Article on Wataru Iino, winner of the 2017 Badwater Ultramarathon in the US
Located in the north eastern corner of Tamil Nadu in southern India, Kancheepuram district is a mix of the old and the new. It has been part of ancient kingdoms, is home to old temples and has its name associated with some of the finest silk sarees woven in India.
Tamil Nadu is among the more developed states of India. In 2014-2015 its Gross State Domestic Product (GSDP) was estimated at $ 150 billion. It is also a leading destination for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in India. A considerable portion of FDI in the automobile sector dovetailed into Oragadam, part of Kancheepuram district, bordering Chennai. It was a little known spot characterized by flat, sprawling landscape till the automobile industry moved in. Oragadam is now an industrial hub. It is home to the manufacturing facilities of several Fortune 500 companies; among them – heavyweights from the global automobile industry. Early October 2017; it was warm at Oragadam but there was also an unexpected grey in the skies. “ It should rain today. That’s the pattern we have here,’’ Shina Satyapal, Manager, Corporate Communications, Daimler India Commercial Vehicles (DICV) said as we made our way to a building at the truck manufacturer’s factory, where the winner of the 2017 Badwater Ultramarathon had agreed to meet us.
Wataru Iino was born in Tokyo in 1979. In the just over 6400 km separating Oragadam and Tokyo, lay the Bay of Bengal, portions of Mainland South East Asia, southern and eastern China and a bit of the Pacific Ocean. He was a man from far away; runner of globalized world – born to one country, running in another and winning races in yet another. Japan is the original Asian economic miracle. It rose from the aftermath of World War II to be one of the biggest economies on the planet. The journey, characterized by a culture of hard work, also had its price. Seen from far, Japan was known for its industrial economy. But its people seemed draped in an industrial anonymity. Wataru’s father was a regular employee; one of many in a workforce crucial to the architecture of post war-Japan’s economic resurgence. He maintained a keen interest in kendo, the Japanese martial art descended from swordsmanship. Wataru’s mother managed the household; his sister currently works in Beijing. That was family. Through school and university, Wataru was into judo. Following studies at the Shibaura Institute of Technology, the young engineer joined Mitsubishi, the well-known Japanese conglomerate – erstwhile zaibatsu – that was also into the manufacturing of cars and trucks. “ In Japan, people don’t normally change the company they work for,’’ Wataru said. It was no different in his case. He stayed with the same company within Mitsubishi. However the company’s ownership pattern altered. The end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty first was a period of much churn in the automobile sector. In 2003, German automobile major, Daimler, acquired 43 per cent equity stake in Mitsubishi Fuso Truck and Bus Corporation (MFTBC). That has since gone up to 89.29 per cent. MFTBC – where Wataru worked – became a part of Daimler AG’s Daimler Trucks Division.
Daimler Trucks is the world’s biggest producer of commercial vehicles. In 2008, Wataru Iino moved for a few years to Stuttgart, where Daimler Trucks has its headquarters. The shift wasn’t easy on the then 28 year old-engineer from Tokyo. He spoke no German, the Germans spoke no Japanese and his proficiency in English wasn’t all that good. Further, although he liked to eat, German food was heavy. Wataru began to put on weight. He needed to do something to counter the situation and lose weight. The simplest thing to do was – run. “ Running is easy. It is an individual sport. All you need to start running is a pair of running shoes,’’ Wataru said. Notwithstanding that apparent ease of access to the sport, the Tokyo-born hadn’t been a serious runner before. Geographically, the Japanese predicament is interesting. According to Wikipedia, Japan is a composite of 6852 islands (four of them being the main ones – Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu). Nearly 70 per cent of Japan is forested, mountainous and unsuitable for agricultural, industrial and residential use. Japan’s population is concentrated on the coastal areas. Density of population is thus high. Tokyo, where Wataru grew up, is one of the world’s biggest cities. The Greater Tokyo Area is the most populous metropolitan area in the world. The city is home to one of the world’s biggest city marathons. The Tokyo Marathon is part of the World Marathon Majors. However, cities are not traditionally the home ground of great runners in Japan. According to Wataru, the best Japanese runners usually hail from the countryside. On the other hand, when you talk automobiles, you typically imagine flat land. Uniquely, the German terrain Wataru found himself in was quite unlike the synthetic, built-up spaces of a giant Japanese metro. “ It was more up and down,’’ Wataru said. Wikipedia’s description of Stuttgart complements his observation. Here’s what it said: Stuttgart is unusual in the scheme of German cities. It is spread across a variety of hills (some of them covered in vineyards), valleys (especially around the Neckar River and the Stuttgart basin) and parks. This is often a source of surprise to visitors, who associate the city with its reputation as “ the cradle of the automobile.’’ Both Mercedes Benz and Porsche have their headquarters in Stuttgart.
