Friday, October 10, 2008

University Student Masato Kihara at the Helm of Japanese Men's Team at World Half Marathon

by Brett Larner
photos courtesy of Chuo Gakuin University

"Kihara, I'm sorry, I had never heard your name before. I'll always remember it after this. That was incredible."

--Legendary marathoner Toshihiko Seko to Chuo Gakuin University first-year student Masato Kihara after Kihara's victory on the 1st stage of the 2006 Hakone Ekiden.

A lot can change in a couple of years. On Jan. 2, 2006 Masato Kihara was an unknown freshman at Chuo Gakuin University, a small school which had been lucky to squeeze into the prestigious university championship Hakone Ekiden but was not regarded as even B-class. Not a single runner from Chuo Gakuin had ever won a Hakone stage, one of the basic marks of a running school's authenticity. Kihara was a 19 year old from Hyogo Prefecture, a graduate of Hotoku High School where he had shown only a hint of his potential, his best mark a 14:26 5000 m. The 1st stage of the Hakone Ekiden is usually one of the most interesting, a fertile mix of hardened ringers, high school standout debutants and no-names, and the only leg in which all 20 runners directly race each other. The anonymous Chuo Gakuin dropped an anonymous Masato Kihara into this tableau, and a star was born.

Far behind an early rabbit leader, Kihara ran within the pack of 19 throughout the first three-quarters of the 21.4 km stage, cruising comfortably at 3 min/km pace. As a few people began to straggle off the back of the pack, the race saw its first move. Four-time defending champion Komazawa University's senior Noritaki Fujiyama, an intimidating, muscle-bound enforcer, launched an unexpected attack at the 15 km water station to break up his rivals and test his main competitor, Chuo University senior Minoru Okuda. Looking over his shoulders to see who had come along, he took no notice of the springy, energetic little freshman in the hideous bright purple and yellow uniform who had instantly come up from the depths of the pack to stick to his left shoulder, only examining Okuda and Nihon University senior Keita Tsuchihashi. Fujiyama himself looked uncomfortable, but his ugly, muscular form had never been mistaken for graceful. Okuda was smooth and composed and Tsuchihashi showed some effort, but Kihara looked alert and ready for more. Content with what he had learned, Fujiyama relaxed and let Okuda take over once more.

As the stage moved into its last quarter, the pack disintegrated, the four leaders joined by laboring Meiji University senior Naoki Okamoto and Toyo University first year Kenichi Ichikawa and moving away from the casualties. At 17.5 km race announcer and former marathon king Toshihiko Seko uttered the fateful words, "Oh, this Kihara looks good. He looks the most comfortable out of this group." It was true. The teenager's form was impeccable; energetic but efficient, springy but smooth, alert but relaxed. Approaching 18 km, Fujiyama again scoped out his competitors, then launched another attack on the uphill climb onto Rokugo Bridge. All throughout his move he examined the five others in the lead pack, evaluating and examining weaknesses. This time he gave Kihara two good, hard looks.

As the group crested the bridge Fujiyama again took a break, swiftly pulling to the rear of the lead pack and getting a better view of the other runners. He settled in immediately behind Kihara. As the group approached the downhill off the bridge, the traditional spot for final moves with just 2.5 km remaining on the stage, all six runners began to exchange looks, searching for signs of trouble. Okamoto was the first to attack, but Fujiyama and the others gave him a glance and ignored him, retaking him in short order. Kihara, still looking the freshest, was alert and openly inquisitive, keeping a close eye on his more experienced rivals. At 19.5 km Okuda made the next move, and this time Fujiyama was right behind. Seeming to work a little too hard, Tsuchihashi followed with Kihara on his heels. Ichikawa and Okamoto dropped away.

200 m later Fujiyama made his third attack, passing Okuda. Kihara anticipated the move, coming out from behind Tsuchihashi just in time to move up and cover Fujiyama. People began to notice. Here was a kid who knew how to race. Fujiyama still looked terrible but powered on, Okuda was losing his composure, but Kihara still looked the same, running just off Fujiyama's shoulder and looking him up and down. As they pulled slightly away from Okuda, Fujiyama looked back to see this young guy whose name he probably didn't know easily matching him and grimaced with the effort. Okuda surged to retake the leading pair, moving in front of Fujiyama at 19.9 km.

