Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Japan in Wanjiru - Koichi Morishita

This is part two in JRN's four-part series of interviews with the key people in Samuel Wanjiru's life in Japan.  Click here for the introduction to the series, an explanation of how it came about, and links to the other interviews.  Check back tomorrow for part three, an interview with Wanjiru's former teammates Yu Mitsuya and Masato Imai.

Barcelona Olympics marathon silver medalist Koichi Morishita is the man who showed Samuel Wanjiru how to be a marathoner, but under his coaching Wanjiru also set all of his world records from the junior 10000 m record to his three times cracking the best-ever half-marathon mark.  Six weeks after Wanjiru's death Morishita agreed to a one-on-one interview about Wanjiru's years with the Toyota Kyushu corporate team, their coach-athlete relationship, and his post-Japan marathon career.  Morishita was candid and unexpectedly introspective in his opinions of what went wrong, including his own mistakes.  In this interview he shared things he had not said to anyone else and will likely never say again.  This is history.

Koichi Morishita interviewed by Brett Larner in Miyawaka, Fukuoka, 6/30/11

© 2011 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

No part of this interview may be reproduced or quoted without express written permission.

photo © 2008 Toyota Kyushu Supporters Club
all rights reserved

Wanjiru and Morishita at a Toyota Kyushu Athlete Club company workers' practice session at the Fukuoka Univ. of Education, 5/14/08. Click picture for many other photos on the Toyota Kyushu Supporters Club website.

Samuel Wanjiru joined Toyota Kyushu in 2005.  At the same time as Wanjiru, Moroccan Hassan Boumagoul joined the team.  Prior to that you had never had a foreign runner.  Could you talk about that move from never having had foreign runners to recruiting someone as talented as Wanjiru?
Samuel Wanjiru was at Sendai Ikuei High School.  I was interested in recruiting one of their Japanese runners, Ito, and had gone there to talk to him when Sendai Ikuei’s head coach [Takao] Watanabe said that he wanted to find a position for Wanjiru as well.  At the time we were considering whether or not to add a foreigner, so when the chance came to pick him up we decided to do it.  Ito went off to a university, but we came back with Samuel.

I had watched the National High School Ekiden Championships the year before that and had focused on the Third Stage.  That stage’s course is a long, steady uphill, the hardest one.  All the best runners, Japanese or foreign, run that stage.  Samuel Wanjiru made an impression on me because he ran the uphill like it was flat or even downhill.  There are Japanese like that too, but Samuel Wanjiru could run the uphill with no change in his speed.  Unlike other foreigners he ran the uphill with a high pitch, and I thought that kind of form would be ideal for the marathon.  I knew he would be a marathoner, so I wanted him to come here.  Of course we wanted him for ekidens as well, but I was really thinking in terms of the marathon even though for the first two years he was here all he said was, “I want to run track, I want to run track.”  From the start I wanted him to run the marathon, but for the first year we concentrated on the track to develop his speed because that’s what he said he wanted to do, and then suddenly he became interested in the marathon.

The Fukuoka International Marathon was his debut, and it wasn’t until about a month or a month and a half beforehand that he finally decided to do it.  Normally a Japanese runner would prepare for a marathon for about three months, but Samuel did it off about two months less preparation.  He’d been building toward that since high school, but with only a month’s preparation, well, he wasn’t ready for a race where he just went BANG, fast right from the start.  I thought that if he just sat in the lead pack he would be okay on only a month’s training.  That was what he did, and he became Samuel Wanjiru the Marathoner there.

Outside of his running, what was he like as a person when he joined Toyota Kyushu?
Watanabe had built him up for three years in high school.  Here at Toyota Kyushu we are absolutely not interested in taking someone straight from Kenya.  Maybe someone who has been here for a year at another company, but our basic position is that we will only consider someone who has come here, spent time in school and been educated in the Japanese system.  The first year they’re here we can’t teach them about Japanese culture and history, so there’s no question that it’s better if they go through a high school first like Samuel Wanjiru.

Samuel Wanjiru was educated for three years before he came here, and with regard to his professionalism as a runner, he had carefully studied the Japanese manner and learned it correctly, so things went very smoothly.  It was easy to teach him the things I wanted to teach.  “If you do this, in Japan you will make the coach angry.  If you do this, the coach will be happy.”  He already understood that when he got here.  He was smart.

