Talking Passion: Shunsuke Okunomiya / trail running.

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Shunsuke Okunomiya interview trail running passion

I still remember quite vividly my first encounter with Shunsuke. It seems ages ago, but it was actually earlier this year. Early in March I took a flight south to run in Yakushima island – a beautiful exotic semi-tropical island famous for its ancient cedar trees. The excuse – a 38 km, 1,800m elevation trail running race.

Just before the start, we had a short briefing and a guided warm-up exercise, led by Shunsuke Okunomiya. All the participants around seemed to know who he was, and he used the opportunity to make his announcement of quitting his previous job and starting on his own – with “Fun Trails”.

Later on I saw him standing along the trail with words of encouragement and a kind smile, and he was there at the very end cheering me up when I was the last person to finish with just a few minutes to the race cutoff time.

Asking for the interview, I expected to hear something about how his passion changed over time from running himself, to teaching others – something like that. Or maybe hear that my own assumptions about a passion are incorrect, and he’d be thinking it’s all about developing the right technical abilities and physique.
But then, just a few days before we met – I heard that he won the Hasetsune Cup, at the Okutama mountains near Tokyo.

Passion?

Passion is a tricky word to corner down, so before spending a lot of time hearing Shunsuke’s story, I asked him what “Passion” actually is.

In my own translation to English, Shunsuke’s Passion: being able to tackle [ a task/ challenge ] with full force.
A very interesting observation, I was thinking – suggestive at its core the importance of passion for action.

For his own Passion, Shunsuke is quite clear – it’s winning. It’s very clearly winning in trail running races, but I got the feeling that winning in a competition with others is the key, and the trail happen to be what he found out he is really good at.

His next challenge on the personal front is to try and get a good result in an international event. Currently he is targeting next year’s UTMB (Ultra Trail Mont Blanc), hoping the get into the top ten. He already participated in the event twice in previous years, but usually had Hasetsune (which comes just after) in mind as his main challenge, and now that he conquered it, he can fully focus on delivering a good result at the UTMB.

His second passion – coming with going solo and founding Fun Trails – is creating an environment in which Trail running can be enjoyed by more and more people – more participants of different levels and needs, and very important – the people at the local communities where these races take place.

One observation Shunsuke made about passion and motivation levels is that usually there is a high level of passion coming up to a race. A lot of excitement. And then there is somewhat of a drop in the passion as he goes through the race and right after. Finding the next challenge to tackles reignites the passion.

Why?

The million sweat-drops question? I floated the question despite the fact that in a way Shunsuke just gave me his answer while describing his passions. Why? because he wants to win. Why Fun Trails? because he wants to expand the circle of people enjoying it.

Shunsuke Okunomiya interview trail running passion

Want to win!
Photo by Ayako Kiyonari

But then, an interesting story came up around part of what pushed him to leave his previous corporate job and fully commit to Fun Trails.

Shunsuke was already organizing some races previously, or consulting organizers. He was setting up some local races in Hiroshima, and always felt that the staff could… well, be more committed, give more. They didn’t seem to be passionate about it, or fully committed – not going “full force”.

Then he realized – he, has the leading figure – was not showing full commitment himself. It was a sidekick while he had his day job he was going back to. If he expected others to be fully committed to making these events the best, he needed to be fully committed himself.

Find your Passion

So how did it all start? In a way, Shunsuke winning the Hasetsune cup now is closing a big circle. His first real taste of a trail-running race was no other then Hasetsune 10 years ago. He took 3rd place there. The staff of recent legends – appearing “out of nowhere” to their first race, and taking home a medal.

Out of nowhere, doesn’t stick for too long with me though, so we went a bit deeper – let’s go back all the way to junior-high.

Shunsuke might have been new to trail-running races, but definitely not new to running. His running started back as a teenager at school, being on the track and field team. It carried on to his days at the university, when he was running for mid distances, and targeting the Hakone relay-race, but ended up not making it.

Apparently Shunsuke was a runner, and liked running and competing, but had a heart “condition”. I am putting condition in quotation marks here, since the disturbance or so that bothered Shunsuke was some rare case that was never diagnosed properly, one of those rare cases – he knew it’s there, it came in to bother him at instances not similar to more familiar heart problems. And so, he wasn’t fully sure what was going on – and “condition” is also how people around him were sometimes considering his problem.
His coach in the university would hear none of these excuses – it’s all in your head, he would hear, and kept pushing it. But results just didn’t come.

