Wednesday, July 25, 2012

From the Hakone Ekiden to the Olympic Marathon - A Manifesto

translated and edited by Brett Larner

An editorial by Yasuhiro Kato

All three of this year's London Olympics men's marathoners, Arata Fujiwara (2:07:48, Miki House, Takushoku Univ.), Kentaro Nakamoto (2:08:53, Team Yasukawa Denki, Takushoku Univ.) and Ryo Yamamoto (2:08:44, Team Sagawa Express, Chuo Univ.) are graduates of Kanto Region universities.  All ran the Hakone Ekiden [see below] as collegiates, but not a single one of them ever won a stage.  No matter which of them you look at, they were all nondescript student athletes with few achievements.  Fujiwara was frequently injured, and with the Takushoku University of that era not strong enough to maintain a stable position in the seeded bracket he only ran Hakone twice.  His Takushoku teammate Nakamoto only made it once.  In high school Yamamoto was a regular in the finals at the National High School Championships, running Hakone three times at Chuo University.  As a senior he was Chuo's captain and ran Hakone's famous uphill Fifth Stage, but as a whole his results were not really enough to catch the eye of the average fan across the country and like his Olympic teammates he can safely be described as an athlete who needed time to mature.

How did three guys who were far from being Hakone Ekiden stars come to land their places in the Olympics?  According to Chuo University grad and Hakone Ekiden TV commentator Tetsuo Usui, "The Hakone Ekiden has gotten to the point where it's to a given that the university guys who make it are running 20 to 30 km in training.  In doing this kind of training they're picking up the ability to run while sustaining a demanding pace and it's reasonable to say to that they're effectively covering the basics of marathon training.  Yamamoto in particular has focused on building his mental stamina as part of his training ever since his days at Chuo., and that has translated into success as a corporate runner and carried him all the way to the Olympic team.  Looking at it another way, if the guys who have run the Hakone Ekiden are able to sustain and build on their training afterward then to whatever degree they'll be able to run a marathon.  Our three Olympians this year have built on their past work in this way, and that is why the Olympics have come to them."

A recent example came in March at the Lake Biwa Mainichi Marathon Olympic selection race.  2012 Hakone Ekiden Second Stage winner Takehiro Deki, at the time a third-year at Aoyama Gakuin University, was one of the last two Japanese athletes left in the lead pack after 30 km, even briefly leading before finishing in a solid time of 2:10:02, the all-time 3rd-best collegiate mark and cracking the all-time top-ten Japanese debuts.  "The university guys who can win Hakone Ekiden stages are probably good enough to hang onto the lead pack in any competitive marathon until at least 30 km," says Fujiwara, suggesting that among our current collegiate runners there are a large number with latent potential for marathon success.  Those athletes who have experienced Hakone have already laid down the fundamentals they need to run the marathon.

This doesn't mean, however, that all of them should try.  Serious marathon training is severe and demanding and does not bear a linear relationship to ekiden training, and they say that can lead to the risk of injury, to fear of the outcome of a race, to wearing down the two legs that should carry you on to face the challenge of the marathon.  Another factor in the marathon is age.  To ensure a long career more and more Japanese athletes in recent years have spent the younger years of their careers focusing of improving track speed in the belief that this will help them later on the road, leading to fewer and fewer young marathoners.

"My dream is to see our best taking on the marathon when they are young," says Olympic marathon great Toshihiko Seko.  "People now think that you have to run at least 2:10 right from the first time out of the gate, so the marathon is turning into something they're afraid of.  I ran 2:26 in my first marathon.  There are lots of university guys these days who could do way better than that.  You hear a lot of people nowadays saying, 'I want to do the marathon some day,' then dropping out once it gets hard and it's clear that they're not going to run what they wanted instead of finishing the thing.  I think that's probably because they're trying to work on their speed and take on the marathon at the same time.  It's natural that your first time is going to be a failure.  I think the right way to go is to just get the experience and try to squeeze the best time out of it that you can without worrying too much, and I'd like to see a lot of our athletes taking that approach at a young age."

Of course this doesn't mean that all of our runners absolutely have to become marathoners, but it's a waste to see people who should understand what Seko is saying taking off their shoes without trying a marathon even once.  The common characteristic among our three Olympic marathon men this year is that they all gravitated toward the marathon at a young age.  Even for those whose university achievements bore no lasting mention, what experience they gained in racing gave them the tools they needed to achieve their Olympic berths.

According to IAAF race results chief Yoshimasa Noguchi, in 2010 the total number of men worldwide breaking 14 minutes for 5000 m included 136 Kenyans, 28 Ethiopians, and 153 Japanese.  77 Kenyans and just 5 Ethiopians broke 29 minutes for 10000 m, but 174 Japanese did it.  There is no doubt whatsoever that Japan has the greatest depth in distance running in the world.  There is equally little doubt that these numbers have their origin in Japan's ekiden culture, and that the knowledge base produced under this system is sound.

But at the same time it is undeniable that there is a profound problem in the growing chasm between the world standard for the marathon and Japanese marathoning.  Our most urgent need for the future is to get our track runners down to the 12-minute level for 5000 m and 26 minutes for 10000 m, and to establish a framework to help them then transition to the marathon.    At the time of its founding the principle behind the Hakone Ekiden was, "To rear marathoners who will take on the world."  A demonstration of this principle would be for even one of the three  London Olympians who targeted the marathon from a young age to finish among the upper placings, giving credence to the belief that, "If we train right we Japanese can still compete against the best in the world."

The final event in the London Olympics, the starting gun of the men's marathon will go off at 7:00 p.m. Japan time on August 12.

Translator's note: The Hakone Ekiden is the biggest event in Japanese sport and one of the world's greatest races, with over 30% TV viewership ratings for the two-day, roughly fifteen-hour broadcast of the Kanto Region university men's road relay championship.  Star Hakone runners such as 2012 Hakone winner Toyo University's Ryuji Kashiwabara are national celebrities.

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