Don't you just love it when someone laughs at the impossible? Meet the 2:08 marathon man who works a full-time office job, and is taking his own extremely unique journey to Rio 2016.
You won’t find Japanese marathoner Yuki Kawauchi’s face gleaming down from a Tokyo billboard. He has never won an individual medal at a major championships or broken the national record. Yet in his homeland he is considered a hero.
More accurately, he's an antihero. He is a full-time civil servant, working 40-hours a week as a government clerk. The 28-year-old eschews sponsorship and appearance fees, running not for a brand or as a corporate, but “purely for the love of racing”.
This amateur's love of distance running is not unique in Japan, where marathoners are household names. The annual Hakone Ekiden, where 23 university teams compete in a 200km relay, enjoys a 30% television audience share.
As Adharanand Finn points out in The Way of the Runner, which explores Japanese running culture: "In 2013 ... only six of the hundred fastest marathon runners in the world were not from Africa. Five of those six were from Japan.” Four of those five were full-time professionals. The other was Yuki Kawauchi. That is why he is loved.
On Sunday Kawauchi will compete in the New York Marathon. It is unusual for him to race in the majors – you are more likely to see him running (and winning) in more low-key events – though he returns to New York for the third year running. Having finished 11th the last two years, his aim this time is to break into the top ten.
“I hope to have a sub 2:10 in New York,” he tells SPIKES through a translator. “But my main aim is placing sixth to match the best Japanese result by Kenjiro Jitsui and Masato Imai. Also, I was frustrated to place 11th for two consecutive years, so I really want to make the top 10.”
It won’t be easy. New York will be his ninth marathon of 2015. The volume isn’t a problem. The last three years he averaged over ten a season. He’s won three times this season and gone sub-2:20 on all but one occasion. In 2013, in his 10th and 11th marathons of the year, he ran 2:09:05 in Fukuoka and 2:09:15 in Hofu fourteen days later – the fastest sub-2:10 marathons two weeks apart ever run. He finished that year with four sub-2:10 marathons, the first ever person do achieve that.
So number nine in month eleven should be a doddle. However, last December, the morning after his final race of the season in Hofu (number 13), Kawauchi picked up his first ever injury. “Conditions were not ideal with snow on the ground. I slipped on a curve and twisted my left ankle. It was severe,” he recalls. Committed to run in races in the new year, he soldiered on.
“Of course I didn't get good results due to the injury. After my left ankle got better, I kept having injuries because my body balance had been lost.” Calf, hamstring and Pes Anserine Bursitis (swelling on the knee) niggles persisted through a “downward spiral” of a spring, though he still ran 2:12:13 in Zurich in April to place second.
Kawauchi is revered in his homeland for achieving top level success with his idealistic approach
His most recent outing saw him finish ninth in Cape Town with a time of 2:16:33 in September. Based on that performance, you might think Kawauchi is short of the form needed to hit his New York targets. But it is unwise to read too much into his times. The constraints of working 9-5 mean weekend races often function as long training runs, supplementing his five weekly tempo runs (“80 to 100 minutes with 5 minutes pace per kilometre”) and once-weekly speed session.
He wasn’t always so contrary.
“I ran under the direction of a coach for 10 years,” he admits, “after which I started to have the desire to run my own way. I began to design my own training programme and soon my dream to run in non-elite races, not only in Japan, but also the rest of the world became a reality. Where previously running had been hard labour and more like a duty, I began selecting races based on my likes and dislikes and the marathon became the most interesting and best soul mate for me.”
The desire to “run freely without coaches or sponsors” meant a career as an administrator. He receives no special treatment from his employers. “The paid vacation I take for races and training I use responsibly, just like everyone else in the office,” he says.
Kawauchi admits his training would be different if he ran full time, probably incorporating more trail runs. Yet he suspects that lifestyle would not suit his mental approach: “Yes my times might get faster if I ran full time, but you never know. They might not because my focus may be lost with having lots of [spare] time.”
When he does enter a race to race, Kawauchi invests his all. He is not a poker-faced assassin who grinds down opponents by showing no weakness. Teeth gritted, face contorted, arms flailing, he competes like it’s a battle, pushing himself and his rivals until one of them breaks. “The love of racing” means going to a place where pain loses relevance.
Being assisted at the end of last year's New York Marathon, where he finished 11th for a second successive year
He adheres to his ideology no matter what. Before last year’s Asian Games, Kawauchi stated that unless he won gold, he would not attempt to make the Japanese team for the 2015 World Championships. He finished third, losing out in a punishing three-way tussle round the final quarter-mile. True to his word, he steered clear of any trial events. Back in 2012 he failed to make the team for the London Olympics, so shaved his head in shame.
In December he will run the Fukuoka Marathon. Fail to win that and, he says, the Rio Olympics will be out of the frame.
“Winning the Fukuoka International Marathon will take me to Rio, but if I lose the chance will be zero. My plan will not go forward without a victory in Fukuoka.”
By sacrificing the conventional, athletes can achieve just as much as they would by towing the line. Just ask Nick Symmonds. Indeed, Kawauchi’s ambitions are no different to those of a pro. It is his priorities that are different.
“I have nothing against professional runners,” he says, “but I think it would be great if the sport saw more success from amateur runners and could inspire more of us to run purely for the love of racing the marathon.
“When I hear professional runners say ‘I don't like running. I run as work,’ or ‘Olympics are my life. As soon as I fall from the top level, I will retire,’ it is very sad and disappointing.”
Crossing the line to win the 2012 Sydney marathon in 2:11:52. It was his sixth marathon of nine that year
He says he would like to compete in Boston, Berlin, Paris and London, the latter as experience ahead of the 2017 World Championships in the British capital, where he is already targeting a medal.
“Though I know it would be hard to make the podium at my current ability, running London would help my experience leading up to the world champs.”
Kawauchi already has a team medal: silver in the 2011 World Marathon Cup, earned because of a strong Japanese team performance in the marathon at the Daegu World Championships. Though there is a desire to add an individual medal in London, Kawauchi’s more general ambitions align with his philosophy.
“My ultimate goal is running races all over the world for as long as possible, and achieving a sub 2:20 time in 100 races breaking the current record of 76 owned by Doug Kurtis from the U.S..”
That goal is long-term. Short term aims – first: breaking into the top ten in New York; second: winning in Fukuoka – are important, but not absolute.
“Unlike professional runners, amateur runners never retire. Everyone sets their own goals whether it be by age, by gender, or one's life situation. Of course, winning in the Olympics is a great achievement. My hope, however, is a greater awareness and love of the marathon sport made up of amateur athletes, professionals, and fans.”
That noble hope should be given an elevated platform with a strong run at the New York Marathon, which Kawauchi says is “one of the best in the world”.
Given he’s run more of them than most, he ought to know.