Before Yuki

Before Yuki

Yoshiaki Unetani, Japan, and the Boston Marathon.

Before Yuki
LØPE MAGAZINE – Issue No. 007, April 2019

By Liam Boylan-Pett
Illustrations by Jindřich Janíček

This story was co-published with Tracksmith and can be found in print in the Spring Issue of METER.

The runner from Japan begins a long push for the finish line out in the Newton Hills, making the decision that, yes, now is the time to take control of the Boston Marathon. He ups the intensity if not the tempo as his competitors tire around him, peeling off the pack quickly—simply unable to match his pace. He is a prolific racer, this runner from Japan competing in the twenty-first 26.2 mile journey of his life and third in five months. He races often, even with a full-time job at a school, and he races hard. And on this day, he is pulling away from some of the best runners in the world, on his way to an improbable Boston Marathon win.

It sounds familiar, right? The runner from Japan racing to a win no one expected in one of the world’s most prestigious races. But there are slight differences—you are not remembering 2018 incorrectly. No, Japan’s Yuki Kawauchi did not seize the lead of the 2018 Boston Marathon until the final few miles. It was Geoffrey Kirui of Kenya who had gone to the front in the Newton Hills. But it was Kirui who could not sustain the pace, and Kawauchi who blew by him in the 25th mile on his way to a shocking victory. Kawauchi, who held a full-time job and who raced as many times as he possibly could around the world. It was Kawauchi who shocked everyone in 2018.  

But that’s not the Boston Marathon or the Japanese runner we are referring to above.

Instead, go back 50 years, to a sunny April day in 1969, and meet Yoshiaki Unetani.

Unetani, who took control of the race in the hills of Newton and never looked back, running to a course-record win of 2 hours, 13 minutes, 49 seconds. Unetani, who was one of six Japanese runners to win Boston from 1951 to 1969. Unetani, who was a 24-year-old physical education schoolteacher in Tokyo who had been running long distances since childhood. Unetani, who was born in October 1944 in Hiroshima. Unetani, who was only nine months old when the bomb dropped.

***

It has been 55 years since the Olympics were last in Japan. They are returning to Tokyo in 2020, and expectations are high. In 1964, Japan won 29 medals (16 of which were gold) on home soil. In the marathon, Kokichi Tsuburaya raced his way to a bronze medal.

Tsuburaya remains a sports hero today, and another medalist would mean the world to running-crazed Japan.

While East African runners have taken a stranglehold on the marathon—will anyone ever beat Eliud Kipchoge?—there are a few Japanese runners who will be expected to fight for a spot on the podium, especially on the men’s side.

Heading into 2018, no Japanese runner had broken 2 hours and 7 minutes in the marathon since 2002. Then, Yuta Shitara broke the national record in Tokyo in March 2018 with a sublime run of 2 hours, 6 minutes, 11 seconds to finish second.

Suguru Osako, who trains with the Nike Oregon Project, nearly stuck with Mo Farah in Chicago, and even outlasted American training partner Galen Rupp to finish third in the Windy City. He ran 2 hours, 5 minutes, 50 seconds to become the first Japanese runner under 2 hours, 6 minutes.

The marathon-crazy nation of Japan has much to be excited about. On top of its medal contenders, the depth displayed by Japanese marathoners each year is the stuff fans of American marathoners can only dream of. In 2018, Rupp was the only American to dip under 2 hours and 10 minutes. Japan had 16 runners accomplish the feat.

The astonishing display of depth is nothing new. Japanese marathoners and road racers have almost always excelled. Adharanand Finn is the author who wrote Running with the Kenyans, a book attempting to discover the secrets of the Kenyan’s success. He couldn’t resist the culture in Japan, writing The Way of the Runner: A Journey into the Fabled World of Japanese Running.

(It should be noted, also, that the depth displayed by Japanese women marathoners is perhaps more prolific than the men. Men have won five Olympic medals in the marathon, the women have four. The women, however, have only had as many chances since the women’s marathon was introduced in 1984—the men have had nearly a century’s head start in 1896.)

