Culture

42 Runners Under 2:10 at One Japanese Marathon

What the Lake Biwa Marathon’s incredible results reveal about Japanese marathoning today.

Sunday’s Lake Biwa Mainichi Marathon, the final edition of Japan’s oldest marathon, was like nothing ever seen before, anywhere. 25-year-old Kengo Suzuki became the first Japanese man to run 2:04, breaking away with 6 km to go to win in 2:04:56. Out of 335 finishers — all but 4 Japanese — 5 men broke 2:07, 15 broke 2:08, 28 broke 2:09, 42 broke 2:10, and 174 broke 2:20.

For perspective, only 21 U.S. men have broken 2:10 in the marathon on a non-aided course, ever. There have been other deep marathons: last December’s Valencia Marathon had 30 people under 2:10; the 1991 London Marathon saw 105 men under 2:20 — but this was on another level.

Over the last 15 years or so it’s become common to see half marathons in Japan with 150, 175, even 250+ runners under 1:06, sometimes multiple races in the same season with completely different fields. But in the marathon this was a first. How did things get to this point?

Lake Biwa Marathon, Japan
Early in the 2021 Lake Biwa Marathon Photo: Ayumi Miyashita

Concentrated Competitors and Super Shoes

Three things have to be said right at the start. First, Japan has both elite women-only and men-only races. The context here, Lake Biwa, is one of the men-only races, so that’s all we’re looking at. Some key aspects of the development system are different for women’s marathoning, which will need a separate article to cover.

Second, as far as the concentration of top runners goes, Lake Biwa this year was a fluke. Usually the men’s talent pool is stretched between at least four elite-level domestic marathons between February and early March: Beppu-Oita, Nobeoka, Lake Biwa, and Tokyo. This year, with the coronavirus crisis, Lake Biwa was the only option.

Between those four races last year, 31 Japan-based men went sub-2:10 and 155 sub-2:20. Factor in the final running of Lake Biwa, giving it extra appeal, and the results this year weren’t that different from last year, just a moderate progression all concentrated in one place. It’s definitely not the case that we’re seeing a sudden explosion or are going to see these numbers in every Japanese marathon going forward, assuming that all the races come back.

Third is, of course, the shoes. Nike’s Vaporfly 4% and Next% had a major impact in Japan, but at this point other brands’ answers are mostly in place and they’ve been pretty well universally adopted. That obviously had an impact in Lake Biwa. How much? At the end of 2019, Dr. Helmut Winter published a study estimating that elite men’s times had improved 1:45 across the board since the introduction of the shoe technology. Let’s assume some progression in the year and a quarter since then and guess the improvement has been approximately 2 minutes at this time.

What does that do to the Lake Biwa results? A 2-minute adjustment gives what used to be a 2:06 winning time, 4 guys in 2:08, 10 in 2:09, and 143 under 2:20. Given past Japanese results and the concentration of talent this year, this seems believable — so I’m inclined to think it’s close to reality, whatever that is.

But we’re still talking entirely Japan-based athletes. How are they getting that kind of depth and quality?

Collegians Going Long

Collegiate men’s development has always been tied to the marathon, the main focus being the half marathon distance run at the Hakone Ekiden, the university men’s road relay launched just over a hundred years ago specifically to cultivate future generations of Olympic marathoners. It’s had mixed success, but over the last 30 years, roughly the time it’s been broadcast live on Nippon TV, the level has come up, and especially since 2013 there has been a rapid climb in the performance level, both quality and depth. The last three national record holders, all three members and the alternate for the Tokyo Olympic team, and the winners of the last two major Japanese marathons, all the people pushing the envelope right now, were Hakone stage winners in college.

Hakone Ekiden
Runners compete during day one of the 88th Hakone Ekiden on January 2, 2012 in Tokyo, Japan. Photo: Sports Nippon/Getty Images

What changed? Part of it is that the successful coaches at the university level are mostly of a generation that grew up watching Hakone on TV, ran it themselves, and are now in charge. Their athletes in turn have grown up watching the race. Almost 65 million people, over half the population of Japan, watched it this year, and it was incredibly exciting. Like the runners and their coaches before them, kids across the country were watching and saying, “I want to do THAT!” That’s helped to bring in more and more talent, and with younger coaches with better access to training ideas from around the world and the freedom to try them it has helped produce the wave we’ve seen since 2013 at the collegiate level.

In contrast, the corporate team system, the nominally semi-pro post-collegiate system where most of Japan’s marathoners come from, has been slower to adapt. Authority in Japan is strongly top-down, and in a lot of cases younger assistant coaches with new ideas on how to build on established knowhow have had to accept the judgment of older head coaches who know what worked back in the 70s and 80s and are resistant to change. But that has been changing, and many of the teams with the biggest success at Lake Biwa, Kurosaki Harima, Honda, GMO, have younger head coaches in place.

More Than Mega Miles

As far as training goes, the stereotype of the old-fashioned high-mileage approach is still there to some degree, with college kids doing what would be considered marathon training elsewhere in prep for Hakone and building from there as corporate leaguers. But there’s a range of ideas and approaches informed by careful study of what works around the world. As one example, GMO’s Yuya Yoshida, who debuted in Beppu-Oita in 2:08:30 last year at age 22 before graduating from Hakone champ Aoyama Gakuin University, published his training for his follow-up marathon, a 2:07:05 win at Fukuoka in December at age 23.

