Archives for category: Runner Profile

Well, the 2012 Olympics just wrapped up after seventeen fun and exciting days of competition.  This was the first Olympics in which I seriously focused on the running events.  Here are some observations:

Runners come in all shapes and sizes : There’s a huge difference in body type between the sprinters (100m, 200m, 400m) and the distance runners (5000m, 10000m, marathon).  Running is much more specialized than swimming, where a single athlete (like Phelps) can win all the events.  The sprinters have more in common with those competing in the jumping and throwing events, than they do with the distance runners.  We all have a combination of fast twitch and slow twitch muscle fibers.  Sprinters have a higher percentage of fast twitch, which gives them more explosive power, while distance runners have a higher percentage of slow twitch, which gives them more endurance.

Fastest Man in the World : Usain Bolt’s antics can be bit obnoxious, but you gotta admit the dude’s exciting to watch.  He’s a genetic anomaly that comes along maybe once every hundred years.  We’re lucky to be able to witness that kind of speed and power.  After his three gold medals in London, Bolt now may be the most famous runner EVER and certainly the most well-known Jamaican since Bob Marley.  And despite the fact his training regime consists of Chicken McNuggets, Guinness, video games and late nights dance parties, he is good for the sport of running and for sport in general.

More running please : I’ve heard some people complain that there are too many swimming events (it seemed to dominate the whole first week).  Instead of cutting back on the swimming, I suggest we include more running events.  Running is one of the most popular recreational activities in this country, yet few of us can relate to races run around a track with competitors wearing spikes and one-piece spandex jumpsuits.  I say we add a half marathon (which has become the most common recreational distance in the last few years) run through the streets of the host city.  The winners would finish in about a hour, short enough to keep TV viewers interested.  I would also add a trail running and ultra marathon event, since these are two fast-growing activities as well.

Go Meb Go : Overall, the marathon was a bit of a disappointment.  In an effort to make the event spectator friendly, the London organizers designed a loop course that slowed things up considerably and caused some runners to cramp up on the many turns.  Three of the six U.S. runner did not finish due to injuries.  Yet 37 year old Meb Keflezighi ran a gutsy race and finished fourth.  This former Olympic silver medalist and New York marathon winner was dropped by Nike last year because they thought he was over the hill.  He struggled to find a new sponsor and was only able to secure a deal with fitness shoe maker, Skechers.  Since then he’s been a man on a mission, finishing fourth at New York last year (while setting a new personal best), winning the U.S. Olympic Trials in January, and now finishing fourth in London.  Getting dropped by Nike may have been the best thing that could have happened to him.

I want my BBC : NBC I feel did a poor job of televising the Olympics.  I realize there are challenges with time differences and the fact that different viewers want to see different events, yet still they could have done a much better job.  They made it extremely difficult to try and figure out when a specific event was going to be televised.  Many important events were not shown live so that NBC could show them during prime time, by which point most viewers would have already known the outcome.  The final straw for me was on Saturday when we had three Americans in the final of the 5000m and instead of televising this exciting race they chose to show a handball match.

Silver Lining : The U.S. racked up more than a hundred medals in London, including 46 golds.  Because we always do well in the Olympics, we tend to ignore the non-gold medal winners.  Yet for me, the most impressive performance in these games was the silver medal won by Galen Rupp in the 10,000m.  Galen Rupp grew up in Portland and went to Central Catholic High School,  just a few blocks from my apartment.  In 2000, he was discovered by Alberto Salazar while doing sprints in soccer practice.  If you are not familiar with Alberto Salazar, he is a running icon and probably the last American to be considered the world’s best distance runner.  Salazar won several major marathons, like New York and Boston, yet his career was tragically cut short due to overtraining.  If you want to known more, check out this recent article by Malcolm Gladwell on Salazar in the New Yorker.

Galen Rupp has incredible natural talent, yet Salazar has been extremely cautious in helping him to develop.  Rupp could be a case study on the benefits of slow, gradual, progressive improvement.  Nothing crazy or sexy, but never an injury.  It all came together in London when he became the first American to medal in the 10,000m since 1964.  Rupp’s training partner, Mo Farah of Great Britain, won the gold (and a second gold in the 5,000m).  Bravo Mo, Galen and Alberto.

