jueves, 2 de junio de 2011

Toshihiko Seko and Kiyoshi Nakamura's old School

Toshihiko Seko running the Hakone Ekiden for Waseba University
Photo: Nobby Hashizume

       Kenya is nowadays the overwhelming marathon powerhouse, but this nation is relatively new to the longest Olympic running race. During most of the 20th century, Japan had owned the honour of being the country of marathon par excellence. The 42,195 km race demands have often been said to fit perfectly Japanese society values: discipline, self-sacrifice, patience, perseverance and inner-strength.  Also, the long distance relay races (Ekiden), adopted as soon as 1917 and still more popular than ever today, had had a decisive contribution to Japanese marathoning passion, encouraging the pride of representing and belonging to a college or a company. (1)  In 1934, the nine fastest marathoners were Japanese and, after the halt of the Second World War and economic recovery, in 1965 no less than 10 athletes had made the top-11 and 15 the top-16 the following year. Anyway, Japan had failed to produce an Olympic champion.  Marathon performances were so important for the nation at the time that Kokichi Tsuburaya, the bronze medallist in Tokyo, when Abebe Bikila got his second Olympic victory, could not stand the pressure prior to Mexico Games and committed ritual suicide.
Lake Biwa, Beppu-Oita and Fukuoka are among the oldest marathons in the world, launched more than 60 years ago.  The latter, had been, along with Boston, the most important road race in the world for several decades and used to hold the unofficial world marathon championships. Nevertheless, much older manifestations of long distance running in the country have survived.  Japan had distinguished in the past for bestowing great relevance to racing, from the military to the religious points of view.  The colourful Ansei Samurai marathon, held annually in Gumma prefecture, whose participants typically wear costumes, was created by the middle of 19th century by a feudal lord in order to train the minds and bodies of his warriors, up and down a physically demanding elevation of over 1000 metres.  Equally through mountainous trails take place the 1000-days sacred racing journey of the tendai marathon-monks of Mount Hiei, near Kyoto.  With little sleep and food, the priests travel by night on mere straw sandals, surrounded by nature, from shrine to shrine, in search of enlightenment. Brought to the human limits, they come face to face with death and thus develop a remarkable awareness of life ("everything that is alive is equal.  A human being is not special.  There are not special beings") and acuteness of perception ("marathon monks are able to hear the sound of ashes falling from an incense stick, smell and identify food being prepared miles away and see the sun and moonlight seep into the interior of the temple").  (2) (3)  

Douglas Wakiihuri, first Kenyan athlete based in Japan, and first
 marathon Olympic medallist for his country
http://www.webanswers.com         www.runnespace.com

This mystic side of Far East Asian culture has always had a legion of foreign admirers, especially from western countries, where materialism more and more dominates our societies. A young African man, whose tribe, the Kikuyu, has also a reputation for being fond of solitude and meditation, felt he has something in common with Japanese ways, after talking with Shunichi Kobayashi, a writer and photographer based in Kenya.  “I sensed there was another way of training in Japan.  It was not only physical but mentally and spiritually”. (4)  Thus, Douglas Wakiihuri became at his own risk the first Kenyan athlete that sailed to Japan, to meet coach Kiyoshi Nakamura and his Zen-Soho philosophy.  Unlike Nandis, the famous racing people, Wakiihuri said Kikuyus were able of patience and perseverance and these qualities brought him to the gold medal at 1987 marathon World Championships and silver at the subsequent Olympic Games.  Yet, when he arrived to Japan a couple of years before, Nakamura´s team big star was Toshihiko Seko. 
Had he won the Los Angeles Olympic marathon, Seko would probably be considered in his homeland the best national athlete ever born.  Yet, after acknowledging his beloved sensei Kiyoshi Nakamura had been diagnosed a terminal stomach cancer, had delayed his trip to the Games venue to the last moment and added jet-lag to his dismal feeling, ending 14th. Actually, Seko's only defeats in his last ten years as a marathoner arrived at 1984 and 1988 Olympic Games.  He won most of the biggest marathons of his day both in Japan and abroad, including Fukuoka (four times), Tokyo, Lake Biwa, Boston (twice), London and Chicago.  He also was an outstanding track specialist.  His world records at 25.000 and 30.000 distances still stand to the date. Yet, nothing of that would have been arguably accomplished without Nakamura’s masterful guidance.
Toshihiko Seko, born in July 1956, came to prominence in Athletics as he became a high school national champion in 800 and 1500 metres two years in a row.  Then he went to study to Waseda University in 1976, where he met Nakamura, who took the arrival of his talented new pupil as a gift. (4) He had had many national champions in his already long coaching career, but it was the first time he saw the opportunity of shaping a future Olympic champion. Therefore, he concentrated from then on all his efforts in the progressive building up of Seko for Moscow-80 marathon race, enrolling him as he graduated in his newly created S & B team, to continue his guidance, with the sponsorship of a spicy food company.
            Kiyoshi Nakamura was born in 1913 in Korea, at a time it was a Japanese colony.  He was also a middle distance runner specialist, representing his country at 1936 Olympic Games, without much success.  Perhaps it was this experience which brought him to the conclusion that the only event where Japanese athletes had a competitive chance was the marathon.  He participated at the World War and afterwards made a fortune with a variety of business, among them importing and selling sporting guns and trafficking with sake and tobacco in the black market. (4)  Despite his solid coaching reputation, Nakamura was blaming himself because he used to waste his money gambling and besides did not care about his trainees out of the athletic ground.  He concluded his bad example resulted in a bad influence over his pupils’ training results and lives.  Absolutely, work and emotions could not be dissociated in a professional relationship. (5)  
Seko’s blind obedience and devotion also played a role.  20 years afterwards he is still quoted saying “Marathon is my wife and I give her everything I have”.  Like current Kenyans athletes his life was limited to run, eat and sleep and he would not need to ask for more.  Toshihiko would jog for hours and he would have jogged all day had not his coach told him to stop.  Nakamura changed his demeanour, becoming the physical and spiritual teacher Douglas Wakiihuri had heard about.  He started lecturing his 90 B & S pupils about Buddhism, the Bible and Samurai philosophy, making them visit saint shrines, and overall acting as an overprotective father, always being present and worrying about their feelings. He aimed for the target of running in a wholly peaceful state of mind, where thought was inhibited, as in monks or martial arts masters.  (6)

