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"I Was Afraid" - Japanese Long Distance's World Championships in Its Own Words

translated and edited by Brett Larner
click athletes' names for source articles

Despite the ongoing swell of high-level domestic performances over the last few years, the 2015 World Championships were nearly a complete failure for Japanese long distance.  The lone highlight was 23-year-old women's 5000 m runner Ayuko Suzuki (Team Japan Post Group), who frontran in both the qualifying heat and final on the way to setting an all-time Japanese #5 PB of 15:08.29 for 9th in the final, missing a place on the Rio Olympic team by a fraction of a second.  Her teammate in the final, Misaki Onishi (Team Sekisui Kagaku) and women's marathon 7th-placer Mai Ito (Team Otsuka Seiyaku), who did score a Rio spot for making top 8, earned passing marks, but the rest of the distance team and in particular the men ranged from mediocre to completely unprepared.  The 2015 Beijing World Championships in the words of Japanese distance runners and those responsible for their performances:

Masakazu Fujiwara (Honda) - Men's Marathon
PB: 2:08:12 (2003) - all-time Japanese #18
Beijing result: 2:21:06, 21st of 42
My time and place were bad so I have a lot of regret about this race.  I don't really know what happened.  My training went well and I was in good shape, but it just wasn't there.  I wanted to stay with the lead pack, but my legs wouldn't move.  The first half was good, and even when I fell behind I thought I could run people down later, but I just couldn't move.  Even though the pace was slow there was a lot of speeding up and slowing down, and I think I blew most of my energy on that in the first half.  I expected the second half to be hot, but it was cool.  The changes in the pace got more extreme and I just couldn't hold on to them any more.

Mai Ito (Otsuka Seiyaku) - Women's Marathon
PB: 2:24:42 (2015) - all-time Japanese #24
Beijing result: 2:29:48, 7th of 52 - earned place on Rio Olympic team
I exerted myself all the way and achieved my goal.  Basically my plan was to try to hang on until 35 km.  "Be patient until 30 km.  Also after 30 km, patience."  Once the six Africans took off I thought that if the three of us who were left ran together there was a chance we'd be able to retake them from behind.  This is Worlds, so I wanted to make it a race.  I've run a lot of races without winning, and I can't win stages in ekidens either.  I just run steadily and diligently, and finally it has led to the Olympics.

Kazuhiro Maeda (Kyudenko) - Men's Marathon
PB: 2:08:00 (2013) - all-time Japanese #14
Beijing result: 2:32:49, 40th of 42
I couldn't cope.  Around 19 km I got cramps in both legs.  I might have been dehydrated. 

Sairi Maeda (Daihatsu) - Women's Marathon
PB: 2:22:48 (2015) - all-time Japanese #8
Beijing result: 2:31:46, 13th of 52
Sorry.  I'm disappointed that I didn't reach my goal of a top 8 finish, but it was a totally great experience to have the chance to be in the World Championships for the first time.  I hope to use that experience in my next race.

Kenta Murayama (Asahi Kasei) - Men's 10000 m
PB: 27:39.95 (2015) - all-time Japanese #6
Beijing result: 29:50.22, 22nd of 23
I was kind of overcome by the atmosphere of the venue.  The runners from other countries were like demons.  I don't have enough experience.  I need to get more.

Kota Murayama (Asahi Kasei) - Men's 5000 m
PB: 13:19.62 (2015) - all-time Japanese #8
Beijing result: 14:07.11, 17th of 20 in Heat 2, 32nd of 39 overall
Well, uh, what can I say, I don't know.  I put in the training so I thought it would go alright, but when the pace picked up I was afraid.  Part of me said that if I went with them I would fall apart and drop off.  I'd done the training to handle it but when it was really time for the race I was scared.  I told myself, "Go with them!" but I didn't go.  Maybe it was the people who were around me.  "The people in this heat are pretty damned fast," or something.  I was thinking that it was too many fast people all in one place.  I knew that I had a chance of getting through on time if I went with them, but when we were lining up I couldn't stop thinking, "Do you really think you can hang with these big boys?"  I did what I had to do to get ready for it but when they were actually there in front of me I just froze.  If you just race in Japan then sure, you can be competitive in Japan, but I realized that if you don't get a lot of experience racing overseas you'll never be able to compete here.

Kasumi Nishihara (Yamada Denki) - Women's 10000 m
PB: 31:53.69 (2014)
Beijing Result: 32:12.95, 13th of 24
I wanted it to be a race over the last lap but I couldn't hang on at all.  I was feeling in good shape and my peaking was good too.  I thought I would break my PB, but I couldn't put out a good enough result.

Rei Ohara (Tenmaya) - Women's 10000 m
PB: 31:48.31 (2015)
Beijing result: 32:47.74, 22nd of 24
I could feel a huge difference in ability.  I couldn't follow at all.  I feel disappointed, mostly in my own shortcomings.