Why is Japan so good at the marathon? It could be the Ekiden Relays. It could be that talented runners jump straight to the roads (whereas in the U.S. many talented runners stay on the track). Or, it could be that this is just the way it has always been.

Japanese marathoners expect to be great. Even if they were born nine months before one of the most consequential events in world history.

***

According to John Hersey’s classic The New Yorker piece, “Hiroshima,” almost no one in Hiroshima recalled hearing any noise from the bomb. A flash of light cut across the sky from east to west, from the city towards the hills. The flash was followed by havoc. Pressure bared down on everything. Houses and entire street blocks crumbled. Dust trembled up from the streets.

On August 6, 1945, an American B-29 bomber dropped the atomic bomb, the first in the world to be deployed, over the city of Hiroshima. Nearly eighty-thousand people were killed immediately. Tens of thousands would die of radiation exposure in the coming days and weeks. In all, over one-hundred-thousand people died in the explosion.

Yoshiaki Unetani, who was born nine months earlier, and his family were outside the blast radius and survived. They survived more than the atomic bomb, the area surrounding Hiroshima was bombarded multiple times in July 1945 as American bombers took out Japanese ships at naval ports throughout the region.

Unetani was too young to remember it, of course. But the reminders were there—the crumbled buildings, the vacant lots—but Unetani did not dwell on it. Life had to go on, especially for the next generation of Japan. He attended the Hiroshima Denki University (now the Hiroshima International High School), which had been moved from downtown after the bombing. He graduated from the mechanical department, and he took to running.  

 It was prior to the worldwide running boom of the 1960s and 70s, but long-distance running was popular in Japan. The Ekiden Relay races that are the subject of awe for North American audiences, were in full swing at that point, too. Unetani loved it. And he was pretty good—he even helped his team to a third-place finish at the 1962 National High School Ekiden Relay.

He matriculated to the Nippon Sports Science University—a school not known for its running prowess—to become a physical education teacher in 1962. Unetani still wanted to run, however, so he took to coaching himself. His studies in physical education were fruitful, and he focused on mechanics and training techniques. At one point, he picked up a Japanese translation of Arthur Lydiard’s Run to the Top. The book, and the training techniques outlined in it, set a foundation for Unetani’s running career.

Lydiard’s training system seems simple now. First, you set a goal race–ideally four to six months away. Then, start base training to build up your weekly mileage, including long runs up to two hours with a tempo run each week. Next, about a quarter of a way through your training block, you add in some hills and speed work at race-specific pace. The next step is to do efforts at race pace, whether in time-trial form or at a race. Then, you taper in final ten to twelve days in preparation for your goal race.

This is how Unetani turned himself into one of Japan’s best runners.

He put as many races into his schedule as possible, using them as training tools in the Lydiard system he adapted for himself. He ran 2 hours, 26 minutes, 3 seconds in his first marathon in Fukuoka in 1964. Then he kept on racing. By the time he got to Boston, he had a personal best of 2 hours, 14 minutes, 49 seconds from the 1967 Fukoka Marathon—and, as Unetani told reporters, 20 marathons under his belt.

***

“The Boston Marathon was the first race to welcome Japanese athletes to the U.S. roads after the war,” Boston Athletic Association executive director Tom Grilk once told METER Magazine. In 1951, the Boston Marathon became the first U.S. sporting event to host Japanese athletes.

As it happened, it was also the first year a Japanese runner won Boston. The 19-year-old Shigeki Tanaka, who was 14 and living in a village outside of Hiroshima when the bomb dropped, ran away from Massachusetts’ John Lafferty, winning with a time of 2 hours, 27 minutes, 45 seconds. The headlines were insensitive—JAP WINS 55TH BAA MARATHON was the headline in the Boston Evening American—but the precedent was set: Japanese were going to come to Boston, and they were going to race for the win.

Shigeki Tanaka, winner of the 1951 Boston Marathon, poses with the unusual “tabi” shoes he used for the race.

Back home, Tanaka was a star. Jack Fultz, who goes to Japan most years with a team of Ivy League alumni to race in the Izumo Ekiden, met Tanaka once in Hiroshima about ten years ago. Tanaka was still renowned in his home country. And while he told The Boston Globe in 1996 that he did not like being referred to as “Atomic Boy,” he told Fultz he had taken to it.  

