dropping steeply down into the Poschiavo valley and on to Tirano, a delightful old town of pallazos and tree-lined avenues. Although it’s just in the next valley, the contrast with St Moritz is stark, and Tirano feels almost Mediterranean. The town had many charming little shops, including a delicatessen where I sampled one of the local specialities - Cupeta di Valtellina – a sweet made of honey and nuts. We’ve been learning Italian recently so our day out was a great opportunity to practice and learn some new words. St Moritz is so close to the border with Italy that Italian is widely spoken, and you can drive into Italy from various directions in almost no time. When training we hardly have any time for outings, but when time allows I hope we can discover more of this beautiful area.

On the way back from Tirano we drove through Switzerland’s only national park which is famous for Ibex and other wildlife. Unfortunately we didn’t see any wildlife, but we did happen upon a “Café Mara” on the way to the park – I decided this must be a good omen for our training camp, and returned suitably refreshed and ready to resume training.

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Another European marathon runner, Janne Holmen of Finland, is also training in St Moritz. Today we went training with him at the local airport in Samedan.

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Greetings from the top of the world!

We have just arrived in St Moritz, Switzerland, for our final training trip before the Olympics. St Moritz calls itself the “Top of the world”, and the steep drive up here and fabulous mountain scenery certainly make it feel like that. The lack of oxygen also reminds you of the altitude just in case you forget! I’ve been taking it easy for the first few days while I acclimatise to the high altitude.

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We trained here last summer so we’ve been revisiting our old training routes and getting to know a few new ones too. This morning we ran down the valley to the next-door towns which was all going well until the return trip – the route we chose was so steep we had to walk some of it.

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And we discovered why when we finally made it to the top – we had run up the Cresta Run, the famous bobsleigh course which was used in the 1928 and 1948 winter Olympics. We won’t be going on that route again, and I won’t be taking up the bobsleigh or skeleton any time soon!

Before heading out to St Moritz I ran in the inaugural BUPA London 10,000 10km race. It was great to be part of this new exciting race, especially because it was on the proposed course for the London 2012 Olympic marathon. I love racing in London because you run along famous streets that are normally full of traffic, and the crowds are always so supportive, even when the weather is terrible as it was last Monday! You also get to see London’s historic landmarks such as Big Ben, St Paul’s Cathedral and the fabulous London Eye – a whirlwind sight-seeing tour from a perspective you would never otherwise see. The course also took us right past a branch of Ben’s Cookies – makers of the best cookies in the world! I don’t have many cookies these days and I must say it was hard running right past their front door with the smell of freshly-baked cookies wafting past us! I’ll make sure I stop off for a Ben’s Cookie or two on my next trip to the UK after the Olympics!

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I was really hoping to win this race in a new PB but in the end I came 2nd to Flora London Marathon champion Mikitenko in 32:26 – given the weather conditions I was reasonably happy with this time, and am looking forward to my final training and preparations before Beijing.

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English weather in Nagano

Today is our last day of training in the mountains of Nagano before we head back to Tokyo tomorrow. We’ve done some good sessions here so I’m hoping that when I go down to sea level I’ll be able to see some progress in my running.

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I’m really looking forward to my next race – the London 10000 on the 26th of May, bank holiday Monday. The organisers have put together a great field so with good competition I hope I can run well and revise my PB.

Actually I’m already feeling quite at home here in the Japan Alps because we’ve had very English weather recently! Within the space of a few days we’ve had sun, 26 degrees and bright sunshine, then snow and sleet, then gale force winds from a passing typhoon, frost and fog, and now torrential rain! I don’t mind bad weather for training, and usually just get on with it but my patience can only stand a few days of it! Last Sunday we delayed my long run from the morning because of heavy rain, and things were looking good when we set off mid-afternoon. But very quickly the whole town was blanketed in thick fog and visibility was down to about 20 metres!

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Fortunately, we know the roads well so there wasn’t any risk of us getting lost. At least when you’re running in cold weather you can usually keep warm, but I felt sorry for Shige cycling at running pace. By the end of the run his face was covered in droplets of water from the fog and his feet were like ice blocks!

After that run we thought things couldn’t get worse but yesterday the second typhoon of the year was passing Japan and that meant gale force winds. The track in Sugadaira is in a beautiful setting but it’s very exposed so it gets windy on the best of days. I didn’t want to delay my session so I gritted my teeth down the back straight into a head wind, and flew along on the home straight with a nice tail wind. I got very close to a serious sense of humour failure, but just managed to finish the session with my sanity intact! Strong wind and me aren’t the best training buddies, it has to be said. The town council are planning to re-surface the track this autumn – I think I’ll write in and ask them to spend the money on some tall trees around the perimeter instead...

At least I know that whatever the English weather has in store for the bank holiday weekend and the London 10000 race, I’ll be ready for it!

Greetings from Nagano!

Last Monday we drove up into the mountains in central Honshu, Japan’s main island, to a small town called Sugadaira for three weeks of altitude training. Although it’s mainly a ski resort, Sugadaira has marketed itself successfully as a venue for summer sports and boasts over 100 soccer and rugby pitches! It also has an all-weather track and lots of quiet roads, so it’s a favourite spot for Japan’s distance runners. Soon after we arrived we saw Olympic champion Noguchi fly past the front door of our B&B! Nagano is rightly famous for its tasty buckwheat (soba) noodles so we stopped off on the way for a lunch of soba and vegetable tempura – delicious! The restaurant was selling soba honey which is apparently rich in anti-oxidants and very healthy so I bought a jar to help me get through those long training sessions.

