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Japan in Wanjiru - Yu Mitsuya and Masato Imai

This is the third in a series of JRN interviews with the Japanese friends, colleagues and mentors of the late Olympic champion Samuel Wanjiru. Click here for an introduction to the series and links to the other interviews. Tomorrow's interview will be with Yasuto Kimura, Wanjiru's companion at all his overseas marathons.

Yu Mitsuya and Masato Imai were two of Wanjiru's teammates at the Toyota Kyushu corporate team.  Mitsuya, the star of the team, worked closely with Wanjiru for more than three years, training and racing as a pair and setting his 5000 m and 10000 m PBs of 13:18.32 and 27:41.10 with Wanjiru at his side, the latter mark only recently eclipsed as the fastest ever by a Japanese man on Japanese soil.  Imai came to Toyota Kyushu as one of the most famous university runners of his generation and saw firsthand Wanjiru's transition to becoming a marathoner.  Both shared their experiences and memories of Wanjiru with JRN.

Yu Mitsuya and Masato Imai 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 of Mitsuya and Wanjiru © 2005 Tetsuhiko Kin
all rights reserved
photo of Imai © 2011 Dr. Helmut Winter
all rights reserved

Mitsuya, you joined Toyota Kyushu in 2003 and Wanjiru joined in 2005.  What were your initial impressions of him?
When he joined the team I thought he was really lovable.  He was younger, and he had an adorable kind of image, funny and lovable.  I felt that very strongly.

Did you know already much about him from what he’d done as a high school runner?
Yes, we had run together before so I knew who he was, but I didn’t think we’d end up running for the same company.  He was also very serious.  He was amazing in practice.

How often did you train together?  Were you training as a pair, or with the rest of the team?
Yes, at first we trained with everyone else, but Sam and I also did workouts together just the two of us.  We also ran some races together where we were shooting for big times.  We did a lot of things.

Wanjiru pacing Mitsuya to the fastest-ever 10000 m by a Japanese man on Japanese soil, 27:41.10, in Hokkaido on June 30, 2005. Click picture for the beautiful complete photo sequence by Tetsuhiko Kin.

About three months after Sam joined Toyota Kyushu you ran the 27:41 record together.  Could you talk about that run?
Before we ran that time we went on a training camp together and trained as a pair.  Sam was always pulling me along, but we did lots of training for me to be able to match his rhythm, and when we got to the race we ran it the exact same way.  It was thanks to him that I was able to run that time.

Did Sam run about the same time as you there?
Yeah, he outkicked me and beat me by a second or two.  He was always first across the line when we ran.

A month or two later he ran the world junior record and the half marathon world record.  What kind of impact did those records have on you and the rest of the team?
We all thought, “No way!”  We didn’t think he could run at that level and everyone was completely surprised.  When we saw pictures he looked the same as always, so we all just said, “Hey, he was really there.”  It was really surprising.  I realized how talented he was.

Do you think it helped the team morale or motivation?
Yes, it was definitely a motivation for all of us.  We all realized that with someone like that on our team we had to work harder in ekidens, that we couldn’t leave it all to him. 

In 2006 Sam was mostly injured.  What kind of differences did you see in him that year compared to the first year?
I didn’t feel anything was really different.  No really major changes.

Imai, in 2007 you joined the team after graduating from Juntendo University.  Why did you choose Toyota Kyushu?
Well, I already knew that with Coach [Koichi] Morishita, Mitsuya and Sam here it was a very powerful team.  I knew they would be a motivation for me to work if I joined Toyota Kyushu.  The team’s base is also pretty isolated out in the country, lots of mountains, the kind of environment I love, so when I saw that I wanted to come here.

Mitsuya gave his impression of Sam from the point of view of being the senior member on the team.  You came in as a junior member to Sam.  What were your first impressions of him?
For me, I’m from Fukushima and he was from Miyagi, so we already had a connection from running together in high school in the Sendai Ikuei days.  Like Mitsuya said before, he was very cute, adorable.  He was very charming and personable and not at all reluctant to come over and start talking to us.  A very nice, likeable guy.  But when I joined Toyota Kyushu he had already run world records and become incredibly strong, and that strength, that fortitude, of course I thought, “I really want to run with this guy, I want to race him in a marathon.”