Just as Okuda returned to the front, Kihara took a step to the right. With a clear way ahead of him he looked back over each shoulder, dropped each arm in turn to stretch out, and went. With complete confidence. It was beautiful. The split-second he made his move Fujiyama dashed out from behind Okuda and put it down as hard as he could, and the contrast between he and Kihara could not have been greater. Fujiyama, the senior from the four-time defending champs, looked wild and out of control, his head lolling from side to side and his face contorted as he tried to gut it out; Kihara, the wiry, energetic freshman from a no-name school looking like perfection, like a world-class athlete. And he took Fujiyama apart. Here was something really special, the bona-fide birth of an international-level runner caught on nationwide television before an audience of millions. It was the kind of performance that makes running a sport to love.

Kihara soared over the last 1500 m, winning the stage by 4 seconds even after Fujiyama's devastating kick, giving Chuo Gakuin its first-ever stage victory. In his victory interview Kihara was almost comically polite and earnest, going into a long, honorific speech of thanks to all the people who had helped him when asked for comments. Seko cut him off to offer his congratulations and apologize for not having known who Kihara was. Elated by Kihara's performance, Chuo Gakuin senior Yoshinori Sugimoto earned the school its second stage victory when he won the 8th leg. Overall Chuo Gakuin finished 17th out of 20 teams, with plenty of room for improvement.

Kihara's next big moment came in the fall of 2006 as a sophomore. After leading Chuo Gakuin to qualify for Hakone at October's Yosenkai 20 km Road Race, Kihara ran the Ageo City Half Marathon in mid-November. Effectively a mass time trial coaches use to select their team lineups for Hakone, Ageo has the deepest field in the world with around 400 runners typically breaking the 70 minute mark. In 2006 Kihara led a sparkling battle against the pro Team Honda's Ethiopian ringer Gebretsadik Bekele, ultimately losing but finishing with the 2nd-fastest time ever by a Japanese university student, 1:01:50 at just age 20.

Hopes were high that Kihara was about to emerge as one of the dominant university runners, leading the way against media favorites such as Tokai University's Hideaki Date and Chuo University's Yuichiro Ueno, and Chuo Gakuin's coach Yuji Kawasaki placed Kihara on the 2007 Hakone Ekiden's most competitive leg, the 2nd stage. Unfortunately Kihara was exhausted and flat from trying to maintain his Ageo fitness for another 6 weeks, and he fizzled, finishing 7th on the stage. Kawasaki later admitted that he had erred in timing Kihara's peak and vowed not to repeat the error. Chuo Gakuin had some improvement as a team, finishing just outside the seeded positions in 13th.

Kawasaki stayed true to his words. As the fall 2007 ekiden season kicked off, a new and improved version of the third-year Kihara, looking leaner, tougher and more mature, stepped to the line of the Yosenkai 20 km Road Race (photo, left) to once again try to lead Chuo Gakuin to Hakone. Yamanashi Gakuin University's Mekubo Mogusu rocketed away from the start in search of the course record. Only Kihara, briefly accompanied by Josai University's Yuta Takahashi, broke away with Mogusu, running on an entirely different level from the rest of the field even as the Kenyan receded into the distance. Much had been made of Tokai's Date breaking the hour mark at the previous year's Takashimadaira 20 km Road Race, but Kihara's 58:40 Japanese course record on the more difficult Yosenkai course showed he was at least the equal of the more famous Date.

Any further questions about Kihara's quality were settled at the 2008 Hakone Ekiden. Again running the ace 2nd stage, Kihara was all but invisible in the media behind the attention paid to Mogusu and Tokai's Yuki Sato's quests for stage records, seniors Date and Ueno's final Hakone runs, and the injuries plaguing Waseda University's future Olympian Kensuke Takezawa. Kihara started almost simultaneously with Mogusu, tailing the Kenyan's soon-to-be-stage-record pace for nearly 4 km before losing contact. Running on the same stage as Date, Kihara finished in 1:07:42, the 3rd fastest overall and the top Japanese time. Date was next in 1:07:50, showing that no matter how much the media liked Date, Kihara was just that little bit better. Again spurred on by Kihara's leadership, Chuo Gakuin's steeplechase specialist Jun Shinoto set a completely unexpected stage record on the 9th stage, and the school pulled off an almost unthinkable 2nd place finish, one of the best ever for a university outside the traditional powerhouses.

