At 64, marathon age group world record-holder Yugeta Mariko still has a dream

The only woman over 60 to complete a marathon in less than three hours, the Japanese runner is defying age in her lifelong pursuit of becoming even faster

By Shintaro Kano
Picture by Boston Athletic Association

Most people in their mid-60s are thinking of words like retirement, pension, grandkids.

Not Yugeta Mariko. She thinks about breaking world records.

In the marathon.

Yugeta celebrated her 64th birthday on 13 May. It was only three years ago that the Japanese runner became the first - and only - woman in the world over 60 to run a marathon in under three hours. She competed the 42.2km (26.2 miles) distance in 2 hours, 59 minutes and 15 seconds in the Shimonoseki Kaikyo Marathon.

And just last year, Yugeta blew away that time in the Osaka Women’s Marathon, running a 2:52:13.

She was 24 when she ran her first marathon in 3:09:21, good for 34th place in the Tokyo International Women’s Marathon. At the time, a sub-three race seemed beyond reach. But 40 years later, she's getting faster.

There’s never giving up, then there’s Yugeta.

“After my first marathon, my goal was to run a sub-three some day,” Yugeta said in an interview with the Mainichi Shimbun.

“And it took me 34 years to achieve it. Being a teacher, the job took up a lot of my time and I couldn’t train the way I wanted to. My times stalled.

“Then I got married at 25. Had my eldest daughter at 26 and I was blessed to have two girls and two boys in all. But trying to raise them, I had to take a step away from marathons at one point.”

Yugeta Mariko is the fastest over-60 female marathon runner on earth.
Picture by Boston Athletic Association

The awakening for Yugeta Mariko

The dream for Yugeta began back in 1979.

“I was on the track and field team from junior high to university. In my third year of university, I went to watch the very first Tokyo International Women’s Marathon.

“I watched the runners cross the finish line in the soaking rain and they were drenched. But they were glowing as well - absolutely shining. It was a sight I simply could not forget.”

The mother of four had to take a long timeout from running but started hitting the pavement again as she approached 40.

Yugeta, a PE teacher from Saitama Prefecture, found inspiration from British long-distance runner Joyce Smith, the winner of the inaugural Tokyo International Women’s Marathon (as well as the second) that Yugeta watched as a college girl.

Smith had sustained success beyond 40, winning the London Marathon twice. Her second win (1982) came at 44 years, 195 days - an age record that stands to this day.

She was ninth in the marathon of the inaugural 1983 World Athletics Championships. And at the time of the Los Angeles 1984 Games, Smith was the oldest female Olympian ever at 46, finishing 11th.

But even though Yugeta ramped up the work, she was far from breaking three hours.

The turning point arrived when Yugeta turned 50. That’s five-oh.

“When I became 50, my youngest son started high school which freed up a lot of my time,” she recalled.

“I joined a running club in Tokyo to train more seriously. I was a little worried at first because of my age but my teammates were telling me I still had plenty left in my 50s and urged me to keep going. So I did.

“The training paid off and when I was 58, I ran my first sub-three. Then at 60, I set a world record of 2:59:15 in the Shimonoseki Kaikyo Marathon.

“I’ve run 114 marathons. I’m past 60 but I’m still improving my time.”

Marathon No. 115 for Yugeta was this year's Boston Marathon on 18 April. Yugeta clocked a 3:06:27, relatively pedestrian by her standards, but enjoyed a tearful moment meeting the race’s two-time winner Joan Benoit Samuelson - who also happens to be the first female Olympic champion in the marathon.

These days, Yugeta’s goal is to break the 2:50 mark, more than two minutes off her personal best.

It would smash her own world record for her age category.

But don’t bother telling Yugeta she can’t because she believes, she does, and she wills.

Asked what has driven her for four decades, Yugeta said, “I think the most important thing is to find something you can be passionate about.

“You can’t give up. Don’t use age as an excuse. The secret is to believe in yourself, that you can do it.

“I first dreamed of a sub-three when I was 24. It took me 34 years, but I made it happen and after that, I set a world record.

“I want to keep dreaming - no matter how old I am.”

Mariko Yugeta crossing the finish line of the Boston Marathon on 18 April. Her time was 3:06:27.
Picture by Boston Athletic Association

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