He came to Toyota Kyushu as an 18-year-old and left as an adult.  Did you see any changes in his personality over the three years he was here?
As far as his commitment to competition, to sports, to running, there was no change at all.  He had an intense drive to win.  In his daily life as well, if he had to say something hard or severe to one of our Japanese members he didn’t say it with hard words but with his actions, his attitude.  He was a model athlete.  There were many athletes on the team who changed their attitudes because of him.  As far as we were concerned that was a plus.  I don’t know what he became after he went back to Kenya, but what they are saying about the circumstances around what happened to him, it is inconceivable to all of us.  It doesn’t fit the athlete we knew.

Only three or four months after he joined Toyota Kyushu Wanjiru set the 10000 m world junior record, then a short time later the half marathon world record for the first time.  A lot of people wonder why after setting a world junior record on the track he basically gave up track racing.  As a coach were you thinking in terms of him staying on the track longer or were you already thinking at that stage that it was time to move toward the marathon?
I wasn’t there when he set the world junior record.  Our manager [Katsushi Fuchiwaki] went with him because we were too busy.  The manager liked that kind of thing so he went along.  In terms of [Wanjiru’s] training, he hadn’t done the training to run that kind of time, but when he got into the race he ran it.  He was the type of athlete who practiced at 100% and raced at 130 or 140%.  He didn’t really have much basic speed.  If you look at his 5000 m or whatever it wasn’t that fast, but he had incredible strength to hold a pace.  Because of that combination I was thinking all along that with that kind of strength he would really be something in the marathon.  I was thinking the marathon, but like I said before he was saying, “Track, track, track,” most of the time, so we mostly stuck to that.

I don’t really know what turned him on to the marathon, what the trigger was, what made him change.  Even after the record he was still talking about track.  He went back to Kenya twice a year, and I think the change might have happened when he was back there.  Maybe he met somebody, or someone he respected was a marathoner, and that made him want to try the marathon.

Erick Wainaina as well, he was raised here and Wanjiru admired him.  He learned from the Japanese and won Olympic silver and bronze medals, so maybe there was some inspiration to try the marathon from Wainaina.  Nobody outside Samuel himself knows what triggered the change, but when he told me he wanted to run a marathon I was very happy.  I taught him what I knew: for that short window of time, stay patient, wait, don’t take off from the start.

I interviewed Stephen Mayaka recently and he said that from when he had first gotten to know Wanjiru, more than money Wanjiru wanted to become famous.  He wanted to make a name for himself.  Did you have the same impression?
Not “I want to become famous,” but “I want to become strong.”  It’s true that strong equals famous, but at any rate he wanted to win.  He wasn’t out there to run fast times; whatever race he was in, he was there to win.  He told me that very passionately, that he wanted to become someone strong enough to do that.  One of the results of that would be that he would become famous, but although Kenyans are highly motivated by money he never talked about it as a motivation.  On the other hand, for our part we thought, “With an athlete like this, if we don’t raise his salary we’re going to lose him if we’re not careful.” 

Of course he knew that if he won races the money would come in, but I don’t think it was a big part of his drive to win.  He was happy to win even little races.  When we won the New Year’s Day National Corporate Ekiden Championships regional qualifier sponsored by the Mainichi newspaper he was unbelievably ecstatic.  He never wanted to lose, and he wanted the team to win, and to share his joy of winning with the rest of the team until they felt it too.  That’s the kind of athlete he was.  It’s why everyone on the team loved him, and why I just can’t believe the things you hear about what Sam was like recently.  How did he change like that?  I don’t know.

What was his relationship like with the other athletes on the team during those three years?
You can hear that better from the two guys coming in next [Yu Mitsuya and Masato Imai], but he was very lovable, someone the rest of the team liked to tease and have fun with, just a very cute little guy.  In a good sense, he was someone you could push around, the kind of person who could laugh at things.  What should I say?  Maybe I don’t know either [laughs].  He raised the spirits of the rest of the team, their mood maker, if you want to call him that.  That’s the kind of athlete he was.  Nobody hated him.  Cute, just very cute.

