After 47 years of marriage, Kuni and Daise Yamagata are an endurance partnership with a whole lotta love.
In 2008, Kuni Yamagata woke up in his truck at 45-miles-per-hour. He jerked the wheel to stay on the road and struggled to get another breath. Instead of the hospital, he was headed home… to Daise. She’d know what to do. His chest felt locked in a vice grip. His eyes grew heavy, and the world went dark again. Cars passed the white truck on the side of the road with Yamagata Landscaping printed on the side. When Kuni came to, he put his foot on the pedal and gasped for air.
The next thing he remembers, he was in her two-toned Astrovan. An eternity of fear passed, then the bright glow of an emergency room outside the window. Through the sliding doors and surrounded by nurses, life moved in a blur of images and memories. There was an injection into his heart to settle it. But it didn’t work. While he wasn’t having a heart attack, the rhythm of his heart was dangerously out of sync. “Mam, you’re going to have to step outside,” the doctor said to Daise in a cool, practiced tone. “We’re gonna have to pop him.” Daise insisted she was gonna stay with her husband. He insisted she couldn’t.
Kuni’d quit smoking two months before. A hardcore Camel guy since his teens, he’d gotten pissed California was raising taxes again on smokes. So, he’d thrown his cigs and lighter into a dumpster. He needed the money anyway. He’d just lost half his landscaping clients due to the financial crash. But the damage to his body was done.
Daise waited outside for what seemed like an hour. Her watch said seven minutes. Kuni was put under and hooked up to a defibrillator – counter shocks of electricity sent into his heart.
He awoke to the harsh fluorescent lights of the hospital room, and Daise beside him crying and squeezing his hand. From that day on, Kuni was a different man.
This year, the veteran of over 50 ultras and 30 hundred-milers has his sights on the Rocky Mountain Slam, considered by some to be the toughest race series in ultrarunning. To do it, he’ll need to finish The Bear, Hardrock, Wasatch, and the Bighorn 100 in a four-month window. If he makes it, he says he’s going to retire from racing.
Early on a March morning that feels like a June afternoon, Kuni sticks his earbuds in, picks up a stone the size of a grapefruit, and bolts up Cardiac Hill. A skip and a hop south of Auburn, California, the semi-retired landscaper blasts Eminem as he digs into his third of ten hill repeats. Sucking fumes, he places the stone on top of a cairn he’s building. He then bounds back down to get another.
“I hate running,” says the 69-year-old. “It’s just too painful.” But looking at his Instagram one would get the opposite impression. There’s running, running, and more running. And his page is full of humor – the antithesis of the drudgery and suffering he makes running out to be. There’s a shirt he has – “If I collapse, please pause my watch.” There’s the photo of “Skunkzilla” – his name for the oversized skunk that likes to charge him on his runs. Then, there’s Snoopy. A lot of Snoopy… a lot! He’s his good luck charm.
Kuni holds no punches when it comes to his true loves. He has three. His wife Daise (pronounced Daisey), California, and Snoopy. Likewise, Daise has three great loves: Kuni, gardening, and Godzilla. Born in 1954, the same year as the original film, she keeps a collection of Godzilla memorabilia that rivals Kuni’s three Home Depot-box-sized Snoopy collection. She has a Godzilla fleece, key chains, dolls of all sizes, pillowcases, and a Godzilla medal for running the virtual King Kong vs Godzilla half-marathon.
This December, they’ll have been married for 47 years, and everywhere they go, the dolls go too. “Snoopy and I’ve been together since I was in high school,” says Kuni. “One of the reasons I wanted to come to California was to see where Snoopy was born. He’s deep. He teaches me stuff.”
As far as Kuni retiring from running, Daise will believe it when she sees it. “He’s only said that maybe 17 times,” she laughs with a thick vibrato that echoes from her chest. “Just ask his friends.” According to Daise, the love-hate mentality and the constant threats to retire are all part of a personality that’s never satisfied. He always thinks he could do better, be better.
