interview by Brett Larner
Hara and Deki at the Aoyama Gakuin University ekiden team's dormitory, 2/29/12.
Aoyama Gakuin University junior Takehiro Deki has been one of the bigger surprises on the Kanto region university men’s circuit over the last year and a half. He emerged from nowhere at the October, 2010 Takashimadaira 20 km road race to tie the 58:51 course record held by former Tokai University great Hideaki Date, then followed up with an upper-echelon mark of 1:07:50 for 23.2 km on the Hakone Ekiden’s most competitive stage to prove Takashimadaira wasn’t a fluke. Since then he has steadily improved over shorter distances, but his greatest aptitude has continued to be for longer distances with another win at Takashimadaira and a 1:07:26 on the same Hakone stage, the all-time #8 mark and the 4th-best ever by a Japanese runner.
Following Hakone came the surprising news that Deki would make an early marathon debut at age 21 at this year’s Lake Biwa Mainichi Marathon, the final Olympic qualifying race for Japanese men. It’s rare to see a top Hakone star make a marathon debut while still a student, especially as a junior. Of particular interest: Deki’s 1:07:26 at Hakone displaced the 1:07:31 mark set in 2003 by Masakazu Fujiwara as a senior. Two months later Fujiwara went on to set the still-standing collegiate and debut marathon national record of 2:08:12. There aren’t too many dots to connect to see the possibility, however slight, that Deki may have a shot at joining his fellow Nagasaki native Arata Fujiwara on the London Olympic team.
Four days before his marathon debut JRN sat down with Deki and his coach Susumu Hara to talk about his sudden rise and his impending debut. The complete interviews with both Deki and Hara, including more on Hara’s coaching and Aoyama Gakuin University’s ekiden success, are available to subscribers in our JRNPremium series.
Although you had run the First Stage at the Hakone Ekiden your first year at Aoyama Gakuin University, you seemed to come out of nowhere when you tied the 58:51 course record at the Takashimadaira 20 km as a second-year. Could you talk a bit about your high school career?
Deki: I was a soccer player through junior high school and my first year of high school, but in the winter that first year I switched over to track and field. My big success in high school was my second year when I made the final in the 3000 m steeplechase at the National High School Championships. My senior year I went to Nationals again in both the steeplechase and the 1500 m, but I didn’t make the final in either. Other than that I didn’t really achieve anything major in high school, but Coach Hara scouted me and I came to Aoyama Gakuin University because running the Hakone Ekiden was my main goal.
Hara: When Deki was a senior I went to see him run at the National High School T&F Championships in Kumagaya and he really blew it. He ran terribly, and his form was all over the place. I thought, “Uh-oh, this guy’s going to take a while.” [laughs] I never imagined he would become as good as he has. He’s an enigma.
His form is still pretty unusual.
Hara: Well, it has gotten better, but I don’t think having beautiful form makes you a better runner. There are lots of guys who develop beautiful form and get slower. We have fewer and fewer classic Ekiden Runners these days who just go as hard as they can without caring about how pretty or cool they look. Way back we used to have great people like Kenji Kimihara and Kunimitsu Ito who had terrible form. There hasn’t been anybody like that for a while. I think our Deki is one of those Ekiden Runners, and that’s pretty interesting.
When you ran the 58:51 at Takashimadaira it was very surprising because your track bests then didn’t reflect that kind of ability. What were your expectations at that time?
Deki: Well, even before that I knew I was better on the road than on the track, or enjoyed it more, so I wasn’t thinking at all in terms of, “My track time is this, so I can probably run this kind of time.” Inside I didn’t think it would be strange if I ran well since I knew I was more suited to the roads. I would have been happy to break 60 minutes. I thought 59 was about what I could do, but when I finished and saw my time I was as surprised as anyone. [laughs]
Hara: Takashimadaira was the first time I found the suggestion of strength in him. I didn’t think he was capable of running that fast, 58 minutes. But he ran that kind of time for 20 km and then finished 4th on the Second Stage [at Hakone in 2011]. Up to that point I wasn’t sure whether he could run or not. I was leaning toward not, but then he broke 68 minutes at Hakone as a second-year and I felt, “The dude is strong.” But the 58-whatever at Takashimadaira didn’t really knock me out, more just, “Huh, not bad.” [laughs]
In 2004 you became head coach at Aoyama Gakuin University. In 2008 Aoyama Gakuin qualified for the Hakone Ekiden for the first time in 33 years. What kind of approach did you take in your coaching in those four or five years?
