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The Lessons of the Past Are Not “Outdated” - Real Talk From Yuki Kawauchi on “Taking on the World” (part 3)

translated by Brett Larner

Part three in a three-part series written by Yuki Kawauchi and published by Sportsnavi. Visit the above link to their original Japanese-language article for more photos. Click here for part one in the series, “The Miracle in Fukuoka,” and here for part two, “Bringing All My Experience Into Play in London.”

During his days at Gakushuin University Yuki Kawauchi (Saitama Prefectural Government) ran in the Hakone Ekiden as part of the Kanto Region University Select Team. After graduating he chose to take a job as a Saitama Prefecture employee rather than going into the corporate running leagues, and since then he has run countless marathons as an “amateur runner.” By choosing a different road from the elite runners who join the corporate leagues Kawauchi has worked on the marathon under his own power and has put long and serious thought into it. His path has shown the runners to come the way to a new option.

In the final part of this three-part series, Kawauchi offers his advice to the next generation and talks about his dreams as a marathon runner.

Going for a sub-2:10 debut is just digging your own grave.

At the 2015 Beijing World Championships, Ghirmay Ghebreslassie (Eritrea), just 19 at the time, won the gold medal. At age 20 he was 4th at the Rio Olympics, and three months later he won the New York City Marathon. At the Dubai Marathon as well, teenaged Ethiopian athlete Tsegaye Mekonnen Assefa ran a time of 2:04. But on the other hand, [while young athletes are having success] I also think that the marathon is “a sport of experience.” From both viewpoints I think it’s a good trend that young athletes are gaining awareness of the marathon while they have physical strength and speed. In my own experience, I learned many things from the two marathons I ran while attending Gakushuin University. If you don’t actually run the marathon there’s a lot you can’t understand just by armchair theorizing. But as the number of young athletes taking on the marathon increases in this way [in the buildup to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics], there are two things to be concerned about.

The first is that too many athletes have goals that are too high for their first marathons. I think this is partly due to the people around them and partly to the media, but in my opinion too many athletes who have never run a marathon are saying, “My goal is at least sub-2:10.” A lot of fast young guys naively think, “Sub-2:10 is what people were running 30 years ago,” and, “I’m targeting 2:05 or 2:06, so it’s a given that I’ll go sub-2:10 in my debut.” However, in terms of the IAAF’s athlete rankings, sub-2:10 is a time that earns a gold label, the highest rating, so I don’t believe it’s as easy to do as they think.

If you consider it a little you’ll realize that only two Japanese collegiate runners have ever gone sub-2:10, and likewise not even ten Japanese men have ever gone sub-2:10 in their debut.[1] In my first marathon at Beppu-Oita I ran 2:19:26, and among the greats, [Toshihiko] Seko, the Soh twins [Shigeru and Takeshi] and [Takeyuki] Nakayama, and likewise among the current three fastest active Japanese men [Masato] Imai, Arata Fujiwara and [Kazuhiro] Maeda, none of them went sub-2:10 in their first marathons. You could also point out that even though Galen Rupp [U.S.A.] wasn’t a sub-2:10 runner at that point in time, he won the bronze medal at the Rio Olympics.

Times are something that are dependent on variables like race day weather and the way the race plays out. By doing dozens of marathons I’ve come to understand what those who came before me meant when they said, “More than time, the marathon is about competition.” So when the people backing these fast young guys tell them, “You have to run a good time in your debut,” the runners may be saying “sub-2:10 at a minimum” to try to live up to those expectations, but I think that in saying that they are probably stringing themselves up by the neck. If the goal is ultimately to run 2:05 or 2:06, I think that instead of saying, “Let’s rock the marathon right from the first time,” and jumping in only to die and taste the torments of hell, to suffer injury and trauma that will destroy your self-confidence, saying “Who cares what time you run in your debut? I want to be able to achieve my goal in the end,” and holding back to run at a pace that suits you will let you finish thinking, “Marathons are fun!” and let you run later marathons in a positive state of mind.

