Friday, March 31, 2017

Iwatani Sangyo Launches Women's Ekiden Team Coached by Hisakazu Hirose

translated by Brett Larner

The Iwatani Sangyo corporation held a press conference in Osaka on Mar. 30 to announce the launch of its new women's ekiden team on Apr. 1.  Head coach Hisakazu Hirose, who guided Mizuki Noguchi to the 2004 Athens Olympics women's marathon gold medal, spoke of his ambitions for the team, telling the media, "There are three years left until the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.  I want to try for it."

Nanami Aoki, who stood at the peak of the high school and university ekiden scene as part of the Ritsumeikan Uji H.S. and Ritsumeikan Univ. teams, and the other members of the initial squad of six were introduced along with the team's orange uniform.  The team dormitory in its home base of Mino, Osaka is set to be completed in September.  Coach Hirose commented, "Our first competition will be May's Kansai Jitsugyodan Track and Field Championships.  My goal is to cultivate another athlete like Noguchi.  I hope to expand the team to about ten people in the future."

JAAF Announces Move to Single-Race Olympic Trials Selection for Tokyo 2020 Olympic Marathon Teams

translated by Brett Larner

Regarding the men's and women's marathon selection for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, on Mar. 29 the JAAF announced a new selection process in which the top two Japanese men and women at a new Olympic Trials marathon to be held in the fall of 2019 or later will be named to the team.  Beginning this fall the existing set of selection races will become qualifying races, with athletes needing to clear specified times and placings in order to qualify for the Olympic Trials race.  In that way Olympic marathon team selection will become a two-stage process, a major change from the current process of comparing the results in different races and one that ensures transparency in national team selection.  The move is expected to be confirmed at next month's JAAF executive board meeting.

With the Japanese marathoning world in the midst of a downtown the move is a major shakeup, the JAAF's shift in policy toward a "one-shot Trials race" in preparation for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics now clear.  The Olympic Trials marathon will be held in the fall of 2019 or later, with the top two men and top two women scoring places on the Tokyo 2020 team.  The single remaining spot on each team will be awarded to the fastest man and woman under the JAAF's auto-qualifier time in one of the existing selection races during the fall 2019 to spring 2020 season.  If nobody clears the auto-qualifier time the third spot will go to the 3rd-place finisher at the Olympic Trials event.

The primary merit of the new process is transparency in team selection.  In the past national team selection has always been controversial due to the subjectivity of comparing multiple races with different race evolution and weather conditions.  Under the system, men can qualify for the Olympic Trials marathon at Fukuoka International, Tokyo, Lake Biwa Mainichi and Beppu-Oita Mainichi, women at Saitama International, Osaka International and Nagoya Women's, with both men and women also having the option to qualify at the Hokkaido Marathon.  High-placing finishers at the Augusts's London World Championships and 2018 Asian Games will also qualify.  With all of the country's best gathered together at the "one-shot battle" Trials race, selection going to the athletes who can convince everyone of their value.

It is also hoped that the move will be an impetus for development.  No Japanese athletes have made the podium of an Olympic marathon since the 1992 Barcelona Olympics for men and the 2004 Athens Olympics for women. At the Rio Olympics none even made the top ten.  JAAF Marathon and Long Distance Project Leader Toshihiko Seko, 60, commented, "We're not going to get better overnight.  It's going to take about three years of steady work."  The long Olympic Trials qualification window from this summer through the spring of 2019 encourages athletes to think medium and long-term in their planning. By putting focus on marathon development the JAAF aims to better identify and cultivate talent.

The venue for the Olympic Trials marathon and other details remain to be settled.  A source at the JAAF expressed caution, pointing out, "There is a possibility that we might see one-hit wonders who run well only at the Olympic Trials.  I hope that people will remember that it is important to evaluate stability and that the primary objective is to choose people who can win medals."  Full details of the new system will be officially announced in early April and confirmed by the executive committee mid-month.

Past Olympic Team Selection Controversies

  • 1988 Seoul Olympics:  With the Fukuoka International Marathon designated as a one-shot Olympic Trials to determine the men's team, Toshihiko Seko was unable to start the race due to injury. Criticism flew when the JAAF gave Seko an additional chance to qualify.
  • 1992 Barcelona Olympics:  Yuko Arimori scored a place on the Olympic team by finishing 4th at the previous year's World Championships.  Osaka International 2nd-placer Akemi Matsuno publicly appealed to the JAAF to be chosen, and controversy arose when she was left off.
  • 2004 Athens Olympics:  Defending gold medalist Naoko Takahashi was left off the team after she failed to win her selection race. Takahashi's popularity sparked a massive public outcry for her to be included on the team.
  • 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics:  Kayoko Fukushi won the Osaka International Women's Marathon.  Despite running an excellent time her place on the Olympic team was not confirmed by the JAAF, leading her to enter the Nagoya Women's selection race just over a month later.  Criticism after criticism was levelled against the ambiguous selection criteria.

Translator's note:  JRN has advocated a plan almost identical to this, the existing selection races serving as qualifiers for a new Olympic Trials race, for years.  The JAAF depends upon revenue from the TV broadcasts of the existing selection races for a significant part of its budget, meaning that is has always had disincentive to do anything to change the status quo in that regard.  This is the primary reason for the dogged persistence in maintaining the Saitama International Marathon as a women's selection race and refusal to include the Tokyo Marathon, the highest-level women's race in Japan, in women's selection.  

At the same time, the large number of races means that the best athletes rarely face each other, and the opaque selection criteria have meant that the outcome of the races with regard to national team selection was usually not known for months afterward.  Both of these significantly lower the interest of the TV broadcasts to the average viewer, damaging the broadcasts' value as revenue generators for the JAAF.

There is nothing Japanese fans want to see more than all the good athletes going head-to-head in one race, meaning that a one-shot Olympic Trials broadcast would be of tremendous value, but every corporate league coach and JAAF official with whom JRN has talked about the idea over the years has had the same response: "No, that would lower the value of the existing races and hurt the JAAF's revenue stream, and we can't have that."  Evaluating business decisions based primarily on how they would hurt the status quo rather than how they might add value is a commonality in Japan, but it is pretty clear that the addition of a massively popular new event would create a bigger and better fan base, and this would have trickle-down benefits for the existing races.  You can see that in the increasing popularity of the New Year Ekiden on the back of the Hakone Ekiden.  It's good to see that the JAAF is finally going to take the plunge, but although the article above contends that the primary reason is transparency you can be sure that that is at least in the passenger seat alongside the financial potential.

In that light, the possibility that the third spot on the teams could be determined by a fast run in one of the domestic races can be read as a way to keep the existing selection races, and their broadcasts, relevant in the pre-Olympic season.  That's a pretty good idea, even if it makes the "one-shot battle" not really a single shot.  The absence of the Tokyo Marathon from the lists of women's qualifying races remains frustrating and shows that, whatever IAAF gold label and World Marathon Majors trappings they decorate it with, in the eyes and heart of the JAAF Tokyo remains what it always has been: a race for elite men.

To be fair, though, with a smaller pool of female athletes to work with, five qualifying races would dilute things even further.  This is part of the reason for the biggest diversion of the JAAF's plan from JRN's concept, the total absence of international race results from consideration.  Japanese athletes' inability to compete seriously outside Japan is the thing that most urgently needs to be worked on, and you might think that making it possible to qualify for the Trials by running well overseas, say by clearing a stricter time standard or making the top five in an IAAF gold label race, top three in a silver label race, or winning a bronze label race, would be a big help in rectifying that problem.  

But doing that would again be a dilution of the pool, resulting in fewer top-level athletes available to run the domestic selection races and hurting both their value and the JAAF's bottom line.  So, everything that counts has to happen domestically.  But the silver lining is that with a two-year window to run a qualifying mark, say a four-marathon span, the qualifying mark only has to be achieved domestically once, and that frees the athletes to race more internationally the rest of the time.  There's still the potential for insanity like Yukiko Akaba not being named to the 2013 World Championships despite finishing 3rd at the London Marathon that year, but all in all the new process looks like a step in the right direction.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Lessons of the Past Are Not “Outdated” - Real Talk From Yuki Kawauchi on “Taking on the World” (part 3)

translated by Brett Larner

Part three in a three-part series written by Yuki Kawauchi and published by Sportsnavi. Visit the above link to their original Japanese-language article for more photos. Click here for part one in the series, “The Miracle in Fukuoka,” and here for part two, “Bringing All My Experience Into Play in London.”

