Between now and the ING New York City Marathon on November 3, Marathon News Service will take an occasional look "Beyond the Stats" at the special stories of some of the professional athletes set to compete.
Imagine if—in American team sports—a dominant player emerged without the support of any teammates or coaching staff. Imagine settling down on your couch one Sunday afternoon this fall to watch the New York Jets take on…Tom Brady? There’s Tom Brady at quarterback, completing a pass to Tom Brady. Tom Brady running the defense. Tom Brady holding a clipboard on the sidelines in that silly-looking sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off.
And imagine if Tom Brady won? In the world of Japanese marathon running, this scenario isn’t so far-fetched, thanks to the meteoric rise of the independent “citizen runner” Yuki Kawauchi.
To understand Kawauchi’s massive popularity in his homeland, it helps to understand the Japanese model for supporting top athletes. In Japan, good runners emerging from the university system are typically recruited by well-funded corporate-sponsored running teams, like Kodak or Toyota or cosmetics giant Shiseido. These athletes are ostensibly employees of the company, but their job is to train and race. They receive a salary, coaching, medical treatment, shoes and gear, and (often) housing, and in return, they act as living, breathing, fast-running billboards for the company. Very few Japanese athletes have ever attempted to exist outside this system. Even fewer have been successful doing so. Singlehandedly, Kawauchi is turning that model on its ear.
Kawauchi was a decent enough athlete when he graduated from Gakushuin University in northwest Tokyo in 2008, but not quite good enough to be courted by a corporate team. Instead, like many of us, he got a job, moved to the suburbs, and ran “for fun,” putting in his training around his position as a clerk at a high school in Saitama Prefecture, just outside Tokyo. Unlike many of us, he ran sub-2:20 in his first three marathons, all within one nine-month span in 2009. Kawauchi first appeared on the radar of many U.S. running fans with his surprise third-place finish in the Tokyo Marathon in early 2011. He collapsed and was taken to the medical tent after that race, a not-uncommon occurrence for the hard-charging Kawauchi, who has been rushed to the medical area or hospital after a race on at least seven different occasions, most recently at the IAAF World Championships in Moscow in August.
While running geeks in the U.S. were buzzing about the intense Kawauchi—he once shaved his head in penance when he felt he disappointed his fans after a bad race— in running-mad Japan, Kawauchi was nearing rock-star status, thanks to a robust racing schedule (34 races in 2012, including 17 wins and 10 marathons or ultras), and a respectfully outspoken persona; he often encourages people to think independently and live for themselves. Fueled by the swarm of media that follows him nearly everywhere he goes, the Kawauchi Legend is only growing: Of the 21 races he ran between January 13 and July 15 of this year, he won 14 of them. He ran a personal-best 2:08:15 in a marathon in Japan on February 3, and then improved that time by one second in a race in Korea 14 days later; it was the shortest time-span in history between two 2:08 marathons. He finished a disappointing 18th at the warm and humid World Championships—he has said that he may give up racing in hot weather—but he plans to run another marathon in Australia before he runs in New York, and then to close out 2013 with two more marathons in December. He’s a legitimate threat to win any of them.
The ING New York City Marathon will be Kawauchi’s first-ever trip to the United States, and after the race he’ll speak to reporters, get cleaned up, and quickly make his way to the airport for his 14-hour flight back to Japan. Like most of us, the “citizen runner” has to be back at work the next day.
Photo Credit: PhotoRun