Kaeko Sakamoto of Pasadena proudly shows off the medal she earned after finishing the 26.2- mile Boston Marathon last Monday.

By MAKI HIRANO, Rafu Contributor

Simply finishing any marathon is an impressive feat, but completing the grueling Boston Marathon is a singular achievement. 

Pasadena resident Kaeko Sakamoto can boast that accomplishment, after the 61-year-old finished a remarkable 16th out of 450 women in her age group at the race held last Monday.

Sakamoto qualified for Boston by placing second and third in her age group in the two L.A. Marathons last November and again this March, respectively.

“Perhaps due to the bombings nine years ago, the entire city of Boston was filled with a welcoming atmosphere for runners, and the spirited, loud cheering encouraged me,” Sakamoto said,

Sakamoto completed the 26.2-mile course in 3 hours, 35 minutes, and 14 seconds – a new personal record. It was the first time she has traveled to compete in a marathon.

Established in 1897, the Boston Marathon, held every April, is one of the oldest sporting events after the modern Olympic Games. It is also known as the “marathon of the chosen ones,” in which only those who have run a standard time or better in a sanctioned marathon are eligible to participate.

At 5-foot-1 and a svelte 85 pounds, Sakamoto said the strength and speed of the runners in Boston made a strong impression. In training before the event, she made a conscious effort to run long distances slowly, to prepare for longer runs, which have a greater possibility of knee and heel injuries.

Based on a self-directed training regimen she researched on the Internet, she ran just over 10 kilometers (6.2.miles) five or six days a week, and once a week she ran for one and a half to two hours.

Sakamoto also dared to incorporate steep hills into her training around Pasadena, in order to tackle the challenging “Heartbreak Hill” at the end of the Boston Marathon. She said this added training proved invaluable in Boston.

One unexpected hitch: she inadvertently left her trusty Apple Watch, which she always uses for running, at home in Pasadena. Furthermore, on the day of the marathon, she left the battery charger for her cell phone at the hotel.

Sakamoto’s father, Kazuhiro, pictured in 1947, set running records at Shobara Jitsugyo High School in Hiroshima.

“I couldn’t use my phone because it would run out in the middle of my run,” she admitted.

Sakamoto switched off the phone and decided to adopt an organic, technology-free approach to running for the first time. Using the Nike running app normally provides constant updates on her speed, pace and efficiency. Approaching the finish line, she witnessed so many runners completing the course that she assumed her time was in the four-hour range.

Just after crossing the finish line, however, she was informed of her time and joy welled up in her eyes. The large number of athletes at the finish line indicated the high level of the Boston Marathon, where many athletes finish in under four hours.

“I was right to run with only my heartbeat in mind and trust in myself,” she explained. “If there had been an app, I would have adjusted my speed and my running would have been erratic.”

Sakamoto began running marathons only about 10 years ago. She had not been involved in any particular exercise before that, but started going to the gym to improve her fitness as she was losing weight. She had little interest in running and stuck to cross-training, which is less stressful on joints.

In one trip to the gym, she found her preferred crossfit machines were not available, and instead decided to have a go on the treadmill instead. At first, she couldn’t even finish a kilometer, but gradually increased her mileage and in 2015, attempted her first 5K run, at the nearby Descanso Gardens.

Her son, Noa, had promised to cheer her on in the race, planning to arrive 30 minutes after the start, only to find his mother had covered the course in a brisk 25 minutes. This was a true boost of confidence.

In 2016, Sakamoto entered a half-marathon held in Moorpark for the first time, and finished with a time of 1:56:26. 2020 was her first attempt at the full-length L.A. Marathon, and she recorded a solid time of 4 hours and 10 minutes. She followed that up with a time of 3 hours, 43 minutes and 13 seconds in 2021 in L.A., and this year, ran 3 hours, 46 minutes and 46 seconds. At the Pasadena Half Marathon last September, she finished first in her age group at 1:43:06.

Rejoicing in victory at the finish line, Sakamoto completed the grueling, hilly marathon course with a time of 3:35:14, 16th out of the 450 female runners in her age group.

A native of Hiroshima Prefecture, Sakamoto was a member of the broadcasting club in both junior high and high school, and although she did not join any sports teams in school, she and her brother were famous as the speedy “Shunsoku Sakamoto siblings,” competing in relay events in elementary school.

Sakamoto recalled the words of her father, a first-generation A-bomb survivor who had been orphaned by the atomic bombing and had endured a painful postwar experience.

“I was an ekiden (relay) runner in high school,” he had said, and his words echoed in her mind as she entered her first half-marathon.

Kazuhiro Sakamoto, a record-holder in his high school ekiden relay race, passed away 15 years ago, but his daughter has become aware that she possesses some of her father’s running DNA.

Sakamoto said she was indescribably touched when Noa, 16, told her after she completed the Boston Marathon, “Mom, that’s great, that’s cool.”

A heart condition was discovered while Noa was still in the womb, eventually overcoming the risks to be born. He endured several surgeries as a young child, the first at only four months old.

Sakamoto said she feels a strong desire at heart to run for her son, who is unable to take on the challenge of long-distance running, which places a heavy burden on the heart.

She hopes to continue showing her son how she can rise to challenges. When her son represented his school an inter-high school short-distance race held before the coronavirus pandemic and finished in second place, she was excited to realize that her son had inherited his grandfather’s blood.

A single mother, Sakamoto said that when she thinks back to 10 years ago when she started running marathons, she recalls the painful memories of her marriage separation and other problems in her personal life.

“If I hadn’t had those experiences, I wouldn’t be able to take on the challenges of running a marathon today,” she said. “It was a tough beginning, but it turned out well. My son and ex-husband are my biggest supporters. For me, running a marathon is also like a meditation, where I can become nothing.”

One notable challenge presented itself at the 25-mile mark before the finish at the Boston Marathon.

“I had quite a struggle with my left ankle and knee, which began to hurt,” she reported.

Though she felt like walking due to the pain, she was buoyed by the cheers of local spectators along the route, who would not allow her to give up.

She said the appeal of marathons is that “Whether you are an Olympian or an amateur, you can experience the same sense of suffering and accomplishment. About 30,000 people participated in this year’s Boston Marathon, but no one ran the race with ease. Marathons are individual events, but everyone feels more like comrades, which makes me want to run the event again.”

Sakamoto currently runs one mile in about eight minutes. She is enthusiastic, saying, “I started running when I was 50, and I am grateful that I am still able to run, and I want to continue to challenge myself to see how I can run in my 60s.”

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