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Takaoka Talks About Ome, the Marathon and Fate

translated and edited by Brett Larner

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Feb. 21, 2010 is the date for the 44th Ome 30 km road race. As usual, the day before the race Ome will host a public discussion with some of the country's top runners. This year's guest is marathon national record holder Toshinari Takaoka. Takaoka, who retired in 2009, is now a coach with his former sponsor Team Kanebo and hopes to help lead and develop the abilities of the next generation of Olympic athletes. We talked to him about Ome, the pleasure of running, and the essence of the marathon.

Ome: You're going to be speaking at the Ome 30 km Talk Show. I'm sure all your fans are eagerly looking forward to it.

Takaoka: Since we're in the midst of a running boom, I want to help communicate the pleasure of running to the audience. People are running now to keep their weight down and for health, so I think the public image of long distance running has improved. When people look at runners now, even those who have been training in the same place for a long time and haven't changed anything they're doing, they say, "That runner is really trying." I think that's a great thing. It used to be the case that if you wanted to look good when you're running there wasn't a lot of choice in clothes and gear. What there was wasn't very cool, so runners had the image of being a sweaty mess. That's not the case now, is it? Designs have improved a lot so even when it's tough it looks like you're having a good time. (laughs) I think the main reason this trend has grown so strongly is because of the increase in popularity of jogging.

You've had strangely bad luck with the Ome 30 km. The first time you were supposed to run it, in 2003, you got injured beforehand and had to pull out. The second time, in 2008, the race was cancelled because of heavy snow. Looking back at it now, what memories do you have of Ome?

I guess I was fated never to run it, huh. (laughs) It's pretty common that if you run well at a race once you're going to feel like it's a lucky course. Even if you're not feeling good you definitely want to run it again. I think I had the same kind of superstitious feeling, but in my case it was the exact opposite. When it snowed the second time I was going to run that's what I was thinking. (laughs) I was pretty unlucky the first time too, though. That time I had actually already shown up in Ome before I decided to cancel. Something just wasn't feeling right in my legs, and that was when I was aiming for the Athens Olympics so I thought that if I ran it might end up a big minus. So, the Talk Show will really be my third time at Ome. (laughs) Well, I guess what that really means for me is that this race has a special attraction for me. It was the race I always wanted to do but never got to.

Ome is a 30 km race. The nuance is similar to a full marathon, but in terms of pacing and other details what do you have to pay attention to in approaching this distance?

Without question, I think the full marathon is something totally different. Among those who run there are a lot of people who can handle 30 km but can't run a marathon. In my case, to help make the transition from track running to the marathon I did the 30 km race in Kumamoto [the Kumanichi 30 km Road Race]. I think in general that's a good way to look at a 30 km race. Half marathons are also something different, but just in terms of the distance the 30 km gives you a taste of a lot of the challenges so I think it's a good event.

Ome is one of the major races in Kanto, so [as someone from Kyoto] I've always thought, "Someone who has run Ome is amazing." The first time I seriously thought about doing it was after I won western Japan's Kumanichi 30 km. I thought it would be great if I won eastern Japan's Ome 30 too. Those are the only two 30 km races around these days, so I'd like to see them both continue like this without changing their distance. Most runners thinking about a time goal usually run Kumanichi, but those who can run well on Ome's ups and downs can gain a lot of confidence. For myself, I chose to run Ome in 2003 because the course was more like the Athens Olympics marathon course. The hills are very similar and have the same kind of steady up, then steady down feeling.

Ome has been cancelled before because of heavy snow, so you should always plan for the possibility of cold rain or snow when looking at doing a winter race. What points do you have to be careful of when running in bad conditions?

Well, to start with you have to be completely prepared. Spread your cream, wear your gloves, and do all your normal warmups. Do enough exercises, then do a little running to get your body warm. I think it's better to run short and fast in warmup. In my racing days I got injured a lot, so I was always careful to do dynamic exercises to flex all my joints before I raced. I didn't have a specific routine that I always did, I just did whatever stretches it felt like I needed in a given situation.

Even amateurs can be concerned with setting a time goal in a marathon, can't they?

