translated by Brett Larner
Ahead of his nomination to the London World Championships Marathon team, Sportsnavi published a three-part series of writings by Yuki Kawauchi on what it took for him to make the team, his hopes for London, and his views on the future of Japanese marathoning. With his place on the London team announced on Mar. 17, JRN will publish an English translation of the complete series over the next three days. See Sportsnavi's original version linked above for more photos.
The Fukuoka International Marathon was held on Dec. 4 last year. Yuki Kawauchi (Saitama Pref. Gov’t) took part despite nursing injuries he had sustained in training. Falling rain contributed to less than ideal conditions during the race, but from the very early stages Kawauchi mixed it up with the international invited field and stayed among the leaders. As the other Japanese athletes fell away, Kawauchi held out to the very end to take 3rd in 2:09:11, the first Japanese man across the finish line and putting himself into contention for the right to run in this summer’s London World Championships.
We asked Kawauchi to talk about his race in Fukuoka, his thoughts about the World Championships, and his views on the current state of Japanese long distance. In a three-part series of articles we give you his reply. In Part One he looks back on his to-the-limit run in Fukuoka.
A calf injury three weeks out – On the edge every day.
Three weeks before [the Fukuoka International Marathon] I hurt my right calf while doing a long run. When I picked up the pace it felt like my calf was going to tear off, and even when I just walked it throbbed with pain. Because of that I couldn’t do the final tune-up workouts I’d been planning, and for the three weeks before the race I was really uneasy and irritated. Every day, everyone around me, even my family, kept saying, “This is your last chance to make a Japanese national team. Stop being such an obstinate freak, give up on Fukuoka and run Tokyo or Lake Biwa instead.” At the same time there were people encouraging me and telling me, “We’re going to Fukuoka to cheer for you, so don’t let us down!” I was really on the edge of losing my mind every day from all of that.
I took the two days after I got hurt completely off and then told myself, “OK, let’s at least try not to lose what fitness you have.” I started doing long jogs, keeping the pace slower than usual so that the pain wouldn’t be that bad. That was the situation I was in, not really in a condition to do the [Nov. 20] Ageo City Half Marathon which I was supposed to run two weeks out [from Fukuoka]. I knew that if I overdid it the injury would get worse, so I talked to the Ageo organizers before the race and got permission to start at the very back and just jog it. In that way I kept myself from doing any training that would force me to run fast, and the pain that made it feel like something was really wrong went away.
A sprained ankle right before the race – begging for divine intervention.
One by one I started doing workouts that came to me intuitively like received wisdom from somewhere, something in my head telling me, “You should do this,” and as a result of that my training load went way up. I did two 50 km jogs and totaled about 220 km for the week. I usually do about 140 km a week, so doing that kind of long distance gradually gave me back my self-confidence and physical strength.
But even so, since I couldn’t race the Ageo City Half Marathon the way I always do I was still worried about whether I could sustain speed, and the stress of whether I should run Fukuoka or not remained unchanged. So I made a final decision and told myself, “If you can run for 20 km at the second pack pace of 3:04 / km a week out from the race, you can do Fukuoka as planned.” Keeping everything, my wake up time, breakfast and whatnot, strictly according to the same timetable as race day, with the help of friends I ran 20 km at Saitama’s Lake Saiko. The outcome was that even though it was pretty close to my limit I managed to run 1:01:14 (3:03 / km), and I made the decision to run [Fukuoka] in the second group.
In that kind of situation there was nothing else I could do, so I said, “Please, God, Buddha, whoever, for tomorrow’s race please don’t let this pain get worse. If you hold off on this ankle I will endure whatever other suffering you want me to,” and prayed for divine (Buddhistic?) intervention. Those were the circumstances in which I went to the starting line, and thanks to a string of good luck I was able to end up on the podium with a 2:09. All things considered, once I finished all I could think was that a miracle really had happened out there.
The trinity that worked the “miracle.”
Looking at it now, if I had to analyze the factors involved in that “miracle” I would identify three key points. To begin with, the first point was that we were blessed with good weather and temperatures. The initial weather forecast predicted that it would be 18 degrees Celsius and sunny, but as the race approached that changed to rain, and at the start the temperature was below the forecast at only 13 degrees. In addition, during the race the rain started again, and at the 25 km point the temperature briefly fell to 9 degrees. I’ve always been good in cold and rainy races, like at the 2010 Tokyo Marathon when I took 5 minutes off my PB [and ran] 2:12:36, so my spirits steadily picked up from the hopeless state of mind I was in right after the start. I’d been feeling pain in my ankle, but the cold helped numb it to the point that I stopped caring about it and got so deeply into “the zone” that I didn’t even notice the 15 km drink tables.
The second point was that the pacers for the first group were kind enough to blow their jobs. Thanks to point #1, although there were three pacers in the first group who were supposed to run 3:00 / km until 30 km, they couldn’t even do it for the first 5 km. The second group that I was originally supposed to have been running in would have been about a minute behind the first group at halfway, but since the first group’s 3:00 / km pace never materialized the pace of the second group became that of the first group and I went through halfway with a time difference of zero seconds behind the leaders. This was a very nice miscalculation that I’d never anticipated.
