BOSTON — As the man from Mercedes-Benz sang his praises to the wet Boston crowd, Toshihiko Seko stood quietly, in front of a car he had never seen before, listening to a language he could not understand.
“It was a fantastic race! . . . ” the man bellowed into the microphone.
Seko’s face was blank.
“You won it for a second time! . . . “
“You now have a NEW MERCEDES! . . .
Still blank. He was the hero today, this short, 30-year-old Japanese man with the wreath around his head. He was the winner of the 91st Boston Marathon, he had beaten the best, he had endured wind and rain and had run 26.2 miles as if nothing in the world made any noise except the voice inside his head.
And so they handed him the car keys on the steps of the Boston Public Library, and they ushered him back to the Copley Plaza hotel for a press conference. And with security guards on both sides, he walked gingerly through the gold-trimmed doors into the marble-floored lobby, and there he spotted a small, middle-aged woman, standing alone in the hallway.
Seko stopped. He bowed and said a few words in Japanese. The woman nodded and bowed back.
“Who was that?” someone asked a translator as the pack continued on.
“That was Mrs. Nakamura,” came the answer. “The widow of his coach.”
“What did he say to her?” someone asked. “What did the winner of the Boston Marathon say to the widow of his coach?”
The translator smiled. “He said, ‘Thank you.’ ” An ever-present coach
He said thank you. For victory. This is what Toshihiko Seko had come for
— not for the Mercedes or the check but to win, to honor. For his country, and for his mentor, Kiyoshi Nakamura, a man he called “sensei,” a man who trained him, who disciplined him and who now lives inside him. Nakamura died by drowning a few years ago.
“How much was he on your mind?” someone would ask Seko, after his 2:11:50 running of this fabled Boston race, a race he had won in 1981 with Nakamura present. “How much did you think about your former coach?”
“He is with me all the time,” Seko answered through the translator, “not just during the race, but every day.”
He was with him, he said, during Monday’s frantic start, in which several runners tripped — including defending champion Rob de Castella — and he was with him during the first 20 drizzly miles, which he ran with tireless precision, and he was with him on Heartbreak Hill, when Seko suddenly pulled away from the pack — from world-class marathoners such as Geoff Smith and Steve Jones — and headed off toward victory.
“Why there?” someone asked. “On the hill?”
“I felt that I had too much strength left,” he said. “I felt the pack was going too slow.”
On the hill? Too much strength? Well. Such makes victory. Seko broke away and he expected the others to follow and suddenly there were no others, he was alone, he checked over his shoulder and it was true. No one but himself and his thoughts and his memories.
Quiet. Champion at work. A humble winner
Seko crossed the finish line and they put a wreath around his short-cropped black hair, and he walked in sipping an orange juice. He spoke softly in the aftermath, answering questions only in Japanese, waiting for the translation. He posed for photos with the women’s winner, Rosa Mota from Portugal, and he accepted the applause he received with a short bow, a sign of humility.
How far had he come for this? He had trained on a small island south of Okinawa, trained by running loops, rather than long scenic runs, and by living without his wife or his seven- month-old son, who stayed behind in Tokyo. Every day he bowed to a picture of Nakamura, and he listened to the words of Nakamura’s widow, also a running coach, who was there to help him train and to cook his food.
“I did not win this race alone,” he said, and the sentence was more than a cliche.
Quiet. Champion at work. Boston is a big-time race now, with big-time sponsors and big-time prize money ($71,000 for Monday’s male and female winners). It is a corporate affair, yes, but this year it did not get a corporate champion. This year it got a man who ran first for honor, second for memory, third for his own glory. It was the “new” Boston Marathon, but in certain moments, in the quick, unyielding stride of Toshihiko Seko, you could feel a spirit of the old days, when all you ran for was victory and a bowl of baked beans.
“Does he need the car back in Japan?” someone whispered to Seko’s translator as the champion walked off toward the elevators.
“Not really,” the translator said. “He doesn’t even have a license.”