The meaning of training for distance before a marathon.

The second point is that there's a tendency to admire young athletes who run well in their marathon debuts and then say, “I only did 30 km in training,” or, “I only ran 40 km once.” Certainly, if you’ve never run 40 km or only done it once and produce a good result, expectations will rise and people will say, “The kid’s got huge potential!” and, “If you train more you’ll get even better.” But it’s not always a good thing for expectations to go up like that. In the second marathon and beyond, the time from the first marathon becomes a major pressure that starts in on an athlete.

As of December, 2016, the times that the five fastest-ever debut Japanese marathoners including debut marathon record holder Masakazu Fujiwara ran in their first marathons have remained their lifetime PBs. Of course, Fujiwara [currently head coach of the Chuo University ekiden team] represented Japan in the marathon at three World Championships and all-time debut #2 [Koichi] Morishita was the last Japanese man to become an Olympic medalist, so it is possible to have great success even without being able to break your debut time. But however successful you are at the international championships level, as an athlete focused on winning and on being “even one second faster,” if you go your whole career without ever breaking the time you ran in your first marathon it must put a lot of thoughts into your head.

I think that the purpose of doing multiple long distance runs before a marathon isn't just “to produce results in the race” but also “to build legs that will withstand injury and make it to the next starting line after producing results in the race.” If you want your marathon career to be short and sweet then your legs can probably handle a “single shot” approach without doing the training necessary to develop them. But if you’re envisioning a long career as an athlete competing at the international level and accumulating a wealth of experience then I think it’s essential to develop your legs through long distance training right from your first marathon. I think it’s a good idea to start working on getting experience in the marathon at a young age and it shouldn’t be made more intimidating that necessary, but I think that people who run enough to avoid getting injured after their first marathon are more likely to have a future than those who do it with insufficient mileage.

Japanese people have their own Japanese ways of racing and training.

I think that the most important thing [for today’s young athletes to go on to become internationally competitive] is for people to start racing seriously overseas right from when they are young and to build up knowledge and experience of “what overseas is.” Unlike in the past, today there are international races all over the world ready to invite Japanese athletes with good times to their names and to pay for the costs of air travel and accommodations. So I think the path you choose to pursue your development is crucial, whether to join a corporate team that understands international racing, or to work on it yourself as an amateur or pro runner, examining in detail the list of member races on the AIMS [Association of International Marathons and Distance Races] website and honing your craft by running seriously in overseas races that match your level and goals. Then while gaining experience in overseas races and acquiring knowledge you can gain clear awareness of whether “the world” you are aiming for as an athlete is “Representing Japan” or “A Record” or “Winning International Marathons Around the World” and do the training appropriate to that objective. All of this is important.

Along with gaining experience abroad, I think it’s also important to learn from the Japanese marathoners of the past. It seems like a lot of athletes these days believe too much in the way that the Africans and the Americans do things, but I don’t think that modern athletes who can’t better the times run by past Japanese athletes can rightfully call those past athletes’ training methodologies “outdated.” Needless to say not everything about the way that Japanese athletes trained in the past was correct, but I think there are more hints about how to get better to be found there than by looking at how Africans train.

Years ago when I read Kenji Kimihara’s book The Springtime of the Marathon I felt sympathetic resonance with it as an athlete. I felt that there was a lot to learn from past Japanese marathoners and set out to read as many of their books and biographies as I could. In addition to Seko, the Sohs, Akio Usami, Nobuyoshi Sadanaga, Kokichi Tsuburaya and others, I read nonfiction about the Barcelona, Atlanta and Sydney Olympic women’s marathons and more. Every time I read them I found a number of things that could be helpful, but what I began to feel most strongly was that compared to the greats of the past the amount of “ultra long-distance training” I was doing seemed overwhelmingly insufficient.

