BOSTON — The day before the Boston Marathon, two marathon giants met on Boylston Street.
Joan Benoit Samuelson, a two-time winner of the Boston Marathon and the first Olympic women’s marathon champion, was introduced to Mariko Yugeta, the first woman over 60 to run a marathon in under three hours.
“I’m super nervous to meet her; I’ve been thinking a lot about the questions I want to ask you,” Yugeta, 63, said before Sunday’s meeting. “She has raced at a high level for a long time. What kinds of things does she do to keep running now?
He approached Benoit Samuelson, 64, with a hand over his mouth and tears in his eyes. They shared a long handshake.
Yugeta was pregnant when she watched Benoit Samuelson win Olympic gold in 1984, she said. She shared with Benoit Samuelson her experience of seeing that victorious moment, remembering the color of his shirt and how he raised his arms in victory. Benoit Samuelson replied: “Racing is a two-way street. We all inspire each other.”
In fact, it has been taken by Yugeta, who in 2019 took on a title that many thought Benoit Samuelson would take over. Yugeta ran the 2019 Japan Shimonoseki Kaikyo Marathon in 2 hours, 59 minutes, and 15 seconds, then broke that mark two years later by running the 2021 Osaka Women’s International Marathon in 2:52:13.
Yugeta is the mother of four children. The oldest is 37, “like Kipchoge,” she said, referring to men’s marathon world record holder Eliud Kipchoge, and the youngest is 26. She didn’t start training for faster times until she was 50.
“It was always something I wanted to do,” he said of his belief that he was capable of running a marathon in less than three hours.
Yugeta increased his mileage and began interval training, joining an amateur track club in Tokyo. His goals began to accumulate. In one of the first races, he saw a man with a t-shirt that said he was running his 100th marathon.
“I thought: Do people do 100 marathons? Wow, I want to do that,” she said. “Now I’m thinking in terms of 150 marathons.”
Her training partners are much younger than her. Yugeta works at a high school and does speed work with the track team. (They can outrun her in a repeated 800m session, but she can hold her own when any workout is longer than 3000m.) In the off-season, she logs 62 to 70 miles a week, and when she’s preparing for a marathon, she runs more than 77 miles a week.
He came into Boston with a handful of recent races under his belt. She ran the Tokyo Marathon in March in 3:04:16. A week later, she ran the Nagoya Women’s Marathon in 2:58:40. Those were considered fitness checks, she said.
Yugeta speaks with the humility of an athlete who respects the unpredictability of distance running and the confidence of someone who has completed 114 marathons. He said he was going with the flow in the days leading up to his Boston Marathon debut, a sentiment rarely paired with a drive to set world records.
“I’ve raced in a lot of different circumstances,” he said. “If you get too locked into a routine, then if you find yourself in a situation where you can’t stick to your routine, you go crazy.”
Yugeta did not stress about refueling prior to the race. She wasn’t sure what she would eat for breakfast, but she said she would eat whatever the hotel had. As long as she had enough, she’d be fine, she said.
I had two wishes going into the Boston Marathon. “I really want people all over the world to know that there is a woman in her 60s, far away in Japan, who runs less than three for the marathon,” she said. “And I’m really looking forward to crossing the finish line to see a clock that starts at number two.”
In fact, on Sunday, to her surprise, she was greeted by fans. “This is you?” they said, showing Yugeta, who was wearing a mask, a photo of herself. She looked at them wide-eyed and smiled for a photo, giving a thumbs up.
On Monday, he missed his target time, finishing in 3:06:27.
Still, he plans to keep up his fast pace, except if he runs a race with a new partner. On Sunday, Benoit Samuelson said that he would like to run the Tokyo marathon. “When?” Yugeta replied.
Maybe next year. And maybe they could run together, said Benoit Samuelson, who plans to run the Boston Marathon next year to celebrate his 65th birthday.
She added, “Oh, you’ll have to slow down for me.”
“It’s not a race,” added Benoit Samuelson, “but a celebration.”
Brett Larner contributed reporting.