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"I Want to Find My Own Way" - Arata Fujiwara on Training, Rhythm and the Physical Sense of Self

interview by Mika Tokairin 
and Tsuguki Matsuda

translated by Mika Tokairin 

and Brett Larner

In part one of his interview with JRN, Arata Fujiwara talked about the 2008 Tokyo Marathon 2:08:40 run that made him famous. In part two of the interview, Fujiwara discusses the mental and physical aspects of his training and how they differ from established Japanese training methods.

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How many marathons have you done?

I’ve run five so far. After the first one I didn’t think I would run any over 2:10, that I’d be a stable sub-2:10 guy, but it hasn’t really worked out that way. Actually, I’ve never run a marathon in the 2:10’s. Always sub-2:10 or over 2:20. (laughs)

What was the difference between those two levels of performance?

My rhythm, and something just not clicking. It’s complex, and there are a lot of factors. For example, when you come back from injury you tend to run well. Sometimes you can set a new PB right after coming back. Some people say the springs in your muscles were saved because you were resting, but it’s not just such a simple explanation. If you look at it more carefully you can find some kind of clue there.

Japanese marathon training only focuses on quantity, on doing over 1000 km a month for the marathon, but I don’t think that’s the only way and I want to change the situation. I think we should be looking elsewhere as well. I think we need some people who think and do things differently, then we will have more variety and our overall level can improve. We were educated that there is only one correct way to train for a marathon, here it is, adapt yourself to it because it is the only way. That’s what we were all taught. But I think there must be different ways. When everybody follows the same kind of training philosophy they might all go in the wrong direction together, so I want to do something different. I want to find my own way. I still think it’s important to build a base, but at the same time I believe there are other ways and I think we should be looking for them. I think it would be better if each person had their own approach, then we’d have room to discuss our ideas and find something even better.

There’s a word in samurai philosophy, shuhari, made up of three characters. ‘Shu’ means keeping the tradition, following whatever your master says. ‘Ha’ means breaking the principles, where you try something new. ‘Ri’ means leaving the master, going your own way in a different direction. In the jitsugyodan professional teams, the way we are taught by our coaches and older runners is that strictly following the established system is the quickest way to become better. But if you break one of the rules it activates discussion. I think that’s what I would like to do. If 1000 km a month is everything then you only need a strong body to succeed, but there is nothing there to hone the racing instinct. What you might get when you come out of 1000 km a month of training is that you don’t feel as tired after the race, but that’s all you get out of it. It does nothing to develop speed and racing sense. Post-race fatigue isn’t the reason for racing. The most important thing is to race fast, not just train hard.

So far my marathon record is 50% success and 50% failure. When you train and you feel like you have a lot of stamina you start to depend on it too much. When you depend on the stamina and strength you get from hard training, at some point it suddenly gets difficult. That’s what happened in Berlin last summer. Before Berlin I did a lot of mileage and everything went really well and I felt like my strength and stamina were really high. My cardiovascular system and all my muscles got better, but it turned out to be a minus point. When you have so much strength and stamina it makes your body insensitive, especially about movement.

It’s like the economy. When the economy is good all the companies make lots of money without really having any good ideas, but when the recession comes they all go bankrupt because they have no idea how to cope. When you’re in a recession companies try to be more efficient and restructure. They start to function better and when the economy improves again they are ready to jump up to the next level. It’s the same thing. In my body, having a lot of stamina is like having a good economy, and I spend too much without noticing. Then suddenly hardship comes. Sometimes other people can get through an entire marathon just on stamina, and I think that is incredible.

The most important thing is the balance between physical strength and inner sensitivity. Ideally you would gain physical strength without losing the sharp sensitivity, but that’s very difficult. I think junior high school and high school students are really good on the physical sensitivity side of things. They don’t have any strength or stamina yet, so all they have is the physical sense of themselves.

How do you incorporate this into your training?

I’ve been running for over 10 years and there aren’t many new things I haven’t tried. It’s all about movement. When you’re in better condition you have better movement because all your muscles are coordinated. If something is hurt then the coordination is interrupted. If you’re in good condition you can move well, and if you can move well you can run fast. For this kind of conditioning there aren’t many things you can do. You can’t get it just because you ate high-energy food or something. The only thing you can do is to focus on your regular day-to-day routine. If you try something strange or different you might lose your condition, but it all depends on your sense of feeling; when you have a good sense of your body then you can immediately make big changes in your condition. During the short preparation period I had for Tokyo in 2008 I was really focused on this idea. Since I was coming back from injury I was in a situation where I had a desperate need to focus and get sharp. I still can’t believe I did it.

