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"Each Race Gives You the Chance to Examine Yourself" - Kiyoko Shimahara on Failure, Success and International Competition

interview and translation by Brett Larner
photos by Mika Tokairin

Kiyoko Shimahara set the 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.

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You ran at Kokushikan University and joined Shiseido after graduating. What drew you to Shiseido?

I was really slow when I was in university, but I knew that I still wanted to run for a corporate team somewhere. I talked to different teams and was a bit lucky with the timing, and Shiseido was the one that offered to pick me up.

Did you already know coach Manabu Kawagoe before that?

When I was a student? No, not at all. The first year I was at Shiseido it was a different coach. Coach Kawagoe came in during my second year there.

For you first marathon in 2003 you didn’t do the usual thing of running one of the Japanese elite women’s marathons like Nagoya or Osaka, but instead did the amateur-level Katsuta Marathon. What made you choose Katsuta?

I think it was to avoid feeling pressured. If I did a big race for my debut it might have been a lot more stress, so we went with a race where I could relax. I think that’s what my coach was thinking inside. At that point I wasn’t really thinking of myself as someone who could really be competitive in a big race. To build up my physical strength and get my body fat level down coach had me doing marathon training. We decided to pick a race to give me a focus and went with something low-pressure. Katsuta was it.

Katsuta isn’t really that easy a course, with some considerable up-down near the end. When you ran a good time there in your debut did you feel that it was time for you to go over to the marathon?

My target pace that time was 17:30 per 5 km, 3:30 per km. In that race the plan was just, “Let’s see how far I can go at that speed. It doesn’t matter how far that ends up being, let’s just try it and see what happens.” I don’t think coach really knew how it would go either. I lost a bit of time on the hills, like I went down to maybe 18 minutes for 5 km, but I basically kept that pace and afterwards felt like, “Hey, I did it!” (laughs)

So after that you were more or less constantly running around 2:26 until 2006. Was that always your target, or were there any races in there where you were trying for something faster and had a bad race?

No, there weren’t any real failures, and I didn’t have any serious injuries either. I think the main thing was that I was putting in good training without any interruptions that whole time. Sometimes instead of marathon training I’d be doing more short work before an ekiden, but when I went into marathon training it was always solid, all year long.

You won a silver medal at the 2006 Asian Games in Doha. In that race the temperatures were very high but you were able to pick the pace way up in the second half, especially over the last 10 km. You’ve had similar runs in other warm races and have gotten a reputation as a specialist in hot conditions. Do you think that’s an accurate description of yourself?

Yes, I think it’s true that I run a lot better in heat than in cold. As far as my pacing, I usually try to run a comfortable first half and then hold that over the second half without slowing down. I’m usually careful not to go out too hard in the first half.

Looking at your training during those years from 2003-2006 compared to now, has anything changed?

Nope, nothing.

In 2007 Second Wind got started. Coach Kawagoe and four of you left Shiseido and the jitsugyodan system together to do something new, founding a club with elites and amateurs running together. Could you talk about that decision?

Coach had been talking about starting this kind of a club for a long time. I thought the same way he did about a lot of things and my running had improved under his leadership, so when he said he was leaving there was no question of running under someone else and I went with him. It wasn’t that there were any problems that made me leave, I just wanted to keep Kawagoe as my coach.

As a corporate runner you can make a comfortable living with a good, stable salary. Leaving that kind of world for something new, did you have any misgivings or fears about what you were doing?

Yes, that was definitely a worry, but if it failed, it failed. All I stood to lose was money, and that doesn’t really matter. Even if I lost my chance to have a guaranteed career as a professional runner it was OK with me. When I came here I saw how seriously the amateur runners in the club take their running, and that gave me inspiration. A lot more people were there supporting me, too. It’s a good environment.

That move from Shiseido to Second Wind happened in 2007. At the same time you went into a bit of a slump in your performances. Maybe slump is too strong a word, but you seemed to be having trouble getting under 2:30 after that. Was there any connection?

No, I think it was just a coincidence. Everybody has times when they’re feeling good and when they’re not. That just happened to be a down time for me. Well, yes, there was an interruption to the kind of training I had been doing, so maybe that had something to do with it. During that whole time, though, I always thought I’d get back to the 2:20’s once the circumstances settled down and I was able to put in a long period of steady training again. It was just a question of the timing all lining up and it would happen again.

In the 2007 London Marathon you dropped out partway. What happened there?

I just wasn’t feeling good at all. It was right after we had moved here, so I guess there was just a lot going on and I couldn’t put it together. I can’t really say it was anything specific, more just a combination of a lot of things. But I still learned from it. There are a lot of different kinds of races and it’s always different. You can come off of a great race and have a terrible one, and if it’s a terrible one you can learn about dropping out and how to deal with that. Regardless of whether the result is good or bad each race gives you the chance to examine yourself and grow if you put in the time to think about it. So London was a good experience.

Mika ran London that year too and since you dropped out she ended up being the top Japanese woman even though she ran 3:20 or something, so, thanks for that.

(laughs) My pleasure! It was a good thing then.

The 2007 Osaka World Championships followed your usual pattern, running well in hot conditions. What do you remember about the race?

I did great. (laughs) It went way better than I expected. I was pretty happy just to be there. I thought I had a shot at top ten, but making 6th…..I didn’t think I had a chance to finish that high. I was really happy. I couldn’t stay with Tosa, but even so I was completely happy with my own result, finishing 6th.