Did he train with Mitsuya and the other team members?
Yes, he trained with Mitsuya.  When Mitsuya ran the 27:41 domestic record it wouldn’t have worked out if he had simply run the race, so even in training for it I had Sam running there just ahead of him.  Sam could do that.  He was very skilled at pacing, very good as a training partner.  He would always keep himself one step ahead and on the outside of the lane.  When Mitsuya ran his 5000 m best of 13:17 as well, all the other foreign runners went out like rockets, but Sam went out in front and got them under control.  I didn’t tell him to do that, but since he knew Mitsuya was trying to run a time, without any words he got them all to slow down during the race so that Mitsuya could stay with them.  I’d say that Mitsuya’s times were Sam’s times, or times that he was able to run because Sam was there.  That’s how important his pacing work was.  Mitsuya ran the fastest 10000 m by a Japanese man inside Japan thanks to Sam.  He did a great job, really.

I’ve heard two different descriptions of Wanjiru’s training ethic.  One that he was very focused and disciplined, the other that he was relaxed and flexible with his training, like for example taking the day off if it was raining.  What was your impression?
Well, when he was here he trained in the rain.  He did a big 40 km run once when it was raining.  With regard to his focus, he always did the crucial workouts without fail.  The workouts that could be moved around might have been changed.  I gave him his complete training schedule and would say, “Today we’re going to run this pace.”  That’s how I advised him.  I only made a training schedule for him for the marathon.  On the track I would look at the workouts he planned and advise him on them.  I only gave him a complete schedule for the marathon.  That’s why he raced that way.

In choosing his own workouts, in designing his own program, it meant that he had to do 100% of what was on the menu, and he did pretty well.  He was always fast in workouts, always ahead of the scheduled pace.  Even when he agreed to run a particular pace his results were always at a higher level.  Always by himself, because none of the Japanese runners could keep up.  In that sense, when he raced I could say, “OK, that level of training led to this result,” but when he ran the junior record, the world record, yeah, he was bringing something intangible to it, some extra factor.

I don’t remember days when he didn’t run in the rain.  When he was here he trained as normal on rainy days.  On Sundays too.

In 2006 he didn’t have any major results.
His leg was bothering him, an injury problem.  He went back to Kenya several times, twice, maybe?  His leg was swollen and it didn’t recover well.  At first he had a stress fracture, so he went home until it was healed.  It got better after that, but he still had a lot of injuries that year, the second year.  A lot of time when he wasn’t feeling good.  We talked about what was wrong, about getting proper care, massage and whatnot, and that was when he started learning about recovery.  After that he got better.  He and Hassan worked together skillfully on their massage, taking turns giving each other oil massages.  I think that was probably very helpful.  Japanese athletes don’t do that kind of thing.  They just leave it to the trainer.  But that was the way Sam and Hassan communicated.

As a pro, if you can’t turn out good results it affects your income, so he knew he had to work hard.  I think he got married the second year, if I remember correctly.  He had a baby too.  He knew that he had to do his best to take care of his family.

Coming off that year he broke the half-marathon world record twice in February and March, 2007.  Could you talk about how he went from 2006 to that?
Well, it seemed pretty close so at first we didn’t know if he’d broken it or not.  That time, he went back to Kenya from Japan right after New Year’s Day [the National Corporate Ekiden Championships] in January.  I think he ran those records off the training he did back in Kenya.  I wasn’t there, but I think he went straight to the records from that.  His manager assisted him, but I wasn’t really there to see it happen.  I just got a phone call saying he’d set the record.  He always called me.

When you say “manager” do you mean his Italian management?
No, the Japanese one who was part of our team, Fuchiwaki.

Do you know at what point Wanjiru became involved with the Italian manager Federico Rosa?
He was in the picture for a long time through Nike.  When he went back to Kenya Rosa was looking after him, taking care of his day-to-day life.  Since Rosa was in the middle the money didn’t flow to Samuel so smoothly.  The money went to Rosa first and then came through him.  It seemed as though there were some problems related to that.  With regard to the money he made overseas, outside Japan, we didn’t see any of it or have anything to do with it because that was between Samuel and his management.  We didn’t touch it, we only handled the money he made within Japan. 

