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"The Things You Can Only Learn From Firsthand Experience" - Kiyoko Shimahara on What Needs to Change for Japanese Women

interview and translation by Brett Larner
photos by Mika Tokairin

Kiyoko Shimahara set course records at the Hokkaido and Katsuta marathons. A silver medalist at the 2006 Asian Games, she finished 6th at the 2007 World Championships in Osaka. After a few years in a rut she returned to form in the fall of 2009 with a PB and two other sub-2:30 runs in just over 100 days. Shimahara talked to JRN before her race at the 2010 Nagano Marathon. In part one of her interview she talked about her background and her outstanding fall season. Here in part two she talks further about her training and about the problems facing the next generation of Japanese women.

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At the press conference last September announcing that Yuri Kano would run New York, Coach Manabu Kawagoe talked a little about Second Wind’s training. People overseas have the impression that Japanese marathoners do a lot of slow mileage, but from what he said it sounds like Second Wind takes a different approach, with much lower volume.

You’re right. Other Japanese marathoners might be surprised, but we don’t run nearly as much as other people do. In one workout we don’t go more than 30 km max, either. Everyone else goes 40 km over and over when they’re getting for a marathon, but we only do three or four 30 km runs for one specific race. Over the course of the year our training doesn’t really much. There are more of those longer runs before a marathon, but there’s never a time where we do marathon-specific training. We’re always doing speedwork on the track, and if we just up the long runs a little then we’re ready for a marathon. Our basic training pattern is fixed.

When you do those 30 km runs are they usually at marathon pace, LSD, buildups, etc.?

Mostly buildups at whatever speed we want. We do them alone, without training partners, so that we can go at our own speed. We usually do intervals that way, at our own pace, without working with someone else. Other teams do interval workouts like 1000 m times ten or fifteen, but we do like seven at a time. We push it to the point where we’re breathing hard and then concentrate on keeping that level, with a high heart rate. When you go to the track you should run fast, so that’s the way we try to do it. Other people, when they’re doing marathon training, go to the track and run slow, but we don’t do it that way. When I do 400’s on the track I do ten, or if it’s before a marathon maybe fifteen, but the pace doesn’t change much.

That’s kind of mysterious. If other runners looked at a training menu like this they’d probably say it was way too little, but you all get good results with it.

Well, if you do an incredible amount of training you’re just going to get tired, so we avoid that and that way we can race any time. People usually train for a race for three months, but we don’t do that. We often do marathons two months apart, so our training is geared to that. It’s the Kawagoe magic. (laughs) We keep things to about 800 km a month. Other people usually do 1000 or 1200 km a month, but not us.

Would you say that you are putting more emphasis on the quality aspect of your training than the overall quantity?

Yeah, I think so.

Apart from Yoyogi Park and Oda Field, where do you train?

Jingu Gaien, sometimes Togu Gosho…I never go to the Imperial Palace. I guess mostly just around here.

You do most of your altitude training in Albuquerque. I often get messages from JRN readers in Albuquerque saying they’ve seen Second Wind runners around and asking questions about what you’re doing. What’s your day-to-day life like while you’re there?

Well, there’s early morning training, then we relax the rest of the morning, then we do the main workout around noon or in the evening. It’s not that different from when we’re in Japan. Maybe three weight training sessions a week, but that’s the same as here too.

A friend who used to be a corporate runner said she hated going to Kunming, China for altitude training because she had too much free time with nothing to do. When you’re in Tokyo I’m sure you’ve got your favorite shops and restaurants around here, but how about in Albuqueque?

No, there’s nothing. (laughs) I guess it’s usually just run, sleep, run, eat, sleep, over and over and over. (laughs) But, we’re usually there for a month at a time so I think it’s good to be able to just do nothing but concentrate on running. There are some cafes there that I go to sometimes, but the main focus is just on getting ready for a race. There’s no TV. Well, there is one, but I don’t understand any of the shows. (laughs) I mostly use the Internet and cook, or at least help with the cooking. That pretty much takes up the day.

The vegetables and rice you can get in American supermarkets are different from what you’re used to in Japan. Do you take important food items with you when you go?

Yes, I bring dried foods from Japan. Miso too. They sell everything there too. It tastes fine but it’s really expensive, so I bring as much as I can. I buy fresh vegetables and whatnot there, though.

If you are just there for a month at a time do you have to deal with visa issues?

No, as long as we’re there less than three months it’s fine. We don’t need an athlete visa or anything like that.

How would you compare being there to your life when you’re in Tokyo?

We do a morning run and an afternoon workout, then on some of the evening’s there’s the Second Wind club workouts with all the amateur members. Other than that I go for massage, and on Sundays we often do guest appearances at amateur races all over the country. That’s probably about it when I’m in Japan.

On the topic of Second Wind’s amateur members, up until 2007 you were in the corporate running world, but now you do coaching and pacemaking session a few times a week with groups of amateurs. As an elite runner, how is it being in that environment?

Hmmn, I don’t feel like it’s just coaching work. I’ve learned that there are a lot of different aspects of running and different ways of doing things. People’s strength and dedication has really impressed me too. Everyone is working full-time and fitting in their training when they can, and a lot of the time they are targeting the same races I am. When I hear them talk about the way they are thinking about those races it’s no different from the way we do. It’s inspiring. It gives me strength. They’re always there cheering for me too, anywhere I go in the country. If we do training camps in Japan people bring vegetables and things like that as gifts. As a corporate runner we couldn’t have that kind of interaction with people, but now we can run as pros because everyone is there for us. If they weren’t we wouldn’t be able to run, so I’m really grateful.