Toshihiko Seko, Takeshi and Shigeru Soh at 1979 Fukuoka marathon
Photo: Nobby Hashizume    
 Nakamura’s guidance and Seko’s talent, hard work and determination made the marathoner the most confident and better prepared long distance runner of his generation.  A mysterious and inextricable man by his rivals, with an aureole of invincibility.  Nevertheless, a first setback came at Moscow Olympics.  Seko and twin brothers Shigeru and Takeshi Soh, after their splendid demonstration in Fukuoka, were favoured for a clean sweep of the medals at the Olympic Games, yet the boycott finished up with every dream.  Then Toshihiko was marred by a knee injurie, due to overtraining, and missed a whole season.  Back in 1983 in his best fitness ever he won the Tokyo marathon in an all time PB of 2:08:38 just to be sidelined again, this time by hepatitis.  Time was running out and Seko would be seen everywhere feverishly walking back and forth for hours, with face and neck swollen by either sickness or medication. (6) Miraculously, he recovered in time for the Olympic qualifying race, the Fukuoka marathon, which he won, beating Juma Ikangaa with a furious sprint. Shigeru and Takeshi Soh also booked their tickets for Los Angeles, finishing ahead of Kuninitso Itoh. 
  Toshihiko, unbeaten since 1979 in a marathon was again the hot favourite in Los Angeles, along with World Champion Robert the Castella and the man who had improved the world best for the distance in New York, Alberto Salazar.  Amazingly, all three of them ran a disappointing race and the victory went to World Cross Country champion Carlos Lopes, in only his second marathon, at 37 years of age, in an astonishing performance under the heat.  Still more surprisingly, John Treacy won the silver medal in his debut at the distance and Charles Spedding the bronze, also in his first year in the marathon.  One of the Soh brothers, Takeshi, finished fourth, in the bittersweet sole victory over Seko of their whole career. 
   Kiyoshi Nakamura died the year afterwards mysteriously, drowned while fishing.  Maybe he found this ending for his life more honourable than slowly agonising in a hospital.  Seko overcame his mentor’s death and was back, newly married, in training and winning ways, adding London, Chicago and Lake Biwa to his curriculum. Yet, he could only achieve a ninth position at Seoul Olympics, in a race won by Gelindo Bordin, ahead of Seko’s teammate Wakiihuri. His time had past and he retired soon afterwards. 