In the 1970’s, a program was initiated to teach all American elementary school students the metric system.  I was a part of that generation that learned metric in school and to us it was as simple as A,B,C and 1,2,3.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t so easy for Ronald Reagan.  After he was elected in 1980, he decided to scrap the whole program and now we remain one of only three countries in the world (along with Burma and Liberia) to have a system other than metric.

I love the metric system.  It’s clean, rational and well-balanced.  The freezing point of water is zero, the boiling point is one hundred…easy.  There are a hundred centimeters in a meter, a thousand meters in a kilometer…makes sense.  Our system is neither logical, nor intuitive.  I can never remember how many cups in a gallon, how many yards in a mile, or how many square yards in an acre?  Even lifelong users are often stumped by these basic conversions.

American runners have a bit more knowledge of the metric system due to our participation in the frequent 5K & 10K races held in most cities.  Longer races of 50k and 100k are now becoming increasingly common in the ultra running scene.  In track and field, the most popular distances tend to be the 100m, 200m, 400m and 800m.  As much as I’d like to see even more integration of the metric system into our society, there is one imperial measurement that I feel a reluctance to let go…the mile.

For many of us, our first exposure to measured running was on a high school track.  Each lap, we were told, is a quarter mile.  Four times around and buddy, you just ran yourself a mile.  Can you remember the first time you ran that far?  There was a real sense of accomplishment.  “Wow, I just ran a whole mile!”  It felt good.

Training runs are measured in both time and distance, but we almost always default to distance when discussing our training.  “Yeah, I did a 20 miler on Sunday.” or “I’ve been averaging more than 50 miles week.”  The advent of the GPS watch has made our obsession with distance even greater.

I know that the mile is just a unit of measurement (originally meant to denote a thousand paces by a Roman soldier) and no different in purpose than a kilometer.  But for runners, the mile has a historical significance and mystique that I believe will forever be linked to the difficulty we had in initially breaking the four minute mile barrier.

For almost ten years in the middle of the twentieth century, the world record in the mile remained unbroken at 4:01.4.  Scientists speculated that it may not be physiologically possible for a human to run any faster.  The four minute mile became sport’s elusive holy grail and runners the world over were determined to be the first to break it.

Roger Bannister, a British medical student, felt the barrier was more psychological than physical, and used newly developed training techniques to prepare for his many attempts. By 1954, Bannister, as well as Australian John Landy and American Wes Santee, were right on the verge of breaking through.  Finally, at Oxford’s Iffley Track on a cool windy day in May, Bannister was able to accomplish what so many before him had tried and failed.

Sports Illustrated called Bannister’s feat one of the greatest sporting achievements of the twentieth century.  More than fifty years later, the four minute mile remains a benchmark for all competitive runners and to this day more people have stood on the summit of Mt. Everest than have run a four minute mile.

When I heard that an 83-year-old Bannister carried the Olympic torch a few weeks ago around that same track in Oxford, I was inspired to see how fast I could run a mile.  Even though I’ve run races in distances anywhere from 5 kilometers to 50 miles, I have never raced just a single mile all out.  The mile requires a mix of both speed and endurance, which is why some refer to it as the perfect distance.  Others call it the cruelest distance because of the concentrated suffering that must be endured.  Sounds like fun.

Every summer, Portland’s Foot Traffic running store organizes all-comer track meets at Grant High School. These events are super family friendly and are mostly just an excuse for a bunch of adults and kids to run around and have a good time.  There are 60m, 100m, 400m, 800m and one mile races on the track and the long jump, high jump and softball throw in the infield.  Check out this awesome video to get a feel for how cool this event is :

summer all-comer track meet.

Those three-year-olds racing around the track were so ridiculously cute.  It was interesting to see that the fastest kids were often the ones running barefoot.  The mile event wasn’t a race per se, but rather a prediction race.  You guess your time beforehand, leave your watch behind, and whoever finishes closest to their predicted time wins.  I had no idea how fast I’d run, but guessed 5:30 because that’s what the guy in front of me wrote down.

