Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Unsung heroes: Yuki Kawauchi

It is ironic that, not so long ago, being an amateur was a pre-requisite to compete at a high level in athletics (see my review of "The Ghost Runner") and yet today, being a "citizen runner" as Yuki Kawauchi is fondly referred to, very much sets him apart from other elite runners. As far as I am aware, there are no other marathon runners with a current PB of 2:08 who have not already been snapped up by a shoe company or a professional team. To put this into context, in spite of the organizers of the Egyptian Marathon paying his travel expenses, when he missed his flight due to problems with his passport, he paid for a new ticket himself at a cost of $9,000 - or about a quarter of his yearly salary (he did go on to win, however). On the other hand, in the New York City Marathon he was given the red carpet treatment, where he finished in 11th place with a respectable 2:12:29.

Some articles refer to him as "the Japanese underdog" but I think of him as anything but an underdog; an "overdog", perhaps, yes. Other people with his level of commitment and talent are usually forced to either dedicate their lives to the pursuit of excellence or slip away into oblivion and yet Yuki seems to manage to run for fun ("After 21 Marathon runs, I can now say with confidence how fun Marathon running can be."). One can't help wondering how much he could shave off his time if he were able to focus more single-mindedly on his Marathon running with the financial support of a sponsor and the advice of a professional coach. But perhaps this is the very paradox - it is just possible that he runs such great times precisely because he doesn't have the same pressure that comes with the package and is still able to enjoy running at a high level. I've just finished reading Sage Canaday's account of "Running for the Hansons" and, while interesting, much fun it does not seem.

Another thing I love about this guy is that he is constantly challenging the status quo by doing presumably unwise things like competing at the highest level in Marathons (i.e. sub 2:11) separated by only a couple of weeks (apparently he wanted "to find out whether the common sense of the running world is really any kind of sense at all"). It is only by the actions of brave individuals like this that our understanding of the world is completely transformed and a new paradigm is established. In 2012, he ran 10 Marathons or Ultramarathons (winning 5 of them). On the other hand, his frequent racing schedule most likely scuppered his chances of making the Olympic team in 2012 and, so disgusted was he with his pedestrian time of 2:12, that he shaved his head in penance.

Lastly, there is ultimately something very satisfying in knowing you have given your all or, by proxy, watching someone laying everything on the line to win. I think the photo says it all:

In one 50K Ultra he participated in, he was wining right up until 600m(!) before the line, where he collapsed due to heat stroke. Unfortunately he is no stranger to the medical tent, having been attended to on no fewer than 7 occasions after finishing a race (or not quite finishing, as the case may be).

All this is even more surprising when you consider that he is only 26 years old. We have a lot to look forward to from this young man, I'm sure.

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