During his days at Gakushuin University Yuki Kawauchi (Saitama Prefectural Government) ran in the Hakone Ekiden as part of the Kanto Region University Select Team. After graduating he chose to take a job as a Saitama Prefecture employee rather than going into the corporate running leagues, and since then he has run countless marathons as an “amateur runner.” By choosing a different road from the elite runners who join the corporate leagues Kawauchi has worked on the marathon under his own power and has put long and serious thought into it. His path has shown the runners to come the way to a new option.

In the final part of this three-part series, Kawauchi offers his advice to the next generation and talks about his dreams as a marathon runner.

Going for a sub-2:10 debut is just digging your own grave.

At the 2015 Beijing World Championships, Ghirmay Ghebreslassie (Eritrea), just 19 at the time, won the gold medal. At age 20 he was 4th at the Rio Olympics, and three months later he won the New York City Marathon. At the Dubai Marathon as well, teenaged Ethiopian athlete Tsegaye Mekonnen Assefa ran a time of 2:04. But on the other hand, [while young athletes are having success] I also think that the marathon is “a sport of experience.” From both viewpoints I think it’s a good trend that young athletes are gaining awareness of the marathon while they have physical strength and speed. In my own experience, I learned many things from the two marathons I ran while attending Gakushuin University. If you don’t actually run the marathon there’s a lot you can’t understand just by armchair theorizing. But as the number of young athletes taking on the marathon increases in this way [in the buildup to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics], there are two things to be concerned about.

The first is that too many athletes have goals that are too high for their first marathons. I think this is partly due to the people around them and partly to the media, but in my opinion too many athletes who have never run a marathon are saying, “My goal is at least sub-2:10.” A lot of fast young guys naively think, “Sub-2:10 is what people were running 30 years ago,” and, “I’m targeting 2:05 or 2:06, so it’s a given that I’ll go sub-2:10 in my debut.” However, in terms of the IAAF’s athlete rankings, sub-2:10 is a time that earns a gold label, the highest rating, so I don’t believe it’s as easy to do as they think.

If you consider it a little you’ll realize that only two Japanese collegiate runners have ever gone sub-2:10, and likewise not even ten Japanese men have ever gone sub-2:10 in their debut.[1] In my first marathon at Beppu-Oita I ran 2:19:26, and among the greats, [Toshihiko] Seko, the Soh twins [Shigeru and Takeshi] and [Takeyuki] Nakayama, and likewise among the current three fastest active Japanese men [Masato] Imai, Arata Fujiwara and [Kazuhiro] Maeda, none of them went sub-2:10 in their first marathons. You could also point out that even though Galen Rupp [U.S.A.] wasn’t a sub-2:10 runner at that point in time, he won the bronze medal at the Rio Olympics.

Times are something that are dependent on variables like race day weather and the way the race plays out. By doing dozens of marathons I’ve come to understand what those who came before me meant when they said, “More than time, the marathon is about competition.” So when the people backing these fast young guys tell them, “You have to run a good time in your debut,” the runners may be saying “sub-2:10 at a minimum” to try to live up to those expectations, but I think that in saying that they are probably stringing themselves up by the neck. If the goal is ultimately to run 2:05 or 2:06, I think that instead of saying, “Let’s rock the marathon right from the first time,” and jumping in only to die and taste the torments of hell, to suffer injury and trauma that will destroy your self-confidence, saying “Who cares what time you run in your debut? I want to be able to achieve my goal in the end,” and holding back to run at a pace that suits you will let you finish thinking, “Marathons are fun!” and let you run later marathons in a positive state of mind.

The meaning of training for distance before a marathon.

The second point is that there's a tendency to admire young athletes who run well in their marathon debuts and then say, “I only did 30 km in training,” or, “I only ran 40 km once.” Certainly, if you’ve never run 40 km or only done it once and produce a good result, expectations will rise and people will say, “The kid’s got huge potential!” and, “If you train more you’ll get even better.” But it’s not always a good thing for expectations to go up like that. In the second marathon and beyond, the time from the first marathon becomes a major pressure that starts in on an athlete.

As of December, 2016, the times that the five fastest-ever debut Japanese marathoners including debut marathon record holder Masakazu Fujiwara ran in their first marathons have remained their lifetime PBs. Of course, Fujiwara [currently head coach of the Chuo University ekiden team] represented Japan in the marathon at three World Championships and all-time debut #2 [Koichi] Morishita was the last Japanese man to become an Olympic medalist, so it is possible to have great success even without being able to break your debut time. But however successful you are at the international championships level, as an athlete focused on winning and on being “even one second faster,” if you go your whole career without ever breaking the time you ran in your first marathon it must put a lot of thoughts into your head.

I think that the purpose of doing multiple long distance runs before a marathon isn't just “to produce results in the race” but also “to build legs that will withstand injury and make it to the next starting line after producing results in the race.” If you want your marathon career to be short and sweet then your legs can probably handle a “single shot” approach without doing the training necessary to develop them. But if you’re envisioning a long career as an athlete competing at the international level and accumulating a wealth of experience then I think it’s essential to develop your legs through long distance training right from your first marathon. I think it’s a good idea to start working on getting experience in the marathon at a young age and it shouldn’t be made more intimidating that necessary, but I think that people who run enough to avoid getting injured after their first marathon are more likely to have a future than those who do it with insufficient mileage.

Japanese people have their own Japanese ways of racing and training.

I think that the most important thing [for today’s young athletes to go on to become internationally competitive] is for people to start racing seriously overseas right from when they are young and to build up knowledge and experience of “what overseas is.” Unlike in the past, today there are international races all over the world ready to invite Japanese athletes with good times to their names and to pay for the costs of air travel and accommodations. So I think the path you choose to pursue your development is crucial, whether to join a corporate team that understands international racing, or to work on it yourself as an amateur or pro runner, examining in detail the list of member races on the AIMS [Association of International Marathons and Distance Races] website and honing your craft by running seriously in overseas races that match your level and goals. Then while gaining experience in overseas races and acquiring knowledge you can gain clear awareness of whether “the world” you are aiming for as an athlete is “Representing Japan” or “A Record” or “Winning International Marathons Around the World” and do the training appropriate to that objective. All of this is important.

Along with gaining experience abroad, I think it’s also important to learn from the Japanese marathoners of the past. It seems like a lot of athletes these days believe too much in the way that the Africans and the Americans do things, but I don’t think that modern athletes who can’t better the times run by past Japanese athletes can rightfully call those past athletes’ training methodologies “outdated.” Needless to say not everything about the way that Japanese athletes trained in the past was correct, but I think there are more hints about how to get better to be found there than by looking at how Africans train.

Years ago when I read Kenji Kimihara’s book The Springtime of the Marathon I felt sympathetic resonance with it as an athlete. I felt that there was a lot to learn from past Japanese marathoners and set out to read as many of their books and biographies as I could. In addition to Seko, the Sohs, Akio Usami, Nobuyoshi Sadanaga, Kokichi Tsuburaya and others, I read nonfiction about the Barcelona, Atlanta and Sydney Olympic women’s marathons and more. Every time I read them I found a number of things that could be helpful, but what I began to feel most strongly was that compared to the greats of the past the amount of “ultra long-distance training” I was doing seemed overwhelmingly insufficient.

I began to feel that even if I were doing something similar to what Africans do, it would just be a lesser imitation of their approach. I think that if I can’t do the same quality training they do, unless I do the “ultra long-distance training” that they won’t then there’s no way I could compete with them. The surprise I felt at seeing the pre-race breakfast of a Kenyan Olympic medalist in New York and thinking, “They can run 42.195 km on such a small amount [of food]?” had a lot of influence on this line of thought. Personally I had the sense that by eating well at dinner the night before and breakfast the morning of a race I had become better able to hang on and not fade badly in the second half of a marathon the way I did when I was first starting out.

But looking at how the great Kenyan athletes could run even though they ate in a way exactly opposite to my experience I began to think more and more, “They’re different from Japanese people. If there is that difference, then maybe Japanese people have different ways of racing and training as well.” As a result, even if you’re adopting an overseas approach, I think it’s important to first do your homework and learn what you can about how all the great Japanese athletes of the past trained, and then to add whatever else you can learn from abroad to that. There are a lot of people at both extremes in Japan today, but to become a better marathoner I think there are hints to be gleaned from both old Japan and the modern world.

Becoming a “coach who runs” at my alma mater someday.