So he gave up on running. Completely. And off the university, he went to work at a bakery. And started smoking.

So he was done with running. But running did not have enough of Shunsuke just yet. One of the related companies to the bakery went sour, the parent company went bust, and he was out looking for a next chapter. The economy was not flourishing either. And then he got the call.

“Come run for us” they said. It was the Japanese defence forces. A bit of the old running talent goes well for soldier talent. And so he joined, and was running again. As a soldier.

But the same thing happened again. His heart was playing tricks on him, his superiors did not really buy that, and he was told it’s all in his head. He was about to quit again.

But then he got a chance to have an operation. The doctor was skeptical, as it was still not clear what the condition was, but there was a chance. He went for the operation, and it worked – maybe the problem was all in his head, but the operation seemed to have done wonders, and the problem never came back since.

Shunsuke went to run after the operation – and felt like he discovered a new world. He never realized before how much fun, what a great feeling running can be. He was still mainly focused on the same semi-long distances, mainly up to 20km. This time around, he got the chance to join the army’s team that was tackling the fuji-climb relay race. He got the difficult part of running from 2,000m to 3,000m elevation. And he did well. Really well.

One of his seniors, seeing the result he came in with suggested that he can be really good in mountain type of running. Guess you can say he discovered his true calling.

The way to try out the theory was to join such a race and see what happens. So he joined the next Hasetsune race (AKA Japan mountain endurance race). It was a new experience for Shunsuke – it was running at night, it was cold, raining throughout the race … and came in 3rd.

He realized how much he enjoyed the experience, the hardships, the stimulation, … the win! He found his turf, and he knew it. Never looked back.

Shunsuke Okunomiya interview trail running passion

Okunomiya doing his thing.
Photo by Ayako Kiyonari

Not long after, he moved on from his soldier career to the corporate world, and until recently was working for a company that helped IT workers to deal with stress. Throughout he was training and racing – taking a whole bunch of championships, getting a few sponsorships (not that those pay the rent), and winning some more. Got into supporting and consulting event organization.

Seminars started thanks to his day job, actually. Helping stressed employees recover, his company had a facility in the mountains. He got to organize a few light trail-running seminars there as part of the program, and got high on the positive feedback he received from the participants. Seeing how much they enjoyed it, and how thankful they were for the experience did something to Shunsuke.

Later on, the company stopped providing those seminars, but Shunsuke already knew that this was something he wanted to continue and do. Organizing such a seminar or a race is a lot of hard work, but the reward of seeing the participants’ satisfaction and positive reactions, getting a thank you from the local community – he finds to be bringing him strength and motivation – the passion to continue and do more.

These days, with Fun Trails, he is organizing both seminars for different levels of runners, and some races across Japan. Shunsuke says that while he expects to continue doing both, he enjoys the seminars much more. In smaller groups, he can give proper attention and customize for each participants’ needs, interact with everyone, and being able to support them at a much higher engagement level.

Do you need Passion

To wrap up things, I circled back to the philosophical side of things, trying to probe Shunsuke’s brains both as an athlete and a trainer, on whether Passion is really a needed component, or just a nice word, and try to check if it has any significance other than such things as having a dream or a vision.

Shunsuke Okunomiya interview trail running passionPerhaps not of much surprise, the immediate answer is “yes”. You need passion. Shunsuke does not think you’ll be able to get very far without a passion to succeed. You may have the right build, balanced body, what have you, but without that strong motivation, you will not be putting in everything you can (remember his initial definition?), and not likely to get very far.

It is definitely true for him, and it is also something he clearly sees in people that come to his seminars. I tried to make it a bit more difficult, challenging his ability to know if some of his “mentees” have the passion that it takes, but Shunsuke feels pretty comfortable that he can see that – talking to people, seeing how they act during the seminars, what they are looking for, how eager they are to learn and absorb anything they can from him.

Passion, Vision, or a Dream?

For Shunsuke Passion is what takes him through the next race. It’s the short term drive to go get it. Vision is looking and planning 2-3 years ahead. And finally a Dream is the image in your head of what the end result will look like ultimately.

If you happen to be in Japan, and would like to get into one of Shunsuke’s seminars (in Japanese) or races, check out his website.

If you just want to keep track of Shunsuke, become a fan and see how well he does next year in the UTMB, I’d suggest checking out (and Like!) his personal or Fun Trails Facebook pages. Finally, this is where you can find Shunsuke’s blog.

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