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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

The most recognizable New York marathoner returns home

Yasuhiro Makoshi’s memorabilia of his awards over the years at his home in Nagakite, Japan on Oct. 28, 2022.

By Jared Beasley

Yasuhiro Makoshi is a gargantuan man who stands 5 feet tall.

You most likely know him. You may have taken a photo with him. For years, his photograph has hung from the rafters at the Javits Center convention hall, where exuberant New York City marathoners pick up their race packets.

The image of his 30th New York City Marathon finish, with his arms raised high in victory, is an enduring photo of the race.

For the Japanese community in New York City, he is more than that. He was a cultural fixture for 45 years. The 70-year-old Makoshi ran Nippon, the iconic midtown restaurant, where he was a paragon of manners; his way quiet, easy, unassuming.

Those who have run with him in Central Park saw another side. They knew a fierce competitor with 328 New York Road Runner finishes, 35 New York City Marathons and five “runner of the year” awards. In 2010, he ran 31 races in one year alone. He made it look effortless.

What he sees in the photo at the Javits Center is a personal reminder that great things can come from humble beginnings.

Makoshi arrived in New York after being recruited to the restaurant business by chance, and he became one of the city’s most beloved restaurant hosts and runners because of his humility and tenacity.

In 1975, he was working at a hotel cafe in Tokyo when he served Nobuyoshi Kuraoka. Kuraoka, a restaurateur, recognized his nametag — Makoshi’s great-grandfather Kyohei Makoshi had been a member of the House of Representatives and the renowned president of Nippon Beer. He saw an opportunity. If this 22-year-old was anything like his great-grandfather, a man whose business went on to hold a monopoly on the beer trade until World War II, Kuraoka wanted him to run his premier restaurant in New York.

Opened in 1963, Nippon is the oldest surviving Japanese restaurant in Manhattan. It has been called Japan’s unofficial ambassador, a frequent destination for dignitaries, celebrities, Japanese prime ministers and even the emperor. It was also the first in Manhattan to serve sushi and fugu, the highly poisonous puffer fish.

Makoshi began working there in 1977. He couldn’t have found New York on a map, he admits, and he surely did not expect to fall in love with the city. Central Park changed all that. “Without it, everything would have been different,” he said.

His love for Central Park deepened a handful of years after arriving in Manhattan when he watched runners of various nationalities charging toward the New York City Marathon finish line. “If I can do that, I can do anything,” he recalled thinking.

He decided to start training. Unable to find shoes small enough to fit him, he ordered them online from Japan. He finished his first New York City Marathon in 1984 but looked nothing like his ebullient photo in the Javits. His head was down, anguished, defeated.

“I will never make this stupid mistake again,” he said to himself. He was disgusted. He was humiliated. He was done.

He signed up again the next year and has only missed one New York City Marathon since. (The race was canceled in 2012 because of Hurricane Sandy and in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.)

He got serious in his 50s. In 2005, at 53, he broke 3 hours for the first time on a flat course in New Jersey. The next year, he ran the Boston Marathon, finishing in 2:57.

He broke 3 hours that fall in New York, too, and along the way passed 35-year-old Lance Armstrong as the two charged up First Avenue. Having recently discovered Red Bull, Makoshi popped one, ran another 2:57 and beat Armstrong by 2 minutes.

It was a watershed moment for Makoshi. Here he was, an amateur running alone, beating one of the best athletes in the world who had been paced by running legends. “Nothing is impossible in the marathon,” he said. “That’s what I love about this sport.”

It’s that attitude that kept Makoshi hopeful when dark days hit the restaurant. Kuraoka died in 2018, and the pandemic shut down the restaurant in 2020. Many long-standing Japanese restaurants, including Riki and Kodama, closed for good. Nippon appeared to be next.

Not used to asking for help, Makoshi started a GoFundMe page called the “Never Give Up Fund.” If it had been anyone other than Makoshi, it might not have worked. He was able to raise $150,000, got a permit for outdoor seating and reserved the space with planters. “We didn’t know day to day if we would make it,” he said. “But runners don’t give up.”

By 2022, the restaurant was on its feet again, and Makoshi made the tough decision to move back to Japan, fulfilling a promise that if and when the time was right, he and his wife would go back so they could be with her family.

In November, he will return for his 36th New York City Marathon and see it from a new perspective — the way many of the 50,000 runners do — as a tourist.

He’ll fly in this time and come up the escalators at the Javits and see himself 10 feet tall. He’ll pose for pictures and stop by the old restaurant as a customer. He’ll open his wallet and offer to pay and see the pained photo of him finishing the marathon in 1984, a photo he has kept in his wallet for almost 30 years.

Then, on the morning of Nov. 6, the horn will blow and echo across the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge — and for a few fleeting hours, it will feel like nothing ever changed. He’ll drink in all five boroughs before turning right at 90th and into the Central Park.

Under the last bits of fall foliage, he’ll run by the reservoir and down Cat Hill. He’ll be home.

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