[To help elevate athletics on the road to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics,] I want to be visible racing against international competition in domestic and overseas races from fall through spring and to deliver exciting runs that will give the next generation aiming for the Tokyo Olympics something to think about. I also want to support amateur marathons throughout Japan by continuing to actively take part in amateur races that I haven’t run before. Specifically, by achieving my two goals of “finishing 100 full marathons” and “running as an invited athlete or special guest at amateur marathons in all 47 prefectures” before the Tokyo Olympics I think that I can return the knowledge and experience I’ve gained through my marathoning to Japan as a whole.

I think that in the future I’d like to serve as a “coach who runs” at my alma mater Gakushuin University to help develop marathon runners the way that I myself was guided and coached. At that time I hope to take advantage of the domestic and international relationships I’ve been able to cultivate to help other athletes run many marathons and to help expand all the various options available to them. And if I can help even one athlete look back on their competitive career with a smile and say, “I’m glad I dedicated the springtime of my life to running. I’m truly glad I ran the marathon,” then it will all have been worth it.

If I’d quit running back in high school when I was injured all the time I wouldn’t be who I am now. By continuing to do it at Gakushuin University I learned new ways of training and ways of thinking that opened up the possibilities and potential within me. That’s why I want to show all the athletes at the powerful running schools who, like me in those days, are frustrated and injured, “There’s another world out there. Another way.” By doing that I hope to give them the chance to feel again the love of the run.

[1] Written prior to Yuta Shitara’s 2:09:27 debut at the 2017 Tokyo Marathon, the tenth sub-2:10 debut by a Japanese man.

Read Part One, "The Miracle in Fukuoka," and Part Two, "Bringing All My Experience Into Play in London."

Berlin photo © 2012 and Fukuoka photo © 2015 Dr. Helmut Winter, all rights reserved
other photos © 2014-16 Brett Larner, all rights reserved

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Bringing All My Experience Into Play In London - Real Talk From Yuki Kawauchi on “Taking on the World” (part 2)

translated by Brett Larner

Part two in a three-part series of writings by Yuki Kawauchi on what it took to qualify for the London World Championships, his goals for August’s main event, his views on the future of Japanese marathoning and advice to the runners to come. The original was published by Sportsnavi in Japanese. Visit the link above for more photos.  Click here for the first article in the series, "The Miracle in Fukuoka."

Yuki Kawauchi (Saitama Pref. Gov’t) took 3rd overall as the top Japanese finisher at the Dec. 4 Fukuoka International Marathon. That result put him into position as one of the leading contenders for the privilege of running in this summer’s London World Championships. At both the 2011 Daegu World Championships and 2013 Moscow World Championships Kawauchi finished a disappointing 18th, unable to take part in the battle up front. Based on those experiences he decided to bow out of “summer marathons” where the temperature exceeds 30 degrees Celsius, but now he has re-focused his sights on the London World Championships.

In the second part of this three part series, Kawauchi talks in his own words about his views on making the London World Championships.

Seeing the Rising Sun fly – “Let’s give it one more shot in London.”

When I finished the 2013 Moscow World Championships no better than the same 18th place I’d come in at the Daegu World Championships in 2011[1] I thought to myself, “I can’t run like the real me at these hot summer international championships. As a member of the National Team you’re being chased pretty much every week by TV and weekly gossip magazines and getting ambushed at home and at work all the time. Dealing with the kind of expectations that are all around, it’s mentally tough to stay competitive when you know you aren’t good in hot weather. But you haven’t hit your potential yet in terms of your PB, and with the PB you do have you’ve got invitations from races all around the world, so from now on let’s focus on racing internationally where you can run the way you want and don’t have that kind of pressure.”

But at the same time I was also thinking, “You had tricks for dealing with the heat like special hats and drinks, so it didn’t feel as bad as it did in Daegu. It’s tough if it goes over 30 degrees, but as long as it doesn’t get that hot you can probably cope somehow.” Since I was thinking that way, I decided to go for the Japanese National Team again for the 2014 Asian Games which were going to be held in the fall and where I could legitimately go for the gold medal.

In that race I lost touch with the leaders once around 30 km, and when it came down to a track finish I ended up with the bronze medal. At the award ceremony when the Rising Sun was being hoisted up the flagpole I had the same feeling I had when we won the team silver medal at the Daegu World Championships, the realization that “As an athlete, this is the moment that’s it all about.” When that feeling came out I thought, “Let’s do it one last time. Let’s make the most of all your past failures and run a race you can be proud of at the London World Championships.”

Clarifying your goals lets you expend the effort to achieve them.

To be honest I wasn’t really that motivated by the 2015 Beijing World Championships where it was supposed to be hot, but since I’d missed making the 2012 London Olympic team the 2017 London World Championships felt a bit like fate or something. When I was watching the London Olympics TV broadcast I was honestly thinking, “I really wanted to run in conditions like these.” On the other hand, after London the next World Championships would be held in Doha in 2019 and then the 2020 Olympics would be in Tokyo, and in contrast to other athletes I felt the same way about them that I did about the Beijing World Championships, not really motivated.

There are lots of people saying, “You should try to work out the issue of heat and keep going until the Tokyo Olympics.” I think that if I had a PB within two minutes of the world record I might have felt like, “Yes, for the sake of the Olympics and World Championships, let’s deal with the heat.” But being in the situation where I’m more than five minutes from the world record I don’t think I can afford to expend the effort needed to overcome the heat. Needless to say, in order to try to cut down the difference in terms of [PB] time even just a bit you need to improve your ability. But what’s more important is the capability to respond to mid-race pace changes. In contrast to developing better speed or racing capability, there was no guarantee that I’d be able to adapt to heat no matter how much time I spent on it, and so faced with a multitude of issues to deal with I couldn’t focus my efforts only on that area. If I spent a number of years focusing on overcoming heat my ability in other areas might decline, and if that meant I became less competitive in the selection races held from fall through spring then I wouldn’t make it to the start line of summer international championship events to begin with.

If that happened I think the chances are high that I would lose my qualification [time] to race overseas marathons from the fall through the spring the way I do now. Realizing that my choice for the life I wanted as a marathoner came down to the question of whether I wanted to improve one area of my physical ability in exchange for losing everything else, the thought that “I want to be an athlete who is strong in temperatures over 30 degrees Celsius no matter what I have to give up” never even crossed my mind.

But unlike Doha and Tokyo, if the temperatures at the London World Championships are relatively cool, around 23 to 26 degrees, then from my two past World Championships experiences in Daegu and Moscow I already have heat measures like hats and special drinks in place and know how to go about preparing for a summer race. Extending forward the training and development methodology I’ve used up to now I can visualize myself being competitive at the world level. Once you can visualize yourself being competitive then that image becomes a goal, and once you have a goal then you can construct concrete plans and expend the effort to achieve them.

Whatever the ultimate outcome, to be a member of the “Japanese Marathon National Team” I believe that at a minimum you must have awareness and a sense of responsibility for yourself as a representative of Japan and be able to visualize yourself standing on the starting line ready to be active and assertive. In that sense, at the London World Championships I want to bring into play all of my past experience as a Japanese national representative and everything I’ve learned racing marathons internationally.

The concept of “the world” isn’t limited to just the Olympics and World Championships.

Although the miraculous run I had in Fukuoka was possible thanks to the string of good luck I talked about earlier, the situation was such that it wouldn’t be unreasonable to say that as an athlete, going to the starting line with my injury and desperate state of mind was inappropriate. As a result I can say that in order to fully demonstrate your true ability, in the lead-up to the World Championships the most important thing, more important than getting stronger, more important than anything else, is not getting an injury that’s going to make you miss training. Even from a basis of simply not getting injured, if you can maintain yourself well then I think the key to achieving your goal is just a question of the degree to which you can do what’s needed to bring the ideal marathon training you imagine in your head one step closer to actuality.

When asking “What is ‘the world?’” I think there at least three concepts. The first “world” is “The Olympics and World Championships,” the second “world” is “The World Record,” and the third “world” is “International Marathons All Around the World.” When most Japanese athletes say, “I want to take on the world,” I think they’re only thinking about the first sense of the term. The number of them who say, “My goal is to win a medal at the Olympics,” is very large, the number who say, “My goal is to set a world record,” is vanishingly small, and I’ve pretty much never met anyone who says, “My goal is to compete in international marathons all around the world.”