Given his difficulty in communicating, for the first year of his life in Germany, Wataru focused on work. In 2009, worried by weight-gain, he started to run. Initially, Wataru ran short distances. He didn’t run daily; he rested 2-3 days a week. “ I couldn’t find friends to run with. Germans are more into football and cycling,’’ he said. It is important to point out at this juncture that Wataru Iino, while being new to running, was no stranger to endurance sport. One of his friends at Mitsubishi had gifted him a Colnago road bike. Back in Japan, he used to cycle and had once covered 1000 km riding across Japan during one of the short sets of holidays, which is as big holidays get to be in work obsessed-Japan. When Wataru moved to Germany, he brought the Colnago with him. Amid the need to lose weight, it proved a boon, especially when combined with one aspect of German life Wataru liked – holidays here were longer. “ In Germany, you could take a month off. In Japan, you could take a week off at best,’’ Wataru said. During summer vacation, the engineer from Tokyo would take off on his Colnago to see Europe. Endurance gained from cycling must have stood Wataru in good stead when he took to running. By 2010, he was touching 40 km, sometimes more, on training runs. His first formal marathon was the Frankfurt Marathon; he took over three hours to complete it. By now, there was a method to the running craze. Wataru liked to visit new places. He also liked pushing himself. Traveling to various cities in Europe to run marathons there seemed a fine blend of both.
The Frankfurt Marathon was followed by similar runs in Prague and Stockholm. A new angle cropped up. How about something adventurous in an ambiance totally different from city-hopping? As many in that frame of mind would have done, Wataru searched the Internet for the “ toughest race’’ around. One of the events that popped up was: Marathon Des Sables (MDS). It is a self-supported multi-stage ultramarathon run in the Sahara desert. “ The Sahara was among places I wanted to see,’’ Wataru said. He registered for the race. If you view the choice made from the average marathon runner’s perspective, MDS would be distinct as a totally different ball game. Over six days of running, it covers 251 km in the desert with the longest single stage on record being 91 km. It is also self-supported, which means that during every stage runners have to carry water and whatever else they need, in a small backpack.
Wataru didn’t dwell much on either the transition he was making at MDS from being a marathon runner to an ultramarathon runner or the dramatic change in locale, from city to wilderness. It seemed the stuff of what he had to do. He got some tips from a colleague at Daimler who had run MDS before. But otherwise he prepared mostly by himself figuring out how to train and what gear he required from the race’s website. He didn’t sweat to gather a tonne of information or stress for lacking it. What mattered to him was – he wished to do well. According to Wataru, he made two attempts at MDS. On his first attempt, he finished in sixteenth position. The second attempt was driven by his desire to improve. In the second attempt of 2012, Wataru finished ninth overall. That year – 2012, he moved back to Japan from Germany. It had been an engaging four years in Europe. He had not only become a runner; he was also into ultramarathons. “ I prefer running long distances. If it is just a marathon, the body’s condition is typically going downhill. When it is much more than a marathon, it is never downhill all the time. You go down but then you recover. It is a series of ups and downs. I like that,’’ Wataru said. That was only one reason for liking the ultramarathon. As his journey in the discipline progressed, another significant reason for liking the ultramarathon would surface.
At 12,389 feet, Mount Fuji is Japan’s highest mountain. It is roughly 100 km south-west of Tokyo. On a clear day, you can see the mountain from Japan’s capital. The mountain is surrounded by five lakes; their names according to Wikipedia are: Lake Kawaguchi, Lake Yamanaka, Lake Sai, Lake Motosu and Lake Shoji. Japan’s biggest ultramarathon event involves running loops around these lakes. In accordance with the number of loops run, the sub-events therein range from the Fuji 3 Lakes ultramarathon to the Fuji 5 Lakes. Attempting the Fuji 5 Lakes in 2013, Wataru finished the single stage race in fifth position overall. He wasn’t happy with the outcome. So he returned in 2014 and not only earned a position on the podium but also the first place overall; his first such win in running. That brings us to the second reason why Wataru likes the ultramarathon. Well-known running events get their share of elite professional athletes. As Wataru pointed out, the professionals are “ expected to win.’’ But a good amateur can pull off a surprise and the potential to pull off such a surprise is higher in the ultramarathon. To underscore the point, he recalled an instance from an ultramarathon he ran in Germany. “ It was a 78 km-ultramarathon. At one stage, I was overtaken by a 58 year-old lady. That was humbling and insightful,’’ he said. Additionally, when you listen to Wataru and factor in the quiet commitment he brings to racing (staying amateur but aspiring for professional benchmarks); you also notice that he hasn’t shrunk the breadth of his running through focus on the ultramarathon. He still goes for the running world’s 10km, 21km and 42km disciplines. Amid the push for distance, he also does his speed training. In fact, by the fourth year of his foray into running, he was running the full marathon in timings like 2 hours, 27 minutes.
