translated by Brett Larner
The biggest attraction in Kansai university athletics long distance these days is without a doubt Kyoto University junior Kentaro Hirai. A graduate of Hotoku Gakuen H.S., Hirai won this spring's Kansai University Track and Field Championships 10000 m and finished 2nd in both the 5000 m and half marathon. Running as Kyoto's best runner at last month's National University Ekiden Championships Kansai Region Qualifier, he finished 1st overall to lead Kyoto University to qualify for Nationals for the first time in 41 years, showing the strong and inspiring impact he is having on his teammates. Hirai envisions a place for himself on a Japanese national team in the marathon. We talked to this 21-year-old about his current situation and about his vision for the future.
You had a very strong first half of this season.
The Kansai Regionals meet lists people who score 20 or more points as individuals. I scored 27. At the National University Ekiden Qualifier we got a place and I personally opened a gap of 30 or 40 seconds to achieve my goal of the individual win. At the National University Individual Track and Field Championships I met my target of a podium finish. Everything I envisioned last winter came true.
You always run out front in Kansai Region races.
That's a natural result of having the mindset of aiming to win at the national level [against the power of Kanto Region university athletes]. People have this self-imposed restraint that "the level in Kansai is low" that makes their times slower and I want to change that. We have to raise our game in Kansai. I think the guys at [top Kansai universities] Ritsumeikan and Kyoto Sangyo are starting to think, "We're losing out to Kyoto University" and to respond to that. If we can keep the wind blowing that way then we'll be able to get rid of this idea that Kansai is Kansai and Kanto is Kanto.
It's tough to frontrun, but doing that makes it feel easier and takes off the pressure when you follow people at the national level. But if you follow someone, especially in Kansai these days, the pace slows down. It becomes the kind of race where you just pick up [the pace] at the end. It's more comfortable, so maybe it's inevitable.
What did you learn at Hotoku Gakuin H.S.?
My mother is the head of our family, and what I learned from Mr. [Seiji] Hirayama [at Hotoku] fit well with the way my mother brought me up and influenced how I live my life. What springs to mind immediately is the importance of putting your mind into the task in front of you, how to conduct yourself so that the situation at hand can lead you to achieve your goals, whether at home or at school.
People tell me that I'm doing a good job of doubling as a scholar-athlete, but I've come not to think of it that way at all. Ultimately, when it's time to study I study, and when it's time to run I run, that's it. Another thing is that life mostly does not go the way you thought it was going to. In high school I had a lot of injuries and failures, but Mr. Hirayama's words gave me encouragement. The fact that things have being going well this spring is irregular whichever way you look at it, and I want to be as humble about it as I can.
With no head coach at Kyoto University, what does your practice schedule look like?
I'm the type of guy who will do 70 minutes when he's supposed to jog 60. Because of that I was always injured [in high school], so now I try not to be too stubborn and set in my ways. I'm just doing this by myself, so in a good way I can't overdo it, and part of me is just lazy and good at avoiding things I have to do. I don't care too much about distance or pace but put more importance on things like how much perceived effort it took. I constantly make little changes to my training schedule and get advice from coaches at other universities. The people around me give me strength too.
What are your goals for the future?
My immediate goals are to win the First Stage at the National University Ekiden two years in a row and to be the top Japanese man in next year's National University Track and Field Championships 10000 m. After I graduate my goal is to make the Japanese national team in the marathon. I'm pretty sure I can be competitive in summertime championship races. The winning times are usually fairly slow, and even the Kenyans and Ethiopians suffer in the heat and don't run that fast. There's a time frame for it. In terms of the Olympics, I think 2024 will be my best chance, but of course I'll be aiming for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics too.
Kentaro Hirai - born May 1, 1993 in Takarazuka, Hyogo. Played on the soccer team while at Hobai J.H.S. As a junior at Hotoku Gakuen H.S. he won the Hyogo Youth Championships 5000 m, and finished 4th on the First Stage at the Hyogo Prefecture High School Ekiden and 5th on the First Stage at the Kinki Region High School Ekiden. As a senior he won the Third Stage at the same ekidens. Currently studying in Kyoto University's Faculty of Agriculture, he finished 2nd in the 5000 m at this spring's National Individual Track and Field Championships, bringing him to the forefront at the national level. He holds PBs of 14:00.92 for 5000 m and 28:57.20 for 10000 m. 170 cm, 55 kg.