On Jan. 2 Kohei Arai ran the Hakone Ekiden's 21.3 km First Stage for the final time before his graduation from Daito Bunka University. Right after the start he sprained his left ankle and fell, but somehow still managed to complete the stage and hand off his team's tasuki. Now recovered from the injury, Arai is running again. Exactly five months on from that nightmare moment, he returned to racing in the 5000 m at the June 2 Nittai University Time Trials meet. In an interview with Sports Hochi he talked about that day and his desire to make a full comeback.
It was the final Hakone Ekiden of the Heisei Era. As Daito Bunka's star runner Arai was taking on the First Stage for the third time. "I was in good shape and feeling like I'd be able to do something in the race," he said. "I was a senior and had run that stage twice before, so I wanted to put the team into good position by placing near the top on the stage."
But. Disaster struck just 29 seconds after the starting gun fired. Twisting his left ankle, Arai stumbled and fell. With the first 21.3 km of Hakone's massive ten-stage 217.1 km course his responsibility, less than 200 m into the race Arai and Daito Bunka were in dire straits. He quickly bounced back up and started running again, but the impossible prospect of covering the next 21 km stretched out before his eyes. Limping as he ran he managed to hang on to the lead group through 7 km, but after that he slowed dramatically.
"My left ankle starting hurting when I fell, and after that the pain got worse and worse," Arai recalls. From the chase car Daito Bunka head coach Osamu Nara, 48, repeatedly called out to see if he wanted to stop, but again and again Arai indicated he was choosing to keep going. By the end of the stage he was 8:40 behind its winner Kazuya Nishiyama of Toyo University. But even distantly in last place the light green Daito Bunka tasuki was passed on.
Why did he keep running? "To put it simply, because I thought I could still make it," he said. "It hurt, but if I could still keep moving forward then I'd keep moving forward. That's a given."
In its 50th Hakone Ekiden appearance, Daito Bunka ended up 19th out of 23 teams overall after the mishap right at the start. Arai's heart was in as much pain as his ankle, which was swollen up to twice the size of his right one. "I ruined it for the rest of the team, and I was really sorry for that," he said. "I'd signed with the Sunbelx corporate team for after graduation but I told my parents that I wanted to quit running. They told me to worry about recovering from the injury first, so I dedicated myself to rehabilitation. I found that not being able to run made me want to run more."
For his all-important family, for coach Nara who had told the media in tears, "I should have stopped him," for his teammates, but above all for himself, Arai began to run again. Luckily there was no bone damage to his ankle, and as planned he joined the Sunbelx team after graduating in March. At first only jogging, by May he was able to join the rest of the team for some of their workouts, covering up to 20 km at once.
Exactly five months after his Hakone nightmare, Arai ran the Nittai 5000 m. On the instructions of Sunbelx head coach Hiroyuki Ogawa, 41, he stopped after 3000 m, clocking 8:59. His full ability was yet to return. "The pain in my left ankle is gone, but there's still some discomfort," Arai said. "I ran this race to see what I could do, but I've lost more than I'd thought."
There's what you imagine and there's reality. It can be a struggle to bridge the chasm between the two. "He used to play soccer, so his core strength is good," said coach Ogawa. "It's my hope that he will continue to recover and be an important part of our team at the East Japan Corporate Ekiden and the New Year Ekiden. Right now he's at about 5%. Whether he can fully recover or whether it will be too much, these one or two years will tell. If we can make the most of his ability then I fully believe he can become one of the best in Japan at his specialty, the 5000 m."
After Hakone Arai faced criticism from some people that he was too obsessed with his running, that he should have been forced to stop. But no one on the outside has the right to question the decision made between Arai and coach Nara. Arai himself doesn't care about outside criticism. "I still feel sorry toward coach Nara and my teammates for letting them down, but I have absolutely zero regrets about running the entire way," he said. For Kohei Arai the long, hard road to Hakone may be finished, but a new road now beckons him to keep moving forward.
translated by Brett Larner