Thursday, July 4, 2013

Kawauchi Talks About Racing Overseas Ahead of Return to Gold Coast Airport Marathon

by Brett Larner

Last year Yuki Kawauchi (Saitama Pref. Gov't) made his Australian debut at the Gold Coast Airport Marathon, finishing 4th in 2:13:26.  In September he was back to set a course record of 2:11:52 at the Sydney Marathon.  This weekend he returns to the Gold Coast Airport Marathon for the 25th marathon of his 4 1/2-year career to try to become the first man under 2:10 in the IAAF bronze label event's 35-year history.

As part of an article for Australia's Run For Your Life magazine, JRN talked to Kawauchi about his return to the Gold Coast, racing outside Japan, and the appeal Australia holds for him.  The full-length interview covering his evolving training and racing methodology and how he copes with serial racing at a high level, his views on doping and drug testing in the wake of a positive EPO test by last year's GCAM women's winner Kaori Yoshida, and his goals, hopes and dreams for the rest of his competitive career and beyond, will be published in the August/September issue of Run For Your Life.

The Gold Coast Airport Marathon will be streamed live on the race website starting at 7:00 a.m. local time.  Live results are available here. JRN is on-site throughout race weekend to cover what looks set to be course record-breaking men's and women's races.

JRN: The Gold Coast Airport Marathon will be the third overseas marathon of your six so far this year along with the Egyptian Marathon in January and the Seoul International Marathon in April. None of them is part of the regular canon of races run by top-level Japanese athletes. What are your current views on racing outside Japan?

Kawauchi: There are a lot of high-level domestic full marathons in Japan, so most of the top Japanese athletes never go to overseas races other than the fastest ones in the World Marathon Majors. When they do go most Japanese marathoners just look at the overwhelming time difference between themselves and the best Africans, and I think the tendency is for them to come out of it seriously underestimating their own strength and abilities, give up on trying to compete and to just run time trials instead. There are also races they can’t enter because of ekiden season. For example, New York City perfectly coincides with the East Japan Corporate Ekiden Championships and the Grand Tour Kyushu, so most of the best Japanese athletes will never run there.

But I don’t believe this means that Japanese marathoners are falling behind other countries. Since I’ve become a gold label athlete I’ve had dozens of offers from overseas races. To me this says that overseas race directors are hungry to see athletes from Japan, one of the world’s great marathon nations, come and run assertively. When those chances are there and people don’t take them it’s a complete waste, so we should think about the future of Japanese athletics and expanding the opportunities for athletes to come, take the opportunities to race overseas as often as possible, and show up and race seriously and aggressively.

You have said that winning Australia’s big three marathons, the Gold Coast Airport Marathon, Sydney Marathon and Melbourne Marathon, is one of your goals. How do you view Australia and its athletes? What is the appeal of Australian races for you?

Decades ago both Japan and Australia were among the top marathon nations in the world, but once the Africans started climbing the ranks we lost our pride somewhere along the way. Maybe partly as a consequence of that, the national record hasn’t changed in either country for years. At the current time Africans win and monopolize the upper places in pretty much every competitive marathon in the world, but I don’t think that means any of those Africans cannot be beaten by non-Africans on an individual level. Right now there’s a pretty big difference between the best of them and the rest of us, so I think it’s still too early to be thinking about changing the mindset from an inward-facing ‘Top Japanese’ or ‘Top Australian’ orientation to targeting them. Just comparing our times it would be natural for anyone to want to feel that way, but I think the reality is that the marathon is the distance where that kind of thinking is not really true.

In the year since I missed the Olympics I decided that I wanted to race Africans overseas as much as I could. I beat them to set the course record in Sydney. In a field of more than twenty Africans I came 4th in Seoul. All three of Australia’s main marathons bring in Africans, so that is part of my motivation to win them all and I hope that by doing so top Japanese and Australian runners will look at me and say, “If this guy Kawauchi can beat the Africans then we can do better too.” In these countries that used to have pride as world leaders in the marathon I want to help change the mindset from the weak “I want to be top Japanese” or “I want to be top Australian” to a stronger “I’m aiming for the top, Africans or no Africans.”

A few years ago Japan had fallen to the point where it only had one man going sub-2:10 a year, but for the Moscow World Championships this year all five men ran 2:08 to get on the team. We’re on the way back. Having produced legends like Robert De Castella and Steve Moneghetti, I think that if Australia’s athletes can, like Japan, regain their old pride and strength then together with us they will be able to rise to the overwhelming challenge presented by the dominant African athletes of this era and begin to present a counter-challenge. That is my great hope for Australia.

In more practical terms, the seasons in Australia are reversed from Japan and the start times are earlier, so the racing conditions are comfortable and pleasant without any jet lag problems. The level of the races is also just right for Japanese athletes to be able to target winning. There are a lot of plusses all around. The sheer size of Australia and the beautiful coastline means there are a lot of great things to see that we can’t in Japan, too. On a personal level, my home prefecture of Saitama has a sister relationship with Queensland where the Gold Coast Airport Marathon is held, and Kasukabe High School where I work has a sister school relationship with Melbourne High School, so I feel a lot of affinity with Australia.

Are there are Australian athletes you view as competitors or colleagues?

Harry Summers is the one I’m most aware of. We ran against each other at the Gifu Half and World Half and talked at the World Half’s closing banquet. Collis Birmingham ran great at the Marugame Half too, and I’d really like to see him go after the marathon soon. I really admire Australia’s great veteran runner Lee Troop as well. I’ve run in the same race as him many times and, hoping to have a long competitive career of my own, I have great respect for him.

(c) 2013 Brett Larner
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