KUKI, Japan (Reuters) - In Japan, where more people run marathons than anywhere else, it takes a special character to stand out from the crowd.
In the small town of Kuki, north of Tokyo, one man, Yuki Kawauchi, has done just that, capturing the hearts of marathon fans across the country and abroad.
Unlike other elite marathon runners, Kawauchi, who came to the world’s attention with his Boston Marathon victory last year, is not fully professional and holds down a job as a school administrator.
All this is about to change in April when the 31-year-old, known in Japan as the ‘Citizen Runner’, will finally look to focus on running full time.
However, what is not about to change is Kawauchi’s unique take on running preparation.
Kawauchi currently runs at least 20 kilometers every day before or after work, usually through the streets of Kuki or round and round the running track in the city’s park.
Kawauchi never stops running – he says he runs around his house when completing chores – and takes part in far more competitive marathons than any of his peers.
Whilst Kenya’s Olympic champion Eliud Kipchoge ran just one marathon in 2018, Kawauchi ran 11. Partly due to the number he has run, the Japanese holds the record for the most sub-2 hour 20 minute marathons (81).
This also means he runs more winter marathons than his competitors.
His win in Boston, his greatest success to date, came in frigid cold and bitter rain. Kawauchi says the win came down to his preparations.
“It is quite rare to run full-marathon in such weather,” he told Reuters on a cold and windy day in Kuki.
“Those runners who only join the competition once or twice a year would never experience that kind of weather condition. As I have participated in about 80 competitions, I have the experience.”
Kawauchi holds a special place in the hearts of marathon fans across the world for his extraordinary output and unconventional approach.
He won the 2016 Kuki half marathon wearing a suit, and prepares for every race, no matter where he is in the world, with three portions of Japanese curry.
Kawauchi says his decision to run so many marathons comes partly from necessity and partly from a desire to see the world.
“Since I like traveling it gives me such a pleasant feeling to go all around the world while running,” he explained.
“For me, it is perhaps the only meaning of running.
“I think many of the runners would answer they run for the Olympics or world championships, but for me I run just because I want to participate as many competitions as possible.”
Competing in more marathons also helps Kawauchi stay in shape — to compete in yet more marathons.
“Unlike other runners, I run as an individual runner without belonging to any team and I have my job during the weekdays. This makes it hard for me to keep up the quality of my usual practice,” he added.
“In this way, running in the marathon competition is the best practice for me.”
Despite Japan’s love for the marathon, the country last had an Olympic champion in 2004 when Mizuki Nogushi won in Athens.
Kawauchi’s decision to turn professional comes just 15 months before the Tokyo 2020 Olympics but there is no guarantee he will even try to make the national team.
“I want to take time to think,” said Kawauchi, who has never been selected for the Japanese Olympic team and would be 33 by the time the 2020 Games roll around.
“I have much more potential or possibility for the Olympics than before, since my time is getting faster.
“But I still don’t know how much I can level up. At this moment, I have not trained enough to compete at the Olympics. It depends on how much I can level up after April.”
Kawauchi’s decision to turn professional came after taking 10 days off work in the build-up to the 2017 World Championships in London. That added preparation time led to him finishing ninth and he has now set his sights on competing for a podium place at Eugene 2021 after two years of professional training.
Kawauchi will also be able to leave his job without any regrets. The school marked its 100th anniversary late last year and Kawauchi had a key role in organizing the celebrations.
“I did not want to have any regrets at the school, that is why I set the time in April this year,” he said.
“I got my job done.”
Editing by Peter Rutherford