Despite the fact that when they say “the world” they are only thinking in terms of concept #1, “The Olympics and World Championships,” the sole reason most frequently cited for why Japanese athletes can’t compete with “the world” is concept #2. In other words, the point of view that “Even though the world is running 2:02 and 2:03, Japan still can’t even break the 2:06 national record.” I have to wonder whether the people who voice that opinion are aware that only one person has ever run 2:02, once, and that in terms of sub-2:04, even including the record-ineligible Boston you are talking about ten people on just five courses, Berlin, Chicago, London, Frankfurt and Boston.[2]

There’s nothing better than being fast for being competitive, but there’s an element of being competitive that you can’t learn just from being fast. A world record or near miss is only a “constructed record” made by having pacemakers run a constant designated pace through halfway or in some cases up to 30 km. Every year in Dubai unknown athletes appear who run 2:04, but very few of them go on to do it two or three times like the current top people in the world.

“Gear changing” gets you closer to a medal than speed.

Even at major races like Paris and Amsterdam there are lots of times when 2:06 to 2:08 is enough to win, and although at the Rio Olympics the medaling athletes placed pretty much in order of their PBs, at the last four World Championships, Berlin, Daegu, Moscow and Beijing, and at the 2012 London Olympics, I don’t think that was the case.

For example, Abel Kirui [Kenya, gold medalist in 2009 Berlin and 2011 Daegu World Championships] has a 2:05 PB, but that’s not something he has done multiple times. Even though he has run a lot of marathons, his second-best time is over 30 seconds slower than the Japanese national record. Both Uganda’s Stephen Kiprotich [2012 London Olympics and 2013 Moscow World Championships gold medalist] and Eritrea’s Ghirmay Ghebreslassie [2015 Beijing World Championships gold medalist] also have PBs slower than the Japanese national record. Following that line of thinking, I think it‘s impossible to say that Japan’s inability for many years to win medals at “The Olympics and World Championships” is exclusively due to a “time gap.”

To win “a gold medal” the PBs of current Japanese athletes might be insufficient. But if it’s a question of “a medal” I don’t think [international championships] have become a situation yet where they are high-speed races in which PBs correspond directly to results and Japanese athletes are totally outclassed. I don’t think that has changed significantly in all the years since I first represented Japan at the Daegu World Championships in 2011. Rather than judging by the “PB” that runners frequently cite as a metric of speed, I’ve always thought that in order to win medals the element that Japanese people must foster is the more intangible (although evident if you look at mid-race split times) “ability to handle small pace changes mid-race and surge battles late in the race.”

Based on that, I believe that the running of Kazuhiro Maeda [Kyudenko] at the 2013 Tokyo Marathon was the closest to the way that Japanese athletes must run in order to win medals at the Olympics or World Championships. In the last few years a considerable number of Japanese athletes have run times of 2:07 or 2:08. However, the only one who has been able to respond to a surge after 30 km and run a 5 km split of 14:39 at that point in the race was Maeda.

At the Rio Olympics the American Galen Rupp won the bronze medal, and since he was also a speed runner with track achievements including a silver in the London Olympics 10000 m there are now more people saying, “That just goes to show that Japanese people also need 26 minute-level speed in order to be competitive in the marathon.” However, the reality is that although Rupp ran 14:26 from 25 to 30 km, for the next 5 km after that he slowed down to 15:31, losing a lot of ground to eventual winner Eliud Kipchoge [Kenya]. In other words, if you could cover the 5 km after 30 km in 14:39 like Maeda, then at 35 km you would only be 13 seconds behind Rupp in the Rio Olympics. If you could then run within 15:18 for the next 5 km after 35 km, you’d be in the race for a medal.

A 29:57 split from 30 to 40 km, or pushing the pace just under 3:00 / km to put it another way, is not a “high-speed race.” A race like what you often see at the World Half Marathon Championships, where the 5 km split suddenly jumps to 13:45 and a lot of people go with it, is a “high-speed race.” The marathon hasn’t yet become that kind of situation, so I think that even at the Olympics if it’s a question of medaling then Japanese athletes have more than enough chance even with their current speed levels. Although it happened in a different season, if you look only at splits times that was how the Maeda of 2013 was running. And not the Maeda of the days around the 2007 Osaka World Championships when he was running 27 minutes for 10000 m.

If you’re only targeting a gold medal then in order to be totally sure, you need to “develop the speed necessary to handle a high-speed race.” But if you aim for medals of other colors, more than just trying to improve the speed enumerated by your PB, training to handle a change to 14:40 late in the race and then to hang on at 15 minutes for the 5 km after that is the shortcut to a medal. I’ve believed that ever since the Daegu World Championships, and I think the Rio Olympics men’s marathon provided more evidence to back that idea up.

There’s no retirement for amateur runners! Running actively throughout life.

Unlike most Japanese athletes, for me the idea of “taking on the world” isn’t exclusively about concept #1, “The Olympics and World Championships.” For me the third concept, “International Marathon All Around the World,” resonates strongly. After I blew the 2012 Tokyo Marathon I told myself, “Let’s focus on racing marathons around the world to develop your competitive ability.” At that point my sense of the first concept of competing against the world was strong, just like other Japanese athletes.

But starting with the Dusseldorf Marathon in April, 2012, I’ve done dozens of overseas marathons and been cheered on by Japanese people living locally, and from those experiences I came to the powerful realization that “’Taking on the world’ is not just about the Olympics and World Championships. There really is an amazing number of great races all around the world. If other Japanese athletes aren’t competing in that world then let me be the one to lead the way.”

By doing that I’ve met a lot of the “legends” like Josiah Thugwane [South Africa, 1996 Atlanta Olympics gold medalist], Steve Moneghetti [Australia], Robert De Castella [Australia, 1983 Helsinki World Championships gold medalist] and Bill Rogers [U.S.A.] on their home ground, and at races both abroad and at home I’ve met many international athletes who I now count as friends and rivals.

So, although a lot of people think that I’m retiring from the marathon at the 2017 London World Championships, I’m just not going to be aiming to make the Japanese National Team to compete in intense summer heat any more. I’m not giving up on “taking on the world.” As long as my circumstances permit, as long as I remain physically fit, I want to keep doing battle with my overseas rivals at “International Marathons All Around the World.”

Ever since I was a high schooler suffering injury after injury my dream for the future wasn’t the Olympics or World Championships but “Running amateur marathons all across Japan.” Since I’ve become an athlete whose results make it possible to compete in the World Championships it has also become possible for me to get invited to run races overseas without cost, and as a result I’ve been able to upgrade my high school-era dream to “Running marathons all across Japan and in every country in the world.” I want to keep running marathons in Japan and all over the world for my entire lifetime. That’s the kind of life I want to live, and so even if I’m no longer targeting the Japanese National Team it doesn’t mean in the slightest that I want to retire from marathoning. They say that “Unless you give up the fight, there’s no retirement for amateur runners,” and that really is how I want to live my life.

[1] 4th-place finisher Abderrahime Bouramdane of Morocco had his result annulled due to doping-related offenses, upgrading Kawauchi to 17th.
[2] Written prior to Wilson Kipsang’s 2:03:58 at the 2017 Tokyo Marathon.

Read Part One, "The Miracle in Fukuoka," and Part Three, "The Lessons of the Past Are Not Outdated."

photos © 2012~16 Brett Larner, all rights reserved

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

“The Miracle in Fukuoka” - Real Talk From Yuki Kawauchi on “Taking on the World” (part 1)

translated by Brett Larner

Ahead of his nomination to the London World Championships Marathon team, Sportsnavi published a three-part series of writings by Yuki Kawauchi on what it took for him to make the team, his hopes for London, and his views on the future of Japanese marathoning.  With his place on the London team announced on Mar. 17, JRN will publish an English translation of the complete series over the next three days. See Sportsnavi's original version linked above for more photos.

The Fukuoka International Marathon was held on Dec. 4 last year. Yuki Kawauchi (Saitama Pref. Gov’t) took part despite nursing injuries he had sustained in training. Falling rain contributed to less than ideal conditions during the race, but from the very early stages Kawauchi mixed it up with the international invited field and stayed among the leaders. As the other Japanese athletes fell away, Kawauchi held out to the very end to take 3rd in 2:09:11, the first Japanese man across the finish line and putting himself into contention for the right to run in this summer’s London World Championships.

We asked Kawauchi to talk about his race in Fukuoka, his thoughts about the World Championships, and his views on the current state of Japanese long distance. In a three-part series of articles we give you his reply. In Part One he looks back on his to-the-limit run in Fukuoka.

