Mariko Yugeta has vivid memories of getting up in the middle of the night in her home in Japan to watch the first Olympic marathon for women in 1984. She was 26 years old, pregnant with her first child, and she was transfixed as Joan Benoit Samuelson entered the Olympic stadium in Los Angeles and crossed the finish line with her arms raised in triumph.
Benoit Samuelson’s fearless racing, which won her the gold medal, has been emblazoned in Yugeta’s mind for 38 years. She kept training, and she broke 3 hours in the marathon for the first time at age 41. And then—miraculously—Yugeta’s running kept getting better, as her four children grew up and she had more time to train.
In November 2019, at age 61, Yugeta made history, becoming the first woman older than 60 to break the 3-hour barrier. Her time was 2:59:15. In January 2021, at the Osaka Women’s Marathon, she lowered that PR by 7 minutes to 2:52:13. She was 62 at the time.
In a Runner’s World profile after that effort, Yugeta said she hoped to run the Boston Marathon for the first time. “If I run Boston I hope that I have the chance to introduce myself to Joan,” she said in the profile. “She’s in another world from me, but I think we’d have a lot to talk about.”
That day finally arrived. On April 17, at a stage set up just beyond the Boston Marathon finish line, Yugeta met Benoit Samuelson. The two shook hands, while cameras flashed. Yugeta’s eyes filled with tears at finally meeting her idol. A translator stood by, and the pair talked about the inspiration they provide each other.
Yugeta runs Boston on April 18, and she’s hoping for a time around 2:55. “My weak point is cold weather, so as it has turned colder, I’m a little bit nervous about how that’s going to go tomorrow,” she said through a translator, Brett Larner. “I’m aware the course has a lot of ups downs, it’s not the easiest course to run fast, but hopefully there will be a lot of people around me and that will help me at least go sub-3:00.”
No matter the result, she’ll be buoyed by her meeting with the woman she has idolized for 38 years.
“Shaking hands, I got some of her spirit,” Yugeta said. “So that’s really going to help me tomorrow.
“She’s the marathon runner who I admire the most,” Yugeta continued. “I’ve always thought to myself, over all the years, that some day if I get the chance, I’ll go run the Boston Marathon and if I’m really lucky, maybe I’ll get to meet Joan Benoit Samuelson there. So for that to actually happen this time makes me incredibly happy. Meeting her in person, it was a dream come true. And having met her, and having talked to her, and seeing what an incredible person she is, it’s really going to help me run my absolute best tomorrow.”