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"I Want to Send a Message" - Tsutomu Nagata to Make European Debut at This Weekend's 100 Meilen Berlin

by Brett Larner

In the fall of 2010 Tsutomu Nagata was in his mid-20's, a nearly-elite runner who had done 14:16 and 29:44 on the track before leaving the Self-Defense Forces team to join the ranks of the world's countless full-time working amateur runners.  On November 28, 2010, he raced the Tsukuba Marathon, running down four people in the last 5 km to take 3rd in a PB 2:27:36.  Nine days later Nagata's right arm was caught in the conveyor belt of a can-pressing machine at the factory where he worked, causing serious damage that left him hospitalized for almost two months.  Reconstructive surgery was unsuccessful, leaving his right arm permanently in a brace with limited use of his hand and fingers.

After months in the hospital he was unsure of the impact on his running, but, he says, "there was never any question of quitting.  Instead, I felt very strongly that 'I can still do it!'"  Once he returned home he started with walking, building up to 30 minutes and then tentatively edging back into running.  "A year after the surgery to help repair the injury I was running again, slowly," he says.  The injury and brace prevented him from doing the kind of hard speed workouts he was used to, a serious blow to his hopes at the marathon and shorter distances.  But his stamina remained, and in the interim he had discovered something new.
 
"I found out about the ultramarathon scene and the level of competition there from magazines," he says.  "I tried it out at the Miyakojima 100 km and that served as a recruitment call for a 100 km novice like me.  At that point I was already thinking about the Lake Saroma 100 km."

Lake Saroma, the course where both the men's and women's 100 km world records were set.  Just two and a half years after his accident, at the 2013 Lake Saroma 100 km Nagata had a major breakthrough, finishing 3rd in 6:44:33.  His time put him 6th in the world for the year.  "I felt like it was the real start to my career as an ultra runner," he says.  "As far as the quality of the time, there were faster people out there so I knew I still had work to do."

On an invitation from friends in the My Star running club Nagata went outside Japan for the first time in his life to run the Coldwater Rumble 100 mile trail race in the U.S. in January, 2014, his first time taking on that kind of distance.  After leading early at an extremely ambitious pace he crashed on the last of the course's five laps, literally crashing into cacti and to the ground in the dark before finishing a bruised 2nd in 16:14:21.  But despite the disappointing result the race proved another life-changing moment for Nagata.  "Running that 100 mile race in the U.S. had a major impact on my way of thinking," he says.  "It took someone like me who was only conscious of Japan and turned me toward the world overseas.  It got me excited about going out there and searching out interesting races."

He returned to Japan transformed, quitting his job in Niigata and moving to Tokyo to try to start a career as a professional ultramarathoner, forming long-term goals and working out his training methodology and sponsor and coaching relationships.  "At the moment I'm not working and am staying with friends, sponging off them as I train and try to get established," he says.  "As far as sponsors, Medalist, New Hale and Shields are supplying me with gear, but I'm looking for others interested in supporting what I want to do."  His first opportunity came with a message from Berlin Marathon founder Horst Milde inviting him to run the August 16-17 100 Meilen Berlin along the former border of the Berlin Wall.  "In Berlin I want to run a race that demonstrates the ability and strength I couldn't show at the Coldwater 100," he says.

Beyond Berlin, he has a clear idea of his long-term purpose: "My goal is to be out there racing ultramarathons on the road and trails without boundaries.  To start with I want to make Western States.  I want people to know that there is an ultra runner named Tsutomu Nagata out there.  I run aggressively with all my heart and I hope that people notice.  In my running I want to send a message to all the high school and university kids who are thinking of quitting their schools' teams, to all the other people out there who have had accidents or have disabilities, to show them that even if you aren't fast, even if you aren't pretty, patience and perseverance will bring success.  My handicapped right arm is a strength.  How far can I go?  I don't know.  Personally, I have very high expectations for myself.  The possibilities are infinite."

interview and text (c) 2014 Brett Larner, all rights reserved
Coldwater Rumble photo (c) 2014 Aravaipa Running, all rights reserved
other photos c/o Tsutomu Nagata 

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© 2017 Brett Larner, all rights reserved