Head for the world stage! NTT Athletes
2020 heralds a new era in public awareness about blind marathons and other parasports
Tadashi HORIKOSHI and Yoko AOKI
Paralympic track and field: Blind Marathon
Tadashi HORIKOSHI has been chosen to represent Japan in the 2020 men’s Blind Marathon event, while Yoko AOKI is hoping to be selected for the corresponding women’s event after posting the second-fastest time of 3:09:55.
We asked these inspirational athletes to tell us how they got involved in marathon running and how their preparations are progressing for the 2020 blind marathon—the ultimate stage for them to demonstrate their competitive spirit.
HORIKOSHI: I was keen to take on a new challenge.
AOKI: My friend suggested I try it and it sounded like fun.
- Tell us about how you first got into marathon running.
- HORIKOSHI: I’ve been into swimming for as long as I can remember. My parents got me into it initially. I could have stuck with swimming and become a competitive swimmer, but I felt like I wanted to try something new. At junior high school they offered swimming, sound table tennis and track and field as extra-curricular activities, so I decided to take up running.
- AOKI: About ten years ago, a friend from work told me about a running club for the vision-impaired at Yoyogi Park, where sighted people will run with you. Since I wasn’t able to exercise on my own any more, I thought I’d give it a go. That eventually led me to take up the blind marathon.
- What was your initial reaction to the idea of doing a blind marathon?
- HORIKOSHI: When I joined the track and field club at school, I had looked up to short-distance runners like Maurice Greene and marathon runners such as Yuko ARIMORI. Running looked like such a cool thing to do. Still, I had never imagined I would get anywhere near that level.
- AOKI: At first, I used to run around Yoyogi Park once a week on Saturday. My first 10-km event was a real struggle, and there were times when I felt like forfeiting. But I loved the friendships I made with other vision-impaired and sighted people, so I kept going. After a while, I started to really enjoy it, and I realized that I didn’t want to give up.
- When did you decide to commit to competitive running?
- AOKI: This will be my fourth year competing. At first I just did marathons for fun, but then I started breaking records, and my escort runner told me I could go further and do better, and that gave me the confidence to try harder. That’s really all there was to it! So I began training harder, and in 2016 I was officially designated as an athlete in the JOC’s High Performance Program.
- HORIKOSHI: I have been in track and field for 19 years now, after starting in junior high school. I’ve been running for over half of my life! During a competition in Beijing in my second year of university, I came to realize what a massive step up it was to compete on the global stage. The experience was sobering, but at the same time it bolstered my resolve to start competing for medals. In my fourth year at university I had decided to go to graduate school, but just as I was about to put in my application I was invited to join the team. So I made the decision to go professional and earn a living from competitive running. And here I am!
HORIKOSHI: A string of competitive failures helped prepare me for Tokyo 2020
- HORIKOSHI, have you experienced any setbacks during your competitive career?
- HORIKOSHI: I’ve had more setbacks than I’ve had successes. It takes about three months to prepare for a marathon. And then you have a bad race, and you wonder why you bother. But Tokyo 2020 gives me a reason to keep going, in spite of the setbacks. If the 2020 Paralympics weren’t being held in Tokyo, I’m sure I would have given it all away by now.
- AOKI, you’ve broken countless records since joining the High Performance Program. Tell us about your goals for 2020.
- AOKI: The women’s blind marathon event was added to the Paralympics at Rio de Janeiro in 2016. That’s when I first decided that I wanted to compete. Above all, I wanted to represent Japan in 2020. Right now, there are still very few blind marathon runners. I’m hoping that by appearing in 2020 I can inspire others to take it up. Part of my mission is to make the sport more popular.
AOKI: My current focus is on February race that will show how I’m tracking for the Paralympics
- What’s the most important part of your current training regime for Tokyo 2020?
- AOKI: Since last year I’ve been steadily going for longer distances and more strenuous exercises. This can also increase the risk of injury, so the key is to tailor the training to minimize that risk. My immediate focus is to be in good shape for the Beppu-Oita Mainichi Marathon next February, but the ultimate goal is of course Tokyo 2020. I’m trying to do all the little things in my training and in day-to-day life.
- HORIKOSHI: Like AOKI said, we have to be careful not to get injured. When I was younger I never used to worry about injury, but as you approach 30 the risk increases. You can easily fall into a trap of comparing your current performance to when you were younger and in peak condition, and you can tend to push yourself too hard to overcompensate.
You can manage pushing yourself hard a few times, but your body can suffer some real damage if you go past your limit. After passing the selection trials in London in April, I sustained an injury that disrupted my training schedule. But despite the risk of further injury, I didn’t panic. The experience of running in a number of international competitions has made me better able to deal with the stress.
