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Updated 5 October 2009
Yukiko Akaba, Japan (Marathon)
Born: 18 October 1979, Tochigi Prefecture
1.58m / 41kg
Coach: Shuhei Akaba (husband)
Yukiko Akaba, the only world class runner in Japan who is also raising a child, started to participate in athletics in junior high school, winning the 3000m in the High School Prefectural Championships while in Mooka High School. However, she never contested a medal at national level until she entered Josai University.
Akaba excelled on both track and road in college. Her college career was decorated with national titles and international medals. In her first year, Akaba was seventh at 5000m in the National Inter-Collegiate Championships, but her real breakthrough came in the fall, when she recorded a stage best (24:23 for 7.5Km fourth stage) in the women’s National Collegiate Ekiden Championship. Her team won the championships and, from then on, Akaba was considered to be a big gun in her team.
In her sophomore year, Akaba won the 5000m in the 1999 National Inter-Collegiate Championships, which was her first title at national level. Then in the summer of 1999, Akaba won the Half Marathon silver medal in the World University Games, in Palma de Mallorca. In 2000, Akaba recorded the fastest time in the first stage of the women’s National Collegiate Ekiden Championship, helping her team to victory. Finally, in her senior year, 2001, Akaba again competed at the World University Games, this time on the track in Beijing. She won a bronze medal at 10,000m and finished eighth at 5000m.
After graduating from Josai University in March 2002, Akaba joined Hokuren track team. Her career, unfortunately, was plagued with injury problems for the next few years, however, and she even contemplated leaving the sport from time to time. What saved Akaba’s career was her marriage to Shuhei Asari in March 2005. Shuhei was a teammate of Akaba’s in Josai University track team and, soon after their marriage (Shusei took Yukiko’s last name, Akaba) he started coaching her. Soon Akaba’s career started to move forward. First, in November, she recorded 15:11.17 for 5000m, the fourth fastest time in history, at that point, by a Japanese.
After daughter Yuuna was born in August 2006, instead of concentrating in motherhood Akaba returned to training in the fall. Her goal was to make the team for the 2007 World Championships, in Osaka. Unfortunately, she was only 15th in the 2007 National Championships, a qualifying meeting for the Worlds, and thus failed to make the team. Undaunted, Akaba trained hard through the summer and finished third (first Japanese) in the All Japan Corporate team track and field championships in September.
A month later, in the National Sports Festival, running alone from 1000m, Akaba won the 5000m convincingly with 15:22.73. She was on a roll. In the East Japan Corporate team women’s Ekiden Championship, Akaba broke the stage best for the 11.6km stage five, the record held by Naoko Takahashi, the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games Marathon champion. Then, in December, Akaba recorded an Olympic “A” standard when she recorded 31:23.27 for 10,000m. It was also the fastest 10,000m by Japanese in 2007. She continued to excel in 2008. In March, Akaba won the All JPN Corporate track team Half Marathon Championship with 1:08:11. The time was the third fastest in history by a Japanese woman behind those of Kayoko Fukushi (1:07.26) and Mizuki Noguchi (1:07.43).
The women’s 10,000m may have been the most competitive event in the 2008 National Championships, for five runners in the race had achieved an Olympic “A” standard beforehand. Because Akaba was among those with the standard, victory would clinch an Olympic team berth. However, she had to battle with Yoko Shibui, the National 10,000m record holder, and Fukushi, the Asian record holder at the Half Marathon as well as National record holder at 3000m and 5000m.
In the final lap Akaba surged to take a lead, but she was overhauled by Shibui in the final 100m, and finish second. She did, however, set a personal best, 31:15.34. Two days later, at 5000m, Akaba finished second to Yuriko Kobayashi (1500m National record holder) ahead of Shibui and Fukushi.
Following the results of the National Championships, the JAAF Olympic team selection committee picked Akaba to run the 10,000m in the Olympics. However, because she had achieved an Olympic “A” standard at 5000m, when she recorded 15:06.27 on 13 July, she will be running both events in Beijing.
Although the number of women who continue to compete at elite level after marriage is increasing, in Japan it is still rare for women to do so after childbirth. In fact Akaba is the first Japanese Olympian who also enjoys motherhood. Because Akaba’s family story was the subject of TV programme, she has been at the centre of attention recently.
“Because I lack experience in racing at the highest level, I doubt I would be competitive with Fukushi if she is at the top of her game,” Akaba said.. “However, I feel stronger both physically and mentally after childbirth. In fact, while doing the same workout, my breathing is easier now.” Her husband, on the other hand, said, “She might have been pushing herself a little too hard immediately after childbirth, but I think she is now rounding into shape nicely. Perhaps Yukiko wants to show her daughter how good a runner she is.” Akaba agrees. “I can try harder because of my daughter,” she said.
While most of the Olympic-bound athletes trained oversea for the Games, Akaba chose a domestic setting. In fact, Akaba’s daughter accompanied her to the training camp. The road to the Olympics was, indeed, a family affair.
However, Akaba was not able to fulfill her potential in Beijing. She finished a distant 20th with 32:00.37 (more than 45 seconds slower than her personal best) at 10000m and failed to advance to the 5000m Final as she was only twelfth in her heat with 15:38.30 (more than 30 seconds slower than her best).
“The reason, I think, is because both Yukiko and I lacked proper experience for the big Games. Everything, such as planning a training schedule before the Games, living in the Olympic Village including meals provided in the facility, and running with the world best in the most prestigious race of all, were all new to us. We did not know how to handle the situation,” explains Shuhei who coaches Yukiko. “It was an important learning experience for stepping up to the next level,” concluded Shuhei.
