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Adharanand Finn is a runner, assistant production editor at The Guardian, freelance journalist and author of two books, Running with the Kenyans: Discovering the Secrets of the Fastest People on Earth and The Way of the Runner: A Journey into the Fabled World of Japanese Running.
Running with the Kenyans was published in 2012 and has become a well-respected book. It won the Sunday Times Sports Book of the Year Award and Finn won Best New Writer honours at the British Sports Book Awards. Running with the Kenyans was also shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book Award. The story is the product of Finn immersing himself and his family into Iten’s running culture for six months during 2011.
Again, in 2014, he immersed himself and his family into running culture, this time Japan’s. The Way of the Runner (Faber & Faber) was released in Great Britain in 2015 and will soon be released in North America. Below we discuss the story and the differences between the two contrasting running cultures.
Christopher Kelsall: The Japanese appear to be into running as much or more than anyone else. Can you describe the level of interest that they possess?
Adharanand Finn: In Japan all anyone cares about is road running and in particular marathons and ekidens. Track running, even long distance, is just not on the radar. Ekidens are long-distance relay races and they’re super popular. The biggest race of the year, the Hakone ekiden, brings the nation to a complete halt. Run over two days (Jan 2 and 3) and featuring only male university teams from the Tokyo region, it garners TV viewing audience figures of around 30% – higher than any other annual sporting event in Japan. The top runners at the Hakone ekiden are some of the biggest, most famous sports stars in Japan.
CK: Is it because all of the athletes are of similar capability that they make the race exciting each time they hand off? For example the margin of error must be minimal?
AF: Not really. The fact that it is a relay is exciting for a start. It’s like the race is picked up and given a good shake at every changeover point. The runners also give everything – this is the biggest race of their lives and they run like they know nothing will ever come close again. In the year I watched, for example, on the first leg, which is around 21km long, ten of the 23 runners in the race broke their 10K PR in the first 10km. They just give it everything right from the start.
The team spirit is also impressive, with runners breaking down in the arms of their teammates at the end of each leg, many collapsing on the road or needing to be given oxygen. It’s all very dramatic.
Then, with this particular race, the popularity comes partly from its long history – the race has been run for over 90 years now – and the fact that it starts in Tokyo and runs to the foot of Mount Fuji and back, and the fact it takes place during a national holiday while everyone is at home with their families with nothing much else to do. It has become a national tradition to watch Hakone after New Year.
Saying that, the margins for error are small, and one injury or bad performance can ruin the chances of a team. For a team to do well, every runner – ten runners in each team – has to run well. This places a huge responsibility on the shoulders of each runner, which adds to the drama and intensity.
CK: What is the origin of their fascination with distance road running?
AF: Japan has a long history of marathon and ekiden running. While the running boom in the west happened in the 1970s and 1980s, in Japan it happened in the 1940s. As the country began to rebuild itself after the devastation of the Second World War, marathon running was seen as something that embodied all the attributes required of the country – stoicism, perseverance, willpower – so marathon runners were admired and races became popular. The main races were also all sponsored by newspapers, so the stories of the races and runners were reported widely. As a result, by the 1960s, the Japanese dominated marathon running much like the Kenyans today. In 1965, for example, 10 of the 11 fastest times in the world were run by Japanese runners. In 1966, it was 15 of the top 17 times.
CK: Other than illustrating antithetical cultures, how does the story differ from your previous effort, Running with the Kenyans?
AF: Well, Running with the Kenyans mostly centred around one town. In Iten you can just turn up at certain street corners at certain times of day and run with some of the greatest runners on Earth. In Japan there are just as many runners, but they’re harder to find. The teams are scattered around the country and they’re very closed and serious. So part of the story became this mission to find and get inside the world of Japanese running. This in turn, I guess, is a reflection of the contrasting cultures – Kenya is very relaxed and open, while Japan is more serious and harder to penetrate.
Another big difference is that I was in constant wonder and amazement at the Kenyan runners. I could find little that didn’t impress me. But in Japan, while I was amazed the depth of the running culture and the passion for the sport, I also discovered problems with the sport, and I voice a number of criticisms. The key question became not why are the Japanese so good at running, but why, considering all the support, funding and passion, why are they not beating the Kenyans? The answer wasn’t as straightforward as you might think.
