Fukushi Finds Direction To Marathon Success After Years Of Struggle

Fukushi finds direction to marathon success after years of strugglePrior to the Osaka Women’s Marathon on Jan. 31, every time Kayoko Fukushi had run a race of 42.195 kilometers, she hadn’t been able to finish first.
But her jubilant moment finally came in Osaka, where the rest of the field was far behind Fukushi after a journey that took 2 hours 22 minutes 17 seconds.

“I did it. I got the top prize at last,” said the 33-year-old runner, who broke her personal best by more than two minutes and finished more than six minutes ahead of runner-up Misato Horie.

For the first time in eight career marathons, Fukushi crossed the finish line first — she has a victory in the 2013 Osaka Marathon to her credit, but she was determined the winner after the top finisher was later disqualified because of doping.

Fukushi’s time at this year’s Osaka race, one of the domestic qualifiers for this summer’s Rio de Janeiro Olympics, was seventh among Japanese women’s all-time.

She took a big step toward earning a spot at the Rio Games with a time that bettered of the 2:22:30 benchmark designated by the Japan Association of Athletics Federations to qualify for Rio.

The pace was fast at the start of the race, with strong favorites dropping out of the lead group one by one. However, Fukushi stayed with the pacemaker, running unchallenged to the finish after about 25 kilometers.

“The soles of my feet began aching before the 30-kilometer mark, but I thought, ‘I don’t even care if [my legs] break,’” Fukushi said.

The veteran runner pointed to a change in diet as the reason she was victorious. Fukushi’s training program focuses on refining her speed, and she shifts into top gear over the final month before competitions. As a result, her training program puts her at risk of running out of gas in the final stages of races.

To overcome that, Fukushi tripled her food intake — mainly eating carbohydrate-centered meals — at a training camp just ahead of the Osaka marathon.

Tadayuki Nagayama, who has been coaching Fukushi for 16 years, praised the way she adjusted her diet, saying, “I believe that was tougher than the training.”

Making the difficult transition

Fukushi has long been in the spotlight for her dominance in long-distance races such as the 5,000 meters, earning her the nickname “queen of the track.” However, she struggled to make the transition to the marathon.

Raised in Itayanagi, Aomori Prefecture, Fukushi was a virtual unknown throughout her high school running career. However, she began to bloom soon after joining the Wacoal corporate team.

In 2002, she won her first major titles in both the 5,000 and 10,000 at the Japan Championships. Her Japan records in 3,000 meters (8:44:40 set in 2002) and in 5,000 meters (14:53:22 in 2005) still stand today.

Fukushi made her marathon debut at the 2008 Osaka Women’s Marathon, looking to earn a spot at the Beijing Olympics. But the day came to a bitter end as dehydration forced her to stumble and trip several times during the final lap in the stadium before finishing 19th.

After the race, she drew heavy criticism with comments such as “She doesn’t have stamina. You can’t expect a lot from her in marathons.”

Four years later, she ran again in Osaka, seeking a spot at the London Games. But it was like de ja vu as she suddenly fell off her pace in the middle of the race and finished ninth.

Fukushi has appeared in all three Olympics since the Athens Games in 2004, but never in the marathon.

She finally made headlines in the marathon by winning the bronze medal at the World Championships in 2013, but her struggles continued. She has suffered stress fractures three times since that race in Moscow.

Japan is allowed three entries in Rio, with Mai Ito receiving tentative designation after finishing seventh at last year’s World Championships. The last domestic qualifier, the Nagoya Women’s Marathon, is scheduled in March, but Fukushi moved a leg up on her competition with the Osaka victory.

JAAF official Katsumi Sakai said Fukushi is “at Japan’s top at this time.”

Fukushi is working to continue her good stretch, not shying away from pressure in saying, “My goal is to win the gold medal at Rio.”