Runners from the Land of Rising Sun (Part 2) — Lydiard Connection
March 12, 2021 — The result of Rome Olympic Games was a shocker to Japanese marathon squad. The unknown soldier from Ethiopia named Abebe winning the gold medal in with the world best marathon time, running barefoot, was incredible while Japanese runners had the worst showing in the Olympic history ever!! But they were also equally — if not more — impressed with the performance of another tiny island country: New Zealand. Endurance training revolution was stirred up by a small shoe-maker named Arthur Lydiard who coached unknown Peter Snell (800m), a handicapped (can’t move his left arm) runner Murray Halberg (5,000m) and another totally unknown marathon novice Barry Magee to two gold medals and one bronze. Led by far-thinking legendary Mikio Oda, the first Japanese Olympic champion (triple jump in 1928), and “Small Giant”, Kohe Murakoso (see Part 1), Japanese Federation invited Lydiard to Japan to conduct a series of training camps in the spring of 1962. Even more impressed and satisfied with the immediate outcome, in September that same year, they sent the cream of top Japanese distance/marathon runners to New Zealand to directly learn the “Lydiardism”. There were 6 athletes including Toru Terasawa and Takeyuki Nakao and Nobuyoshi Sadanaga. The team leader was an old coach by the name of Kiyoshi Nakamura. It was a 7-week training camp (yes, they were serious!!). Upon returning to Japan, the results were quick. Nakao became the first Japanese to crack 2:20 for the marathon and numerous national 10,000m records followed. Terasawa broke Abebe's world best marathon (by one second) with 2:15:15 in February of 1963. Seeing the immediate results, Federation decided to send yet another group to New Zealand in July-September of 1963, this time, for 2 months. This group of 10 runners included Terasawa and Nakao again with two young runners by the name of Kenji Kimihara and a novice marathon runner, Kokichi Tsuburaya. During the NZ stay, Tsuburaya ended up breaking Emil Zatopek's world records for 20,000m and 1-hour run, finishing second behind Bill Baillie, the "Arthur's Boy". Tsuburaya would go on to win the bronze medal in the marathon at 1964 Tokyo Games and Kimihara the silver medal at 1968 Mexico City Olympics (“Japanese owe 2 Olympic marathon medals to Lydiard,” Barry Magee recalls). Nakamura would go on to coach Waseda University and Team S&B and Sadanaga Team Kanebo.
What Lydiard taught the Japanese were: (1) run a lot— a lot more — at moderate effort; (2) run every day; and (3) balance your training with long slower distance with short, sharp, fast repeats. When Lydiard came back to Japan in the spring of 1990, he was pleased to see the concept of Long Aerobic Running diligently carried on with next generations of coaches and runners. “But,” Lydiard continued, “I see many runners not being taught ‘how to run efficiently’ correctly. Their speed not fully developed…(read “Lydiard Osaka Lecture” HERE for more detail). Interestingly, when Suguru Osako seeked “new” approach with Oregon Project, it was “lack of speed/fast sprinting training” with the conventional Japanese training approach. Many Japanese runners and coaches who attended these NZ camps were all surprised actually with Lydiard’s “7-days-a-week” approach. Back in those days, most Japanese marathon training approach consisted of long runs of 10–35k; much of them run quite hard (again, more or less like Jim Peters approach of the 1950s); but because of that, it was customary to take a day or two off or go for a brisk walk instead of running. Lydiard advocated AEROBIC running and now JOGGING became a big part of training regime.
