Sports Nut

Marathon Everyman

Yuki Kawauchi is a world-class athlete, a full-time government clerk, and a Japanese national hero. Could he change the way we think about running?

In this handout photo provided by the Sydney Running Festival, Yuki Kawauchi of Japan crosses the line to win in record time in the marathon during the Sydney Running Festival on September 16, 2012 in Sydney, Australia.,71388746
Yuki Kawauchi crosses the finish line to set a marathon record during the Sydney Running Festival on Sept. 16, 2012, in Sydney.

Photo by Sportshoot/Getty Images,Handout

Quick, who is the world record holder in the marathon? No Googling. OK, I’ll make it easier—name any distance runner.

Depending on your age and interest in running, Haile Gebrselassie may have popped to mind, the archetypical Ethiopian running 10k to and from school with books under his arm. Perhaps you went with a woman: Switzer, Benoit Samuelson, or Waitz. And maybe you thought of elfin Bill Rodgers flying around the corner onto Boylston Street in a Sharpie-lettered T-shirt, or the defiant and doomed Prefontaine, or wraith-like Abebe Bikila, gliding barefoot through the streets of Rome.

All of these runners’ careers are studded with epic victories and records. But unlike the current marathon world record holder, Kenya’s Patrick Makau—about whom even I, a running geek, know nothing aside from his marvelous time of 2:03:38—these athletes inspired generations of runners due to the strength of their personalities and their stories. (Rodgers was a smoker when he started running but said the exercise dulled his appetite for nicotine.) Lately, distance running has succumbed to the allure of impossibly fast times set by a quick-flowing stream of anonymous, interchangeable, sponsor-wrapped blades, slicing seconds off the world record. Times are faster, but who cares? Two hours and three minutes is not inherently interesting—people are.

Enter 26-year-old full-time government clerk Yuki Kawauchi of Saitama Prefecture, Japan. While Kawauchi’s 2:08 marathon best can’t compare to Makau’s 2:03, his unconventional methods and stubborn seclusion from corporate interests have energized the sport in a way no other modern athlete has.

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. Undeterred, he ran on his own, for pleasure, training around his 40-hour-per-week job and racing on the weekends. 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.

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 marathon-crazy Japanese public love Kawauchi’s salaryman background and teeth-gritting running style. 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. The scene was described this way by the daily sports newspaper Sports Hochi: “ ‘You’re #1 in Japan!’ people shouted, their jaws dropping when they saw him and the crowds pressing onto the course to get closer, young and old, men and women, boys and girls alike. There was no doubt Kawauchi fever had hit.” (That translation is by Brett Larner of the English-language site Japan Running News, the source for many of the quotations in this story.)

Unlike the smooth and outwardly impassive professional runners, Kawauchi grimaces, and his arms flail. He appears to be struggling, yet he hangs on, often collapsing at the finish. Even so, he insists marathon running is “fun.”

This brand of fun, and his stubbornly independent methods—“[I want] to find out whether the common sense of the running world is really any kind of sense at all,” he told Larner in 2012—explain his frequent racing, though he has admitted that his performances may suffer for it.

Still, Kawauchi is adamant about doing things his own way: racing often, paying for his own kit, and being back at the desk on Monday. He estimates his training expenses at about $12,500 per year and once paid $9,000, about three months’ salary, to get a last-minute flight to a marathon in Egypt. Corporate runners receive a salary, as well as gear, coaching, health care, travel, and entry fees. At this point, given his popularity, race directors are offering to pay Kawauchi’s travel expenses and waive his entry fees, and he could probably live off his prize earnings. But the citizen marathoner has chosen to structure his life as if he ran in an era before star athletes profited from their fame. He says his clerking job broadens his perspective, forces him to train more efficiently, and makes him keen for those long weekend runs. It’s also part of his iconoclastic persona. His is a unique strategy for any 2:08 marathoner and all the more unusual in tradition-heavy, protocol-laden Japan.

As much as fans love him, Kawauchi is not as popular with those in Japan’s pro system. Getting bested by a self-coached auto-didact with a full-time job does not sit well. He is besieged by reporters at every appearance and takes the opportunities to do some saber-rattling (“2:06 is within sight”), as well as to remind young runners that signing on with a corporation is not a prerequisite to success. Tension escalated during the selection process for the 2012 Olympic marathon team. Kawauchi was, once again, the first Japanese at the 2012 Fukuoka Marathon, one of the Olympic qualifiers. Despite the fact that he had beaten all the professional runners, who had access to the best gear, coaching, and facilities, the Japan Association of Athletics Federations said Kawauchi’s time of 2:09 was too slow for London.

The salaryman’s supporters assumed their man had been overlooked because he was not on a corporate team. Kawauchi, though, agreed with the JAAF, saying his time was “not even close to being competitive on a world scale”—a self-critical declaration that also happened to backhand all the pros he’d beaten. The second Olympic qualifier, the Tokyo Marathon, was just two weeks later, the assumption being that candidates would run one or the other, not both. Not one to rest on his laurels, or really rest at all, Kawauchi announced he would run in Tokyo, this time shooting for 2:07. On a warm day, Kawauchi missed some drink bottles and finished in what he called a “disgraceful” 2:12:51. Feeling he’d let down his fans, he shaved his head saying, “It’s better that my shame be exposed for everyone to see.”

Though he was not chosen for the Japanese Olympic team, all of this back and forth only elevated Kawauchi’s folk hero status and deepened his commitment to a seemingly impossible schedule. 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.

This one man’s sharp departure from tradition has caused what famed marathoner and now corporate coach Toshihiko Seko calls the Kawauchi Effect. Professional Japanese runners have upped their game, with six men dipping under the 2:09 mark in early 2013, an unprecedented bump in marathoning quality and quantity. “We’re all watching him and studying what he does,” Seko told reporters after Kawauchi broke his 30k record. “I want that kind of athlete here with us [on his corporate team], but he hasn’t answered my call. I can’t force him. … I have to wait for him to come to me.”

Kawauchi has thus far ignored Seko’s invitation. He also says, emphatically, that he intends to “erase Seko’s name from the top of the record books.”

The Kawauchi Effect can also be seen internationally. Kawauchi says he has invitations from more than 100 races, including many outside Japan, in the coming year. Race directors are willing to wait in line, some until 2015, to get a piece of him.

Despite his outsider status, JAAF named Kawauchi to its marathon team for the world championships, to be contested Aug. 17 in Moscow. The cameras will undoubtedly focus on the lead pack of uniformly knife-thin gazelles. But further back, spectators—perhaps a government worker with a desk job, maybe a middle-of-the pack college runner or a gangly high school student with big dreams—will strain to see a spiky-haired, muscular striver, teeth bared, giving it everything he has.