You ran on the national team for the Asian Games in 2006 and the World Championships in 2007, but you didn’t run any of the selection races for the 2009 World Championships. I remember reading an interview with you where you said that you weren’t really interested in running the World Championships again. Could you talk about that comment a little more?

To be honest, inside myself I don’t really care much about international championships. That’s how I feel, but right now, you know, if they need me to help make a good team then I can’t really think about saying no. But personally I’m not targeting any international championships. For me, any race is as good as another. The media are always hyping the big international championships like it is some big deal to run them, but there are lots of races in the world and for me they’re all on the same level. Yokohama, the Olympics, to me they’re the same. We should want to race anywhere.

Do you think other athletes feel the same way?

Hmmn, well, I think there are lots of athletes who dream about running in the Olympics. But for me, whatever, I don’t really care. It’s fine if people want to target that, but I think there is more than just the Olympics.

You’ve raced against this year’s Tokyo Marathon winner Alevtina Biktimirova a lot.

Yes, four times. Two wins, two losses. (laughs)

What can you say about winning Honolulu in 2008 over Biktimirova and some of the other tough competition that was there?

I was targeting the win that time and ran for it, so it was very satisfying to do it. I wasn’t that worried about anyone else and just ran it the way I wanted to. I knew there were some strong people there but I didn’t worry about it. The start is really early in the morning and there’s a big hill, Diamondhead, at 35 km, more up than down, it felt like (laughs). There was a time difference from Japan, but I guess there was for everybody. Kaori Yoshida was there to pacemake for me, so we ran together until halfway.

I’ve noticed that two Second Wind runners often do the same race together and run the first part of the race side by side. Is there usually one person acting as pacer for the other?

No, not usually. That time in Honolulu we did it that way, but not in other races.

At Hokkaido last summer you and Akemi Ozaki ran together for the first 10 km or so. Watching the race it seemed like she was pacing you to run the course record.

No. (laughs)

Up until Hokkaido you went three years without breaking 2:30. Just before Hokkaido in July you ran your best half marathon in several years, very close to your PB, so it seemed pretty clear that you were going to have a good fall. Compared to the three years before that had anything changed in your training or mindset to contribute to that improvement?

The training didn’t change, but we upped the level with faster target times in the workouts. I don’t think anything else really changed, though. The same workouts, just faster.

In Hokkaido you ran a PB and course record. The shape of the race was different from your usual approach with a hard first 10 km instead of a hard last 10 km. What can you say about your race plan?

That was what coach said to do. Go under 17 for the first 5 km and try to hang on to that as long as I could, then stay in the 17 minute range in the second half. I’d never done that kind of race before, so I was thinking, “I don’t know, can I get away with this?” When I started running it was just, “Oh, there it is, 16!” when I hit 5 km. Just like that. There were guys all around me so that helped.

When did the two of you decide to go for that kind of ambitious race? After the good result at the Sapporo half in July?

No, just a couple of days before the race. Sapporo went well, then my training after that was great, so I think coach decided it based on that.

Two and a half months or so later in Yokohama the weather was warm again and you had a good race again.

Well, I really wanted to win there, but you know how the second half goes sometimes. I had already lost to that Russian runner in Chicago, then in Yokohama, then she beat me again in Honolulu a month later. Russian athletes always run right behind you in the first half and then just take off. That seems to be a fixed pattern, so knowing that, taking it into account in my race strategy and still losing was pretty disappointing. You know they’re going to do it and you have to take steps to counteract it, but when you still lose.....

It’s pretty unusual to try to do so many serious races so close together. What made you decide to try to pull off three wins so close together?

In Hokkaido we decided to go for a fast time, but Yokohama was more about winning than setting a good time. Honolulu was the same, a race and not about speed, so we thought it seemed realistic.

Which one did you consider the A race?

Hokkaido and Yokohama were about the same, my main focus, and Honolulu was almost main. (laughs) Honolulu was another race where I was just trying to relax. There are some foreign runners who race a lot like this, but Japanese don’t do that kind of thing at all. You have to be a little more careful, but as long as you are then I don’t think it’s a problem. Honolulu was a little tight, four weeks I think, so I couldn’t treat it as a main race, but I didn’t have any trouble recovering from Hokkaido in time for Yokohama.

Before Honolulu you told me that it was just going to be a fun run, but then you went and broke 2:30 again.

(laughs) Yeah, well, it went better than I expected. My movement felt really smooth and articulate. I took two weeks off after Yokohama and then did a few race-specific workouts and I think it turned out perfectly. Well, I guess to get away with that you have to pay pretty close attention to yourself.

Does the fact that you went all out and broke 2:30 three times this fall after not doing it for three years have any larger significance?

No, not really, I don’t think. The main races, though, Hokkaido and Yokohama, were both domestic races. I think it’s important for us to do those races to help spread the Second Wind name within the country and appeal to new members.

This week you’ll be headed to Albuquerque and then on to New York for the half marathon there. In January and February you had some injury problems. What are you anticipating for the New York half?

I’m back into training now, but I think New York will be pretty tough. Painful, probably. (laughs) But, a lot of strong athletes will be there so I can use it as a learning experience. I’ll just run my own race and use it as a step on the way to building back up. After that I’ll be running Nagano. I’ll be going back to Albuquerque after New York, then coming back to Japan a week before Nagano. I had looked at running Boston or Rotterdam but the conditions weren’t really suitable to race overseas so I decided on Nagano. Once we find out what happens with the Asian Games selection we’ll think about the schedule after that.

In part two of JRN's interview with Shimahara she talks about some of the problems facing Japanese distance runners, particularly its younger women, possible ways to solve the problems, and what they mean for the future.

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

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