A calf injury three weeks out – On the edge every day.

Three weeks before [the Fukuoka International Marathon]  I hurt my right calf while doing a long run. When I picked up the pace it felt like my calf was going to tear off, and even when I just walked it throbbed with pain. Because of that I couldn’t do the final tune-up workouts I’d been planning, and for the three weeks before the race I was really uneasy and irritated. Every day, everyone around me, even my family, kept saying, “This is your last chance to make a Japanese national team. Stop being such an obstinate freak, give up on Fukuoka and run Tokyo or Lake Biwa instead.” At the same time there were people encouraging me and telling me, “We’re going to Fukuoka to cheer for you, so don’t let us down!” I was really on the edge of losing my mind every day from all of that.

I took the two days after I got hurt completely off and then told myself, “OK, let’s at least try not to lose what fitness you have.” I started doing long jogs, keeping the pace slower than usual so that the pain wouldn’t be that bad. That was the situation I was in, not really in a condition to do the [Nov. 20]  Ageo City Half Marathon which I was supposed to run two weeks out [from Fukuoka]. I knew that if I overdid it the injury would get worse, so I talked to the Ageo organizers before the race and got permission to start at the very back and just jog it. In that way I kept myself from doing any training that would force me to run fast, and the pain that made it feel like something was really wrong went away.

A sprained ankle right before the race – begging for divine intervention.

One by one I started doing workouts that came to me intuitively like received wisdom from somewhere, something in my head telling me, “You should do this,” and as a result of that my training load went way up. I did two 50 km jogs and totaled about 220 km for the week. I usually do about 140 km a week, so doing that kind of long distance gradually gave me back my self-confidence and physical strength.

But even so, since I couldn’t race the Ageo City Half Marathon the way I always do I was still worried about whether I could sustain speed, and the stress of whether I should run Fukuoka or not remained unchanged. So I made a final decision and told myself, “If you can run for 20 km at the second pack pace of 3:04 / km a week out from the race, you can do Fukuoka as planned.” Keeping everything, my wake up time, breakfast and whatnot, strictly according to the same timetable as race day, with the help of friends I ran 20 km at Saitama’s Lake Saiko. The outcome was that even though it was pretty close to my limit I managed to run 1:01:14 (3:03 / km), and I made the decision to run [Fukuoka] in the second group.

But bad luck tends to bring more bad luck. After getting to Fukuoka on Friday I went for a shakeout run after the press conference. I sprained my left ankle on some steps and was back to it hurting just to walk. The night before the race I was almost crying, begging the race organizers, “Don’t you have any painkillers that will pass anti-doping?” I ended up just getting some ice at the hotel and spent hours icing my left ankle. The whole time I was icing I was berating myself, “After everything you’ve gone through, working through the calf injury, getting yourself back into a position to be able to go out there and fight, why this, why now?” Then the tears really did start coming out at my own stupidity for spraining my ankle.

In that kind of situation there was nothing else I could do, so I said, “Please, God, Buddha, whoever, for tomorrow’s race please don’t let this pain get worse. If you hold off on this ankle I will endure whatever other suffering you want me to,” and prayed for divine (Buddhistic?) intervention. Those were the circumstances in which I went to the starting line, and thanks to a string of good luck I was able to end up on the podium with a 2:09. All things considered, once I finished all I could think was that a miracle really had happened out there.

The trinity that worked the “miracle.”

Looking at it now, if I had to analyze the factors involved in that “miracle” I would identify three key points. To begin with, the first point was that we were blessed with good weather and temperatures. The initial weather forecast predicted that it would be 18 degrees Celsius and sunny, but as the race approached that changed to rain, and at the start the temperature was below the forecast at only 13 degrees. In addition, during the race the rain started again, and at the 25 km point the temperature briefly fell to 9 degrees. I’ve always been good in cold and rainy races, like at the 2010 Tokyo Marathon when I took 5 minutes off my PB [and ran]  2:12:36, so my spirits steadily picked up from the hopeless state of mind I was in right after the start. I’d been feeling pain in my ankle, but the cold helped numb it to the point that I stopped caring about it and got so deeply into “the zone” that I didn’t even notice the 15 km drink tables.

The second point was that the pacers for the first group were kind enough to blow their jobs. Thanks to point #1, although there were three pacers in the first group who were supposed to run 3:00 / km until 30 km, they couldn’t even do it for the first 5 km. The second group that I was originally supposed to have been running in would have been about a minute behind the first group at halfway, but since the first group’s 3:00 / km pace never materialized the pace of the second group became that of the first group and I went through halfway with a time difference of zero seconds behind the leaders. This was a very nice miscalculation that I’d never anticipated.

The third point was that I had the experience of having run the Fukuoka International Marathon six times previously. I knew where the hills on the Fukuoka International Marathon course were and I knew precisely how steep they were. In addition, three years ago I had the experience of taking the lead after the pacemakers dropped out at halfway, qualifying myself to represent Japan at the Incheon Asian Games. So, as long as I got through halfway without too much trouble I wasn’t afraid at all of dying at the end even if I made a play. The opposite, really. When I saw my split at halfway I knew that if I didn’t hold myself back I could definitely go sub-2:10. That gave me a big boost and I told myself, “If the pace looks like it’s going to slow down let’s take charge and get rid of some of the competition.”

A foundation built on overseas racing and ultra long-distance training.

In addition, I think there were two long-term reasons the “miracle” could occur. The first of these points is that I have been competing in a large number of overseas marathons. Since 2012 when I failed to make the London Olympics I’ve been competing all around the world with international athletes including Kenyans and Ethiopians. In particular, in 2016 after starting the year at the Ibusuki Nanohana Marathon in January I ran five marathons in a row overseas before doing Fukuoka International, and repeatedly won or made the podium against foreign competition.

I was 2nd at Wanjinshi, Taiwan in March, I won Zurich, Switzerland in April, at Gold Coast, Australia in July I was 2nd in the fastest time by a Japanese man in 2016, 2:09:01, in September in Berlin, Germany I ran 2:11:03, the fastest time by a Japanese man in the [five overseas]  2016 World Marathon Majors (WMM), and in November in Porto, Portugal I was 2nd again. Among these were races where the pacemakers dropped out after only 6 km and some where there weren’t any pacers to begin with. I knew from experience that when the conditions are bad pacemakers are useless, and that was a big plus in terms of being competitive in Fukuoka International when it didn’t go like a typical Japanese selection race where the goal is to try to run a pretty little set of perfect splits for the first 30 km.

The second point is that I had increased my long distance jogs. I’ve always done 4 to 6-hour trail runs, but last summer I started doing a lot more of them. Using the Shin-Etsu Trail I ran longer than 45 km two days in a row and jogged more than 40 km three times in a single week. In the fall I even started doing ultra long-distance jogs on flat ground. In October I ran 100 km mostly along the Tone River from Shibukawa, Gunma to my house in about 7 1/2 hours. Leading up to Fukuoka I did a lot of 50 km jogs which I hadn’t usually done in the past.

The effects of ultra long-distance and the monthly mileage problem.

There are those who look at that kind of ultra long-distance jogging and say, “Running slowly is meaningless no matter how much you do,” but I think the people who make that kind of criticism have probably never done it themselves. If you actually experience the feeling you get after about three hours, the “I can endure this fatigue in my legs, but if I lose it mentally I’ll immediately want to quit” one that’s similar to the light-headed sensation at the end of the marathon, the numbness of hands and feet and loss of concentration that come after that, the feeling that your stamina is evaporating from the core of your body, and the overpowering sense of euphoria you get after going over the wall, I don’t think you can call it “meaningless.”

The confidence that is built by doing ultra long-distance jogging, the knowledge in the second half when things are getting tough that “I’ve run 50 km and 100 km so I know for sure that my stamina isn’t going to break in the second half. The internationals running next to me haven’t done 100 km so I know that my legs are the ones that are still going to keep moving when things get down and dirty,” has really helped a person like me who tends to get discouraged easily.

