TOKYO — In the men’s marathon, it takes bravado to aim for a spot on the Olympic medals podium higher than runners from Ethiopia and Kenya, who have dominated the sport for years.
But Arata Fujiwara, Japan’s top marathoner, has made a name for himself by bucking conventional wisdom. In a country that values predictability, hierarchy and modesty, he does not belong to a running club, coaches himself and has a unique training regimen that emphasizes speed over endurance.
Shunning the teams that compete in the corporate distance relay, or ekiden, which dominates Japan’s running world, Fujiwara is a provocative figure who has befuddled supporters and skeptics alike. To some, he represents a new breed of runner willing to try new methods and expand beyond Japan’s insular running world, which discourages racing overseas. To others, he is challenging the existing order tilted in favor of Japanese television broadcasters and team sponsors.
His performances have been just as bewildering. Fujiwara has finished second in the Tokyo Marathon three times, including this year, when he ran 2 hours 7 minutes 48 seconds, the seventh-fastest time for a Japanese man. But he has also run slower than 2:20 in other marathons, including several overseas.
However fickle his times, his ability to run with the leaders makes him Japan’s best chance to win a medal in the men’s Olympic marathon since Koichi Morishita finished second in Barcelona 20 years ago. While runners from Africa are expected to be at the front of the pack in the race Sunday, Track & Field News picked Fujiwara to finish sixth, the only Asian runner among the top eight predicted finishers.
In keeping with his maverick ways, Fujiwara, 30, is not afraid to speak openly about his ambitions. In May, he ran a 10-kilometer race in England and scouted the Olympic marathon course in London. He trained on his own in California, far from the prying eyes of the Japanese news media, though most days he trains in Yoyogi Park in Tokyo running laps while a friend on a bicycle keeps time.
“With all the hype, I am careful and try not to make bold statements,” Fujiwara said in an interview in Tokyo in June. “Nevertheless, I want a medal. When I recently went to London, I started to feel the possibility of a medal. I felt I could see it.”
Fujiwara has taken an unconventional path to the marathon, where the favorites includeWilson Kipsang of Kenya and Ayele Abshero of Ethiopia. Tired of racing on a large team and eager to test some of his ideas, he quit the corporate team sponsored by JR East, Japan’s largest railway, in 2010. Suddenly, he no longer had teammates or a coach, and he had to find his own housing and cook his own meals. His modest salary and travel subsidies disappeared.
“If you run for a corporate team, essentially everything is taken care of,” said Ken Nakamura, who lives in San Jose but works with the Tokyo Marathon. “Now he doesn’t have any of the amenities, but he’s free to run where he wants. You have to be courageous.”
Going out on his own means the potential for humiliation is never far off, because the naysayers in the running world are many. It also takes a certain type of person to be willing to market himself not just in Japan, but overseas.
In addition to prize money and appearance fees, Fujiwara won sponsorships from Miki House, a children’s clothing company, and Kagome, a juice company. He used his popularity to raise thousands of dollars in online donations from fans.
Though injuries and poor performances could derail his career, racing independently has been more a statement on the state of distance running in Japan than a rebellion.
“The Japanese marathon is sluggish,” he said. “There’s an emphasis on only practicing running. Intuitively, I felt uncomfortable with it. I felt, ‘Perhaps there is something wrong about this.’ I didn’t have the answers for how to change this. Then I began to be curious, and I decided to learn how the foreign athletes are doing it.”
For inspiration, Fujiwara turned to Vincent Rousseau, an ascetic Belgian runner who had some success in the 1980s and ’90s. Rousseau’s independent streak taught Fujiwara that training alone can be done well.
Fujiwara has a similar free spirit. He grew up in Nagasaki, where his parents gave him and his four siblings room to learn for themselves. He attended college in the Tokyo area, where he had an accomplished though not extraordinary running career.
He joined the JR East racing team after graduation, but the heavy training regimen, curfews and predictable lifestyle felt a lot like college and were not much fun. So he left. “Finally, I’m free now,” he said with a laugh. “It took way too long.”
One reason Fujiwara felt confident enough to go out on his own was his success. In 2008, after his first second-place finish in Tokyo, one sports newspaper ran a headline, “Who Is This Guy?” After he finished second again in 2010, he felt prepared to strike out on his own.
Now coaching himself, Fujiwara has reduced his mileage and focused instead on speed. To prepare to run 2:06, or three minutes per kilometer, he uses workouts that include repetitions of three-minute kilometer runs. At a meet in Japan in June, he ran back-to-back heats of the 10 kilometers with less than five minutes to rest. He finished fifth in the first heat with a time of 29:01, and then ran 29:08.
“From the beginning, I had lots of stamina,” said Fujiwara, who joked that he has the body of a chicken. “I felt that if I do speed training, I can do well in the marathon. Normal runners do the opposite. They have raw speed but they need to increase their stamina.”
Whether that strategy will help produce a medal is unclear. Fujiwara is unlikely to keep up with the leaders if they end up running 2:04 or 2:05. But the course in London has many turns, and if it rains, as it did for the women’s marathon last week, Fujiwara has a better chance.
“In a technical race, he’s good on those courses and his finish is good,” said Brett Larner, who writes for the blog Japan Running News and who has helped Fujiwara find races overseas. “In a perfect scenario, it’s foreseeable he could contend for a bronze, but a top-five finish is realistic.”
Fujiwara, he said, “has his rebel side, and he’s very focused on what he wants to do.”