by Brett Larner
photo by Dr. Helmut Winter
Boldly saying that he wanted “to go where nobody has gone before,” with his 2:09:15 second place finish at the Dec. 15 Hofu Yomiuri Marathon independent Yuki Kawauchi (Saitama Pref. Gov’t) completed his eleventh marathon of the year, an historic accomplishment in more ways than one. Two of his marathons were sub-2:09, four sub-2:10, six sub-2:12, one a national all-comers’ record, two PBs, four course records, five wins and eight top-three finishes. All while faced with an endless chorus of people telling him that it's such a fine line between brilliant and stupid, that he can’t keep getting away with this kind of craziness.
On the individual level he set world records twice for the shortest time ever between sub-2:10 marathons, taking one day off the record when he ran 2:08:14 and 2:08:15 forty-two days apart in March and February and then knocking an unthinkable twenty-eight days off that record with his 2:09:05 at the Dec. 1 Fukuoka International Marathon and the 2:09:15 in Hofu fourteen days later. He also joined national record holder Toshinari Takaoka as only the second Japanese man to break 2:10 six times in his career, and with four sub-2:10s this year he is the only one to do it more than twice in one year.
He narrowly missed two other historic achievements when he ran 2:10:01 gross time at the July 7 Gold Coast Marathon. At Gold Coast Kawauchi politely went to the start at the appointed time, but due to the narrowness of the start line he was pushed further and further back as latecomers came to the line after him. Being too polite to elbow his way back he was also not pulled back to the starting line by race organizers, meaning that he started from the third row and lost what proved precious seconds. His 2:09:58 net time would have made him only the sixth Japanese man in history to win an overseas marathon sub-2:10 and would have meant that Hofu surpassed Takaoka’s career record of sub-2:10 performances. Shoulda coulda woulda.
On a national level Kawauchi played a large role in Japan having its fifth year on record with at least ten sub-2:10 marathons, giving his nation its 2nd, 3rd, 6th and 10th-fastest marathons of the year. All of the top ten fastest marathons by Japanese men were between 2:08:00 and 2:09:15, Japan’s best-ever for depth but, with no 2:07 performances, only its second-fastest top ten average, 2:08:46, after 2003’s 2:08:34 average. Kawauchi’s Gold Coast time was the eleventh-fastest of the year. It’s clear what an impact he had by looking at the list of the top eleven fastest Japanese marathons of the year minus Kawauchi’s performances.
Although the rest of the country’s depth was of course greater, at the top end it was almost even, with two 2:08s and two 2:09s (three, really) from Kawauchi vs. three 2:08s and three 2:09s from the rest of the country. In fact, at the national level only Kenya, Ethiopia and Japan had more sub-2:10 marathons this year than Kawauchi, with Eritrea and Uganda coming in at four each. It’s even more informative to compare Kawauchi’s record for 2013 with the top eleven marathons run by U.S. athletes.
Only one American, World Half Marathon and World Cross Country medalist Dathan Ritzenhein, broke 2:10, with Ritzenhein’s time of 2:09:45 coming in at fifth on Kawauchi’s list. You have to go down to the ninth-fastest marathon on each list to find an American time faster than Kawauchi’s equivalent run, even including numerous American performances on historic aided one-way and/or downhill courses. In all of American marathoning history only two years have equaled Kawauchi’s 2013, 1983 with four sub-2:10s by American men and 2012 with five. Kawauchi is exceptionally tough, but one self-coached athlete working a full-time job being able to beat an entire country capable of producing world-level distance medalists on the track surely points to serious systemic problems.
Speaking of problems, there are issues for Kawauchi to work out. His only two bad marathons of the year, a 2:15:35 for 18th at August’s Moscow World Championships and the 2:12:29 he ran for 11th with support from JRN at November’s New York City Marathon, were also the two biggest races he ran this year. Writer Anna Novick, who interviewed Kawauchi for the Wall Street Journal following his 2011 breakthrough, has suggested that he runs best in races where there are only one or two main competitors and has trouble coping with large packs, but while there may be some truth to this it is also true that Moscow and New York featured significant time zone differences from Japan where all but one of his other marathons did not. Both Moscow and New York were three to four minutes off his target time, the same margin as in his European debut at last year’s Dusseldorf Marathon, and similarly at both September’s Great North Run and last year’s World Half Marathon Championships he was one and a half to two minutes off target. It’s true that he ran well solo at the Egyptian Marathon and poorly at the Daegu World Championships, lending support to Novick’s take, but in general Kawauchi has thus far shown a consistent margin of deficit when racing with jet lag. This will be one of the main issues for him to solve in his international marathons next year, of which at least three are currently planned.