For someone who only trains once a day like I have ever since I was at Gakushuin University, I feel that adding ultra long-distance jogging trail runs on my days off work has been effective in improving my physical and mental ability to hold it together in the second half of the marathon. However, since the runners on many teams are obligated to do group morning runs in addition to their regular training sessions, in terms of both the time and physical demands I think it would be hard for them to add the same kind of ultra long-distance jogging that I have. By doing morning runs every day they usually exceed 1000 km a month, but in my case I’m typically averaging about 600 km a month. When you consider that runners belonging to teams are doing 12 km a day on average in their morning runs, my monthly mileage is going to be at least 360 km less since I don’t do them. That means a physical margin of over 4320 km a year compared to other athletes, and I think that’s why ultra long-distance jogging has had such a major impact on me.

Conversely, if someone who is already doing over 1000 km a month kept doing their morning runs and tried to add ultra long-distance jogging to that, I think they would destroy their legs with stress fractures and whatnot. Old-school marathoners might get mad and say it’s a “soft way of thinking,” but I’m pretty sure the human body has a mileage limit. Working within that limit I think all you can do is choose between doing multiple short runs or longer single runs.

Read Part Two, "Bringing All My Experience Into Play in London," and Part Three, "The Lessons of the Past Are Not Outdated."

Fukuoka photos © 2016 Dr. Helmut Winter, all rights reserved
ankle photo © 2016 Yuki Kawauchi, all rights reserved
Porto photo © 2016 Brett Larner, all rights reserved
trail photo © 2015 Brett Larner, all rights reserved

Shitara Quits Konica Minolta Team: "I Want to Get Myself Back Together"

translated by Brett Larner

On Mar. 29 Konica Minolta announced that Keita Shitara, 25, has quit the corporation's ekiden team and will leave his position with the company effective Mar. 31.  As captain of the Toyo University ekiden team he led Toyo to the overall Hakone Ekiden win before graduating and joining Konica Minolta in 2014.  However, since then he has been troubled by injuries and been unable to produce the kind of results he had hoped for, leading him to inform team management of his intent to leave.  Through a statement issued by the company Shitara commented, "I want to get myself back together in a new environment."

Translator's note: Shitara is the twin brother of Yuta Shitara (Team Honda), who turned heads with his 1:01:55 first half debut at February's Tokyo Marathon.  Along with the Asahi Kasei team's Murayama twins and Ichida twins, the Shitaras are one of the most elite sets of twins in distance running worldwide today.  Keita Shitara's PBs:

  • 5000 m: 13:40.32
  • 10000 m: 27:51.54
  • half marathon: 1:01:12
  • 30 km: 1:29:55

Hakone Ekiden Last-Placer Kokushikan University Ups Its Game With Addition of Its First-Ever Kenyan Runner

translated by Brett Larner

Having finished last at the 2017 Hakone Ekiden in 20th place, Kokushikan University announced on Mar. 26 that it is bringing in its first-ever foreign student runner.  Kenyan Paul Gitonga, 20, is expected to join the team around April 10.

In the thin oxygen at 2000 m altitude in Kenya Gitonga has run 14:10 for 5000 m and sub-29 for road 10 km, and with an 800 m best of 1:49 he has speed as well.  While in Japan in February to take Kokushikan's entrance examination he ran a 5000 m time trial in 14:20 despite inadequate preparation.  Head coach Masami Soeda, 39, commented, "He's suited to the roads and could run the marathon."  Gitonga is expected to factor heavily into Kokushikan qualifying for Hakone for the second-straight year and could even be what the team needs to make the seeded top-ten bracket for the first time in 28 years.

Translator's note: Kenyan James Mwangi, a 2:08:38 marathoner, has served as assistant coach at Kokushikan University since last year.

Monday, March 27, 2017

World Cross Country Championships - Japanese Results

Kampala, Uganda, 3/26/17
click here for complete results

U20 Women
1. Letesenbet Gidey (Ethiopia) - 18:34
2. Hawi Feysa (Ethiopia) - 18:57
3. Celliphine Chepteek Chespol (Kenya) - 19:02
15. Tomomi Musembi Takamatsu (Japan) - 20:24
17. Yuka Sarumida (Japan) - 20:28
19. Hayaka Suzuki (Japan) - 20:40
22. Rika Kaseda (Japan) - 20:51
31. Wakana Kabasawa (Japan) - 21:20
49. Hikari Onishi (Japan) - 22:05

U20 Men
1. Jacob Kiplimo (Uganda) - 22:40
2. Amdework Walelegn (Ethiopia) - 22:43
3. Richard Yator Kimunyan (Kenya) - 22:52
27. Kazuya Nishiyama (Japan) - 25:15
37. Yoji Sakai (Japan) - 25:41
42. Ryunosuke Chigira (Japan) - 25:51
51. Sodai Shimizu (Japan) - 26:11
78. Keita Yoshida (Japan) - 27:23

Senior Women
1. Irene Chepet Cheptai (Kenya) - 31:57
2. Alice Aprot Nawowuna (Kenya) - 32:01
3. Lilian Kasait Rengeruk (Kenya) - 32:11
24. Yuka Hori (Japan) - 34:54
40. Mao Ichiyama (Japan) - 35:52
59. Fumika Sasaki (Japan) - 37:02
78. Kaori Morita (Japan) - 38:24

Senior Men
1. Geoffrey Kipsang Kamworor (Kenya) - 28:24
2. Leonard Kiplimo Barsoton (Kenya) - 28:36
3. Abadi Hadis (Ethiopia) - 28:43
63. Yuma Higashi (Japan) - 31:31
71. Kosei Yamaguchi (Japan) - 31:49
89. Yamato Otsuka (Japan) - 32:28
104. Haruki Ono (Japan) - 33:31
110. Shota Maeda (Japan) - 34:07

Friday, March 24, 2017

Can Yuka Ando's "Ninja Running" Bring the Gold Medal Back to Japan at the Tokyo Olympics?

an editorial by Yuji Hosono
translated by Brett Larner

After running 2:21:36 for 2nd at the Mar. 12 Nagoya Women's Marathon to become the all-time 4th-fastest Japanese woman, the name of 22-year-old Cinderella girl Yuka Ando (Suzuki Hamamatsu AC) is now synonymous with the slightly incongruous term "ninja running."  Her lower arms hanging loosely, barely moving, gaining forward propulsion through the strength of her legs, a unique form on display throughout her duel with Rio Olympics silver medalist Eunice Kirwa (Bahrain).  It just may be enough to bring the Olympic women's marathon gold medal back to Japan for the first time since Mizuki Noguchi in Athens in 2004.

Ando's ninja running first caught my eye about a year ago at the May, 2016 Gifu Seiryu Half Marathon.  I had the impression that it seemed to be between Kayoko Fukushi (Team Wacoal), who was expected to medal in the Rio Olympics and Ando, who two months earlier had been the top Japanese woman at 10th overall at March's Cardiff World Half Marathon Championships. As soon as the race began I was surprised.  No matter how you looked at Ando's form it seemed like she was only using her legs to drive her running, but even so it was a great performance with only a 3-second difference with Fukushi at the end.  Having already seen the diamond shine when it was still in the rough, I felt more satisfaction than surprise at how fast she ran in Nagoya.

Ando was never good at running with coordinated upper and lower body movement.  Her form came about as the result of trial and error.  Former world record holder and 2000 Sydney Olympics gold medalist Naoki Takahashi, 44, gave an analysis of Ando's form, saying, "It's unique, but it is highly specialized for the marathon. There is less vertical movement and better motion efficiency, reducing the likelihood of failure in the second half."

"The marathon starts at 30 km."  As a condition for being able to compete at the world level, the JAAF has emphasized the "negative split," running the second half faster than the first half.  In Nagoya Ando ran the first half in 1:10:21 and the second half somewhat slower in 1:11:15.  JAAF director Mitsugi Ogata evaluated her run by saying, "I would like to interpret it as her way of negative splitting, in the sense that she kept the pace necessary to compete during the second half."  This was equivalent to the holy grail of being lauded for "taking on the world."

Although Ando's form can be called a pitch-based method, it is by no means a mainstream one.  She no doubt must have had it corrected many times ever since she was a student.  After passing through two teams following her graduation from Toyokawa High School, she met coach Masayuki Satouchi, 40, at her third and current team.  At the Suzuki Hamamatsu AC, marathon development is the main priority.  Coach Satouchi embraced Ando's ninja running and set about extending its potential, saying, "Ando is a natural talent.  When she was envisioning the marathon she was conscious of efficient form.  Everybody has their own way of running."  Ando seeks to improve even further, saying, "This is not the finished product. Overall I want to refine my form to maximize the degree to which I can bring out my full potential."  At the London World Championships and on to the Tokyo Olympics, Ando intends to travel the road to the gold medal.

