Two hours, 23 minutes and 12 seconds is a very long time. It seems even longer if you imagine having to spend all of it continuously running. In marathon terms though, this is seriously quick. This time is the personal best of Mara Yamauchi, St Anne’s College alumnus, now Commonwealth Bronze medallist and the second fastest female British Marathon runner of all time.
Things could have turned out so differently. Like so many Oxford graduates Yamauchi jumped straight from the academic treadmill into employment, getting a job in the Foreign Office. She moved quickly up the ranks and that could have been it: another Oxbridge civil servant quietly working behind the scenes to make sure society ticks along as normal, a complete non-story. No medals, no stardom and most importantly, no interview with Cherwell Sport. Thankfully, for the benefit of British athletics, Yamauchi did not opt for a normal life.
‘When I was 29 I decided to follow my dream of being a professional athlete’, she told us. And so she did. Within a few years she had won a bronze medal in the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne in 2006. This story should provide motivation to all aspiring athletes or sportspeople who have had to put their dreams on ice for a few years. I for one shall not give up on my dream of being a Premiership football until at least the age of 30. To decide to ditch normality whilst nearing middle age is a testament to Yamauchi’s character and resolve – qualities we see in her during her long distance running.
Furthermore, Yamauchi’s relationship with the marathon took some time to develop, and it was far from love at first sight. Initially ‘to be honest I had absolutely no interest in it, it just seemed too far’. At Oxford the furthest distance she had run was three kilometres, as cross-country with its shorter races over tougher terrain was her first love. The older Yamauchi got, the further she started to run.When one discusses female British marathon runners, most people immediately think of women’s world-record holder and multiple Olympian Paula Radcliffe. Radcliffe and Yamauchi share more than just their sport – for both the marathon is a family affair, with their husbands influential both in training and in off the road elements such as nutrition. Yamauchi’s husband left his job in 2007 to become her coach: ‘It’s a big credit to him with no real background in athletics to coach someone to 6th in the Olympics. But I think it also shows that marathon running doesn’t have to be rocket science, anyone can pick it up and learn if you want to.’
Athletics often goes hand in hand with obsession, with many of the true greats being perfectionists to near the point of self-destruction, but in this regard Yamauchi seems remarkably pragmatic. For her the pursuit is one of simplicity, and an escape from running is of paramount importance: ‘Even now I still think it would sometimes be better if I was working part time as I tend to become slightly obsessed with training, so I think having something else in your life, for example studying for a degree, is really valuable”. Yamauchi clearly sees life beyond athletics, and has aspirations for her future outside of the sport. This said, just the one day off every nine days seems like a pretty brutal schedule.
An obvious point of conversation was Yamauchi’s time at Oxford. She sings the praises of St Anne’s: ‘I loved every minute of it. My time at Anne’s was really nice, it’s a very big college with a good atmosphere and seemed to me to be really tolerant and neither elitist nor snooty.’ She also did some writing for Cherwell, which is perhaps why she agreed to give us the interview. Yamauchi somehow managed to fit everything in on top of the demanding schedule of a PPE degree, but this was mainly because athletics was never a chore: ‘I found running refreshing. It makes you organised and you value your time with friends more.’ It is easy to see how a run offers an escape from the daily pressures of Oxford life.
It is ironic that had Yamauchi ran her personal best at the Beijing Olympics she would have won the gold medal. However, as she explained to me, marathon running is quite an enigmatic discipline. Over the course of two hours tiny factors can make a huge difference, be they weather conditions, the pacing of the other runners around you or the course itself, and these combine to be the difference between a spot on the podium or merely top 20 anonymity.
On form, if Yamauchi can peak at the right time next year, avoid injury, and work out how to perfect the mysteries of the marathon an Olympic medal in front of her home crowd would not be out of the question. Then she can finally retire and get a real job again.