The Return of Toshihiko Seko
The Sri Chinmoy Centre has been my life, my journey and my home for many, many years. I hope these pages offer a small glimpse into the joy, the grace and the wonder that is Sri Chinmoy.
IT IS A CLEAR WINTER’S DAY in Tokyo. The crisp, light air faintly warmed by the early morning sun is beckoning the city to life. Since dawn the lobby of the Sunroute Hotel has been occupied by the traffic of marathon runners, coming and going, eager to catch one last run before tomorrow’s Sri Chinmoy Marathon.
In all the activity, hardly anyone noticed the entrance of one of the nation’s heroes. Upstairs, however, in quieter surrounds, a meeting place had been prepared for Sri Chinmoy to greet Toshihiko Seko – Japan’s marathon legend.
Sri Chinmoy welcomes him with a soulful smile and, even though Seko speaks little English and Sri Chinmoy speaks even less Japanese, there is a warm understanding between them.
Seko is relaxed, yet, in a typically Japanese manner, formal. There is an underlying intensity, which is understandable. He has been injured for the past year and is just now starting to get back to training. After a break from running, due to injury a few years ago, Seko then summed up his frustrations: “Now I know how painful it is not to be able to run; now I know that running is the only thing I want to do.”
Toshihiko Seko will be 30 years old in July this year and he is ready to return to the marathon.
In the late ’70s and early ’80s, he virtually dominated the event, winning three straight Fukuoka Marathons (1978-1980) and Boston in 1981. Injuries kept him out of action during 1982 but by 1983 he was back in his best form ever to win the Tokyo and Fukuoka Marathons, both in sub 2:09.
When Seko competes he rarely loses. His only loss outside his ill-fated run at the Olympics came at Boston when Bill Rodgers out-ran him on ‘Heart Break Hill’ in 1979.
He has the determination and sheer talent that has made him one of the most feared marathon runners ever to step onto the roads. Added to this, the mysterious coaching techniques of his mentor Kiyoshi Nakamura, which instilled something of the Samurai spirit into his training, have engendered an image of invincibility. As a teenager Seko came to prominence as a middle-distance runner, winning the National High School Championships in 800 metres and 1500 metres two years in a row. At that time he had little idea that he would become a marathon runner. In 1976 Seko was accepted into Waseda University. It was there he met Nakamura who was impressed by Seko’s smooth ‘flowing’ style. “If you do what I tell you,” he told Seko, “You’ll become one of the world’s greatest marathoners in a few years.” From then on Seko gave himself totally to the charge of Nakamura.
Kiyoshi Nakamura was born in 1913 in Seoul when Korea was a Japanese colony. He went to Waseda University in Tokyo where he proved himself as a national-class runner. He held the Japanese record for 1500 metres (3:56.8) for 16 years and was Japan’s marathon representative at the 1936 Olympics. After the war, he became a millionaire by working in several businesses. He also built up a formidable reputation as a coach and in 1972 he accepted a $150 a year job as a track coach at Waseda University. (As a comparison, Nakamura spent almost 10 times his yearly income, each month, supporting his athletes.)
His dedication to coaching his athletes was unswerving. When Seko came to him he worked with him day and night. “I’ve made many athletes number one in Japan, but never number one in the world. When I saw Seko I told myself, ‘I will do anything to make him number one in the world’.”
As Seko gave his life to the teachings of his coach, so Nakamura changed his way of living. “During my career as a coach,” he said, “I’d trained my runners with all my strength, but the training always began and ended at the athletic ground. What happened to them after that I didn’t regard as my business. I too went my own way, living it up, blowing money on gambling. One day it dawned on me that if the coach doesn’t lead a proper life it can disturb his athletes’ mental equilibrium. Even if you think they are paying no attention to how the coach lives, they sense that he’s not fully serious and they infer that it’s OK for them to play around too. If the coach doesn’t lead a proper life, he can never produce an athlete who is number one in the world.”
Nakamura developed a philosophy on running which he called ‘Zen-soho’. Literally, running with Zen. It is the action of running without the inhibition of thought. As a Coach-Mentor-Sensei (Master) he would preach to the 90 athlete-disciples of his private running community from the scriptures of Christianity, Buddhism and other major religions and philosophies. It was important to Nakamura that his athletes accept his teachings as a way of life and, in Seko, he found the perfect disciple.
Seko dedicated himself to training. Covering 40 km a day in training was normal: some months he ran as much as 1,500km. Nakamura would say that if he didn’t tell him to stop he would run all day.
“There has never been a harder worker or a more serious athlete,” Nakamura said of Seko. Mrs Nakamura, who served her foster runners as long as her husband, agreed. “He has very strong will – the strongest in the world,” she said when asked if Seko would win the Olympic Marathon.
As the Nakamura-Seko relationship blossomed his natural talent began to surface. His propensity for high mileage plus phenomenal leg speed (he ran the last 2.195 km of the 1983 Fukuoka marathon in 6 min. 22 sec.) resulted in the world track records for 25 km (1 hr. 13 min. 55 sec.) and 30 km (1 hr. 29 min. 18.8 sec.), which he still holds.
Despite these track successes, official international recognition of his marathon talent has evaded him. He has never contested a World Championship or World Cup marathon and his Olympic aspirations have twice been thwarted. Seko missed a chance to compete in the 1980 Olympics in Moscow due to the boycott and in 1984 personal tragedy intervened.
Prior to the 1984 Olympics, Nakamura was diagnosed as having cancer. Seko flew into Los Angeles only a day before the marathon suffering from jet-lag and the knowledge that Nakamura was dying. Seko ran a disheartened 2:14 for 14th place. He returned home to Japan and was almost forgotten by the marathon world who had crowned new heroes.
Seko is now married and works, as he has for many years, for the SB food company, owned by his manager Mr Kobayashi. The added pressure of domestic life coupled with the loss of his mentor-coach could have well signalled the end of an outstanding athletic career.
But Toshihiko Seko is no ordinary athlete. In him, the fire still burns. There is much of the Nakamura legacy left. The years of training, not only the body but the will, have transformed him totally.
Even though Seko’s past glories stand by themselves, and he could well rest easily with what he has achieved, he dreams of a far more glorious future. He has a passion for self-transcendence.
– End –
This article was first published in Runners: Oneness-World Harbingers magazine, pages 36-40, June 1986. Full details of the meeting and complete transcript of the interview is published in Japan, My Life Bows To Your Heart.
Postscript: In 1986, less than a year after this meeting took place, Seko won the Chicago Marathon in a time of 2:08:27. His world records at 25 km (1:13:55.8) and 30 km (1:29:18.8) set on March 22, 1981, still stand as of 2008. Since 2005, Seko has been a coach at the S & B Foods Track Team and is a member of the Tokyo 2016 Olympics Advisory Panel.
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