New Marathon Star Yuka Ando Must Take the Rest She Needs and Avoid the Impossible - An Editorial

an editorial by Kenji Fujiyama
translated by Brett Larner

At the Mar. 12 Nagoya Women's Marathon, fresh new 22-year-old star Yuka Ando (Suzuki Hamamatsu AC) gave a straight up head to head challenge to Rio de Janeiro Olympics silver medalist Eunice Kirwa (Bahrain) on the way to finishing 2nd in 2:21:36 and becoming the fourth-fastest Japanese woman ever.  Debuting marathoners usually avoid taking on the impossible and keep to their own pace, but Ando stayed with Kirwa determinedly, saying, "To win you have to go with it.  Who cares what happens in the second half."  These days there are a lot of athletes running with the weak motivation of targeting the "top Japanese" position from the start, but even after coming in at all-time Japanese #4, when Ando said, "I still showed weakness.  I want to refine what I'm doing even more so that I can truly take on the world," many people felt a kind of glow about her that we haven't see for a long, long time.

Nevertheless, although August's London World Championships have started looking like something to get excited about, perhaps the best advice that could be given to Ando at this point is, "Have the courage not to overdo it." Fully recovering from the fatigue of this race and rebuilding her body from scratch in prep for the World Championships will take a fair amount of time. Even if you run the same 42.195 km in training the damage to the body in a race is completely different.  And this was her first marathon.  Even if she thinks that she has fully recovered, there's a good chance that once she starts up training again she won't be able to move like she imagines.

In the Olympic and World Championships of the past, more top athletes tended to go for the teams in January's Osaka International or oven the previous November's Tokyo International than in Nagoya.  It's true that on the old Nagoya course wind tended to be an issue in making it difficult to run fast times, but with only five months between Nagoya in March and the Olympics or World Championships in August there was little time to fully prepare perfectly.

Looking at the facts, 2007 winner Yasuko Hashimoto finished 23rd at the Osaka World Championships.  2008 winner Yurika Nakamura was 13th at the Beijing Olympics, 2009 winner Yoshiko Fujinaga 14th at the Berlin World Championships, 2012 runner-up Yoshimi Ozaki was 19th at the London Olympics, 2013 winner Ryoko Kizaki was 4th at the Moscow World Championshiops, 2015 runner-up Sairi Maeda was 13th at the Beijing World Championships, and 2016 runner-up Tomomi Tanaka was 19th at the Rio Olympics.  Not exactly a track record of success in Nagoya being connected success at international championships.  The only exception is 2000 winner Naoko Takahashi's gold medal at the Sydney Olympics, but in that case the Olympics were held a month later than usual in September due to being held in the southern hemisphere.

Right now after her first marathon is the most important time for Ando in determining the future course of her career as an athlete.  Of all the things she must do, the first is to recover completely.  She absolutely cannot afford for her train to leave the station before everyone is on board.  If it doesn't look like she is going to make it in just five months, she must have the courage to dare to bow out.  It might be said that thinking that way could bring bad luck, but at long last a true world-class talent has appeared again and you have to hope that it is cultivated carefully.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Japanese Team Rosters for Kampala World Cross Country Championships

by Brett Larner

The World Cross Country Championships take place this Sunday, March 26 in Kampala, Uganda.  Perpetual team medal contenders, the Japanese junior women's squad is the strongest part of the Japanese roster, featuring four women with 3000 m bests under 9:10 led by 8:58.86 runner Tomomi Musembi Takamatsu of 2016 National High School Ekiden champion Osaka Kunei Joshi Gakuin H.S.  The Japanese national team for the 2017 World Cross Country Championships:

Senior Men's 10 km
Kosei Yamaguchi (Team Aisan Kogyo) - 28:34.19
Shota Maeda (Daito Bunka Univ.) - 28:59.86
Yuma Higashi (Team Kyudenko) - 29:14.78
Haruki Ono (Kanagawa Univ.) - 29:18.49
Yamato Otsuka (Kanagawa Univ.) - 29:22.18

Senior Women's 10 km
Mao Ichiyama (Team Wacoal) - 32:15.73
Kaori Morita (Team Panasonic) - 32:27
Yuki Hori (Team Panasonic) - 32:40
Fumika Sasaki (Team Daiichi Seimei) - 33:37

Junior Men's 8 km
Keita Yoshida (Sera H.S.) - 13:50.67
Ryo Saito (Akita Kogyo H.S.) - 13:53.75
Kazuya Nishiyama (Tokyo Nogyo Prep Daini H.S.) - 13:54.16
Ryunosuke Chigira (Tokyo Nogyo Prep Daini H.S.) - 14:07.42
Sodai Shimizu (Rakunan H.S.) - 14:12.57
Yoji Sakai (Suma Gakuen H.S.)

Junior Women's 6 km
Tomomi Musembi Takamatsu (Osaka Kunei Joshi Gakuin H.S.) - 8:58.86
Rika Kaseda (Narita H.S.) - 9:05.64
Yuka Sarumida (Toyokawa H.S.) - 9:07.07
Wakana Kabasawa (Tokiwa H.S.) - 9:08.54
Hikari Onishi (Suma Gakuen H.S.) - 9:18.74
Hayaka Suzuki (Tokiha Gakuen Kikugawa H.S.) - 9:22.77

© 2017 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Seko and Kawauchi Spar at London World Championships Team Meeting

translated and edited by Brett Larner

In preparation for August's London World Championships, the members of the men's and women's marathon teams attended a team meeting in Tokyo on Mar. 20.  Having announced that this year's World Championships would be his last time contending for a national team, Yuki Kawauchi (30, Saitama Pref. Gov't) displayed extraordinary resolve as he said, "As a representative of Japan in London I fully intend to burn it all."

JAAF Long Distance and Marathon Development Project Leader Toshihiko Seko, 60, gave a 30-minute speech in front of the athletes and their coaches, bemoaning a sense of crisis as he said, "If things keep going this way marathoning is going to die out."  Quoting the words of his legendary mentor, the late Kiyoshi Nakamura, Seko told them, "Do not be like scissors or a razor, easily chipped and blunted.  I wish for you to become an athlete strong like a katana.  The athlete burns white hot and brilliant red like steel, and the coach beats and tempers the steel like a swordsmith.  In this way an athlete can become like the finest Japanese katana."

Women's team member Yuka Ando (Suzuki Hamamatsu AC) and the others listened intently and busily took notes, but Kawauchi, who is self-coached, frowned and said, "To be honest, that'd be pretty tricky.  Since I'd have to be hitting myself and all."  Seko frowned back and said to the others, "Yes, well, in his case he can play both roles."

From start to finish, the two strong personalities of Japanese athletics were on different wavelengths.  Believing heat to be his weak point Kawauchi has decided to stop running on national teams because of the expected temperatures beyond 30 degrees at the 2019 Doha World Championships and 2020 Tokyo Olympics.  Seko commented bluntly, "You think too much about being weak in heat.  You're going to summon the god of weakness.  I'd like you to continue until the Tokyo Olympics."

On the way out of the press conference Seko called out, "Kawauchi, you shouldn't say that you're not good in heat!"  Kawauchi replied coolly, "The heat in London won't be a problem."  Seko said, "Not London, Tokyo.  I'm talking about Tokyo," making clear his hopes of seeing Kawauchi in the Olympics. Frustration flashed across Kawauchi's face, and emphasizing his words with strong hand gestures he answered, "Not everyone is aiming for Tokyo.  London is everything!"  Backing off under the force of Kawauchi's reply, Seko bowed and said quietly, "I'm sorry.  You have taught me well."  The almost surreal exchange drew laughs of amazement throughout the venue.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Weekend Half Marathon Roundup

by Brett Larner
Murayama photo courtesy NYRR

The last main racing weekend of the Japanese calendar, this weekend saw high-level half marathon performances at home and abroad.

At the United Airlines NYC Half MarathonKenta Murayama (Team Asahi Kasei), twin brother of 10000 m national record holder Kota Murayama (Team Asahi Kasei), ran 1:00:57 for 5th, the best time ever by a Japanese man on U.S. soil and the second-best ever run outside Japan. Collegiate runners Rintaro Takeda (Waseda Univ.) and Kenta Ueda (Yamanashi Gakuin Univ.) were 22nd and 25th. London World Championships marathon alternate Misato Horie (Team Noritz) ran 1:12:45 for 13th in the women's race.

