Friday, March 5, 2010

NYC Half contender: Mara Yamauchi

source: NYRR

Mara Yamauchi started sharing the stage with the world’s best runners as a university student, but the British athlete, who will make her debut in the NYC Half-Marathon this year, has grown used to rubbing shoulders with luminaries of another sort.

Prior to becoming a professional athlete, the former Mara Myers was a Foreign and Commonwealth Office diplomat attached to the British Embassy in Tokyo, and she worked fleetingly as an interpreter for Margaret Thatcher, some years after Britain’s first woman prime minister had held office. She also met Jack Straw, Britain’s foreign secretary at the time, and Yukio Hatoyama, then in opposition but now Japan’s prime minister.

Yamauchi took a six-year hiatus from international running between 1998 and 2004, and she spent all but the last two years of it based in Japan. (She married Shigetoshi Yamauchi, a Japanese national, in 2002.) When Baroness Thatcher attended a dinner at the Embassy, Yamauchi was asked to be her interpreter. During a visit by Straw, she briefed him on work carried out to promote the England team prior to the 2002 soccer World Cup finals in Japan.

Yamauchi decided to get back to running, and after returning to London, she resumed serious training in January 2003. She had represented Britain in cross country at the 1997 European Championships and the 1998 World University Championships. “When I left for Japan I was on an upward curve,” she said. “I did not have any regrets about going, but I felt there was some unfinished business on the running front.”

Now arguably Britain’s most successful woman marathon runner over the last two years, ahead of even world record-holder and three-time ING New York City Marathon champion Paula Radcliffe, Yamauchi won the 2008 Osaka Marathon, was sixth in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Marathon, and was third in the 2008 Tokyo International Women’s Marathon. In her most recent marathon, she finished second in London last April in a personal-best time of 2:23:12.

Yamauchi’s half-marathon best is 1:08:29. Her goal for the NYC Half-Marathon is to break 1:10 as she continues her comeback from a foot injury that forced her to miss the 2009 World Championships Marathon in Berlin.

It is as a runner rather than as a diplomat that Yamauchi has been in the company of the world-famous more recently. In 2008, Sir Roger Bannister, who ran the first sub-four-minute mile in 1954, presented her with the Achilles Medal, awarded to former Oxford and Cambridge University students who have achieved international success in the sport of track and field.

Yamauchi is a graduate of Oxford, where her early interest in running was developed. She trained at the Iffley Road track, where Bannister made his world-renowned breakthrough.

Although she returned to Japan with Shigetoshi, who is also her coach, in 2006 to live in the Tokyo suburb of Ota-ku, Yamauchi still calls Oxford home. In Ota-ku she trains on the banks of the Tamagawa River. She eats a mainly Japanese diet. “It’s really healthy for marathon runners—oily fish, seaweed, and a lot of shellfish,” she said.

Now an unpaid employee of the Foreign Office, on a sabbatical to train since January 2006, the 36-year-old Yamauchi misses work. “I would never have given up the chance to run as I am now, but I miss working in the FCO because the people are great colleagues,” she said. “My husband and I do this running thing 24 hours a day, and it is a bit isolating. You don’t have that same intellectual stimulation. And I miss the security of a regular job.”

But don’t expect Yamauchi to return to full-time work before the 2012 London Olympics. Thatcher was known as the Iron Lady. Yamauchi aspires to become a Golden Girl.