Friday, March 21, 2008

Yukiko Akaba Returns From Birth Stronger Than Ever

by Brett Larner



Six months ago Yukiko Akaba was just an ace runner on a corporate team, a strong athlete with some a few good results in university but nothing truly noteworthy other than continuing to run after giving birth in August, 2006. When the 2007 fall and winter season came around, the 28 year old Akaba suddenly let loose with a string of impressive performances and major PBs culminating in last weekend's Jitsugyodan Half Marathon, where she ran a 3 minute 12 second PB of 1:08:11 to break Mizuki Noguchi's course record and become the 3rd-fastest Japanese woman of all time in the half marathon behind former national record holder Noguchi and current national record holder Kayoko Fukushi. Her time is also the 2nd-fastest in the world so far this year, and her intention to run the 10000 m in the Beijing Olympics and to debut in the marathon next winter marks her as a runner to watch on the world scene.

Akaba was born in 1979 in Tochigi Prefecture. She attended Josai University where her accomplishments included a silver medal in the half marathon at the 1999 Majorca Universiad and a bronze in the 10000 m at the 2001 Beijing Universiad. Her 3000 m PB of 9:15.73 also dates from this era. Akaba also won stage best honors all 4 years in the All-Japan University Women's Ekiden, a difficult achievement which led to her being hired by Team Hokuren upon her graduation in 2002.

Akaba's first few years with Hokuren were mediocre, her times for 5000 m and 10000 m actually declining compared to her student-era bests. She married her university team manager Shuhei, but despite his additional coaching assistance Akaba did not improve. It was not until late 2005 that she had a breakthrough performance when she ran 15:11.17 at a track meet in Yokohama, a 17-second PB, her first time breaking one of her student times since turning pro 3 1/2 years earlier, and the all-time 4th best by a Japanese woman. 9 months later she gave birth to a daughter, Yuna. Her pregnancy attracted some attention in the media as she continued running until 2 days before Yuna's birth then resumed training only 3 weeks later. Akaba's return to racing came 3 months after the birth in an ekiden with Team Hokuren, then a few weeks later she ran 15:51.01 for 5000 m. It was 40 seconds off her best from the previous year but still marked a return to form.



Yukiko Akaba and her family at home and at work.

From this point on, Akaba began to improve steadily throughout 2007. Among her major results in the spring and summer of 2007, Akaba ran a 32:20 road 10 km PB at the Feb. 11 Karatsu Road Race, followed by her lifetime 2nd best of 15:24.65 for 5000 m on Apr. 7 and a PB of 32:27.63 for 10000 m on July 11. When the fall season came around just after Yuna's 1st birthday Akaba really took off.

In the 10000 m at the All-Japan Jitsugyodan Track and Field Meet on Sept. 21 she broke 32 minutes for the first time, recording a 36 second PB of 31:51.58. 2 weeks later she ran a new lifetime 2nd best of 15:22.73 for 5000 m. She set a new stage record on the 11.1 km 5th stage of the Nov. 3 East Japan Jitsugyodan Women's Ekiden, running 34:37 to break Naoko Takahashi's long-standing mark. 3 weeks later came the race which made Akaba a household name in Japan, the International Chiba Ekiden on Nov. 23.

Akaba ran anchor for the Japanese team. Starting in 2nd place, Akaba faced the formidable challenge of running down Osaka World Championships marathon gold medalist and former marathon world record holder Catherine Ndereba of Kenya. Akaba passed Ndereba after only 800 m and went on to win by over 400 m (top photo). Ndereba was admittedly tired from running the New York City Marathon just a few weeks before, but Akaba's time was nevertheless a strong stage best. Nationwide TV coverage of the ekiden featured post-race footage of Ndereba, team member Kayoko Fukushi and Akaba playing with Yuna on the track's infield. Akaba was duly nicknamed the 'Mama-san Runner.'

Akaba's next race was the All-Japan Jitsugyodan Women's Ekiden championship on Dec. 16 where she squared off against Fukushi and other top domestic runners on the 11.6 km 5th stage. Akaba ran 36:49 but had to settled for 2nd on the stage as she was 7 seconds slower than Fukushi's stage best 36:42. Just a week later came the result of her life up to that point, a 31:23.27 10000 m PB at the Dec. 23 Nittai University Women's Track and Field Meet. This was a 28 second PB for Akaba and her 1st truly world-class performance in so far as it met the Beijing Olympics A-standard. After not making the national team for the World Championships following childbirth, Akaba now ended the year as the top-ranked 10000 m runner in the country.

She began 2008 with 2 ekidens, running 32:02 on the 10 km 9th stage of the Jan. 13 Interprefectural Women's Ekiden and 31:43 for 10 km on the 2nd leg of the Feb. 24 Yokohama International Women's Ekiden, both times 2nd on her stage. 3 weeks after Yokohama came the biggest performance of her life to date, her 1:08:11 course record at the Mar. 16 Jitsugyodan Half Marathon. Akaba was very, very impressive throughout the first 15 km of the race, showing strength, aggression, and beautifully powerful form. She fearlessly dropped 1:07 half marathoner Phyles Ongori on an early hill as she chased her own 1:07, running a road 10 km PB of 31:58 along the way. Although Akaba said she was disappointed by her time of 1:08:11, her new mark broke her 7 year old PB by 3 minutes, 12 seconds and was, in fact, her 1st half marathon in 4 years. Despite fading in the final kilometers and missing 1:07 by seconds, Akaba's run showed that Kayoko Fukushi is not the only contender to be the next great Japanese marathon woman. Her chance will come soon; in a post-race interview Akaba said that after running the 10000 m in Beijing she will begin preparing for her marathon debut next winter.

Beyond simply the quality of her performances, Akaba is noteworthy as a clear example of an elite athlete who became stronger after giving birth. As such she is breaking new ground for women worldwide and helping to redefine what is possible.

For a list of Akaba's top performances, consult the IAAF's athlete biography section here. Her blog also includes complete records of her race results, some training menus and many photos.


(c) 2008 Brett Larner


all rights reserved

top photo by Jason Lawrence; used by permission

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