Mizuko Noguchi of Japan wins the Marathon in the Panathinaikos Stadium (© Getty Images)
Practice, they say, makes perfect. The meticulous planning and practice over the past year by Japan's Mizuki Noguchi certainly helped towards the perfect moment when she crossed the finishing line in the Panathinaiko Stadium at the end of probably the most gruelling women’s Olympic Marathon.
Japanese preparation was perfect
Noguchi’s 2:26:20 not only broke the existing course record by five minutes, but it also broke the resolve of all her rivals, including the two fastest women of all time, Kenya’s Catherine Ndereba, who won the silver medal, and Paula Radcliffe, of Great Britain, whose race finished, slumped on the roadside, her head in her hands.
While Radcliffe is known for her meticulous preparation, the former World Cross Country champion’s build-up to the Olympics was far less specific than Noguchi’s.
While Radcliffe spent a month in southern Spain for heat acclimatisation training and visited the notoriously tough Marathon to Athens course just a week before the race, Noguchi spent six months training in heat and at altitude, first in Kunming in China and then, just as she did before winning silver at last year’s World Championships in Paris, at St Moritz in Switzerland.
She broke from the training regime only twice, both occasions visiting Athens with her coach and support staff, to run over the entire Olympic Marathon course. And mindful of the route’s demanding climbs, her training concentrated on hill running, especially running downhill at the end of her longer runs - just as she needed to do at the end of the Olympic race, tellingly opening up a winning margin on her rivals.
Kastor suited to the hilly course
It was an approach which, thousands of miles away at Mammoth Lakes, California, Deena Kastor was mimicking in her own way. Kastor and her husband Andrew, who helps with her training, also understood that the Athens course would offer her an excellent opportunity to win a medal.
“She's a hill runner,” Andrew Kastor explained. “She has very, very good biomechanics for hill running and she loves to attack the hills. We've been doing that in training at 8000 feet in Mammoth, attacking mountains.
“It's why she chose the race. She chose because it was a difficult course, difficult conditions.”
For Noguchi, the final fitness check came just before she left Switzerland for Athens, running a 40km time trial in 2:25. “Noguchi can run a sub-2:20 marathon now,” her coach, Nobuyuki Fujita, confidently predicted, thinking ahead to the flatter, cooler races in Japan later this year.
“I was well prepared for the race,” Noguchi said. “I knew that there would be difficult conditions, like the heat, the sun and the hills. I was ready for that.”
Running scared at the end
Indeed, the Japanese as a team - Noguchi, Reiko Tosa, who placed fifth in 2:28:44 and Naoko Sakamoto, seventh (2:31:43) - were all ready for the course, and for Radcliffe and Ndereba, who had foiled Noguchi’s run for gold in Paris last year.
That defeat, when Ndereba broke away in the closing stages, clearly preyed on Noguchi. When her coach shouted at her, just after 25km, to make a bid for victory, she did so in a determined style. But it meant she was a target for the rest of the field for the last 10 miles of the race. “I was scared,” Noguchi said of the latter stages. “I heard someone behind me. I wasn’t sure if my speed was enough to hold her off.”
As well as hill running, the Japanese had focused their preparations on what they believed to be Radcliffe’s vulnerability: coping with the high temperatures anticipated in Athens.
“She is very strong, coming from a cross-country background, and is also good at 10,000 metres,” Akemi Masuda, the former Japanese record-holder, had said of Radcliffe in the week before the race, “but the Japanese coaches cite the fact that she has never won a marathon in extreme heat.”
It was a potential weakness which the former 10,000m World record-holder, David Bedford, who as the London Marathon race director knows Radcliffe very well, had also identified.
“I think it is well nigh impossible for a northern European to win in these conditions,” he said after watching the race with around 5000 other disappointed British fans in the Panathinaiko Stadium.
“I think the gap in Paula's superiority was not enough to counteract the heat problems that she encountered. When northern Europeans run in this intense heat, they get a tremendously dry throat, which any amount of drinking will not affect.
“In the later stages, competitors will get a coldness on the outside of the body and dizziness in the head. The legs will increasingly begin to feel weak and they will have trouble running in a straight line.”
Half Marathon form transfers to full Marathon legend
Noguchi was picked out by Masuda as the leading Japanese runner. In her first three Marathons, she had won Nagoya in 2002 and Osaka in 2003 prior to her only defeat at the distance in Paris last August. That performance earned her automatic selection for Athens. And then the hard work really began.
Noguchi, now 26, has long promised to be a great marathoner, although in high school her athletics career began as a sprinter. But when introduced to the Japanese road relay, or Ekiden, she immediately showed tremendous ability and was moved up to the middle distance group. Yet her future would be as a road runner.
Famed in Japan for her prowess at the Half-Marathon distance, where she won a World Championship silver in 1999, having succeeded Naoko Takahashi as the Olympic champion, Noguchi is now assured of being Japan’s golden girl.
Additional reporting by Ken Nakamura