If I look at it all now I think that might have been where things started to go wrong with his life.  There were suspicions about what was going on with his money being handled, if you want to be blunt.  At Fukuoka too.  Rosa came and stepped in.  We set it all up and arranged that all the prize money went to Sam, but Rosa ended up taking some of it.  I didn’t know everything about [Wanjiru’s] financial situation, but he was involved in some kind of business that he’d put his money into.  It seemed like his money problems came up when he started doing business with his family.  I didn’t think it was good for him to get involved in that.  If everything went well it could be great for Sam, but if it didn’t it was going to affect his running performances.  I was concerned about this, and in the midst of those circumstances he left our team.  After that it was his problem.

Wanjiru’s marathon debut was at Fukuoka, but earlier that fall the ING New York City Marathon had announced that he was going to debut there.
Yeah, when I read that he was running there I hadn’t heard it from him myself.  I don’t know if Rosa set it up or someone else.  [On this point, NYRR president and CEO Mary Wittenberg told JRN on 7/15/11: “To be honest from the beginning it seemed too good to be true, as we knew the pressure to run in Japan would be great.”

Once he set the junior record the ARs [Athlete Representatives] started sniffing around him. Rosa was the one who ended up landing him, but Sam had already signed with someone else before that.  Some high-level member of the Kenyan federation ruled that the other guy’s contract was illegal and cancelled it, so Rosa got him.  [Mayaka identified this as Volker Wagnera German AR suspended by Athletics Kenya in 2009.  Wagner did not respond to a request for confirmation.]  

After that what I was hearing from outside and what I was hearing from Sam were often different.  I didn’t think the situation was working well, especially with regard to outside Japan, and Toyota Kyushu was losing control of what he was doing overseas.  That’s my impression.  Sam got more and more unpredictable. 

He had to go back to Kenya months before the Olympics to train with the Kenyan national team.  That was a year or so later.  Maybe a year, a year and a half before that I started not knowing what was going on with Sam when he was out of the country.  What Sam was saying and what I was hearing from other people stopped matching up.  I thought it was a bad situation.  Half of my mind at that time was constantly worrying about Sam.

You said that the decision to run Fukuoka came a month and a half or so beforehand, but the announcement that he was going to run New York was before that.  Was Fukuoka a reaction or were you already planning for him to debut at the marathon?
I thought it would be good for him to debut during his second year [2006], to run Fukuoka his second year.  But since he kept saying he wanted to run track I was surprised when he said he wanted to run the marathon such a short time before the race.  I didn’t think he’d run Fukuoka at that point, but he wanted to do it.  For Toyota Kyushu, as well, since the company is based in Fukuoka prefecture it was a very good thing for them to see him debut on home ground.  I wasn’t sure he would really run with less than two months’ preparation since the marathon was something different, a real test of stamina, and there was a lot riding on whether Samuel could run well enough to live up to his name, but Sam did an exemplary job of projecting an image of strength in the marathon.  I had thought, “Is he really going to be okay on less than two months’ training?” but on the preparations he did it was no problem.  Two months beforehand I never would have guessed that he would suddenly debut at Fukuoka, but a year earlier that’s what I had been thinking.

What kind of key workouts did you do in the buildup to Fukuoka?
The one that I have the strongest impression of was a 40 km run Samuel did.  The first one that month went fine, but in the second one he ran out of energy and collapsed.  Before that he had really slowed down after 35 km.  He had been on pace to run around 2 hours for 40 km but ended up running 2:10 and then falling down.  Contrary to what you might expect, that was a good experience for him.  “Oh, 40 km is this hard,” “So this is what stamina is,” and the like.  Experiencing that forced him not to take off in the race because of fear of the consequences, and that’s why he was able to hold back until 30 km.  If he had blazed away at 20 km I think he would have lost in the end to that strong guy who ran in the Olympics [Deriba Merga].  He would have been 2nd.  I think that because of that 40 km stamina workout Fukuoka went the way it did.  Sam himself said it was a good experience.  After the workout I told him, “If you hadn’t done this you’d go out really fast in the race,” and after Fukuoka he said, “You were right, I would have tried to lead at a high pace right from the start if I hadn’t done that 40 km run.”  That made it easier for me to advise him the next time, when he was feeling nervous about whether he could finish.  Before the race I told Samuel, “Just relax and be patient until 30 km.  If you’re still feeling like you have your strength at that point it’ll be fine.”  Because of that 40 km run he understood what I meant.

