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Takahashi taking life in stride

by Jack Gallagher

First of two parts

Sydney Olympic women’s marathon champion Naoko Takahashi has been an icon in Japan since her stirring victory on Sept. 24, 2000, when she became the first Japanese female to win an Olympic gold medal in track and field.

News photoNaoko Takahashi, winner of the gold medal in the women’s marathon at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney (seen breaking the tape in photo below) speaks to The Japan Times at an exclusive interview in Tokyo.
News photo

Takahashi, who became the first woman to break 2 hours and 20 minutes in the marathon when she won the Berlin Marathon in 2001, has won six straight marathons, most recently in Berlin in 2002.

Takahashi was scheduled to run in the Tokyo International Marathon in November, but had to withdraw from the race after being diagnosed with a broken rib.

Shortly after our interview, Takahashi’s coach at Sekisui Chemical, Yoshio Koide, announced he was leaving the company in order to train runners on his own.

Takahashi subsequently announced she may leave the company as well, but has not yet made a decision.

The Japan Times: How are you feeling physically in the wake of your recent rib injury?

Naoko Takahashi: Compared to when my rib hurt the most, now it’s pretty much better, it is still healing, it doesn’t affect my private life that much but it still hurts a lot when I breath out when I am running.

The doctor’s diagnosis was that I rest for December and hopefully I can start running bit by bit in January.

JT: This is the second straight year in which you have been injured or gotten sick late in the year. You have been quoted as saying: “I don’t believe anyone could ever train harder than me.” Do you think you are pushing yourself too hard in training?

For the Olympics, I had five months to get myself ready for the race, but this time I had little time to prepare. For the Berlin Marathon I had basically two months to get myself conditioned.

After a while I start to calculate backward from the day of the race, counting how many days I have to go until the start. And when I look at my practice schedules and how fast I am running and what distance I am running at this stage, I feel the desire to quickly get to my best condition, to jump the four months of training that I would usually do, although I don’t even have those four months.

And because I don’t have that period I try to do more within the limited two months, training harder, even if I am hurting, whereas if I have the four months I could take a few days rest and see how it goes. But I can’t afford the two days to rest so I just do more and more training and by doing so sometimes I can put the injury behind me but it could also lead to further injuries. There is a big gap between these outcomes and this time it led to a bad result.

I don’t feel any pressure from other runners, but I have this will to want to be ready to run a certain time at a certain stage (of preparation) and so I draw the line for myself.

Prior to setting the world-best time at the Berlin Marathon in 2001, you said that while training at high altitude in Boulder, Colo., you sometimes ran 70 to 80 km a day. That is a phenomenal distance. Do you think it is too much?

Well, I don’t always run that much every day, there would be days I would run 70 km and then there are days I would run 20 or so. I just mentioned that figure (70) to state that there are days I would actually run up to 70 or so. The fact that I can run that much gives me confidence and makes me believe I am doing a good job.

Can you do any exercise the day after you run that much?

I would run about 40 (km) or so. Not 40 straight but, for example 20 in the morning and 20 in the afternoon or something like that. I don’t run 70 all the way or 40 all the way without a break. I would run 40 in the morning and 20 later that day, or 50 in the morning and 20 in the afternoon, and so forth. When I say 70, I mean a total of 70.

How are these practice schedules decided?

It depends on the time of year, but, for example with ekiden races the coach would come to you in the morning and tell you what to do, but with marathon training you have a list of training methods written up roughly two months before, and you would go along those guidelines. For example, one day you would do 40 (km), speed practice and the next day distance, next day rest, and so forth.

What are your plans for the 2003 season?

With the current situation (injury) my plans aren’t really going as expected, but now it is down to one or the other. I could either race in the Olympic qualifying races in Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka, or I could race in Nagoya and win a ticket to the World Track and Field Championships and run there.

At this stage I wouldn’t know what to say. I could rush and get ready for Nagoya but it’s down to how well I would recover and then I will talk it over with my coach and will decide what to do.

Can you take us through an average day while you are training in the States?

We all get together at 6:30 a.m. for morning training and, in America we have like five of us training together, so for that I wake up around 5:50. We finish training so we can eat breakfast around nine. Then between 2:30 and 3 p.m. we resume training until about seven. Between those two (sessions) we are free.

From 7:30 p.m., we have dinner, and then wrap up the training, with stretches, and by 9:30 or 10 we would be fast asleep. Breakfast and dinner are made by a cook, but for lunch we decide what to eat and when, according to the amount of training we do.