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At the moment I’m focusing on building up a good endurance base in my training. I run twice every day and most days I do drills or weights too. I like to think I’m training quite hard but the Japanese runners here put me to shame! By the time I am ready for my first run of the day (usually at about 6:45am) they have finished their first session and are doing their warm-down exercises! Most of them seem to run three times a day on top of weights, stretching etc. There’s no doubt they are committed to their sport. We also met a group of high school students from Ueda, the nearest major town, at the track a few days ago. Some of them came over after my session and asked for my autograph, saying they had seen the Osaka marathon in January. When you watch athletes winning races on TV it often looks easy, but believe me it isn’t! So I hope these kids learned something seeing me putting myself through lots of pain on the track! Not that they need anyone to tell them to work hard, mind you!

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At 1300m altitude, the flowers and leaves in Sugadaira come out much later than in Tokyo, so we were able to enjoy some spectacular cherry blossoms on the drive up into the mountains. Just behind our B&B is a 2.3km running loop through a swamp where I do some of my easy runs. The aquatic plants there are just about to come out, and the leaves seem to be growing every day. When I run there surrounded by water and fresh leaves with nobody around, it feels like a million miles from Tokyo or London!

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Albuquerque to Beijing

Last weekend we visited Beijing so that I could run in the marathon test event. Knowing the course and environment is a fairly crucial part of preparing for a marathon for me, so the test event provided the perfect opportunity for me to run the Olympic marathon course. With just over 100 days to go until the Olympic Games opening ceremony, I can now go away and focus on my training knowing what to expect, and where the toughest parts of the course will be. I treated the race as a hard long run, finishing in just under 2 hours and 47 minutes, so I managed to get a good work-out from it too.

When we arrived in Beijing it was warm and even humid, but by race day the weather turned much cooler and soon after the start heavy rain started to fall. It felt like we were in London rather than Beijing, and it was hard to imagine the heat & humidity of summer as we splashed our way through puddles and driving rain.

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The course took us past several of Beijing’s most famous landmarks such as the Temple of Heaven, but the definite highlight was finishing in the newly-opened Bird’s Nest stadium.

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I have never been to an Olympic Games before, but running through the marathon gate onto the track gave me an inkling of the electric atmosphere that is sure to fill the stadium every day of the Games. I can’t wait for August to arrive now, and am feeling suitably inspired for my final few months of training.

Next stop for us is Nagano in the Japan Alps, home of the 1998 winter Olympics, where we’ll be training for about three weeks. Nagano is famous for its delicious food, especially buckwheat noodles, chestnuts and fruit, so I’m hoping that eating lots of fresh local food will give me plenty of energy for pounding out those miles.…

A talk in Albuquerque

Just before we left Albuquerque, we visited a school, the Southwest Learning Centers in Albuquerque to meet some of the students and tell them about our preparations for the Olympics.

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Many endurance athletes travel half way across the world to train in Albuquerque because of its climate, high altitude and great terrain. So I tried to convince the students that they have a great advantage already if they want to become endurance athletes simply because they live in Albuquerque. I’m not sure I convinced all of them but I’ll be looking out for their names in future Olympic Games!

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I spend a lot of my time with other runners, so it was great to meet students from all walks of life and hear about their daily lives and what they’re working on.

Albuquerque Old Town

We are into our second week of training in Albuquerque now, and everything is going well. After an easy few days at the start I have got into some really good sessions now and feel fully acclimatised to the altitude. Although my times in training aren’t as fast as at sea level, I am feeling strong in training and am able to recover reasonably well between sessions. When I’ve trained at altitude in the past, I’ve tended to over-do my training a bit and have often ended up over-trained and exhausted rather than running fast which is the whole point of coming to altitude! So this time I am being careful not to over-do things while trying to train hard – a delicate balance to strike!

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As part of my recovery I had a day off this week which helped me to stay fresh and looking forward to the remainder of our time here.

After catching up on emails at a local internet café, we spent the afternoon of my day off exploring Albuquerque old town which is a delightful combination of Spanish, Mexican and Indian cultures. The streets are small and compact, and the centre of activity is the town square – it feels much more like a rural town in Europe than the USA! The historical styles and architecture have been well-preserved (something I feel strongly about…!) and the result is a delightful small town which is full of character and echoes of the past. Many of the shop entrances are adorned with chilies – the local speciality and essential ingredient in cooking here.

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This week I also completed my first decent long run on the maze of streets at the high end of the city, just under the famous Sandia tramway cable car. It is much more undulating than I am used to back in Tokyo, but I hope this will give me strength and plenty of endurance for the weeks and months of training ahead.

Training in Albuquerque

For our first altitude training camp of 2008 we decided to try Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The combination of high altitude and desert means it’s great for training at this time of year, and therefore attracts lots of top runners.

This is our first visit to Albuquerque so we didn’t know what to expect, but so far everything is going well and we are really enjoying the unusual environment and being able to focus on training and recovery. There are some wonderful desert plants here, and every day we’ve had bright sunny weather which is ideal for training.

Today I did my first speed session since arriving last week – I gave myself a few days to acclimatize to the altitude first. We did a track session at the University of New Mexico track with a couple of friends who are also in Albuquerque training. Nicole (middle) & Stephanie (right).

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Last weekend we ran along the Rio Grande river at the lower edge of the city.

Our flight from Tokyo stopped off in Los Angeles, and we ended up with a few hours to spare before boarding our next flight. So we caught a bus to the city centre, but on the way we happened to pass the 1984 Olympic stadium so we asked the driver to drop us off. Of all the Olympics I can remember, the 1984 Olympics are my favourite. I was 11 years old at the time and remember being glued to the TV watching Seb Coe and other British athletes win gold. But my real hero then was Daley Thompson, and I got so excited watching him win gold in the decathlon. Unfortunately I couldn’t stay awake to see him run in the final event, the 1500m, and wrap up the gold medal, so my Mum woke me up in the middle of the night to tell me he had won.

Just after the Olympics I went to get Daley’s autograph at a local sports shop and he said to me “How are you, young lad?”! To say I was a bit crushed was an understatement, and my poor Mum had her work cut out convincing me he was still a super-hero!

So our trip to the Los Angeles stadium brought back fabulous memories of Olympic glory, and I got on the plane to Albuquerque feeling suitably inspired for the hard work ahead.