Right after Fukuoka you said that you didn’t want him to run another marathon until the fall.
I was really surprised because he was already thinking about another marathon right away.  I thought it would be better if he rested up more before running another one, but he had gone back to Kenya just before that and, well, people probably said a lot of things to him.  “You could run a great time right now, you could make a lot of cash.”  It would have been different if he had stayed in Japan the whole time.  When you’re going to do serious key workouts, go do them seriously in Kenya, but stay based in Japan for your base training.  If he had done it that way he could have had a longer life as an athlete.

It would have been better if we’d done more on the management side of things.  I felt that way at the time.  But he was already thinking only about the marathon, about running his second marathon.  Before he left for Kenya I said, “You should take some time off before you do another one,” but when he came back he was already saying he was going to do another one soon. I said, “No, no, no, no, take a break.” His body was small, and therefore it’s harder to recover from fatigue, and he didn’t have much of a base built up, so the fatigue piles up.  Kenyans usually do two marathons a year, so with that in mind looking at Sam’s form I thought he needed to be more careful.  I don’t know what the terms of his contract with Nike were, whether he had some stipulations about running marathons, so again I think I should have done a better job on the management side.  Once he’s back there you don’t know what he’s doing, in Kenya, or if he’s gone to Europe.  You can’t keep an eye on that from inside Japan without having a coach who is capable of going along.

It seems that you weren’t planning to have him run the marathon in Beijing.  Were you thinking in terms of the London Olympics?
Yes, we had talked about London.  From all his talk about track I had the impression that that was what he was thinking a year or so earlier.  I wasn’t originally thinking London but rather that when he ran it would be Beijing, but the whole first year he was here he was only talking about track so I thought London was the only option.  But then he suddenly said he wanted to run Fukuoka, and at some unknown point that had changed to Beijing.  I thought he was capable of winning Beijing, but just before that he quit the company and left. I think there was an instigator.

I saw some pictures online of Wanjiru running a 4x400 m relay at the Kyushu Corporate T&F Championships with Toyota Kyushu shortly after the 2008 London Marathon right before he left.  I thought that was pretty interesting.
Yeah, he ran that with Mitsuya and some others.  The last relay in that meet had kind of a festival atmosphere, and since we have a lot of good members here at Toyota Kyushu we ran a team.  I wanted Sam to enjoy that kind of thing more.  We have a company club here too, where ordinary company workers can do training sessions with the team.  Sam was a foreigner who liked Japanese people and could speak Japanese, so he fit in well and people could joke around with him.  I think that’s what he needed.  He was one of us, and Toyota Kyushu was always ready to welcome him back, whether as an independent or not.  This was before the gun incident.  He said he wanted to come back, to rejoin Toyota Kyushu, and we told him, “Any time. Having you on the team is good for everybody involved.  Bring a training partner.  That runner will be part of Toyota Kyushu.  If you want to run independently and manage yourself, or if you want us to manage you, whatever, that’s fine.  However you want to race, but if it’s for ekidens then you have to be in Japan for 180 days out of the year.”  We talked about that, about him managing himself, being free and just having training partners, but then these incidents happened and it was impossible. 

But the gap between the things Sam said and the disturbing news we heard about him got bigger and bigger, and things kept going wrong.  It was the hangers-on, the people leeching off him.  The people who were supporting Sam were only motivated by the money flowing around him, not from the heart, and they didn’t give him the kind of support he really needed.  You hear a lot of disturbing things about his family too, his wife, and I can’t help but think that he should have had more people around him who cared about his soul.  What a waste.  He would have won London.  He would have won Brazil, Rio.  His times were gradually getting slower, but Samuel Wanjiru had the competitive instinct.  He won with his head.

Chicago last year was really unbelievable.
Yeah, it was brilliant.  It’s not enough just to be fast to win the Olympics, you need something more.  He had it, crystal-clear.  It’s a waste.

Two or three days ago I had a dream about him.  Samuel Wanjiru.  At first it was Samuel Wanjiru, then it was the bigger guy from Slim Club [a standup comedy duo].   “Oh, here comes Sam,” I thought.  “Wait a minute, I thought he was dead?”  That was the dream.  Sometimes when I’m alone I say to myself, “Where’s Sam?  Is he around somewhere?”  I still can’t believe he’s dead.  I can’t understand yet that he is really gone.  If this incident hadn’t happened, I really wanted him to come back here.  What a waste.