The race was filled with runners of all different ages and abilities.  There wasn’t a whole lot of strategy involved.  We all just went out as fast as we could and tried to hang on till the end.  There was lots of zigging and zagging, passing and lapping, but somehow we all managed to finish.  I was able to break the elusive six minute mile barrier, finishing in 5:38.  The winner was a six-year-old girl in pigtails who ran with her Dad.  She finished in 10:46, just 2 seconds off of her predicted time.

Today is the opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympics.  As a way to honor the Olympic spirit (and all those cute little kids at the Foot Traffic meet), I suggest that you go to your local high school track and run, jog, or walk a mile.  It doesn’t matter how fast or slow.  Leave your iPod and smart phone at home and focus on each lap.  Pump your arms through the turns and float down the straightaways.  Visualize being in London and competing against the best in the world.  Feel the burn of that final lap and then sprint the last 100 meters.  Cross the finish line with your arms in the air and imagine how it feels to be an Olympic champion.

Last week ultra running stud, Scott Jurek, was in town to promote his book, Eat & Run.  For those of you not familiar with Scott, he is one of the world’s most successful ultra runners.  In the last 15 years, he has won dozens of races, including classics such as the Hardrock 100, the Spartathon in Greece, Death Valley’s infamous Badwater 135, and the sport’s premier event, the Western States 100.

What I find even more impressive, however, is what Scott has given back to the running community.  His kind words and actions have inspired countless runners to go faster and go further.  Articles by and about Scott have motivated countless others to take up running for the first time.  He has volunteered at many races here in the Pacific Northwest and is known for hanging out at the finish line to cheer in every last runner.  As much as he has gotten out of competitive running, he has given back so much more, which is why I was honored to introduce Scott to a couple hundred of his fans at the recent event at Powell’s Books.

While Scott has always been well known in the ultra scene, his popularity with the public at large has grown enormously after being featured in Christopher McDougall’s bestseller, Born To Run.  At the event he discussed the recent death of the book’s main character, Caballo Blanco (Micah True).  A lifelong recluse, Micah died at a time when he was just starting to come to grips with his unwanted fame.  Hopefully his Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon will continue to be held in support of the local Tarahumara in northern Mexico.

I’ve always assumed that elite runners would need to consume lots of animal protein to properly recover from the intense training required to succeed at the highest level.  Yet Scott has been able to accomplish as much as he has living entirely on a plant-based diet.  In his book he explains how he went from being a fast food junkie to someone who has a thoughtful relationship with everything he consumes.  I don’t think I’d ever want to go vegan or vegetarian, but I’m still excited about trying out some of the tasty-looking recipes in Eat & Run.

Both in person and in the book, Scott comes across as a totally normal guy with a lack of pretension that makes the ultra running scene so welcoming and enjoyable.  If you are looking for some inspiring stories, some training tips and some yummy recipes, I highly recommend picking up a copy of Eat & Run.  And who knows, maybe one day you too will be running 100 mile races over mountains and through deserts fueled only by a plant-powered diet.

A few months ago, I wrote about one of my heroes, Japanese marathoner Yuki Kawauchi.  Known as the Citizen Runner, Kawauchi works full time in a government office and trains alone without the support of a coach, a team or a sponsor.  His gutsy performance at the 2011 Tokyo Marathon earned himself a chance to compete at the World Championships in September.  This year he was hoping to do it again and qualify for the Japanese Olympic team.  Unfortunately, this fairy tale does not have a happy ending.  Kawauchi finished in a disappointing 14th place at the Tokyo Marathon last month and did not make the Olympic squad.

As a sign of penance for letting down his many fans and supporters, Kawauchi shaved his head after the race.  This guy’s got some serious samurai spirit going on.  Can you imagine an American sports star, like LeBron James, showing that type of humility?  No way something like that would EVER happen.  I now respect Kawauchi more than ever and am already rooting for him to qualify for the 2018 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

The big surprise at the 2012 Tokyo Marathon was Arata Fujiwara’s impressive 2nd place finish.

Fujiwara has shown a lot of promise in the last few years, but has also been highly inconsistent.  He felt the reason for this inconsistency was due to a hip imbalance.  So, to remedy the situation he sought out the help of Hiromi Kashiki, the woman who popularized the sexy exercise craze known as Curvy Dance.

