translated and edited by Brett Larner
JRN's favorite performance of Ugachi's, even though this clip is missing the best head-to-head action. Ugachi, in purple and white, smashes star frosh Akinobu Murasawa, in pale blue, on the Second Stage of the 2009 National University Ekiden.
From last year through this spring, three men have been leaving a fresh, new impression on Japanese men's distance running with their aggressive, active racing in their first year as pros. From 2007 through 2010 the trio formed the spearhead of Komazawa University's Hakone Ekiden-winning squad: Tsuyoshi Ugachi (Team Konica Minolta), Yusuke Takabayashi (Team Toyota) and Takuya Fukatsu (Team Asahi Kasei).
At last June's Hokuren Distance Challenge Fukagawa Meet 10000 m, Ugachi challenged the authority of the Kenyans in the race with a 28:01.54 PB. He then finished 12th at the World Half Marathon Championships with a 1:01:49 PB. His runs served as motivation for Takabayashi, who broke up the lead Kenyan pack in finishing 2nd at September's National Corporate T&F Championships 5000 m, followed up with a 10000 m PB of 27:56.46 in October, then set a new stage record of 38:02 on the New Year Ekiden's 13.6 km Third Stage. Fukatsu was also strong, 8th at the National Corporate T&F Championships 10000 m in a PB of 27:56.29 and 3rd behind Takabayashi on the New Year Ekiden Third Stage in 38:35. Fast forward to this spring, when Ugachi leaped up from behind his two former teammates, running 1:00:58 at the Marugame Half Marathon to become the third-best Japanese man over that distance, and 27:41.97 at May's Cardinal Invitational 10000 m, the all-time sixth-best Japanese man. Since then he has kept his good form and is eager for this weekend's National Championships and the chance for Worlds.
At the May 1st Cardinal Invitational in the U.S., Ugachi was an agonizing 2 seconds off the World Championships A-standard of 27:40.00. He joined the ranks of those who have cleared the B-standard but had the consolation of becoming the only Japanese man thus far to crack the London Olympics A-standard of 27:45.00. "At Cardinal the conditions were good and I ran exactly 2:45/km pace through 5000 m, the perfect way not to burn up energy in the first half. After that, though, the pace started gradually drifting slower and faster, and around 8000 m I just lost touch. I was on national record pace, so I really wasted a good opportunity." As he says this Ugachi's face betrays his disappointment. He also admits that since the conditions were absolutely perfect when he ran 27:41.97 at Cardinal he won't feel like it really counted until he does it again. "People have said it's amazing that I'm now all-time #3 for the half and #6 for 10000 m, but I think we all know that if Takabayashi and Fukatsu went for these they'd break my times pretty easily. I'm glad I ran these times but not so happy to know that I can't stop them from taking them away. My strongest feeling is that I've got to keep pushing harder."
In university Ugachi wanted to race against the rest of the world's best, but with the Hakone Ekiden looming large in his mind, his priority was just "to run a good race and not blow it." But entering the jitsugyodan corporate team world last year his desire to race around the world came to the forefront of his mind and his view of the sport broadened. "Last year was my first year as a jitsugyodan runner so I had nothing to lose. Nobody around me seemed to really want to go as far as I did so I had to go looking for something scary, and I think I did a lot of reckless running, right on the edge of shattering myself. Because of that I was able to run these kinds of times, but I was also able to do them because of the solid training base I built up running Coach [Hiroaki] Oyagi's workouts as a student [at Komazawa] and the attitude toward racing that he instilled in me. As my coach for four years he always told me, 'This isn't the end of line for you.' That's why I'm here today."
Ugachi is able to feel competitive even in the midst of the Kenyans partly thanks to his time spent training in Kenya last year and this year. He ran workouts together with many of their top athletes and learned firsthand that even among them, sometimes they couldn't keep up with the workouts, or if they were running well one day the next time they might not be able to run at all. He understood that they were human after all. But he also saw that the competition at any given level was so thick that if someone wasn't running well another athlete would be coming up through the ranks in a second to replace them. He felt that if he worked hard on pulling up his own level, shouldn't he be able to jump in and be competitive too?