Japan’s quick success after visiting New Zealand prior to 1964 Tokyo Olympics came simply by balancing their training. One of the premier Japanese coaches at that time was Susumu Takahashi, who coached Kimihara to his silver medal at Mexico City. When Lydiard visited Japan in 1962, he invited Lydiard to his office (Team Shin-Nittetsu=New Japan Steel) and “talked all night”. At that point (in mid-1960s), the trend in the world of distance running was German intervals. With the debacle of Rome Olympics by simply running long distances, Japanese marathon runners were trying to shift to more interval-heavy training regime. He was coaching a young runner by the name of Masayuki Nagata. His training routine consisted of short intervals (20X400m, 10X1000m), long intervals (5X2000m, 3X5000m) and long run (20–30k once every 10-days). They immediately switched the whole training scheme to that of Lydiard’s. Takahashi recalled: “Main differences were: (1) longer runs (25–35km) at easier pace, (2) more specific pace running (LT runs of 10–20km), (3) shorter much faster sprint works and (4) lots of jogging…”. Forty days later, Nagata won Lake Biwa Marathon with a PR. This “new” approach definitely helped them to claim the Olympic bronze (1964) and the silver (1968) medal. But following Olympics in the 1970s were, once again, more or less a bonker. At Munich Olympics in 1972, 35-year-old “veteran” Kimihara barely slipped into the 5th place and in 1976 at Montreal, they had to rely on another veteran, 34-year-old Akio Usami. One bright news at Montreal was a young Shigeru Soh, one of the twin brothers, had the Olympic experience and lead the Japanese team with 20th place.
If the 1964 and 1968 Olympics with Lydiard approach were the results of “balancing act”, the following 1970s were the time to “grow the roots” (see my prior blog on “growing the roots” HERE). Lydiard-influenced runners got old and retired. But Lydiard-influenced coaches chugged along. While America’s Frank Shorter won every marathon he participated, including 4 Fukuoka Marathons, between 1971–1975 and his countryman, Bill Rodgers at Kyoto and Fukuoka Marathon in 1977 with Canada’s Jerome Drayton winning in-between years. Meanwhile, young Japanese runners kept on growing their roots. Lydaird used to say: “You keep on training hard and, one day, BOOM! You run well; and you go, ‘Gees! How did that happen?…’”. Lydiard always said: “You need to work like hell for at least 3 years till you can expect any result…”. That result came in 1978. The first “firework” was in February at Beppu Marathon. Shigeru Soh, who finished 52nd out of 53 runners at previous year’s Fukuoka Marathon vowed to do well at Beppu. He took off at the gun and ran each 5k split under 15-minutes up to 25k!! It was rare to see sub-15min split at all back then; 5-in-a-row was earth-shattering!! He led the entire 42km and into the head-wind in the second half; naturally, he slowed a bit but ended up running 2:09:05 — the second fastest marathon ever at the time and the first sub-2:10 performance by a Japanese. Now he was the odds-on favorite at December’s Fukuoka Marathon. No Japanese claimed this prestigious “local” unofficial world marathon championship since 1970 (Usami). Out came a collegiate runner, a junior at Waseda University, Toshihiko Seko. Not only the first Japanese win in 8 years, Japanese also took the first 3 places — first ever at Fukuoka — over the field that included the defending champion, the King of the Roads, Bill Rodgers.
Toshihiko Seko is probably (still) the most recognized figure in the Japanese marathoning around the world. There had been faster Japanese runners, runners who finished higher places in the Olympics…but none impactful as Seko. He was one of the “winningest” marathon runners in history, winning total of 10 marathons out of 15 starts. He was a master of peaking and hardly ever “screwed up”. The only 2 marathons he “bonked” were two Olympics: 1984 and 1988. He was a national high school middle distance champion, winning both 800m and 1500m in his junior and senior year. Interestingly, however, when he moved on to Waseda University, he had a hard time running for an hour!! That was in 1976. Just think; 5 years later in 1981, as a part of his preparation for Boston Marathon which he won, he did a 50-mile run in 6-hours!! Kiyoshi Nakamura, Seko’s coach, followed the Lydiard Principle well — “You can develop endurance to utilize the basic speed that you were born with…”. Nakamura always publicly stated that “with all the training programs out there, I like that of Lydiard best.” And for the reason of taking runners on Team S&B and Waseda University team to New Zealand for training camp to be “because it’s the land of Arthur Lydiard.”