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 were your impressions?
Mitsuya: Out of all the times I saw him, I’d say both elements were there.  If it rained he’d often say, “I’m not running because I might catch a cold.”  That was what he said ever since he joined the team.  But at the same time he was incredibly focused and would train hard.  In the months leading up to a major race, a marathon, for example, he was all business.  Very serious.  Afterwards, of course, he was a lot looser and freer.
Imai: Like he said, [Wanjiru] had the ability to concentrate and focus, but if he wasn’t doing anything he could relax, listen to music, really loud Kenyan music, reggae or something like that, then when you said, “Let’s do it,” his eyes would focus and he would be completely concentrated.  In Japan we call it “merihari,” and he was very good at it, very talented.

What kind of relationship did he have with the other teammates outside of running?  Did you all view him as a friend?
Mitsuya: When he joined he was the first foreigner the team had had, but everyone thought he was a lovable guy and Sam actively tried to be part of our group so he got along well with everyone.  We’d go eat together.  It was always a lot of fun.
Imai: We called him the team’s mood maker.  If the team was worried about something he would try to get everyone to relax.  His Japanese was really good, better than us.  We were surprised that sometimes he knew words we didn’t know.

I was going to ask about that.  I saw short interviews with him on TV many times but it was hard to tell from them how well he really spoke Japanese.
Mitsuya: No, he had no problems speaking at all.  It seemed like he would get nervous in front of the cameras and forget his Japanese, but in regular day-to-day life it was not a problem.

You described him as the team’s mood maker.  In the three years he was with Toyota Kyushu did you see any changes in him personally, any interior changes that you noticed?  You both described him as a cute, lovable guy, but in the last six months or year there have been a lot of bad stories about him coming out of Kenya.  Something must have changed along the way and I’m curious whether you noticed anything.
Imai: No, I didn’t notice any particular change.  He seemed the same as always.  He was targeting the Olympics and being named to the Kenyan national team.  He was thinking a lot about what he had to do for that to happen, but there wasn’t any obvious change in his behavior.
Mitsuya: Likewise.

Did he live in a team dormitory with the other runners?
Mitsuya: Yes.
Imai: Yes, together.

Japanese people enjoy going drinking; it’s a regular part of the culture.  Did Wanjiru drink with you in those days?
Mitsuya: Yes, sure.

I’m sure you’ve heard the stories recently that he was a heavy drinker, much more so than other Kenyans.  I’m wondering what he was like when he was here, if you saw any problems.
Imai: As Mitsuya said before, he could concentrate on an important task, and then afterward cut loose and have fun with everybody else.  He wasn’t a heavy drinker, though.
Mitsuya: I never saw signs of him drinking too much.  He didn’t drink before races, only afterwards.

Do you know if he had a Japanese girlfriend?
Mitsuya: He never said anything to me if he did.
Imai: I never heard anything either.

In 2007 just before Imai joined the company, Wanjiru broke the half marathon world record twice, in February and in March after being injured most of the year before.  Do you remember anything about his training in the months leading up to that, say from December on?  Anything different from usual?
Mitsuya: Sam had had an Achilles injury before that and wasn’t running at all.  Once it got better I think he was really raring to go and eager to run.  I think that was it more than any major change in his training.

That fall the talk about his marathon debut came up, first with New York and then Fukuoka.  I don’t think he ran Fukuoka 100% but nevertheless he still set a course record.  What do you remember about the weeks before his marathon debut?
Mitsuya: He was way more nervous than usual.  He’d never done one before, so in the lead-up to the race he kept saying, “Am I really ready for this?”  Of course he knew he was probably going to win but I’d never seen that side of him before, the nervous, unconfident side.  I felt it very strongly.
Imai: My strongest impression was from when he was doing marathon training, a long run.  That time he got very shaky near the end, staggering, and he ended up lying on the road because it was too hard.  I thought, “Wow, Sam’s human!  It’s hard for Sam too!”  We were used to being around him, someone who had set world records and done all these amazing things, so when we saw that it really hit home to us that he was human just like us. Seeing him nervous, too, and staggering, all of it together.  After that he started the talk about, “I don’t know if I can do this.  Am I really ready?”
Mitsuya: That’s right.
Imai: Those fears seemed to get bigger.  So, my impression from that was that he was a human being too.  A hard workout left him reeling too.  I’d never seen that before.

