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Bringing All My Experience Into Play In London - Real Talk From Yuki Kawauchi on “Taking on the World” (part 2)

translated by Brett Larner

Part two in a three-part series of writings by Yuki Kawauchi on what it took to qualify for the London World Championships, his goals for August’s main event, his views on the future of Japanese marathoning and advice to the runners to come. The original was published by Sportsnavi in Japanese. Visit the link above for more photos.  Click here for the first article in the series, "The Miracle in Fukuoka." Click here for part three, "The Lessons of the Past Are Not 'Outdated.'"

Yuki Kawauchi (Saitama Pref. Gov’t) took 3rd overall as the top Japanese finisher at the Dec. 4 Fukuoka International Marathon. That result put him into position as one of the leading contenders for the privilege of running in this summer’s London World Championships. At both the 2011 Daegu World Championships and 2013 Moscow World Championships Kawauchi finished a disappointing 18th, unable to take part in the battle up front. Based on those experiences he decided to bow out of “summer marathons” where the temperature exceeds 30 degrees Celsius, but now he has re-focused his sights on the London World Championships.

In the second part of this three part series, Kawauchi talks in his own words about his views on making the London World Championships.

Seeing the Rising Sun fly – “Let’s give it one more shot in London.”

When I finished the 2013 Moscow World Championships no better than the same 18th place I’d come in at the Daegu World Championships in 2011[1] I thought to myself, “I can’t run like the real me at these hot summer international championships. As a member of the National Team you’re being chased pretty much every week by TV and weekly gossip magazines and getting ambushed at home and at work all the time. Dealing with the kind of expectations that are all around, it’s mentally tough to stay competitive when you know you aren’t good in hot weather. But you haven’t hit your potential yet in terms of your PB, and with the PB you do have you’ve got invitations from races all around the world, so from now on let’s focus on racing internationally where you can run the way you want and don’t have that kind of pressure.”

But at the same time I was also thinking, “You had tricks for dealing with the heat like special hats and drinks, so it didn’t feel as bad as it did in Daegu. It’s tough if it goes over 30 degrees, but as long as it doesn’t get that hot you can probably cope somehow.” Since I was thinking that way, I decided to go for the Japanese National Team again for the 2014 Asian Games which were going to be held in the fall and where I could legitimately go for the gold medal.

In that race I lost touch with the leaders once around 30 km, and when it came down to a track finish I ended up with the bronze medal. At the award ceremony when the Rising Sun was being hoisted up the flagpole I had the same feeling I had when we won the team silver medal at the Daegu World Championships, the realization that “As an athlete, this is the moment that’s it all about.” When that feeling came out I thought, “Let’s do it one last time. Let’s make the most of all your past failures and run a race you can be proud of at the London World Championships.”

Clarifying your goals lets you expend the effort to achieve them.

To be honest I wasn’t really that motivated by the 2015 Beijing World Championships where it was supposed to be hot, but since I’d missed making the 2012 London Olympic team the 2017 London World Championships felt a bit like fate or something. When I was watching the London Olympics TV broadcast I was honestly thinking, “I really wanted to run in conditions like these.” On the other hand, after London the next World Championships would be held in Doha in 2019 and then the 2020 Olympics would be in Tokyo, and in contrast to other athletes I felt the same way about them that I did about the Beijing World Championships, not really motivated.

There are lots of people saying, “You should try to work out the issue of heat and keep going until the Tokyo Olympics.” I think that if I had a PB within two minutes of the world record I might have felt like, “Yes, for the sake of the Olympics and World Championships, let’s deal with the heat.” But being in the situation where I’m more than five minutes from the world record I don’t think I can afford to expend the effort needed to overcome the heat. Needless to say, in order to try to cut down the difference in terms of [PB] time even just a bit you need to improve your ability. But what’s more important is the capability to respond to mid-race pace changes. In contrast to developing better speed or racing capability, there was no guarantee that I’d be able to adapt to heat no matter how much time I spent on it, and so faced with a multitude of issues to deal with I couldn’t focus my efforts only on that area. If I spent a number of years focusing on overcoming heat my ability in other areas might decline, and if that meant I became less competitive in the selection races held from fall through spring then I wouldn’t make it to the start line of summer international championship events to begin with.

If that happened I think the chances are high that I would lose my qualification [time] to race overseas marathons from the fall through the spring the way I do now. Realizing that my choice for the life I wanted as a marathoner came down to the question of whether I wanted to improve one area of my physical ability in exchange for losing everything else, the thought that “I want to be an athlete who is strong in temperatures over 30 degrees Celsius no matter what I have to give up” never even crossed my mind.