  Kiyoshi Nakamura’s merit as a coach was not only this fascinating blend of physical and spiritual in his Zen-Soho philosophy of running.  He was also the responsible for the introduction of Arthur Lydiard’s training method in Japan and this is probably his most perennial legacy to posterity, as Nobby Hashizume explains masterfully. (7) Nakamura invited Lydiard to Japan for a cycle of conferences as soon as 1962 and had always sent his athletes to train in New Zealand, just because it was Arthur’s homeland. Once most of the athletics world had left Lydiard behind, Nakamura remained still attached to his teachings.  Westerners wondered about the sense of the long Seko’s joggings.  Anyway, always exaggerating the total distance he had covered.  Yet, Nakamura new from Lydiard it is necessary first an aerobic step of “leg building” to create a base for ulterior anaerobic training.
When Nakamura took Seko he had never done a running longer than 30 minutes.  The future four times Fukuoka winner realized he had to decrease his pace speed in order to gradually be able of covering the whole marathon distance. He learned one or two things about it too from the Soh Brothers, who where his elders in the marathon and followed a similar training program, because their coach Hidekuni Hiroshima had been a Nakamura’s pupil.  Takeshi and Shigeru had once famously completed the 128 km tour around Mt Egmond in New Zealand.
Once used to the distance, Seko could start the next strategies in order of little by little get the goal of running the marathon at race pace. It had to be done in training several times in the last phase of preparation for a specific marathon and it was also Soh Brothers signature.

Arthur Lydiard, a major influence in Japanese marathon
Getty Images     www.iaaf.org

Another westerner myth said S & B served as Nakamura’s robot factory and his athletes were to endure, through the toughest discipline, the toughest possible training schedule.  Actually Nakamura, also learning from Lydiard, was much more flexible and intuitive in his workouts than most of European and American coaches of the time.  Seko would not finish a scheduled interval or would take an easy day in case he felt tired. Also Takeshi and Shigeru were the first runners in the world who used to run 1000 km a month but it was not because that distance was their target.  They just would run every day the number of miles their body would adequately assimilate and by the end of the month as they summed up they would realize they had completed around 1000 km. (7)  
Nakamura used to schedule every season a similar build up for Toshihiko Seko, in order to peak twice in a year, for European track season (july) and for a winter marathon (Fukuoka in December) respectively.  The first three months served just for easy conditioning and the next three for sharpening and specific training.  European track season fitted perfectly in the planning, helping to improve speed, which could be used later for higher quality workouts.  Only once that athletics modus vivendi was broken, on occasion of the Los Angeles Olympic Games. Seko became obsessed with the fearsome heat expected at the venue, tried to prepare the Games in similarly warm conditions but did not feel alright and had to switch several times his workout location, finally overtraining and tiring himself. (8) In Seko’s  own words, as he explains in his book “I was so concerned about ‘the heat training’, instead of going back to basics after Fukuoka (Trial) and re-build myself, I went straight into marathon training and tried to ‘hang in there’ until August. I should have been easily able to hold that pressure for 3 or 4 months but 8 months was way too long…” (7) It also explains very well his big failure in Los Angeles.
It is widely accepted, coach Nakamura and athletes Seko and the Soh brothers set the foundations for modern Japanese marathon.  Lydiard techniques, these days recovered by many European and American coaches have been developed uninterruptedly in Japan since the early sixties.  It is amazing to hear how the same Arthur Lydiard judges the way people in the world are using his own teachings: In a conference in 1990, held at the town of Osaka (9) he states Japan, unlike many other countries, has understood the need of building up an aerobic base through high mileage jogging.  Yet, he thinks, they fall short in the sharpening phase, in search of speed (by the way, not precisely Seko’s case in the 80s).
 Lydiard methods continuity in Japan is easily explained because of the direct lineage in the transmission of the basis.  Nakamura formed Shigeru and Takeshi Soh’s coach Hiroshima.  The twin brothers achieved further success thanks to their protégées Hiromi Taniguchi (1991 World Champion) and Koichi Morishita (1992 Olympic silver medallist).  The latter discovered a certain Kenyan guy called Samuel Wanjiru…  A Seko’s former teammate, Yasushi Sakaguchi is the main responsible for the likes of Shigeru Aburaya, Tsuyoshi Ogata and Atsushi Sato.  Another branch brings to Yoshio Koide, not directly coached by Nakamura, but anyway one of his followers.  Koide trained Yuko Arimori, Masako Chiba, 1997 World Champion Hiromi Suzuki, and Naoko Takahashi, the first Japanese Olympic champion in the marathon and the first woman under 2:20.  He also coached Hideo Suzuki, who started Reiko Tosa and Yoko Shibui careers.  Among national marathon stars, only Takeyuki Nakayama and Athens Olympic champion Mizuki Noguchi seem to escape the general trend.    
Righteous trees grow deep roots.  Kiyoshi Nakamura and Toshihiko Seko’s large heritage, all throughout Japanese marathon world, speaks plainly work was well done. 

Toshihiko Seko and coach Nakamura, after 1983 Fukuoka marathon
Photo: Nobby Hashizume