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"Now I'm Free!" - Arata Fujiwara On His 2008 Tokyo Marathon Breakthrough

interview by Mika Tokairin and Tsuguki Matsuda
translated by Mika Tokairin and Brett Larner

Arata Fujiwara was a relative unknown when he ran the 2008 Tokyo Marathon, but his 2nd place finish in 2:08:40 made his name both domestically and worldwide. He fell five seconds short of being named to the Beijing Olympics team but made the Berlin World Championships thanks to a 2:09:47 at the Fukuoka International Marathon later that year. In this interview for the first time Fujiwara talked to JRN in detail about his now-famous 2008 Tokyo Marathon run, his thoughts and feelings before, during and after the race.

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What can you say about your first marathon? You really slowed down a lot.

It was at Biwako [Lake Biwa] in March, 2007. That time I had stomach problems and blisters. Without them I would have won. (laughs) But I got a lot of confidence out of that race. Problems like blisters are easy to understand, you know? It’s not like if you don’t have enough stamina or a larger issue like that. I knew that if I could solve how to avoid those simple problems I could do well the next time.

It’s been about two years since you had the big breakthrough in Tokyo. Looking back now what do you remember?

It wasn’t my first marathon, but I feel like that’s the race where I made my real debut. I can say that’s where my marathon career really started. The race was only really over the last 10 km. At around 30 km Satoshi Irifune surged to break the pack up, but I hung back and everyone managed to stay together. When Viktor Rothlin attacked I went with him, and that was when the pack really broke up. After that it was just Rothlin, Julius Gitahi and me. That was the first point where they mentioned me on TV. (laughs)

Before the race I told myself that if I ran well I’d buy myself a new computer afterwards. I use a Mac. When we ran past the Apple store in Ginza 4-Chome I thought, “Maybe if I give them a thumbs up or wave they’ll give me something for free if I win!” I didn’t do it, but getting a new Mac was the main thing I was thinking about the whole way. (laughs)

Did you buy one?

Yeah, but a long time after that, not right after the race. One of my teammates bought a MacBook Air, the really thin one, and once I had a look at it I was like, “Oh man, I really, really want to get one of these.” He said, “Well, why don’t you buy one?” and I said, “No, only if I win Tokyo.” I didn’t end up getting a MacBook Air.

So you were relaxed enough to be looking around?

Yes, at first I was really relaxed. I remember thinking, “Whoa, Kabukicho looks totally different from out here.” There were a bunch of girls cheering along the side of the road in Kabukicho. I remember them very well. (laughs) I could hear everyone cheering. It felt good when I heard someone call my name.

Does it make a difference if you hear a woman calling your name?

I try not to look, but I can’t really help sneaking a peek. (laughs) I think being that relaxed lets you get better results.

How was the weather?

The wind was fine, nice and sunny, and it was about 2 degrees at the start and 8 at the finish. Perfect, nice day weather. I knew a friend of mine was running, so I was looking for him on the way back up from Shinagawa. If I saw him I was going to wave, but he hadn’t gotten to Hibiya crossing yet by the time we turned off. A lot of amateurs run about 10 km in an hour, but an hour for us is 20 km so it didn’t happen. It was great, though, getting all the cheers from everyone still going down to Shinagawa while we were coming back up. It felt fantastic and I wanted to bow. (laughs)

At the same time, on the way down to Shinagawa I thought I was on a good rhythm, but after the turnaround I felt like something was wrong. At the 20 km point I thought, “Oh my god, I’m never going to get through this.” I can’t name names, but there was someone else in the pack who had me thinking, “I have to hang on because I can’t let myself be beaten by this guy.” (laughs) Then, suddenly, I had this moment when everything clicked and I thought, “I’ve got it now!” I think it was just before Nihonbashi when I felt it. Halfway at Ginza 4-Chome was the hardest part. It was cold there because the road was completely covered by the shadows of the buildings.

What was your impression of running through Ginza?

When we went out through there the first time I was having a hard time so I don’t remember much, but on the way back it was already down to just three of us just around Nihonbashi. I thought, “Oh wow, I’m in the lead in Ginza! There’s nobody ahead of me!” I was so excited I had goosebumps. “A big, wide, main road and no one else in front of me!” Right after that point I started to have the first spasms in my right quad and I thought, “Oh, shit!”

What changed after the pacemakers dropped out at 30 km?

That’s where Irifune took off. Something always happens at 30 km. There’s always some variability when the pacemakers are still there, but you can’t compare it to the change that happens at 30 km. If you make a mistake in deciding whether to go with it or not it makes a big difference. I blew it in Fukuoka.

