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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Overcoming Barriers, Hand in Hand

Mar. 16, 2017

A visually impaired Japanese woman has taken on physical and cultural challenges to run a 100-kilometer race in South Korea.

The event took place on Jeju Island. But Yoshiko Miyagi, 54, didn't compete alone -- she ran alongside a South Korean man who helped her every step of the way. It was her first time to run with a guide from another country.

Just before 6 a.m., about 300 runners from 31 countries gathered at the starting line of the Jeju International Ultra Marathon. Among them is Miyagi, a runner from Japan who is blind.

She was guided on the race by Lee Do-hee, a 65-year-old man from South Korea who has completed the race multiple times.

"Mr. Lee, I'm glad you'll be with me to the finish. Let's make it to the end!" Miyagi said at the starting line.

"Yes, let's do our best!" Lee responded.

The pair was off to an excellent start. Miyagi had to finish the course in less than 15 hours, the race limit. It would be her fifth completed 100-kilometer marathon.

Miyagi and Lee met for the first time just the day before. As they ran, they had to adjust to each other, and to the course. When the level of the pavement changed, Lee supported Miyagi with both hands.

The 2 ascended a hill as Miyagi preserved her stamina, but she picked up speed on the downhill.

"Faster, faster -- let's pick up the pace," Miyagi said.

Miyagi has been blind since age 7 when a fever caused the nerves in her eyes to atrophy. At 22, she married and later raised 3 daughters. As her children grew more independent, Miyagi was unsure of what to do with her life. With the encouragement of a visually impaired runner, she began the sport at age 40.

She took satisfaction in her progress, and aimed for longer distances. She went for 10 kilometers, and then a full marathon. By her third year, she became the first blind woman to finish one of the toughest ultramarathons: a midsummer, 75-kilometer race in Japan. Since then, she has completed 4 marathons of 100 kilometers.

"When running, blind runners of course can't see any of their surroundings, so people asked why I liked running, even though I can't enjoy the scenery. That made me think. I realized that I am enjoying the scenery in my own way. I feel the wind and the rocks on the ground, the rise of the hills and the surfaces of the road. I also hear sounds and experience conversations with my guide. So these things are my scenery," Miyagi says. "These little snippets of experience are what I enjoy."

Miyagi also enjoys her family's support.

"I had never seen my mother doing something just for herself before," says her daughter Yukari Aramaki. "So now when I watch her running with her friends, I'm so happy. It really makes me want to cheer her on."

Miyagi juggles her training with her day job. It's a 2-hour commute, one-way. She's a massage therapist for attendants on the shinkansen bullet train. The women must repeatedly walk the length of the train.

Miyagi practiced at an undulating course near her house. She prepared for a hill in the second half of the race, often running up to 40 kilometers a day.

She also employs her own unique method using a rope. Miyagi uses it to run in a circle, allowing her to train without the help of a guide. This way she can practice more often.

She sets up a radio and uses its sound to figure out when she's done one loop. Fourteen loops makes about one kilometer. And, to help her better communicate with her South Korean guide, she also studied the language. Miyagi continued this regimen for about a month in preparation for the big day.

By the time the two runners were approaching the second half of the race, the sun was merciless and Miyagi was beginning to struggle.

"Please stay with me until the end," she says.

They've run longer than a regular full-marathon but then an unexpected accident occurs -- Miyagi trips over a small bump.

"I got distracted and fell. But I fell in the correct way," she says.

"It hurts me to hear her say, ‘I’m OK,’ even though she must be in pain. I want to make it to the finish line, like we said we would," Lee says.

Miyagi made it to the 70 kilometer mark after 10 hours, but she was still an hour behind schedule and she began to grow impatient.

"I’ve got to hurry. I’m running behind," she says.

Miyagi now had less than 5 hours to complete the remaining 30 kilometers.

"Mr. Lee, are you alright?” Miyagi asks.

"I’m fine, don’t worry about me. Let’s just reach the finish!" Lee says.

With 20 kilometers and only 3 hours remaining, Lee decided to change the plan. Instead of walking uphill, they would run up as quick as they could, with Lee pulling Miyagi's arm.

"I’m sorry, Mr. Lee," she says.

"It’s OK. I’m glad we’re doing this together. Let’s make it to the end!" Lee says.

After 14 hours, 53 minutes and 23 seconds, they reached the finish line with just minutes to spare, and Miyagi collapses from exhaustion.

"She didn’t have to say anything. Whenever I felt her hand, pushing and pulling on my arm, I felt her will to finish in time, no matter what," Lee says after. "I’m so happy we did it."

"My legs felt like they were going to fall off at around the 80 kilometer mark! But I didn't give up because Lee was there, encouraging me. He is a strong Korean. He helped me, but did it without pandering. He just kept pushing for my success. I think that Korean men are really great!" Miyagi says.

Having drawn strength from Lee, Miyagi plans to take on another 100-kilometer race in 3 months.

Miyagi will run a world-class 100-kilometer ultramarathon in Hokkaido this June. She has set a goal of completing the race 10 times, which would grant her a coveted title. Miyagi's dream is to become the first blind runner to achieve that honor.