She explained, “When I first saw Fujiwara, I noticed his pelvis was going up and down, left and right–it wasn’t very stable.  I tried to make sure his pelvis area was more relaxed–removing wasted energy to release that explosive power.”  WHOA!  Well, whatever she did seems to have worked because he now has a ticket to London for the 2012 Olympics.

Fujiwara, like Kawauchi, is not affiliated with a corporate team.  Japanese elite runners, unlike their American counterparts, are not sponsored by sportswear companies.  Instead, they are employed by large corporations to compete in the popular ekiden relay races.  For several years, Fujiwara ran for Japan Railways, but got frustrated with the inflexible training and racing schedule.  He quit in 2010 and now trains alone in a Tokyo city park and relies on donated shoes from friends.  For inspiration, he uses a line from Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast (“Hunger is a good discipline.”) as his mantra.

Because of their unaffiliated status, Kawauchi and Fujiwara are sometimes jokingly referred to as ronin (masterless samurai).  Yet with the success they’ve both had recently, I get the feeling we’re going to be seeing more ronin in the future.  These two guys are a throwback to the golden age of Japanese marathoning, when runners like Toshihiko Seko dominated.  In the 1980’s, Seko won ten world class marathons, including Boston, London, Chicago and Tokyo.  He once summed up his stoic approach to running with the quote, “The marathon is my only girlfriend.  I give her everything I have.”

“Some people create with words or with music or with a brush and paints.  I like to make something beautiful when I run.  I like to make people stop and say, ‘I’ve never seen anyone run like that before.’  It’s more than just a race, it’s a style.  It’s doing something better than anyone else.  It’s being creative.” –Steve Prefontaine

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If you’ve never heard of Steve Prefontaine, you’re either not a runner or not from Oregon.  “Pre” is probably the greatest distance runner this country has ever had (and possibly ever will have).  He was brash and arrogant, yet charismatic and likable, sort of a mix of James Dean, Che Guevara, and Muhammad Ali.  When Pre died in a car accident in 1975 he held every American track record in distances from 2 miles to 10,000 kilometers.  Today he would been 61 years old.

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“To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.”

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Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if Pre hadn’t died at such a young age.  Would he have won a gold medal at the 1976 Montreal Olympics?  Would he have switched to the marathon?  Would this guy who lived in a trailer and received food stamps now be a multimillionaire?  Would he still have his trademark mustache?

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“A lot of people run a race to see who is fastest.  I run to see who has the most guts.”

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There have been numerous books and movies about his life.  Without Limits is the better of the two Hollywood movies.  However, the best of the bunch is Fire on the Track, a 1995 documentary narrated by fellow Oregon icon Ken Kesey (author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest).  Fire on the Track was chosen as the best running movie of all time on letsrun.com beating out Academy Award winner, Chariots of Fire.  You may have a tough time finding this film (it’s not available on Netflix), but I could be persuaded to lend you my copy (with a credit card deposit, of course).

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“Don’t let fatigue make a coward of you.”

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Last May I ran a half marathon in Eugene, a city known as Track Town USA because of runners like Pre, Alberto Salazar, Galen Rupp, and coaches like Bill Bowerman and Bill Dillenger.  The race finishes on Hayward Field, home of the University of Oregon track team and site of the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials.  I signed up for this race because I wanted to know what it would feel like to run on this famous track, in the same way a musician would aspire to one day perform at Carnegie Hall.

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“You have to wonder at times what you’re doing out there.  Over the years, I’ve given myself a thousand reasons to keep running, but it always comes down to self-satisfaction and a sense of achievement.”

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In the months leading up to the race I thought a lot about Pre and his legacy.  After reading all the books and seeing all the movies, I started using his image and his words to inspire me to run faster.  For the Eugene Half Marathon I decided to pay my respects by dressing up like Pre.  I couldn’t find a vintage University of Oregon track singlet, but my Mom was able to turn a yellow tank top from Goodwill into a reasonable enough facsimile.  I then trimmed my wintertime beard into a Prefontainesque mustache.  I now felt like I had a serious 1970’s Oregon mojo going on.