I began to feel that even if I were doing something similar to what Africans do, it would just be a lesser imitation of their approach. I think that if I can’t do the same quality training they do, unless I do the “ultra long-distance training” that they won’t then there’s no way I could compete with them. The surprise I felt at seeing the pre-race breakfast of a Kenyan Olympic medalist in New York and thinking, “They can run 42.195 km on such a small amount [of food]?” had a lot of influence on this line of thought. Personally I had the sense that by eating well at dinner the night before and breakfast the morning of a race I had become better able to hang on and not fade badly in the second half of a marathon the way I did when I was first starting out.

But looking at how the great Kenyan athletes could run even though they ate in a way exactly opposite to my experience I began to think more and more, “They’re different from Japanese people. If there is that difference, then maybe Japanese people have different ways of racing and training as well.” As a result, even if you’re adopting an overseas approach, I think it’s important to first do your homework and learn what you can about how all the great Japanese athletes of the past trained, and then to add whatever else you can learn from abroad to that. There are a lot of people at both extremes in Japan today, but to become a better marathoner I think there are hints to be gleaned from both old Japan and the modern world.

Becoming a “coach who runs” at my alma mater someday.

[To help elevate athletics on the road to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics,] I want to be visible racing against international competition in domestic and overseas races from fall through spring and to deliver exciting runs that will give the next generation aiming for the Tokyo Olympics something to think about. I also want to support amateur marathons throughout Japan by continuing to actively take part in amateur races that I haven’t run before. Specifically, by achieving my two goals of “finishing 100 full marathons” and “running as an invited athlete or special guest at amateur marathons in all 47 prefectures” before the Tokyo Olympics I think that I can return the knowledge and experience I’ve gained through my marathoning to Japan as a whole.

I think that in the future I’d like to serve as a “coach who runs” at my alma mater Gakushuin University to help develop marathon runners the way that I myself was guided and coached. At that time I hope to take advantage of the domestic and international relationships I’ve been able to cultivate to help other athletes run many marathons and to help expand all the various options available to them. And if I can help even one athlete look back on their competitive career with a smile and say, “I’m glad I dedicated the springtime of my life to running. I’m truly glad I ran the marathon,” then it will all have been worth it.

If I’d quit running back in high school when I was injured all the time I wouldn’t be who I am now. By continuing to do it at Gakushuin University I learned new ways of training and ways of thinking that opened up the possibilities and potential within me. That’s why I want to show all the athletes at the powerful running schools who, like me in those days, are frustrated and injured, “There’s another world out there. Another way.” By doing that I hope to give them the chance to feel again the love of the run.

[1] Written prior to Yuta Shitara’s 2:09:27 debut at the 2017 Tokyo Marathon, the tenth sub-2:10 debut by a Japanese man.

Read Part One, "The Miracle in Fukuoka," and Part Two, "Bringing All My Experience Into Play in London."

Berlin photo © 2012 and Fukuoka photo © 2015 Dr. Helmut Winter, all rights reserved
other photos © 2014-16 Brett Larner, all rights reserved


John Keane said…
Great series. Thank you for posting!
Great series by Yuki a most interesting athlete. His knowledge of running and marathon racing in particular give him a proper perspective and insight that many athletes lack. He obviously has inner strength and confidence. Though he is a unique athlete to say the least but his methods apply to many runners who will be as self motivated. Our lack of depth of performance in the USA is a result of the lack of striving for excellence whatever that might be for an individual athlete. A lack of trying as in former days. Atavism.

Many young athletes do not see the "worthiness" unless there is what they consider an adequate "pay off" Wrong thinking. "Youth is wasted on the young"

We need to see more athlete marathoners striving for the best they can achieve if it is 2:59 or 2:09 does not matter. The joy and satisfaction must come from the training. Yuki points this out well. Participating and finishing only are not the same as striving for ones limits striving to compete well the true essence of athletics.

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