Back in the 1950s, Tanaka set the tone for Japanese runners competing in Boston. Keizo Yamada won in 1953 and Hideo Hamamura took the crown in 1955.

Yamada was called a 5-foot-2-inch “package of perpetual motion” in the Globe write up of the 1953 race—and it was on the course’s most famous stretch that he made his bid for victory. “Midway up the soul-testing slope of ‘Heartbreak Hill,’” Jerry Nason wrote in his race report, “this feathery little fellow brashly hurled his challenge.” He spurted up the hill, as Nason described it, and ran away from runners from Sweden and Finland, winning by 28 seconds over the final six miles from Heartbreak.

Hamamura made his move in the hills, too, but only after biding his time early in the 1955 race. Going into the Newton Hills, the U.S.’s Nick Costes was charging to the front of the field with a small pack of runners in tow. Hamamura, meanwhile, was 350 yards back. He had methodically moved his way up through the field throughout the race, and was just getting started. Six miles in, he was in 14th place, and was only tenth by the halfway point. When the lead pack began the up-and-down portion of the course in Newton, Hamamura had moved up to third. He rushed through the hills. Eino Pulkkinen, a Finnish runner who was second in 1955, explained it best. “I was amazed when he went by,” Pulkkinen said. “Suddenly, the Japanese runner flashed past. Where did he come from?” Hamamura dusted the field over the final three miles, running 2 hours, 18 minutes, 22 seconds to win by 61 seconds. He had looked back in the final mile, but not because he was worried he was going to get caught. “I looked back not because I had worries that I would be caught” Hamamura told reporters, “but because it is good for a man to know what is going on behind him in the last mile of a race.” There wasn’t much for Hamamura to see that day.

It would be ten years before a Japanese runner would win in Boston again. In 1965, Morio Shigematsu won in a course record 2 hours, 16 minutes, 33 seconds. Kenji Kimihara made it two in a row for Japan with a 2 hours, 17 minutes, 11 second win on Boylston.

No single Japanese runner defended their title in Boston. This was because the Japan delegation would bring three different runners to Boston each year, giving someone else a chance to donn the laurel wreath on the medal stand. The

In 1968, American Amby Burfoot picked up the first American win since 1957.

In 1969, the Japan contingent brought Yoshiaki Unetani.

***

Yuki Kawauchi is known as the Citizen Runner. It is an apt nickname. He works full-time, he races more than any other professional marathoner, and you would be hard-pressed to find a race where he did not leave it all on the course. He was already a folk hero in running before the 2018 Boston Marathon, then he won the damn thing.

Kawauchi is famous worldwide. He has been profiled in Runner’s World and the New York Times. Videos of him racing in a panda suit have gone viral. He’s revered throughout the entire running community. His Boston win in the more than miserable conditions of 2018 simply added to the legend.

Yoshiaki Unetani was cut from the same cloth.

He stood at the start line at Hopkinton with 20 marathons in his legs. He was only 24 years old. With a record 1,152 starters joining him in the last year before Boson introduced qualifying standards for the race, Unetani had the pressure of maintaining Japanese excellence in Boston. When the gun went off, he embraced it.

From the start, Unetani made his intentions clear. He was going to put his nose in the race, and he was going to control it from the front. Despite a horrible night of sleep the night before the race—“I slept too much during the day and couldn’t sleep at night,” he said after the race—a brand new pair of Adidas racing flats, and running his first race outside of Japan, Unetani was aggressive. “My condition was so good,” he would tell reporters through a translator, “and I felt like running so I just let it go at the start.”  Running with Pablo Garrido Lugo, a 31-year-old actor, and Alfredo Penazola in his wake, Unetani and the pack set checkpoint records all along the course in sunny, 55-degree weather.

Garrido Lugo had taken a slight lead just past the halfway mark of the race, but Unetani was just warming up. He charged ahead and had a 50-yard lead by the time he hit the Newton Hills. Running with what the Associated Press called a “slight pigeon-toed style,” the muscular Unetani, donning a white jersey with a black sash and a flag of the Rising Sun on his left breast, put on a clinic in the hills. By the time he had crested Heartbreak Hill, the lead had grown and the race was over.