Matsue Ladies half-marathon

Today was my first proper race back since January’s Osaka marathon. My training has been going well but the first race back is always a bit of an unknown quantity as you don’t really know what sort of shape you are in. Fortunately things turned out well and I managed to win the race, so I can proudly say I am undefeated in 2008!

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I know it’s only March but hopefully my winning streak will continue for a while! Matsue is full of character, and has a beautiful setting, wrapped around the east edge of Lake Shinjiko near the north coast of Japan’s main island, Honshu. The city boasts one of Japan’s few remaining original castles (most have been destroyed by fire and rebuilt), and an area of lovingly-preserved old samurai houses. The people of Matsue are rightly proud of their city and you can see how pleased they are to welcome visitors. They are certainly looking forward to hosting the Irish athletics team for their pre-Olympics training camp later this year.

I came 2nd in this race last year, out-sprinted in the final stages by a 19-year old rookie from the legendary Mitsui Sumitomo team. They were out in force again today, with one of their grand champions, Reiko Tosa, the bronze medalist in last year’s world champs marathon, leading the charge in the 10km race. In the half-marathon they fielded not one, but two youngsters this time, but I was determined not to be beaten again by someone half my age! So I set off hard and pulled away from the field in the first 5km and just tried to stay strong till the end. By the final few kms I knew it was touch and go whether I would break 70 minutes so I battled against the clock in the final stretch and finished in 69:59 – 1 second inside my goal time! After breaking my PB in Osaka by 3 seconds I need to work on not running every race so close to the wire! Shige and the Mitsui Sumitomo team coach, Mr Suzuki, had their own race around the course on rented shopper bikes. Apparently Mr Suzuki and Alan Storey used to race each other in marathons a few years back.

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As ever, the organisers laid on an enjoyable programme for the race weekend, including an opening ceremony and press conference which were held in Matsue Vogel Park – a local plant and bird centre. So we sat amongst 10,000 fabulous flowering plants including begonias, fuschias and geraniums while looking forward to the race ahead. People say taxi drivers are the best sources of local info when you’re in an unfamiliar place. We weren’t disappointed in the taxi on the way back from the Vogel Park, as the driver told us all about Matsue’s famous fish & seafood. Lake Shinjiko is a huge freshwater lake linked to the sea so its salinity varies in different parts of the lake, an environment which gives rise to unusually tasty fish and seafood.

A new star is born

Yurika Nakamura showed not just Japan, but the whole world that she meant business in yesterday’s Nagoya marathon, the final trial race for the Japanese women’s Olympic marathon team. Racing her first marathon at just 21 years of age, she powered away from the rest of the field at 32km and won convincingly in 2:25:51. She ran 5km splits of 16:31 and 16:44 between 30km and 40km, and 7:13 for the final 2.195kms, exactly the same time as Olympic gold medallist Noguchi ran in the final stages of last year’s Tokyo women’s marathon. Nakamura showed amazing maturity and brilliant tactics for someone running their first marathon, and I’m sure there is a lot more to come from her. She also beat a strong field even by Japanese standards including a former Olympic champion, 3 previous winners of Nagoya, the 7th place finisher in Athens, the 6th place finisher in last years’s world championships, and many more. Nakamura was rewarded for her efforts today by being named in Japan’s women’s marathon team for Beijing.

The depth in Japanese women’s marathon running never fails to amaze me. The top 9 in yesterday’s race all finished within 2:30. In addition to Nakamura, the runner-up and two more in the top seven were running their first marathons. And the field didn’t even include the three other members of Japan’s Olympic team for Beijing (defending champion Noguchi, 2007 world championships bronze medallist Tosa, and reserve Morimoto), nor a handful of other top Japanese runners who raced in Osaka six weeks ago. Japan can surely look forward to at least one medal in Beijing, if not more. The Japanese corporate running team system, plus the number of runners going through it, has produced a seemingly endless stream of brilliant marathon runners. And it is not only Beijing, but London 2012 and beyond, where the Japanese strength in depth will surely be a force to be reckoned with!

Watching the Nagoya marathon left me inspired and scared in about equal amounts! It was inspiring to see how really hard work and dedication produce top results. But it was scary to think how hard it will be to beat the Japanese runners in Beijing. Revved-up on this mixture of emotions(!), I had a good day’s training today, and am looking forward to my first proper race since the Osaka marathon - the Matsue Ladies’ half-marathon this weekend in western Japan. I finished second in this race last year, out-sprinted in the final kilometre by a 19-year old rookie (which didn’t make me feel old or anything…)! So this time it’s got to be one better.

Thames & Tamagawa rivers

You may be wondering where the photo on the top page of my blog was taken. It is famous for being one of the most beautiful views in the UK, and deservedly so in my opinion! It is the view from the top of Richmond Hill in south-west London, over the Thames and Petersham Meadows. Richmond has many fabulous open spaces and parks – Richmond Park, the Thames tow-path, the Old Deer Park, Sheen Common – that it’s hard to believe you are in a major capital city. Before moving to Japan we were lucky enough to live in Richmond, so I was able to enjoy running in beautiful, natural environments every day. There’s nothing quite like running through a park with trees and fresh air around you, and the sounds of nature filling the air! Richmond is probably one of the best places I’ve ever encountered for running, with so much choice of places to run and links to nearby areas such as the river near Putney and Bushy Park. I certainly miss Richmond and enjoy visiting it when I am back in the UK, but there are also rivers in Tokyo where I can enjoy running.

The Tamagawa river near where we live has cycling tracks which continue for miles and miles so they are great for long runs. Both banks of the river have tracks so I often run loops by crossing onto the other side from where we live before returning further up- or down-stream. There aren’t many trees along the river which makes it feel a bit exposed and windy sometimes – last weekend the wind was like a typhoon, whipping up the dust from the cycling tracks. But having few trees gives you extensive views, including of Mt Fuji against the setting sun which is great for my evening runs! The river attracts lots of water birds such as unusual ducks and cormorants, and there are huge swathes of interesting water plants at various points along the river. Each bank of the river has a wide flood-plain and these are used for various sports such as football, baseball, golf, tennis and rugby.