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“Someone may beat me, but they’re going to have to bleed to do it.”

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The day before the race Yoshimi and I paid a visit to Pre’s Rock, a memorial at the site where he crashed his car and died.  There were lots of things runners had left behind:  various medals and ribbons, old track spikes and uniforms.  I let Pre know that my mustache was no sign of disrespect, but rather a way for me to honor his legacy.  I also asked him to give me the strength to run as tough as he did here in Eugene and on the track at Hayward Field.

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“I’m going to work it so it’s a pure guts race at the end, and if it is, I am the only one who can win it.”

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The next day I was one of 8,000 runners to take part in the race.  Along the course a few spectators recognized my getup and shouted a “Go Pre!” for encouragement.  As I entered Hayward Field the announcer said, “Now entering the track, from Portland, Shawn…Wait a minute folks, for a second there I thought it was Steve Prefontaine.”  My hour and 23 minute finish was not even close to the winning time, but for me it’s the fastest I’ve ever run at that distance and maybe the fastest I ever will.  In the end it was a pure guts race.  I think Pre would have been proud.

I was thrilled to hear that no fracture showed up on my X-Ray.  The physician, however, was quick to point out that stress fractures are often hairline cracks that are not easily detectable and that the only way for me to get better would be to rest.  So, I took some time off from running to give my leg a chance to heal.  To be honest, it wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be.  I had been training hard for 18 months straight and I think my mind, as well as by body, needed a break from the constant focus.

Then just a few days ago, like the perfect Christmas present, my leg suddenly stopped hurting and the swelling went away.  Cautiously, I eased my way back with short runs, soft surfaces, and a super slow pace.  I’d hate to jinx it by saying too much too soon, but I really do feel that the worst is behind me.  After 22 years of continuous running this was my first and only injury.  I’ve always known that running giveth, but I now know that it can taketh away as well.  And never again will I taketh for granted.

In other news, while combing through some back issues of The Economist magazine, I stumbled across an obituary of British runner, Bill Smith.  If you’re not familiar with The Economist, you really should acquaint yourself with this wonderful publication.  Started in 1843, The Economist is a weekly magazine(though for historical reasons it calls itself a newspaper) that is light in advertising and rich in quality international business and political coverage.  One issue could easily provide enough reading material for a transcontinental flight, unlike Time or Newsweek, which feel more and more like inflight magazines.  The Economist has been my constant companion since I first started traveling in 1994.  After 17 years, I feel like it’s given me a graduate degree in international studies.

I’ve always tended to read magazines back-to-front.  This might have to do with the fact that my favorite section is on the back page of The Economist.  Each week one individual is featured in a beautifully-crafted obituary.  The person is often not well known, but all have lived  full, interesting lives in one way or another.  Some of my favorite examples include Momofuku Ando, the inventor of instant ramen noodles, Eddie Clontz, a master of tabloid journalism, and Irving Stevens, the king of American hobos.  This section is so popular among readers of The Economist that a collection of more than 200 of these obituaries were released in book form a few years ago.

Okay, let’s get back to Bill Smith, a man as humble as you’d expect with this most common of names.  By trade, Bill was a porter at a department store in Liverpool, but his real passion was running up and over the hills(or fells) of the Lake District in Northern England.  Fell running is a uniquely British sport that involves racing across challenging terrain and requires the use of mountain navigational techniques.  It’s kind of like a mix of cross country, orienteering, and trail running.  Bill didn’t own a car, so he’d start each weekend by hopping on and off various forms for public transportation to get to his beloved fells.  He was an accomplished runner, but was better known for writing a 600 page encyclopedia on fell running called “Stud Marks on the Summits.”  Bill Smith died at the age of 75 while running alone along the Lancashire moors on a beautiful autumn day.  He left this world doing what he loved the most.  How many of us will be as lucky.

Japanese athletes tend to be known more for their consistency and teamwork, than for individual acts of heroism.  You wouldn’t expect Major League All-Star Ichiro Suzuki to crank a game-winning home run in the bottom of the ninth, but you can count on him to bat .300 year-after-year and to play near flawless defense in right field.

