Meet the Marathon-Running Government Clerk Who’s a National Hero in Japan

The stadium scene.
June 24 2013 8:30 AM

Marathon Everyman

Yuki Kawauchi is a world-class athlete, a full-time government clerk, and a Japanese national hero. Could he change the way we think about running?

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Still, Kawauchi is adamant about doing things his own way: racing often, paying for his own kit, and being back at the desk on Monday. He estimates his training expenses at about $12,500 per year and once paid $9,000, about three months’ salary, to get a last-minute flight to a marathon in Egypt. Corporate runners receive a salary, as well as gear, coaching, health care, travel, and entry fees. At this point, given his popularity, race directors are offering to pay Kawauchi’s travel expenses and waive his entry fees, and he could probably live off his prize earnings. But the citizen marathoner has chosen to structure his life as if he ran in an era before star athletes profited from their fame. He says his clerking job broadens his perspective, forces him to train more efficiently, and makes him keen for those long weekend runs. It’s also part of his iconoclastic persona. His is a unique strategy for any 2:08 marathoner and all the more unusual in tradition-heavy, protocol-laden Japan.

As much as fans love him, Kawauchi is not as popular with those in Japan’s pro system. Getting bested by a self-coached auto-didact with a full-time job does not sit well. He is besieged by reporters at every appearance and takes the opportunities to do some saber-rattling (“2:06 is within sight”), as well as to remind young runners that signing on with a corporation is not a prerequisite to success. Tension escalated during the selection process for the 2012 Olympic marathon team. Kawauchi was, once again, the first Japanese at the 2012 Fukuoka Marathon, one of the Olympic qualifiers. Despite the fact that he had beaten all the professional runners, who had access to the best gear, coaching, and facilities, the Japan Association of Athletics Federations said Kawauchi’s time of 2:09 was too slow for London.

The salaryman’s supporters assumed their man had been overlooked because he was not on a corporate team. Kawauchi, though, agreed with the JAAF, saying his time was “not even close to being competitive on a world scale”—a self-critical declaration that also happened to backhand all the pros he’d beaten. The second Olympic qualifier, the Tokyo Marathon, was just two weeks later, the assumption being that candidates would run one or the other, not both. Not one to rest on his laurels, or really rest at all, Kawauchi announced he would run in Tokyo, this time shooting for 2:07. On a warm day, Kawauchi missed some drink bottles and finished in what he called a “disgraceful” 2:12:51. Feeling he’d let down his fans, he shaved his head saying, “It’s better that my shame be exposed for everyone to see.”

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Though he was not chosen for the Japanese Olympic team, all of this back and forth only elevated Kawauchi’s folk hero status and deepened his commitment to a seemingly impossible schedule. In 2012, he entered nine marathons, winning five of them, and six half-marathons, coming in first in three. He also set the course record at a 50k ultramarathon. So far in 2013, he’s run at least 15 races of half-marathon distance or longer, including his marathon best of 2:08:15. On June 16, he came in first in yet another 50k. At the finish line, according to Japan Running News, he collapsed and had to be taken to the hospital.

This one man’s sharp departure from tradition has caused what famed marathoner and now corporate coach Toshihiko Seko calls the Kawauchi Effect. Professional Japanese runners have upped their game, with six men dipping under the 2:09 mark in early 2013, an unprecedented bump in marathoning quality and quantity. “We're all watching him and studying what he does,” Seko told reporters after Kawauchi broke his 30k record. “I want that kind of athlete here with us [on his corporate team], but he hasn't answered my call. I can't force him. ... I have to wait for him to come to me."

Kawauchi has thus far ignored Seko’s invitation. He also says, emphatically, that he intends to “erase Seko’s name from the top of the record books.”

The Kawauchi Effect can also be seen internationally. Kawauchi says he has invitations from more than 100 races, including many outside Japan, in the coming year. Race directors are willing to wait in line, some until 2015, to get a piece of him.

Despite his outsider status, JAAF named Kawauchi to its marathon team for the world championships, to be contested Aug. 17 in Moscow. The cameras will undoubtedly focus on the lead pack of uniformly knife-thin gazelles. But further back, spectators—perhaps a government worker with a desk job, maybe a middle-of-the pack college runner or a gangly high school student with big dreams—will strain to see a spiky-haired, muscular striver, teeth bared, giving it everything he has.

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