But unlike Doha and Tokyo, if the temperatures at the London World Championships are relatively cool, around 23 to 26 degrees, then from my two past World Championships experiences in Daegu and Moscow I already have heat measures like hats and special drinks in place and know how to go about preparing for a summer race. Extending forward the training and development methodology I’ve used up to now I can visualize myself being competitive at the world level. Once you can visualize yourself being competitive then that image becomes a goal, and once you have a goal then you can construct concrete plans and expend the effort to achieve them.

Whatever the ultimate outcome, to be a member of the “Japanese Marathon National Team” I believe that at a minimum you must have awareness and a sense of responsibility for yourself as a representative of Japan and be able to visualize yourself standing on the starting line ready to be active and assertive. In that sense, at the London World Championships I want to bring into play all of my past experience as a Japanese national representative and everything I’ve learned racing marathons internationally.

The concept of “the world” isn’t limited to just the Olympics and World Championships.

Although the miraculous run I had in Fukuoka was possible thanks to the string of good luck I talked about earlier, the situation was such that it wouldn’t be unreasonable to say that as an athlete, going to the starting line with my injury and desperate state of mind was inappropriate. As a result I can say that in order to fully demonstrate your true ability, in the lead-up to the World Championships the most important thing, more important than getting stronger, more important than anything else, is not getting an injury that’s going to make you miss training. Even from a basis of simply not getting injured, if you can maintain yourself well then I think the key to achieving your goal is just a question of the degree to which you can do what’s needed to bring the ideal marathon training you imagine in your head one step closer to actuality.

When asking “What is ‘the world?’” I think there at least three concepts. The first “world” is “The Olympics and World Championships,” the second “world” is “The World Record,” and the third “world” is “International Marathons All Around the World.” When most Japanese athletes say, “I want to take on the world,” I think they’re only thinking about the first sense of the term. The number of them who say, “My goal is to win a medal at the Olympics,” is very large, the number who say, “My goal is to set a world record,” is vanishingly small, and I’ve pretty much never met anyone who says, “My goal is to compete in international marathons all around the world.”

Despite the fact that when they say “the world” they are only thinking in terms of concept #1, “The Olympics and World Championships,” the sole reason most frequently cited for why Japanese athletes can’t compete with “the world” is concept #2. In other words, the point of view that “Even though the world is running 2:02 and 2:03, Japan still can’t even break the 2:06 national record.” I have to wonder whether the people who voice that opinion are aware that only one person has ever run 2:02, once, and that in terms of sub-2:04, even including the record-ineligible Boston you are talking about ten people on just five courses, Berlin, Chicago, London, Frankfurt and Boston.[2]

There’s nothing better than being fast for being competitive, but there’s an element of being competitive that you can’t learn just from being fast. A world record or near miss is only a “constructed record” made by having pacemakers run a constant designated pace through halfway or in some cases up to 30 km. Every year in Dubai unknown athletes appear who run 2:04, but very few of them go on to do it two or three times like the current top people in the world.

“Gear changing” gets you closer to a medal than speed.

Even at major races like Paris and Amsterdam there are lots of times when 2:06 to 2:08 is enough to win, and although at the Rio Olympics the medaling athletes placed pretty much in order of their PBs, at the last four World Championships, Berlin, Daegu, Moscow and Beijing, and at the 2012 London Olympics, I don’t think that was the case.

For example, Abel Kirui [Kenya, gold medalist in 2009 Berlin and 2011 Daegu World Championships] has a 2:05 PB, but that’s not something he has done multiple times. Even though he has run a lot of marathons, his second-best time is over 30 seconds slower than the Japanese national record. Both Uganda’s Stephen Kiprotich [2012 London Olympics and 2013 Moscow World Championships gold medalist] and Eritrea’s Ghirmay Ghebreslassie [2015 Beijing World Championships gold medalist] also have PBs slower than the Japanese national record. Following that line of thinking, I think it‘s impossible to say that Japan’s inability for many years to win medals at “The Olympics and World Championships” is exclusively due to a “time gap.”

To win “a gold medal” the PBs of current Japanese athletes might be insufficient. But if it’s a question of “a medal” I don’t think [international championships] have become a situation yet where they are high-speed races in which PBs correspond directly to results and Japanese athletes are totally outclassed. I don’t think that has changed significantly in all the years since I first represented Japan at the Daegu World Championships in 2011. Rather than judging by the “PB” that runners frequently cite as a metric of speed, I’ve always thought that in order to win medals the element that Japanese people must foster is the more intangible (although evident if you look at mid-race split times) “ability to handle small pace changes mid-race and surge battles late in the race.”

Based on that, I believe that the running of Kazuhiro Maeda [Kyudenko] at the 2013 Tokyo Marathon was the closest to the way that Japanese athletes must run in order to win medals at the Olympics or World Championships. In the last few years a considerable number of Japanese athletes have run times of 2:07 or 2:08. However, the only one who has been able to respond to a surge after 30 km and run a 5 km split of 14:39 at that point in the race was Maeda.

