As reported on this blog last week, Yuki Kawauchi, a cult figure on the world marathon circuit, took part in a 50k race over the weekend. Kawauchi, best known for his third place finish at the Tokyo Marathon in February, started the Okinoshima Ultra Marathon on Sunday.
This was surprising news, given that elite marathon runners tend to steer clear of Ultra races, so many were intruiged by Kawauchi’s potential capability over the distance. Leading from the gun, he raced hard over a tough course and collapsed in the final kilometre. Perhaps this is no surprise. The Japanese athlete is well known for pushing his body right to its very limit in the marathon, having required medical attention after 5 of his 6 marathon races to date. The extra 8 kilometres may have been just too much for the 24 year old.
Kawauchi’s ability to push himself harder than most athletes is what sets him apart. It is also a perfect case study for students of Tim Noakes’ Central Governor theory. The central governor is not so much a tangible part of the brain, but a system in the brain that prevents overexertion according to the brain’s perceived physiological limits. In other words, one’s ability to exert oneself is governed centrally. Your body stops you before you stop it.
Noakes’ theory that the most successful athletes are those with the ability to override the central governor, to push the body to its limit. The signals from the brain to the muscles to slow down are just not as effective in elite athletes, a result of years of hard training. This immunity to pain is what drives these athletes to great success, but it can also be the downfall of some athletes. Literally, in Kawauchi’s case.
Of course, this time the central governor won, and the fact that he collapsed just 600m short of the line shows just how hard he was able to push himself. Of course, I hope that Yuki Kawauchi never fully wins the battle against his central governor because according to Noakes’ theory, this will mean he has died. But then again, to quote Kawauchi himself: “every time I run, it’s with the mindset that if I die at this race it’s OK.”
And us runners wonder why people don’t understand us…
Note: Credit for this blog post is due to the Japan Running News blog, an excellent Engligh language blog on the running scene in Japan.
“every time I run, it’s with the mindset that if I die at this race it’s OK”
This week I was totally won over and inspired by the new Japanese distance running sensation Yuki Kawauchi.
Sunday 27th February saw the latest edition of the Tokyo Marathon, a race increasing in popularity and set to rival the world marathon majors before too long. The withdrawal of Haile Gebrsellassie meant that the race was wide open, and in its role as a Japanese trial for the 2011 World Championships in Daegu, was bound to be a competitive one.
Kawauchi’s story is compelling. On graduation from university, he rejected a contract with one of the Japanese corporate teams in order to run as an individual and be flexible with his training and races. He took a job in a school and decided to fit his training in around his 45 hour working week, often meaning that he could train just once per day.
Last weekend he took part in the Tokyo race where he had placed 4th the previous year. I will not try and attempt to describe what happens, as Brett Larner does it better than I ever could in his Japan Running News blog (the video alone is worth a watch). In short, he ploughs through the field in the last 10k, passing several professional runners – most notably the much fancied debutant Yoshinori Oda – from the corporate teams to finish third in 2:08:37, bagging himself third position prize money, a BMW and a spot on the Japanese team for the World Championships in Daegu.
But what makes Kawauchi’s story so inspiring? He didn’t even win after all, finishing a whole minute behind the Ethiopian victor Hailu Mekonnen. Why is the running world going crazy about a man who is just one of many sub 2:10 men in the world today?
The reason his story is so gripping is that people can identify with it. Though I could never claim to be a working class hero myself, his tale of dedication and perseverance combined with a ferocious work ethic in training strikes a chord with me as I try to fit my training in around a demanding job (in a school like YK himself, coincidentally). His training reportedly consists of a 2 hour morning session before his shift at school which usually takes place between midday and 9pm, with other sessions fitted in whenever possible. It was also reported that the morning after his heroics in Tokyo, he had to do his recovery run before 6am in order to get in early to process applications.
At the time of writing he is in the process of negotiating time off with his employers so that he can take up his place in the World Championships team in August.
His attitude is a throwback to the amateur era before athletes began earning money from athletics, and it shows that if you work hard enough and are committed enough to your training you can be successful. Clearly talent and luck play a role, but a minor one in comparison to hard work. My coach is well known for his assertion that running is “90% above the shoulders” and Kawauchi confirms this. It is heartening to know that by training your body and mind to go further and faster than ever before you can be successful. The look on his face as he storms through the final 3km of the Tokyo Marathon is a picture of agony, a picture of a man so far into the hurt zone that he’s nearly coming out the other side, but most of all a picture of dedication.
I won’t be running 2:08 any time soon, but every time I race I will be attempting to ‘do a Kawauchi.’
Yuki Kawauchi, I salute you.