At the end of Chicago last year after he finished he was staggering too.  That was the first time I had seen that as well, so I know what you mean.  Since he ran his marathon debut at Fukuoka there was no international broadcast and overseas marathon fans didn’t get to watch the race.  When people overseas saw the results they said, “Oh man, we can’t wait for Wanjiru to step out.”  The 2008 London Marathon was kind of his international coming out, the race where he became a big star on the international marathon circuit.  He lost to Lel, but he ran a fantastic race and it made a big impression worldwide.  Was he different after that, after he became a marathoner?  He was becoming a big star overseas, so did you see any kind of personality change in him, anything that seemed to go along with stardom?
Imai: Hmmn, no, nothing out of the ordinary.
Mitsuya: He seemed pretty normal, but he started talking about where he wanted to run his next marathon.  He was still running track in between, but I think his motivation shifted to it being targeted toward getting him ready for his next marathon.
Imai: That was also right when they were deciding the team for the Olympics.  He wanted to be the Olympic champion.
Mitsuya: He said he wanted the gold medal.
Imai: He said, “The Olympics are now.  I want to run them.”  The London Marathon was also serving as the Kenyan trials, so I feel that he had focused everything on preparing for the Olympics.  But I didn’t see any kind of big changes in him.

Right after London he ran a relay with Mitsuya and two others at the Kyushu Corporate T&F Championships. 
[Both Mitsuya and Imai start laughing.]

I came across some pictures of it online while researching another article and thought it was really interesting, so I included it in the timeline of his major races that went along with that article.
[Uproarious laughter.]

People overseas didn’t believe that he had really run it.
Mitsuya: Yeah, I can imagine.  That was a lot of fun.
Imai: That was the first time he ran in sunglasses.
Mitsuya: That’s right.
Imai: Right before the race he grabbed the sunglasses from one of our teammates and put them on.  “How do they look?” he asked.  “Do they suit me?”
Mitsuya: I think he was kind of embarrassed.
Imai: He was just having fun.  You put it on the list of his most important races, huh?

Well, I thought it was interesting that he was doing something like that right after his big coming out at London.  He had turned into a big international star, but he came back here and ran the local corporate championships just like usual.  It didn’t seem like there was a big change in him.
Mitsuya: Yeah, you’re right. He was in his normal mode the whole time, the only difference being that he was doing a marathon.

Right around that time, May and June, 2008, he paced Mitsuya two or three or four times to try to get an Olympic-qualifying standard.
Mitsuya: Yes, he was helping me in the 10000 m, in Niigata.  He paced me three times, but I couldn’t do it.

At the time it made a big impression on me that he was spending all that time after becoming a big international name helping you, his teammate, running for his teammate’s benefit, then right afterwards abruptly left the team.  He was working so closely with you and then just left with no warning.  What can you say about his resignation?  Was it sudden for you too?  Had you heard that something was coming down the pipeline?
Mitsuya: No, I hadn’t heard anything at all.  It was when he went back to Kenya in the summer, right?
Imai: Yes, right after he left.
Mitsuya: After he went home he said he wasn’t coming back. It seemed like, “Oh, he’ll be back soon.”  Before he left for Kenya he was totally normal toward us.
Imai: Just like always, he was saying, “I have to remember to take my shoes to Kenya.”  He left the way he always did when he was going back to Kenya.
Mitsuya: Yeah, the same.
Imai: He went, then didn’t come back.  I just thought, “What?”

You said that he was the team’s mood maker for the years that he was here.  What effect did his departure have on the team, in terms of team spirit, the way you trained?
Mitsuya: If you talk about whether the way we trained changed, not really, no, but it had different kinds of impact on everybody as individuals.  He was the strongest one on the team and had run a great marathon time, and he was the mood maker, so when he left we were sad, of course.  Personally, he had come to the team, we had run together a lot for three years, he helped me run fast times, pacing me all the way, and we experienced many things together, so I felt I should try harder.
Imai: He was a good guy.  The way we trained didn’t change, but having someone who trained with you go and take the Olympics, then leave the team, I think it really knocked everybody off balance.  The uncertainty was not so much, “What should we do?” as “What’s going to happen?”  But after a bit of time had gone by it turned more to, “Our teammate accomplished something like this, so let’s all work harder to be our best too.  Let’s all work together to be the best marathoners we can.”
Mitsuya: Yeah.

