Yuki Kawauchi, Citizen Marathon Runner
When Yuki Kawauchi broke the tape as third overall and the first Japanese finisher at the Tokyo Marathon in February, the 24-year-old stood out from the crowd.
Not for his lean 5’7, 130 lb distance runner physique, not because he collapsed and was taken to the medical tent, and not even because his stellar time of 2:08:37 won him a chance to run on the Japanese men’s marathon team at the IAAF World Track and Field Championships’ Marathon in Daegu, Korea, later this year. Mr. Kawauchi stood out because unlike most elite-level runners in Japan, who’re backed by a corporation, he’s an amateur in the full sense of the word.
Dubbed the “Citizen Runner” in the next day’s local headlines, he works a regular job a full five days a week and pays his own expenses. The key to his success? Working hard, being in excellent condition, but above all having fun. “Working hard for the sake of working hard won’t lead to results. You have to be careful of injury, train efficiently, and remember that you are training because you love to run. I think that an athlete discovers the joy of track when he or she is able to stay injury-free and perform in ways that the athlete wants to.”
Until now, almost all elite Japanese runners have been on a corporate-based team. Corporate athletes are employees, but spend most of their day training for corporate championship races and “ekidens,” or distance relays, where they run wearing corporate colors—a system similar to American colleges giving scholarships to student athletes. But Mr. Kawauchi does not sport a company singlet. Instead, as a civil servant at Saitama prefectural government, Mr. Kawauchi does office work for Kasukabe Night School. He pays the expenses for his training, which he says can add up to 1 million yen (just under $12,500) per year, out of his own pocket, and he will use his paid-leave to compete in the big race in the fall. He works a regular 8-9 hour day from Monday through Friday—12:45 p.m. to 9:15 p.m. during the school year, and from 10:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. when school is not in session.
His running career started early in his home area of Tokyo at first grade, with his parents’ encouragement. After early years of practice with his mother, he ran for his junior high and high school track teams, like many avid Japanese youngsters, putting in hours and hours of training after school throughout the year. But after that, he carved out a path of his own. He had to. Mr. Kawauchi’s performance in high school was hindered by injury: He didn’t make a college team. Adding to that injury, his father died in an accident his senior year in high school. Still, he didn’t give up his love for the sport, running for Gakushuin University as a walk-on.
But he says his performance was less than stellar. “I didn’t get enthusiastic recruit reviews from corporate teams, and my coach told me, ‘It’s going to be hard to make a living through running.’ So I decided to pursue my other dream of promoting the region I live in.”
Naturally, Mr. Kawauchi is crunched for time, and cannot train three times a day like many runners on corporate teams. He only runs 600 km (about 373 miles) a month—about half of what corporate runners put in. But Mr. Kawauchi does what he can with the resources he has. He designs his training based on what he found to work for him—a combination of training elements he used in secondary school and college. A typical week includes one speed workout, one 35 to 45km (22 to 28 miles) long run, and a trail run in the mountains. On other days, he runs between 75-100 minutes.
While he admits that he sometimes wishes he had more time to devote to training, he says “the limit on time forces me to train efficiently and increases my motivation for my weekend training.” Mr. Kawauchi says aspiring runners should keep their perspectives broad.
“Instead of thinking you have to be either a corporate runner or quit, I want young runners to figure out what works for them, and work hard.”
As for shorter-range ambitions, Mr. Kawauchi’s goals for the Worlds are to finish among the top eight overall, and stimulate interest in the Japanese running community. And so how do you win a marathon? Mr. Kawauchi believes that the key is “how much physical and emotional resilience you can leave in you until it’s time to push.”