This is where it all began, in Marathon 112 years ago, when the first ever marathon race was run. It wasn’t 42.195 kilometres back in 1896 (or in 490BC, when the famous battle which inspired the race was won), but that’s another story. This is the course that every marathon runner, elite or otherwise should want to run at some point in their career. And Mai Tagami of Japan is no exception.
In the week following Sydney Olympic champion, Naoko Takahashi’s or Q-Chan’s (as she is known by her fans) retirement, one of her former colleagues is about to tread the trail that Takahashi would have loved to have taken, had she been fit enough to defend her Olympic title four years ago.
“I know it’s a hard course,” said 28-year-old Tagami at the Friday’s press conference (7) for the Alpha Bank Athens Classic Marathon, “but I’m pleased to have the opportunity to run such an interesting race.”
Tagami is coached by Yoshio Koide, who guided Takahashi to Olympic gold in Sydney. And Tagami can confirm all the stories about coach Koide’s demands. “He’s very tough,” said the diminutive runner, barely taller than compatriot Mizuki Noguchi, who won the Olympic race here in Athens four years ago. “He took me to Boulder (Colorado USA) for the first time this summer. Some weeks I was running 200 kilometres, other weeks, it was 300 kilometres.”
But that’s no deterrent to Tagami, who was born in Kobe, but lives in Chiba. “I like running,” she says simply. Just so. She has run three marathons already this year, the most recent being a win in Melbourne four weeks ago, when a strong headwind in the second half of the race restricted her time to 2:38:43. Her best, from Hokkaido 2004 is exactly nine minutes faster. But she concedes on the hilly Marathon to Athens course, she’ll probably do no better than 2:35.
She switched to marathons at the age of 19, when she realised that 800 metres best of 2:12 wasn’t going to get her anywhere. The move was an immediate success, she won her debut race, the Universities’ Championship in Sasayama that same year, 1999.
Her career since then has included an eighth place in Boston 2002, on the way to that best of 2:29:43, second to Masako Shiba in Hokkaido 2004. “It would be my biggest success if I win here,” she said. And she’ll have plenty of inspiration to do that. “My parents (Shiro and mother, Shoko) are coming tomorrow.”
The men’s race will almost inevitably be another Kenyan success, since the fastest man in the field, Migidio Bourifa (2:09:07 for third in Paris 2002) has agreed to act as pacemaker for Benson Kimutai, Paul Kogo and Elias Chebet, all of whom have run under 2:11.
Pat Butcher for the IAAF