What were your impressions watching the Beijing Olympic marathon?
Mitsuya: Long before he had even made the Kenyan team Sam had said he was going to win the gold medal, so I thought he was probably going to do it.  But when he actually won, I thought, “Wow, he was just one of us, and then the guy went and did it!”  I couldn’t believe it.
Imai: He wasn’t on the Japanese team, but we were cheering for him all the same.  We got really excited watching him run, almost holding our breaths.  The way he ran the race didn’t seem Kenyan.  It made a big impression on me that after the race he said the word gaman [patience, calm endurance] was really important to him in how he had run the race.  That race became our role model.

Imai finishing the 2011 Fukuoka International Marathon in a PB of 2:10:32, four years and four minutes after Wanjiru's debut on the same course.

You both ran your marathon debuts post-Beijing.
Imai: Yes, I ran mine at the 2008 Hokkaido Marathon, the same year as Beijing.

And Mitsuya, you’ve only run one so far, right?
Mitsuya: That’s right.

In terms of your own marathoning, did you learn anything from Sam’s running, from his approach to the marathon?
Imai: In Beijing Sam won by running his own race, by running it based on his own ability.  When I was on the starting line of my first marathon I thought back to that and thought to myself that if I could run like that, running my way, with my own ability, then the results I wanted would follow.  Sam ran Sam’s kind of race, so I would run my kind of race.  That was the spirit with which I ran.
Mitsuya: Sam trained here before his first marathon, and when I looked at the kinds of workouts he had done and the times he was running in them I really felt that if I could do that level training too it would mean that I’d be able to get the same kind of result in the race.  My basic pace was slower, but that’s the mental image I kept all through my training.

Did you ever hear from Sam after Beijing, after he left?
Imai: He called on the phone a few times.
Mitsuya: Yes, after he went back to Kenya, a few times a year I’d get a message or a call from him.  Two years ago I went to Kenya too.

For a training camp?
Mitsuya: Yes, I was there on a training camp and he came by.  After that, too, I heard from him from time to time.
Imai: In my case, right after I ran Hokkaido Sam called.  He said, “Marathons are hard, huh?”  I said, “Yeah, pretty hard.  I couldn’t run like you did.”  We both laughed.  I couldn’t go to Kenya, but sometimes he’d call, or when he called Mitsuya I’d talk to him too and we’d talk about marathons, how things were going, the same kind of Sam-style conversation as always.

In May when you heard the news of his death, what was the reaction here, among the team and for yourselves?
Mitsuya: I didn’t believe it at first.  Everyone was just, “Wha….?”  I thought it was some kind of hoax at first.  Nobody believed it.
Imai: Me neither.  I didn’t believe it.  “No way, it’s not true.”
Mitsuya: I thought it had to be some kind of mistake.
Imai: Everyone went online trying to find more information. We wanted to know the facts.  We couldn’t find anything solid, so we all thought, “See?  It’s fake.”

If you think back on “Samuel Wanjiru” the athlete, compared to others what do you think made him different?  What made him what he was?
Mitsuya: For me the most surprising thing was the Olympics, breaking the Olympic record running in that kind of heat.  He was incredibly tough in the heat, I understood that clearly.  He won by doing what none of the others could do.  He had great racing sense, the greatest talent for pure racing.
Imai: I think he was a Japanese person in the body of a Kenyan.  He had Japanese spirit, perseverance and calm endurance, he held the word gaman to be important, Kenyan but with a Japanese feeling.  In terms of what made him different from others, there are a lot of very fast runners, but he was strong.  Win no matter what.  Win if it was a fast race, if it was a slow race still be number one at the finish.  That was the mindset he had.  When I think of him, “strength” is the first thing that comes to mind.  Like Mitsuya said, he was the kind of athlete who had a natural sense of racing, so he could win.  He was very smart.

Is there anything we haven’t covered that you would like to say about Sam?
Imai: I wanted to run a marathon with him. 
Mitsuya: That’s exactly what I was going to say.  We’re not the same level athlete as him yet, but more than anything I wish I could have had the chance to run with him again, in a marathon.
Imai:  Together.  I really wanted that.  If it had been in the Olympics it would have been the best.
Mitsuya: Yeah, especially in the Olympics.
Imai: The next Olympics, or the one after that.  I wanted to race him on the Olympic stage.


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