Second Wind is different from corporate teams in several ways, like not having to do ekidens and, with Brendan Reilly involved, more of a focus on racing overseas. What’s different in the atmosphere of overseas races compared to domestic Japanese races?

The atmosphere at races is different in each country, but overall I want to see Japanese runners racing overseas more. When I ran in the World Championships marathon, the other people in the lead pack were all ones I had raced before in Boston, London, Bolder Boulder, the NYC Half or wherever. Being in a world-level race, compared to some of the other Japanese runners who had never run against overseas competition before I think that was a big plus for me. Also, running in a pack of only Japanese runners is different from running with overseas athletes. The flow and the physical sense of the running is different because of things like overseas runners having longer legs. Those are the kinds of things you can only learn from firsthand experience.

It’s also valuable to go abroad and pick up the different kinds of race atmospheres in different places. Even if you can’t communicate, you still have to be able to function and understand where your bags are supposed to go and where people want you to be and everything before the race. When you go to a world-level race you have to cope with all of that. Well, the World Championships I did were in Japan so they weren’t that different, but you know what I mean. (laughs) I want more Japanese runners to be getting that kind of experience. If you’re just doing it in tiny little Japan then your mindset will be equally narrow, but if you try a lot of different things and fail in a variety of ways that’s way better.

Since I feel that way, the fact that most Japanese runners don’t do it is really too bad. It doesn’t matter whether they’re fast or slow, I think they should get out more. There are lots of races out there and plenty that Japanese runners could be winning. It’s a really important experience to win overseas, so I wish more people would go try to do it. Young runners especially, and even on the track, not just in the marathon.

Do you feel that would help improve the overall level of the sport in Japan?

Yes, and it would make them tougher and more confident.

Last year for the first time the JAAF let results from major overseas marathons count in the selection process for the World Championships team. Do you think that’s a good development?

It definitely makes the criteria less clear. The window to qualify goes from November to April that way. Six months! A lot can change over that much time. It’s too long. With that many chances to qualify what criteria are they using to decide who gets on the team? I wish we had something like in America, where it’s just one race to decide the team. I really think that would be a lot better. With our selection system now there’s no way of knowing whether you’re going to get on the team.

From the late ‘90’s until about 2007 Kenyan women were strong in the marathon, but at the same time a lot of very good young Ethiopian women have appeared since 2006 and they’re now number one. What do you think about the state of things for Japanese women? Since Mizuki Noguchi, nobody that level has stepped up to carry on from Naoko Takahashi, Yoko Shibui and Noguchi.

The top level of Japanese women’s marathoning has fallen somewhat. Young runners aren’t really coming up, young being say 25. We’re in our 30’s. I’m 33 and there are some women older than me. It gets harder and harder to target a really fast time as you get older, but experience lets you still win races. Really fast times, though, are tough. Right now there aren’t any women at that intermediate age just before 30 who are running fast. If they don’t focus more on getting a fast time while they can then it’s going to result in a lower overall level for us. If they don’t then they won’t be doing it once they’re into their 30’s because it doesn’t get any easier. I think the coaches and officials need to focus more on the people in that window between 25 and 30 going for time if we want to keep Japan competitive. Not that there’s much I can do about that, but…..(laughs)

It seems as though Japanese women tend to retire at a very young age compared to athletes in other countries.

Yes, I think the Japanese system up until now has been a failure. People work too hard in high school and then go to university and quit, or go to a corporate team and quit. I think coaches need to be taking a longer-term view for their athletes, something that will have them peaking around age 30, and that is going to keep people running. In the corporate system right now, if you don’t produce good times over the course of two years then you’ll get fired. That’s absolutely going to have to be extended. If it doesn’t become more oriented toward women performing well after working hard for something on the scale of four or five years, something with more leadership and long-term planning instead of, “You’ve been slow for two years. You’re outta here,” then the future will be pretty bleak.

People like Yuko Arimori, Takahashi, Megumi Kinukawa, to some degree Noguchi, and now Second Wind have all taken a different approach than the usual corporate route. Do you think that kind of new approach is the right way to go?

It doesn’t have to be something completely new, but I want coaches to take more of a approach that they are raising and cultivating athletes rather than using them as tools. Not, “You’re slow, so forget it,” but, “How should we improve your times?” I think we have to think more about that point. Why should times be everything?

Do you think that's going to happen?

No, it’s pretty unlikely. The chances of changing the corporate team contract system are very slim. I think the future lies more with club teams like ours that will take in young runners with the aim of developing them into Olympic-level athletes over time. But with the corporate system controlling everything in Japan things don’t look too good.

You’re 33 now. Not just this year but looking at the rest of your career, is there anything you still really want to accomplish, any particular races you’d still like to do, any unrealized goals?

Hmmn, no, nothing in particular. Like I said before, all races are the same to me, so I just want to take things step by step. After Nagano I’ll set the next goal. I’ll keep going a while longer but right now there isn’t really anything that makes me think, “Oh, I really want to do this race.”

photo © 2010 Mika Tokairin, all rights reserved
text © 2010 Brett Larner, all rights reserved

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Chris said…
It's so frustrating to see so much talent burn out in Japan.

Since running is still so huge in Japan, there must still be some benefit for companies to sponsor running groups like Second Wind, without demanding an agenda to win ekidens.

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