Could you comment on the circumstances around his departure from Toyota Kyushu just before Beijing?
We couldn’t release anything to the media.  We didn’t deny it, but we didn’t confirm it either.  People around us were talking about it, but for us it was just a sudden notice, all of a sudden.  We received a letter from a law office in Tokyo.  That’s it.  We didn’t hear anything from Samuel himself.  When I heard that the manager [Fuchiwaki] was leaving with him I thought, “Oh shit, they’ve cheated me.”  I think that the kind of life he came to started there, with that move with the manager.  If he had stayed with us his life would have been completely different.  Watanabe says the same kind of thing.  “If I had been there for him…”

We couldn’t do anything.  We just received the letter of resignation from his lawyer.  At the end of August we formalized his departure from the team.  The higher levels of the company were very angry, in a Japanese way.  Even if the manager was behind it all, it was Sam who agreed to do this.  In Japanese there’s a saying, “Don’t chase those who leave.”  We didn’t ask him to come back until he said he wanted to come back.

After that you sometimes talked on the phone about him coming back.  Mayaka showed me emails which indicated that you were discussing it as recently as last July.
Yes, we had discussed it with the company, how to handle Sam coming back.  He had a Japanese tax debt of around 5,000,000 yen [~$65,000 USD], and if he didn’t pay it off I don’t think he would have been able to re-enter Japan.  We had talked about that and I asked Mayaka whether he could help out with arranging to pay it off.  But Sam had gotten hard to contact, even for Mayaka, and unreliable about keeping his appointments and showing up on time.  He wanted to come back but for whatever reason the talk was drawn out further and further, and even though we kept talking right up to the end he never came back.

We talked about him coming back and said, “OK, let’s give it one more try,” and the company gave their approval.  The plans were in place for six months and we talked again and he said, “I’m coming next week,” then the week went by and he didn’t show up.  “I guess things are happening on Sam time again,” I thought. “Just be patient and wait.”  The company said, “Forget it, we don’t need this.”  Then three days later the news came out in Japan about the gun incident with his wife and I thought, “Ah.  That’s why he didn’t come.”  After that there was no chance for him here, at our company or in Japan.  Nobody here would touch somebody like that.  We had to give it up.  In February he was in court, then in May the news came that he was dead, and all I could say was, “What?”  I didn’t expect it at all.  My press officer took care of most of it.  I got a lot of calls from all over the place when Sam died, from the media.  What has the reaction to his death been overseas?

It’s been a major shock.  It’s very hard to read, to know who is giving accurate information or what to think about it.  The Kenyan police very quickly said, “This was a suicide.”
The police don’t have any idea either.  Nobody knows what really happened.  That’s a scary country.

Now that everything is over with Wanjiru, here at the end of it all, if you think of the athlete “Samuel Wanjiru,” what set him apart from others?
To think of it in the simplest terms, I always felt that he had strength of spirit, a spirit that never gave up.  He had a deep capacity to endure.  These made him very different from the ordinary Kenyan.  He was warm-hearted.  He held the Japanese characteristic of being a part of a functioning group, a team.  The team was important to him.  That was unlike others.  He had a strong heart, and the team was important to him.  He had a concern for others that was very Japanese.  I think he learned it during his three years in high school.  Along with these, what is Japanese marathoners’ only competitive advantage?  Gaman, persistence, the ability to hold on, hold on, hold on.  He had it.  Racing sense, he had it, persistence, he had it, a demon with his weapon, the drive to win, all of the most important things a winner needs.  He had them all.  This set him apart from other athletes.  Japanese athletes don’t have them.  They don’t have any racing sense, none at all.  He gained the Japanese capacity of persistence and endurance.  He had the body and the soul.  He was smart.  There’s nobody like that, is there?  No other athletes.  He had the body, with strong organs and heart, a strong spirit.  Nobody could beat him.  He had everything.  In Japanese we say shingitai, spirit, technique and body.  To become a good athlete you have to have all three elements, and all three elements should grow equally.  That is how one grows as a human being, especially for athletes.  You also need brains along with shingitai, atamashingitai, maybe.  Sam had almost everything.  He was an athlete with all four elements.