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Just after last year’s world championships, one of the biggest typhoons in recent years hit Tokyo and these flood-plains and sports fields were completely under water.

I’m back into proper training now and am looking forward to my next race – the Matsue Ladies’ half-marathon on 16 March. After that we’ll be going to the USA for altitude training which will mark the real start of my build-up to Beijing, so hopefully I won’t be lacking motivation when the lack of oxygen hits me!!

Tokyo Marathon

Today we enjoyed a great day out in bright sunshine watching the Tokyo marathon as it wound its way through the streets of central Tokyo. This was the 2nd time this mass race has been held, and 30,000 runners lined up with some of the world’s top runners as they set off from Tokyo’s famous Shinjuku district.

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I’ve been supporting the Tyler Foundation’s “Shine On Marathon Challenge” so I was especially looking out for the Tyler runners who between them have so far raised over Y7 million. The beautiful weather was a welcome break for the runners who last year had to run through very cold, windy and rainy conditions! But it also brought out so many spectators, it was hard to get close enough to the course to get a good view. However, our first sighting was Tyler co-founder Mark Ferris, so the day got off to a good start! Next up was Chris Parry, who tested my knowledge of ice baths at the Tyler Foundation’s Warm-up day last week! Everyone we saw looked to be going strong and enjoying themselves.

We also managed to cheer on several runners from “Namban Rengo”, a Tokyo running club where I used to train a few years back. They kindly gave me a congratulations card after the Osaka marathon, so it was great to be able to cheer them on too.

I also spotted a runner from Thames Hare & Hounds, my second claim club in the UK! Up at the front of the race the pace looked very fast, and so it turned out to be with the winner, Switzerland’s Viktor Rothlin, breaking last year’s course record with 2:07:23. It was good to see a European runner beating a stellar field of African and Japanese athletes!

We also enjoyed a trip yesterday to the official marathon EXPO which was held in Tokyo’s bay area. The marathon’s main sponsor, Asics, asked me to do a short interview at their stand in the EXPO. After that I joined in a panel discussion and autographs session with Japanese triathlete Shirato Taro and former top marathon runner, Arimori Yuko. Practically everyone I encountered was so enthusiastic and excited about the race, it’s no wonder Japan is a nation of marathon fans!

Everyone who ran today deserves a huge “well done” and as they say in Japanese “Otsukare-sama”. I hope everyone enjoyed the race and will be back for more! And don’t forget that recovery after a marathon is really important, so give your body and mind plenty of rest.

Mara nominated for European Athlete of the Month!

Mara has been shortlisted for the European Athlete of the Month for January 2008, following her win (2:25:10) at the Osaka Internationl Ladies Marathon.

For more details or to vote go to: European Athletics

Tyler Foundation Warm-up Day

Yesterday the Tyler Foundation, a Japan-based non-profit organisation which supports children with cancer and their families, held its Tokyo Marathon Warm-up Day in Yoyogi Park in central Tokyo. Through the “Shine On Marathon Challenge”, the Tyler Foundation is raising money through runners in the Tokyo marathon gathering sponsorship from friends and family. I have been helping the Tyler Foundation as one of their marathon “champions”, and yesterday I joined all the Tyler runners for a final warm-up and preparation session with my team-mates from Second Wind AC. The unusually cold winter in Tokyo is showing no signs of letting up, and despite having heavy snow on Saturday night, luckily the weather was sunny and warm on Sunday morning for our session.

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After about 30 minutes of jogging and stretching in Yoyogi Park, we all enjoyed a delicious lunch at Tyler Founder Mark Ferris’s house, while exchanging tips and stories about the marathon – what to drink on race day, what to eat the night before the marathon, how to recover quickly afterwards, how to keep warm on a cold day, and so on. Everyone seemed to be really enthusiastic and looking forward to race day which was great! Over the past few years while I’ve been training for the marathon, I’ve built up a fair bit of knowledge and experience on marathon running, so it was really good to be able to pass on some advice and tips to the Tyler runners as they make their final preparations. What struck me about our conversation was that although we are all at different levels, in fact we are all aiming for the same thing – to get the best out of ourselves on race day, to reach our own personal goals, and to enjoy running. And this made me realise that actually the really top runners like Mizuki Noguchi and Paula Radcliffe, whom I still see as in a different league to me, are also just aiming for the same thing. Although their achievements seem super-human, actually they are just runners like everyone else, and I went away feeling that I can reach their level if I believe that I can, and really work hard in training. I hope I gave the Tyler runners some inspiration for their race – they certainly gave me some inspiration to go away and train hard. I’m looking forward to watching the marathon this Sunday and seeing how everyone gets on.

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So far the Tyler Foundation has signed up about 50 runners for the Challenge, and they have raised about Y5 million yen which is absolutely fantastic. There is still time for more runners to sign up, and hopefully one final push in gathering sponsorship pledges will help to increase the total amount raised to over Y10 million. For more information or to sign up, please visit the Tyler website: www.tylershineon.org.

It’s back to hard training for me now as my post-Osaka rest comes to an end. We spent last week in Hokkaido, in northern Japan, visiting the Sapporo snow festival and Hakodate which was one of the first port towns opened to foreigners in Japan. This link with the outside world has left the town with a fascinating mix of East and West, including some interesting European-style architecture. An example of this architecture is the old British Consulate which was used until 1934, but is now a museum. We enjoyed afternoon tea & cake in the visitors’ tea room under the watchful eye of a Scottish bagpiper!

