In order to separate and clarify the elements of breakthrough marathon performance, we need to acknowledge some of the most widespread problems. A marathoner's worst nightmare - hitting the wall - might be easily avoidable for runners who adhere to pace and mileage levels that conserve carbohydrates, the body's main source of quick-burn energy and follow a progressive training plan with a wide sweeping impact on V02 max and lactate threshold, key physiological variables that affect endurance running success.
If people were asked to name five countries with outstanding running cultures, Japan would probably not show up on anyone’s list. But Japan has one of the most extraordinary running cultures on the planet, unlike anything I’ve ever come across. Thousands of professional runners compete for corporate teams in some of the most competitive races in the world. The 135-mile Ekiden Relay Race is the nation’s premier sporting event. The legendary ‘Marathon Monks’ run a thousand marathons in a thousand days in their quest for spiritual enlightenment.
Yuki Kawauchi of Setagaya, Tokyo, recently turned a very bright light on his country’s running legacy at the Marshfield New Year’s Day Marathon. Not only did he win with a world-leading time of 2:18:59, he did so in bone-chilling (1° F, / -13° C) Massachusetts weather.
The Most sub-2:20 Marathons
There are no excuses or race day frills at the Marshfield Marathon, one of the oldest in the US; runners just show up and run for free — and pre-registration is not allowed! At the frigid event on January 1, 2018, just three runners signed up to run the full 26.2 distance; Yuki was the only one who finished. He was so cold at the start that by 5K that he wondered why he was even racing at all.
After lagging behind his goal pace for much of the chilly race, he eventually warmed up and got the job done. He reportedly ran 1:10:29 for the first half of the race before negative-splitting in the second half (1:08:30) to dip under 2:20 for the 76th time in his career. The performance set a new world record for the most marathons run under 2:20, for which Kawauchi was previously tied with American Doug Kurtis at 75 respectively.
“At halfway I didn’t think I could do it and it seemed like it was going to end up being my slowest marathon ever. But I came all the way to the U.S.A. to do this and the people of Marshfield put in a lot of work to organize everything for me, so I had to do everything I could to live up to my word,” he told New England Runner. “I have run a lot of marathons and so it’s tough to compare the weather, but I can say this is the coldest weather I have ever run a marathon in. This was good training for the Antarctica Marathon.”
The People’s Champion
Affectionately known as “the citizen’s runner, “Kawauchi became an inspiration for Japan’s millions of weekend warriors when he worked a full-time job as a government clerk with Saitama Prefectural Government. He holds a personal best of 2:08:41 and will surely be running the Boston Marathon in April. According to his upcoming race schedule, he will run three marathons before Boston.
Kawauchi is just one sub-2:10 away from tying Ethiopian Tsegaye Kebede’s record of 17 career marathons under 2:10. According to Brett Larner of Japan Running News, Kawauchi’s goal is to run 100 2:20 marathons before the 2010 Olympics in Tokyo. The next Summer Games are about 30 months away, so time appears to be on his side.
Much of the miracle of Japanese running remains a mystery to the outside world. An honored Japanese coach once referred to his philosophy as Zensho, ‘running with Zen.’ The Japanese people certainly have been recognized for their powers of concentration. They seem to run with heightened senses, their clear eyes focused on the horizon. All the force is channeled into flow.
Whether Yuki is a disciple of a Zen Master or simply a marathon rock-star, what I love the most about him is his positive, attacking style and his unimaginable patience with difficulty. By the end of the year, world-leading men’s marathon times are usually in the 2:03-2:04 range. But Yuki may have just run the coldest sub-2:20 marathon ever and his record-setting performance certainly did start 2018 off with a bang!