At just 30 years old, Yuki Kawauchi is in a distance running category of his own. As of January 1, he has run the most sub-2:20 marathons of anyone, ever—76. He’s also run the most sub-2:12 marathons of anyone, ever—25. Kawauchi—one guy—has run more sub-2:10 marathons since 2011 than the whole United States put together. Kawauchi’s best time for 2017—2:09:18—was two seconds faster than the fastest marathon of the year by any U.S. man, which would be Galen Rupp, who ran a career best of 2:09:20 in Chicago. Rupp, like most athletes at that level, ran two marathons in 2017. Kawauchi ran 12.
His singularity continues. Distance running at the top levels is dominated by East Africans; he’s Japanese. Most elite marathoners train with a group and a coach, with corporate sponsorship that allows them to train full-time. They run twice a day, spend time at altitude, and have access to the latest equipment, nutrition, and sport science. Kawauchi has neither coach nor training group nor corporate sponsorship. He fits once-a-day workouts around his full-time government job. He made his own home gym, and is more likely to look at the methods of great runners of the past than the training philosophy du jour. He’s wildly popular in Japan, and is one of the few distance runners anywhere with a truly global fan base.
Critics point to his relatively poor performances in big races—World Championships and World Marathon Majors—and the fact that his personal best of 2:08:14 is more than five minutes off the world record, not even close to the top 200 performances all-time.
But, the fact that this one guy has run consistently faster times than all U.S. marathoners combined, without all their resources, and seems to be having a grand time doing it, makes him worth listening to.
In March 2017, Ayano Onodera, an editor with Japanese media company SportsNavi, published Kawauchi’s extensive views on training and racing, and the future of Japanese running. The three-part essay was translated by editor of the English language blog Japan Running News, Brett Larner. Though it was not meant to be didactic, U.S. distance runners might at least be inspired to think differently about their pursuit. As Kawauchi said, “That’s why I want to show all the athletes at the powerful running schools [in Japan] 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.”
With that in mind, here are the most actionable takeaways from Kawauchi’s interview.
1. Incorporating jogging. Most top American runners would never on God’s earth use the term “jogging” to describe any part of their training, but Kawauchi loves it:
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.
2. Once-a-day training. Kawauchi trains once a day, mostly out of necessity since he works a full-time job. Most pro runners, on all continents, run twice a day, racking up mega miles which increase chances of injury.
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 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.
3. Being globally competitive. U.S. and Japanese distance runners are both struggling to be competitive in a sport dominated by East Africans. The goals and thought processes of runners in both countries are quite similar. Kawauchi offers the idea that marathoners can be competitive without running a 2:03 marathon.
The number of them [Japanese runners] 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.”
...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.
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. 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.”
4. Medaling or getting on the podium is not about running world-record pace for 26.2 miles, but running world-record pace for two or three miles late in the race. Championship style races, i.e. those without pacemakers in which runners are competing for a place rather than a time, are often won in 2:08 or 2:09 though the field is loaded with 2:04 speedsters. The podium spots are taken by runners who best weathered a couple fast miles between 20 and 22, and slowed the least after that. While he admits he hasn’t mastered it, Kawauchi says the key to medaling is late race surges.
... 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.... 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 [Kazuhiro] 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 10,000 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 [instead of the 15:31 Rupp ran] for the next 5 km after 35 km, you’d be in the race for a medal.
5. Running marathons is okay for young guns, if they approach it with a veteran’s sense of humility and patience. The conventional wisdom is that speed has an expiration date, so young, talented distance runners are counseled to stick with the short stuff, 5K and 10K. It’s thought marathon training will kill your speed so most top runners are around 30 years old when they run their first marathon. Kawauchi thinks it’s fine to apply the strength and speed of youth to the marathon, but cautions to check the youthful ego and impatience. You don’t want to “die and taste the torments of hell, to suffer injury and trauma that will destroy your self-confidence.”
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. 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.
[And second], 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.