translated and edited by Brett Larner
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When Kota Murayama (Team Asahi Kasei), who won the men's 5000 m at June's National Championships, graduated from Josai University this spring, he left with these words: "Looking back on my four years of university, the thing I'm most proud of is running 3:39.56 my senior year. When I entered university my goal was to run 3:45, so I never imagined I'd run in the 3:30s. It makes me really happy to have gotten faster than I expected of myself." Murayama's 3:39.56 was the fastest Japanese men's time last year and the first time in three years that a Japanese runner had broken 3:40.
With the 5000 m as his main focus, Murayama's view that the 1500 m was just something to help him get stronger never faltered, but given that he calls his 1500 m result "the thing I'm most proud of in the last four years," it reaffirms Murayama's strong commitment to speed ever since high school. And coming from that, exactly as planned, this spring in his first pro season he made a great leap forward in the 5000 m, landing a place on the Japanese National Team for August's Beijing World Championships.
But Josai University's focus on developing strength in the 1500 m is not limited to just Murayama. It is the team policy and a key feature of head coach Seiji Kushibe's leadership. Tokai University's Nanami Arai won the 1500 m at this year's National Championships but four Josai runners also qualified and ran, not just more than any other university but more than any single corporate team. In a university circuit focused on long distance you could say that Josai forms a unique and distinctive presence.
"Ekidens get a lot of coverage, but athletics is ultimately an individual sport," says Kushibe, the one-hour run Japanese national record holder. "My basic way of thinking is that from 1500 m to the half marathon I want each athlete to develop and show what they've got in the event that best brings out their abilities. I myself like the 1500 m a lot and believe that developing speed there will serve as a powerful weapon, which is why we are actively focusing on that distance."
The intensity of Kushibe's training is based on exercise physiology. Kushibe lectures on exercise physiology at Josai, and his training programs incorporate a large quantity of objective data and are established based on determinations of athletes' muscular characteristics and cardiopulmonary capabilities. "My coaching is very textbook, I think," says Kushibe. "If it is conducted based on the results of exercise physiology research and in terms of exercise intensity, the net outcome will always be improvement. Rather than relying solely on experience, I always want to go back to the fundamentals."
村山紘太(旭化成)選手 大迫に逆転勝利で 世界選手権出場決定！！ pic.twitter.com/mhnyVHpTl2— 小夜 智徳 (@BotWinner) June 28, 2015
In most cases even in long distance events, sprint capability over the last 400 m divides the winners from the losers, and that is why speed forms a potent weapon according to Kushibe. As with Murayama's win over the Alberto Salazar-coached Suguru Osako (Nike Oregon Project) at this year's National Championships, being able to deliver explosive speed at the end of the race is an absolute advantage in winning races. "[Toshihiko] Seko used to win marathons with a last spurt on the track," says Kushibe of his former coach, now head coach at the DeNA corporate team. "What I'm looking for is strength rather than just getting faster. My goal is to develop stronger athletes who can represent Japan at the world level. With that point of view I am committed to the 1500 m as a focus in training to improving the speed component."
In addition to improving speed, in recent years Kushibe has also introduced a new initiative, low-oxygen training. His own years as an athlete from the 90s through the early 2000s overlapped with the years in which Kenyans and Ethiopians emerged to dominate the marathon. Fascinated by their strength, in addition to his running Kushibe took an interest in the high-altitude research being done at Waseda's Department of Human Sciences. In the later years of his career he studied altitude training methodology professionally at the Nittai University Graduate School. As a researcher as well as a coach, his interest in altitude goes right to his roots.
"In both the marathon and on the track, in every long distance event the world's best athletes mostly come from high altitude locations in East Africa," Kushibe says. "In order to be able to compete with them it is necessary to increase cardiopulmonary function by training in a similar environment. For that purpose I have introduced low-oxygen training. By putting yourself in an environment with a low concentration of oxygen you can aim to get similar effects without actually going to high altitude. It doesn't suit every athlete's constitution and even for those who can handle it, it is very difficult to evaluate the effects and changes in physical condition, so it requires constant management. That's not something that just anybody can do, but when everything is under control the effects are overwhelming."
Murayama won the National Championships 5000 m in June, but just a few weeks later a revolution came in the same event. At the Night of Athletics meet in Heusden-Zolder, Belgium, National Championships runner-up Osako ran 13:08.40, a national record by nearly 5 seconds. Murayama's teammate and 10000 m national champion Tetsuya Yoroizaka (Team Asahi Kasei) also broke the national record, running 13:12.63. After a long period of immobility the hands of the Japanese men's long distance clock have begun to move again, and Kushibe believes that it is entirely possible that we will see more records soon.
"If you want to talk about improving the speed component, the methods of the Oregon Project to which Osako belongs have produced results," he says. "There is a lot to be learned from what they are doing and I am certainly examining their work, but here in Japan we also have a fantastic facility, the National Sports Science Center [JISS]. By working together with them I think we can develop more efficient and effective training, and that should lead to more new Japanese national records. I think Murayama was quite upset that Osako set a new record right after Murayama had beaten him, but he still has room for growth and elements to be improved. With a good rival like that I think he can achieve the dream of a Japanese 12-minute 5000 m."
The ability Africans show to sustain a high pace on the track and the phenomenal power of their last sprint seems like something from another dimension, another world. But rather than just giving up because you can't beat them, the task is to figure out what needs to be done to get closer. Kushibe's motivation is to cultivate athletes with the speed and strength to compete on the same level with the rest of the world. Incorporating state-of-the-art research and training into his program, he hopes to rise to the challenge.