Citizen Kawauchi

by Kensatsukan Gaijin

Last weekend’s New York City Marathon was a big success, but with all the attention paid to the 1st 10 finishers, you might have missed the #11 finisher, Japan’s Yuki Kawauchi.  While Masato Imai finished #7 with a strong 2:14:36, Kawauchi’s time of 2:16:41 is, in some ways, even more inspiring.  While his speed is extraordinary (he finished the Seoul marathon in 2:08:14), his background is even more amazing.  

That’s because Kawauchi, the so-called “citizen runner,” has turned the running world on its head.  Despite his astounding skill, he is not a professional runner at all; instead he is a full-time Saitama government clerk, who runs only on his spare time.  An enthusiastic runner during his university years, Kawauchi was brushed off by corporate teams upon graduation because they felt he didn’t have the talent for professional running.  Instead, he has been training around his 40-hour-per-week job and racing on the weekends. Yet he entered his first marathon in 2009, finishing in a respectable 2:19. Encouraged, Kawauchi entered another marathon a month later and bettered his time by a minute.  Then, in 2012, he entered nine marathons, winning five of them, and six half-marathons, coming in first in three. He also set the course record at a 50k ultramarathon. So far in 2013, he’s run at least 15 races of half-marathon distance or longer, including his marathon best of 2:08:15. On June 16, he came in first in yet another 50k. At the finish line, according to Japan Running News, he collapsed and had to be taken to the hospital.

Conventional strategies dictate a two-month buildup in training for a marathon and about a month of recovery, making four 26.2 mile races per year a full schedule for a top runner. Elite marathoners may race just once or twice a year to ensure they’re both fit and rested enough to give a supreme effort. In 2010 and 2011, by contrast, Kawauchi raced nearly every weekend at distances from half-marathon to marathon, even completing a 50k ultramarathon. That calendar notwithstanding, he progressed from impressive citizen runner to impossible-to-ignore elite performer, crossing the line in 2:08:37 at the internationally competitive 2011 Tokyo Marathon. He came in third, first Japanese, beating the many professional runners in the field.

The personal cost to Kawauchi is great.  Corporate runners receive a salary, as well as gear, coaching, health care, travel, and entry fees. Kawauchi pays all his expenses himself, expenses that he estimates at $12,500 a year.  He routinely rejects sponsorships, free gym memberships, and all sorts of perks that are routine for professional runners, for as a government worker, he is not allowed to accept gratuities. Professional runners resent his cult status.  

However, despite his unpopularity in the professional running community, the Japanese public love him.  At a 30k race in Japan this February, 180,000 spectators packed the course—30,000 more than the previous year—a fact the race organizer credited to Kawauchi’s appearance.  That doesn’t mean that Kawauchi is any easier on himself; when he beat all the professional runners at the Fukuoka Marathon with a 2:09 time that still did not qualify him for the London Olympics, he declared that he would run the Tokyo Marathon two weeks later in 2:07.  When he finished in 2:12, he called his time “disgraceful,” and shaved his head in shame.  Prior to the October 3rd Asian Games marathon (one month ago—unthinkably close for any other runner), Kawauchi said if he didn't win gold, he would remove himself from contention for the 2015 World Championship team. In a teeth-gritted sprint finish, Kawauchi placed third, four seconds out of first. True to his word, he said he would not run any of the selection races for the World Championships and would not attempt another world-level berth until he's improved his marathon time.

Kawauchi’s devotion is extraordinary.  The organizers of the 2013 Egyptian Marathon agreed to pay his travel expenses, but Kawauchi missed his flight after arriving at the airport without his passport. He decided to pay 800,000 yen (US$9,000) for a replacement flight – an amount that equated to a quarter of his yearly salary. The decision paid off as he reached the starting line for the marathon and won with a time of 2:12:24 – the fastest ever for a race in Egypt. Then, less than three weeks later he ran at the Beppu-Ōita Marathon and he reached the top of the Japanese rankings by winning the race in a personal best of 2:08:15 hours.  

Interested in training like Kawauchi?  Here’s how he manages to work a 40 hour a week job and still be a championship runner: "I work out once a day, in the morning. I work from 12:45 to 9:15 pm in the office of an adult continuing education school, accepting fees, answering the phone.” "I run about 140K [86 miles] per week. Monday and Tuesday are just jogging. On Wednesday I do intervals or a tempo run. The intervals might be 10 x 1,000m in about three minutes or just under. I’ll also do interval workouts like 20 x 400m, and that’ll be at a slightly faster pace. Thursday and Friday are just jogging, and if I don’t have a race on Sunday, I’ll do something serious on Saturday like a long tempo run. When I do have a race on Sunday, Saturday will be relatively easy."