At the Rio Olympics the American Galen Rupp won the bronze medal, and since he was also a speed runner with track achievements including a silver in the London Olympics 10000 m there are now more people saying, “That just goes to show that Japanese people also need 26 minute-level speed in order to be competitive in the marathon.” However, the reality is that although Rupp ran 14:26 from 25 to 30 km, for the next 5 km after that he slowed down to 15:31, losing a lot of ground to eventual winner Eliud Kipchoge [Kenya]. In other words, if you could cover the 5 km after 30 km in 14:39 like Maeda, then at 35 km you would only be 13 seconds behind Rupp in the Rio Olympics. If you could then run within 15:18 for the next 5 km after 35 km, you’d be in the race for a medal.

A 29:57 split from 30 to 40 km, or pushing the pace just under 3:00 / km to put it another way, is not a “high-speed race.” A race like what you often see at the World Half Marathon Championships, where the 5 km split suddenly jumps to 13:45 and a lot of people go with it, is a “high-speed race.” The marathon hasn’t yet become that kind of situation, so I think that even at the Olympics if it’s a question of medaling then Japanese athletes have more than enough chance even with their current speed levels. Although it happened in a different season, if you look only at splits times that was how the Maeda of 2013 was running. And not the Maeda of the days around the 2007 Osaka World Championships when he was running 27 minutes for 10000 m.

If you’re only targeting a gold medal then in order to be totally sure, you need to “develop the speed necessary to handle a high-speed race.” But if you aim for medals of other colors, more than just trying to improve the speed enumerated by your PB, training to handle a change to 14:40 late in the race and then to hang on at 15 minutes for the 5 km after that is the shortcut to a medal. I’ve believed that ever since the Daegu World Championships, and I think the Rio Olympics men’s marathon provided more evidence to back that idea up.

There’s no retirement for amateur runners! Running actively throughout life.

Unlike most Japanese athletes, for me the idea of “taking on the world” isn’t exclusively about concept #1, “The Olympics and World Championships.” For me the third concept, “International Marathon All Around the World,” resonates strongly. After I blew the 2012 Tokyo Marathon I told myself, “Let’s focus on racing marathons around the world to develop your competitive ability.” At that point my sense of the first concept of competing against the world was strong, just like other Japanese athletes.

But starting with the Dusseldorf Marathon in April, 2012, I’ve done dozens of overseas marathons and been cheered on by Japanese people living locally, and from those experiences I came to the powerful realization that “’Taking on the world’ is not just about the Olympics and World Championships. There really is an amazing number of great races all around the world. If other Japanese athletes aren’t competing in that world then let me be the one to lead the way.”

By doing that I’ve met a lot of the “legends” like Josiah Thugwane [South Africa, 1996 Atlanta Olympics gold medalist], Steve Moneghetti [Australia], Robert De Castella [Australia, 1983 Helsinki World Championships gold medalist] and Bill Rogers [U.S.A.] on their home ground, and at races both abroad and at home I’ve met many international athletes who I now count as friends and rivals.

So, although a lot of people think that I’m retiring from the marathon at the 2017 London World Championships, I’m just not going to be aiming to make the Japanese National Team to compete in intense summer heat any more. I’m not giving up on “taking on the world.” As long as my circumstances permit, as long as I remain physically fit, I want to keep doing battle with my overseas rivals at “International Marathons All Around the World.”

Ever since I was a high schooler suffering injury after injury my dream for the future wasn’t the Olympics or World Championships but “Running amateur marathons all across Japan.” Since I’ve become an athlete whose results make it possible to compete in the World Championships it has also become possible for me to get invited to run races overseas without cost, and as a result I’ve been able to upgrade my high school-era dream to “Running marathons all across Japan and in every country in the world.” I want to keep running marathons in Japan and all over the world for my entire lifetime. That’s the kind of life I want to live, and so even if I’m no longer targeting the Japanese National Team it doesn’t mean in the slightest that I want to retire from marathoning. They say that “Unless you give up the fight, there’s no retirement for amateur runners,” and that really is how I want to live my life.

[1] 4th-place finisher Abderrahime Bouramdane of Morocco had his result annulled due to doping-related offenses, upgrading Kawauchi to 17th.
[2] Written prior to Wilson Kipsang’s 2:03:58 at the 2017 Tokyo Marathon.

Read Part One, "The Miracle in Fukuoka," and Part Three, "The Lessons of the Past Are Not Outdated."

photos © 2012~16 Brett Larner, all rights reserved


Unknown said…
Can't wait to read article #3
Yuki, you inspire us all!!

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