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Izumo Ekiden Winner Aoyama Gakuin University Head Coach Susumu Hara: "We're Not Quite There Yet But We Can See It Glittering Up Ahead Now"

interview and photo by Brett Larner

Aoyama Gakuin University has had a spectacular underdog-makes-good trajectory in recent years, qualifying for the storied Hakone Ekiden four years ago for the first time in thirty-three years thanks to three extra places being available in commemoration of the event's 85th running, then rocketing all the way to its best-ever 5th place at the 2012 Hakone Ekiden.  With aces Takehiro Deki and Ryotaro Otani now seniors and an impressive class of first-year recruits led by #1-ranked Kazuma Kubota the team's goal for the 2012-2013 season is simple: the Hakone win. 

On Oct. 8 the team took an enormous step toward that goal, crushing all four teams that beat them in Hakone and breaking the six-stage, 44.5 km course record with a new record of 2:09:41.  JRN talked to head coach Susumu Hara and Deki, the team's captain this year, about their goals, the team atmosphere, Hara's coaching philosophy, and more.


In 2004 you became head coach at Aoyama Gakuin University. How did you arrive here from your corporate running career?
Hara: I was a failure as a corporate runner. I got fired within five years. I didn't race well. Someone who had been two years younger than me at Sera H.S. was here with Aoyama Gakuin's running program and introduced me.

As a Chukyo University graduate you never ran Hakone?
Hara: That's right.

In 2008 Aoyama Gakuin qualified for Hakone for the first time in decades.
Hara: Yes, 33 years.

What kind of approach did you take in your coaching in those first 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.

When Aoyama Gakuin University qualified for the 85th Hakone Ekiden in the 2008-2009 season it was an anniversary year and there were three extra spots beyond the regular twenty. Aoyama Gakuin finished 22nd, and it seemed as though it had just been a nice anniversary-year story and that it would be another few decades before you returned. The next year you qualified again and finished 8th, within the seeded top ten bracket for the following year. Could you talk about what happened between the 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 seasons?
Hara: The organization of the team had become strong, and we were able to deal effectively with goal-setting and goal management. When we qualified after 33 years that was the extent of our goal, to qualify. Once we achieved that goal and ran Hakone the next goal became to make the seeded bracket. At the start of the school year in April after that first Hakone we set that as our goal. The Yosenkai qualifying race was in October and Hakone on January 2nd and 3rd, and the outcome of it all depended on how and when we set our goals as a team. The first time we were just trying to make it, the next it was let's go for the seed.  Focusing on that as a team was part of the team structure.

I don't like things happening or not happening by chance, so if there are variables that we can control I like to systematize them and do them in a controlled way. We do things in the correct order and that's why we were able to take a seeded spot. After that setting the next goal becomes step-by-step, top five, top three, the win. That kind of programmatic approach is my style.

You scouted Deki in high school. What made you pick him?
Hara: More than saying I picked Deki, my scouting philosophy is to look at whether someone is a good student, someone from a good high school, then whether they are fast, a fast runner, and serious. That's the basis of my approach. I look for people who fit that concept from among a large number of high school students across the country, and that's the philosophy I used when I scouted him.

Deki, when you were a senior in high school Aoyama Gakuin qualified for Hakone for the first time in decades. What attracted you to the school? What did you choose to come here?
Deki: Coach Hara scouted me and I came to Aoyama Gakuin University because running the Hakone Ekiden was my main goal.  I had been looking at the results from the Hakone Ekiden Yosenkai qualifying race for two or three years and could see that it was steadily improving. I thought it was on its way to becoming a competitive team and I wanted to be part of that, so I chose Aoyama Gakuin.  I was targeting Hakone right from my first year and thought that it would be enough if I got to run it once in my four years, but things improved and I've been able to run it every year. I ran the First Stage my first year, and that gave me the confidence to feel like I could progress from there.

The team has continued to improve a lot since then.
Deki: Yes, that's right. [smiles]

Different coaches have different ideas about the balance between mileage and faster workouts. What has your experience been with Coach Hara? What is the balance like in Aoyama Gakuin's ekiden training?
Deki: Talking about the training itself, Coach decides everything. My sense of it is that in ekiden season we're more or less not doing speedwork. We only really do speedwork in April, May and June during track season. From there during summer training we're building up mileage until September. In the rest of the year in ekiden season, October, November and December, we cut back on the mileage a bit, but we don't really do speed training at that point.

What kind of changes have you had in your training from your first year at Aoyama Gakuin?
Deki: 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.  I think good, uninterrupted training is what makes you the strongest.

Aoyama Gakuin University's result as a team this year was excellent. What's the team atmosphere like now?
Deki: This time we had our best results ever, but our goal is something even better. We're not celebrating that much, not letting ourselves get too satisfied. That's the kind of atmosphere we're trying to maintain, one where we are still looking upward to something better. I think that's why things are going so well.

You've got some strong first-years, such as Kazuma Kubota.
Deki: Also Kamino and Ogura, some very strong athletes, so adding the strength of these first-years to our lineup I think the team is going to improve a lot.

What are your goals for the year as a team, and for the future beyond that?
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.

With regard to the team, of course we're thinking about the win, but more from the point of view that if we can produce the results we want then the win will follow. I want to build a foundation strong enough that we can be a legitimate contender for the win. Of all the teams running we have the incoming first-years with the best 5000 m credentials, so combined with the people we already have I think that with them we have a team that can win the Hakone Ekiden. Our organizational structure is sound, and I think that we will continue to develop over the year.

That's the stage we're at now, everyone on the team improving their results together, and from there looking toward the win. Whether we can get through that stage or not is our challenge for the year. If we are in range of the win then next year after Deki graduates we will still be in a position of strength with other guys coming up through the team. We're not quite there yet but we can see it glittering up ahead now. [laughs]

Deki: This year I'm 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.

(c) 2012 Brett Larner
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