This year a different type of Japanese sports star emerged from the unlikeliest of places-a local government office near Tokyo.  In his dark suit and tie, Yuki Kawauchi may be just a modest civil servant, but he is also a world class marathon runner.  In Japan, elite runners are sponsored by big corporations, like Toyota and Hitachi, and given access to the best coaches, nutrition and equipment.   All of their time is spent training, resting and preparing for the next big race.  Kawauchi has chosen to forego this seemingly preferable option and instead works full time in an office and trains alone in his free time.

Last February, I was one of 35,000 runners to take part in the Tokyo Marathon.  The race was used to determine who would represent Japan in the World Championships.  Kawauchi wasn’t one of the favorites, but that didn’t stop him from putting in an incredibly gutsy performance.  For the first 20 miles he remained within striking distance of the leaders and then with less than 2 miles to go he cranked it up until his face looked like a death mask of pain.  He fought his way into third place and just barely held on to become to first Japanese finisher in 2 hours and 8 minutes.  After crossing the finish line, he collapsed and had to be taken away on a wheelchair.  This was Kawauchi’s sixth marathon and the fifth time he ended up in the medical tent.  In a post-race interview he said, “Every time I run, it’s with the mindset that if I die at this race it’s OK.”

The Japanese media ignored the first two finishers from Ethiopia and instead focused all of their attention on Kawauchi, who they dubbed the “Citizen Runner.”  A story surfaced that Kawauchi had brought a suit to the marathon, so he could go straight to work afterwards and catch up on some paperwork.  The next day when every major media outlet tried to get an interview with the elusive Citizen Runner, Kawauchi simply turned off his phone so he wouldn’t be distracted while at work.  He gave the prize-winning BMW to his mother, and when she turned it down, he then sold it to raise money for the tsunami relief effort.  The Japanese Athletic Association was a bit apprehensive about having someone represent the country who had basically thumbed his nose at their system.  However, their hands were tied after the whole country fell in love with this amateur underdog.

Front page of a Tokyo newspaper

Despite being offered many attractive sponsorship opportunities, Kawauchi has continued to work for the Saitama Prefecture government and train in his free time.  Unlike most elite runners, he trains without a coach and races frequently.  His do-or-die approach to racing resulted in some disastrous performances.  At a 50K ultramarathon in June, he collapsed 600 meters from the finish and had to be hospitalized for heat stroke.  In August, he represented Japan in the World Championships and was on the silver medal winning team, even though  individually he finished a disappointing 18th in the marathon.  Rumors began to circulate that his performance at the Tokyo Marathon was an anomaly and that the Citizen Runner may not have what it takes to be a part of next year’s Olympic squad.

This year the Japanese Athletic Association designated three races as qualifiers for the 2012 Olympic marathon team.  The Fukuoka Marathon on December 4th was the first.  Most of the big name Japanese runners chose to focus on just one of these races.  Kawauchi, of course, signed up for all three.  At Fukuoka, he started out a bit slow, just like he did in Tokyo, but then patiently started to reel in the competition.  A pair of front-running Kenyans pulled away from the field, while Kawauchi focused on picking off the Japanese runners.  With just 3 miles to go, the only one who stood between him and a third place finish was pre-race favorite, Masato Imai.  Kawauchi snuck up on Imai, who was alerted of the attack when a fan yelled, “Go Kawauchi!”  These two battled it out, going back-and-forth, swapping positions, until Imai couldn’t take it any longer.  Kawauchi crossed the line in 2:09, the first Japanese finisher and in third place overall.  His impressive performance will hopefully secure himself a spot in the 2012 London Olympics.

It’s all too common these days to hear athletes claim to have, “given it their all,” but I wonder, how many actually do?  Kawauchi is a rare breed that really does give it all he’s got, every time he straps on a pair of racing flats.  I think it’s cool that our role models are not assigned to us, but rather chosen by us.  And while I totally respect the hard work and dedication of most professional runners, I’d much rather have as a role model someone who understands what it’s like to put in 40+ hours a week at job, AND THEN try to squeeze in a quality workout.  Kawauchi is a true marathon champion, but he is also one of us, a part of the working masses, and that’s the reason he is my role model and my hero.