Snowy Tokyo

I must start this week’s diary with a huge thank-you for all the support and nice messages I have received since last week’s Osaka Ladies’ marathon. It’s great to know that lots of people are out there cheering for me! Marathon running is hard work but it’s so much easier if you get support and encouragement. I’ve been taking it easy this week but even so have been really exhausted, so I’m looking forward to a short break next week before getting back into serious training again.

Yesterday we went to Ohume, a town in western Tokyo, for the 42nd Ohume marathon race. In addition to the main 30km race, they also hold a 10km race which I won last year and in 2006, so the organisers kindly invited me back. I told them I would be too tired to race, so we agreed that I could be a guest runner and just jog at an easy pace. We had great fun at the opening ceremony yesterday – we met the local Taiko drumming group and a group from the Boston marathon, with whom Ohume has a sister relationship since the very first race. I also met Hisashi Nagai, a Japanese runner who is deaf and holds several Japanese deaf distance running records. He has also won road races in every Japanese prefecture (equivalent to county), of which there are 47! If you ever need inspiration to get out there and make the most of your life, Mr Nagai is the man you need! He will be running the Flora London Marathon in April. Good luck to him!

Everything was going to plan until this morning, when we woke up to several centimetres of snow outside, which meant sadly that the race had to be cancelled. Tokyo does not usually get much snow, so it was a real surprise. There was no way 20,000 runners could have run, especially since it is a hilly course, so it was probably for the best that the race was cancelled.

I’m really feeling ready for a break now, so I’m hoping to go away and recharge my batteries before starting proper training again. It’s tempting to just focus on training as a runner, but rest is also vitally important, especially after a big race. Mentally as well as physically, it’s important to have a break sometimes and come back to running feeling refreshed and motivated again for new challenges.

Calling all Tokyo Marathon runners!

Are you running in the Tokyo marathon? If so, why not raise money for a very worthy cause while you are running? The Tyler Foundation is a Japan-based non-profit organisation which supports children with cancer and their families in Japan. And the Tyler Foundation’s “Shine On Marathon Challenge” will be raising money through runners in the Tokyo marathon seeking sponsorship from family and friends. This is a great way to raise money for a fantastic cause, and also to help you get through those 42.195kms on 17 February!

To register with the Tyler Foundation and for more information, please visit their website, http://www.tylershineon.org/index.php/eng_home.

My first marathon victory!

I won the Osaka Ladies’ marathon today in a new PB, 2:25:10! This was my first ever marathon win – the highest I’ve ever placed is 5th, so I am very happy! I never thought I would win a major race, having finished so many races last year in the minor places, so my confidence in my ability to win any races was low. But I knew that this was a race I could win, if I ran sensibly and saved myself for the final few miles. To get a new PB made it extra special, if only by 3 seconds – it shows you should never slow down in a race until you’ve crossed the line!

Osaka was the second of three trial races for the Japanese women’s marathon team for the Beijing Olympics, so expectations were high and the media interest hitting fever pitch. At the pre-race press conference the atmosphere in the room was intense. The organisers did not provide pace-makers to make it like a championship race, and Japan’s track star Fukushi Kayoko was making her marathon debut, so it was hard to predict how the race would turn out. I wanted to run 2:23-4 and thanks to Constantina Dita, we set off at exactly the right speed, although Fukushi was way ahead on her own from the start. I felt very comfortable and relaxed, and was looking forward to a good race. But from 10-15km Dita let go of the lead and the pace slowed, passing half-way in 72:30. At this point Fukushi was 2 minutes or so ahead, and I felt like I was racing for 2nd place.

At last year’s World championships I put my foot down at about 29km where the course comes out of Osaka castle into the final long stretch towards the finish. I suffered from that effort and faded to 9th – to make the top ten in the world was fantastic but I was disappointed with myself for throwing away a great chance to do better. So this time I came to Osaka ready to bury the ghost of last September! But having passed half-way in 72:30, I knew I had to inject some pace to get a PB, so I soon found myself in the lead which, on a windy day, was not where I wanted to be. Coming out of Osaka castle at 29km, I was leading a still large group of runners – it was like a bad dream come true as I felt like I was making the same mistake as at the World championships. But this time I promised myself I would not make any major move until the final stages to keep back some strength for when you really need it. At 32-33km I started picking up the pace and quickly found myself running alone, so I pushed on, and soon passed the struggling Fukushi. Going into the lead at about 34km it dawned on me that I could win the race, so I just tried to stay strong until the end. In the final few kms I realised I might just miss my PB so I really pushed hard to make sure I got a new PB.

Entering the stadium leading the race was fantastic, and I knew I just had to hang on to clinch my first victory. Breaking the tape at the finish for the first time ever was very, very special. I can now look forward to Beijing with renewed confidence, knowing that I can do what I thought I never could.

There are so many people who help me it’s difficult to thank everyone for their support. But I have to send a huge thank-you to the race organizers, sponsors and volunteers, everyone out there who supported and cheered me on, my sponsors and my long-suffering husband Shige, who has had an even more stressful week than I have! Thank you to everyone who helped me to my first marathon win, it was a team effort!

Scenery from Osaka

Osaka International Ladies' Marathon Start
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Finish in Nagai Stadium
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Interview
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Press Conference
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Award Ceremony
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Shoe4Africa

One of the charities I’ve decided to support is Shoe4Africa, which started out sending used running shoes to Africa, but has now expanded into AIDS awareness activities, sponsored races, providing scholarships and other activities which aim to improve people’s lives, health and opportunities.

Shoe4Africa is very active in Kenya, led by world record-holder and top athlete Lornah Kiplagat. I lived in Kenya until I was 8 years old, and believe that Kenya gave me the start in life I needed to become an elite athlete – living at high altitude and enjoying outdoor sports in a warm climate. Everyone knows that Kenyans are the top distance runners in the world, but so many do not have the opportunities that I and others living in developed countries take for granted. The recent post-election violence has added another sad dimension to ordinary people’s lives.

