Injury free – the secret of a Hiro


Gord Grant interviews Hiroshige Watanabe about running

Both athletes and inactive people alike, come to me with similar accumulated injuries of life: it is as if we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t! But for me, meeting Hiroshige Watanabe has changed the game. He really has influenced my perspective on pain, injury and rehabilitation, both as a therapist and a runner dealing with injuries myself.

Before Hiro, as he is known by his friends, I had never known a non-injured “seasoned” ultra marathoner, triathloner, or any endurance athlete for that matter. In our clinic, I meet many who have done such an event once or twice, but they are usually frustrated and stymied, dealing with injuries and the commitment of training. For a few years now, Hiro has been coming regularly to The Acupuncture Turning Point. Yet he has been running all his life, very long distances regularly well before he came to see us…injury free! So this story is not about how acupuncture miraculously helped someone — and if you know us here at ATP, you know we never deliver that message anyhow.

I am runner — the regular long distance type; not the ultra marathoner type like Hiro. Like most distance runners, I have a particular enduring and necessary relationship with pain. I am not a masochist though. I don’t run for pain or the challenge. I don’t even run for health, or to loose weight at this point in the game — running just makes me feel great.   After a run, the negative becomes positive, crisis becomes opportunity, the impossible possible. But unlike Hiro, my desire to deal with injuries to continue running is why I sought out acupuncture in the first place.

With 40 fast approaching, after getting some meniscal cartilage removed surgically from my right knee, the doctors said I was finished with all that running stuff. Many of you have a similar story told to you; you know the one? — “You are too old and need to retire from the young guy excesses”. Often long distance runners pay the cost for their exploits into endurance. Like most, I just hoped it would not be me! So now, here I am, my mid 50’s, still running, wisdom accumulated the hard way, learning to observe my old injuries talking to me, helping people at the ATP clinic understand uniquely the difference between their good pain and bad pain, encouraging them to keep moving and go forward with greater discrimination. But Hiro represents something different. Not just good genes. Not just an acutely developed physical intelligence….

Read my interview with Hiro below. He humbly tells his story why he got into running at 6 and why he has run throughout his life. His story offers insights into how he may be able to run about ten ultra-marathons per year for the last eight years without injury, with no end in sight!

Gord: When did you start running distance?

Hiro:     When I was 6 years old.

Gord:   Tell me more. What was the reason you, as a 6 year old, ran?

Hiro:     (smiling) I was a big kid; overweight. And one day I had a fight with my younger brother, as siblings will do. He called me “DEBU”, a Japanese word that means “fat, ugly, guy”. I was very upset by this, and I went to my mother and told her about this. I expected her to go to my brother and tell him he should not say such bad words to me. But instead, she carefully said, “Maybe you should lose some weight. Why don’t you start running?”

Gord:  Really!? Were you surprised by her answer?

Hiro:   Yes. So the next morning, before school when I was in grade 1, I got up early and ran to the train tracks and back. This was a residential part of Tokyo where we lived. I can remember it very clearly.

Gord:   And then you ran again after that too?

Hiro:     Yes, I ran again every day after that.

Gord:   Did your mother remind you to run, or get you up in the morning?

Hiro:     No, never.

Gord:   That is an incredible show of discipline for such a young child!

Hiro:     (smiling). Yes.

Gord:   When did you start to run competitively?

Hiro:     In grades 4 to 6 there were track competitions in school once or twice a year – a regional event for the city. Our teacher was training us after school.

Gord:   What did you run?

Hiro:     In junior high, I ran middle and long distance track events of 800 m, 1500 m, and 3000 m.

Gord:   Were you a good runner?

Hiro:     I got a few medals; 2nd or 3rd place usually.

Gord:   How about high school?

Hiro:     I started to run longer distance events, like the 5000 m and 10,000 m. And as a graduation gift to ourselves, my friend and I ran a marathon.

Gord:   How did you train for the marathon?

Hiro:     I didn’t; nothing more than I was already doing for the shorter races.

Gord:   And you continued to run after graduating. Why did you run then?

Hiro:     Then it was for being in shape, loosing weight; for looking good. (Hiro shows me by puffing out his chest to look bigger). Weight was a struggle for me as a young man.

Gord:   And you ran more marathons then?

Hiro:     Yes. In my 20s I ran about 1 marathon per year in Japan.

Gord:   When did that change?

Hiro:     When I moved to Canada in 1999. I did the Edmonton 50 km ultra marathon that year. The Edmonton event used to offer the option for a marathon or a 50 km event too — but they don’t do that anymore.

Gord:   So an ultra marathon is just anything over a marathon?

Hiro:     Yes, anything more than 26 miles or 42 kilometres. But the “real” ultra marathons, where the game really changes, are 100 km and more.

Gord:   So when did you do one of those?

Hiro:     It was in 2004, when I did my first Canadian Death Race in Grande Cache, which was 125 km. I have entered that competition every year since then. I have run 12, but only finished 10 of them. I could not finish the first one in 2004.

Gord:   What happened?

Hiro:     The cut off for the Death Race was 24 hours. If you are not finished by then, you are disqualified. So I ran to the 24 hour mark and had not finished. I made the typical mistake that most make on their first ultra marathon.

Gord:   What was that?

Hiro:     My personal best in the marathon was 3 hours 9 minutes. I was thinking I would have a lot of time. I did the calculation that the event was about 3 times longer than a marathon, so even if I ran it at half the speed, I would still do it with lots of time to spare. I was wrong.

Gord:   So what made the difference to finish the Death Race later? Running more miles in training?

Hiro:     No. The type of training had to change. I ran more hills because the Death Race was very hilly. Both physically and mentally I was not prepared for the impact of the mountainous terrain the first time.