Hara: Running isn’t something you need a lot of equipment for. Just your body, a pair of shorts, a shirt, that’s all you need to do it. Once you start nobody can help you, it’s just what you have inside, the energy in your body. It’s important to have a disciplined lifestyle to achieve your potential. When I became head coach in April, 2004 that kind of lifestyle did not exist in this club. It wasn’t about running or competing, more about having fun with the other guys.
The organization and administration of the team were not being handled in a serious way either. The head coach was just a volunteer. The team had what they called a captain and assistant captain but there was no hierarchy and structure among the class years the way there usually is. Changing that was the first step in making the club strong and in getting them to focus on the competitive side of running, to start living a proper, disciplined lifestyle. Establishing that kind of culture here took up that period of four or five years. As far as training, there’s no magic. To be a distance athlete you get up at 5:00, go to bed at 10:00, you establish that regular discipline in your life. That takes time.
What kind of changes have you had in your training from your first year at Aoyama Gakuin University up to this year’s Hakone Ekiden?
Deki: As far as injuries, my first year right about this time two months after Hakone my back started hurting and I had to take a month off, but other than that I haven’t had any injuries and my training has been consistent. I think good, uninterrupted training is what makes you the strongest.
Talking about the training itself, Coach decides everything. Since I was a first-year nothing has changed in the contents of the training menu, but going through the same kind of cycle two or three times the margin grows. I’m told to do the workouts at 80%, and both physically and mentally it gets easier, with a bigger margin. Also being able to think about and understand the purpose of the workouts as I’m doing them. That has helped me grow stronger bit by bit.
What can you say about this year’s Hakone Ekiden?
Deki: Right beforehand one of my legs started hurting around the heel and my Achilles tendon. In three years that was the most unsure I’ve been at the start, but I knew that the team was counting on me so I had to give it the best I could it. When I ran it hurt a bit but not enough to be a problem and I was able to run in my own rhythm. I had run the Second Stage the year before as well, so that experience carried over to this year. Winning the stage this year is something I can really feel satisfied about. It helped put the team into a good situation, so I think it was good.
Turning to your marathon debut, sometimes you see people doing a debut marathon their fourth year, but it’s very unusual to see someone do it as a third-year. At what point did you start thinking about it?
Deki: I’ve wanted to do a marathon for a long time. I really prefer running long distances. That’s where my talent is, so I’ve always wanted to give it a go and see what I can do as soon as I could. To be honest I wanted to do one last year at the end of my second year, but Coach said it was too early. If I look back now I agree, that would have been too early. That’s how it has come to be happening now, but it’s something I’ve always wanted to do.
If you look at marathoning worldwide right now the Africans are going out and competing in the marathon at 20 or 21. With that in mind, if you look at the Japanese approach it’s about getting stronger on the track first. That’s not the way I think. Japanese athletes have to start competing around 20 as well. From a global standpoint that’s not that young a start. It’s pretty normal for 20 or 21 year olds to be out there. That’s one of my lines of thinking.
With the leg problems I was having, after Hakone Coach told me that I should give up on running my debut this year too, but my leg has completely healed now and all last year I was telling him that I wanted to run this race, so I said that I still wanted to do it. I asked him to put me in right before the application deadline, and we sent in the application at the last minute. I’m excited to see what I can do in the shape I’m in now. This year Lake Biwa is also something that comes only once in four years, an Olympic selection race, so as one aspect of the experience I want to do it as something that will help me four years from now. Rio is really what I’m targeting. I plan to go for it very seriously.