"There's a part of me that's afraid that if I start a race off fast I might not be able to keep it together. But the bigger part of me thinks that if the younger guys like me or Takabayashi or someone go out and smash up against that and break though, well, that's going to build up some momentum, isn't it? A lot of Japanese runners are targeting 27 minutes for 10000 m now and getting there. In my case I had a lot of regrets that Takabayashi and Fukatsu got there first, but the fact that they did told me for sure that I was going to make it too. If you look around now, even among university runners there are a lot of guys with more sense and more ability than me, so if somebody, even one guy, goes bang and makes a big jump forward I think all those other guys are going to feel, 'Who says we can't do that too?'"
Ugachi believes that where you choose to set your sights changes your motivation and the purpose of your running, whether you choose to be satisfied with being the best Japanese man or whether you look beyond that. Ugachi joined Team Konica Minolta because its team mission is to be competitive in that region beyond. Since the start of his university career he has not missed more than three days of running, the absence of injury problems maybe having been another factor in his major breakthrough PBs this year. "Coach Daisuke Isomatsu tells me my only talent is recovery," he laughs.
"Right now, looking at the World Champs I think if you've got the ability to reliably run 27:20 then top eight is in sight. Maybe I'm not strong enough for that yet, but within this year I'm going to run in the 27:30's, then in the Olympic year next year I'll be able to stand on the starting line and say with confidence, 'I have the strength for the 20's.' As a step up the ladder I'm running the Japanese National T&F Championships [June 10-12, Kumagaya, Saitama] and I want to pursue the edge of my strength. I'm there to win and to go to the World Championships. Once I'm on that stage I'm not going to be satisfied with just being there. At the very least I want to break through my own limits."
He adds with a smile that he hopes Takabayashi and Fukatsu also break the World Championships A-standard so that they can all go to Worlds together, cheerful at the thought. Compared with him, Fukatsu and Takabayashi are a little behind. "This year I want to take inspiration from Ugachi and Takabayashi again," says Fukatsu, "but for now my goal is to get strong enough to become one of the key people on my team. To be one of Team Asahi Kasei's best runners means you're good enough to make it to Worlds, so I'm building toward that." Over the winter Fukatsu had knee trouble and wasn't able to do any serious training, and through the spring he was unable to get back to his peak form. Nevertheless, his motivation for Nationals has stayed high. "In my case, compared to those two guys I don't really have any advantages, so all I can do is try not to make the mistakes in my tapering and run a watertight race. Those guys have no limits and they don't want to lose to anybody."
Takabayashi says, "I've been kind of broken down since the beginning of spring, and trying to get back on my feet from that I had to force it and I've kind of been at a standstill. This year the other guys are doing better than most years, but even though I feel like I'm behind I completely understand the reason why and it's not going to get any worse." Asked about whether he is going to tackle Ugachi's time he says, "Well, he didn't get break the A-standard, so he's not really ahead of me.....I'm OK with that." He wants to race Nationals with an aggressive mindset.
With motivation high, the three former teammates are all looking forward to facing each other again at the National Championships. Japanese men's distance running has struggled in recent years, but a talented generation of young athletes bringing their strength to the National stage may be the catalyst needed to bring new life.
Translator's note: Tsuyoshi Ugachi's first name is the character for strong, powerful, intense. This article played with that in its original title.
Tsuyoshi Ugachi (Team Konica Minolta) - Born 4/27/87, Tochigi. Graduated from Komazawa University.
5000 m: 13:30.30 - Golden Games in Nobeoka, 5/28/11
10000 m: 27:41.97 - Cardinal Invitational, 5/1/11
half marathon: 1:00:58 - Marugame Int'l, 2/6/11
30 km: 1:30:14 - Kumanichi, 2/28/10