An evening of Japanese running presented by British Paralympian, Noel Thatcher MBE and author of ‘The Way of the Runner’, Adharanand Finn.
Summer 2020, the Olympic Games in Tokyo. Hundreds of thousands of fans line the roadside of the marathon route in anticipation. And then they come, one by one around the corner into the the last 400 metres. It’s the closest finish in the history of the olympic marathon, two Kenyans, an Ethiopian and a Ugandan trail them; Kiyohito Akiyama and Yuji Onoda lead the race… could this be the first Japanese men’s gold since Berlin and Sohn kee-chung in 1936?
‘There exists an enriched love for the sport of running in Japan.’
On Wednesday evening, five time Paralympic gold medalist Noel Thatcher, gave us an animated introduction to running in Japan. Noel has lived and trained in Japan for 20+ years and is an avid follower of Ekiden running and Japanese athletics. He spoke of the incredible depth of talent today, taking us on a journey from high schooler, university runner to professional athlete. It was fascinating hearing Noel talk through the rich history of the sport before introducing the concept of Ekiden and specifically the history of the Tokyo-Hakone university race. The Hakone Ekiden is the biggest race of the Japanese running calendar and not just amongst runners. The television stats for 2nd/3rd January, the traditional date of the race since 1917, was 28.2%; the highest audience for any programme aired that weekend.
92nd Tokyo-Hakone Round-Trip College Ekiden Race
As a brief overview, the ~200km relay race from Tokyo-Hakone-Tokyo is run over two days (day one out / day two back) by twenty university relay teams; each student running one stage (between 18km-24km) of the planned ten. As an example of the aforementioned strength in depth of talent, in the preliminary race to the Hakone Ekiden, 90 runners ran under 62:30 for 20km in an attempt to help there team qualify. Here are the highlights and results from this years Hakone Ekiden.
‘There are an estimated 1,500 professional runners in Japan as opposed to a handful in the UK. In Japan… there is a career path for a runner.’
Following Noel’s introduction author Dhar Finn presented his own fascinating insight into living and running in Japan. He offered his own findings as to how a runner in Japan not only benefits from the existing heritage and infrastructure, but also the corporate sponsorship in place for an athlete to make a living. Dhar talked of how the Japanese had crucially turned running from an individual pursuit into a team sport through Ekiden and how this was an important factor in the popularity of running in Japan. There is no doubt that this has encouraged youngsters to take the sport up early, live and breathe it’s values, train to be the best and reap the rewards.
He also explored training methods and how there is a real tussle between the regimented schedules imposed by coaches basing their methods on previous successes, versus the introduction of a new approach based on reduced training and enjoyment as promoted by younger coaches which, whilst becoming more and more popular, is also reaping reward.
You have to read Adharanand’s story. Not just because of his insight into Ekiden and the corporate world of running, but also for the anecdotal humour found throughout. From his family’s adjustment to life in Japan to running monks and 1000 marathons in 1000 days!
‘The Way of the Runner’ is available now, published by Faber & Faber, at all good bookstores / Wordery / Amazon etc…!
Fast forward again to Tokyo 2020. We can now see how there is a real possibility that a Japanese man might be able to gate crash the East African dominance of the road marathon. There remains an incredible passion for the sport in Japan and more significantly an acceptance of new attitudes and training methods. By combining a rich running heritage with new coaching ideas, Japan might just find the formula to compete on the world stage.