an editorial by Yuji Hosono
translated by Brett Larner
After running 2:21:36 for 2nd at the Mar. 12 Nagoya Women's Marathon to become the all-time 4th-fastest Japanese woman, the name of 22-year-old Cinderella girl Yuka Ando (Suzuki Hamamatsu AC) is now synonymous with the slightly incongruous term "ninja running." Her lower arms hanging loosely, barely moving, gaining forward propulsion through the strength of her legs, a unique form on display throughout her duel with Rio Olympics silver medalist Eunice Kirwa (Bahrain). It just may be enough to bring the Olympic women's marathon gold medal back to Japan for the first time since Mizuki Noguchi in Athens in 2004.
Ando's ninja running first caught my eye about a year ago at the May, 2016 Gifu Seiryu Half Marathon. I had the impression that it seemed to be between Kayoko Fukushi (Team Wacoal), who was expected to medal in the Rio Olympics and Ando, who two months earlier had been the top Japanese woman at 10th overall at March's Cardiff World Half Marathon Championships. As soon as the race began I was surprised. No matter how you looked at Ando's form it seemed like she was only using her legs to drive her running, but even so it was a great performance with only a 3-second difference with Fukushi at the end. Having already seen the diamond shine when it was still in the rough, I felt more satisfaction than surprise at how fast she ran in Nagoya.
Ando was never good at running with coordinated upper and lower body movement. Her form came about as the result of trial and error. Former world record holder and 2000 Sydney Olympics gold medalist Naoki Takahashi, 44, gave an analysis of Ando's form, saying, "It's unique, but it is highly specialized for the marathon. There is less vertical movement and better motion efficiency, reducing the likelihood of failure in the second half."
"The marathon starts at 30 km." As a condition for being able to compete at the world level, the JAAF has emphasized the "negative split," running the second half faster than the first half. In Nagoya Ando ran the first half in 1:10:21 and the second half somewhat slower in 1:11:15. JAAF director Mitsugi Ogata evaluated her run by saying, "I would like to interpret it as her way of negative splitting, in the sense that she kept the pace necessary to compete during the second half." This was equivalent to the holy grail of being lauded for "taking on the world."
Although Ando's form can be called a pitch-based method, it is by no means a mainstream one. She no doubt must have had it corrected many times ever since she was a student. After passing through two teams following her graduation from Toyokawa High School, she met coach Masayuki Satouchi, 40, at her third and current team. At the Suzuki Hamamatsu AC, marathon development is the main priority. Coach Satouchi embraced Ando's ninja running and set about extending its potential, saying, "Ando is a natural talent. When she was envisioning the marathon she was conscious of efficient form. Everybody has their own way of running." Ando seeks to improve even further, saying, "This is not the finished product. Overall I want to refine my form to maximize the degree to which I can bring out my full potential." At the London World Championships and on to the Tokyo Olympics, Ando intends to travel the road to the gold medal.