Of course. There are those who just want to finish and those who want to break 4 hours. Even people with goals like that are doing their best. I think you can give it all no matter what level you are. If you meet your goal the joy you feel afterwards will give you the motivation to go after your next goal and to keep aiming higher.

Looking at amateur runners, what does it make you think?

I can tell that they really love running. Someone who really loves it will get a run in even after a busy day at work, you know? When I go to an amateur race I can't believe how much passion I see. It looks like a lot of fun. I think for most of them their first impression of running when they started was probably, "I like this!" or "This is fun!" As you keep doing it it's important not to lose that emotion. There were a lot of races when I couldn't run the times I wanted, but I always looked to the example of the amateurs who do it for love to find the inspiration to start over again from the beginning.

Can you give us a message for everyone who is going to run Ome this year?

Enjoy it, because it's a beautiful thing that you are there that day ready and able to run. Run the kind of race that will make you want to come back again next year. To be honest over this kind of distance there is a good chance of injury and accidents, so be aware of that and promise yourself not to do too much. Having the courage to stop is important too. In my retirement race [at last year's Tokyo Marathon] it was really important for me to finish, but along the way I realized I had to stop, so I did it. Enjoy your run enough that you want to do it again next year, and keep that thought in mind as you do it.

When you were young you played baseball. What made you change to track and field?

I played baseball, but that was because I completely loved it as a sport, not because I was any good at it. (laughs) Then when I was in 5th and 6th grade a won a little track race in my town. As a kid of course it's a lot more fun if you win. My name was in the local news, and that made me incredibly happy. That's what got me started. At that point it was a lot of fun, but bit by bit I ran in bigger races further away from home and I couldn't win them. It taught me that I wasn't really that fast. (laughs) When I was in junior high school I had a teacher, Koichi Toda, who made a big impact on me. He taught me a lot of the techinical aspects of the sport and that proper training is absolutely essential, answering all my questions like, "What do we have to warm up for?" and covering everything from A to Z. Mr. Toda had finished 2nd at Nationals in high school and also made Nationals in university. He was a hurdler, not a distance runner, but he had real accomplishments and knew what he was talking about. He was very strict but he taught me much of what I know.

You were a bit of a late bloomer. You didn't really become a top runner until you were in university.

That's right. I was injured a lot in high school and didn't really have any impressive accomplishments, so I didn't even think about trying to get into one of the Kanto universities so I could run the Hakone Ekiden. At that time I didn't think I was the kind of guy who could race for 20 km. That's why I went to a university in Kansai [Ryukoku Univ.]

To be honest, in high school and the first part of university I skipped practice a lot. Partway through university, though, I started to realize that my running was meaningless if I kept going that way. If you're supposed to run for an hour and you only do 40 minutes then you've wasted that other 20 minutes anyway. Finding a way to get the absolute most out of the time I spent seemed like a better way to go. I started to think a lot about how to get better results through training more efficiently.

I think it was also a very fortunate thing that, being a student in Kansai, I didn't have to run the really long distances that the guys in Kanto had to. My coach in those days thought that way. "Since we're in Kansai we're going to nothing but speedwork." Doing that kind of training I developed speed on the track, an efficient last kick, and my times started to progress. That got me more interested and I started working harder. Then when I was a senior I broke the 5000 m Japanese national record.....Nobody was more stunned than me. (laughs) It was kind of a fluke that I got that record, but after that one thought started burning in my mind: "I want to make the Olympics." I thought that I could succeed as a marathoner and that I could be the best in Japan. After that I made the progress I needed to run the Asian Games, the World Championships and the Olympics. It all went quite quickly, going from having no dreams to having concrete goals to achieving those goals.

You currently have the 3000 m, 10000 m and marathon national records. Were these all things you were specifically targeting?

Yes, those were marks on which I was absolutely focused. I wanted fast times, so I went overseas to race and I was very happy to get them in that kind of environment. But the 5000 m record I set in university was the source of a lot of pressure once I joined a pro team. I trained specifically to break it but couldn't do it, and what I was feeling at that time was the strain of trying to meet a tough time goal you've set for yourself. In the marathon as well, there are very few people who can honestly say they are targeting the win. People who win without aiming for it are far more common, I believe. The "I've got to win one more time," or "I've got to turn out one more PB," way of thinking makes running a very difficult experience.

