PROFILE: Yuko Gordon, 71 next month, is one of the world's greatest marathon runners

(Jan. 2022) Yuko Gordon, who will turn 71 next month, is undeniably one of the world's greatest marathon runners. She competed in the first major global marathons for women--the 1983 World Championships and 1984 L.A. Olympic Games--and last fall won the 70+ division in the WANDA age-group world championships in the London Marathon. Two years earlier, she ran 3:19:37 to set the age-68 world best time in the Berlin Marathon. Gordon--born in Japan, raised in Hong Kong, and living for decades in Great Britain--set her lifetime PR, 2:38:32, in 1987. "I'm a fighter, and I don't give up easily," she says. "
Progress occurs only outside of comfort zone." How long will she keep running? "I have no plan, I don’t have to--because my body will tell me one day."

Career-profession? My main career was Flight Hostess (Airline Stewardess) at Cathay Pacific Airways for 10 years from 1974 to1984. I left Japan for Hong Kong to take up the job when I was 23. I loved flying and travelling around the world, which was so liberating and exciting seeing the different places, the cultures and the people. In recent years, I only do volunteer work one morning a week as a gym assistant for the day patients at a local Hospice.   In 1984 before the Olympics, the only crucial mistake I made,

I failed to taper sufficiently and I was probably over-trained and tired for the most important race of my life. I finished 5 minutes outside of my PB and I deeply regretted it. Being called an Olympian gives me mixed feelings. I didn’t fight hard and long enough to earn it; the historical inclusion of women’s marathon just happened in front of me.

When did you start running and why? I started running in 1979 (age 28). My company (Cathay Pacific) used to send a team to the annual Inter Hong Cross Country Race (4.5 miles trail) and I was lured into the team accidentally. My friend told the team organiser that I had run when I was a school kid. I had been managing to stay clear from the invitations in previous years but 5 years into the flying job, I was in a state of boredom with my life and I was pushed into it rather easily this time. I totally enjoyed the 6 weeks (once or twice a week) of relaxed and sociable training runs followed by post-run teas with other ladies of the team. We were all novices and started from scratch. I had never run downhill before and I still remember the sensation of numbness in my shins. I was the best of the group, so I wanted to win and I did; so did our team. I found the trail runs so refreshing and pleasant. I was so happy to discover such a wonderful thing to do and meeting new people in my life.

I ran my first marathon the following year in 1980 with my boyfriend in 3:27 and the second was on our honeymoon at the Honolulu Marathon in 3:13 later in the year. Four summers later, I was running the marathon at the LA Olympics. I stopped running completely around 1999, mainly because I was increasingly involved with my kids’ activities and more interested in their future rather than my past. I thought it was a normal process for any athlete to fade away and didn’t even think about running anymore. I resumed running gradually around 2012 but more consistently from 2014. It took for a while to adjust my old head to my new body. My running head was still at where I left off and everything I did seemed too much too soon. It caused a string of injuries one after another. I started to run more regularly when my beloved dog died in 2014 because I desperately needed distraction from the sad loss.

How much did you run in your peak years? Around 50 miles a week. My training was erratic and inconsistent due to the nature of my job, jetlag, irregular hours, days in unrunnable environments, sudden change of schedule and so on. I did 60-70 miles/week before the Olympics.  

What are some of your top race performances? 1) 10K course record for W65 at Silverstone 10K (over F1 motor race course) in 42:46 when I beat the W65 world 10K record holder Angela Copson and broke her own course record (43:06) in 2016. I don't know how I did it when I unexpectedly passed the speedy record holder at the 3km mark. I sprinted (felt like) the next 7km! 2) I ran the half marathon in 1:16:02 in Hong Kong over the very hill course near the China border in 1985. My record still stands after 36 years (no race last 2 years with Covid), and it was my PB too. They call the annual race now The Heritage Green Half Marathon’. It was a beautiful course in Kowloon Peninsular and there are so many lovely memories attached to it in my heart. 3) 3:19:37 Berlin Marathon 2019 when I won the W65 division. The second half was negative split by 70 seconds and last 10K was the fastest of my splits in just over 46 minutes. I could have gone even better if it had not rained. 4) My marathon PB 2:38:32 at the Hong Kong Marathon in 1987 came out of the blue, a year after my international retirement. This was the most comfortable marathon I ever ran, and I felt the 26 miles went so quickly. 5) I won the Nike Ladies Race (4.5 miles country park trail) for 10 years (a year of break with pregnancy) in Hong Kong. My body synchronised perfectly to the hills, rocks, bumps and every twist and turn along the path. It was my race and nobody could catch me. My course record is 26:12, no other girl ever ran under 27 minutes. I always thought I want to scatter my ashes there until we left Hong Kong. 6) London Marathon 2021 with Jeannie Rice when I won W70 in 3:25:30 I was looking forward to having a race against her. I was surprised to pass her around 22 miles. She did not have a good outing on the day, but it was fortunate for me.

