MARCH 2019: I was delighted when Mike Gratton asked me to help out at this year’s 2:09 Events’ training camp in the Algarve; even more so when I discovered that Mara Yamauchi was also to be part of his team out there.

Mara finished 6th in the marathon at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Her PB, 2:23:12, was set the following year, in London, making her the all-time, second fastest, British, female marathoner after world-record holder, Paula Radcliffe.

The background to Mara’s running career was not typical of her competitors. She had little experience of competitive running in her younger years, only taking up the sport in her late teens.

Although born in Oxford (1973), she spent the first eight years of her life in Nairobi, Kenya.

Her early/mid- teens were spent swimming with a local club, back in Oxford, and also playing netball and hockey. But it wasn’t until a few years later, that Mara joined Headington Road Runners, only getting into running more seriously in 1992, as an undergraduate.

Initially, her competitive running was at cross-country events.

By 1998, she had gone on to win the National Cross-Country Championships.

After that, her running took a long break, from 1998 to 2002, as she focussed on her career with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in Tokyo.

Returning to the UK, she began working on a part-time basis. This enabled Mara to re-focus on her running career, with the target of taking on her first marathon… London, 2004.

So, after the unconventional route to her marathon career, Mara progressed over the next few years, albeit interspersed with various injuries, to culminate with the success of Beijing Olympics and (still, to this day) Britain’s no.2.

Mara retired from competitive athletics in 2013.

It has been a pleasure to spend some time, this week, with Mara, here in the Algarve.

Mara, to what do you attribute your running achievements? And do you think that spending the first few years of your life at high altitude would have given you a good start?

Spending my early childhood at altitude and in a warm climate where I could be active outdoors no doubt helped. I think a variety of physical activity is so important for small children. Otherwise the main factor is just hard work – years of specific training, backed up with doing all the things which support training, eg good nutrition, injury-prevention, rest and recovery, etc. I’m also quite competitive and from age 11 set my heart on becoming an elite athlete.

I know it’s not all been a smooth ride for you, in that you’ve had a few setbacks along the way. What has been your approach when things haven’t gone to plan?

Trying to focus on doing things that will help you get better, eg on injuries, doing the required rehab, cross training, getting enough rest, eating properly, etc. Also setting small achievable goals – it’s easy to fall into a negative mind-set when things go wrong but that will just make the situation worse.  Having goals, however small, helps to keep you working on what is important.

Race preparation and execution is arguably as much mental as physical. What has been your own strategy and experience, as regards focus, commitment, self-belief, and so forth?

It depends on the race. If it was a race in which I was trying to qualify for another race, then it’s all about the time and I would focus on that. If it was a race where position is more important, then I would think about race tactics, my own strengths & weaknesses, sizing up the opposition, etc. Also trying to focus on things you can control and not dwelling on things you cannot control, eg others’ performances. I’ve had plenty of self-doubt and low confidence along the way, and I think this often led to me under-performing. This is difficult to overcome but things like writing down all the good preparation you’ve done, and surrounding yourself with people who support rather than undermine you, is important.

From my own experience, even as a novice marathoner, I’m fully aware of how all-consuming it can be when preparing to execute a perfect race. When you stepped back from competitive running, six years ago, it must have quite a shock, no longer having those big events to focus on. How did you deal with that transition into retirement?

With a lot of difficulty! If I’m honest, the years after I retired were by far the worst of my life so far. I had mental ill-health, struggled to find motivation for anything, couldn’t think straight, etc. Fortunately, things are going better now and I can find motivation and inspiration in running, even much slower than I used to, and in other things away from running. Pushing up my age grade on parkrun is one thing I get excited about now! The Dame Kelly Holmes Trust was a really invaluable source of help and support when I was in a bad place after retiring.

It’s great that you were able to benefit from the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust, Mara, and that things are going better for you now.

I imagine you’ve had plenty of time to reflect on what you’ve learned from your time training and racing.

We have a couple of hundred runners at RunBrighton, some preparing for their first ever marathon, others trying to better their existing times. What would be your top tips for our runners?

There really isn’t any secret to improving – it ain’t rocket science! You just need to do a suitable training routine consistently over time and do your best on the non-training things (nutrition, sleep, etc). Then be ready, mentally and physically, to give it 110% in races. Also, we’re all a bit obsessive in endurance running. So sometimes taking a break from running, a step back, especially if you’re struggling, can help you to put things in perspective and fall back in love with running. Also, gadgets and gizmos are no substitute for hard training. An expensive GPS watch won’t make you run faster!

Mara, thanks very much for taking the time to chat. It’s been a pleasure to meet you. And hopefully we’ll have the pleasure of your company again on next year’s Algarve training camp.

By Mike Bannister