Many years ago, when I was much younger and sprier, I entered a New Year’s Day 5M road race despite a forecast for high temperatures in the low 20’s. I wasn’t elite, of course, but I went into the race expecting a high placing, confident that I could run my usual pace and compete for a top place. But when the race started, I simply couldn’t get my body going. I had “warmed up” plenty but never really warmed up, and I struggled from the beginning. I gave it my best effort, but ended up running a couple of minutes slower than I expected, well out of the top ten.
I thought about that recently when I tried to make sense of Yuki Kawauchi’s record-breaking marathon on New Year’s Day 2018 in the unlikely town of Marshfield, Mass.
To begin with, it’s a tradition as old as calendars for otherwise rational people to do crazy stuff on the first day of the New Year. Here in Boston, that often takes the form of defying the cold as you plunge into the ocean or race about in short sleeves. Every year, there are a handful of road races on the first, and they are reasonably well-attended. There are even a few local fast guys. There are NOT, as a rule, world-class marathon runners looking to set records. The likelihood of frostbite, one would think, would be a powerful disincentive.
That’s what makes what happened in Marshfield so extraordinary and hard to fathom. As you have no doubt read, Yuki Kawauchi, Japan’s popular and unsponsored “People’s Champion” entered and ran a marathon, finishing in 2:18:59. According to the race results site coolrunning.com, the only other finisher ran 5:45:00.
Kawauchi’s run and record were not a total surprise. A few days before Christmas, John Hancock had sent out a press release with the news that Kawauchi would be an invited entrant in the 2018 BAA Marathon. It went on to say that the 30-year-old who is best known for his unprecedented racing schedule, was planning to come to Boston at the end of December to train for a few days on the Boston course, and would stay long enough to run the Marshfield New Year’s Day Marathon on January 1st. If he could finish the race in under 2:20, it would be his 76th time doing so, breaking the world record for lifetime sub-2:20s, a record that he shared with American Doug Kurtis and that had stood for 23 years.
Even for New England, this seemed highly unusual. No offense to Marshfield, but it is hardly a destination marathon. It is a no-frills, no-entry-fee, no prize money event that takes place on a hilly, two-loop course (there is an accompanying half marathon) in a quiet coastal town about 30 miles South of Boston. It is a perfect example of the kind of low-key road race so common in small towns across New England. A few of your neighbors, and maybe an out-of-towner or two show up to run because, hey, why not, but world-class marathoners do not, as a rule, arrange their schedules to include Marshfield.
And then there was the deep freeze that held the East Coast in its grip for almost two weeks. The forecast for Marshfield the morning of January 1st was temperatures hovering around 0 degrees F. Too bad, I thought, assuming they would surely cancel the race. After all, I thought (thinking about my speed-sapping experience in much milder conditions so many years ago), no elite athlete would attempt a fast marathon when the temperature was 0 F – that would just be silly… or deranged.
But Kawauchi had traveled a long way for this race, entry fee or no entry fee, and he was ready to go. According to New England Runner, which has an excellent write-up of Kawauchi’s adventure, the temperature at the 9:00 a.m. start was 1 F. It “warmed up” a few degrees over the next two hours, but even at its warmest, the temperature was around 5-6 F. After the race Kawauchi confessed, “At 5 km I was already all alone and so cold that I couldn’t move my legs… When I saw my 5 km split it was the first time in a race I’ve ever thought, ‘Why am I doing this?‘”
Suffering in the cold, the People’s Champion ran the first half in 1:10:29, a half-minute behind schedule. Who would blame him if, on approaching the end of the first loop and knowing that warmth and shelter was only a few yards away, Kawauchi acknowledged the absurdity of what he was trying to do and called off the ill-fated race. Or he could have kept running, but abandoned the record attempt. After all, there was no prize money, team selection, or much of anything else on the line, and he’d surely have many more chances to break the record under better conditions. Why prolong the suffering?
