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Get out of your comfort zone!

Exactly ten years ago, I moved from London back to Japan and became a full-time athlete. Although being an elite athlete was a dream I had held since childhood, actually getting on and doing it involved some trepidation and a leap into the unknown. My new life started with the Marugame half-marathon in Japan, which taught me so many useful lessons, especially that to make progress as an athlete, you have to get out of your comfort zone!

Rewind back to January 2006 and life was hectic. I was wrapping up my job, packing up home in Richmond, SW London, moving across the world, becoming a full-time athlete, training for the London Marathon…I had a lot on my plate! Exactly one week after I was due to arrive in Tokyo to start a new life, the Marugame half-marathon was taking place in Shikoku, one of Japan’s smaller islands. The thought of living out of a suitcase, getting over a 12-hour flight and jetlag, getting to know my new home, etc, was enough to think about, and racing a half-marathon so soon seemed just too much. But I was persuaded to do it, and how glad I am now that I did!

Lining up in Marugame, I was unknown and a new kid on the block, an upstart in the fabled world of Japanese women’s marathon running – arguably the best in the world. The craziest thing about this race was that I was up against the then Olympic marathon champion, the mighty (in reputation only – she weighs about 40kg and came up to my shoulder) Mizuki Noguchi, who famously left Paula Radcliffe and others for dead on the hills of the 2004 Olympic marathon in Athens. To say I felt like an imposter was an understatement. Then there were other greats of the Japanese running scene - the “Queen of the track”, Kayoko Fukushi, and marathon veteran Harumi Hiroyama, to name just two.

I had wanted to run Marugame for a while because it always produced fast times – a flat course with very few corners, run in ideal winter conditions – but at that moment I thought “what am I doing here?”. The only thing to do was tell myself “Oh well, I’m new here, still got jetlag, I’m up against these running legends, what do I have to lose?”. I was seriously out of my comfort zone in various ways, but strangely this was liberating – it felt so uncomfortable that all I could do was run my best and see what happened. Which is exactly what I did, and bizarrely, I came away with half a minute knocked off my PB (I ran 69:24) and a third place finish. It turned out to be quite a race with Olympic Champion Noguchi defeated by track star Fukushi who set an Asian record (67:26).

The revelations didn’t finish once we’d crossed the line, however, as I clearly remember sitting next to Noguchi and Fukushi as the post-race presentation ceremony got underway. As we sat in a row waiting to be called up to receive our medals, I remember thinking how normal these two running legends seemed – just normal runners trying to do their best, and giving it their all in races. Suddenly the aura and mystique in which I held them evaporated away, and with that, I started to think “wait a minute, maybe I can be like them”. With the 2008 Beijing Olympics just two years away, it was a surreal experience sitting next to the reigning Olympic marathon champion and believing I could be like her. But the real lesson for me that day was – had I not forced myself out of my comfort zone and run that race, despite all the upheaval in my life at the time, I would never have experienced that confidence-boosting moment of meeting Noguchi, and realising that she was just another athlete like me.

Fast forward 10 years, and track star Fukushi has just won the Osaka marathon in a PB of 2:22:17, having also won the bronze medal in the marathon at the 2013 World Championships. It would be awesome to see her on the podium in Rio, breaking up the dominance of the East Africans! Fukushi herself experienced some serious distance away from her comfort zone in her first marathon – Osaka 2008 (won by one M Yamauchi :-)). Having set off at well inside 2:20 pace, she famously hit the wall and fell over three times in the last 300m. That experience of getting out of her comfort zone has served her well since!

Marugame is one of the world’s top half-marathons, and this year celebrates a real milestone – its 70th anniversary. There are few road races in the world which have a history going back many decades, and 70 years on, it’s great to see Marugame still going strong. I returned to Marugame twice more during my career, setting my current PB (68:29) there in 2009. I’m sure this Sunday’s race will be another epic.

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