and then you can relax and watch these
or read this
Japan. Nihon. The Land of the Rising Sun.
A country globally renown for many things. A rich cultural history. A cuisine like no other. The world’s largest metropolis – Tokyo. And… running?
Japan is not one of the nations that first comes to mind when most people think about the global running scene. However, in the marathon distance, Japan comes in third place behind Kenya and Ethiopia when looking at the number of athletes in the top thousand marathon times in history. Japan has over one-hundred athletes that have run sub-2:10 in the marathon. Compare this to the USA: with a population nearing triple that of Japan – and massive infrastructure surrounding their collegiate athletics system – the States have only twenty athletes that have run sub-2:10 (thirteen if you exclude record-ineligible Boston).
Our interest piqued, we decided to plunge headfirst into the Japanese running scene and investigate what was going on.
Tokyo Marathon 2020
Our arrival coincided with the cancellation of the mass-participation in the Tokyo Marathon due to the novel coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak and the global pandemonium the pathogen had generated. Nonetheless, the elite category of the race was still run and despite beseeching pleas from local authorities to stay away from the course, a large turnout of local spectators lined the streets to cheer on the athletes. Running is hugely popular here; the top runners were clearly well known to the onlookers. Many of the top runners receiving a hero’s welcome – especially Suguru Osako who solidified his place on the Olympic team by breaking his own National Record (finishing in 2:05:29), collecting a 100-million-yen bonus for his work.
Taking place on our first weekend in the country, the Tokyo Marathon was a perfect introduction to, and exhibition of, the kind of running we had come here to learn about. Ethiopian Birhane Legese defended his title in 2:04:15, but the day belonged to the local athletes. Four of the top ten athletes were Japanese. There were nineteen Japanese males under 2:10 and a further twenty-nine under 2:15. No other majors have such significant home-grown depth. Compare the forty-eight Japanese below 2:15 to the six Americans clearing the same hurdle at Boston last year.
You might be thinking… The US have New York and Chicago to spread out their talent, no wonder Boston doesn’t have so many athletes under 2:15. But what is even more surprising than so many local athletes running so well in the marquee event in Japan, is that there is a huge number of lesser-known local races that see solid turnouts of elite Japanese runners. Races such as the Lake Biwa Marathon (which has a qualifying time of 2:30) and Fukuoka International Marathon regularly have large numbers of local runners posting impressive times… And then there’s ekiden!
A Rich History
The state of long-distance running in Japan was somewhat perplexing to us. The Japanese tend to lack the ectomorphic physique and loping stride of the East Africans that dominate the sport. They have a number of high-level sprinters, however relative to the long-distance prowess demonstrated over the past decades, there is a lack of depth in shorter distances.
Why is this? We learnt a lot during our stay that goes a long way to explaining this depth of talent.
In 1912 Japan sent only two athletes to compete at the Stockholm Olympics. Shizo Kanakuri was one of them, set to compete in the marathon. Worn out from the eighteen-day voyage to Sweden, Kanakuri succumbed to the unexpectedly hot conditions on race day. He lost consciousness and failed to complete the distance. Embarrassed, and in an attempt to save face, Kanakuri silently left for Japan without notifying race officials. Astonishingly, Swedish authorities considered him missing for fifty years before discovering that he was living in Japan and had competed in subsequent Olympic marathons.
In Japan, Shizo Kanakuri is known as the “Father of the Marathon”. After his return to Japan Kanakuri played an instrumental role in establishing the Hakone Ekiden in 1920. Contested by the top universities in the Kanto Region surrounding Tokyo, this race is one of the reasons for running’s huge popularity in the country.
The original ekiden – the term used to describe these long-distance relays – was run in 1917, celebrating the 50th anniversary of Tokyo’s status as the nation’s capital. Over three days, runners traversed 508km from the old Japanese capital of Kyoto to the modern capital, Tokyo. Three years later Hakone Ekiden was established, with Kanakuri trying to create a means for Japan to produce runners who could be competitive on the world stage.
Kanakuri’s vision eventually came to fruition. Japan has been right up the top of long-distance running for a long time. They dominated the road scene in the ‘50s and ‘60s. In 1965 Japanese men ran ten of the eleven fastest marathon times for the year. The next year they ran fifteen of the top seventeen. This kind of reign over the roads is comparable to what we have seen with the Kenyans in the last few years.
Ekiden – Aspiration, Fervour
Ekiden is unique to Japan and its popularity has remained consistently high for many decades now. The standard quip is that it’s the Japanese equivalent of the Superbowl. From what we gathered from our time there and our research around the trip, that seems to be an apt comparison. It’s the biggest televised sporting event in the country. Viewership rates of the Hakone Ekiden are as high as 30%. The event captivates the nation over the New Year holiday period.
Adharanand Finn is the author of the acclaimed books, “Running with the Kenyans” and “The Way of the Runner”, the latter focuses on the running-obsessed culture of Japan and what contributes to their success. When asked about Hakone Ekiden, he said “everybody’s talking about it, it’s unavoidable — it’s just everywhere. You’d have to be living in a cave not to know what was going on.”
