Training

Lessons From This Year’s Surprise Boston Marathon Winner

What triathletes can learn from Japanese “citizen runner” Yuki Kawauchi’s shocking win in Boston.

What triathletes can learn from Japanese “citizen runner” Yuki Kawauchi’s shocking win in Boston.

When the men’s Boston Marathon winner broke the tape in Copley Square earlier this week, announcers were scrambling. No one had expected Yuki Kawauchi, the first Japanese winner since 1987, to beat pre-race favorites like defending champ Geoffrey Kirui from Kenya or American two-time Olympic medalist Galen Rupp. But he did.

“I think there is probably not a single person in Boston who thought I would win this today, but in the marathon, you never really know what’s going to happen,” he said post-race, via a translator.

Not only did 31-year-old Kawauchi surprise the pundits to brave some of the worst weather conditions in recent history (race morning temps hovering in the mid-30s, wind, and rain) and win with a time of 2:15:58, but he also works full-time while he trains and races. And Kawauchi loves to race: This year he had already finished four marathons before Boston; last year he raced 12 and won five. Let’s take a look at what regular triathletes can take away from Kawauchi’s spectacular victory.

#1: Use bad weather to your advantage.

With frigid temperatures, driving rain, and headwinds gusting around 25 miles-per-hour on the already-challenging Boston course, most of the major contenders either faded to the back or didn’t finish. According to The Oregonian, Rupp dropped out between miles 18 and 19 and was later treated for symptoms of hypothermia and asthma. Of the 10 Kenyan and Ethiopian elites entered—many of whom have very low body fat and train mostly in warmer climes—only two finished, according to calculations from Letsrun.com.

“I’ve always been strong in the cold weather, I’ve always run well in the cold weather,” Kawauchi said post-race. “I think the conditions were instrumental in getting the win.” It was no fluke that Kawauchi found success in terrible conditions, he had run a marathon in Massachusetts with single-digit temperatures already this year.

This makes sense, says mental training coach Jeff Troesch. “If you really want to put yourself in the best position to give yourself a chance to manage any conditions, you need to be willing to train in any conditions,” says Troesch, who has worked with high-level triathletes and clients in the NBA, MLB, PGA, and LPGA. “It helps us acclimate, not only from a physiological perspective, but from a psychological perspective”.

In fact, athletes need to believe poor conditions benefit them—regardless of whether or not they’ve prepared for them. “There’s a psychological advantage to expecting it to be very challenging and expecting it to be difficult and almost embracing that challenge, rather than wishing conditions were different.” Troesch says.

#2: You can be your best and still have a job.

Despite facing one of the fiercest professional fields in the sport—almost all of whom are full-time marathoners with sponsors who pay the bills—Kawauchi is still technically considered an amateur. “I work in the administration office of a high school, and this year the high school is celebrating its 100th anniversary,” Kawauchi said, “so I’m quite busy writing the commemorative magazine for them.” Not only is Kawauchi working full-time, but he’s also working on a magazine, which we all know can be incredibly time-consuming. But that can actually be a good thing.

“I often find that people with jobs do a better job of maintaining structured training and managing the logistics of endurance sports better than those who have all day every day to train,” says Los Angeles-based coach, Gareth Thomas who has worked with national- and world-caliber triathletes. “Having a job gives your day structure and limited places to put your training, so it creates a ‘do it now or lose it’ framework to your day, and that can help you get off the sofa and out onto the road.”

#3: Racing your way into shape can work.

Not only has Kawauchi raced a ton already in 2018 (one week prior to winning Boston, he even took second in a half marathon dressed as a panda), but he also holds the record for the most sub-2:20 marathons run by a single person (79 after Boston).

“I run a lot of races because I love to run races,” Kawauchi said. “It’s one of the things I enjoy most. Racing a lot has given me the opportunity to travel the world, see lots of places, get to meet different people, and experience different things. In a more practical sense, because I train by myself, if I do not run all of the races, I wouldn’t be able to get in the same kind of quality, so running the races gives me the chance to get in long, quality 40K runs.”

Obviously this method isn’t for everyone—and it speaks to Kawauchi’s superhuman durability more than anything else—but there’s also some wisdom to his strategy when used in moderation with necessary rest.

“Racing often can be a fun way to get in high quality sessions, while practicing all aspects of a race day performance without placing a ton of pressure on a given race day, better preparing you for a race day that really matters,” says coach Ben Drezek, USAT’s 2014 coach of the year. “Since most people are more motivated to push themselves in a race, they also serve as excellent benchmarks to establishing training pace expectations while keeping an athlete accountable to the training thus far. Allowing for proper recovery, if you want to get better at racing, doing it more often may be the answer.”

So whether you’re training to qualify for Kona or getting ready for a season of sprints, Kawauchi’s lessons may give you the edge to have a crowd-shocking result of your own.