Quick, who is the world record holder in the marathon? No Googling. OK, I’ll make it easier—name any distance runner.
Depending on your age and interest in running, Haile Gebrselassie may have popped to mind, the archetypical Ethiopian running 10k to and from school with books under his arm. Perhaps you went with a woman: Switzer, Benoit Samuelson, or Waitz. And maybe you thought of elfin Bill Rodgers flying around the corner onto Boylston Street in a Sharpie-lettered T-shirt, or the defiant and doomed Prefontaine, or wraith-like Abebe Bikila, gliding barefoot through the streets of Rome.
All of these runners’ careers are studded with epic victories and records. But unlike the current marathon world record holder, Kenya’s Patrick Makau—about whom even I, a running geek, know nothing aside from his marvelous time of 2:03:38—these athletes inspired generations of runners due to the strength of their personalities and their stories. (Rodgers was a smoker when he started running but said the exercise dulled his appetite for nicotine.) Lately, distance running has succumbed to the allure of impossibly fast times set by a quick-flowing stream of anonymous, interchangeable, sponsor-wrapped blades, slicing seconds off the world record. Times are faster, but who cares? Two hours and three minutes is not inherently interesting—people are.
Enter 26-year-old full-time government clerk Yuki Kawauchi of Saitama Prefecture, Japan. While Kawauchi's 2:08 marathon best can't compare to Makau's 2:03, his unconventional methods and stubborn seclusion from corporate interests have energized the sport in a way no other modern athlete has.
An enthusiastic runner during his university years, Kawauchi was brushed off by corporate teams upon graduation because they felt he didn’t have the talent for professional running. Undeterred, he ran on his own, for pleasure, training around his 40-hour-per-week job and racing on the weekends. He entered his first marathon in 2009, finishing in a respectable 2:19. Encouraged, Kawauchi entered another marathon a month later and bettered his time by a minute.
Conventional strategies dictate a two-month buildup in training for a marathon and about a month of recovery, making four 26.2 mile races per year a full schedule for a top runner. Elite marathoners may race just once or twice a year to ensure they’re both fit and rested enough to give a supreme effort. In 2010 and 2011, by contrast, Kawauchi raced nearly every weekend at distances from half-marathon to marathon, even completing a 50k ultramarathon. That calendar notwithstanding, he progressed from impressive citizen runner to impossible-to-ignore elite performer, crossing the line in 2:08:37 at the internationally competitive 2011 Tokyo Marathon. He came in third, first Japanese, beating the many professional runners in the field.
The marathon-crazy Japanese public love Kawauchi’s salaryman background and teeth-gritting running style. At a 30k race in Japan this February, 180,000 spectators packed the course—30,000 more than the previous year—a fact the race organizer credited to Kawauchi’s appearance. The scene was described this way by the daily sports newspaper Sports Hochi: “ ‘You're #1 in Japan!’ people shouted, their jaws dropping when they saw him and the crowds pressing onto the course to get closer, young and old, men and women, boys and girls alike. There was no doubt Kawauchi fever had hit.” (That translation is by Brett Larner of the English-language site Japan Running News, the source for many of the quotations in this story.)
Unlike the smooth and outwardly impassive professional runners, Kawauchi grimaces, and his arms flail. He appears to be struggling, yet he hangs on, often collapsing at the finish. Even so, he insists marathon running is “fun."
This brand of fun, and his stubbornly independent methods—“[I want] to find out whether the common sense of the running world is really any kind of sense at all,” he told Larner in 2012—explain his frequent racing, though he has admitted that his performances may suffer for it.