That he set out for another 13.1 miles speaks to his toughness. That he sped up strikes me as is more miraculous than anything else that happened that day. Maybe the warmer temperatures helped, or maybe something else changed in his metabolism that warmed him more efficiently from within, but somehow, he rallied. In fact, he ran the second half two minutes faster than the first half, and notched his 76th sub-2:20 by a full minute.
After it was all over, after Kawauchi had somehow overcome cold and wind and hills and ice on the final turn and run 26 consecutive miles at 5:18 pace, his triumph was hailed in various outlets from Letsrun to Sports Illustrated to the local TV network affiliates. (No coverage in the Globe or Herald, though… way to go, hometown papers…) The headline story was the record: most sub-2:20s ever. But to my mind, the more striking story was the performance itself under such adverse conditions.
Running 2:08:14, Kawauchi’s best, requires a special talent and a rare dedication. Nevertheless, that performance is only about 1000th on the all-time list. In the context of the world record, it’s nothing special. Running under 2:12 seems – especially to slowpokes like me – to occupy the same rarefied level. After all, only a very few Americans run under 2:12 in any given year. Kawauchi has run under 2:12 twenty-five times, four more than any other runner who has ever lived. To me, that’s even more impressive than running under 2:20 seventy-six times.
But running 2:18:59 alone on a hilly course under conditions that would be challenging for an Iditarod team? Maybe doing that once surpasses all the other records and personal bests, even the 2:08. It certainly sticks in my memory more than the statistics about how many sub-whatevers he has run.
I know that the running world has moved on, and that I’m a couple of weeks late with this story, but I feel the need to say something about it anyway. Kawauchi has run elite times, but it’s difficult to think of him as elite. The word doesn’t fit, somehow. He runs without a shoe contract or training group, and he seems capable of doing dumb stuff like the rest of us — like racing in Arctic conditions for no prize money. He jokes about how running in 1 F will be good experience for running a marathon in Antarctica, and – who knows? – maybe he’ll do that some day, too.
When we use the word “champion,” we often mean a person who wins championships. But there’s another meaning to the word, and that is the person who goes into battle representing others. In this second sense, some great runners never quite become champions because no one relates to what they do or how they go about doing it. It’s subjective, of course, and perhaps too much based on appearances, but that’s the way it is. That’s one reason that someone like Galen Rupp, one of the most accomplished U.S. distance runners ever, is admired as a winner but not loved as a champion. It’s unlikely Kawauchi will ever win an Olympic medal (Rupp owns two), but because Kawauchi seems like a regular guy with anything-but-regular levels of guts and determination — and because he occasionally does sort of dumb things like run marathons when it’s way too cold to feel your extremities, he inspires a different kind of loyalty and following.
Let me close by leaving such deep thoughts behind, and simply reporting the local road race results from 1/1/18:
- In Woburn, Ryan Hayes won his hometown 5M race in 30:22 (6:05 pace) out of 51 finishers. Keira Malone won the women’s race (12th overall) in 35:32.
- In Salem, James Bailey won the popular Frosty Four-Miler in 21:30 (5:23 pace) out of 358 finishers. Amanda Brusca was first woman in 26:45.
- In Salisbury, Kevin St. Laurent and Kristin Pitocco won the 5K in 17:17 (5:45 pace) and 21:05, respectively, and Aaron Ladd and Amy Bernard won the 10K in 36:07 (5:50 pace) and 39:21 (4th overall), respectively, at the annual Hangover Classic.
- And in Marshfield, Matthew Deyo won the half-marathon by over four minutes in 1:13:42 (5:37 pace) out of 25 hardy finishers, with Andrea Noland first woman in 1:44:53.
- Oh, I almost forgot: also in Marshfield, Yuki Kawauchi of Saitama Prefecture, Japan ran the marathon in 2:18:59 (5:18 pace), followed by David Jenness of nearby Carver, Mass. in 5:45:00, three hours and twenty-six minutes later.
Good job, everyone. Enjoy the free post-race bowl of clam chowdah.