At 30 km Irifune had taken off and the pack had strung way out. I was all the way in the back but I was feeling easy. I thought, “They’re definitely going to slow down again, so let’s just cruise and pick them up one by one going through Ginza.” Shortly after that everyone came right back together. When I saw that I thought, “Oh, this is the marathon, how interesting!” Later when I got the leg spasms I thought, “No, THIS is the marathon!” (laughs)

Even though I was starting to have spasms I had to stay in the lead pack because I was sure I could win. Back at the start and in the first few km I had seen Rothlin and thought, “Who’s this guy wearing tights? Why is he dressed like that?” Then I realized, “Oh, wait a minute, he’s the one who got a medal in Osaka.” His name is ‘Rothlin,’ but at the World Championships they were pronouncing it ‘Roothlin,’ which sounds like ‘Yukorin’ [a model/TV personality], so when I realized who he was I was like, “It’s Yukorin! It’s Yukorin!”

So you hadn’t looked up who he was before the race?

Well…I probably shouldn’t say this, but some time before the race I printed up the elite athlete list and checked them all out online. I was thinking, “Yep, I can beat this guy, and this guy, and this guy,” and checked them off the list one by one. The only ones who survived were Gitahi, Rothlin, Abel Kirui, Daniel Njenga and of course me. Leaving myself as the only Japanese…maybe that’s a bit arrogant. (laughs) But Yukorin was on the list.

When it was down to just the three of you, were you more afraid of Gitahi or Rothlin?

Gitahi had already almost lost contact once so I assumed he wasn’t running easily any more, but Rothlin was the one controlling the pace. It was obvious he was in charge because he didn’t make any unnecessary moves at all. When someone is reacting too quickly to others’ spurts and pace changes it means they are on the ropes. They don’t have any margin to relax. Rothlin always stayed in the middle of the pack. Whenever it strung out he never reacted too much and never tried to move up front. He could do that because he had total confidence that he could catch up anytime he wanted to. The people up front were using too much energy and the ones in the back were about to fall off, so he was just keeping himself in the ideal position and I tried to stay right there with him. Whenever he caught back up he did it really well, with no sudden change of pace and just a beautiful, gradual glide forward. If you watched his position in the pack it looked like he was moving around a lot, sometimes up front, sometimes further back, but actually his pace was completely consistent and it was everyone else who was moving around. I thought, “Wow, he’s really good,” and I tried to follow along and pick up some of his skill. He was great. So, when it was down to just three of us he was the one I was focused on.

Did your legs start getting tired after 30 km?

There are two kinds of hardship. One is when your body just can’t move anymore from fatigue. The other is when your legs go wrong. Everything else feels OK but whether it’s a cramp or some other kind of pain your legs just break down. In Tokyo I couldn’t move very well around 20 km, but in the latter stages I didn’t have that at all. I could move fine, but bit by bit my legs were falling apart.

Is it like the difference between an engine and a chassis?

Yes, that’s exactly what I felt. Just no strength in my legs and I couldn’t push.

You looked like you were struggling when the leg cramps came on. Was it hard?

It was hard, but different from the way a marathon is normally hard. I was completely OK with my breathing and everything, it was just that the muscles in my legs started to spasm.

So you had a problem with leg spasms, but you hung on. How did you keep mentally tough?

The very first time the spasms hit I thought, “Well, that’s it, it’s over now. Good try, Arata.” But then I thought, “Let’s keep going until I just stop.” Everybody runs until they stop, of course…(laughs) I decided not to voluntarily stop until someone or something physically stopped me. I thought that if I couldn’t make it I couldn’t make it, so I would just see how far I could go. And that kept me going. Once you give up you can’t get it back together.

What do you think caused the spasms?

Lack of minerals was probably the direct cause, but overall I think it was a lack of mileage in my training. My training period was too short, only two and a half months because I was injured before that. I had a sprain in mid-October and I couldn’t train at all for a month and a half. I couldn’t train properly again until the beginning of December, so it was exactly two and a half months before the race that I started my marathon training. Well, I wouldn’t say I did marathon training for two and a half months, just that that was the time I had once I got back into training at all.

During December I had to get ready for the New Year Ekiden so I couldn’t really train for the marathon. I had to focus on conditioning rather than mileage since I had to run the ace stage, about 22 km. I ended up 8th on the stage and passed 15 people. I thought that wasn’t bad at all on just a month of running, so that got me feeling good and I thought, “OK, maybe I’ll be able to do pretty well in Tokyo.” It was too late to do all the base-building mileage, so my only choice was to be really focused on conditioning and on feeling better and better. I was really desperate to get into good condition, so I learned a lot during this short period of time. I did my best in the time I had, but two and a half months wasn't long enough to get ready for that kind of marathon.