Misaki Onishi (Sekisui Kagaku) - Women's 5000 m
PB: 15:16.82 (2015) - all-time Japanese #17
Beijing result: 15:29.63, 14th of 15 in final
The big move came earlier than I was expecting and I was completely unable to handle it.  It made me painfully aware that I'm not there yet.  But, it was a wonderful experience to get to run in front of such big crowds on the last day.

Suguru Osako (Nike Oregon Project) - Men's 5000 m
PB: 13:08.40 (2015) - Japanese national record
Beijing result: 13:45.82, 7th of 19 in Heat 1, 22nd of 39 overall
Everything went as planned up until the end, but I feel like my positioning was wrong on the last lap and that was why I couldn't get into the top places.  Since it was the first heat I expected it to be slow.  I ran it the way I planned, but the people in front of me were dying so it was really hard to move up.  It was really slow.  I wasn't paying attention to time, just kind of thinking, "Feels a little slow."  I kept looking at the person right in front of me the whole time, so I think I was successful in staying calm and coping.  Not being able to move up into the top five in the last part was the only problem this time.

Risa Shigetomo (Tenmaya) - Women's Marathon
PB: 2:23:23 (2012) - all-time Japanese #10
Beijing results: 2:32:37, 14th of 52
I knew the race was really going to start after 30 km, but my ability hasn't reached that point yet.  If you want to compete in the Olympics you can never feel confident unless you have something to show for yourself.

Yuta Shitara (Honda) - Men's 10000 m
PB: 27:42.71 (2015) - all-time Japanese #12
Beijing result: 30:08.35 - 23rd of 23
I'm most disappointed that I was totally unable to compete right from the start.  In terms of my physical condition there was no problem, but when the pace picked up suddenly I couldn't go with it.  This was my first World Championships, and I think the different atmosphere here made me nervous going into the race.  I wanted to run my best since I was representing Japan, so right now I'm feeling pretty miserable about it.  I wasted my chance at the World Champs.  I want to start over from zero and re-earn the right to be here.

Azusa Sumi (Universal Entertainment) - Women's 5000 m
PB: 15:17.62 (2015) - all-time Japanese #20
Beijing result: 16:13.65, 11th of 12 in Heat 2, 22nd of 24 overall
I wanted to frontrun as much as I could, but I couldn't keep it together the way I planned.  The level here was completely different.  I couldn't hang on until the end.  I'll never get anywhere like this, so I have to train to get stronger.  I want to do the kind of training that will let me be able to stick with foreign athletes.

Ayuko Suzuki (Japan Post Group) - Women's 5000 m
PB: 15:14.96 (2014) - all-time Japanese #12
Beijing result: 15:08.29, 9th of 15 in final - all-time Japanese #5
Just a little more and I would have sealed up Rio.....That's pretty crushing.  But, I gave it everything I had.  I told myself, "Let's bet it all on the last lap," and I ran it 100%.  This represented what I'm capable of right now.  It will take high-quality training for me to get to the next level.

Yuka Takashima (Denso) - Women's 10000 m
PB: 31:37.32 (2015)
Beijing Result: 32:27.79, 20th of 24
The conditions were good.  Not delivering the results means that I'm not good enough.  If you don't become an athlete who can compete internationally, not just inside Japan, it doesn't mean anything.

Tetsuya Yoroizaka (Asahi Kasei) - Men's 10000 m
PB: 27:38.99 (2014) - all-time Japanese #5
Beijing result: 28:25.77, 18th of 23
All I can say is this was really bad.  We were gutless.  I didn't feel strong enough.  I couldn't even begin to be competitive.

Coaches, Bureaucrats, and Commentators
Takeshi Soh, JAAF Director of Marathoning
We had a faint glimmer of hope in our marathoners this time since they were experienced veterans, but they were forced to face cold reality.  I felt the difference in ability between Japan and the rest of the world profoundly.  We have to put our hopes in our young athletes.  If our young athletes take on the marathon when they are still young and full of momentum, and if we can select athletes who can perform in heat, then I think we have a chance.  With our current marathoners it is hopeless.

Kazuyoshi Tokumoto, head coach, Surugadai University ekiden team, 2003-2004 5000 m national champion
I don't know if that was really what Soh meant, but hey, you're the one in charge of development and selection, bro!  The top people shouldn't be making comments against the athletes!

Manabu Kawagoe, head coach, Edion corporate team, coach of 2009 World Championships marathon top Japanese woman Yuri Kano and others
That Soh article is very, very regrettable!  Age has nothing to do with it.  What do you say about the fact that the 4th-place runner was 41?   And who exactly was responsible for team selection and development, sir?  I look forward to seeing Fujiwara and Maeda make a full comeback from this.

Toshihiko Seko, JAAF executive board member and head coach, DeNA corporate team
It was pretty sad to see our marathoners falling off at 20 km in such a slow race.  There were a lot of people who survived who aren't nearly as good as Fujiwara and Maeda.  I don't think the fact that they fell behind at halfway means they were too weak, but nevertheless they were beaten without a fight.

