AFTER BADWATER, FLASHBACK: JAPAN

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The 2019 edition of Badwater 135 was won by Yushihiko Ishikawa of Japan. Two years earlier, in 2017, the race was won by Wataru Iino, a Japanese engineer and runner, posted on work to Chennai, India. Across men and women, as of 2019, Japanese runners had triumphed on four occasions at Badwater with Sumie Inagaki winning in the women’s category twice, back to back. Scan the results of another famous ultramarathon – Spartathlon; there are several Japanese runners among podium finishers over the years. Plus, who can forget Yuki Kawauchi’s gritty run at the Boston Marathon in 2018? Japan is a powerhouse in distance running, not that well known outside. Here’s a peek into an ecosystem for running in Asia’s Far East.

Most runners and fans of running study Africa.

The highlands of Kenya and Ethiopia are famous for the runners they create. Over the past few decades, podium positions at major races worldwide have gone to athletes from these countries. This dominance wasn’t always the case. Following his much appreciated book from 2013: Running with the Kenyans, author Adharanand Finn, turned his attention to the Japanese. The result was 2015’s The Way of the Runner. It dwelled on the running culture in Japan, a country that was churning out performances in long distance running next only to the Kenyans and Ethiopians. “ Before the running boom in the west; before the Africans, the Japanese completely dominated marathon running in the world,’’ Finn explains in an interview posted on YouTube by publishers, Faber and Faber in May 2015. According to that video, in 1965, around 11 of the top 12 runners in the world were Japanese.  Next year, it was 15 of the top 17.

“ They were dominating like the Kenyans dominate now, partly because they were one of the only countries running marathons on a large scale. It’s not very well known that Japan has got this obsession with running. Part of the reason for that is that the biggest races are all internal races. They have these huge long distance relay races which are called ekidens. They traverse quite large distances; from 200 kilometers, 300 kilometers….the longest one is around 1000 kilometers,’’ Finn says. Ekidens are very popular in Japan. The biggest ekiden – the Hakone Ekiden –spans two days and is a much watched telecast. “ Everybody watches it, even people who have no interest in running the rest of the year. This is real passion for running,’’ Finn says in the video, about the Hakone Ekiden. But because it is all happening within the country, ekidens are not that well known outside Japan.

According to Wikipedia:  The first ekiden was held in Japan in 1917 as a 3-day, 23-stage run from Kyoto to Tokyo for more than 507 kilometers, in order to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Tokyo’s establishment as the nation’s capital (from its previous status as the shogunate Edo while Kyoto was capital city). Eki means “station” and den translates as “to convey”. It was the name given to the old Japanese transportation system for government documents and officials by relay of horses or men. At the heart of the modern relay race is a sash carried by each runner (it is slung from the shoulder and worn across the body) and passed on to the next. This sash is everything. You run to ensure that it is passed on. Should a runner fail to pass it on, then a whole team risks being disqualified. In turn the devotion to sash and runners trying their level best to not fail, are seen to directly complement team building and obliquely, evoke imagery of the warrior spirit. To put things in perspective, the Japanese take sports seriously. It assumes importance at high school level and by university the importance given to training and coaching is quite high. There are ekidens featuring high school and university teams.

Yuta Shitara, who placed second at the 2018 Tokyo Marathon in a remarkable late stage surge. In July 2019, the Japanese runner – he is a former national record holder – set a new course record at the Gold Coast Marathon in Australia (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Gold Coast Marathon)

Sample this observation in Wikipedia about the 2010 (86th edition) of the Hakone Ekiden: Of the 380 athletes representing the 19 universities, 328 have run under 14:40 for 5000 meters; 150 at 14:20 and 33 under 14:00. Stepping up to the 10,000 meter distance, the same sources show that these 19 Tokyo universities list over 190 runners with personal bests under 30:00. For comparison: as of 2019, the Indian national record for men in 5000 meters is 13:29:70 and for women, 15:15:89; in the case of 10,000 meters, it is 28:02:89 and 31:50:47. The Hakone Ekiden’s course starts in central Tokyo, goes out of the city and up the mountains to the base of Mount Fuji. The next day, the event reverses direction and runners race back. Wikipedia pegs the first day distance at 108 kilometers and the second day at 109.9 kilometers. Each day’s run has five sections. In a write-up on the Hakone Ekiden in January 2014 in The Guardian, Finn himself noted that the event’s 10 stages are close to half marathon distance with over the two days, 30 students running a “ half marathon-equivalent time of under 63 minutes’’ excluding timings on the race’s fastest sixth segment, which is mostly downhill. In the whole of 2013, only one runner in UK – Mo Farah – ran a half marathon in under 63 minutes, Finn wrote highlighting the quality of runners at the ekiden. It doesn’t stop there.

Suguru Osako; as of July 2019, he held the Japanese national record in the marathon – 2:05:50 – set at the 2018 Chicago Marathon (This photo was downloaded from the athlete’s Facebook page. It is being used here for representation purpose only. No copyright infringement intended.)

Large Japanese companies maintain ekiden teams. A February 2018 article by Martin Fritz Huber on Japanese runners, available on the website of Outside magazine, mentioned that some five dozen corporate teams existed, each having at least 20 full time, paid runners. That is a pool of 1200 elite long distance runners. There are leagues for these teams; there are corporate championships. The interest of corporates in ekidens has also opened another angle. Professional athletes survive on the strength of sponsorship, appearance fee and prize money. As Finn points out in the video, typically, if a professional athlete is injured or is past his / her prime, the challenges are many.  You have to make a new beginning, find new means to survive. At companies having ekiden teams, a good athlete gets backed by regular salary. When such an athlete retires from the sport, he / she settles down to a job in the office. Finally, going by what multiple sources on the Internet speak of the ekiden, the human drama associated with the event ranging from team spirit to ensuring the sash is passed on at all cost, make races interesting for telecast. Videos of ekidens show spectators lining up to cheer. In the case of ekidens featuring corporate teams, spectators include company employees and their families.