So you are really focused on awareness of your body?

Yes, exactly.

You’ve mentioned rhythm. Are rhythm and pace different?

Yes, different. Rhythm is something from inside. I believe it is all about form, that is to say posture and motion, the orbit lines you trace in the air when you move, and timing. All these complex factors are connected to one another and together they make up form, good or bad. It’s really hard to show this with numbers, so we can only call it ‘rhythm.’ You can only measure it with your body.

Can you correct rhythm when you start running and feel something is off?

I think I’m better at doing that than others. You have to endure the time when you’re feeling off and sooner or later it will click. Sometimes the click comes randomly without any warning, but sometimes you have to work at it for a long time before it happens. I’ve had both. You have to try at least, because if you just leave it you won’t get it.

It does happen, that moment when everything engages, and it feels so much easier then. I feel as if, “What was I doing before this? I feel like a different person.” People used to call this ‘second wind,’ but nowadays that means something else. (laughs) Second wind is usually understood to be an effect of adrenaline, but I believe there is more to it. It has more to do with all the physical elements locking into place and working together. Not everyone can get that feeling, but sometimes it happens. The thing I’ve read that I thought describes that feeling the best is Haruki Murakami’s book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. In it he talks about the first time he ran the Saroma 100 km. Up to 70 km he felt like he was slowing down a lot, thinking, “What’s happening to my body? Even an old woman could pass me.” Then suddenly it started going smoothly and after that he felt like he was a machine. I think that’s the same thing I’ve had.

Sometimes a very minor change, such as the way you snatch your drink at a water station, can change everything, so it’s really very delicate. When you do something unusual that breaks your movement then it can suddenly trigger a larger change because your body wants to return to its natural motion. Running is a really simple movement so you can correct it and make adjustments in subtle ways.

You can’t really understand what good form is until it starts getting hard. You have to be right on the edge. When you’re running easily early on then you feel OK even if your form is bad because you have a margin of stamina. When it gets hard later on you can feel the difference and then you’re able to make adjustments to find the right form. In soccer and baseball there’s a lot more instantaneous reaction to action, but running isn’t like that. It can be plus or minus. You have to be pushing the limit to find that difference between good and bad form.

I said before that the last part of Tokyo is hard with the uphills. You have to approach them in terms of keeping your overall rhythm. In long distance if your rhythm breaks it can really throw you off, so you have to try to keep it together even on the uphill. Right after that is where you really have to be able to compete, so you have to think beyond just the peak of the hill and include what comes after that in your planning. In distance running once you break your rhythm you can’t get it back. You have to try not to hit the ceiling and to keep your rhythm together because once you go all out you can’t recover your original rhythm and you’ll probably slow down pretty quickly. It’s like fishing with dynamite. An explosion, then they’re floating belly-up on the surface and can’t move.

Does what time you go to bed and get up and that sort of thing, affect your condition?

Yes. When you’re in a good, healthy condition you can move well and when your mind is clear and strong you can focus better. On the other hand, the only time you’re aware that you’re running with great form is when your condition isn’t good. Not only in Tokyo, but whenever I do great I’m usually not in great condition, but all at once it clicks and my form changes and it gets better and better. So what makes a difference is the ability to be aware of what your condition is. You can understand how things improve because you’re coming from a base of not being in a good state. In the 2008 Tokyo Marathon I ran with that sense of my condition and form rather than off stamina or strength.

Do you do anything to avoid catching the flu or getting sick?

Well, as a pro athlete I’m probably not supposed to say this, but I simply believe I’m not going to catch it, and that’s enough. I never take any precautions. Society tells you to do things to avoid it, but I don’t want to develop the mentality of doing things ‘in case something happens.’ I think that’s a negative way to think. I want to eliminate all thoughts that I might catch a cold. Washing your hands all the time or gargling with antiseptic shows you think you might catch something, so I don’t do any of that. I haven’t caught a cold in over ten years. Maybe it’s because of that. (laughs)

Do you have any advice for amateurs? Most people do too much just before a race and go into it tired because they don’t know what they should do.

You don’t have to dismiss all your anxiety because it’s important to learn how to get used to the state of worrying and being anxious. Everybody gets anxious as a race approaches. Me too. That’s normal. You have to build up another mentality on top of your anxiety, adding the idea that it’s normal and that’s OK. When I looked back at my running diary from just before Tokyo I found that I had written to myself, “Just shut up and run!”

In the third part of the interview Fujiwara discusses his racing strategy, his views on being competitive in the 2:05 era, and his future goals.

photo © 2012 Helmut Winter, all rights reserved
text © 2010 Brett Larner, all rights reserved

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