Japan-based Kenyans Grace Kimanzi (Team Starts) and Doricah Obare (Team Hitachi) took both titles at the Matsue Ladies Road Race, Kimanzi winning the half marathon in 1:10:09 and Obare the 10 km division in 33:14. With Matsue serving as the National University Women's Half Marathon Championships and the selection race for the Japanese women's team for this summer's World University Games, Saki Fukui (Josai Univ.) took the top Japanese position at 2nd overall behind Kimanzi in 1:11:12.  Kanade Furuya of 2016 national champion Matsuyama University was 3rd in 1:11:12 and Kasumi Yamaguchi (Daito Bunka Univ.) 4th in 1:11:17 to join Fukui on the World University Games roster.

Ethiopian teammates Kassa Mekashaw and Abiyot Abinet (both Team Yachiyo Kogyo) dominated an unexpectedly competitive first edition of the new Niigata Half Marathon, outrunning Kenyan Alex Mwangi (Team YKK) and top Japanese man Ryo Ishita (SDF Academy) to go 1-2.  Mekashaw got the win in a PB of 1:01:16.

In Oregon, U.S.-based Suguru Osako (Nike Oregon Project) won the Shamrock Run Portland half marathon in 1:04:12 in a tuneup for his marathon debut at next month's Boston Marathon. Osako's wife Ayumi also ran the Shamrock Run's 5 km in 24:22 and his younger brother Junya the 15 km in 49:25.

Back in Japan, Yuki Kawauchi (Saitama Pref. Gov't) ran the first race of his buildup to the London World Championships, setting a course record of 1:05:03 at his hometown Kuki Half Marathon.  With the course passing his old junior high school, Kawauchi ran the race wearing his uniform from those days.

© 2017 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

Kawauchi Sets Hometown Kuki Half Marathon Course Record Wearing Junior High School-Era Uniform

translated and edited by Brett Larner
photo by Tsukasa Kawarai

Fresh from being named to the London World Championships men's marathon team on Friday, Yuki Kawauchi (Saitama Pref. Gov't) ran the first race of his London buildup Sunday at the Kuki Half Marathon, winning by a massive margin in a course record 1:05:03.  The site of his unofficial half-marathon-in-a-suit world record in its first edition last year, the Kuki Half Marathon is Kawauchi's hometown race.  With a course change sending the race past his alma mater Washinomiya J.H.S. this year, Kawauchi ran wearing his junior high school-era uniform.  "It was a headwind the whole way," he laughed about his time, almost three minutes slower than his PB.  "Now isn't the time to push it. I feel good."

Having declared that the World Championships will be his last time competing on the Japanese national team, Kawauchi looked ahead to the main event five months distant.  "The fact that I'm going there means I intend to medal," he said with determination.  "As I was running today the people of my hometown were calling out, 'Congratulations on London!'  The support was greater than I could have imagined.  That means I have to do it right.  I have to try to live up to those expectations.  There's no room for believing my chances of medalling are zero."

In preparation, he announced that along with several half marathons and June's Okinoshima 50 km Ultramarathon he will run the Czech Republic's Prague Marathon in May, Sweden's Stockholm Marathon in June, and Australia's Gold Coast Marathon in July.  "In Prague I'll be aiming for a PB, and in Stockholm and Gold Coast sub-2:10," he said.  "When London's over I want to take a break for a while, so until then it's attack attack attack."  Facing his last world-level challenge, Kawauchi remains one-of-a-kind in his approach. Miracles can't happen without pushing yourself beyond your limits.

photo © 2017 Tsukasa Kawarai
all rights reserved

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Murayama Runs Fastest-Ever Japanese Time on U.S. Soil at United Airlines NYC Half

by Brett Larner
photo courtesy of NYRR

Kenta Murayama (Team Asahi Kasei) ran the fastest time ever by a Japanese man on U.S. soil to take 5th in the United Airlines NYC Half Marathon in 1:00:57.  The first alumnus of the Japan Running News-New York Road Runners program to bring top collegiate talent from November's Ageo City Half Marathon to New York to return as a pro, Murayama asserted himself from the gun, ensuring the race got off to an honest start as he led the first 5 km in 14:24.  "The last time I was here the first 5 km was close to 15:00," he told JRN post-race.  "If it starts too slow it affects how you feel later in the race and keeps too many people up front.  I wanted to run comfortably.  I figured that 14:20 would be about right.  It didn't feel too fast, but when I looked around almost nobody was left."

Remaining up front after just the first 2 km were the eventual top six including Murayama, 2017 Marugame Half winner Callum Hawkins (Great Britain), Rio Olympics marathon silver medalist Feyisa Lilesa (Ethiopia), defending champ Stephen Sambu (Kenya), Teshome Mekonen (Ethiopia) and Chris Derrick (U.S.A.).  Hawkins challenged Murayama on the steep uphill just past 5 km, but Murayama, a veteran of the Hakone Ekiden's Fifth Stage, maintained his position.  Running the toughest 5 km of the course in 14:22 Murayama still led at 10 km, but as the pack exited Central Park onto the faster 2nd half Hawkins and Lilesa surged to the front.

Murayama and Derrick fell away, with Sambu trailing the top three and Mekonen struggling to hang on.  As the race rolled on it came down to a sprint finish with Lilesa getting away from Hawkins in characteristic Ethiopian style to win in 1:00:04.  Hawkins was next in 1:00:08, just off his winning time from Marugame last month.  Mekonen rounded out the podium 20 seconds later. Murayama closed hard after 20 km, bearing down on defending champ Sambu in the home straight but coming up just short, Sambu 4th in 1:00:55 and Murayama 5th in 1:00:57.  The seventh-fastest Japanese time ever, Murayama took 51 seconds off the fastest Japanese time on U.S. soil, and by breaking 1:01:00 he become just the second Japanese man ever to go sub-61 outside Japan and the second in history to run sub-61 twice in his career.

This year's two collegiate invitees from the Ageo City Half Marathon, Rintaro Takeda (Waseda Univ.) and Kenta Ueda (Yamanashi Gakuin Univ.), both struggled relative to their strong 1:01:59 and 1:02:01 top two performances in Ageo last November.  Takeda ran the early part of the race on sub-63 pace, but after exiting Central Park where the pace typically accelerates he slowed progressively, eventually finishing in 1:05:09.  Ueda, coached by his father Masahito Ueda, was in immediate trouble and limped in to a 1:06:13 finish with a possible stress fracture in his shin.  In the women's race, freshly named alternate for the London World Championships marathon squad after a 2:25:44 runner-up finish in Osaka in January, Misato Horie (Team Noritz) ran 1:12:44. Molly Huddle (U.S.A.) outkicked Emily Sisson (U.S.A.) for the win in 1:08:21 with Diane Nukuri (Burundi) just missing a PB in 1:09:13 for 3rd.

12th United Airlines NYC Half Marathon
New York, 3/19/17

1. Feyisa Lilesa (Ethiopia) - 1:00:04
2. Callum Hawkins (Great Britain) - 1:00:08
3. Teshome Mekonen (Ethiopia) - 1:00:28
4. Stephen Sambu (Kenya) - 1:00:55
5. Kenta Murayama (Japan/Asahi Kasei) - 1:00:57
6. Chris Derrick (U.S.A.) - 1:01:12 - PB
7. Noah Droddy (U.S.A.) - 1:01:48 - PB
8. Diego Estrada (U.S.A.) - 1:01:54
9. Juan Luis Barrios (Mexico) - 1:02:23
10. Jonny Mellor (Great Britain) - 1:02:23 - PB
22. Rintaro Takeda (Japan/Waseda Univ.) - 1:05:09
25. Kenta Ueda (Japan/Yamanashi Gakuin Univ.) - 1:06:13

1. Molly Huddle (U.S.A.) - 1:08:19
2. Emily Sisson (U.S.A.) - 1:08:21 - debut
3. Diane Nukuri (Burundi) - 1:09:13
4. Edna Kiplagat (Kenya) - 1:09:37
5. Amy Cragg (U.S.A.) - 1:09:38
6. Sarah Lahti (Sweden) - 1:09:58 - NR
7. Desi Linden (U.S.A.) - 1:11:05
8. Rachel Cliff (Canada) - 1:12:07 - debut
9. Caroline Rotich (Kenya) - 1:12:09
10. Kellys Arias (Colombia) - 1:12:12
13. Misato Horie (Japan/Noritz) - 1:12:45

© 2017 Brett Larner
all rights reserved