Hara: He is running, but to be strictly accurate the concept this time is for him to run it, not race it. It’s part of his winter training, like a 40 km training run, getting the experience of covering 42.195 km. It’s not something that he has done precise, focused marathon training for. In the future I want to see him in an Olympic marathon, so this is a chance for him to see what kind of innate endurance he has, the kind of instinctive ability you can’t develop in practice.
He has only run up to 30 km in training, that’s it. Having only run 30 km going into a marathon he will be able to gauge himself over the last 12.195 km, to see whether what he has inside is sufficient or not. If he fails from lack of training I think we’ll know the difference. That’s the idea this time, along with being part of his winter mileage training, not doing specific marathon training and racing a marathon as a marathoner.
How would you compare the mileage you’ve been running for Lake Biwa with what you do in your training for Hakone?
Deki: We cut back on the mileage some before Hakone in order to taper, but what I’ve done this time over a two-week period has been pretty close to what we run in summer mileage training. Coach told me not to do even a single 40 km run, that it was OK just to do 30 km runs in order to see what I can do as a university student athlete. Two or three weeks ago I did three 30 km runs in one week, so I feel like my mileage base is solid. I’ve also really upped the slow mileage I’m jogging on my own as part of my preparations.
What kind of pace were you doing in those 30 km runs? Marathon pace? A bit slower?
A lot slower. 3:30 per km.
Just over a week and a half ago you set two stage records in three days at the Nagasaki Kenka Isshu Ekiden, so it seems as though you’re in good shape.
Deki: That’s a prefectural community ekiden back home in Nagasaki. I thought that if I could run well there it would help repay my obligation to the people of Nagasaki. I was glad to help out by doing well, and setting two new records confirmed that my fitness is good. In training before the race I was doing a lot of mileage, so being able to run that fast while doing mileage training tells me that my body is strong. I feel like I’ll be going into Lake Biwa with my preparations having gone pretty well.
Two other strong third-years, Tokai’s Tsubasa Hayakawa and Waseda’s Shota Hiraga, are also entered. I don’t know whether either of them is going to start, but was this just a coincidence or was it something you worked out together, a sort of junior-year marathon championship?
Deki: [laughs] No, it’s not something we decided. I’ve been saying for a while that I wanted to do a marathon soon, and I’ve been hearing all along that Hiraga wanted to do the same thing so I wasn’t surprised to see him on the list. I hadn’t heard that Hayakawa was planning it, though. I was in touch with him recently and he said he was really worn out so he might not run. If they do, we’re all the same class year, third-years, so I don’t want to lose to them.
Hara: One thing that did stick in my mind was that Waseda’s coach [Yasuyuki] Watanabe was saying last summer that Hiraga was going to run Lake Biwa. He told me that while we were doing summer training in Hokkaido. He said, “University runners these days are strong, but the corporate runners suck. If you can run well, say 2:09, and are the top Japanese man at Lake Biwa the Olympics are just waiting there for you.” Deki had being saying before that that he wanted to do a marathon, so after that we talked a bit about him running Lake Biwa. As I said before it’s not like we talked about it and then started doing intensive marathon training for this, but at the same time I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that hearing that Hiraga was going to run piqued my interest. I talked to Watanabe the other day and he said that Hiraga has been doing serious training, with hard-effort 40 km runs and all, and that he’s well-prepped and ready.
Other than Hiraga and Hayakawa, are there any other athletes running Lake Biwa who you’ve got your eye on?
Deki: Well, this is my first time so I don’t know how it’s going to go, but there are a lot of good guys in the race so I think that if I can run in the lead pack with them I’ll learn a lot. Atsushi Sato is supposed to be in the race, so I want to kind of run while studying.
How ambitiously are you thinking with regard to goals this time, Lake Biwa being an Olympic selection race?
Deki: As far as my goal this time, if I said I was going for the Olympics people would probably just tell me it’s not that easy. I think at worst I want to break 2:15. If it goes well I want to be in the race until 30 or 35 km and then see how competitive I can be over the last part.
