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Life After 2:08 - An Interview With Takayuki Nishida

interview by Tuomas Zacheus
interpreting, supplemental questions and editing by Brett Larner and Mika Tokairin

Tall men Tuomas Zacheus and Takayuki Nishida in Tokyo.

Finnish writer Tuomas Zacheus, author of the book Nousevan Auringon Maratoonarit [Marathoners of the Rising Sun], visited Tokyo with his wife Marit the weekend of July 18-19. JRN organized and facilitated an interview for Zacheus with the recently retired Takayuki Nishida, a former Team S&B and Team JAL Ground Service runner coached by the legendary Toshihiko Seko.

Nishida holds a PB of 2:08:45, the fastest time ever by a Japanese runner on the elite Beppu-Oita Mainichi Marathon course. On the strength of his Beppu-Oita performance Nishida ran the marathon in the 2001 Edmonton World Championships, finishing 9th overall, beating then-national record holder Atsushi Fujita, and, as the Japanese team's third runner, helping to win the team silver medal. In university Nishida was already a star, narrowly losing out to a young Marilson Dos Santos of Brazil for silver in the 1999 World University Games half marathon and setting a rare new stage record on the Hakone Ekiden's 9th leg. Zacheus talked to Nishida about his past, his views on the Japanese jitsugyodan corporate team system and the future.

How did you start running?
When I was in elementary school I was on the baseball team, but when I got to junior high school I wasn't good enough to be a starter. I thought I'd have a better chance on the track team.

Did you have any marathon idols when you were young?
No, I didn't really know anything about running. I only really got interested when I was 20. My favorite baseball player was Kiyohara. Actually, though, I wasn't a marathoner yet, just a track runner, but when I was in 9th grade I liked Yasuyuki Watanabe, the Waseda University star who became its head coach.

Up until I was 18 I wanted to become a Buddhist monk because some of my relatives own a temple, so I decided to go to Komazawa University, a private Buddhist school. At the time I entered it wasn't a very powerful ekiden team yet. I wasn't a big name in high school either, no fast times or anything, but when I met Komazawa's head coach Hiroaki Oyagi I was impressed by what a powerful person he is. He inspired me to become something more.

What do you remember about winning the silver medal in the 1999 World University Games half marathon?
The World University Games were a lot of fun. I led the whole way, then in the last few hundred meters I started getting dizzy and a Brazilian went by me. He beat me by about 20 seconds.

Did you know that Brazilian, Dos Santos, has won New York twice and run 59 minutes for the half marathon?
What? Really? That's really good! I don't feel so bad about losing to him then! 59 minutes is amazing.

Nishida, #11, with teammate Ryosuke Fukuyama at the start of his retirement race, the 2009 Beppu-Oita Mainichi Marathon.

How did you get onto the S&B Foods team?
It was because of the name I mentioned before, Yasuyuki Watanabe. He had run for S&B, along with a lot of other runners I admired like Katsuhiko Hanada and Jun Hiratsuka, and at the time S&B had a reputation as a really strong team. The famous marathoner Toshihiko Seko was S&B's coach, too, so I wanted to be a part of that.

Could you describe Seko as a coach and as a person?
He's a great man. What should I say about him as a coach, though? He judges things by feeling. He remembers how it felt when he was doing well as a runner, and he wants people to replicate that. Seko tells his runners to do the same training he did, really, really hard stuff. But not everyone can do the same thing as Seko. The only one who ever pulled it off was Tomoaki Kunichika. He did all Seko's workouts and won Fukuoka in 2:07 in 2003. It would've been great if he'd been able to keep going like that, but by the time Athens came around he was overtrained and spent.

Did you know the Soh brothers?
Yes, when I ran my retirement race at Beppu-Oita this year the Sohs were at the finish with some other coaches to congratulate me. They've always given me good advice. When I was in my third year of university, when I was 21, I was part of a Rikuren training camp. I wasn't very good at that point and I was a little embarrassed to be there. At one of the workouts an older runner named Sato was absent, so I picked up his name card and ran wearing that. One of the Sohs saw me and said, "This Sato runs pretty well! He's got a good future."

I had a close relationship with Seko later and he was friends with the Sohs, so they were really nice to me too. I was one of Seko's favorites so he protected me. The higher-up people in the Japanese running world don't like it if you dye your hair, for example, but I did it anyway. Officials and other coaches were upset about it, but Seko told them, "This is the fashion for young people nowadays," and that was the end of it.