Lornah and her colleagues do a fantastic job through Shoe4Africa to help people fulfill their potential, so I am doing my bit to help them out. I have been sending my used running shoes to Shoe4Africa – it seems such a waste to throw away shoes that can still be worn, so I’m really glad that someone who really needs them can still use them. I’ve also just become an Ambassador for Shoe4Africa which is really exciting, and I hope I can do more in the future to help this great cause. 

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For more information, or to find out how to send your used shoes to Shoe4Africa, please visit their website: http://www.shoe4africa.org/.

Click to go Shoe4Africa

Day off !

I read recently that the mighty Ron Hill has run every single day since 1964. Unfortunately I am nowhere near as legendary as he is, and occasionally (quite often actually!) have a day completely off form running. I have tried not resting for several weeks in the past and it just doesn’t work for me; I end up feeling mentally and physically exhausted and the enjoyment of running disappears. I’ve learned to accept that I’m a mere mortal who sometimes needs a day off, and right now with just over a week to go till the Osaka marathon, I want to make sure I am feeling fresh and ready to race.

So this week I had a day off and for the first time in ages we went to central Tokyo.

When I’m training hard I do my morning session, then have something to eat and shower, then take a nap. After I get up it’s almost time for my evening session again, so I don’t often go out (you could say athletes lead very boring lives!).

I saw an advertisement recently for an exhibition of Luba, the woolly mammoth that was discovered in Siberia last year, miraculously well-preserved by permafrost. She was being exhibited for the first time ever in Tokyo.
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By way of bizarre contrast, the exhibition is being held in the ultra-modern Marunouchi building in front of Tokyo station, a new skyscraper that’s just a few years old and full of the latest shops and ultra-cool cafes. Despite being thousands of years old, the mammoth herself is so well-preserved that her skin and some hair are intact and clearly visible. Seeing something many thousands of years old reminded me of how short human life is, and ultimately how unimportant one runner’s life is in the great scheme of things! It felt like a time-warp being transported back thousands of years, and then emerging into the bright lights of 21st century Tokyo again. The Marunouchi building is ultra-modern, but even it is passé now, as the “New Marunouchi building” has just gone up next-door, another skyscraper full of the latest fashions, restaurants and offices. The speed of redevelopment in Tokyo, although it brings new and exciting things, sometimes makes you wish for good old strict British planning permission rules and listed buildings!

At the end of the day we enjoyed a meal at a Vietnamese restaurant. Tokyo has recently become famous as the home of the most Michelin-starred restaurants in the world, and it fully deserves its reputation as the greatest culinary city in the world. Naturally it’s the best place for Japanese food (people from Kyoto might disagree..), but it also offers great non-Japanese food, and the Vietnamese we had was delicious!

So after a day of rest and recuperation, I feel ready for my final few sessions and hopefully a successful race in Osaka!

Marathon Fuel

My next race, the Osaka Ladies’ marathon, is under 3 weeks away now. As I start to taper my training I’m conscious of the importance of the fuel I will need to run those 26.2 miles - as anyone who has run a marathon knows, it is a long way and you need plenty of fuel! I’ve started practicing my pre-race food routine by having the same meal before long runs. I usually have mochi rice cakes and orange juice for breakfast on race day. It’s a combination that is easy to digest and gives you plenty of carbohydrates. Mochi are also traditionally eaten at New Year in Japan, and a friend sent us a huge box of them recently so I have plenty to get through! I’ve also been practicing my race drinks during long runs to make sure I get used to drinking plenty and won’t suffer any stomach upsets.

As race day approaches and you start to reduce your training, marathon runners face the question of how they spend the extra time and energy they now have from doing less training. It’s tempting to do all those things you usually don’t have time for. But it’s a mistake to use up your new-found energy. The days leading up to marathons can be frustrating – you want to race but know that you have to save your energy. The safest bet is to do things which are absorbing but don’t use up lots of energy.

Img_1370 I enjoy cooking in my spare time, and am trying to learn a few more Japanese dishes. Yesterday I made “oyaki” – small dumplings made form rice, flour and eggs, with vegetable fillings. Oyaki are specialities of Nagano prefecture where the winter Olympics were held in 1998. Our friend who lives in Nagano taught me how to make them last summer while we were on holiday there. With lots of carbohydrates and not much fat, oyaki are good for marathon runners! To be honest they weren’t nearly as nice as the ones our friend makes, but hopefully they’ll be better next time!

More generally this pre-race time is crucial for ensuring I eat a varied diet, so that I can stand on the start line knowing that my body has all the nutrients it needs and is in good shape for the race ahead. I always try to eat a high-carb, low-fat diet with plenty of fruit & vegetables and variety. Winter in Japan is a good season for oily fish such as saury and mackerel, and also root vegetables such as lotus root, white radishes, potatoes of various kinds and burdock, which are fibrous and nutritious.

I hope that when I get to Osaka, the right fuel will bring me a PB and a satisfying result!

Mara nominated for European Athlete of the Month!

Mara has been shortlisted for the European Athlete of the Month for December 2007, following her 2nd place (69:28) at the Okayama Sanyo Road Race.

For more details or to vote go to: European Athletics

Ekiden Fever!!

In my last blog I wrote about New Year festivities in Japan, but I failed to mention one of the highlights of the holiday season – ekiden relay races.

Japanese people are fanatical about their sports, especially distance running. Japan probably has the most live prime-time TV coverage of distance running of any country in the world. On the 1st of January every year is the National Men’s corporate ekiden race, and then on 2nd and 3rd January is the National Universities Men’s ekiden race. So people taking a break from work and spending time at home can watch live running on TV for 3 full days on the trot, so to speak. The races certainly seem to inspire people to get out and run – during my evening sessions on 2nd and 3rd January, there were more people out running than I’ve ever seen before!