This was a red light for Rio, and at this rate it's going to be too late for Tokyo 2020 as well.  It takes three years to transition from the track to being used to the marathon.  The JAAF has to encourage our young runners who are doing the 10000 m and ekidens now to enthusiastically take the plunge into the marathon.  If we don't catch our track runners from these Championships, Osako, the Murayamas, the Shitaras, right after the race and persuade them to start marathoning then they won't make it.  But the JAAF also needs to improve its development methods.

Yasuhiro Harada, JAAF Development Committee Chariman
We take this failure very seriously and have upset many fans.  We are very sorry and will continue to re-evaluate the development committee's future strategy.  There is no question that we must perform an orbit correction on the trip to Rio.

Yuko Arimori, 1992 and 1996 Olympic marathon medalist, Special Olympics Japan president and JAAF executive
The women's marathon went out slow, so the Japanese women did most of the leading.  The Africans just followed along indifferently, saving their strength, and, as usual, between 30 and 35 km they sped up and ran away.  Our runners couldn't respond at all and just hung on with what they had left to try to take one of the last few places in the top 8.

This is hardly the first time a race has played out this way.  The Ethiopian Roba won the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and then the 1999 Boston Marathon, and that was when African women began to excel and show their dominance in more and more races.  Am I the only one who thinks that this race pattern hasn't changed at all since then?

In the 15 or 16 years since then our athletes, head coaches, assistant coaches, trainers, everybody, kept saying, "This is pointless!  How can we compete?"  They very seriously thought, talked to people, found things that hadn't been taken care of yet, kept doing it over and over until they could overcome their weak points, all while training hard.  The main focus was the questions, "How can we compete?" "How can we win?"  And then Hiromi Suzuki won the World Championships and Naoko Takahashi and Mizuki Noguchi won the Olympics.  There were Africans in those races, of course.

So, once again, we should look back on the fact that we had that era and think, "How, why, were we able to do it?"  Physically and mentally.  The administration and coaches need to seriously discuss this.  That includes the selection process.

So, this time, 7th place.  To borrow words from the way they used to say it at the JAAF, the "lower podium."  That was the phrase they used when they were talking about their goals for Japan's women marathoners at the 1991 Tokyo World Championships.  I have to ask the people in charge who give out Olympic team spots now for that kind of placing whether they're comfortable seeing those athletes standing in front of the Japanese flag smiling and giving the peace sign, and whether they think this is really the right way.


Mike L said…
That's some sad litany. "The runners from other countries were like demons. " OMG. Sounds like these corporate teams need to invest in some sports psychologists.
TokyoRacer said…
Well, the corporate teams have to invest in sending their runners to overseas races a lot more often. But of course, that won't happen - they care about their own teams, not about the Japanese national team.

Osako, though, was the real disappointment. He should not have been content to hang around in the back of the pack. He should have been up front the way Farah and Rupp were. I guess their attitude hasn't rubbed off on him, even though he trains with them.
What's worse is that he knew the first heat would be slow, and therefore the second heat faster, so he couldn't slip in on time (top seven). Which means he either had to push the pace or run in the front and not let anyone pass him. Partly Salazar's fault - Salazar should have made that clear to him.

But all those comments were very interesting. Sad, as Mike L said, but interesting. Thanks for that, Brett.
Anonymous said…
I love Japanese runners, but part of me feels that their time has passed, and they will never be able to compete effectively on the world stage. It's heartbreaking but the insular nature of corporate running is so suffocating, and runners will never have the opportunity to get regular competition overseas. Till then we'll see runner run amazing times at home, but struggle with anxiety once they compete abroad. When was the last time we saw a Japanese runner do a full, proper european track season? I guess diamond league invites might be a stretch, but how about a full season competing in the lower-tier meets. feels as though the world has moved on, but Japanese running hasn't.

also, i will never get Japanese women front-running these international finals (unless you're Fukushi?). I get that they can't kick with the best, but leading at such a slow pace just doesn't do any damage to anyone. at a certain point you're better off sticking with the luck of the draw. Gosh I miss Niiya.
yuza said…
I sometimes think that the Japanese coaches and commentators expectations are a little too high.

I still do not think the women were that bad in the marathon. All three finished in the top 15 and they were in the leading group for 30kms. They were not good enough, but they did not run badly. Takahashi and Noguchi were special athletes and I think Japan is only going to produce equivalent athletes once or twice a decade. Niiya was always the most likely to challenge at marathon level, but she retired. I thought Maeda might be the next great marathoner, but I am not so sure now.

Excluding Sumi (who is young) and Ohara in the 10000m who were below par, the women on the track ran to a plan and produced some respectable times in difficult conditions. They were not amazing, but they were not bad. I also think that in general the women have been in a bit of a trough talent wise for the last couple of years, but hopefully Suzuki will pull a few up with her out of it.

But the men were unfit and unprepared. Osako is about the only one I will cut some slack, because he was in the first heat of the 5000m. If the men can be ready for their Autumn and winter ekidens then surely they can figure out how to prepare better for a World Championships.

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