Naturally, they want to redeem themselves, but both Yukiko and Shuhei agree that failure at the Olympic Games can be redeemed only at the next Olympics. Thus, after the Olympics, they said that with moving up to the Marathon as one of the options, Yukiko will be targeting the 2012 London Olympic Games.
She resumed her training two weeks after the Beijing Olympics. Her first big race was the World Half Marathon Championships in Rio in October, where Akaba finished 10th with 1:11:39. She was the highest placed Japanese in the race.
Their next goal was making a Marathon debut at the Osaka Ladies Marathon in January 2009. Since neither Yukiko nor Shuhei was familiar with the marathon training, for Shuhei was a middle distance runner and Yukiko was making a marathon debut, they were not sure of their training method and thus naturally they had to rely on trial and error to some extent. Although Akaba came down with a foot injury in November and had to curtail her training, in mid-December Akaba recorded the fastest time in the 11.6Km stage 5 at All Japan Corporate team Ekiden Championships. The race gave Akaba confidence that she had good speed, so she started to work on endurance after mid-December.
“I was bit concerned about the possibility of a fast pace,” said Shuhei. However, because even Yoko Shibui, the 10,000m national record holder, who was running second marathon in two and half month, decided to stay with the pack, the pace actually turned out to be ideal for Akaba. Although Akaba could not keep up with Shibui when she made her move at 30Km, Akaba still finished second in 2:25:40. Her second half of the race was 22 seconds faster than the first half. Furthermore, her pace was very stable, for, excluding the 5Km segment from 30 to 35Km, where the pace had increased dramatically, all 5Km lap times were within 26 seconds of each other. Thus her race was highly regarded by marathon experts. Because she did not win the race, Akaba was not automatically selected to the team immediately after the race, but in May, when the final team members were announced, Akaba was on the Marathon team for Berlin.
Three days after Akaba made the team, she ran the Sendai International Half Marathon. Although it was just a part of the training, Akaba won with 1:08:50,he her second fastest Half Marathon time of her career. Following the race, Akaba started her training for the World Championships. She trained for a month at high altitude in Sugadaira, in Nagano prefecture, and then at the end of June, she ran 5000m and 10000m at the national championships. “It was part of the speed training, but since it is a race, I still wanted to win it,” said Akaba. She must have felt so because she had failed to win the national championships last year. At 10,000m, Akaba took the lead at 4200m and stayed in the front till 7000m. Although Akaba gave up the lead after 7000m, she stayed close to the leaders until 9800m where she started her sprint, and won with 31:57.44. Two days later, Akaba finished sixth at 5000m. “These two races were great confidence builders. It was evident that she has not lost any speed even after a month of marathon training,” analyzes Shuhei.
Although Akaba improved with every race in the recent years, the second marathon of her career, at the 2009 IAAF World Championships in Athletics, was quite a humbling experience.
In Berlin, Akaba started the race with the goal of finishing in a top eight place in mind. Two days before the competition, at the pre-event press conference, Akaba even discussed where she might make her move during the race. Although Akaba was among the leaders in the early stages, disliking the constant shift of pace at each drink station, she moved to the rear of the lead pack.
Unfortunately, recalls Akaba, “my leg felt heavy after 20Km and soon I was unable to stay with the pace.” Having lost contact with the lead pack at 25Km, she hit the wall after 30Km and although she finished the race, Akaba was a disappointing 31st in 2:37:43.
“Dehydration caused her to slow down after 20Km. I thought we were well prepared for the summer marathon, but in reality we were not and the final result showed it,” explained Shuhei after the race. “I learned the frightening truth about the marathon such as how hard the marathon race can be. It was a disappointing performance, and I hope to redeem myself in the next race,” said Akaba.
“We hit the rock bottom in Berlin, but I believe the hallmark of great athletes is in their ability to come back strongly from a disappointing race. This is not the end of the story for Akaba,” said Shuhei. Akaba will renew her quest for excellence in the upcoming IAAF World Half Marathon Championships in Birmingham.
5000m: 15:06.07 (2008)
10,000m: 31:15.45 (2008)
Half Marathon: 1:08:11 (2008)
Marathon: 2:25:40 (2009)
5000m/10,000m/Half Marathon: 1995-17:36.36/-/-; 1996-16:42.2/-/-; 1997-16:46.1/-/-; 1998-16:22.9/ 34:16.5/-; 1999-15:27.89/ 32:54.14/ 1:13:19; 2000-15:44.7/-/-; 2001-15:35.13/ 32:57.35/ 1:11:23; 2002-15:41.20/32:59.16/ 1:13:04; 2003-15:59.64/-/-; 2004-15:35.60/-/-; 2005-15:11.17/-/-; 2006-15:51.01/-/-; 2007- 15:22.73/31:23.27/ -; 2008-15:06.07/ 31:15.34/ 1:08:11; 2009- 15.35.05/31.57.44/1:08.50/2:25.40
1999 2nd World University Games (Half Marathon)
2001 3rd World University Games (10,000m)
2001 8th World University Games (5000m)
2008 h/20 Olympic Games (5000m/10,000m)
2008 10th World Half Marathon Championships
2009 31st World Championships (Marathon)
Prepared by Ikumi Kodama for the IAAF ‘Focus on Athletes’ project. © IAAF 2008-2009.