The Universities Men’s race consists of about 20 teams of 10 runners each. The first leg runners set off from Nihombashi – the official centre of Tokyo, and the course then winds its way westwards towards Mt Fuji, ending up some 100km west of Tokyo in Hakone at the end of day one. Then the same course is run in reverse by the runners on the second day, with the final leg finishing at Nihombashi. If a similar race took place in the UK it would be like starting at Piccadilly Circus or Buckingham Palace, and going all the way to eg Oxford and back! Each runner covers about 20km and there are some tough stretches – the 5th leg runners on day one climb over 800 metres. Like any race, there is always some drama – this year the reigning champions, Juntendo University, failed to finish after their runner on the super-tough 5th leg collapsed with just 500m to go. The poor guy’s legs were buckling under him and he just couldn’t get up. Looking at how the runners finish each leg, they really give it absolutely everything. Many of them collapsed onto the ground after finishing before being bundled off into the temporary changing areas which are set up at each change-over point. Some of the change-over points conveniently coincide with eg service areas or car parks, but I saw one runner being led off into a florist’s shop – I hope the pleasant smell of flowers helped him to recover!

Ekiden relays are not just about men’s running though. The National Women’s corporate ekiden race takes place in mid-December and attracts huge crowds. Ekiden relays at school level are also hugely popular, and of course there are international ekidens such as the Chiba and Yokohama races which GB teams have been invited to. I think the team spirit that ekiden relay races encourage has really helped to build up distance running in Japan. For many teams these relays are more important than events where runners compete as individuals.

My next race will be the Osaka Ladies’ marathon, which is three weeks today, and I’m really looking forward to it. I’m now putting my final preparations into place and hoping that by race day I will be fully prepared to run a PB and finish well up the field. As it will be one of the trial races for the Japanese Olympic team, the competition will be tough. The course is the same as the World Championships marathon last year, but at least this time it won’t be 30 degrees!

New Year in Japan

Happy New Year greetings from Japan! It’s the 1st of January again and another year has come and gone. They say time flies as you get older, and for me this certainly seems to be true! I hope 2008 turns out to be an enjoyable and peaceful year for everyone.

New Year in Japan is a major holiday season, similar to Christmas in the UK. The first few days of January are public holidays so many people go back to their family homes and have a good break from work.

The front doors of homes and shops are decorated with “Kadomatsu” – decorations made from fresh pine leaves and bamboo. Kadomatsu are supposed to ward off evil and bring good spirits in the forthcoming year.
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This very fancy kadomatsu is outside the Chanel shop on Omotesando – Tokyo’s Champs Elysees.

New Year is also an excuse for eating special food known as “Osechi-ryori”. The Japanese equivalent of roast Turkey and Christmas pudding is a collection of foods which keep well and can therefore be eaten over a few days. This year we spent New Year at the home of my parents-in-law so we enjoyed my mother-in-law’s osechi-ryori.

Rice with red beans – this special rice is only eaten on special occasions. The beans turn the rice pinkish-red which is a colour for celebrations in Japan.
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This dish includes burdock root with sesame, mashed chestnuts, pickled white radish, konyaku (a type of seaweed jelly), and tiny sardines.
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Simmered vegetables (lotus root, carrots, mushrooms, burdock, bamboo shoots), and meatballs.
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Special rolled egg omelette, fish paste.
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Herring rolled in kombu seaweed, and prawns.
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At New Year people also eat “mochi” rice cakes. These are very easy to digest and high in carbohydrates so I usually eat these for breakfast before marathon races!

For my first run of the year I ran along the coast with a brilliant view of a snowy Mt Fuji in the morning sunshine. It was very cold but there were surfers out riding the waves.
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Season’s Greetings!

[23 December 2007]
It’s almost the end of 2007, how time flies! And the Olympic year, 2008, is just around the corner. It’s exciting to think about the Beijing Olympics and all the challenges ahead in the new year. I wish everyone a happy and peaceful festive season, and an enjoyable and successful year in 2008!

I finished my 2007 season with a half-marathon today in Okayama, which is on the western end of Honshu, Japan’s main island. Today, 23 December, is a national holiday in Japan as it is the Emperor’s birthday. The race was the Sanyo Women’s Road Race, which commemorates two famous female runners from Okayama, Yuko Arimori, who won medals in the marathon at the Barcelona and Atlanta Olympics, and Hitomi Kinue, who was the first Japanese woman to win an Olympic medal, in the 800m at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics. Both women have played a huge role in encouraging Japanese women to take up sports and running, and are a real inspiration. I discovered that Kinue stopped off in London on her way to the Olympics to get her running uniform made as she could not get suitable clothes made in Japan.

I ran 69:28 today, the third fastest time I have ever run and also a new course record. Unfortunately though I only came second! The level of distance running in Japan is so high that you really have to be world-class to win races here.

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I ran together with Japan-based Kenyan Evaline Kimwei until 17km but could not respond to her pushing the pace at that point, and finished 8 seconds behind her. Although the time was good given my recent foot injury, it has left me feeling unable to win races and this is something I really have to work on.

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Oakayama_race_day_2Okayama_race_day_4_2Okayama_race_day_3_3 After the race we visited Yuko Arimori’s small museum just outside Okayama city, where we saw her medals and the shoes she wore at the Olympics. Arimori-san herself was there with her husband, as she is visiting Japan from her current home in Colorado. It was very special to hear about her Olympic races and get some training tips!

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Thank you Arimori-san!

The Tyler Foundation for Childhood Cancer

Mara is delighted to be supporting the Tyler Foundation for Childhood Cancer as one of her charity activities. The Tyler Foundation is a Japan-based nonprofit organisation supporting children with cancer and their families in Japan.

The Tyler Foundation holds a variety of exciting events to raise money for its activities. One of these events is the Shine On Marathon Challenge, in which runners taking part in the 2008 Tokyo Marathon will raise money through sponsorship for the Tyler Foundation. Mara will be one of the champions for the Shine On Marathon Challenge. For more information, including Mara’s Q&A interview and video message, please visit the Tyler Foundation homepage by clicking below.

the Tyler Foundation for Childhood Cancer

The Oahu Club

The Oahu Club has kindly agreed to support Mara.