We delved into the topic of Ekiden with Noriaki Nishide, assistant coach of the 2019 Hakone Ekiden champions – Tokai University. He said the popularity of the Ekiden was in part due to the dramatic performances of the athletes. They leave absolutely everything out on the roads, and it’s not uncommon for relatively unknown athletes to come out and run enormous personal bests, beating much more accomplished runners in the process. Everybody loves an underdog. The variation between segments of the relay also makes for exciting viewing, with athletes being chosen for a given leg due to their prowess on the type of gradients seen on that portion of the course.
Finn concurred on this point, “you can tell they’re performing out of their skin.” He recounts a race he watched where half of the athletes passed the 10km mark of a 22km leg inside their 10km personal best: “they’re already running way beyond themselves.” This drama unfolds over two full days. Comparisons are drawn between the way most Japanese watch the event to the way cricket is viewed over the English Summer, with viewers tuning in and out over the course of the event to receive updates on the progress of the runners.
Nishide, along with many others that we spoke to, puts a lot of Japanese success down to Ekiden. Through an exchange after we had left the country, he summarised a question about the factors contributing to Japanese depth at the elite level as follows… “Ekiden is helping to expand the Japanese long-distance athletes’ base. Ekiden meets start in Japan with Junior High School students. They aim for the High School Ekiden meet in Kyoto, and High School students aim for the Hakone Ekiden to create many long-distance athletes.”
When asked about what else sets the Japanese athletes apart from international competition (he has undertaken many trips overseas with his athletes for training camps and races), Nishide elaborated on what could be viewed as a downfall of many Japanese athletes, or at least a factor that contributes to the relative paucity of Japanese results in shorter distances. “Ekiden requires the ability to run at a constant pace. In Hakone Ekiden, the power to maintain 2:50-2:55min/km is required.” For this reason, he says a lot of Japanese runners struggle with more tactical races that see rapid change of pace, such as those on the track. “I think that many Japanese runners tend to seek time rather than ranking. But what I feel about taking runners to overseas races is that overseas athletes are running to win. I don’t think there are many [Japanese] teams that train the last kick needed to win.”
Finn has related similar information. When asked about what was obstructing the Japanese from competing at the level seen by some of the East Africans, he said the insular nature of a lot of their competition was a potential downfall. “In essence, they’ve got the raw materials, and the system, but the Japanese don’t care as much about international competition as everybody else. These competitions in Japan are so big, they’re so popular that they care more about those than winning big international marathons. And that’s not necessarily criticism, there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that, I was just kind of taking this perspective – answering this question of why they’re not running as fast as perhaps they could be.”
However, Brett Larner of Japan Running News suggests this is an outdated view, and that recent performances suggest the times have changed. In 2018 four of the six Abbott World Marathon Majors had top Japanese men, who finished 2nd in Tokyo, 1st in Boston, 3rd in Chicago and 4th in Berlin (behind Kipchoge’s world record). Other Japanese wins in major overseas races since then include the 2018 Jakarta Asian Games, the 2019 Gold Coast Marathon (gold label) and 2020 Houston Half Marathon (gold label).
Given the historical and cultural context detailed here, and the prominence of the ekiden, it is no wonder that there is such depth at the top level in Japan. Athletes are trained in a way that focusses on the requirements of the ekiden. With the relay legs generally being distances around the half-marathon, this means that students are aiming for longer distances from a relatively younger age than their international counterparts, and their transition to the marathon distance often comes earlier as well.
Miles, lots of miles
This focus on long-distance from such a young age comes with a high toll for some athletes. Renown for high volume training with lots of easy miles, and a high proportion of running on asphalt, injuries are common. When we observed a session at Tokai University in Kanagawa Prefecture, there were a number of athletes completing rehab exercises in attire that clearly indicated they weren’t running the session. Noriaki swept his hand across the group as we approached – “Injured… The Japanese surface is road. It’s tough on the athletes. Many injuries.”
In the same exchange I ask whether they have a long period each year where they take a break from training. Noriaki immediately replies with a drawn out “ahhhhhh, no!” and a big chuckle… “All season!” Head Coach Hayashi Morozumi interjects, “Nothing off, no rest” Noriaki concludes. The men both seemed to find the question to be quite funny.
Speaking to Brett Larner, this was corroborated. “The racing calendar is quite a bit busier than most other places. There’s no real off season here.” He also spoke about the structure being quite top-down. With deference to elders, and a strict sense of hierarchy, communication can be somewhat unidirectional with more junior coaches and athletes having less input into what they are doing than might be seen in the West.
Despite this stereotype of massive mileage, there exists a subset of younger coaches that are moving away from this traditional model. Yuta Shitara, who placed second in the 2018 Tokyo Marathon and set a new National Record of 2:06:11, subsequently appeared on television with his coach who said that the high mileage approach is old-fashioned. Shitara says he never runs over 35km, he does a lot of quality work and always does a 25-30km tempo run three days before a marathon – another training tactic that breaks the mould.
way to gain insight to the ways that a relatively small nation can generate so much talent. The passion of those we met was profound, generated by a rich history in the sport and a system that is set up in such a way that maximises the talent that is extracted from the available pool of raw materials, setting an example that many other nations can learn from.