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Kawauchi in 2017 and the Road Ahead

2017 saw Yuki Kawauchi (Saitama Pref. Gov't) saw him extending his range at both ends of his spectrum with two sub-2:10s, breaking Ethiopian great Abebe Mekonnen's world record for most career sub-2:12 marathons, and, in his final race of the year, tying American Doug Kurtis' sub-2:20 world record. Along the way he set at least 10 course records, won 5 marathons, and took the top Japanese spot at 9th in the London World Championships, altogether making for one of the better years he's had so far.

Based on the assumption that his performance at the 2016 Fukuoka Marathon, the "Miracle in Fukuoka," was going to be enough to get him on the London team Kawauchi spent the New Year running on the London course and in preparation for August's World Championshps planned to run one overseas marathon a month starting in April. He tuned up at February's amateur-level Ehime Marathon, where an unexpectedly aggressive debut by local boy Yohei Suzuki (Waseda Univ.) pushed him to a 2:09:54 course record for the win.

Starting his London buildup in Daegu, Kawauchi had mixed results in his 4-marathon buildup to London. In Daegu he was 6th in 2:13:04, not far off target. In Prague a month later he was 100% on point, running well in the lead pack on 2:08 pace until falling on cobblestones near 33 km. He picked himself up well enough to finish in 2:10:13 for 6th, but it was an unlucky waste of a great effort. "That was the best I've ever felt at that point in the race," he told JRN regretfully after the race.

June's Stockholm Marathon was another disappointment, Kawauchi struggling with the course's rolling hills and losing touch halfway to finish 6th again in 2:14:04. After his annual trip to his late father's home island to run the Father's Day Okinoshima 50 km Kawauchi returned to the Gold Coast Marathon where he ran his fastest time of the year, 2:09:18, for 3rd behind winner Takuya Noguchi (Konica Minolta) and defending champ Kenneth Mungara (Kenya). Gold Coast was his 23rd career sub-2:12, breaking Mekonnen's record of 22.

In London Kawauchi hoped to medal but during the race he displayed one of the weak spots that has surfaced at times throughout his career, a kind of passivity or timidity when in a position to exert pressure in a big race. In Gold Coast he had exerted exactly that kind of pressure over everyone else in the lead pack, but as at the 2014 Asian Games, where he could have worked with Callum Hawkins (Great Britain), Daniele Meucci (Italy) and teammates Hiroto Inoue and Kentaro Nakamoto to force the Africans to work early in the race he instead sat at the back of the pack until the big move came and he was left behind.

It didn't help that Kawauchi had the same kind of luck he had in Prague, colliding with an obstruction placed on the course by organizers at a poorly-desgined drink table and tripping on a speed bump elsewhere, but in London Kawauchi always looked like his goal was to make the top 8 that Japan cares so much about and not a medal. With a rally at the finish to run down Nakamoto he ended up 9th in 2:12:19, 3 seconds outside the top 8. Before and after the race, he publicly declared that London would be his last time running on the Japanese national team at an international championships.

After some time off Kawauchi got back into racing with a 2:15:58 shakeout to win Norway's Oslo Marathon. Two weeks later, a 2:13:43 course record win at the Betsukai Pilot Marathon in Hokkaido, a race filmed by a French camera crew for a documentary they were preparing on Kawauchi around his French debut in November's Nice-Cannes Marathon. In Nice Kawauchi was the favorite, but yet again he was 6th, falling off at halfway to finish in 2:15:02. A week later he pulled off a 2:15:54 course record win at his local Saitama International Marathon, only the second time in his career that Kawauchi has attempted marathons on back-to-back weekends.

Kawauchi's main race of the season was December's Fukuoka International Marathon three weeks after Saitama. Although he'd hoped to run 2:07, it was clear as the race went on that he hadn't reached that kind of fitness yet in his post-London rebuild. Kawauchi took 9th in 2:10:53, the fourth Japanese finisher across the line. Two weeks later in Hofu he built off his Fukuoka performance, delivering a rare negative split to win in 2:10:03, his 30th career marathon win and tying Kurtis' sub-2:20 record of 75. With two races averaging under 2:11 on record-legal courses Kawauchi also became the fifth man to qualify for Japan's new 2020 Olympic Trials. Asked whether he would run the Trials given his London declaration he was ambiguous.

