Eri Yamaguchi a profile
Katsunori K. Nakamura for IAAF
In the 1999 Tokyo International Ladies marathon, a 1997 WC 10000m bronze medallist, Masako Chiba, as expected set a fast pace to run away from her rivals. What Chiba did not expect was that Eri Yamaguchi, although reported to be in great shape, matched the stride with her. When Masako Chiba started the race fast, Yamaguchi hesitated for a moment, but she decided to chase Chiba. In her interview with Track & Field Magazine (of Japan) she shared her thoughts at the time, "I thought it is better to crash and burn than think what might have been had I gone with Chiba."
Thus began the historic run by Eri Yamaguchi, the performance that probably secured her a spot on a Japanese Olympic marathon team. Yamaguchi passed 5km in 16:24, six seconds behind Chiba, and by 14km, she was pulling away from Chiba. She passed through half marathon in 1:09:31, which was faster than her half marathon PR of 1:10:04, recorded when she was 3rd in the 1999 Sapporo half marathon. Although she slowed down as expected in the final stage of the race partially due to the 30m climb after 36km, she ran the sixth fastest time in history, with her clocking of 2:22:12; more importantly, it was the fastest marathon time in a women only race on an out and back course.
Eri Yamaguchi was born in the small town of Takino in Hyogo prefecture, not far from Osaka on January 14, 1973 as the oldest child (she has a younger sister) of Masakazu & Saeko Yamaguchi. She spent much of her time in a volleyball court as a small child because her parents played, she too joined volleyball team in junior high school. But like all other Japanese youth, she also ran in district ekiden races. She does not recall winning any distance race during her junior high school days, but amazingly she did place first in the shot put in a small district meet.
Although she intended to continue with volleyball in her senior high school, and was encouraged to do so by her parents, she joined the track team. But her high school track career was undistinguished. With her 800m PR of 2:14.5 and 3000m PR of 9:47.6, she never qualified for the national high school championships. But because her high school team was an ekiden powerhouse, she ran in the national high school ekiden championships. In her junior year, inaugural year for womens division of high school ekiden championships, she was 29th in the stage one (her team was 28th), and in her senior year, she was seventh in the stage seven (anchor leg). Her team finished 11th.
After high school graduation, in April of 1991, she joined Daiei track team, which was based in near by Osaka. Watching her team-mate Yoshiko Yamamoto, one time national record holder at the marathon, train for the marathon, she decided that she too would like to be a marathon runner. But Daiei track team was on the verge of collapse. So in April of 1993, with a goal of running a marathon, she joined the Tenmaya track team in Okayama. The womens track team in Tenmaya was quite new (started in 1992). The leader of the team is Seiichiro Sasaki, a 1968 Olympic marathon runner (his claim to fame was that he was second to Derek Clayton in the 1967 Fukuoka marathon, the race in which Clayton broke 2:10). The head coach of the team was Yutaka Taketomi, a 2:11:27 marathon runner. Other coaching staff included Futoshi Shinohara who was 5th in the 1991 World Championships marathon. So the Tenmaya track team was staffed with experienced marathon runners and that was the primary reason why Yamaguchi selected to join it.
Her marathon debut was going to be the 1995 Osaka marathon, but the race was cancelled after a major earthquake hit Kobe/Osaka area a few weeks before the race. So her debut was postponed till the 1995 Hokkaido marathon in August, the race in which Yuko Arimori won and Yamaguchi was second in 2:32:47. Although she improved her PR to 2:31:43 (12th place) in her second marathon in the 1996 Osaka Ladies marathon, her next two races were quite disappointing for her (2:35:23 for 7th in 1996 Tokyo Ladies marathon, and 2:39:46 for 6th in the 1997 Hokkaido marathon), and she even contemplated quitting. It was in 1997 while she was in Boulder, Colorado, the legendary coach Koide, who guided Arimori and Hiromi Suzuki to global championships medal, mentioned in passing how talented she was. That together with convincing argument by head coach Taketomi that she must run one marathon after good preparation, convinced her to continue and she won the 1998 Hokkaido marathon in 2:27:36. But her next marathon, an attempt to qualify for the World Championships in 1999 Osaka Ladies marathon, was a failure as she was only 11th in 2:32:15. She later analysed that she did too much racing and not enough training between the Hokkaido marathon in August and the Osaka marathon in January.
After the Osaka marathon, with an Olympic qualifying race in mind, she started to run track races again. Knowing that a 2:26 marathon will not qualify her for an Olympic marathon team, she started to sharpen her speed with the goal of running 2:23 or 2:24 marathon. She ran a 32:23.48 10,000m in May 1999 in a solo run, a huge PR (previous PR 33:04.84). Then in June, she ran the Japanese Corporate track & field Championships 10,000m. Running with Esther Wanjiru (KEN) and Yuko Kawakami until the final lap, she set another PR with 32:07.26. She continued to run well, clocking a 1:10:04 half marathon, another PR, in Julys Sapporo half marathon. In the National Championships in October, although she was only fifth at the 10,000m with 32:13.0, the important point was that she was with the leader with one lap to go. She just could not match the kick of track runners like Harumi Hiroyama and Yuko Kawakami. As for the distance work, she was able to handle 40Km runs, which she used to dislike, better in 1999 than before. But after September, her long runs were 30Km at 17 minutes/5Km pace, the intended race pace. Thus her build up for the 1999 Tokyo Ladies marathon was the best it could be, and it translated to the fastest marathon on an out and back course in the women only race.