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Masato Imai to Retire After Sunday's National XC Championships


On Feb. 21 the Toyota Kyushu corporate team announced that its longtime member Masato Imai, 39, known throughout Japan as the original God of the Mountain for his spectacular runs on the Hakone Ekiden's uphill Fifth Stage in college, will retire from competition. His final race will be Sunday's National Cross Country Championships in Fukuoka. After retirement Imai will remain with Toyota Kyushu and become part of its coaching staff.

At Juntendo University, Imai won the Fifth Stage at the Hakone Ekiden in new course records in 2005, 2006 and 2007, taking the top spot in both 2006 and 2007. When he did it during his final Hakone his senior year in 2007, the late Nippon TV announcer Ryo Kawamura shouted the now-legendary words, "Right now, right here, the god of the mountain has descended! His name is Masato Imai!" Imai has been known by that moniker ever since, and the title has become a part of Hakone lore. Since his time it has been given to two other runners who dominated the Fifth Stage to help lead their team to victory, Toyo University's Ryuji Kashiwabara in 2009-2012 and Aoyama Gakuin University's Daichi Kamino in 2015-2016.

Since graduating Imai's career has had its ups and downs. Joining Toyota Kyushu to be coached by Barcelona Olympics marathon silver medalist Koichi Morishita, Imai struggled to live up to the high expectations for him in the marathon. It took until his 10th attempt at the 2015 Tokyo Marathon for him to break through, running what proved a lifetime PB of 2:07:39 to finish 7th overall as top Japanese. Based on that run he was named to the 2015 Beijing World Championships team, but just before the race he withdrew with injury. Reflecting on the experience he viewed it positively, saying, "Tokyo was the first time I could really smile when I finished a marathon. I finally saw the glimmer of the national team that had always been so far away from me."

Determined to make a national team, Imai continued to run. In 2022 at age 37 he finished in 2:08:12 at the Osaka Marathon, qualifying for the Paris Olympics marathon trials. At the trials last October he was cut off midway when he failed to hit a checkpoint time, but his younger teammates continued to draw inspiration from his desire to keep improving even in his 30s. After Sunday's National Cross Country Championships, Imai will help them in a new capacity as a coach. Before one of the main university ekidens this past season he commented, "I want to become a coach, so I feel like I'm watching it through that lens. I'm trying to asses what kind of personality a given athlete has, what kind of potential he has in the marathon, and whether he can get better." The direction may be changing, but Imai's road continues onward and upward.

Masato Imai - born April 2, 1984 in Minami Soma, Fukushima. 169 cm. Began running as a 1st-year at Haramachi H.S., and was 10th on the Hakone Ekiden's Second Stage his 1st year at Juntendo University. Set CR his 2nd through 4th years on the uphill Fifth Stage. Joined Toyota Kyushu after graduating, and made his marathon debut at the 2008 Hokkaido Marathon.

Translator's note: Imai was the runner who launched the Hakone Ekiden's modern era, and despite the weight of college success hanging around his neck his entire pro career is still one of the most respected and popular people in Japanese athletics. The video at the top is of his breakthrough run at the 2005 Hakone Ekiden. Enjoy it for what it was. It was incredibly exciting to see live and I still find it inspiring. In 2011 JRN interviewed Imai about the death of his former training partner Samuel Wanjiru and his unrealized hopes of joining Wanjiru at the Olympics. We wish him luck going forward.

Imai video by sawa.o

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