“I hate my personality,” he sometimes tells Daise. “I wish I could be like you.”
Kuni grew up in Kabukicho, the infamous redlight district of Tokyo and home to the wilder side of sex and alcohol for centuries. His mother’s bar, Dekoboko, was on the first floor. She lived with her new husband on the second, and Kuni stayed on the third. (He never knew his birth father.) The bathroom, however, was in the bar on the first.
At night, Kuni’d have to make his way down the steep steps into the bar to get to it. Heckled by drunks, he finally found an alternative: pissing on the roof. Then, the sheet metal gutters began to rust, and leaks appeared in the bar. His stepfather cornered him about it and listened patiently to Kuni’s confession. He understood the problem and gave the young man a bottle.
Wrestling, not running, was Kuni’s sport of choice. Though he was winless in high school, he excelled in college, winning the all-freshman tournament. As a junior, he captured the all-Japan intercollegiate in the bantam weight division. “I hated wrestling,” he says. “It was torture.” He was often brought to the roof of the dormitory and forced to sit seiza (a traditional sitting position on the knees) for hours on concrete. And then there was a special room to get the crap kicked out of you because Senpai (those above you in rank) thought you needed it. When senpai got drunk and spewed chunky all over themselves, Kuni would have to clean it up and dry their clothes before they woke.
Wrestling brought Kuni to the United States in March of 1975, where he wrestled in exhibition matches all over California. He was even invited to Japan’s Olympic camp ahead of the ’76 games. But Kuni wanted to go his own way… like Snoopy. And he soon found himself knee-deep in the American Dream.
He met Daise after a match at American River College. He didn’t speak English. She couldn’t understand Japanese. But they fell head over heels in love. And in May, they moved into an apartment for $100 a month. In December, they were married.
She worked at Sumitomo bank and picked up Japanese talking with the tellers. She started taking classes. She and Kuni watched Japanese dramas together and of course Godzilla movies. She’d take notes and practice her pronunciation.
Kuni got a job at a Japanese restaurant washing dishes. It only paid $1.75 an hour, so he got another job washing dishes during the day. In between, he coached wrestling at San Juan High School. He would go on to start his own business, Yamagata Landscaping, eventually becoming president of the Northern California Landscaper’s Association. Life was a smooth routine… till his heart betrayed him.
Out of the hospital, he started running in work boots and jeans around his shop, and he and Daise picked out a treadmill. After some five and 10k’s, he ran Boston. Approaching 60, he went ultra. Since, he’s run the Mt. Fuji Trail 100, finished Western States three times, the HURT 100 twice, and Hardrock four times.
His confidence he can complete the Rocky Mountain Slam? Zero. With two surgeries on his knees, he’s slowing down. He DNF’d Hardrock last year and the HURT 100 the year before that. If he does manage a finish at Hardrock, it’ll be his fifth in the veteran’s category – making him the first Japanese runner to do it. Despite the pain and the setbacks, he’s pushing ahead. As always, with hard work and laughs. “You gotta have humor,” he says with a giggle. “You know… to do this ultra stuff.”
On April 2nd, Kuni had a scare. Daise was on the climb up to Overlook in the American River 25-miler, when she lost all her energy. Sick and dizzy, she texted her son that she was dropping. Kuni had just finished doing trail maintenance on the Western States Trail with a rock hammer. He was heading back home to change clothes and run the opposite direction to meet Daise, when he got a text that she’d dropped. She never drops. In a panic, he turned the truck around and drove to the finish line. He located Daise at the Monsters of Massage tent, being worked on by a handle-bar mustachioed character with mean elbows named Ve Loyce.
Daise, with her face in a hole in the table and staring straight into the ground, heard Kuni’s voice. Then, his face was beneath her, “are you alright? Are you alright, Daise?” She just got too hot she explained, and they went home together – to their garden – their four chickens – and their crazy, cute collection of dolls. Kuni may finally give up running, but Snoopy will never quit Godzilla.