The three point-Mercedes star is a mark of German engineering known in India since long. When India’s leading business group, Tata, rolled out its first commercial vehicle in 1954, it was through a joint venture with Daimler Benz. In fact, until March 2010, the German company maintained a small equity stake in Tata’s automobile company, which had grown to be both India’s biggest automobile company and also its biggest manufacturer of commercial vehicles. In 2008, Daimler signed a 60:40 joint venture agreement with India’s Hero MotoCorp to build medium and heavy trucks. Following economic downturn this joint venture was dissolved in 2009. The company formed for the purpose became a 100 per cent subsidiary of Daimler AG and was renamed, Daimler India Commercial Vehicles (DICV). It set up manufacturing facilities at Oragadam near Chennai; the factory has an annual production capacity of 72,000 units (depending on pattern of shift adopted) and along with related infrastructure straddles a 400 acre-complex. It is the only site in the world producing trucks, buses and engines under three brands – BharatBenz, Fuso and Mercedes Benz. DICV provided a sneak preview of the first BharatBenz truck at the January 2012 Delhi Auto Expo. The medium duty-trucks it produced were based on the Fuso Canter and Fuso Fighter platforms, both of Mitsubishi lineage. Like Daimler Benz, Mitsubishi trucks too had previous history in India. Years ago, Mitsubishi light trucks were rolled out in India through a partnership between Eicher Motors (since entered into a joint venture with Volvo) and the Japanese company. Amid the making and unmaking of alliances in the global automobile industry, the Indian market for commercial vehicles has stayed among the world’s biggest. As Daimler Trucks’ emphasis on its Asian strategy grew, Daimler Trucks Asia (DTA) combined the strengths of two distinct legal entities – MFTBC and DICV. This helped them collaborate in areas like product development, production, exports, sourcing and optimizing research and sales and market development activities. It wasn’t long before the ripples of these measures reached Mitsubishi Fuso in Japan and the upcoming ultramarathon runner in its Research & Development (R&D) wing, Wataru Iino.
The toughest ultramarathon on the planet – that is a popular, if inaccurate title many races vie for. Around the same time Wataru stumbled upon MDS he also came to know of the Badwater Ultramarathon in the US. California’s Death Valley, through which this race passes, is home to some of the hottest temperatures recorded on the planet. Badwater had been playing on Wataru’s mind. It was a race he wished to go for. Two things held him back. It was expensive and it required a support team. In 2014, he had placed second in the 250 km-Madagascar Race. At that race he became friends with some Japanese runners who had turned up to participate. They heard of his desire to run Badwater and offered to be his support crew. “ I was lucky to find them,’’ Wataru said of his support crew – Maki Izuchi, Takashi Okada and Keisuke Sato. He registered for the 2017 edition of the Badwater Ultramarathon. There was also another decision to make. In June 2016, Wataru’s boss, Mathew Oommen, had suggested that he shift to Daimler’s truck operations at Oragadam in India. Wataru approached the offer positively as an opportunity to work with people from another Asian country. But of all things, what tipped the balance in favor of shifting to Chennai was its weather. In India, Chennai’s hot, sultry weather finds few fans. For Wataru, dreaming Badwater and training for it, hot and sultry Chennai seemed a better spot to be in compared to temperate Japan. On arrival in India in January 2017, he was advised that staying in Chennai and commuting every day to Oragadam, some 50 km away, would probably be sensible option. Being a metro, Chennai has all the facilities a foreign employee may need. Wataru looked at the traffic and the commute and decided staying in Oragadam made better sense; he would save time and time thus saved is time for training. He decided to stay in an apartment complex not far from DICV’s factory in Oragadam. The old Colnago had in the meantime been replaced with a Merida road bike. It accompanied him to India and became his vehicle for commute between apartment and factory.