Can you tell us about your training during the S&B Foods time?
It was mostly based on intervals and long distance. One interval workout a week and one long run, every week. Plus sometimes we'd do an interval and long run set, like today 5000 m of hard intervals, then a 40 km run the next day. We did a lot of 20 km time trials, too. In heavy training I'd be doing 1000 km a month, with at maximum 70 km in one day.

So you were a high-mileage guy.
That's right.

Since you were a professional and you belonged to the national team you must have trained in many places around the world. What do you think is the best place you trained?
As far as overseas goes, I did training camps in Germany, Canada, Spain and other places. I think the Spanish island Majorca was the most fun. We usually did winter training in Okinawa, though, and of course most of my summer training was in Hokkaido. I guess I'd say Okinawa was my favorite place overall. In the winter, at least.

What about altitude training?
I never liked doing it. I always got really bad headaches and my ears would hurt because I have a low hemoglobin count.

Your marathon record is 2:08:45. Are you satisfied with that result?
Well, my goal at the time was the Athens Olympics. But in working really hard for that my legs started breaking down and I couldn't make it, so, no, having run 2:08 doesn't really give me any happiness. Looking back now I can see that I was overtraining. Later, on the teams I ran for I tried to help the younger guys understand the danger of doing too much.

When you ran 2:08 your training must have gone well.
No, it wasn't any good. I had an Achilles tendon problem from September until mid-November, so when I started up again I only had two and a half months. I felt good during that training, but then after Beppu-Oita I overtrained again and hurt my knee before the World Championships.

You were 9th in the 2001 World Championships in Edmonton. Can you say something about that race?
My strongest memory is of the opening ceremonies and the start of the race. There were so many tens of thousands of people there to cheer. It was really exciting. Also, different from what I was used to in Japanese qualifying races, there weren't any pacemakers since it was the World Championships. The start was really slow, then someone would throw in a spurt, then it would get slow again. I was kind of caught by surprise and it was hard to run like that. I'd never been in that kind of race before. I'm proud to say that I threw in a spurt too and led for a while. But, then again, when I did that I looked back and everyone was still right behind me. Do you know Atsushi Fujita?

Yes, of course, he set the marathon national record.
He's my best friend. We were on the same team in university. He was a year above me, and he also made the Edmonton team. I had put little Japanese flags on my water bottles so I'd recognize them. At the 30 km water point I grabbed mine, but when I looked at it it had 'Atsushi Fujita' written on the side! He'd put flags on his bottles too. I drank some and then put it back on another table, but after the race Fujita was angry and told me off because he'd missed it. Actually, before that, at around 8 km, I'd accidentally taken the Asahi Kasei runner Yoshiteru Morishita's bottle too, so they were both mad at me when we'd all finished! That's what I think of when I remember the World Champs.

Did you manage to find any of your own bottles?
Yeah, a few. After I'd already grabbed Fujita's I drank some and thought, "Hmmn, this doesn't taste right." Then I saw mine and just thought, "Oh, damn, whoops."

Your team was 2nd and got the Marathon World Cup silver medal. Are you proud of that?
Yes, I'm very proud of it. It doesn't matter whether it's an individual or a team medal, a medal means something. When I look at it I know I did something great that day.

Atsushi Fujita and Takayuki Nishida after Fujita's win at the 2007 Beppu-Oita Mainichi Marathon.

In the corporate team system are contracts for a couple of years at a time or for ten years, or...?
The way it is now, the number of years isn't set in the contract. When the coach or the company says, "We don't need you anymore," you're finished. Of course the runners want to run for a long, long time, but a year after you join a team one or two new, younger guys come in, then the next year one or two more. As a result there's really serious competition inside the team, where you don't want to show your weaknesses to the younger guys. If you don't get results in races you can't really move up on the team and the coach will pass you over for younger, faster guys. The older you get the harder it becomes and the more stress you go through, but that becomes a motivation and keeping your motivation is really essential.

I ran as a pro on corporate teams until February this year. Up until then I never wanted to be beaten by younger guys, but young, better guys were coming in all the time. Since we trained together every day you know exactly what your position is. At the same time, I had the experience, and there was always a kind of tension between experience and ability. Experience is something real, but you need the training to support it.

I imagined it as a perfect system, like heaven.
Well, you know, most of the corporate teams have about fifteen runners. Like I said, every year two new guys come in, so that means two older guys have to go. If you're one of the older people on the team and you're not putting out good times the pressure really goes up. It's not heaven. The flip side is that sometimes the best runners get kind of complacent and do the minimum necessary to keep their position and salary.