Especially in the States we would usually make a light meal, bread or something. The people who cook our meal want to serve us the world’s best food, so they really take care of us well. By the best food in the world I don’t mean expensive food, but well-balanced meals centering on healthy food like hijiki (seaweed) and natto (fermented soybeans), good for your body.

Mostly Japanese food, even in the States. I don’t think in terms of calories, we just tell the cook what we want to eat. I want to eat this, that, meat, and we just eat whatever as much as we want. I can eat 50 pieces of sushi in one sitting. With meat I can eat a two-kg steak.

How about training back in Japan?

Basically, the same as in the States. We meet up far away from home, so I guess I would wake up earlier and the practice times would differ a little but basically nothing is different to when I am in the States.

Your life has changed considerably since winning the gold medal in Sydney in 2000. What has been the toughest aspect to deal with?

Personally speaking, nothing has changed. The attitude I work out with has not changed, but you have people come up to you for autographs, and as much as I am grateful for that, if I had the time to spare I would comply but when I don’t, I have to say “no” to them and I don’t know how to say that, or how to deal with that situation.

People wave and things like that, and I don’t want to be disrespectful to their feelings, but I don’t always have time, and that feeling of not being able to answer back to them has been one of the hardest things to deal with.

Before I had (TV and other) work planned in between training and it was difficult trying to do my best on both sides and it often distracted me but now they schedule everything for me at IMG (International Management Group).

They won’t give me other work within three months before a race, so they make sure I won’t get distracted even one percent from the race, whereas before I would be in a dilemma where I wanted to do other things but I couldn’t and sometimes I would want to do some training but I couldn’t.

I didn’t know what to do but they (IMG) prepare a good environment for me and let me focus on what I should be doing, so in that sense I don’t have any difficulties with other things I do outside running.

Do you wish you were a normal person again and not a star?

I think I am an ordinary girl. I don’t have anything unusual going on or anything like that. The reaction of the people isn’t so overwhelming anymore. I can walk the streets fine, and I can even go out to Tokyo.

I do have the odd “gambatte” now and then and I would thank them, but other than that I really don’t get too nervous about going out.

After you won the gold medal you had several appearances to make and became quite exhausted. You gained four or five kg and one weekly Japanese magazine ran a picture making you appear out of shape. Did that bother you?

It did upset me. I think I am originally a chubby person. But people believe the figure I have when I am running is my real figure, and they say it’s funny, strange when I look different.

But for me when I am thinning down, that is when I am trying hard, running a lot, so when I am not running, like now, I don’t run 70 km or anything, so it would be all right if I ate less. I can’t hold back my hunger so I eat a lot and eventually I gain weight.

Of course, it is better to be slim as a girl, but considering track and field I had never thought about weight that much, so the magazine photo was shocking.

You have been quoted as saying: “I have no husband or even a boyfriend; there is no time for such things. There is always the next race, the next workout.” Can you explain your philosophy and what you think is necessary to remain at the top of the sport?

I don’t think I am at the top of the sport throughout the whole year. Right now in this situation (being injured) my team can even beat me and I feel I am a person who can easily roll down the stairs if I don’t keep trying.

Everyone wants to get to the top and we all start at the same line. I try to remain strong, but am a weak person really, and so that’s why I feel I have to try hard.

Because of that I don’t want to compromise. Whether it’s training or the real race, I don’t want to not give it everything. Whatever the result, I want to do everything I can day-by-day for my goal. Each day is precious for me.

I believe how you approach each day mentally will show in your result. So what is most important for me is not to think I have to try and stay at the top, but to make sure I don’t make any compromises.

In the old days there used to be a sort of taboo, like “track and field athletes should not be involved in romance,” and I don’t think that way. I believe if there could be a person to support you then I think being supported is a good thing.

As a runner, I don’t like being distracted. When I am in the States I don’t want to make calls to friends or even family, and I am in a state where I can’t think anything about romance.

For the last two years especially, I really haven’t thought about or been involved in things like romance, and I sometimes feel: “Is this right? Am I really satisfied with this life without romance?”

I used to think that I wanted to be married by 28, but now I think, maybe being single isn’t so bad, or as long as I am successful maybe this isn’t so bad.

I now think, well, maybe it isn’t so embarrassing to be single. Once I began to think like that, I didn’t have any sort of longing to feel “I want to be married like that” anymore.

Tomorrow, Takahashi will talk about her marathon idol, how she came to be interested in the event and how she hopes to make history by winning the gold again at the Summer Olympics in Athens in 2004.