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Kayoko Obata, profile of a persistent runner

Kayoko Obata: profile of a persistent runner
K.Ken Nakamura

19 October 2000 - Judging from her debut marathon, in Hokkaido 1994 where she finished in 2:53.18, no-one would have expected Kayoko Obata to become a truly world class marathon runner.

But she indeed is of a world class standard: she finished 8th in the 1999 World Championships and recorded a personal best of 2:25:14 at the 2000 Osaka Ladies marathon.

This coming Sunday, Kayoko will take part in the 2000 Chicago marathon and she generally runs well in marathon races abroad, having clocked 2:27:27 in 1997 in Berlin and 2:28:39 in Chicago in 1998.

Kayoko Obata was born in city of Hiratsuka in Kanagawa prefecture south west of Tokyo on 18 September 1971. She initially played softball in elementary school and volleyball in junior high school. Influenced by her father, who liked to watch marathons and ekiden (road-relay) on TV at the weekend, and her older sister, who ran track in high school, Kayoko started running in high school.

Takashi Ishii, a former Japanese national record holder at 1500m, coached her high school team. However, she was a mediocre runner at best at this level; here her best was 9:34.52 for 3000m and 17:34.3 at 5000m. As for her championship performances, she won the district high school championships in her senior year, but failed to make the 3000m final in the national high school championships.

She was, however, a much better road racer. When she heard that a girl's division was to be inaugurated in the annual Japanese high school ekiden championships in her senior year, this was all she could think about. She was 9th in the first stage, the stage reserved for the best runner of the team.

After graduating from high school, she entered Tsukuba University, a well known track & field powerhouse, with the goal of representing Japan at international championships. Although she was 7th at the 10,000m in the National Collegiate championships in her freshman year, the next three years were nothing but a struggle for her. She was often injured, and gained weight through missed training sessions. And that in turn caused more injury.

While most of her college team-mates did not expect her to continue performing after college, she was determined to run for a corporate track team. In April of 1994 after graduation, she joined the Eidan Subway track team in its inaugural year.

The team consisted of four athletes and a coach, 25-year-old Naganuma, also a graduate of Tsukuba University. Naganuma felt that the marathon distance would be perfect for Obata, and so did she. When she joined the team she was about 10kg overweight, and people talked about her weight behind her back. She overheard people say, "How can anybody that fat run?" and was determined to prove them wrong. In 1994, when she made her marathon debut with 2:53:18, who would have predicted that she would make a World Championships marathon team five years later? But her progress in the marathon was steady. Starting in the 1994 Hokkaido marathon, she improved her marathon best in seven consecutive races to very respectable 2:27:27 in Berlin ‘97. The following year, she failed to improve her personal record, but in the 1999 Osaka marathon she moved up to the 7th place in the Japanese all-time performer's list to make the World Championships' team.

Before the World Championships, Obata trained at high altitude in Boulder, Colorado for the fourth time. Coach Naganuma's master thesis whilst at University was based on high altitude training, and with Obata he put his theory into practice. At the World Championships in Seville, despite losing contact with the lead pack at 32km and being in as low a position as 11th at one time in the late stages of the race, she eventually finished a respectable 8th in 2:29:11. For Obata, who said, "I really was looking for a medal," the race was a great confidence builder. She was ready to tackle the Olympic qualifying race.

In January 2000, in the Osaka Ladies marathon, she made a valiant attempt to make the Olympic marathon team. The race started very fast, too fast for Obata whose track 10,000m record is only 33:05.81. But she ran with the leaders who passed the 10km mark in 33:15, a mere ten seconds off her official best for the track 10,000m.

The leaders including Obata passed the half way point in 1:10:47, a personal record time for that distance for Obata.

She was able to hang on to the lead pack until 32km, and finished with a personal best time of 2:25:14, which made her the fourth fastest Japanese in the all-time list. "Since it was such a fast pace in the early part of the race, I was hoping to run 2:24," said Obata who concentrated on improving her marathon PR after losing contact with the lead pack.

Despite this great performance, she was not selected for the Olympic team. She was selected as an alternate, and even ran on the Olympic course as a training run. Undaunted, she set her next goal - to run fast time in a major marathon abroad. With this goal, she will start the Chicago marathon on Sunday.

Complete marathon record for Kayoko Obata:

2:53:18 7th Sapporo Aug 28, 1994
2:43:22 5th Nagano Mar 26, 1995
2:42:53 5th Sapporo Aug 27, 1995
2:37:27 21st Osaka Jan 28, 1996
2:37:10 9th Tokyo Nov 17, 1996
2:32:01 9th Nagoya Mar 9, 1997
2:27:27 4th Berlin Sept 28, 1997
2:33:09 12th Osaka Jan 25, 1998
2:28:39 4th Chicago Oct 11, 1998
2:26:18 4th Osaka Jan 31, 1999
2:29:11 8th Sevilla Aug 29, 1999
2:25:14 5th Osaka Jan 30, 2000
2:43:10 4th Sydney Apr 30, 2000 (training run)