Yoshida emphasized that he prioritized rest, recovery, and quality over just time on feet. He wrote that while focusing on training for 5000m and 10,000m PRs in September he did 8 long jogs of 2 to 2 1/2 hours each at 3:45~4:00/km. Gearing up for Fukuoka he did 40-km runs 4 times, plus half marathon and 30-km sessions with variable pace. The half marathons were in 5 sets of 3 km in 8:55 and 1 km in 3:35, and closing with 1 km in 2:45, and the 30 km in 6 sets of 3 km at 3:30~3:35/km and 2 km in 3:00~3:02/km, with the final set faster depending on how he felt.

Shoe technology has also had an impact on training. Hiroaki Oyagi, head coach of this season’s National University Ekiden and Hakone Ekiden champion Komazawa University and of 2020 Olympic marathon trials winner Shogo Nakamura, said that more than just a direct boost in a race, the new shoes’ primary benefit was that they let people do higher-quality training with a lower risk of injury. This made it possible for people to do workouts previous generations could never get through, producing more confidence and better results in races.

Olympic Obsession

Beyond the training, a lot more has been at play. There was tremendous investment in marathoning after Tokyo won the 2020 Olympic bid, most notably Project Exceed. This corporate league-sponsored bonus program paid out almost $1 million USD for a new national record, nearly $100,000 for a 2:06 and half that for a 2:07, the same for equivalent women’s marks, and another 50% of those amounts for the coaches if they worked in the corporate leagues. The federation took an enormous gamble on setting up a brand-new single-race Olympic trial event with an intricate qualification system. And corporate teams put more focus than ever before, both budget and training orientation, on getting people into the trials race and onto the Olympic marathon team. Even the Asahi Kasei team, the most characteristic of the stereotypical meat-grinder Japanese approach, installed the world’s largest low-pressure, low-oxygen altitude training room at its home track in Nobeoka.

The authorities also had decided that 3:00/km was going to be the norm for pacing: 2:06 marathon pace no matter what, do or die. People in the transitional period struggled hopelessly with that, but as this generation grew into it they accepted it as the norm. Asuka Tanaka, a 2:10:13 marathoner trying to get under 2:10 for the first time, acknowledged after Fukuoka last year that running closer to sub-2:10 pace, 3:04/km, was a safer way to get there, but said, “3:00/km is a more comfortable rhythm and I think that gives me a better chance of riding it.” With enough people thinking that way, it created the same kind of packs as in the half marathons, a Shinkansen “bullet train” people could just get on and ride until their stop inevitably came for them.

All of this coincided with the leading edge of the 2013 wave of university talent hitting the marathon, many before graduating. Yuta Shitara showed what was possible with a 2:06:11 national record in Tokyo 2018, and Suguru Osako demonstrated what lay beyond with a 2:05:50 in Chicago the same year. Out of the six Abbott World Marathon Majors races in 2018, four had elite Japanese men in their fields. Out of those there was a 2nd in Tokyo, 1st in Boston, 4th in Berlin (in a race where the world record was set), and 3rd in Chicago. Last year Osako took the NR further to 2:05:29. Even 3:00/km wasn’t enough anymore, and their peers and younger fans looked at them and said, “We can do that too.”

25-year-old new national record-holder Kengo Suzuki, shown at the 2020 Lake Biwa Marathon
25-year-old new national record-holder Kengo Suzuki, shown at the 2020 Lake Biwa Marathon Photo: Victah Sailer@PhotoRun

The Kids Are Coming Up

And that’s one of the biggest takeaways from Lake Biwa. Look at the top three there, and at Fukuoka winner Yoshida. He’s 23. New NR holder at Lake Biwa Suzuki is 25. 2nd place, Hidekazu Hijikata, 2:06:26, is 23. 3rd place, Kyohei Hosoya, 2:06:35, is 25. These are guys who were in junior high school and high school watching Shitara and Osako kick ass at Hakone on TV and saying, “That’s going to be me!” It’s already the next generation after the leading edge, and they have belief, confidence, they know they can do it.

As a great American poet once wrote,

I’m losing my edge.
The kids
are coming up
from behind.

So, to pull all that together: You’ve got a massively popular broadcast attracting young talent, effective collegiate and post-collegiate development systems to support large numbers of them, large-scale investment in performing at a home-soil Olympics, role models to show what can be done, widespread belief that it’s doable, and, in the case of Lake Biwa, one race to bring them all and in a fast pace bind them. And the shoes. No real secrets or surprises there, but it took a century to build, and it wouldn’t be easy to replicate elsewhere.

The bigger question is what happens after this summer. How big a pullback will there be in corporate support for development once the Tokyo Olympic window has come and gone and the economic effects of the coronavirus crisis linger. There’s no sign of the wave of collegiate talent slowing down, but whether it has the same kind of landscape waiting for it remains to be seen.

Brett Larner, the founder and editor of Japan Running News, has lived in Japan since 1997.