Yuki Kawauchi in the marathon at the IAAF World Championships (© Getty Images)
Runners can usually be put into one box or another. Fans often apply contrasting tags: front-runner versus sit-and-kicker, record breaker versus championship winner, cool tactician versus slug-it-out competitor.
Some – a handful, perhaps – defy categorisation. Meet Yuki Kawauchi. He doesn’t fit neatly into any box.
When Kawauchi puts his toe on the line at the IAAF Gold Label Gold Coast Marathon on Sunday (2 July), he will be embarking on his 70th career marathon. Most – 48 – have been 2:15 or faster; a significant number – 14 – sub-2:10. His best is 2:08:14.
It is a body of work virtually unprecedented among world-class marathoners. But it is the style of Kawauchi’s running which appeals more than the raw numbers. He gives his all, sometimes falling behind in races only to come charging back into contention, his face contorted in a trademark grimace. Some, though not all that many, race faster; few race harder.
If you drew up a check-list of attributes of the model modern marathon runner, Kawauchi would tick very few. Full-time runner – no; long blocks of unbroken training – no; one, at most two, marathons a year – no, no and no again. Kawauchi opted for an academic university rather than one of the sporting powerhouses and works full-time for the Saitama Prefectural Government rather than ‘work’ for one of the corporate-sponsored running teams. When he travels to races outside Japan, he uses up some of his annual leave.
No guru, no method, no teacher then? Not quite: like most prodigious racers, Kawauchi uses many of his competitions as virtual training runs. While the current distance training trend is for lots of race-pace sessions, Kawauchi just races.
In this, he is not unlike 1960s running legend Ron Clarke. When Clarke published a list of his races in Ron Clarke Talks Track, it made daunting reading. He listed up to 50 races a year, and those who knew him well – like Glenhuntly and Olympic teammates Trevor Vincent and Tony Cook – could tell you this did not include a few club-versus-club races and winter road and cross-country events.
Similarly, Kawauchi’s racing schedule is the sort of thing that can make you fit – or tired – just reading it. Brett Larner, whose Japan Running News blog provides an excellent chronicle of elite Japanese distance running, has a ‘Kawauchi counter’ to track his races. It shows he raced 45 times in 2015, 13 marathons, 10 half-marathons, a 30km and a 50km (run at 2:18-marathon pace) among them.
And while Kawauchi does not have a coach, he has drawn from the legacy of famed New Zealand coach Arthur Lydiard. After running personal bests at 1500m and 3000m in rare track races in 2012, he told Japan Running News that running long did not come at the cost of lost speed.
“It reinforced to me that Lydiard was right when he said that marathon training doesn’t just give you better stamina but also improves your speed. The mainstream approach right now is to work on speed, but I want to take the approach of working on distance. Amateur runners have few opportunities to do high-quality speed training, and the risk of injury is much higher. A lot of people also think that doing marathon training will make you slower, but if I can show them that that's not true I'll be very happy.”
Larner, who knows Kawauchi well and is writing a biography, endorses the racing-as-training aspect of his approach. He says the quality and quantity of Kawauchi’s racing is sometimes misunderstood or exaggerated.
“Most of his racing is not really much faster than what a lot of Japanese elites do in training for comparable workouts like 40km time trials,” Larner says. “It is simply visible because he does it in public instead of backroads or isolated areas of Hokkaido like everyone else.”
It also fits more readily into the lifestyle of a full-time worker who also happens to be a world-class distance runner.
“Due to his work schedule, (Yuki) is unable to do much serious quality during the week, leaving weekends as the only option. Races offer the opportunity to do high-quality training and sharpen his racing ability, so they became part of his approach as a training tool.”
For all that, Kawauchi’s approach remains highly unusual. Among track runners, Clarke’s emphasis on racing over training is comparable but perhaps the most successful marathon runner with a similar regimen was Sweden’s Kjell-Eril Stahl.
Stahl was good enough to finish fourth at the first IAAF World championships in Helsinki in 1983. His 2:10:38 was a personal best and left him just 35 seconds behind the winner, Rob de Castella. He lost the bronze medal on the track by just one second to dual Olympic champion Waldemar Cierpinski.
Association of Road Running Statisticians statistics list Stahl as running 11 marathons in 1983, including his PB at the World Championships. Moreover, he was in the midst of a four-year period when he ran 45 marathons. Most were sub-2:20, his better ones 2:12 and below.
Similarly, Kawauchi ran his fastest marathon in Seoul in 2013 and ran 46 marathons in the four years 2012-15. Not every one of his marathons is quick, but he has run faster than 2:10 in 14 races.
Kawauchi has been selected to represent Japan at the IAAF World Championships London 2017 in August. It will be his third World Championships team, having finished 17th in 2011 and 18th in 2013. It is a safe bet he will be the only man on the line to have raced two marathons (Stockholm and the Gold Coast) and a 50km in the previous two months.
That might be cause to write off most normal marathon runners. But Yuki Kawauchi is not your normal marathon runner.
Len Johnson for the IAAF