Japan woman tracks history


SYDNEY, Australia - So, Naoko Takahashi of Japan, now that you've won today's women's marathon at the Summer Olympics, how do you want to celebrate?

"I want to eat some nice food," said Takahashi, who can reputedly put away 40 pieces of sushi or a 4-pound steak.

The little runner with the big appetite made off with the sport's grandest distance prize in what may have been the greatest women's marathon ever.

Grimacing with pain, chased by a tenacious opponent, and swept along by a wall of noise, Takahashi won in an Olympic record of 2 hours, 23 minutes, 14 seconds. She bettered the previous mark of 2:24:52 set by Joan Benoit in the inaugural Olympic women's marathon in Los Angeles in 1984.

And she became the first Japanese woman in history to claim an Olympic gold medal in track and field.

Takahashi, 28, held off a fast-closing Lidia Simon of Romania, who sprinted into Olympic Stadium, cut her deficit to eight seconds, and claimed the silver.

Kenya's Joyce Chepchumba earned the bronze.

"This was the hardest among five marathons that I have done," said Takahashi. "Although it was a very hard course, I had crowd support and I didn't feel it was so hard. There were so many ups and downs."

Any marathon is punishing. But on this 26-mile, 385-yard course the women were confronted with numerous hills, bright sun, high humidity and all the pressure that comes with a race that takes place only once every four years.

Sometimes, things outside a racer's control can decide a medal. World-record holder Tegla Loroupe of Kenya woke up sick to her stomach and threw up. Still, she ran and finished 13th.

"It's not an excuse," Loroupe said. Asked why she finished, she said, "I just don't like to stop during a race."

Others won personal victories instead of medals. Christine Clark, a pathologist from Alaska, was 19th in a personal-best 2:31:32.

"I ran with a lot of heart," she said.

Even a runner like the diminutive Aguida Amaral, who finished 43rd at 3:10:55, could extract a measure of satisfaction from the race. That she was here at all from the scorched land of East Timor was victory enough, as the crowd roared for her on a unique last lap. She thought she had finished, and knelt to the track, only to be told by an official that she needed to race the entire lap. So she got up, and, with a smile on her face, finished again, and kissed the track.

Romania's Simon battled menstrual cramps and was dejected after her failed sprint to the finish.

"I am usually very good at the finish," Simon said. "This time I had some personal problems that created the delay. I really wanted the gold medal. Maybe I wanted it too much."

She said the race was "very difficult for such a distance. Very few runners could go all the way."

But Takahashi did.

"Luck helped her get the most glittering medal," Simon said.

More than luck was on Takahashi's side. She began training in May at altitude in Boulder, Colo., working on her endurance and racing on hills.

The work paid off.

She tried to break the field at the halfway point, running away with her Japanese teammate Eri Yamaguchi, who finished seventh, and Simon.

Eventually, Takahashi and Simon peeled away and staged a dramatic duel along Sydney's sun-dappled streets. They ran with contrasting styles, Takahashi, with bob hair and sunglasses, looked cool and calm, while Simon, her shorter legs working like pistons, sought to set a relentless pace.

There was huge support for Takahashi, who ran past fans waving Japanese flags and roaring encouragement.

Finally, 1:57 into the race, Takahashi threw off her sunglasses and surged from Simon. Running down the grand Olympic Boulevard, she dipped into a tunnel and then emerged into the sunlight in the stadium, as roars rained down on her.

Yet Takahashi couldn't relax on the final lap, as Simon soon came sprinting into the stadium, and tried to run off with the gold.

But it was too little, too late.

"I knew I was going to win 30 meters from the line," Takahashi said.

As she crossed the finish line, a smile spread across her face.

"I feel happy," she said. "But I feel sad it's finished."

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