Hara: I’m hopeful, but I don’t expect a fast time. I don’t know how it’ll turn out. [laughs] If he can run in the lead group until 25 or 30 km then we’ll see what happens after that. The other way of looking at it is that whatever happens is fine.
Having broken Masakazu Fujiwara’s Hakone Second Stage time this year, are you at all gunning for his collegiate marathon record?
Deki: Yes, part of me wants the debut marathon and collegiate marathon records. I’ve been thinking about them. But this time I think the main thing is that I want to enjoy it. I think I’m either going to run a really great time or a really terrible time. Everybody says the marathon starts at 30 km, so I have no idea what’s going to happen after that. I’ll be looking forward to that, waiting for it, and whatever happens it’s going to be something I’ll learn from. I don’t want to run a tough, guts race, more just to run naturally and see how I can do. The weather looks like it’s going to be cold. I prefer warmer temperatures. It’s too hard to run when it’s cold.
Hara: He won’t be going after the collegiate record. He might run 2:20 or 2:30, I don’t know. But he’s at the stage where he has decided he wants to be a marathoner, so in terms of gauging his ability I’m really looking forward to this race. He hasn’t done any 40 km training runs, so going into this without that kind of training in him will let us see what he’s got. A lot depends on a healthy diet throughout childhood, right from being breastfed as a baby, and that will be evident in this run.
What were your impressions of the Tokyo Marathon this year?
Deki: I only saw the first half and the very end, but since I’m from Nagasaki too I was really happy to see Arata Fujiwara take it. It also reinforced to me that anything can happen in a marathon, that every race is different, and that it’s important to stay calm.
Hara: Hmmn, I thought the guys dedicating their lives to it were strong. Fujiwara is an independent. His running is his job. Originally corporate runners’ job was running as well, but the companies are also using them in their factories and whatnot. Arata’s professional approach and [Yuki] Kawauchi’s concept of how to approach the marathon and running were very clear and easy to sense. It was equally easy to pick up on how boring the corporate athletes are, their boring running, their uninspired thinking, and that is really too bad. They are completely lacking in professional thinking. They have a nice environment and are just riding along in it and don’t have to think about how to handle their lives. They’re spoiled. That’s what I felt.
Since Beijing the level of Japanese men’s marathoning has fallen, but in the last year or so it seems to have started turning back around. What do you think of the current situation?
Deki: I’m not really in a position to say much about it, but if you compare it to two years ago I think things have been coming back bit by bit toward where they used to be. I want to be part of that wave. We’re still two or three minutes off a level where we can compete with the rest of the world, and I think it’s very important that we spend time thinking about how we Japanese athletes can get up to that level.
Are your plans settled for post-graduation? Have you signed with a corporate team?
Deki: Yes, things are more or less set. I haven’t passed the exam yet but I’ll be going to the Chugoku Denryoku team. The marathon is my main goal and I think they have the best record of achievement at the marathon. Coach Hara was also a Chugoku Denryoku runner. That’s how I came to choose them.
What was your experience with the marathon while you were at the Chugoku Denryoku team?
Hara: I was a failure as a corporate runner. I got fired within five years. I didn’t race well.
Next year will be Deki’s senior year. What are your goals for the year?
Deki: This year I’m becoming the captain of the team, and having come from where we did as a first-year I want us to reach our goal of winning Hakone my fourth year. That’s my only goal for the year: to win the Hakone Ekiden.
Hara: I have two different ways of thinking, one for Deki and one for the team. With regard to Deki, the Hakone Ekiden is not the final stage of his career. He has a future as a marathoner. While building toward that I’d like to see him give us his best at Hakone, but not to the extent that it breaks his spirit. You see guys whose main goal is Hakone, and then once they go on to a corporate team they go downhill. I don’t want that to happen, so I want to make sure that he is running 23 km hard as part of his development toward running a hard marathon, toward where he can have the confidence to feel he will be running for a gold medal.
text and photo (c) 2012 Brett Larner
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