Kayoko Fukushi at the 2006 World Cross Country Championships in Fukuoka (AFP / Getty Images) © Copyright
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World Cross memories – Kayoko Fukushi

As a 2:22:17 marathon performer and 2013 world bronze medallist, Kayoko Fukushi has carved out a reputation as one of the world’s leading marathon runners. Yet the Japanese athlete believes her experiences at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships also played their part in helping her achieve her goals on the road.

First senior World Cross as a teenager

By the time of her IAAF World Cross Country Championships debut at the 2002 edition in Dublin, Kayoko Fukushi was already a star in the making in her homeland.

She first made her mark internationally by finishing fourth over 5000m at the 2000 IAAF World U20 Championships in Santiago, Chile, and backed it up the next year by setting national junior records in the 3000m, 5000m and 10,000m.

To build on her international experience, the then 19-year-old won selection for the senior team to contest the 2002 World Cross, and although she did not have a wealth of cross-country experience, she was looking forward to competing in the Irish capital.

“During high school I sometimes trained on a cross-country style course, although my only cross-country race experience had been at the Chiba and Fukuoka cross-country meets in Japan,” she explains. “I don't really know if I am a (cross country) 'natural', but I always really enjoyed running on grass or turf.”

At the event, staged at the Leopardstown Racecourse, Fukushi performed with pride and finished a respectable 15th overall – finishing some 58 seconds behind race winner Paula Radcliffe of Great Britain – and helped her nation to fourth in the team competition.

“Going to a new country for a world championship, everything was fresh and exciting for me, including running the race on a horse race track!” she says with a laugh. “My main memory was that I didn't really know exactly where I was on the course and I just ran until the finish line. It was fun.”

Leading host squad to team bronze in Fukuoka 

It was another four years before Fukushi would return to the World Cross Country Championships – yet as the 2006 edition was in Fukuoka in Japan, it was not an opportunity she wanted to miss and she was keen to help her country win a medal on home turf.

A little under two months ahead of the event she also raised the level of expectation by almost accidentally setting a world 15km best of 46:55 en route to victory in an Asian record time of 1:07:26 at the Marugame Half Marathon.

“I don’t really know why I was in such great shape,” she says of her surprise record. “I went into that race and just chased the male runners and when I got to the finish I realised I had broken the record.

“In terms of my expectations for the World Cross, I thought maybe the overseas runners might be more tense than I going into the race, although I really didn’t do any specific preparation.”

Fukushi admits she was blown away by the number of spectators on the course predominantly to support the home Japanese athletes.

Yet on a chilly windswept day on the Fukuoka plain, Fukushi was also realistic about the scale of her task as she faced a formidable field which included Ethiopia’s defending champion Tirunesh Dibaba, Kenyan-born Dutch athlete Lornah Kiplagat and Australia’s 2004 champion Benita Willis.

For much of the race on a picturesque course lined with blossoming cherry trees, Kiplagat appeared in control and held a three-second lead at the bell. Behind, Fukushi adopted a simple strategy.

“There wasn't really any tactical plan or anything like that. I just tried to stick with the front group,” she says. “I remember it was very quick from the gun. I have good memories of having been able to run a 'Japanese' World Cross Country Championship. I remember feeling I was steadily improving my position, and moving up.”

Cross country ‘can widen your perspectives’

Fukushi was correct. At the end of the first of four 2km laps she was 12th while on lap two she advanced to seventh. She held firm in seventh on the penultimate lap before pushing past Mestawet Tufa of Ethiopia on the final 2km loop to take sixth – some 30 seconds behind Dibaba, the eventual race winner, who proved too strong for Kiplagat in the latter stages.

Fukushi was “surprised and delighted” with her individual display and she was also elated to help Japan to the team bronze – seven points clear of Australia.

It was to be her final World Cross Country Championship appearance, but it proved an invaluable tool as she later went on to specialise as a road and marathon runner – winning bronze over the 42.2km distance at the 2013 IAAF World Championships in Moscow.

“Thanks to the cross-country experience, I felt a bit more confident, and it also became easier for me to race on the roads,” she says. “I would recommend it to anyone to run the World Cross because it can widen your perspective. As I proved (at World Cross) by continuing to set challenges, you can surprise yourself.”

Steve Landells for the IAAF