Where does Japanese marathoners' determination come from?
The competition within a team is a big part of why Japanese runners are motivated to work so hard. The motivation leads to better performance because to be on a team you have to be good enough, and that means you have to train more. Another part comes from the ekiden. When you get the sash in an ekiden it holds the efforts of all the runners who came before you. When you run you're carrying the result of all their hard work too. If you stop you waste not only your own run but everyone else's, so you can't ever give up. Growing up in that kind of environment throughout high school and university shapes the mindset of Japanese runners once they go on to the marathon. That's why you never see Japanese marathoners DNF. Look at Atsushi Sato in Beijing. But then again, compared to other countries Japanese runners tend to retire pretty young.

Is that because of stress or very harsh training?
Maybe because of overtraining. I often hear that runners from other countries do their training buildup, run their marathon, then have enough time off to recover. In Japan the time to refresh yourself is very short. In spring there's track, then in summer you do high mileage distance training, nothing but run, run, run. In autumn it's ekiden season, and finally in winter the marathon. Then spring comes and it's track training again.

So there's no time to rest?
That's right. In the team I was on before I had a chance to train together with some Kenyans for two months. They had a great sense of how to rest and recover, and not just in terms of how long. More that they knew when they needed to take it easy and they'd make time for it. Like they'd say, "I'm tired today so I'm just going to go for a walk." Where we would do a 60-minute jog early in the morning to recover they'd go out and walk, then go home and take a nap. I respect that.

At the National Championships before the Athens Olympics I met Samuel Wanjiru. He told me, "It's supposed to rain tomorrow, so I'm just going to stay home and sleep." Japanese runners would show up wearing a cap and vest and do the workout in the rain. I think that ability to let yourself take it easy sometimes is missing in the Japanese system, but some of the talented young guys we have now are learning this lesson so I think there might be another generation of great Japanese runners coming soon.

Fujita believes something totally different. He's very strict and keeps getting more that way. Even when he's hurt he just runs and runs.

Do you think that's why he's never run as well as he did in 2000 when he ran 2:06:51?
Well, some people need discipline in their lives. That's how Fujita is. Being stoic lets him feel good about himself. If he did things the Wanjiru way and relaxed more he would probably be a lot more stressed out. His whole lifestyle is based on training, eating, and sleeping, and he thinks all of them are really important. Of course he's a strong guy, but he doesn't think so; he feels like he needs this kind of discipline to make up for what he thinks is his weakness compared to other people. As soon as he's done a workout he eats, then as soon as he's finished eating he goes to bed. He's been doing it that way for a long time and that's how he gets his results. I really respect and admire Fujita and his stoicism, so I tried to follow that in my own life and I think that's one of the reasons I had some success.

Last run, Nishida in Beppu-Oita '09.

Now that you're retired from the pro world how much do you run?
About a third to a half of what I used to do. The difference is that now I can do things the way I want. When I was running pro I hated having to get up and do morning practice. Now I like getting up at 4:30 and going out to enjoy early morning Tokyo before the air gets dirtier. Training like that is more fun than it used to be.

Now that he is retired, Takayuki Nishida is pursuing his dream of becoming an actor and comedian. He is still involved with the running world, coaching an amateur running club, and will run November's Kawaguchiko Marathon. He plans to win.

(c) 2009 Tuomas Zacheus and Brett Larner
all rights reserved


Anonymous said…
This is the best running-related interview I´ve read in quite a while, offering such great insight.
Thanks a lot!

Simon said…
A big "domo arigato" for publishing this interview Brett. Really great read and a brilliant insight into the jitsugyoden running culture.
yuza said…
Thanks for the article Brett.

I have suspected for some time now that Japanese marathoners - in general - over train and Nishida has confirmed my suspicions.
kampyo said…
Great interview. Its cool to see the more personal side of an elite Japanese runner. The post-race interviews are mostly set phrases strung together. Its good to hear substantive comments. I hope you can work in more of these kinds of interviews.
Anonymous said…
Wonderful interview. Some really interesting insight into how a Japanese marathoner thinks. Rare to see such honesty from an elite runner.

Thanks for posting this.
Anonymous said…
He wishes to become a comedian?

Does he have some good jokes?
I'd love to read some!
Chris said…

Thanks for sharing. I enjoyed reading the interview very much.
Brett Larner said…
Thanks for all the feedback. I hope to introduce a monthly series of feature interviews like this. I was surprised too with how open Takayuki was, especially some of the more critical things he said.

On the whole overtraining issue, I know what he is saying but I often wonder whether that isn't in fact the best thing Japanese runners have going for them. You don't see that many world-class Korean or Chinese marathoners; if you cut down the Japanese training discipline what would be left? But, with the level things have gotten to a little more care is probably necessary than in Seko's day.
Thanks great interview into the team & mind set up plus the pressure placed on the runners.

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