Oragadam offered straight flat roads exposed to the sun, for the Badwater aspirant to train on. “ There was one problem though. In Japan if you wanted a sports drink or some such item while running, you could always step into a store and buy it. At Oragadam you have self-contained communities and nothing but open road in between,’’ Wataru said. On weekdays, Wataru ran for an hour before sunrise and another hour, after sunset. On weekends, he ran during the day to get used to running in hot conditions; summer temperature in and around Chennai is known to touch 40 degrees. Back in Japan, Wataru’s monthly mileage had been around 900 km. In Chennai’s testing weather, that dropped to around 500 km. He typically ran about 20 km daily, occasionally cranking that up to 30 km. “ Once I ran all the way from Oragadam to Kancheepuram, a distance of 40-45 km. By the time I reached Kancheepuram I was so dehydrated that I had to hire a three wheeler for the ride back,’’ Wataru said laughing. Thanks to Merida and excursions on it, he already knew the way to Kancheepuram. The race of July 2017 was to be Wataru’s first outing at Badwater. Yet he did not hesitate to set himself a goal. “ I wanted to finish in the top three,’’ he said. As it turned out, he won the race, finishing it in 24 hours, 56 minutes and 19 seconds. He felt he was lucky to win for although he had wisely kept his energy in reserve while others cruised ahead, what also helped was that those who were leading the race started to tire and slow down. Among those who slipped by so was Pete Kostelnick who held the course record with his 21:56:32 finish of 2016. Eventually this July, as the punishing race progressed through Death Valley and on to Whitney Portal beyond, Wataru found himself alone and ahead; a finish line in the distance. According to him, the point where potential victory dawned was the 120 mile-mark. “ I heard that the second placed runner was 30 minutes behind me. The last 15 miles is hilly; it is difficult to catch up,’’ he recalled. Into that last stage, he realized – he was actually winning at Badwater!
MDS, Badwater – all these are iconic races. But the race that is Wataru’s favorite and keeps calling him back is Tor des Geants Trail, a 330 km endurance race in Italy’s Aosta Valley. Wataru had attempted it in 2015. But that year the race was interrupted on the third night due to bad weather and finally stopped on the fourth night with only six runners completing the whole distance. A lover of trail running, he wants to try it again. “ My preferred mix is training on trail and racing on road,’’ Wataru said. Also on the list to go for are Spartathlon and a second visit to the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB). From races in India, Wataru said that he was curious about La Ultra The High, the 333 km-ultramarathon held annually in Ladakh. He was familiar with the region, having been to Ladakh to train, ahead of the 2017 Everest Marathon. Further, among top ten finishers at the 2017 Badwater, were Grant Maughan (he finished sixth) and Ray Sanchez (he finished eighth) – both of them have previously participated in La Ultra The High, with Grant being joint winner in 2016. Wataru’s employers now financially support his participation at various races. For any runner, this is a dream come true. Given this emergent piece of good fortune, Wataru has decided to try the more expensive races first. Races like 4 Deserts for instance. You sense him wondering whether he is making the right decision, whether he is picking the right races. But then there was also that bit he mentioned in the context of Badwater: he does not like too much information, too much asking around for a perfect decision. It is important that every journey be new and feel, just what it is.
Isn’t that what adventure is?
WATARU IINO / SELECT RACES (first column indicates position secured)
3rd Germany 69 km Allgäu Panorama Ultra-trail / 2011
4th Germany 50 km Schwäbisch-Gmünd / 2011
2nd Germany 50 km RLT Rodgau / 2012
9th Morocco 250 km Marathon des Sables / 2012
1st Japan 112 km Challenge Fuji5lakes / 2014
2nd Japan 100 km Yatsugatake Nobeyama / 2014
1st Japan 100 km Iwate ginga Challenge / 2014
2nd Madagascar 250 km Madagascar Race / 2014
7th Hong Kong 100 km Hongkong Trail / 2015
1st Japan 118 km Challenge Fuji5lakes / 2015
2nd Japan 100 km Hida-Takayama / 2015
— Italy 330 km Tor des Geants Trail / 2015 *
24th France 167 km Grand Raid Reunion / 2015
9th Hongkong 100 km Hongkong Trail / 2016
1st Japan 230 km Little Edo Oedo / 2016
1st Namibia 250 km Namib Desert Race / 2016
— Japan 165 km Ultra- Trail Mount Fuji / 2016 *
2nd China 168 km Ultra-Trail Three Gorges / 2016
1st Thailand 100 km Ultra-Trail Koh Chang / 2017
7th Nepal 65 km Everest Marathon / 2017
1st USA 217 km Badwater135 / 2017
*Race was stopped owing to various reasons
Source: Wataru Iino
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with Wataru Iino. Timings are as provided by the interviewee. The author would like to thank Sastry Bhamidi for allowing the use of his photographs with this article.)