Kiyoshi Nakamura was probably the most influential figure in Japanese marathoning. It was Nakamura — and Soh Brothers — who perfected what is today known as the Japanese Marathon Training Approach (I will explain in more detail in Part 3). You can see the pattern they had established in pretty much every Japanese marathon runner’s training. While at Waseda University, Nakamura coached, besides Seko, Yasushi Sakaguchi who went on to become the coach at Team Chugoku Electronics where he had five sub-2:10 runners at once in the late 1990s. At S&B team, Nakamura coached a young Kenyan by the name of Douglas Wakiihuri who went on to become the first Kenyan world marathon champion (1987) followed by the silver medal at Seoul Olympics (1988). Nakamura used to make a copy of the entire Japanese translation of “Run to the Top” and hand out to the athletes. One of them actually attended my first Lydiard Certificate Clinic in Japan in 2015 and he showed me well-used bound copy of “Run to the Top” in Japanese!! Seko went on to coach Waseda University team in the 1990s. One of the young athletes there was Yasuyuki Watanabe who represented Japan for 10,000m at 1996 Atlanta Olympics. When he took up the coaching position at Waseda University, he said that Seko’s biography (Seko being his coach and mentor) and the Japanese translation of “Running with Lydiard” as his “Bibles”. Watanabe would go on to coach Suguru Osako who would break the national marathon record twice in 2019–20. Nakamura also influenced a young runner who was not on Waseda team, not on S&B team. Nakamura was the coach for Team Tokyo for Inter-Prefecture Ekiden relay in the late 1950s. He gave such an inspiration to a 20-year-old son of a farmer that he decided to go back to school (college) and try to run Hekone Ekiden. His name was Yoshio Koide. Koide would go on to coach Yuko Arimori (Olympic silver and bronze medals in 1992 and 96) and Olympic champion and the first woman to break 2:20, Naoko Takahashi.
When he was a high school coach in Chiba Prefecture, Koide coached a young man who was on the team that won the high school ekiden championships in the mid-1980s. This young man continued to compete as an athlete at Meiji University and competed in prestigious Hakone Ekiden. In 1992, Japanese translation of “Running with Lydiard” got published. He was so inspired; he contacted the publisher and eventually contacted Arthur Lydiard himself. Much like I did in 1984, he went to New Zealand on his own for 10-months in 1996 to study the “Lydiardism” from the Master himself. Upon returning to Japan, he became a professional corporate team coach at Mitsui-Sumitomo Kaijo. He, Shigeharu Watanabe, went on to coach Reiko Tosa (silver medal and bronze medal at 2003 and 2007 World Championships marathon) and Yoko Shibui, the former national marathon record holder with 2:19:41. Yoko’s 10,000m national record of 30:48 stood for 18 years and was only recently bettered by Hitomi Niiya (with her Super Shoes).
Nobuyoshi Sadanaga, who joined the first NZ training camp in 1962 went on to coach an outstanding young man by the name of Kunimitsu Ito in the early 1980s who ran 2:07:57 in 1986. Ito would succeed the head coach position for Team Kanebo after Sadanaga and coached a tall gangly young man, Toshinari Takaoka who was the first non-African in the final of 10,000m at Sydney Olympics (7th) and ran the Japanese national record of 2:06:16 in 2002 which stood for 14 years (until the Super Shoes were introduced). He also held the Japanese records for 3,000m, 5,000m and 10,000m as well. I first got together with Toshi in 2010. Before we met, he didn’t even know Lydiard (!!) so I sent him the Japanese translation of “Arthur Lydiard’s Athletic Training” (original English version available HERE). When we got together, the first thing that came out from his mouth was: “That’s what I did!!” When I explained him about his coach’s coach (Sadanaga) joining the Lydiard training camp in 1962, he said: “Can you add my picture to Lydiard family-tree as a grand-child runner?” ;o) I did (see Photo Gallery of Lydiard Training & Academy website).