How much are you running and cross-training now? I run around 20-30 miles weekly now, but my training mileage before a target marathon goes up to around 40 - 50. For core and balance work, I go to a Yoga class once a week. Occasionally Pilates and Kettle bell classes. They are all good but I often miss the classes and am not committed. My training has been always running based. I never had time for any extra workouts when I was younger, so the habit still continues. I used to do more stretches, but I don’t do much these days because my body no longer stretches well. I play tennis (my second sport). I invested myself for the sport around the time I was retiring from running. I love the game, but at the moment I cannot play tennis well because I lost the agility needed in the ball game because of too much running (only forward movement). Instead, I play short tennis with slower balls with a group of people (all 60-70+) at a local tennis club once a week.

Photo by Pete Smith

If you still race, please provide a somewhat recent race result or two.
In 2021 - Marathon 3:25:30 (London). Half (1:37:50) 10K (45:12) 5K (22:12) 800m (3:09) After the Covid lockdown in 2020, I ran 6 marathons within 8 months in 2021, Windsor, Boston(UK), London, Valencia (all 3:25 – 3:29) plus 2 small low key trail marathons and I lost much speed for shorter distances.

Does it bother you that you are slower now? Of course, I miss my faster and stronger self, I miss my springy bouncy legs and bottomless lungs very much. But the taste of winning is still good. I have got used to running as I am now. It feels normal to be passed by unfit looking younger runners and to be unable to catch them. I still love running, so, no reason to stop, but I know it won’t be long to go, so make the most of it whilst I can. Jeannie Rice and Angela Copson, they inspire me most. They are leading and showing us the way we oldies can achieve. I am very thankful and admiring for their competitive spirits. They are brave. 

How have your diet and weight changed through the years, if at all? My weight is back to where I was at the peak but maybe with much less muscles. I never bothered about nutrition too much and same now, but care about weight gain before a target event. But the marathon is ok with a bit of extra weight I think. I take iron tablets and glucosamine. I seem to have recurring problem of iron deficiency. I do cook fresh food from fresh ingredients for our meals everyday and use only olive oil since my husband had a heart attack in 2011. My cooking is basically in Japanese style.  My husband and I like ‘Fish & Chips’ takeaway too which is not in the patients guidebook. We also love a meal out at a local pub and restaurant.


What injuries or other health issues have you faced through the years? My injuries or break-downs always had a clear cause, so the solution was relatively easy, eliminating the mistakes when I got over it . I have been a relatively injury-free athlete, perhaps attributed to my short and light frame. Also, there is a touch of laziness in me, so the volume of my training never totted up too high.

A favorite quote? "A time perhaps to count my blessings and celebrate a bit more what I have, not what I have lost."--Elaine Kingett 

Any tips for would-be lifetime runners? The older, you get, the less distraction you have in your life, so it gets easier to concentrate on what you like most.

How does running and fitness improve your life on a daily/weekly basis?  Definitely helping my mental wellness - running alone in peace, training with cheerful bunch of club-mates, meeting other runners at races or long runs with friends, all so enjoyable.

What are the biggest lessons (life lessons and running lessons) you have learned from running? Knowing what I shouldn’t do is as important as knowing what I should do. I didn’t like to be told that I am competitive, but I realised it’s an essential quality to becoming a champion and it’s not a negative one. I’m a fighter and don’t give up easily. People who often say they are not competitive; I think they simply hate losing or going through the pain to get better. I am not scared of losing and I believe in ‘no pain no gain’. There is always someone better than you. That’s the reason why we are inspired and improve when we try to catch them. Progress occurs only outside of comfort zone. I have also experienced and learnt that under- training is safer than overtraining. Figuring out how less could be better than too much is very difficult, and the balance is constantly changing as age factor comes in. What I achieved in my running so far has been the outcome of trials and errors, and I feel it still is. I should be content just to be myself, but not less than myself. The older I become, I have become less and less interested in what I used to do, and only a few things really matter to me. Running is one of them. How long will I keep running? I have no plan, I don’t have to--because my body will tell me one day.