Welcome to the third interview in the summer Spark Series. This week we talk marathon running and goal setting with Yuko Nakai, currently one of Hawaii’s most successful distance runners with a long string of marathon wins to her credit. With a background in figure skating and sailing, Yuko didn’t start running until later in life but that hasn’t stopped her from moving up the age group ranks. Yuko has also taken up swimming and might be venturing into triathlon too. A consistent presence at Hawaii running events, Yuko is an enthusiastic supporter of all things running and runner-related. As a busy, working Mom of three we’re lucky to catch up with Yuko who shares with us some excellent advice about how to handle and move on from a major injury, and also Yuko talks about the runners who inspire her on a daily basis.
LRY: Starting at the beginning of your journey as a runner – what drew you to the activity of running in the first place?
YK: I was first introduced to running via the Honolulu Marathon when I coordinated a television program for the event. As I worked on the TV program for the marathon every year I thought one year I should try running it – to make most of the opportunity before it was gone. I found out that a typical beginner usually aims to finish around the four-hour mark and that was my goal. I set myself a ninety day training period in 2010 and met my goal by finishing in 3:57. After that I completely stopped running and didn’t start-up again until eight months later.
LRY: From the outside it seems like you love competing and taking part in events – almost every weekend! Can you recall your first ever race – and describe the experience of training and preparing for the event, and then the race itself?
YK: The Honolulu Marathon in 2010 (as mentioned above) was also my first race. During the training for the marathon all I could think about was not having to squeeze running into my schedule, or that I could do something else with that time – I had a very busy life. When I decided to run it, I had no experience with running or racing whatsoever, the last time I had run just a little was over twenty years prior. Setting goals for myself was super important, and that was the four-hour barrier. My first training day was at Kapiolani Park, a 10K run which was the farthest I had ever run in my life at the time. After I finished that run, I threw up. That was how weak my body was. It was a difficult but fun three-month training period for the marathon. On race day itself, in the middle of the marathon all I could think about was not having to run anymore!
LRY: Which running event in Hawaii do you look forward to the most?
YK: Definitely the Maui Oceanfront Marathon and Kona Marathon. The Maui Oceanfront is close to the Honolulu Marathon (just a month later) so I’m already in pretty good shape. It’s also very cool temperature-wise so my chances for running a PR are greater. The second marathon I enjoy running and finishing is the Kona Marathon (taking out the time factor/ PR pressure). All three times I’ve run in Kona have been incredible. It’s such a warm and welcoming community for runners.
LRY: What would you say are the three main ingredients in the ‘recipe’ of meeting long-term goals as a runner?
YK: First of all, setting a goal is incredibly important as a runner. The key things I personally do are:
1. Remember my goal at all times. I need to know what I am running for, I don’t want to be running just for the heck of it. I remember my goal and hold it in my mind when I run.
2. Follow advice. Of course, following the advice of a more experienced person is important, but so is taking into account the advice of anyone who bothers to try to help me, regardless of speed.
3. Stay consistent with my training. I like to work out and plan what time of day is going to be consistently available for my run – so that I can try to always run at the same time of day. No matter how tired I am or if I feel a little under the weather, I run on the days that I set as running days. If, for some reason I cannot run, I try to find another time on a different day.
LRY: Can you explain what running brings to your life as a mother?
YK: Running is a great stress-buster! After I finish a run, all of my stress and pent-up frustration is gone. It is so effective that my daughter even suggests I go for a run sometimes! I feel that our family life has become filled with more peace and happiness. As a mother of three, I don’t like forcing my hopes for my children on to them. I don’t believe in pushing my kids for myself. Once I started running, my life became my own. Looking at life from the perspective of my kids, I feel that a lot of unwanted pressure that came from me was alleviated once I began running. I think being a mother and a runner is a balancing act. For example, the night before the North Shore marathon in 2012 my child was very sick, and I had to carry him all through the night to try to comfort him. That was harder than the marathon itself. All moms will go through similar trials.
LRY: Almost every runner develops an injury at some point, has that ever happened to you? And if so, what was your approach to rehab and returning to running?
YK: My worst and first major injury occurred this January when I learned that the cushioning in my right knee was thinning out and I had a meniscus tear. I stopped running completely for five weeks. I was stressed and scared about taking such a long break because I was worried about slowing down. The only thing I could do to keep my cardio level consistent was swimming. After learning more about my injury, I decided to stop my hill training and trail runs. Now I try to run on grass as much as possible. With my knee problem, my mileage dropped but my times have improved thanks to swimming.
LRY: Many runners find it difficult to cope with injuries. Do you have any advice for someone who might be struggling with an injury right now?
YK: During the period I couldn’t run, Coach Jonathan Lyau was a great help. He had a lot of experience, whether personal or of other runners, and understood what I was going through. Simply talking to him lifted my spirits. I think it’s important to have someone who understands, someone whom you can talk to. My friend Thomas Sands gave me great advice: “focus on getting back to running because an injury can play with your mind.”
LRY: When you are training and preparing for races, do you like to run solo or with a group?
YK: I only prefer running solo when a race is coming up. I usually get busier and my body feels tired. Running on my own gives me time to focus on myself. On regular daily training days, when I don’t have an important race on the horizon, I like to run with a group.
LRY: Who are your role models within the greater running or triathlon community?
YK: Yuki Kawauchi. He’s not a professional runner, and yet he’s fast, world level (2:08 marathon).
LRY: What’s on the sporting calendar for the second half of 2016?
YK: For me, most of my major races have already happened this year. Since I began swimming, I now want to improve. I may begin triathlon training next year.
LRY: Which 3 races or events are on your personal bucket list?
YK: Chicago Marathon, Tokyo Marathon, and Osaka International Women’s Marathon.
LRY: Finally – do you have a mantra or quote that you turn to for inspiration – something you could share with readers?
YK: There’s a Japanese runner, Naoko Takahashi who became an Olympic gold medalist in Sydney, 2000 (winning in 2:23:14, which was an Olympic record until 2012). Naoko’s words were that she didn’t feel like a gold medal or a world record was impressive, but being able to reach her goals gave her a greater feeling of joy.
LRY: Thanks Yuko! An awesome thought to end on, and good luck in the Kona marathon this year!
Setting personal goals as Yuko does seems to be a theme throughout this interview, and the words of Naoko Takahashi are definitely memorable.
Steps to cultivating longrunergy so far from the Spark Series have included: training smart and having fun, keeping things simple, and working towards tailor-made goals. I hope you can start to incorporate these aspects into your own running-life!
Thanks for reading and stay tuned for the next interview!