Kawauchi ends 2017 with a record of achievement for the year that would please most countries. His fastest time of the year, 2:09:18, was faster than American Galen Rupp's winning time at the Chicago Marathon, and his second-fastest, his solo course record at the hilly Ehime Marathon, was also faster than Rupp's second-fastest time on the aided Boston Marathon course. As JRN posted on Twitter and was picked up elsewhere:

Now 30, what lies ahead for Kawauchi? He thinks he still has room run 2:07. In April he will face Rupp for the first time when both run Boston. In preparation for that Kawauchi is spending his New Year holiday in Boston running on the course and trying to break Kurtis' sub-2:20 record at what looks like it will be a frigid Marshfield New Year's Day Marathon. He is 1 race away from tying Ethiopian Tsegaye Kebede's world record of 21 sub-2:11 marathons and 5 from tying Kebede's record of 17 career sub-2:10s. In that regard the fall in Prague, where Kawauchi would definitely have been sub-2:10 and likely sub-2:09, and the near-miss in Hofu were regrettable, but his current position raises an interesting question.

Kawauchi has said his goal is to run 100 sub-2:20 marathons before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Barring disaster he's bound to break Kebede's sub-2:11 record before then, and at his current rate of progress he might get the sub-2:10 record if everything goes well. If he succeeded he would have more sub-2:10 marathons than anyone in history, more sub-2:11s, more of everything all the way to 100 sub-2:20. Along the way he's likely to add the sub-64, sub-65 and sub-66 half marathon records, and the 50 km world record looks like his for the taking whenever he decides to really go for it. There are different ways to look at the question of who is the greatest marathoner of all time, mostly centering around world records, medals and wins in the Majors. But with the body of work that would make up if Kawauchi succeeded, one of quality, nuance and quantity that seems almost impossible to ever match, wouldn't this be another?

Yuki Kawauchi's 2017 race results:

Jan. 8: Ikinoshima Half Marathon, Nagasaki: 1:06:35 - 1st
Jan. 15: Okukuma Half Marathon, Kumamoto: 1:04:17 - 6th
Jan. 29: Okumusashi Ekiden Third Stage (4.3 km), Saitama: 13:16 - 9th
Feb. 5: Saitama Ekiden Third Stage (12.1 km), Saitama: 36:59 - 3rd
Feb. 12: Ehime Marathon, Ehime: 2:09:54 - 1st - CR
Feb. 26: Soja Kibiji Half Marathon,  Okayama: 1:04:52 - 2nd
Mar. 5: Kanaguri Hai Tamana Half Marathon, Kumamoto: 1:03:19 - 3rd
Mar. 12: Tanegashima Rocket Half Marathon, Kagoshima: 1:04:43 - 1st - CR
Mar. 19: Kuki Half Marathon, Saitama: 1:05:03 - 1st - CR
Mar. 26: Kamisato Machi Kenmu Half Marathon, Saitama: 1:05:33 - 1st - CR
Apr. 2: Daegu International Marathon, South Korea: 2:13:04 - 6th
Apr. 23: Gifu Seiryu Half Marathon, Gifu: 1:04:06 - 15th
Apr. 30: Kawauchi no Sato Kaeru Half Marathon, Fukushima: 1:05:31 - 1st - CR
May 7: Prague Marathon, Czech Republic: 2:10:13 - 6th
May 14: Sendai International Half Marathon, Miyagi: 1:03:29 - 11th
May 28: Kinshuko Road Race Half Marathon, Iwate: 1:05:22 - 1st - CR
June 3: Stockholm Marathon, Sweden: 2:14:04 - 6th
June 18: Okinoshima Ultramarathon 50 km, Shimane: 2:47:35 - 1st
July 2: Gold Coast Marathon, Australia: 2:09:18 - 3rd
Aug. 6: London World Championships Marathon, U.K.: 2:12:19 - 9th
Sept. 16: Oslo Marathon, Norway: 2:15:58 - 1st
Sept. 24: Asahikawa Half Marathon, Hokkaido: 1:05:06 - 1st - CR
Oct. 1: Betsukai Pilot Marathon, Hokkaido: 2:13:43 - 1st - CR
Oct. 15: Takashimadaira 20 km Road Race, Tokyo: 59:32 - 2nd
Nov. 5: Marathon des Alpes-Maritimes Nice-Cannes, France: 2:15:02a - 6th
Nov. 12: Saitama Marathon, Saitama: 2:15:54 - 1st - CR
Nov. 19: Ageo City Half Marathon, Saitama: 1:03:35 - 18th
Nov. 25: Hasuda Sweets Festival 3 km, Saitama: 8:44 - 1st - PB/CR tie - also ran 10 km unofficially, starting at back of field, running people down and finishing ~40 min.
Dec. 3: Fukuoka International Marathon, Fukuoka: 2:10:53 - 9th
Dec. 10: Ogawa Washi Half Marathon, Saitama: 1:04:05 - 1st - also ran as pacer in kids' 3 km
Dec. 17: Hofu Yomiuri Marathon, Yamaguchi: 2:10:03 - 1st

London photo © 2017 Mike Trees, all rights reserved
Hofu photo by M. Kawaguchi, © 2017, all rights reserved
text and Gold Coast, Prague and Stockholm photos © 2017 Brett Larner, all rights reserved


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