What part of the course made the biggest impression on you?

Tsukuda Bridge at 36 km. There aren’t any spectators on the uphill, so it’s a brief moment of quiet amid all the noise. I was all alone in the quiet, like I was in a bubble. It was a magical feeling I’ll never forget. There were a few people cheering from apartment balconies, which was kind of funny, but my mind was in a really quiet state. After 30 km it was an unknown world for me that I hadn’t experienced before. I’d done Biwako but was not really moving any more at that point, so this was my first time racing over this part of the distance. I clicked into some kind of quiet, peaceful mental zone, but at the same time I was very excited and had goosebumps. It was a bit scary, like you’re afraid but want to go ahead and do it and see what happens anyway. Scary, but everything was working automatically and I was just thinking, “What’s going to happen to me next?”

After the Tokyo Marathon some journalist wrote that someone along the course at Tsukuda Bridge had called out my name and that I was happy because they had known who I was, but that’s not exactly true. What I actually thought when I heard it I was, “Nobody knows who I am. If they’re calling my name it means the TV announcer must be saying my name right now because I’m the top Japanese runner, and the people in the apartments are just repeating what they hear.”

Was Tsukuda Bridge an important point in the evolution of the race?

Yes, definitely. Tsukuda Bridge is a big uphill, so I decided not to push because I didn’t have any power left, just my rhythm. Power comes from your muscles, and at that point it was gone. The only forces in play were the reaction of my feet pushing off the ground. No torque, no power. Just momentum and the reaction of opposing forces. When you go up hills you need horsepower, but I didn’t have it anymore so I didn’t want to push it. I thought it was OK to back off a little and not worry. The gap to the lead grew, but I just let it go. Now I feel like I was probably too lazy. Gitahi was ahead of me at that point and I think I was behind by about 30 m. I thought I could catch them on the flat part after cresting the hill so I wasn’t worried about trying to fight them on the uphill.

I went by Gitahi right after the peak and I was thinking that if I could catch Rothlin by the end of the downhill I would go for the win, but I couldn’t get back up to him. I saw another uphill coming and decided to focus on keeping my position ahead of Gitahi. Even at 35 km it’s still a long way to go, 7 km, and you can make or lose a minute or two over that kind of distance. That was about what the gap between Rothlin and I ended up being.

After I had the spasms it felt like I was jogging, so I thought I was slowing down a lot. It was impossible, of course, but I imagined people along the roadside were telling the runners behind me that I was falling apart. I got confused and thought I was back in the Hakone Ekiden, where the coach rides in a car behind the runner and shouts directions to him over a loudspeaker. I was sure the coaches of the guys behind me were driving along shouting to them, “Hey, Fujiwara is dying! Get your ass in gear and take him down!” I thought they all knew and that they were chasing me really hard, but at some point when I looked back, I don’t remember where, I saw there was still a 200 m gap. I turned back twice. The first time I couldn’t see anyone, but I looked back further and saw they were still pretty far and I thought it was going to be OK. After that I relaxed a bit and tried to just keep my legs loose, and after that I didn’t have any more spasms.

I had the last leg spasms around 40 km, then just before 41 km by the National Cancer Institute I missed my drink. When I got to that point the placings were pretty much set in the top three, but to tell the truth I still didn’t know I was running alone. I thought Gitahi had come back up behind me. I didn’t realize he wasn’t there until the very last right-hand corner. Up until then I was thinking, “Be my guest, Gitahi. Bon appétit.” I didn’t think I had any chance of getting away from an Olympic track runner, so I thought he was just using me and I wanted him to be gentle when he crushed me on the last stretch. I was in a state of almost Zen-like ambivalent passivity. But when I turned that corner it was, “Whoa, no Gitahi!”

The course record is Rothlin’s 2:07:23. Do you think it’s a good course for running fast times?

Definitely. I think a 2:06 is coming soon. I said the last part is hard with the uphills, but you only have to slow down for a short distance so it’s not so bad. It doesn’t affect the rest of the race and you don’t lose that much time.

Has your thinking about marathoning changed since Tokyo?

Yes, it has changed a lot. When I finished Tokyo with a fast time, the first thing I thought was, “Now I’m free! I can go anywhere I want!” At the time that meant Beijing, but, there are a lot of marathons around the world and with this I got the freedom to go anywhere.

In part two of JRN's interview Fujiwara talks in detail about his thinking with regard to the marathon, the focus in his training, his feelings on the Japanese system and more.

© 2010 Brett Larner, all rights reserved

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