The Superhero Runner

Why Yuki Kawauchi is my son’s hero

My son Henry is five years old — or five and three quarters, if you ask him. He is in the first year of primary school, and this term their special topic is heroes. They have already done a number of things connected to this theme. One day everyone in his class had to go to school dressed as a superhero. He chose Wolverine. A few weeks ago they had to write about people whose jobs involve heroism. He chose lifeguards. Last week, for homework, Henry was asked to write a few sentences about his own personal real-life hero. He chose Yuki Kawauchi — the ‘civil servant’ runner from Japan.

Yuki Kawauchi, although a house-hold name in his own country, is not on the radar of most five-year-olds in London. Premier League footballers, perhaps. Marvel-universe comic book characters, certainly. Japanese civil servants-cum-long distance runners, not so much.

So why did Henry choose Yuki Kawauchi to be his hero?

There are two parts to the answer to that question. One is about Japan, and the other is about running.

Henry is Japanese. Or at least, he says he is. He isn’t really, his ethnicity is entirely British, but he was born there. We lived between Osaka and Kobe for over seven years, but left for home when Henry was two and a half, which means that unfortunately, he doesn’t really remember anything of his time there. Now that he is five (and three quarters), his imagination is filled with all things Japanese. He’s proud of having been born in Japan and I suspect a little frustrated that he has so little practical connection to the place. It wasn’t an easy decision to leave Japan, and three years later, we still have mixed feelings about it. Not surprisingly, we are a family of Japanophiles.

As for running, well that’s a fairly big deal in our family too. Henry is used to seeing either his mother or father heading out for a run, sometimes one after the other. Henry’s mum is a regular Parkrunner, and I am a club runner who writes about running. I like running; I like runners, and I really like runners like Yuki Kawauchi. That he is from Japan, and that he is also particularly respected for his bravery, made him a natural choice as a suggestion when Henry brought up the topic of heroes.

Here’s Japan Running News’ Brett Larner, writing in issue #3 of Like the Wind Magazine, describing the moment at the 2011 Tokyo marathon when, towards the end of the race, Kawauchi overtook two far more esteemed runners:

Mediocrity or eternity? You can see him wrestle with it.
And you can see the moment he reaches into the fire and grabs hold of forever.
To me it seems to express something fundamental, something about the classical archetype of the hero.

Kawauchi went on to finish the marathon in third place, the first-placed Japanese, in 2:08:37, and thereafter became something of an icon in Japan, as well as in the wider running community.

It isn’t only that he’s a great runner, although there’s no doubt of that. It’s that in a country in which runners are the products of a rigid elite system, Yuki Kawauchi does things entirely in his own way. He doesn’t belong to a corporate team, and he didn’t compete for a prestigeous university. He doesn’t even have a coach or an agent. Instead, he trains by himself and organises his own racing calendar (the usual plan seems to be: enter as many races as possible). Without a team salary, Kawauchi has to work for a living, and this he does as an office worker for the prefectural government in Saitama, near Tokyo.

Yuki Kawauchi completing the Tokyo marathon, 2011

Larner’s words are well chosen: mediocrity might very well have been Kawauchi’s destiny, were it not for his strength of character and his ability to seize the moment.

Having Wolverine as a hero is fine to a point, and there’s no doubt that lifeguards should be recognised and admired for their bravery. But I want Henry to grow up knowing that his future is in his own hands, that he can ‘reach into the fire’ to get what he wants, but that it will mean hard work, and not necessarily following a prescribed route.

But I didn’t tell Henry who to write about, and I never do his homework for him (although I’ll help with spelling if he asks). We discussed Yuki Kawauchi, among a few other contenders, and a few days later, that was who Henry chose as the hero he was going to write about. (Proud dad moment.)

Here’s Henry’s homework:

And here’s what happened next:

And the next day, came this response from the man himself:

“I’m not quite the fastest in Japan yet but I’m very happy to hear that English children know and value that I try to be competitive and to never give up. I will keep trying to really become the fastest in Japan. Thank you.”

And with that, Yuki Kawauchi’s status as my son’s hero was sealed.

As Henry’s dad, my thanks to Kawauchi-san for taking the time to respond, and to Brett Larner at Japan Running News for passing on Henry’s homework to him. Hopefully, before long we’ll have the chance to see Yuki Kawauchi running in the UK, unless we get to Japan first. Either way:

Do your best, Yuki-san, I support you!