translated by Brett Larner
With all eyes on the debut of the Hakone Ekiden's "God of the Mountain" Ryuji Kashiwabara (Team Fujitsu) in the high-level pro ekiden circuit, the fireworks at the New Year Ekiden corporate men's national championship instead came from Kashiwabara's predecessor as Hakone's king of the hill, Masato Imai (Team Toyota Kyushu) on the 22.0 km Fourth Stage. At first the main focus on the Fourth Stage was track runner Tsuyoshi Ugachi (Team Konica Minolta), who took the tasuki 34 seconds back from the lead pair of runners from the Yasukawa Denki and Toyota Boshoku teams. Splitting a searing 27:53 through the first 10 km, Ugashi caught the leaders, London Olympics marathon 6th-placer Kentaro Nakamoto (Team Yasukawa Denki) and Tomohiro Shiiya (Team Toyota Boshoku) at 13 km to take over the top position.
Having started 1:05 back from the leaders, Imai ran only 28:09 through 10 km, but with Ugachi backing off after catching the lead Imai gradually pulled closer. With 3.5 km the runners turned a corner into the full strength of a windwind and the rate of Imai's approach accelerated rapidly. 2 km from the handoff Imai made contact with Ugachi and Shiiya, 29 seconds faster than Ugachi at 20 km in 56:44. In the heat of the final back-and-forth Imai came to the handoff in 2nd, 1 second behind Ugachi, 1 second ahead of Shiiya, and cracking London Olympian Yuki Sato's course record by 1 second in a new record of 1:02:50.
"In the first half I just stayed calm, tried to be sensible and not jump right into trying to get into the front-end action," Imai says. "I'm not the kind of runner who will go out hard to try to catch up right away. My style is more trying to sustain an even pace that's fast enough to get me where I want to go. But I still went out faster this time than my other two times on this stage, so I think I ran well."
Looking at the team as a whole, most of the runners were expecting to be in for a pretty rough time of it. After the First Stage Toyota Kyushu was already 38 seconds off the lead in 11th. The team anticipated losing ground against the foreign runners on the Second Stage and fell to 23rd, but Third Stage runner Yuya Konishi ran the second-best time on his leg to advance to 13th. Thanks to Imai's superb performance on the Fourth Stage Toyota Kyushu was in position to be part of the seven-way anchor stage sprint for the runner-up position where it emerged successfully with its best-ever placing, 2nd.
"I didn't start off thinking I could run 62 minutes or get the stage record," says Imai. "My thinking was more just that if I could sustain my pace and not slow down through the second half then the time would end up being something I could live with. I think the reason I was able to get the record was really just that I still had those guys ahead of me once we turned into the headwind before the finish. But to be honest, along the way I did think to myself a couple of times that if I could catch them then the record might be in range."
Imai's smile at those words showed that he has shaken off the disappointment of his shots at the London Olympic team at the 2011 Fukuoka International Marathon and 2012 Lake Biwa Mainichi Marathon. In Fukuoka he lost to Yuki Kawauchi, 2nd Japanese and 4th overall in 2:10:32. At Lake Biwa he was 42nd in only 2:17:50. "At Lake Biwa my legs weren't in very good condition, and when it was over I went through a period of emptiness where I had a lot of doubts about where to go from there. When I look back on it I can see that I was thinking things like, "You have to try," and, "You want to do this," but those feelings ended up becoming too much of a focus and ended up making me nervous and stressed out. It was like I was pursuing someone else's goals, someone else's results, something larger-than-life."
Imai's old "God of the Mountain" moniker has followed him to the marathon. He says that he has pretty well forgotten those days but admits that the echo of his former feats of greatness on Hakone's Fifth Stage still linger on and reverberate somewhere within him. "Thanks to the understanding and support of my coach and teammates," he says, "I've had time to take things slow and contemplate a lot of different things. One of them was what it felt like when I first started running. I spent time going through my old training journal from high school. Talking to some of the people who influenced me when was in high school, they said, 'The way you look now is not like the real you.' That made me said to hear, but I couldn't deny that it's true. That's the reality of life. But when I finally worked my way through that time, I decided, 'OK, it's time to run like the real you.' Since then I've changed the way I conduct myself, the way I speak, the way I live, and I think I'm the better for it now."
According to Imai's coach Koichi Morishita, the main reason for Imai's superb performance on the Fourth Stage this time was that the other two times he was still recovering from the having run the Fukuoka International Marathon and could only do part of the training the rest of the team was doing. This time he did the full training menu, and with two years of injury-free running and a string of solid workouts and races behind him he was ready.
Imai feels the same way. "In high school I never lost any time to injuries, and I think that was a big part of why I ran as well as I did then. But from university through about my third year as a corporate runner I think I got too slack, personally and morally, and not being diligent enough led to me getting injured. In terms of approaching the marathon, that means that I had to stop thinking in terms of points in time and start thinking in terms of a continuous line. So this time I was absolutely not thinking of my training as being for the New Year Ekiden. The New Year Ekiden was just a part of my training for the Tokyo Marathon. I did the speedwork the rest of the ekiden-focused guys were doing but to me there was nothing but the marathon on my mind. When I was running my stage on New Year's Day I was thinking things like, 'Oh man, I want to run like this in Tokyo,' and, 'If I feel like this in a marathon how should I run?"
First and foremost on Imai's mind at this year's New Year Ekiden was running to the best of his ability. The fact that that resulted in a new course record is bound to give him a lot of confidence, a big step forward that validates that his approach is working. "The qualifying time to make the World Championships team in the marathon is 2:07, but instead of focusing on the time I think that if I can just focus on running to the best of my ability then the time will come as a by-product. In Fukuoka I slowed down after 30 km, but if you look at the way I was running that time, at my expression, I just looked like a ball of tension. [laughs] I think I used up too much of my mental and physical energy in the first half, so the most essential thing for me in the future will be to relax in the first half the way I did at this year's New Year Ekiden and then push it. If I can do that then I'll be ready come 30 km. I think that's my defining characteristic, and if I was going to give you my biggest hope it would be that when it comes to the point where everybody else starts slowing down I'll be able to pick it up and go."
Up to now Imai has been hobbled by focusing on 'the way things should be' and the results he 'should have been getting.' In his new way of thinking, rather than looking to make one huge breakthrough he wants to improve step by step. With a smile full of confidence and reinvigorated energy he says, "Of course it makes me happy that I set a new course record, but right now the only thing I'm thinking about is how to carry that flow on to the marathon."