More Sports / Track & Field

Yuki Kawauchi now focused full time on marathoning

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

During the past decade, Yuki Kawauchi has been perhaps Japan’s most famous marathon runner. He’s been known as the “Citizen Runner” or the “Civil Service Runner.”

But he no longer carries these catchphrases when he runs.

Kawauchi became a professional runner on Monday, meaning he will be able to devote all his time to the sport.

While he has taken pride in his accomplishments as an amateur runner, Kawauchi is excited about the dawn of his new full-time athletic career. He believes that he can now commit himself 24/7 to the sport, which was not possible when he was a Saitama Prefectural Office employee working full time at Kasukabe High School.

The 32-year-old said that he began thinking about turning pro in 2017, when he competed at the IAAF World Championships in London. It was his third appearance at worlds. He barely missed a top-eight finish, placing ninth.

While he regretted the result, the experience to stay in England for 10 days to prepare for the race opened up his eyes.

“I had never had a chance to be away from home for nine nights or for 10 days,” Kawauchi told The Japan Times after a Tokyo news conference to announce his advisory role for sporting apparel company Asics on Tuesday. “And spending nine nights, my condition went up as the time wore on.

“And then, I asked myself what kind of potential I would have if I spent a month, a year or two years.”

Life-changing decision

The idea of becoming a pro dwelled on Kawauchi’s mind later the same year at the Fukuoka International Marathon, where he participated along with his younger brother, Yoshiki. Kawauchi said that his brother, who had just turned pro after working for a private company for three years, impressed him by improving his personal-best time by five minutes.

“I had not come up with a new personal best for a long time either,” said Kawauchi, whose personal record is 2 hours, 8 minutes, 14 seconds at the 2013 Seoul International Marathon in 2013. “So I made up my mind to become a pro runner. I decided so by watching my brother’s performance.”

On Tuesday, Kawauchi was ecstatic while appearing before the media and talking about what he will do next. He said that now he would be able to do a lot of things he “had envisioned” he could do as a pro.

The Tokyo native, who grew up mostly in Saitama Prefecture, announced that he plans to hold a two-month training camp in Kushiro, Hokkaido, starting in June.

To make up for a lack of practice time as an amateur, Kawauchi competed in races nearly every weekend, treating them like training sessions. But he admitted that he was sacrificing his body, which could not fully recover before the next race. That said, he’s thrilled to now have proper time for medical care if needed.

Interestingly, Kawauchi, who has completed 92 full marathons in his career, insisted that he would have less pressure on his shoulders as a pro because he would essentially compete for himself.

“I’ve had bigger fears until now (as an amateur),” said Kawauchi, who previously held serious practices twice a week or so and ran as many as 780 km per month, while some of the top industrial athletes cover 1,000 km. “I was called the ‘Civil Service Runner’ and if I failed, complaint phone calls would ring, for example. There were things that were tougher than being a pro. Being a government worker, the phone number and address (for your workplace) are all open. That means you could directly get letters, you could directly get phone calls.

“Elsewhere, when I would go somewhere far to compete, people would ask me if I had to get back to work the next day. I was feeling sorry (for my workplace) that I would be away from work staying away from home.”

In the spotlight

Kawauchi acknowledged that he’s pleased to be called a trailblazer, being successful as an athlete while working as a full-time employee. He said that when he started juggling both roles, there weren’t many others doing the same thing. But those runners have increased with his presence getting greater exposure.

“I think I was able to inspire those (that followed my path) a little bit,” said Kawauchi, who is getting married to a former long distance runner, Yuko Mizuguchi, in May.

There are already many pro runners in Japan, but Kawauchi stressed that he would like to be one of a kind . He thinks that there are two kinds of pro runners in the country: national team-level runners who don’t make many public appearances and others who aren’t as good that show up at events to promote the sport. Kawauchi wants to handle both roles, being competitive and recognized by the public.

As an amateur runner, Kawauchi didn’t have any social media accounts.

That changed on Monday, when he created a Twitter account (@kawauchi2019) and opened one on Facebook. By Thursday night, he already had more than 15,200 followers on Twitter.

“I wonder how many more they are going to eventually get to,” said Kawauchi, whose busy schedule is filled with competitions and speaking engagements. “I am looking forward to it myself.”

Kawauchi plans to participate in at least four races this year, including the Boston Marathon on April 15, where he will compete as the defending champion.

The 2014 Asian Games bronze medalist also aims to compete at the upcoming world championships in Doha, which will be held Sept. 27-Oct. 6. Kawauchi would prefer to compete at worlds over the Olympic trial Marathon Grand Championship in Tokyo on Sept. 15.

He is reluctant to make a commitment to compete at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, acknowledging he cannot excel in a race that is held in potential extreme heat on Aug. 9.

Actually, there’s also another reason, which is perhaps a new one for him as a professional athlete.

“The Olympics are a sporting fest for the amateur athletes,” said Kawauchi, who laughed when saying that the Summer Games is not much of an event for amateurs today. “Being a pro runner, it’s the world championships. The world championships are subject for you to earn prize money, whereas the Olympics are not.”

Beyond Tokyo, Kawauchi is targeting a podium finish at the 2021 world championships in Eugene, Oregon.