2001 – Naoko Takahashi

Embed from Getty Images

30-Sep-2001 – Berlin Marathon – 2:19:46 – ASICS Sortie Japan
Date of birth: 6-May-1972
Nationality: Japanese
World Record duration: 7 days

The athlete:                
Following her win at the 2000 Olympics, Naoko Takahashi became an overnight celebrity in Japan. This included her life story being chronicled in the comic book magazine Young Sunday, with 700,000 copies sold weekly in the months leading up to the Berlin Marathon. Takahashi said that for her, the world record was as important as Olympic gold. She had used the same preparation for that event, and even included training runs of nearly 50 miles.

Conditions were perfect for marathon running: light rain, cool temperatures and slight wind. Takahashi had spent months training for the race, and looked on track to do something spectacular. At first she was slower than needed to break 2:20 for the first five kilometres, not helped by headwinds. She was still 32 seconds ahead of second place, and she would soon gain confidence that the world record was in reach.

Those first five kilometres would be the slowest of her race, Takahashi getting to halfway in 1:09:50. She would proceed to set new world records for the 25 and 30 kilometre distances, her only challenger and then-current world record holder Tegla Loroupe drifting further back. Loroupe was suffering from back problems that hampered her race.

Takahashi had started feeling tired in the last few kilometres, but knew she was on track. Cheered on by the crowd, many waving Japanese flags, Takahashi stormed to victory and with it finally broke the 2:20 barrier that Loroupe and Ingrid Kristiansen had tried many times to beat. Loroupe would finish second and more than eight minutes behind.

For Takahashi, it was the realisation of her dream to have both Olympic gold and the marathon world record. Incredibly, Takahashi’s record would barely last one week before Catherine Ndereba would go even faster. The next year would however bring Takahashi another victory at the Berlin Marathon. Unfortunately she was not given the opportunity to try for another gold medal at the 2004 Olympics, her lack of success in 2003 and 2004 cited as the reason. There was public outcry at the decision, many noting her experience.

Takahashi would form her own running team in 2005, which was also the year of her last marathon victory at the Tokyo International Women’s Marathon. Injuries would begin further impacting her performances, leading to knee surgery in 2007. After being unable to get into race fitness, she pulled out of the 2008 Tokyo International Women’s Marathon and with it her aspirations to make the 2008 Olympics. She would retire that same year as a national icon, and she has stayed deeply involved with sports as a director with the Japan Association of Athletics Federations.

The shoes:                   

The image we have from the 2001 Berlin Marathon (she wore the same at the Sydney Marathon where the main photo is from, as I could not embed the image from the Berlin Marathon) show the lightweight and minimalist ASICS Sortie Japan that Takahashi had worn to victory at the 2000 Olympics. The overlays are identical, and ASICS noted Takahashi and her success wearing the shoes on their website. The only difference of note was the yellow and white colourway.

It would not be the last hurrah for the Sortie on the world stage. In 2004, despite the controversy around Takahashi’s exclusion form the squad, it was compatriot Mizuki Noguchi who would battle former world record holder Catherine Ndereba to take victory in the women’s marathon. Race favourite Paula Radcliffe shock exit arguably overshadowed Noguchi’s achievement. Although she did not break the Olympic Record, Noguchi did set the women’s course record for the route from Marathon to Athens, where the marathon legend itself began.

It was the same route taken in the 1896 Olympics, with slight adjustments, which itself was based on the legend of Pheidippides and his run to announce Greek victory at the Battle of Marathon. Noguchi’s course record still stands unbeaten, which as of 31 August 2021 means it has been no less than 17 years and 9 days. The shoes on her feet were the latest version of the ASICS Sortie, the design having changed little in the intervening years, proving themselves again on the biggest stage in the world.

As noted previously, ASICS has continued to release new and improved versions of the Sortie series, the latest at the time of writing the SortieMagic RP 5.