“Am I being followed?” Unetani asked a member of the Japanese media who was on a press vehicle with three miles to go. The answer was a resounding, “No.”

Unetani rushed through the final three miles all alone. He won in 2 hours, 13 minutes, 49 seconds. It was a course record by 1 minute, 56 seconds. His margin of victory was  just under 4 minutes, as Garrido Lugo was able to hold on for second place.

U.S. media crowned him a deserving victor, playing up the bit about the boy who had survived the Hiroshima blast. He had won four marathons in Japan, but they were small compared to prestigious Boston. “This is the hardest marathon I have ever run in,” he said. “That is why I am happy.”

He was given a hero’s welcome upon his return to Tokyo—his university hosting a reception in

his honor with music, dancing, drinks, and food. Victories are not forgotten in Japan, they make sure of it.

***

Unetani is remembered in Japan to this day. So are many others. Japan’s success in Boston did not end with Unetani. Toshihiko Seko is the only Japanese runner to win Boston twice, taking the crown in 1981 in a course record of 2 hours, 9 minutes, 26 seconds and coming back six years later to win again in 1987.

The only question now, is “Who’s next?”

The opportunity is right in front of Japan’s next slate of world beaters. Kokichi Tsuburaya took advantage of the home-field advantage in 1964, will Suguru Osako, Yuta Shitara, and Hirohito Inou win a medal in 2020, when Tokyo hosts again?

The pressure will be palpable when they line up in the Tokyo heat on the final day of the Games.

Brett Larner holds the reins to Japan Running News, a site that declares to be the “world’s window into elite Japanese distance running.” It lives up to the hype. Larner has insights into Japanese running history and its current status. In fact, in Boston in 2018, he was Kawauchi’s translator at the post-race press conference. He knows how important a marathon medal would be.

“I think few medals at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics would mean more to the Japanese public than a marathon medal, especially a men’s medal,” Larner told me. “If it were a gold medal I think it would mean as much as the Canadian men winning gold in ice hockey at the Vancouver Olympics.”

***

Unetani returned to Boston in 1989, on the 20th anniversary of his run. He was in town with a Japanese television crew as a commentator. Through an interpreter, he reminisced on his Boston triumph, reliving the last seven miles as he spoke with a smile on his face. He remembered his time to the second. He remembered the weather: warm and sunny. He remembered “Heartbreak Ridge” and pulling away, running by himself the final seven miles. And he remembered the finish line—how happy he was to see it.

He remembered the hero’s return, and said they were still honoring him back home. He was teaching physical education at a school in Hiroshima then, and he said the students were aware. “He says they know,” the interpreter told reporters. “He says their parents tell the children and the students tell each other. He says they know what he did for Japan in 1969 and they ask him about it.”

There is more to his career than the Boston win, of course. He won the 1971 Lake Biwa Marathon in 2 hours, 16 minutes, 45 seconds to earn a spot on the 1972 Olympic team. There, he could only muster a 2 hour, 25 minute, 37 second time to finish 36th place. He kept on running, popping up in race results all over Japan and even Hawaii and Amsterdam in the 1980s. At 41, he ran a 2 hour, 31 minute, 35 second marathon in Tsukuba, Japan.

Unetani is still in Japan. Still in Hiroshima. He no longer teaches—he is past the age of retirement—but there is a race for him each year in Okuno Island. The Annual Memorial Unetani

Rabbit Crocan is a cross-country event that has been run since 2004.

Fans of Japanese runners do not forget.

Sure, Yuki Kawauchi is one of Japan’s stars now. So are Suguru Osako, Yuta Shitara, and Hirohito Inoue.

But the other heroes remain, too. There’s Tanaka. And Yamada and Hamamura. Don’t forget Morio Shigematsu and Kenji Kimihara.

And there is the founding citizen runner. The man who survived the bomb and the man who won

Boston in 1969. Japanese stars are not forgotten. Yoshiaki Unetani will remain a hero.

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