- AOKI: That’s true. I remember interviewing you about three years ago, and you seem a changed person today. You come across as very strong and dependable. At training camps, you always took the time to speak with me, and you also cheered me on despite me injuring myself earlier in the year in London. It was so kind of you.
- Does being on the same team pose any particular challenges for you?
- AOKI: We’ve been on the same running team before, so it’s not new for us. We have great respect for each other, having both competed in major competitions. It’s fun to chat, and it gives you strength!
- HORIKOSHI: I’m excited about being on the same team, competing together and doing our best as athletes. We both see Tokyo 2020 as a now-or-never opportunity, both as NTT representatives and as athletes.
- AOKI, do you ever use advice from HORIKOSHI to discuss strategies with your escort runners?
- AOKI: Yes, I talk with my runners all the time; I think that this kind of communication is really important. You have a different runner for each half of the race, and the first runner has to pass on important information quickly to the second one at the changeover point. Once that’s done, the second runner is watching how I run, and analyzing what I need to do and when. It’s really a joint effort the whole way along as I go together with each runner. I’m always really determined to win, and the runners have the same enthusiasm too, which is why I trust them. Forging that all-important sense of trust is the key to winning.
- With Tokyo 2020 approaching soon, what is your main focus at the moment?
- HORIKOSHI: I have to watch what I eat, and make sure I get a balanced diet. I’ve been working with a dietician so I’m confident in my dietary program, but I still feel that there’s some room for improvement. Just doing the training won’t get you ahead of the pack; you need to make sure that every single thing you put into your body is going to help give you strength. I try to be really diligent about the things I can control, and diet is one area that I focus on.
A typical home-cooked meal for Horikoshi
Steamed rice mixed with other grains
Bean starch vermicelli noodles with sliced cucumber
Salad with Hijiki seaweed and chrysanthemum leaves
Pork fried with miso and garlic
Grilled eggplant and king oyster mushroom
- AOKI: It’s all about how you go about your daily life. You have to be aware of how you’re standing in order to work on other parts of your physique. I’m always thinking about my posture and whether I’m walking correctly. One of the main reasons for sustaining injuries is not running in the right way. You have to keep doing all the little things like stretching every day and monitoring your posture. After a while, it becomes habit.
- What would you say are your strengths as an athlete?
- HORIKOSHI: I think it’s fair to say that I’ve been through many trials and tribulations. I’d also say that I really like training; I enjoy being an athlete. And because I’ve gone through so much in my life, I’m able to stay calm and focused when I’m racing.
- AOKI: I think I’m a good listener. I’m always keen to learn from my escort runners, from my coach, and from the people around me. I like to take in information, process it, and work out how to utilize it in my own way. I think this outlook has provided me with the foundations to become a marathon runner.
- What words of encouragement would you give one another?
- Achieve your dreams!
HORIKOSHI: I believe that the more effort you put in, the better chance you have of reaching your goals. So AOKI, you need to tell yourself that you’re going to do well in Tokyo. Believe in yourself and you’ll be fine! I’ll be with you all the way!
- You can do it!
AOKI:HORIKOSHI, I have great respect for you as an athlete and I really hope you get to take home a medal from Tokyo. I think you’re in the best possible shape to give it a good shot. You’ve worked so hard and you were one of the first to be chosen for the team. I’ll be cheering you on!
- Finally, is there anything you’d like to say to our readers?
- HORIKOSHI: I see the blind marathon as a way to change negative perceptions of vision-impaired people into positive ones. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. I invite everyone reading to come and watch the blind marathon event at Tokyo 2020 and get inspired by all the wonderful positive stories that come out of the Paralympics.
- AOKI: Our primary aim should be to get people to come and watch the blind marathon so they can appreciate what we do. For me, the Tokyo marathon is not the end goal; rather, it’s the beginning of something exciting. In particular, I would love to have kids come to see us. The Tokyo 2020 Paralympics will boost public awareness of parasports, so it will be a normal part of the culture by the time those kids are adults.
Tadashi HORIKOSHI Blind Marathon
- Born in 1988. Began swimming in elementary school, then took up track and field in junior high school. Competed at Beijing 2008 and London 2012 in long-distance track events before switching to marathon running.
Yoko AOKI Blind Marathon
- Born in 1976. Has been running marathons for about ten years, and competing for the last four years. Designated for the JOC’s High Performance Program in 2016. Currently holds the second-fastest time in the women’s blind marathon. Is committed to “always improving myself.”
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