The third point was that I had the experience of having run the Fukuoka International Marathon six times previously. I knew where the hills on the Fukuoka International Marathon course were and I knew precisely how steep they were. In addition, three years ago I had the experience of taking the lead after the pacemakers dropped out at halfway, qualifying myself to represent Japan at the Incheon Asian Games. So, as long as I got through halfway without too much trouble I wasn’t afraid at all of dying at the end even if I made a play. The opposite, really. When I saw my split at halfway I knew that if I didn’t hold myself back I could definitely go sub-2:10. That gave me a big boost and I told myself, “If the pace looks like it’s going to slow down let’s take charge and get rid of some of the competition.”
A foundation built on overseas racing and ultra long-distance training.
In addition, I think there were two long-term reasons the “miracle” could occur. The first of these points is that I have been competing in a large number of overseas marathons. Since 2012 when I failed to make the London Olympics I’ve been competing all around the world with international athletes including Kenyans and Ethiopians. In particular, in 2016 after starting the year at the Ibusuki Nanohana Marathon in January I ran five marathons in a row overseas before doing Fukuoka International, and repeatedly won or made the podium against foreign competition.
I was 2nd at Wanjinshi, Taiwan in March, I won Zurich, Switzerland in April, at Gold Coast, Australia in July I was 2nd in the fastest time by a Japanese man in 2016, 2:09:01, in September in Berlin, Germany I ran 2:11:03, the fastest time by a Japanese man in the [five overseas] 2016 World Marathon Majors (WMM), and in November in Porto, Portugal I was 2nd again. Among these were races where the pacemakers dropped out after only 6 km and some where there weren’t any pacers to begin with. I knew from experience that when the conditions are bad pacemakers are useless, and that was a big plus in terms of being competitive in Fukuoka International when it didn’t go like a typical Japanese selection race where the goal is to try to run a pretty little set of perfect splits for the first 30 km.
The second point is that I had increased my long distance jogs. I’ve always done 4 to 6-hour trail runs, but last summer I started doing a lot more of them. Using the Shin-Etsu Trail I ran longer than 45 km two days in a row and jogged more than 40 km three times in a single week. In the fall I even started doing ultra long-distance jogs on flat ground. In October I ran 100 km mostly along the Tone River from Shibukawa, Gunma to my house in about 7 1/2 hours. Leading up to Fukuoka I did a lot of 50 km jogs which I hadn’t usually done in the past.
The effects of ultra long-distance and the monthly mileage problem.
There are those who look at that kind of ultra long-distance jogging and say, “Running slowly is meaningless no matter how much you do,” but I think the people who make that kind of criticism have probably never done it themselves. If you actually experience the feeling you get after about three hours, the “I can endure this fatigue in my legs, but if I lose it mentally I’ll immediately want to quit” one that’s similar to the light-headed sensation at the end of the marathon, the numbness of hands and feet and loss of concentration that come after that, the feeling that your stamina is evaporating from the core of your body, and the overpowering sense of euphoria you get after going over the wall, I don’t think you can call it “meaningless.”
The confidence that is built by doing ultra long-distance jogging, the knowledge in the second half when things are getting tough that “I’ve run 50 km and 100 km so I know for sure that my stamina isn’t going to break in the second half. The internationals running next to me haven’t done 100 km so I know that my legs are the ones that are still going to keep moving when things get down and dirty,” has really helped a person like me who tends to get discouraged easily.
For someone who only trains once a day like I have ever since I was at Gakushuin University, I feel that adding ultra long-distance jogging trail runs on my days off work has been effective in improving my physical and mental ability to hold it together in the second half of the marathon. However, since the runners on many teams are obligated to do group morning runs in addition to their regular training sessions, in terms of both the time and physical demands I think it would be hard for them to add the same kind of ultra long-distance jogging that I have. By doing morning runs every day they usually exceed 1000 km a month, but in my case I’m typically averaging about 600 km a month. When you consider that runners belonging to teams are doing 12 km a day on average in their morning runs, my monthly mileage is going to be at least 360 km less since I don’t do them. That means a physical margin of over 4320 km a year compared to other athletes, and I think that’s why ultra long-distance jogging has had such a major impact on me.
Conversely, if someone who is already doing over 1000 km a month kept doing their morning runs and tried to add ultra long-distance jogging to that, I think they would destroy their legs with stress fractures and whatnot. Old-school marathoners might get mad and say it’s a “soft way of thinking,” but I’m pretty sure the human body has a mileage limit. Working within that limit I think all you can do is choose between doing multiple short runs or longer single runs.
Read Part Two, "Bringing All My Experience Into Play in London," and Part Three, "The Lessons of the Past Are Not Outdated."
Fukuoka photos © 2016 Dr. Helmut Winter, all rights reserved
ankle photo © 2016 Yuki Kawauchi, all rights reserved
Porto photo © 2016 Brett Larner, all rights reserved
trail photo © 2015 Brett Larner, all rights reserved