Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Arata Fujiwara: An Unknown Contender for Beijing

by Brett Larner

Arata Fujiwara, 26, came from the obscurity of professional running with the undistinguished JR East Japan team to finish 2nd overall and in the top Japanese position at the Tokyo Marathon on Feb. 17. His finish time of 2:08:40 was a major PB; more impressive than the time itself was the way in which Fujiwara overcame severe leg cramping in the final few kilometeres to hold off Olympian Julius Gitahi of Kenya. Fujiwara's result puts him into good position as a contender for the Beijing Olympic marathon team, yet he is almost completely unknown.

Born Sept. 12, 1981 in Nishi Sonogi, Nagasaki Prefecture, Fujiwara attended Isahaya High School, one of the stronger running high schools in Japan. He went on to Takushoku University, a relatively minor school which in its better years qualifies for one of the bottom slots in the Hakone Ekiden. Fujiwara ran Hakone twice, finishing 10th on the 1st stage as a 1st year student in 2001, and 4th on the 4th stage as a 3rd year student in 2003.


This video shows Fujiwara, wearing an orange singlet and tasuki, running Hakone in 2001.

Fujiwara joined the JR East Japan jitsugyodan running team after graduating from Takushoku in 2004. He spent some time in development and running in the corporate ekiden scene before beginning to break through in 2006. In March of that year he ran 1:02:17 in the Jitsugyodan Half Marathon championships, still his current PB. As a result of this performance he was invited to run the 2006 Rock 'n' Roll Half Marathon. He followed up with a 1:02:29 at the Marugame Half Marathon in February, 2007, then a month later moved on to his marathon debut at the 2007 Biwako Mainichi Marathon. Biwako was a disaster as Fujiwara fell apart after 30 km to finish in 2:38:37.

Fujiwara bounced back quickly from Biwako, clocking a 28:57.28 PB for 10,000 m in April and a 13:49.70 PB for 5000 m in June. Later in the year he improved both times to 28:52.84 and 13:41.35. At the New Year Ekiden corporate team championships on January 1st, 2008, Fujiwara was 8th on the 22 km 'ace' 2nd stage, running 1:04:01. Following the New Year Ekiden he went to a training camp on Amami Oshima in Kagoshima Prefecture to prepare for the Tokyo Marathon. His training period for Tokyo was short but included two 40 km runs which were effective in getting him ready. In his normal training, Fujiwara works at JR from 9 am to 2 pm, then trains in the afternoon and evening. One of his coaches at JR described Fujiwara as a gifted natural runner who is able to improve in short periods of time through highly focused training. While at the training camp on Amami, Fujiwara met baseball legend Tsuyoshi Shimoyanagi but was so nervous that he could only stammer a hello. He said afterward that he hoped to have a long, successful career like Shimoyanagi.

Fujiwara was completely unheralded as a contender for the Olympic team coming into Tokyo. In the 1st half of the race he ran in the large pack without being noticed as commentators focused on the more famous runners such as Toshinari Suwa and Satoshi Irifune. At the corner just before the halfway mark, Fujiwara moved up to run next to the pacemakers. He showed impressive power and energy in his form but failed to attract commentators' attention. He remained near the front as the pack whittled down over the following 9 km.

When Satoshi Irifune made the 1st definitive move of the race just after the 30 km point, Fujiwara was among the last to react. Over the next 2 km the pack reassembled, only to break open again when eventual winner Viktor Rothlin of Switzerland took off near the 32 km mark. This time Fujiwara was the 1st to respond, staying right behind Rothlin and then running abreast as Kenyan Julius Gitahi, an Olympic 5000 m runner who like Fujiwara was running only his 2nd marathon, struggled to bridge the gap. The remaining leaders, including pre-race favorites Suwa, Irifune, Kurao Umeki and defending champion Daniel Njenga of Kenya, quickly fell away.

Rothlin, Fujiwara and Gitahi ran together for the next few km, Fujiwara and Gitahi repeatedly trading places behind Rothlin. As the Swiss runner began to pull away, Fujiwara also dropped Gitahi on the 1st of the course's uphills just before the 36 km mark. Fujiwara looked solid, energetic and efficient, while Gitahi's pitch dropped and he began to look behind him. The race seemed settled, with only the finish times remaining a question. It was clear that all 3 runners were on track for large PBs.

Without warning, Fujiwara leapt into the air and his body went rigid. He staggered and almost fell, slowing to a stop for a split second. He said later that he had suffered from sudden leg cramps. "It was bad," Fujiwara commented in a post-race interview, "bad enough that I thought I was going to have to drop out." With Gitahi bearing down on him Fujiwara sprang back into action. His stride and speed were unchanged, but over and over during the following 3 km he staggered as though he had twisted an ankle. Gitahi came closer, almost drawing even with Fujiwara just before the 40 km mark, but Fujiwara was able to keep himself together and kick during the final stretch, opening a 17-second margin over Gitahi to finish in 2:08:40. He was ecstatic as he crossed the line but collapsed within seconds, stunned and overjoyed in his post-race interview and at the award ceremony.

Fujiwara is the latest of many Japanese runners to mark breakthrough runs in the 2:08 range, but few have done it from such complete anonymity and none has done it as a 30-minute PB. His time puts him on the short list for the Beijing Olympics but is not quite enough to guarantee him a slot. Atsushi Sato is the only runner to date who will almost certainly be selected, having run 2:07:13 at December's Fukuoka International Marathon. Tsuyoshi Ogata ran an excellent race to finish 5th in conditions of extreme heat and humidity at last summer's World Championships marathon in Osaka, marking him as another semifinalist for the Beijing team.

All that remains is the final Olympic selection race, next month's Biwako Mainichi Marathon. Given the history of that race it is entirely possible that the winner of Biwako will run a time better than Fujiwara's 2:08:40. If this happens it will come down to a decision between Ogata, the veteran with extensive international championship credentials, and Fujiwara, the breakthrough newcomer with nothing to show but potential. If the top Biwako time is only comparable to Fujiwara's the Japanese Olympic selection committee will face an even more uncomfortable decision. In Fujiwara's favor, Keisuke Sawaki, a notoriously critical high-ranking member of Rikuren, was uncharacteristically full of unreserved praise for Fujiwara immediately following Fujiwara's finish. Regardless of the outcome of Rikuren's selection for the Olympic team, Fujiwara's run in Tokyo will remain an inspiring and memorable example of a nobody putting everything he has into his one chance to go to the top. Let's hope he makes it.

(c) 2008 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

3 comments:

Bohologo said...

Brett, this is a fantastic piece-very well written! The video embed is also a nice touch. Good luck with your own training.

oldsprinter said...

I second the comment above. Really good piece, and I really appreciate the work you put into it, it's making the Japanese running scene much easier for me to follow. Thanks.

Brett Larner said...

Thank you.