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When Richard Whitehead steps off the start line of the 2019 Tokyo Marathon, it will be the last phase of a Six Star journey that began almost 15 years ago in New York City.

The length of time between first and final star may not be unique – many runners take well over a decade to earn that precious medal – but there are few, if any, who have matched the volume and height of achievements the British Paralympian has shoehorned in along the way.

And while his exploits on the track are the moments that beamed him into millions of television homes around the world, it is the marathon distance where the 42-year-old’s love affair with running began.

After the loss of close friend Simon Mellows to Sarcoma cancer, Whitehead pledged to run the 2004 New York City Marathon to raise funds for two cancer charities.

He ran Boston in 2009 and, by 2010, he had set a new world record for lower limb amputees when he clocked 2:42:52 in Chicago. 

He completed his first Virgin Money London Marathon in 2011, but the decision not to allow lower limb amputees to compete in the marathon at the London 2012 Olympics saw him switch focus to the track.

Imagine, for a moment, Eliud Kipchoge having to make the shift from the marathon to the 200m in the space of a year. And winning. 

Whitehead blasted his way to gold in the 200m at the 2011 IPC World Championships and repeated the trick in London’s Olympic Stadium the following year. He has plundered a further three world titles in the T42 200m and retained his Paralympic 200m gold in Rio in 2016, adding silver in the 100m for good measure.

Richard WhiteheadRichard Whitehead competes in the 2014 Virgin Money London Marathon

2016 also saw him tick off the BMW BERLIN MARATHON, leaving just Tokyo between him and that Six Star medal.

His Paralympic ambitions are also still burning, and he is feeling good following a winter camp in South Africa as he plots his route to Tokyo 2020, with March providing a great chance not only to become a Six Star finisher but to see the city where he hopes to make it a hat-trick of 200m golds next year.

"Last year was an easy year," he says. “This year, in South Africa, it was ‘head down and get the sessions done’. I was on the track four days a week, it was quite intense.

"But when I need resilience in training, I always go back to the struggles and hard times when I have been marathon running and that’s built up a level of resilience I dip into now and then – especially those cold, dark nights and when I’ve had a two-to three-hour run to do."

It’s still astonishing to see an athlete able to swap the power and explosiveness of the sprints for the endurance of the marathon with such ease, but the man from Nottingham sees parallels between the two.

"The mentality you need is very similar,” he explains. “You still have to fully commit to it, it’s still about getting to the finish line. You have to think, ‘I’ve done this, I know how it feels,’ and you have to prepare mentally and physically. But it’s possible as long as you have the fundamentals right and the people around you who believe and trust in you."

And for the marathon, says Whitehead, it’s crucial for everyone toeing that start line to think about the shape they want to finish in.

"It’s really important because you want to have a positive experience over that 26.2. miles. You don’t want to finish and say, ‘I never want to run again’, you want to finish and say, ‘I want to do another one of the Majors, or any another marathon.’ For everyone taking it on, they will have banked their miles now, so they should ask themselves whether they need to do another long run. Race day should be a celebration of how hard you have trained, so don’t feel you have to overreach.

"Marathon running is about enriching your life and, for some, creating a new start to your life or finding a new purpose. One reason I wanted to run Tokyo was to complete the set, but also to see what it will be like next year; to embrace the culture, understand the travel aspect and also to get a flavour of the appetite for Para sport in Tokyo."

With such a focus on his preparations for 2020, the long runs will be squeezed in before race day on March 3 as a reminder to his body of what lies ahead, but for a man who once ran 40 marathons in 40 days, the adaptation should not be too taxing.

"I know the distance, but whether you’ve done one or 10, you still need to respect it. I’ve heard so many great things about Tokyo and the AbbottWMM series is something I have always wanted to complete. To be one of the hundreds of others completing in Tokyo is a great honour. Thinking back to 2004, I never thought I would be in this situation of having completed the set."

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