If you are looking for a truly loyal, passionate Scottish club member and international ambassador who wears the lion with absolute pride, it is hard to go past our humble hero Hiro Tani. I recently sat down with Hiro to find out more about his passion for Scottish, Wellington, and Aotearoa NZ, his running philosophy, and his interest in coaching and deepening running connections between NZ and Japan. Hiro has much to teach us as he continues on his quest to be the best runner he can be. As he reaches the masters ranks, he isn’t letting age define or confine him.
Where it all began, Chiba Japan
Hiro started out as a footballer at school, however his PE teacher noted he was also the fastest runner in the school and put him in the school entry for the highly competitive inter-school Ekiden. He was happy with the suggestion, as his favourite girl was joining the team. Hiro’s athletics career really began when he was scouted by a high school club. For context, at age 16, Hiro was ranked 40th for the 3000m (9:30) in Chiba Prefecture, which is essentially a city within Tokyo and has a population of 6 million. Hiro eventually ran 14:59 for 5000m and 30:49 for 10,000m at high school. After graduating, he joined a university Ekiden team. Ekiden is extremely competitive and athletes are under a lot of pressure to perform. There were some sub-60 minute half marathoners in his team. Ekiden, track and marathon are major sports in Japan, with a huge public and media following and corporate investment adding to the pressure on teams and individual athletes. Hiro vowed to “hang in there” and complete the four years, but his running confidence took a hit.
Hiro then did two years of military service before becoming a teacher and an athletics coach – covering all disciplines, not just running – in a junior high school. This allowed Hiro to get back to racing and hit some PBs. However, he found that to do justice to the role required a lot of specialised athletics knowledge and he decided it was time for a new adventure. So, he moved to Australia to learn English, run, and learn how to be a running-specific coach.
A ticket to New Zealand
Extremely good fortune then struck for both Scottish and Hiro, when he raced the Lake Biwa marathon in 2015 and came in one place behind our very own Nick Horspool. Nick encouraged Hiro to move to Wellington and join Scottish. Nick and Stephen Day were instrumental in helping Hiro with the visa process and in securing work and accommodation.
Since 2015 Hiro has become a key member of the Senior Men’s A team but also a visible and supportive presence across both the Scottish club and the broader Wellington running community. I and many others have had the ‘Hero Hiro’ help when he has offered to pace a goal time in the Honest 10K, or a 3000m – later to see him blasting around doing reps at sub 3-minute Ks!
Hiro’s running philosophy – enjoyment!
The above generous spirit reflects Hiro’s broader running philosophy. “Enjoy my running” says Hiro. And I would add: help others enjoy theirs. First and foremost, Hiro wants to “enjoy running anywhere, anytime” as much as possible. That’s why you will often see him doing a double race (and workout) on the track “if my legs allow it”. This organic approach is also reflected in Hiro’s general training philosophy. He is in tune with his body; he does not do high mileage (a maximum of 100K when training for a marathon), but includes bursts of intense training during the week. This intense training is more in the classic ‘fartlek’ (speed play) mode than slavishly following set training schedules.
It wasn’t always this way. Having been involved in high school athletics and coaching, Hiro had built a strong understanding of the importance of running drills and strength training (particularly weight-based) from a young age. However, when he started out Hiro was very much a product of the classic Japanese racing approach of “running faster, longer, harder (until you keel over)”. Hiro notes that many runners reach the limits of their capability from a sole focus on high volume and intensity running training, often resulting in injury. They could benefit from dialling back this volume-based approach and incorporating more speed training and weight training – stimulating muscles, mobility and recruitment – to further develop distance running form and ability.
Learning from his own injuries and experimentation, Hiro has gradually developed a more organic training approach of “listening to my body” and carefully utilising phased gym-based weight training and dynamic mobility exercises, which improve both endurance and explosive speed. Hiro also benefits from a healthy Japanese diet, rich in vegetables, tofu and noodles. Not exactly a ‘vegan’, Hiro suggests he is close. He does eat some meat, but usually not at home.
Masters racing and cross country
Hiro is really starting to see the benefits of his organic approach even as he reaches the ‘masters’ age category. In 2022, aged 37, Hiro excelled in the senior section races, winning the Centre Road Championships, placing 5th in the National Road Championships, and finishing a very impressive 9th in the National Cross Country at Taupo (in a very high calibre field).
Hiro attributes his 2022 success to having an (injury-enforced) break. He had run well between 2019 and 2021 but there was no real break between seasons, and hence the injury. Hiro “started with a fresh body and mind in April, it was great preparation to aim for big goals.” He had set lofty goals to be top 3 in the Nationals for the XC or 10k. The racing progression was marathon shape to 10k shape. Training progression was strength to speed. He then set selective racing priorities to peak for the big national races. Hiro: “That gave me a lot of opportunities to listen to what my body said. We have to listen to the voice that our body says in a cross-country race. I did not listen to that before this season. I can hear the voice of all of my races and training now. This is my secret to running.”
This balanced approach to building endurance and speed, through both running training and gym-based training, has also seen Hiro develop a superb finishing kick, something that he did not have naturally in his early running years. You will see Hiro doing a lot of sprint sessions, concentrating on form. This has resulted in an ability to switch into top gear in the closing stages of all forms of racing.