Wataru Iino,winner of the 2017 Badwater Ultramarathon, at the production facility of Daimler India Commercial Vehicles in Chennai, India (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

So how does this ecosystem translate into performance at elite levels? The earlier quoted observation from Wikipedia provides overview of performance parameters at university level. The Outside magazine article – the expert consulted therein was again Adharanand Finn – offered similar perspective with a major marathon for backdrop.  In 2018, Yuta Shitara secured second place at the annual Tokyo Marathon; he finished the race in 2:06:11. What impressed was that Japan had six runners in the top ten in the men’s category and altogether nine, including those outside the top ten, who ran quicker than 2:10 – all this from one race (the data is still there among archived race results, on the event’s website). When the author of said article looked up the fastest times in marathon history, he found that in contrast, only 17 American runners had managed sub-2:10. Restricted to record eligible-courses, the number shrank to 11. At several major races, Japanese runners finish in the top ten but amid highly competitive sport with narrative seeking African runners, they get overlooked. The world’s best timings reported by the Association of Marathons and Distance Races (AIMS), is usually a list awash in names from Africa. Among a spattering of names from other regions, the Japanese also feature. In 2018, the fastest Japanese marathon runner was Suguru Osako; his third place finish at the Chicago Marathon with a time of 2:05:50 (at the time of writing it was Japan’s national record in the discipline) placed him 27th on the list. The current world record, set by Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge in September 2018 in Berlin, is 2:01:39.

Yoshihiko Ishikawa, winner of the 2019 Badwater Ultramarathon (This photo, downloaded from the Facebook page of Northern Ireland Running, is from the 2017 Belfast 24 Hour World Championships. No copyright infringement intended)

As with any ecosystem, there are stories around the ekiden too. One such is about a man often described to have taken the longest duration yet to complete a marathon – 54 years, 8 months, 6 days, 5 hours, 32 minutes and 20.3 seconds. In that time, Shizo Kanakuri got married, had six children and ten grandchildren. His story started in the early years of the 20th century. According to Wikipedia:  During the November 1911 domestic qualifying trials for the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, although the length of the course was probably only 40 km (25 miles), Kanakuri was reported to have set a marathon world record at 2 hours, 32 minutes and 45 seconds. He was thus selected as one of only two athletes that Japan could afford to send to the event. Kanakuri had to travel 18 days to reach Stockholm from Japan; first by ship and then by the Trans-Siberian Railway. He took five days to recover from the journey.

That year, the Olympic marathon was plagued by unexpected warm weather conditions. More than half the field suffered from hyperthermia. Kanakuri, already weak from his long journey and having issues with the local food; lost consciousness midway through the race. He was looked after by a farming family. Embarrassed by his failure he returned quietly to Japan without informing race officials. Swedish authorities recorded him as “ missing.’’ Although he competed at the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp (where he completed the marathon in 2 hours, 48 minutes, 45.4 seconds to place 16th), it seems to have missed Sweden’s eye. Decades went by before Swedish authorities found out that he was alive in Japan. In 1967, Swedish Television invited him back to complete the race he had begun in 1912. According to Wikipedia, Kanakuri who is celebrated as “ the father of marathon’’ in Japan, played an important role in establishing the biggest of the ekidens – the Hakone Ekiden.

Yuki Kawauchi aka Citizen Runner and Civil Services Runner, at the 2018 Boston Marathon (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Boston Marathon and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.)

Given its reputation for discipline and industry, conformation would seem prized in Japanese culture including the culture around running. Ekidens are an important aspect of Japanese running culture; as are corporate teams. You would think they are unquestioningly followed as ideal progression for runner. That isn’t always the case. There are those who navigate differently. In the video, Finn mentions one such athlete – Yuki Kawauchi, among Japan’s best runners in recent years. Kawauchi worked at Kuki High School in Saitama Prefecture. He was not on any corporate team. In fact, Wikipedia mentions that after graduating, Kawauchi did not receive much interest from corporate running teams. “ He is one of the top runners and yet he has completely shunned the entire Japanese system. So he is very rebellious in that way and people love him for that,’’ Finn says in the 2015 video. Kawauchi – he is often called “ Citizen Runner’’ and “ Civil Services Runner’’ – is best remembered for winning the Boston Marathon in 2018, a year when the race had its coldest start in three decades and was run amid tough weather conditions. That said, news reports after the 2018 edition of the Boston Marathon said that Kawauchi was planning to quit his government job and shift to being a professional runner. Apparently he had been thinking of doing so since a ten day visit to London in 2017, for the IAAF World Championships. The move was seen as helping him improve his existing timing in the marathon and compete with the world’s best. He wished to use the prize money he got in Boston to effect the transition. In April 2019, a report in Japan Times said that Kawauchi had become a professional marathon runner.

Ekidens are now held outside Japan too. According to Wikipedia, they are held in Hawaii, Guam, Belgium, New Zealand, Australia, Canada and Singapore.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. He hasn’t seen an ekiden except on video; he hasn’t been to Japan. The above article is based on information available on the Internet. For an article on Wataru Iino, winner of the 2017 Badwater Ultramarathon, please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2017/10/26/in-oragadam-a-badwater-winner/)