Gord:   So you were still motivated to achieve an ultra marathon after the first failure.

Hiro:     Yes, I was very disappointed by failing this, since I expected to be able to do it. I attended the awards ceremony on the first Death Race, and talked to people who had finished. I asked them how they trained. They told me about hill training.

Gord:   How about nutrition?

Hiro:     It took a while for me to establish a good nutrition plan. I do the normal carb loading before the race with pasta. During the run I consume gel packs every 45-50 minutes on a timer, whether I feel like it or not. Of course hydration and electrolytes are critical. I put an electrolyte tablet in my water and have a special Japanese tea blend I use too.

Gord:   And that is enough for you to last 125 km!?

Hiro:     No. It is good enough until 50 km. After that, at eating stations I will have a rice bowel or sushi, or I like a salted, boiled egg. The event planners offer chips, coke and fruits which I can also eat if I want.

Gord:   Any special daily nutrition during training season?

Hiro:     Not really. After training each day I drink a milk with protein powder added.

Gord:   So, when did it shift from one ultra marathon a year to many?

Hiro:     In 2005, when I came back to face the Death Race for the second time, I ran two ultra marathons. I did the Blackfoot event at Cooking Lake, Alberta.

Gord:   Why did you do two when you hadn’t been able to do one?

Hiro:     The Blackfoot even was only 100km, and I saw it as preparation for the longer Death Race event.

Gord:   Did that work?

Hiro:     Yes. I had done a lot of hill and trail training too; not so much road running. In 2006 I did three or four ultra marathons, and then shifted to doing as many as were available in the Alberta Ultra Marathon Series, which is now up to 9 per spring to fall season. And I usually get one more when I go back to Japan to visit my family, and I do the Mount Fuji Ultra marathon too.

Gord:   What is all this dedication to running ultra marathons giving you?

Hiro:     A sense of accomplishment. I enjoy it. It is social too. Not the training part, since I run alone. But the people at the events are my friends now.

Gord:   And injuries. How have you dealt with them?

Hiro:     I have not had injuries.

Gord:   Really? You don’t have any signs of arthritis, or you haven’t developed shin splints, or plantar fasciitis, or Achilles tendonitis, or knee joint injuries or back pain?!

Hiro:     I have pain during and after long runs. But this is just the conditioning stresses from running – but I recover from this usually in less than a week or so at most.

Gord:   How can that be? How can you put all those miles in without wearing out your joints and sinews, or getting a muscle strain? I have never met anyone like you on that account.

Hiro:     I don’t know. (smiling) I have a secret wish to get an injury. This is because I have many friends who I know from the ultra marathon competitions, who come to me for advice to ask how they should recover from their injuries, so that can come back to running or run better. I cannot offer them any real advice from personal experience. I would like to help them, but I really can’t.

Gord:   But I find that amazing. Why didn’t you get injured in the first place?

Hiro:     I don’t know.

Gord:   You have been coming to me for acupuncture only for a few years. You come in after your big runs to help with recovery before your next ultra marathon two or three weeks away. But we are only addressing the patterns of your sore muscles with some needles on the legs and then some soft tissue manipulation. You also see a massage therapist and a chiropractor. But these things have not always been part of your regime, and cannot explain why you didn’t get injured in the first place.

Hiro:     (smiling, shrugging, and looking perplexed too)

Gord:   Could it have something to do with you being consistently active all your life? Always running? Have you had big gaps of not running, not being active?

Hiro:     Interesting idea. I guess I have always been active – (smiling) since grade 1. But in Canada, where it is cold and slippery outside in the winter, it is more difficult to run. Anyway, I do need a break each year from all the ultra marathons. So in the first month after the ultra marathon season, in the fall, each day I do strength training or cycling to work, or indoor cycling in the morning.

Gord:   And after the month “break”, what do you do over the winter until ultra marathon season?

Hiro:     I will start to run regularly again. I usually wear the traction devices on my feet, called Yaktrax, to prevent slipping. I do stairs too.

Gord:   And after each ultra marathon, between the events, what do you do to recover and prepare for the next event?

Hiro:     Besides the therapies I get to help my muscles relax and recovery on the first couple of days after the ultra marathon, I bike and walk depending on how I feel. By the fourth or fifth day I am jogging and biking. Then I start running, alternating 30 minutes one day, then one hour the next, right up until the race day. Sometimes I don’t get a run in the day before the race if I am travelling that day.

Gord:   How long do you intend on running?

Hiro:     As long as I can.

Gord:   Are we born to run?

Hiro:     (smiling). Look at the children. They run everywhere. I think we learn not to run at some point. We learn to drive a car, we learn to sit all day at a desk, we learn to watch TV or videos. That is when you stop running.

After the interview, I said so-long to Hiro until next spring, when he will return to me after his first ultra marathon. Hiro has helped me see my injuries differently. In retrospect, my knee problem was just the last straw and consequence of a lifestyle of erratic activity: running too many miles on the weekend when my legs said “No”, after sitting all week at a desk; infrequent gladiator squash games where getting the “point” was more important than an impending muscle strain, and on and on. But mostly it was the decade of commercial beekeeping, representing intense seasonal lifting of heavy honeybee boxes after winters of relative inactivity. Like most, I have had the usual adult string of excuses of why I was not consistently active and didn’t have time — long before my injuries became excuses themselves. Especially when I was younger and could compensate more easily, I have had an unresponsive and inconsistent relationship with physical performance. If we just kept moving, as we were as children, as Hiro did throughout his life, could it be that we may not have been so prone to injuries in the first place?

This is a tough message to those of us already injured. But it’s no secret.  Perhaps Hiro, and the rest of us injured sorts, do still have good advice to follow. Keep moving!