But when someone is that young the people supporting him should have done a better job helping him grow as a person, with his education.  Look at Ryo Ishikawa [teenaged pro golf star].  He’s got a good manager.  He’s articulate and knows how to speak and has good interpersonal relationships.  At that age, at 22, if the money starts coming in like that, this is how it is going to turn out, obviously.  He needed people supporting him who would have taken the steps to prevent this outcome.  We should have done it, unfortunately.

Wanjiru broke the half marathon world record three times, set a world junior record on the track, set the half marathon Japanese all-comers record, set the course record at Fukuoka in his debut, and ran 2:05 in his second marathon all while you were coaching him.  Looking at your own work with him, what do you feel were your key contributions to his development?
I think I showed him how to train with peace of mind.  I gave him a good environment and shared Japanese marathon knowhow with him.  How to think during the race, the timing of the limit of your capacity to endure, how if you run out of patience in the marathon you will end up wasting all your energy and not being able to win at the end of 42 km.  It happens.  Timing, that was a big part of what I taught him.  What you should do at this point in the race, at 20 km you should do this and think this way, here you should think this way.  That was the kind of thing I said.  I left the speed and race pace up to him to decide.  On the other hand, the track was the other way around.  I told him what kind of race time he should go for and he listened.  But his times were too fast based on the workouts he did.  I couldn’t understand it.  Those races are too short.  I liked races long enough that you can think about them.  Races where you can think for two hours were easier to explain.  So for the marathon, before you do one you should train this way, racing in this kind of condition is the best, that kind of thing.  When you pass a certain point and you feel this way, that is the best.

If you can understand that even though marathons are hard, if you can get through this stage you’ll be able run a great performance, then you can do it.  It’s going to get harder around 20 km.  30 km is the peak.  If you think it’s gotten hard at that point then if you can keep hanging on it’ll get more comfortable.  If they understand that then the athlete will be able to persevere.  If the coach effectively communicates that it is just a matter of fact that it is going to get hard at that point then the athlete will know that it’s not going to stay that way if they hold on.  You have to have a relationship of trust with the coach to believe him, and we had that kind of relationship.  I had that kind of relationship with Sam and that’s why we felt comfortable with each other, being on the team.  He sometimes went back to Kenya and did speedwork, then came back and got even faster.  Then he could relax here.  He never relaxed in Kenya, he didn’t have that kind of environment.  If he wanted to relax he could only do it through alcohol.  It would have been better to be here and just be there for peak training. 

I think it was important to have somewhere like Japan that he didn’t have to always be hearing about all the big races around the world, somewhere that he could rest.  He needed that kind of place.  You can’t get away with not having a place like that to be, to live.  I think that’s what Japan was for him.  When that went away, everything became, “You’ve got to run like a pro!”  And everyone around him always saying, “Let’s go out drinking!” and then blaming him for drinking too much.  I don’t think he had a way to relax and take it easy.  That was part of why I wanted him to come back to Japan.  With Watanabe would have been OK, or we could have given him that kind of environment at Toyota.  Toyota was an environment where Sam could be free, could be himself.  In Japan you can focus and relax.  In a marathon you don’t have to go all-out for 2 hours or 2 hours 5 minutes.  When it’s time to compete then you focus and attack.  That’s what Kenya is for.  Japan is the place where you’re cruising in the flow of the race, getting into it.  I think we had that kind of environment for him.

Is there anything we haven’t covered that you would like to say?
I wonder about his value on the world marathon market.  He had slipped out of the top ten fastest in the world, but he had won the Olympic gold medal.  I wonder how much esteem people held him in worldwide.


TokyoRacer said...

Terrific interview, thanks for that.

Gerd said...

Hi Brett,

unfortunately I had only once the pleasure to interview Samuel Wanjiru. In your interview with his Japanese coach you have been speculating with him why Wanjiru quit running on track so early. While doing my interview with him in 2009 I asked Sam excatly that question and he told me that training and racing hard with spikes caused him big achilles tendon problems. So that was his reason to run roadraces rather than continuing racing on track.

Brett Larner said...

Thank you, that's interesting. It's certainly consistent with his injury troubles in 2006.