Even though I had the 5000 m national record, inside myself I felt that it was the hardest record to break. My 10000 m record looks like it's on the verge of going, but the 5000 m record I set has already been broken. I think the reason the better record was broken first was because it wasn't an easy time to break. My 10000 m record is much softer, so everyone is just aiming for a time goal when they race. But since they're aiming for a time they can't get it. 3 seconds off, 5 seconds off, there are quite a few guys who have come close. Someone who can aim for a specific time and hit it is the real thing. Haile [Gebrselassie] can do that, but most Kenyans just run off feeling.

You didn't do your first marathon until you were 30, at Fukuoka in 2001. What was your motivation for wanting to move up from the track to the marathon at that point?

In my heart I always planned things in terms of a span of four years. That's the time from one Olympics to the next. The Sydney Olympics were when I was 30, and after that I planned to shift to the marathon. I'd long had the desire to compete in the marathon, so to become a marathoner I chose to train under Coach Ito [former Team Kanebo head coach and marathon great].

When I was young I was injured a lot so I never had the chance to do the proper training for a marathon. Rather, I spent a long time honing my speed on the track so when the time came for the marathon I viewed it from the angle of running it as a futuristic high-speed race. This was before people were running 2:03, 4, 5, when the world record was just under 2:06, but Coach Ito told me that we absolutely had to approach it thinking in terms of 2:05 or 2:06. I think that kind of mindset helped me get there.

You made the Olympics twice, in Atlanta and Sydney, but in the end you only ran on the track.

Fate didn't have the marathon in store for me, I guess. At the qualification race I had a lot of pressure to "Aim for the win." I had already run the marathon record, so everyone told me, "You've already won." Hearing that kind of thing all the time, I put other kinds of pressure on myself, maybe. The first time I went to the Olympics, in Atlanta, I got a real taste of the atmosphere and I thought, "Well, even though ultimately it's the same as other track races, the preparation you need to be competitive in the Olympics is different. There's no way around that."

When Sydney came around, I went there about 10 times before the Olympics. Not just for a few days at a time, but for long periods like a month or so at a time. In Japan doing that is just a given, but overseas it can be pretty inconvenient because there aren't that many Japanese restaurants around and things like that. But, when it came time for the main event I knew downtown Sydney's atmosphere so well that it felt like I was just going to Tokyo to race. (laughs) I think that's why I had a good result there [7th in the 10000 m].

For Athens, in order to be able to say concretely that I wanted to run I wanted to see the course under the same conditions that people would be facing at the Olympics. I went in the summer a year before and ran part of the course and whatnot.....Well, there was a lot construction work going on. (laughs) That's how far I went to get my race visualization sharp, but unfortunately I didn't make it.

What is your basic message?

"If you dream it, you can make it happen." In 1995 I was trying my best, practicing hard but not getting any better. The Olympics were the next year and missing them was not an option, but to a large degree I had already given up. Somebody who was supporting me told me those words, and when I thought about them I realized that I did have a dream. Whenever I was in the most difficult situation those words would come to my lips and help me to struggle on. In the end, having a dream and goals got me to where I am.

Toshinari Takaoka
Born 1970 in Kyoto. Attended Rakunan H.S. and Ryukoku Univ. before joining Team Kanebo where he is now a coach. At the 1994 Asian Games he won the 5000 m and 10000 m, then ran on the track at the 1996 and 2000 Olympics, finishing 7th in the 10000 m in Sydney. Moving to the marathon after Sydney, he ran his first marathon at the 2001 Fukuoka International Marathon. At the 2002 Chicago Marathon he ran the Japanese national record of 2:06:16, finishing 3rd after leading most of the race at world record pace. In addition to the marathon national record Takaoka holds the national records for 3000 m (7:41.87) and 10000 m (27:35.09).


yuza said…
Great interview Brett! I have always liked Takaoka and after reading this interview I like him a lot more.

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