Hiro originally favoured track, but since coming to New Zealand and experiencing first hand our great outdoors he has fallen in love with cross country – so much so that this is now his favourite running discipline.
Unlike Ekiden, marathon and track, cross country is not that popular in Japan. However, if you are into track, Ekiden or marathon, Japan is the place to be with incredible breadth and depth of events available. There are many track events (and heats) and high-quality marathons to choose from. Contrast this to New Zealand where our marathons and other historic road races and relays – Takehe to Akaroa anyone? – are being forced off road or into extinction. It is a marvel to see downtown Japanese city streets (in a country of 120 million people) being regularly closed for marathons. If there is a will, there is a way.
Aotearoa New Zealand and Scottish’s contribution to Hiro’s running
A key thing Hiro loves about New Zealand’s running is the club scene, encompassing both traditional and non-traditional clubs. There really isn’t much of an amateur or community running club scene in Japan. The sport is structured around the elite and professional corporate and high school/university Ekiden teams. Often, once you no longer ‘make the grade’, you stop running altogether. When Hiro arrived in Wellington he already had a ready-made running community to connect with through Nick and Stephen and the Scottish club. Hiro likes the more laid-back nature of New Zealand and Wellington’s running scene, which is very respectful of all levels and types of runners and results in a very friendly community.
Often spotted wearing his beloved Scottish singlet both locally – look for him at the Karori Park Field of Dreams – and internationally, Hiro explains the power of the singlet: “I feel I’m representative of Scottish when I wear the singlet in Japan. It gives me confidence on the start-line. I’m proud of teammates, training squads and supporters in the club. These relieve me of all the pressure and remind me to enjoy running!”
The unique physical running environment of Wellington, with its downtown forest, easy access to waterfront, and the Western Hills, Karori Park and beyond, add to Hiro’s sense of running freedom. In Japan, you generally need to travel some distance to a designated public park or track to train. Getting to a forest in Japan requires still more effort. The great natural environment attracts Hiro to running all around New Zealand.
It is exciting to hear that Hiro and his partner Manami recently became New Zealand residents and hope to become citizens in two years. Manami is studying and working in interior design. She is an outstanding photographer and has taken many fabulous action photos of club members and others at the Wellington track/road and regional and national events. Hiro and Manami are engaged and hope to be married either in Japan or New Zealand within the next two years.
Hiro originally worked as a sushi chef and is now aiming to get more directly involved in athletics coaching and also helping connect Japanese athletes to the New Zealand running community and bringing athletes down here to live and train. He has previously supported Steve Willis with visiting Japanese runners, acting as an interpreter and supporting coaching, and would like to take this kind of role further. He fulfills a similar role supporting the Wellington Sakai Sister City Association. Hiro is now helping support a Japanese running friend to establish a community-based running club in Japan. With his vast experience and knowledge and holistic approach to running, Hiro would make an excellent running coach for a wide range of athletes.
Hiro has already begun sharing his wealth of experience through a new running blog he has created in English,which is pretty impressive considering he only started learning the language in 2014. His blog covers both the technical and philosophical aspects of running and coaching for us all to benefit from. If you want to benefit from some ‘Hiro-wisdom’ get online and follow him on:
Now that our hero has the secret, you can expect even greater things in 2023. Hiro is aiming to “run a (lifetime) PB in New Zealand for the 5000m and 10,000m in Wellington, my hometown”.
Origato gozaimasu Hiro. We are honoured to have you as a great club member and wish you well on your latest running adventure, and we will watch to see those masters’ records fall…
Japan Running Tour as Scottish Running Ambassador
Hiro recently returned to Japan, for the first time since 2019, seeing family and friends and completing a successful series of races. He ran in several different kinds of meets: Japan Athletics, University and corporate. This gave Hiro a chance to remember both the depth of Japanese racing and the fantastic athletics infrastructure they have in the country.
Japan has huge 5000m and 10000m track meets from September to December, which provide an opportunity to try for fast times and particularly to try and break 30 minutes for 10,000m. “The entry process of track meets is very tricky in Japan, because we have to hold a JAAF number for each athlete and it’s required for all track meets.” But the depth is truly remarkable, with one event having 45 heats, heat 1 starting at 9:am and heat 45 at 9 pm – and including several Kenyan runners running under 13.20. Hiro helped Malcolm Hodge enter this event a few years ago.
Hiro recorded some impressive results in Japan, including a 3000m in 8:43, 1500m in 4:06, and 5000m in 14:49. He was a bit disappointed with his final race, a 10,000m The pace was too slow, and he had to take over the lead early on, finishing in 30:18. While frustrated with the race, it was still an outstanding run.
Hiro was interviewed for a Japanese running magazine during his Japanese visit and, of course, wore his trusty Scottish singlet throughout the tour. He was a real ambassador for New Zealand, reconnecting with his old running friends and speaking to a number of runners who are interested in the Kiwi running culture and coming to New Zealand. Now, says Hiro, “I want to connect the cultures more between New Zealand and Japan.”
Track: 3000m 8:37 / 5000m 14:30 / 10000m 29:37
Road: 10k 29:52 / HM 64:50 / M 2:20.54