Kawauchi’s year went up to eleven, but there’s a further push over the cliff. Nestled in between the 2:08:15 and 2:08:14 was his most-overlooked performance of the year, a 1:29:31 course record win at the Kumanichi 30 km over three of Japan’s best young talents, two in the Japanese all-time top ten for the half marathon and the other a sub-28/sub-62 collegiate. To say nothing of Kawauchi's third-straight time running June’s Okinoshima 50 km ultramarathon or his second course record at July’s Kushiro Shitsugen 30 km. What will 2014 hold? Along with finally getting that elusive 2:07, one of his main goals is winning a rematch vs. Hofu winner Serod Bat Ochir of Mongolia for Asian Games gold. It’s safe to say there will be much more, and he won’t waste any time getting started. Look for Kawauchi to go for his first sub-29 on the road or track when he runs Madrid’s San Silvestre Vallecana 10 km on New Year’s Eve.
Yuki Kawauchi's complete 2013 racing schedule
Jan. 13: Mari Tanigawa Half Marathon, Tokyo: 1:05:31, 1st
Jan. 18: Egyptian Marathon, Luxor: 2:12:24 - ACR, CR, 1st
Jan. 20: Saitama Ekiden 3rd Stage (11.9k), Saitama: 36:54, 2nd
Jan. 27: Okumusashi Ekiden 4th Stage (4.679k), Hanno: 13:00 - CR, 1st
Feb. 3: Beppu-Oita Mainichi Marathon, Oita: 2:08:15 - CR, PB, 1st
Feb. 17: Kumanichi 30 km, Kumamoto: 1:29:31 - CR, PB, 1st
Mar. 4: Kanaguri Hai Tamana Half Marathon, Tamana: 1:03:12, 2nd
Mar. 17: Seoul International Marathon, Seoul: 2:08:14 - PB, 4th
Mar. 24: Saitama City Half Marathon, Saitama: 1:05:52, 1st
Apr. 7: Satte Sakura 10-Miler: cancelled due to bad weather
Apr. 14: Honjo Waseda no Mori Half Marathon, Saitama: 1:06:28, 1st
Apr. 21: Nagano Marathon: 2:14:27, 1st
Apr. 28: Oda Memorial Meet GP Men's 5000 m, Hiroshima: 14:09.88, 18th
May 4: Kasukabe Odako Half Marathon: guest run - started at rear of field and tried to chase everyone down; finished 10th with no time recorded
May 5: Toyohiragawa Half Marathon, Toyohiragawa: 1:05:45, 1st
May 12: Sendai International Half Marathon, Sendai: 1:03:30, 10th
May 19: Gifu Seiryu Half Marathon, Gifu: 1:05:05, 14th
May 26: Kurobe Meisui Half Marathon, Kurobe: 1:03:58 - CR, 1st
June 2: Chitose International Marathon, Chitose: 2:18:29 - CR, 1st
June 16: Okinoshima Ultramarathon 50 km, Oki: 2:57:28, 1st
July 7: Gold Coast Airport Marathon, Australia: 2:10:01 - CR tie, 1st
July 21: Shibetsu Half Marathon: 1:06:45, 22nd
July 28: Kushiro Shitsugen 30 km: 1:33:27 - CR, 1st
Aug. 17: Moscow World Championships Marathon: 2:15:35, 18th
Sept. 1: Harunako Ekiden, Takasaki: Fourth Stage (5.5 km): 16:13, 1st
Sept. 15: Great North Run Half Marathon, Newcastle, U.K.: 1:04:08, 8th
Sept. 21: Saitama Nighter Track and Field Meet (two races):
1500 m Heat 2: 3:57.03, MR, 1st
5000 m Heat 6: 14:45.12, 4th - paced younger brother Koki through 3000 m
Sept. 29: Hakodate Half Marathon: 1:04:51, 4th
Oct. 6: Hirosaki Shirakami Apple Half Marathon: 1:04:42, 1st
Oct. 13: Melbourne Marathon: 2:11:40, 2nd
Oct. 20: Takashimadaira 20 km: 59:17, 2nd
Oct. 27: Lake Inawashiro Half Marathon, Inawashiro: 1:07:53, 1st
Nov. 3: New York City Marathon: 2:12:29, 11th
Nov. 16: Hasuda Road Race 3 km: 8:50, 1st
Nov. 17: Ageo City Half Marathon: 1:03:06, 20th
Nov. 24: Koedo Kawagoe Half Marathon: 1:04:44 - CR, 1st
Dec. 1: Fukuoka International Marathon: 2:09:05, 3rd
Dec. 8: guest appearance at community running event in Kawauchi, Fukushima
Dec. 15: Hofu Yomiuri Marathon: 2:09:15, 2nd
Dec. 23: Ageo Winter Track and Field Meet 5000 m: 14:44.27, 1st - ran as pacer but finished
Dec. 31: San Silvestre Vallecana 10 km, Madrid: 29:52 - 13th
text (c) 2013 Brett Larner, all rights reserved
photo (c) 2013 Dr. Helmut Winter, all rights reserved