Defending Boston champ Yuki Kawauchi is marathoning’s true iron man
The Patriots may preach “No Days Off,” but Yuki Kawauchi lives it. Japan’s human perpetual-motion machine doesn’t do down time. No days off means precisely that.
“Zero,” says the 32-year-old from Saitama Prefecture, who uses races to get ready for other races, then gets back to training the next day because there’s almost always another race the next week.
Kawauchi, who’ll defend his men’s title in Monday’s 123rd Boston Marathon, is the planet’s most prolific world-class road runner, averaging a marathon a month, plus as many half-marathons and a 50-kilometer ultra.
Kawauchi, who ran two dozen races and eight more marathons after his triumph here last year, already has three 26-milers in the book for 2019, with victories in the Ibusuki Nanohana and Shizuoka races.
“He is one tough dude,” marvels Bill Rodgers, whose five marathons a year in the early 1980s were considered excessive for an elite racer. “There’s no one else like him in the marathon world.”
It’s not only the volume of Kawauchi’s roadwork that’s impressive, it’s the quality. He has run a record 87 marathons under 2 hours and 20 minutes, won 38 of them, and holds the global total of sub-marks for every minute down to 2:12.
“It’s something I’m proud of,” Kawauchi said through interpreter Brett Larner, “and I want to keep extending it out, take it to 100 times.”
That should be easier now that the self-coached Kawauchi quit his job as a high school administrative assistant.
“I wanted to do the things that I only have a limited time left to do,” he says. “The whole time that I was working and running, the running part was always more fun. So I wanted to dedicate whatever time I have left to that.”
Giving up his desk job provides Kawauchi not only with more time to rest between races, but also the chance to finally sign with sponsors and accept appearance money, which was forbidden. As a public employee, he wasn’t allowed to make external income other than prize money and bonuses.
After his 2011 breakthrough, when he finished third in the Tokyo Marathon, Kawauchi was hailed as the “citizen runner” and dubbed the “Rocky of the marathon world” by the prefecture governor.
“I’m not as great as Rocky,” says Kawauchi, whose personal best is 2:08:14. But he’s just as obsessive about going the distance.
His only DNF came in his first 50-kilometer ultra eight years ago, when he blacked out during the final few kilometers. At last year’s Marshfield marathon on New Year’s Day, when only three starters took the line amid a below-zero wind chill, Kawauchi was the only finisher. He deemed it good practice for the Antarctica race.
He’d made the trip to check out the layout for Boston, where he’d decided to run at the urging of Rodgers, who reminded him of the Japanese competitors who’d made their mark here over the decades.
Japanese runners first appeared here in the early ’50s, winning three times in five years. They prevailed thrice more during the ’60s, taking five of the top six places in 1965 and the top four in 1966. But except for Toshihiko Seko, who dethroned Rodgers in 1981 and won again in 1987 (Kawauchi’s birth year), the Japanese essentially had vanished from the world’s most renowned road race.
Kawauchi had taken the line on five continents but never had made it to Boston.
“It never quite fit my schedule with the work, and it’s a long way to come,” he says. “So it was always difficult.”
But Rodgers’s entreaty proved persuasive, and when he took the line in Hopkinton amid hypothermic conditions, Kawauchi figured that he might just have a chance to win in weather that rewarded anyone with the persistence to keep putting one stiff and sodden foot in front of the other all the way to Copley Square.
“God is just handing it to me,” he mused.
So Kawauchi blasted off the line as though he were running a 5K and passed the first mile in 4:37. His apparent rashness prompted local TV commentators to predict that a piano soon would be handed him to carry.
“I think they could have used a little bit better word choice, but fair enough,” Kawauchi says. “I guess I was not famous, not very good compared to all the other athletes. So if somebody takes off at the beginning like that, of course they’re going to laugh at them.”
Even after the top contenders swallowed him up, Kawauchi kept surging.
“Once I caught back up to the lead pack after they dropped me, their pace slowed down,” he says. “That let me speed up again. When they caught me again, they would slow down again and I would speed up again. It was lucky for me that they were running that way, that they let me do that kind of race.”
Still, victory seemed unlikely when Kawauchi topped Heartbreak Hill with Kenyan defending champion Geoffrey Kirui a minute and a half ahead of him.
“I didn’t think he would have slowed down that much after taking off,” Kawauchi says. “That didn’t seem like him.”
When Kirui’s wheels came off in Kenmore Square, Kawauchi went past him and took the lead without realizing it.
It wasn’t until the final 200 meters on Boylston Street, when course marshals waved him to the right side as the evident winner, that Kawauchi concluded he’d won. The next day he was back on the course, running 20K to Heartbreak and back.
Now he returns bidding to become the first men’s champion to repeat since Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot in 2008, with the race-day forecast again calling for windswept rain.
“Regardless of the weather conditions, the other athletes probably are going to be paying more attention to me than they did last year,” reckons Kawauchi, whose mother Mika is running in the women’s race.
Whatever the result, Kawauchi will get his customary post-race massage and a hot bath, and do a Heartbreak back-and-forth on Tuesday. Then he’ll run Vancouver in May, when he’ll marry a fellow marathoner, and get ready for a likely fourth world championships in Qatar at the end of September.
Somewhere en route to his ultimate career goal — a medal at the 2019 global championships in Oregon — Kawauchi likely will reach the century mark for sub-2:20s. Until then, no days off. As in zero.