translated by Brett Larner
It was the race that made him famous. He wanted to show everyone in the world what he could do. That meant one thing: making the Olympics and getting a medal. "I think that was the moment that changed my life," says Koichi Morishita, now 43 and head coach of Team Toyota Kyushu, of his marathon debut at age 23 at the 1991 Beppu-Oita Mainichi Marathon.
The race went out at nearly 3:00 / km. By 30 km Morishita's face showed the strain of the fast pace, but still he desperately clung to the leader, the best marathoner of his day, Takeyuki Nakayama. By 35 km they were back side by side. Then, at 38 km, Nakayama turned and said, "Go on! Leave me behind! You can do it!" with an encouraging pat on Morishita's shoulder. It was the changing of the guard, the moment when one era passed on to another. Morishita surged away to a 2:08:53 finish, the Japanese debut marathon national record at the time. "After 30 km it was like I was naked, tearing off what I'd done in training piece by piece," recalls Morishita. From that strong first step, the next year he went on to win the silver medal in the cruel survival race that was the 1992 Barcelona Olympic marathon.
Morishita began the marathon from a track background, winning the gold medal in the 10000 m at the 1990 Beijing Asian Games. His 10000 m PB was 28:01. The number of current Japanese athletes who have surpassed Morishita's marks is not small. Rikuren director of men's marathoning Yasushi Sakaguchi commented, "If we talk about Japanese men who have run 28 minutes, there are currently over 100. Every one of them has the potential to break 2:10."
So why aren't they? Although Morishita admits that the basic speed of Japanese runners has improved, he says they need to get tougher to succeed. "Gritty marathoners are the ones who are going to get the results. I want to see people who are tougher in spirit. That is Japanese people's greatest strength."
Nevertheless, the fact that the marathon has become a race of speed is evident to all. Morishita himself coached Beijing Olympics marathon gold medalist Samuel Wanjiru (Kenya) for three years, and has a real and firsthand sense of the difference in pure speed. But he believes that what sets Wanjiru apart from the other Kenyans, what has allowed him to stand atop the world, is his fundamental toughness of character, his mental and spiritual strength. If Japanese runners can regain this trait to supplement their speed then they will still be able to compete at the world level. "Talking about breaking 2:10 is a very low goal," says Morishita. "If our strongest athletes had the ambition they could be breaking 2:05."
Translator's note: The 60th edition of the Beppu-Oita Mainichi Marathon takes place this Sunday, Feb. 6. Look for JRN's race preview and details on watching online tomorrow.
Morishita's splits at the 1991 Beppu-Oita Mainichi Marathon
5 km: 15:05
10 km: 30:07 (15:02)
15 km: 45:17 (15:10)
20 km: 1:00:17 (15:00)
25 km: 1:15:26 (15:09)
30 km: 1:30:41 (15:15)
35 km: 1:46:12 (15:31)
40 km: 2:02:05 (15:53)