For the last few years Ethiopia's Tsegaye Kebede and Japan's Yuki Kawauchi have been in a race to erase serial marathoner great Abebe Mekonnen from the record books. At one point Mekennon held a controlling share of the sub-x marathon world records, the number of times an athlete ran under 2:** in their career. Kebede has been taking Mekonnen's records away from the faster end and Kawauchi from the slower, finally meeting each other at the sub-2:12 level. Kawauchi got there first, tying Mekonnen's record of 22 at May's Prague Marathon. With his 2:09:18 at Sunday's Gold Coast Airport Marathon Kawauchi took away Mekonnen's last record as he marked his 23rd career sub-2:12, the first man in history to run such depth at quality.
His Gold Coast performance extended Kawauchi's range to every record from sub-2:12 to sub-2:19. Looking ahead, he is now 8 races away from tying American Doug Kurtis' record of 76 career sub-2:20 marks. With 6 more marathons on his schedule this year he should get that record early next spring. His Gold Coast time also brought Kawauchi within 3 races of tying Kebede's record of 21 sub-2:11 marathons. It has been just over 6 years since Kawauchi first went sub-2:11, meaning that at his usual rate Kawauchi should get that record by the fall of 2018 assuming Kebede doesn't take it much further before he gets there.
Kawauchi is also now 5 races away from tying Kebede's record of 17 sub-2:10s. It has taken him 70 marathons to run his 12 sub-2:10s to date, 2 per year in the 6 years since he first did it at the 2011 Tokyo Marathon. Kawauchi hopes to run 100 marathons sub-2:20 by the time of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics just over 3 years away. At the same average rate of progress, which included a year lost to dealing with injury in 2015, he'll be set to run his 18th sub-2:10 at the 2020 Gold Coast Airport Marathon just before the Olympics. If he's able to pull it off and nobody else gets there first Kawauchi will then hold every record from sub-2:10 to sub-2:20.
And not just that.
This spring Kawauchi also broke Kenyan Philemon Metto's world record for sub-1:06 half marathons, running his 72nd career sub-1:06, and with just 7 more races to go to Metto's sub-1:05 record of 56 that one seems likely to fall next year too. At 24 career sub-1:04 half marathons he's also 10 races away from Metto's record of 34. It's taken Kawauchi 10 years to run 24 of them, meaning that with a bit of luck he could take that record before Tokyo 2020 as well. And with a 2:47:35 at last month's Okinoshima 50 km, an annual fixture on his calendar, Kawauchi now holds the records for most sub-2:50, sub-2:49 and sub-2:48 marks for 50 km. With a 2:44:07 best he co-holds the next 3 records, and at just 30 seconds from a new world record and 3 more attempts to go before Tokyo 2020 he could well get it.
The most common question Kawauchi gets from media and fans outside Japan is some variation on "I love what you're doing and all, but don't you think if you just focused on one race like everyone else you could run faster?" or "Don't you think if you just focused on one race you could win a Major?" I come from a music background, so to put it in those terms, they're asking him, "Your music is great and all, but don't you think if you focused you could write a hit single?" There's nothing wrong with writing hits and I'm sure he wouldn't object if he scored one, but is that the only reason people play music? Maybe he knows he's not fast enough to be Taylor Swift. Maybe he's not out to write the summer's hot track or something people will be dancing to at their high school reunions ten years down the road. Maybe he's out to write something larger, a life's work, a symphony that will still move people generations from now. Something nobody will ever surpass.
It has only been this spring that what Kawauchi is really up to has started to come into focus, the connections between the different themes in his work, where he's going with what has seemed like arbitrary craziness up to now, how it's all going to reach resolution. With every new race, every new measure and phrase, that resolution he's envisioning is drawing closer. Something with depth, quality and range like nobody has ever attempted before. It's ambitious and dangerous and could all be cut short at any time, but if he pulls it off, if he makes it to that final chord, that final note, what a work of profound beauty Kawauchi will be gifting the world.
© 2017 Brett Larner, all rights reserved