The first major race of Kihara's senior year showed further growth and maturity, with Kihara clearly thinking about his future and which areas needed development. At June's Sapporo International Half Marathon, the final selection race for the World Half Marathon Championships, Kihara ran in a field including Japanese national record holder Atsushi Sato, all three of Japan's Olympic marathon men, a large number of domestic professionals, and several top Japan-residing Kenyans and foreign competitors. He said before the race that he didn't care about either his time or his placing. His main goal was to stay with Mogusu, the course record holder, as long as possible. Mogusu, a brilliant athlete critically handicapped by an inability to cope with competition, set out hard with Kihara right behind. Within the first 100 m the pair had a substantial gap on the rest of the field, and it only increased. The longer Kihara stayed with him, the harder Mogusu pushed. 1 km went by in 2:44. 2 km in 5:21. 3 km in 8:04. It was absurd. The two university students were running sub-57 minute pace, well ahead of the world record.

By 4 km Kihara again lost touch with Mogusu, who melted down on the course's difficult uphill finish to barely win in 1:00:52. Kihara was overtaken by most of the professional Kenyans in the field and looked like he was going to pay the price for the almost laughable first 3 km, but surprisingly he rallied on the uphill last few km and retook several Kenyans, finishing just seconds off his PB in 1:02:07. Considering the heat, challenging course and withering early pace, it was a far superior performance to his Ageo run. Rikuren took notice and immediately named him to the Rio team. In an interview just after the race Kihara said he was disappointed that he couldn't stay with Mogusu any longer than he had in Hakone and would have to work harder, but considering the pace the pair ran it would be pretty mean-spirited to criticize him for failing to meet his goal.


Masato Kihara leads the 10000 m at the 2008 National Track and Field Championships.

Kihara could legitimately have wrapped up his season in Sapporo and gone into recovery and then summer training for Rio, but less than 2 weeks later he was on the start line of the National Track and Field Championships, vying for a national title and a place on the Beijing Olympic team. Despite having a 10000 m PB of only 28:21.31, Kihara took the lead from the beginning, leading the field of professionals at sub-28 pace through 8200 m. What happens to the leader in such situations is predictable, and indeed Kihara was swallowed up by the Olympians and national record holders who patiently tailed him. It would be easy to look at this race and Sapporo and say that Kihara was just showing his naivety and inexperience by recklessly frontrunning in the early stages of important races, but he didn't give that impression at all. Rather, it looked like he was using the two races, particularly the National Championships which, ultimately, didn't matter for him as his best time was nowhere near the Olympic A-standard, to test out specific strategies and hypotheses and to learn from the results. While he ended up nowhere near the front in the National Championships 10000 m, his 6th place 28:06.48 was a large PB and no doubt a valuable source of data for his future races.

Kihara won't be in contention for any significant individual placing in Rio, but despite being the junior member of the squad he will very likely be the top finisher on the Japanese team, and, course and weather permitting, a PB is worth betting on. A time under 61 minutes would not be surprising. In pre-Rio departure interviews he was calm and focused, saying that he would not be trying to battle Mogusu but would be running his own race.

Atsushi Sato, Yuko Matsumiya, Kensuke Takezawa and Yuki Sato all have their strengths and weaknesses, but if I had to pick one Japanese man as someone who will make an impact on the international scene, someone to really get behind, I would pick Masato Kihara. He has the ability and temperament necessary to compete internationally, seems to be resistant to injury, and is not afraid of risk. He's on a quiet but steady development curve upward and could well become the half marathon national record holder in the near future. It will be worth watching when he makes the transition to the marathon.

The Japanese Men's Team at the Rio World Half Marathon Championships
Kazuo Ietani (Team Sanyo Tokushu Seiko): 1:01:30 (Jitsugyodan Half, 3/11/01)
Masato Kihara (Chuo Gakuin Univ.): 1:01:50 (Ageo, 11/19/06)
Yusei Nakao (Team Toyota Boshoku): 1:02:00 (Sendai, 5/11/08)
Tetsuo Nishimura (Team YKK): 1:02:02 (Jitsugyodan Half, 3/12/06)
Yukihiro Kitaoka (Team NTN): 1:02:23 (Jitsugyodan Half, 3/12/06)

(c) 2008 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

2 comments:

Phil said...

Brett, your profiles of Akaba, Kihara, and Mogusu have been fantastic reads.

You ought to consider writing an article for Runner's World magazine. This is great stuff.

Thanks as well for your coverage of the Olympics as well... I was checking your site every day this summer.

Cheers,


Phil in Tokyo

Brett Larner said...

Thank you.