The Oahu Club is a general fitness club which has facilities at four locations including one in Hawaii. The Club provides an environment in which people of all ages, including children and adults, can enjoy sports such as swimming and gym training. The staff who supervise the facilities include many former top athletes with experience of international competitions.

For marathon runners, it is important to be able to use sports facilities nearby for cross training and muscle strength workouts. As Mara prepares for the Beijing Olympics, it is a great help to have the support of the Oahu Club. Thank you very much!

Fitness club - The Oahu Club

Japanese Cooking Lesson

Today I had a cooking lesson with our neighbour who lives in the next-door block of flats to us. My sister-in-law, and I have had cookery lessons from her a few times now. Japanese cooking is delicious and very healthy, but it’s quite difficult for people who don’t know how to cook it (like me!) to learn without someone teaching you, so it’s great to be able to learn from her. When we first moved here she showed us the ropes and where to buy tasty fish – one of the most important things for Japanese people!

Today we made “buri-daikon” which is a fish and vegetable dish simmered in a soya-based sauce. Buri (yellowtail) is in season now, and daikon is a large white Japanese radish which is also in season as it’s a winter vegetable. We also made maki-sushi. I’ve made this before but with Western-style ingredients such as avocado and smoked salmon, but today we made it the proper way with Japanese ingreditents including unagi (cooked eel), cucumber, cooked egg, shiitake mushrooms and kampyou (dried gourd). We also made “oshi-zushi” where you place layers of fish (we used smoked salmon) and then sushi rice in a special wooden box to flatten it down, and then slice into pieces. So Shige and I enjoyed a sushi and fish dinner at home afterwards! As it will be Christmas soon, I made her some mince pies. Japanese people don’t usually go for very sweet desserts so I hope she likes them!

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Autumn in Japan

[9 December 2007]
Autumn is perhaps the best season in Japan, and this year is no exception. We have had many days now of sunny, blue skies with very little rain. It is cold in the mornings and evenings but during the day when the sun is out, it is quite warm. The air is crisp and dry, and it’s perfect weather for training. It gets dark at about 5pm now and during my evening runs I can often see Mt Fuji silhouetted against the setting sun along the Tamagawa river where we live. The bullet trains leaving Tokyo for Osaka and western Japan cross the river just north of our flat so it really feels like Japan. Of course autumn also means the leaves are changing colour. I’m not sure why but the range of colours in Japan seems to be really spectacular, and the leaves on the maple trees are now a deep red colour. Japan is a very clean country so picking up the fallen leaves in autumn always involves a lot of work. We live next door to a high school and every morning the students take it in turns to sweep up all the fallen leaves on the road outside their school with the teacher supervising. No wonder Japan is so clean! The official religions in Japan are Buddhism and Shinto but Christmas seems to be getting bigger every year. There are Christmas trees everywhere and fantastic illuminations at night. Unfortunately our oven isn’t nearly big enough for a turkey but we’re looking forward to having a roast chicken!

I hurt my right foot about two weeks ago but thankfully it is much better now and I’m getting back into some good training. I had to withdraw from a couple of races I was planning to do which was a great shame. But I’m hoping I can get back to racing soon. I’ve been so busy doing cross-training, rehab, icing, massage etc that it feels like I’ve been training harder while I’ve been injured. Doing cross-training makes you realise how much the impact of running takes out of you, and how much you have to take care of your body. But being injured also leaves you refreshed and raring to go when you get back, so I am looking forward to some good training and getting back to racing.

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Visit to Beijing

[1 Dec 2007] Thank you for visiting my blog! This is my first diary entry since we started this blog. I hope you enjoy visiting and come back again.

Roll on Beijing 2008! We have just got back from a 4-day recce visit to the Olympic city. This was our first visit to China so it was very useful just to see the city and figure out how things work.

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Thanks to the invaluable help of Ben Ladd and Elena Lukyanets at the British Embassy, we were able to see the marathon course and Olympic Green, and learn a great deal about practical aspects of staying in Beijing. Thank you Ben and Elena!

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Everyone says the pollution in Beijing is terrible, and although there is some truth in that, it did not feel too bad walking around the city. Everyone we encountered – in hotels, shops, on the streets – was invariably helpful and friendly. They certainly seem ready to welcome the world to their home. The scale of Beijing – the roads, buildings and distances - is quite overwhelming, but I came away feeling comfortable that I could run a marathon there. The heat & humidity of August will make conditions tougher but after all it is the same for everyone. Of course I have not been selected yet, but I hope my marathons in London and at the Osaka World Championships this year will be enough. We’ll wait and see…

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Like many huge cities, Beijing seemed like a world of contrasts – with signs of poverty and hardship next door to designer shops and huge new shopping malls. No doubt the Olympics are accelerating this trend. I hope the legacy of the Games includes something positive for everyone in Beijing. Such contrasts made me wonder how London might be transformed as it prepares for 2012. It also brought home the fact that elite sport is as much about the opportunities open to you, as much as your talent or how hard you train. There must be millions of people in the world who could be Olympic champions but don’t have the opportunities to train and realise their potential, because their main priority in life is surviving and making ends meet. This made me feel very lucky to have this opportunity, and not to waste a single moment of it.

Asics's Research Institute of Sports and Technology

[26 Nov 2007]
A vist to Asics in Kobe. The purpose was to have a review of Mara's shoes with Mr Mimura and measure her feet again. Mr Mimura is a well-known Asics shoe-maker who has made shoes for many Olympic medalist such as Naoko Takahashi, Mizuki Noguchi and Stefano Baldini. We hope his majic works for Mara!! Thank you Mimura-san! by SY

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Partner

ASICS 株式会社タイヨーラボ Lensbury

Charity

Shoe4Africa AMREF the Tyler Foundation - FOR CHILD CANCER