As part of a new relationship with New York Road Runners, the top two finishers in November’s Ageo City Half-Marathon earned invitations to compete in Sunday’s NYC Half. So on Thursday, Japanese collegians Kenta Murayama and Kento Otsu found themselves just one table away from Bernard Lagat at a press conference.
Murayama, 20, and Otsu, 21, are already distance superstars in their country. A few months after his Ageo win in 1:02:46 last November, Murayama set a personal best of 1:01:19 in winning the Marugame Half-Marathon, and he is the 2012 National University Ekiden Champion in a nation that treats major ekiden (relay) races as if they were the Super Bowl. Otsu has made his mark, as well, leading his Toyo University team to a record-breaking victory in the 2012 Hakone Ekiden, perhaps the granddaddy of them all.
Despite his impressive time in finishing fourth in the Marugame race, Murayama said on Thursday that he might have been intimidated by the top Africans in the field, and so didn’t run as aggressively as he should have. At the finish line on Sunday, he said, he doesn’t want to have any regrets.
“It’s OK if I fail,” he said through a translator, “but I want to push ahead as much as possible.”
Because of his stature in Japan, he said, a lot of people back home will be paying attention to the race. “It makes me feel that I need to have a good result,” he said.
Asked which international runners he was most eager to face, the interview took an unexpected turn. Murayama’s face lit up. “Bernard Lagat,” he said. “He is very much famous.”
And what would it feel like to run alongside Lagat?
“That would be the best feeling,” he said, his expression needing no translation that such an encounter would be a dream come true. “I think it’s an opportunity to learn from him, to absorb his strength. I have a younger brother and I want to get a picture taken with Lagat for him. It will be a bragging point.”
When Lagat concluded a video interview, he was told that the young Japanese runners would like to meet him. As he walked over, they beamed, bowing as they clutched his hand. The three posed for photos together, with the star-struck young men handing over their smartphones to the photographers when the pros had finished getting their own shots.
“That’s very special,” said Lagat, honored to be viewed as a runner with the kind of integrity to inspire such awe. “It’s the stuff that I don’t take lightly.”
Murayama had just one word for the encounter.
“Unbelievable,” he said.
In photo: From left: Kento Otsu, Bernard Lagat, Kenta Murayama
“Our races are to our sport what Wimbledon and the Australian, U.S., and French Opens are to tennis, and what the Masters, U.S., and British Opens and PGA Championship are to golf. Each race has the history, the tradition, the honor roll of legendary champions, and a special place in the eyes of all to make them stand apart from the other events.” Mary Wittenberg