translated by Brett Larner
Future 2:07 marathoner Masato Imai was the first modern star of Japan's biggest sporting event, the two-day Hakone Ekiden university men's road relay, the first to earn the moniker "God of the Mountain" for annihilating preconceptions of what was possible on Hakone's brutal uphill Fifth Stage. But nobody catalyzed and symbolized the birth of the modern university ekiden and everything associated with it, the transformation of college kids into national celebrities, more than the man who replaced him, Ryuji Kashiwabara.
As a first-year at Toyo University Kashiwabara caught national attention when, pre-debut at the 2009 Hakone Ekiden, he said with calm but brash self-assurance that he was going to break Imai's Fifth Stage record. And the entire country watched open-mouthed as he did it, the sight of him crying as he ran the last kilometer still etched in the minds and hearts of anyone who saw it live. Over the next three years Kashiwabara was unstoppable, winning the Fifth Stage every year, taking the record faster and faster, and, his senior year, pushing Toyo to become the first school ever to break 3:00/km for the entire 217 km-plus Hakone course.
With over 100,000 Twitter followers Kashiwabara become one of the ten most-followed track and field athletes in the world at the time, and his fame in Japan was such that he essentially couldn't go out in public. That comes at a price. A relatively quiet and geeky person by nature who liked watching anime and reading manga, Kashiwabara began to experience psychological problems that resulted in him leaving school for a time.
He eventually worked out his issues and went on to the Fujitsu corporate team post-graduation. Fan expectations were incredibly high that he would be the next great Japanese marathoner, expectations raised all the higher when Imai ran his 2:07:39 marathon breakthrough in Tokyo in 2015 but Kashiwabara was careful to keep the stress manageable, studiously avoiding talking about anything but anime, manga and video games on his public Twitter account and heading off to make his marathon debut out of the public eye in a low-stress Australian race.
But as a corporate league runner Kashiwabara never experienced success on the track, on the roads, or in the ekiden. Although he ran a 5000 m PB of 13:46.29 a few months after graduating, he never improved on his 28:20.99 best from his sophomore year at Toyo and never won a single race. His biggest achievement was probably a 3rd-place finish at the hilly Ome 30 km Road Race in 2013, a far cry from the sensational hype around him at Hakone. Fans never gave up hope even when he didn't break 2:20 in either of his first two marathons -- Imai had taken years to get the marathon right, so there was no reason Kashiwabara couldn't either.
But not all stories have the ending you want. On April 3 Kashiwabara and Fujitsu announced that he was leaving the team and retiring as an athlete. The public shock was enormous, with "Ryuji Kashiwabara" trending as high as #2 nationwide in Japan. In the evening Fujitsu pubished the following statement from Kashiwabara on the end of his road.
It's a private matter, but I hereby confirm that on Mar. 31, 2017 I resigned from the Fujitsu Ekiden Team and retired as an athlete. Last season (2016) I had repeated injuries and problems from which I still haven't recovered as I'm writing this, and with no prospect of a full recovery on the horizon I made the decision to end my career as a competitive athlete.
Different people who have coached me through the years including Fujitsu head coach Tadashi Fukushima have asked me, "Isn't it too soon to give up?" and, "How about trying to focus on treatment and rehabilitation?" But when I'd had an injured Achilles tendon once before that hurt for a long time once before I'd told myself, "If you ever get another major injury it will mark the end of your career," and between that and no end to this injury in sight despite getting treatment and rehabilitation, the only choice was to turn in my notification.
I'm sorry to have caused so much worry to so many people right up until the end, but I'm deeply grateful to everyone who cheered for me, to my friends who were always there for me, to the leadership and support of coach Fukushima, the team staff and my teammates at Fujitsu, to coach Toshiyuki Sakai at Toyo University and to coach Sato from my days at Iwaki Sogo H.S.
This next part is a little long, but I'd appreciate it if you read it when you have time. Since I want to say it as much of it as I can in my own words some of it may not be written very well, but I hope that you'll overlook that fact.
I started running competitively in junior high school, and I've been able to keep it going all the way to the corporate leagues. I've never had the kind of personality that stuck with something for long, so this has been as much a surprise to myself as to anyone. Through running I've met a lot of people, and have been supported by even more. In my university days I had severe social anxiety and there periods when I couldn't leave my dorm room. I think the only reason I could go on with it was because I had family, high school teachers and coaches back in Fukushima who would welcome me back and support me without asking questions whenever I needed to go home, and friends who greeted and accepted me back without saying anything when I returned to university. I would like to take this opportunity to say the words thank you to you again. Thank you, truly.
After this I'll be staying on to work at the Fujitsu corporation. I think I'll mostly be working on the other side, working with company physical fitness program and on Fujitsu's regional and social contribution programs. To whatever extent I can I want to keep doing running seminars and making guest appearances at races whenever I'm asked. My feeling of wanting to help spread the excitement of sports hasn't changed. I often hear people saying, "I don't how to watch track races," or, "I don't even know whether it's OK to go to a track or into a stadium to watch," but as long as you show proper manners as a spectator you can watch and enjoy however you like! I really hope that people will feel more comfortable going and having fun watching races in person.
If I can change to topic a little to my hobbies, I've always talked about how I like anime, manga and video games. I've been really glad to see that people who share the same interests have started getting into running and sports and even showing up at races wearing anime t-shirts. I want to remove more of the social barriers and hurdles around sports culture and increase the number of its fans even more, to make it so that people who don't know much about sports and even anime, manga and video game fans who've never watched sports before will feel comfortable coming out to watch.
Track and field in particular has a lot to offer if you go in person. There are so many different events going on that you'll never get bored watching. On the track there's everything from 100 m to 10000 m, and on the fields there are all kinds of jump and throw events. The ebb and flow of the ekiden and the marathon make it so that you never know what's going to happen until the very end, I think they have an appeal to them that you just can't taste in other sports. I really hope that you'll all take yourselves down to the track and ekiden or marathon course and see how the athletes race for yourselves.
So, this is where it ends. I want to say thank you all for everything up to now. Ryuji Kashiwabara still goes on, and I hope that you will all continue to look kindly upon him.