Feb. 21, 2021 — At 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, Japan’s Naoko Takahashi became the first female athlete from Japan to win the gold medal in the Olympic Track & Field event. The following year, she would go on to become the first woman in history to break 2:20 barrier at Berlin with 2:19:46. She was coached by the legendary Yoshio Koide. He was known to be a VERY tough, hard-nose coach. “I’ll push you to the point where, if you cross it, you may die!” he used to tell his athletes. For him, however, there was one occasion when he actually told his runner NOT to run any more. That was when Naoko Takahashi asked him if she could go for a 2-hour run AFTER her usual day’s workouts — 30k in the morning and another 20k tempo run in the afternoon. “Wait, wait, wait…!” he stopped Naoko. “You’ve already run 50k today!” “Yes, but that was my workouts,” she replied. “I would like to do MY own personal run!!” (in the end, Koide convinced her to NOT run.)
Naoko Takahashi was a “running worm”. She loved to run. I always think of the story of John Robinson, the one Arthur Lydiard always wanted to talk (which is another blog story later…). “He was completely devoid of any athletic talent. He was the slowest runner I coached; but he loved to run. Running, running, running…all the time; and he developed solid aerobic foundation that way,” Lydiard would tell you. Naoko Takahashi was like that. She was just a mediocre distance runner in college but she loved to run. She was probably one of the first female athlete, as far as I can think of, who ran as much as 200-miles a week. She truly understood the importance of “building the base”.
After her Olympic victory, she made this poem popular among Japanese running fans. The story of growing the roots in the winter in order to gain great big flowers and sweet fruit in the spring/summer…. We all know it, right? Chauncey Gardner (played by Peter Sellers) in the movie “Being There” talks about it (HERE); we even have a song about it in the musical, The Secret Garden (HERE)!! But the actual fact is; perhaps few understands and fewer practices it in the world of running. This means; forget about all the “sexy” workouts — as the triathlon legend, Mark Allen would call them — like intervals or tempo runs during the winter; forget about checking how fast or how far you are running. Just get out and chug along in the cold sub-zero condition and chug and chug and chug some more.
This is precisely what was lacking when Lydiard went to Finland as their national coach in 1966. Pre-WWII Finnish runners such as Heino, Ritola and Nurmi, stayed active during the winter days. They cross-country skied, walked, and ran through the forest. That was when “Flying Finns” won everything. But post WWII era, young Finnish runners lost that edge. No race, no training. They stayed home and watched TV. Now instead of 60km (40 miles) a week, they were running 160km (100 miles) a week. Like growing the roots, things don’t happen over-night. But 5 years later in 1971, Juha Vaatainen won 5,000 and 10,000m at Helsinki European Championships (Vaatainen’s crazy last lap of 1971 European Championships 10,000m HERE; and 5,000m HERE), and the following year in 1972 at Munich Olympics, Finland won 3 gold medals (Lasse Viren X2 in 5,000 and 10,000m and Pekka Vasala X1 in 1,500m) and 1 bronze medal (Tapio Kantanen in 3,000m steeplechase). This is basically all because Lydiard taught them “how to grow the roots” in the winter.
Coach Koide was a huge Lydiard fan. Back in 2001, after Naoko Takahashi’s gold medal run, he had like a rock star status. Prior to Sydney Olympics, he also coached Hiromi Suzuki: the 1997 World Championships marathon gold medalist, as well as Yuko Arimori: the double Olympic medalist — the silver medal at Barcelona in 1992 and the bronze medal at Atlanta in 1996. Through our mutual friend, he happily agreed to meet with me, a total stranger at the time, simply because our friend told him that I was a “big Lydiard proponent”. As we met, he told me: “I still read his book (“Running with Lydiard”) one page a day!” Koide was, in a way like me, a struggling runner when he was younger. “I love to run but I just didn’t know how to train,” Koide told me. “Then I read Lydiard’s book (‘Run to the Top’ translated in Japanese) and followed his training and the results followed. Then I became a high school coach and used those teenagers as a ‘guinea pig’ and gave them the Lydiard training and they won the national Ekiden relay championships…”. Koide understood the importance of growing the roots. “Far too many people think you need to train fast to run fast,” he continued. “But when you take more time and you go long and SLOW, then the results follow…”. Your aerobic foundation is the roots of your performance. And the winter is the time to grow them.
In the spring of 2000, I was contacted by a Japanese running magazine company. They wanted me to ask Arthur Lydiard his prediction for men’s and women’s marathon at Sydney Games. As I asked Arthur, he actually picked Portage’s Pinto for men’s winner. He won London Marathon in 2:06 earlier. “He’s fast and he seems to know how to peak,” he said. And for women’s race? “I don’t really know who’s running for the women’s field…,” he admited. “Who do you think is good, Nobby?” he asked me. “Well,” I replied. I read this article actually written by Coach Koide earlier. He explained things like whether to wear socks or not, to wear sunglasses or not, etc…. “There’s this coach from Japan who talks about the importance of details…”. “Who does he coach?” Arthur asked. “His runner, Naoko Takahashi, ran 2:21 in the 80-degree heat at Asian Games (this race can be seen HERE)…”. “You have to think of EVERYTHING in order to win the Olympics. Pick her as the winner!” I relayed the message. When Takahashi won, Arthur called me. “Nobby, you got me another feather on the hat!!” Arthur chuckled.— Nobby Hashizume