Very few, if any at all, outside Japan realize deep connection to the Lydiard Method with Japanese marathon heritage — often even Japanese don’t realize it either! When I came back from New Zealand in late 1984, I put together a hand-written copy of “Arthur Lydiard’s Athletic Training” and made a bunch of copies; and sent it out to various coaches. About a dozen local high school coaches; a couple of college coches….and two professional corporate team coaches. Only two responded. One was the late Isao Sasaki, the head coach at Team NEC who coached 1988 Olympian, Eriko Asai, and multiple sub-2:10 runners. Another was Kiyoshi Nakamura. Nakamura had a rock-star status at that time. “Come visit me when you come to Tokyo,” he wrote. “I’ll tell you my interpretation of Lydiard.” Surely, they understood what some local high school coaches didn’t. Fast-forward to 2001; I would visit another rock-star figure in the Japanese athletics — Yoshio Koide. Fresh from Naoko Takahashi’s gold medal performance at Sydney, it wouldn’t be easy to even get an interview appointment with him. The only reason he welcomed me with open-arm was because our mutual friend told him that I was a big Lydiard advicate. “I bring ‘Running with Lydiard’ with me to training camps and try to read a page a day!” he said. I got the pass to meet with the rock-star figures in Japanese athletics simply because of Lydiard.
The most recent athletic “Rock Star” in Japan whom I hadn’t had a chance to meet (yet) is Susumu Hara, the head coach at Aoyama-Gakuin University. Aoyama-Gakuin had won prestigious Hakone Ekiden title 4 years in a row. A few years ago, I received a package from Toshi Takaoka. It was a book written by Coach Hara. “He mentions ‘Lydiard’ in this book,” Toshi said. Coach Hara was a runner at Team Chugoku Electronics for a brief period and coached by Yasushi Sakaguchi (above-mentioned, who was coached by Kiyoshi Nakamura). “I believe in Arthur Lydiard’s aerobic-based training,” he says in this book. Aoyama-Gakuin University had a young runner who ran Hakone Ekiden a couple of years ago. He was about to quit running and start a new career at a “sweets” company. Encouraged by his effort for the first marathon as a graduation present to himself, a 2:08 at Beppu Marathon, he decided to stick around a bit longer. He joined Team GMO led by Katsuhiko Hanada, a teammate of Yasuyuki Watanabe at Waseda University and Team S&B. This young man is Yuya Yoshida who was a surprise winner at 2020 Fukuoka Marathon with the time of 2:07:05. In 2008, when I brought Peter Snell to Japan and we conducted 3 Lydiard clinics in Osaka, Tokyo and Gunma. At Gunma clinic, we had the packed audience of 200. Coach Hanada at the time was a collegiate team coach at Josai University. He brought 20 of his students to attend the Lydiard course conducted by Dr. Snell and myself.
Toshinari Takaoka retired from competition in 2009 and became the head coach at Team Kanebo in 2015. At first, he struggled a bit to “coach” young generation of athletes. I had been personally corresponding with him since around 2010. Team Kanebo was founded in 1950. Toshi’s grandfather coach, Sadanaga competed in 1960 Rome Olympics marathon. And his coach, Kunimitsu Ito, was the Japanese representative for 10,000m for 1980 Moscow Olympics (which he never got to compete in because of the boycott). Toshi competed in 10,000m in 1996 Atlanta Olympics and 2000 Sydney Olympics where he was the first non-African (7th). So Kanebo entertained very prestigious history of distance runners. When Toshi was struggling to produce the next generation of Kanebo Olympian, his old coach, Ito visited him and took him out for a dinner and a drink. Afterwards, Toshi texted me. “Talked to Coach Ito,” he said. “I was complaining about the coaching approach…then Ito told me: ‘You should perhaps go back to the basics…’. ‘What is the basics?’ I asked. ‘Go back and take a closer look at Lydiard…’” The Lydiard influence in Japanese marathoning runs wide and deep.— Nobby Hashizume
(* Finally I will cover the specifics of Japanese marathon training in Part 3)