As the figure on the screen grew larger, I could feel myself unintentionally getting energy from it. Just past 31 km, the oldest man in the race, 36-year-old Kentaro Nakamoto (Yasukawa Denki) took the lead in the chase pack behind breakaway frontrunner Yuta Shitara (Honda). It was one of the memorable scenes in last September's Marathon Grand Championship (MGC) Tokyo Olympics marathon trial race.
At one point Nakamoto was more than 20 seconds behind the chase group, but he had already proven himself in heat and excelled at race tactics and catching up. "Maybe there's going to be a Tokyo Olympics for him," I thought. I couldn't help starting to get excited.
Nakamoto was 6th in the 2012 London Olympics marathon and made three World Championships teams in the marathon, finishing as high as 5th and always in the top 10. I interviewed him many times over the years as he quietly build a track record of anonymous quality. Although he ended up 8th in the MGC, I'll never forget how he looked back on the race, telling me, "I showed who I am and made my presence felt."
I could sense how he felt about the Olympics and how well-prepared he was when I interviewed him two days before the race. He's fundamentally quiet, not somebody who speaks out. But in the words that escaped his lips, "I was able to train almost to the level of when I was at my best," and "I feel strongly about having made it here, and because of that I was firm and resolved and trained well," there was power.
After having gone through the London and Rio de Janeiro Olympic selection processes, his third shot at an Olympic team was a new experience. MGC qualifying races started in the summer of '17. Everyone who cleared the criteria had to line up in a single race that would decide two of the three people on the team. It was a system designed to bring an Olympic medal one step closer.
It was especially competitive among the men, with one after another Hakone Ekiden star lining up to take on the marathon. The national record that had stood for 16 years since 2002 was broken twice by the time the MGC came around. "The era has changed, and all the new athletes are taking it to a higher level," Nakamoto said. "It gives me joy to be among them, and I feel like I'll be able to contend with them for the Olympics."
Having been one of the people who helped lead the way to this new era, you could sense the pride that resonated inside his words. In all the years since Koichi Morishita won the silver medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics only three Japanese men have made the top 8 in an Olympic marathon. A year after he did it in the London Olympics, Nakamoto went one better with a 5th-place finish at the '13 Moscow World Championships.
Making the top 8 at global championships two years in a row is no small feat, but Nakamoto's feelings about it were unmistakable when he said, "The value of top 8 and a medal is completely different." At the London Olympics he was 1:39 from the bronze medal. In Moscow he was only 27 seconds away. "If I could medal in Tokyo," he said, "it would be a perfect culmination to my career as an athlete." Even now, he was still chasing those few dozen seconds to a medal.
In the way Nakamoto ran the race about which he had said, "I want to make it an exciting race myself," you could see the philosophy of life of this runner who bridged the gap from history to the modernity of Japanese men's marathoning. This year he is his corporate team's captain. On his profile on the team website he wrote, "This will be my 16th season, and I want to have more fun running than I ever have before." Kentaro Nakamoto seems like an athlete who can make that hope a reality.
translated and edited by Brett Larner