CK: In Kenya, I assume it must a desperation-thing, a real deep-seeded desire to get out of poverty, while in Japan is it just another good paying job? Or did you find physiological differences?
AF: The question of physiological differences is difficult and fraught, because they can be natural, or can be the result of diet, environment and lifestyle. Generally, in both Kenya and Japan the runners are mostly small and light, which is good for long distance running. Beyond that, the science is not clear. Many scientists have studied the Kenyans and in my view no one has come up with a compelling physiological reason why they are so good.
The psychological differences, on the other hand, are stark – though it’s open to interpretation which is more conducive to running fast. The Kenyans, as you say, are in a large part motivated by money. However, this is not necessarily a mercenary or selfish thing. They know what it is like to have nothing, and have seen the difference running can make. But they also in most cases share their money among the community when they return to Kenya. That’s how it works. The national motto is Harambee – which means, “all pull together” – and young runners are supported by the community when they’re starting out, so those who become successful return and in turn do their bit to help others. One of the most common things for runners to do after their careers are over is to start a school.
However, in Japan, at school and university, they are running first and foremost for the team. Unity and responsibility are the key drivers in training and racing. This is why ekidens are by far the biggest races – at this level everything else is just preparation for the ekidens.
Later in life, they get jobs as runners in corporate teams and for many, motivation becomes an issue. They start doing marathons, running for themselves, and often the ekidens become more a chore than the driving force behind everything. But the level drops. It’s a big problem. For me, many of these runners have simply burnt out from all the intensity of high school and university running. Physically and mentally burnt out – and this is why, despite the incredible performances of Japan’s university runners, at a senior level they fail to make an impact on the world stage.
CK: Apparently you spent six months living in Japan, immersing yourself into their running culture. Are there overarching storylines that go deeper into the competitiveness there, for example with Corporate Japan?
AF: I look in some detail at how the seriousness that pervades the sport in Japan is in some ways one of the hindering aspects. Many of the corporate runners generally don’t enjoy training and coaches can be fierce and overbearing – with the athletes expected to obey without question. Yet I also find the beginnings of a small sea change taking place. Younger coaches are coming through with new ideas, questioning the traditional Japanese approach of strict discipline and effort over fun and enjoying running. One of the main characters in my book is one of these young, modernising coaches, called Kenji Takao.
CK: How did Kenji discover the modernised way? Does he have an influential mentor; a protagonist to the story?
AF: Kenji’s biggest influence is the mistakes of his own career. At one point he was the second fastest junior in history over 10,000-metres – yet he never made it as an international star. He is constantly talking about how he wants to avoid the mistakes he made.
In this way, he is very similar to one of his biggest influences – Alberto Salazar. I was in Japan before the doping questions began to surface around Salazar, but Kenji was impressed by Salazar’s methodical, scientific approach. In Japan, the traditional method is to run as hard and far as you can. If you’re struggling with form, if you’re tired, then train harder. But this goes against all the evidence. So Kenji embraces rest, recovery, because it’s part of a more scientific approach; a more modern approach.
CK: Does Kenji continue to adhere to the very high volume of training that the Japanese are famous for?
AF: No. As I’ve said, he is a believer in a more methodical approach, with rest and recovery taken more seriously.
CK: Is Toshiko Seko revered. He is a bit of a legend in North America, especially with his quote: “The marathon is my only girlfriend. I give her everything I have.”
AF: I’m not sure I can give a definitive answer on this. I think my limited Japanese meant I didn’t get a full sense of how people felt about their big stars from history. The runners most people wanted to talk to me about were the recent Hakone stars Masato Imai and Ryuji Kashiwabara and Yuki Kawauchi, the citizen runner, who fascinates everyone with his unusual approach – racing at an incredibly high level almost every weekend, and maintaining a full-time job in the office of a government school.
CK: Any chance you will embed yourself into the Copper Canyons to de-mystify the McDougall account of the Tarahumara Mexican natives?
AF: No, I’m afraid that’s not on my agenda. I think too many people would be upset if I de-mystified the Tarahumara. A lot of people have invested themselves in that story – I think I’ll leave it alone.
Availability: Telegraph Books
Pages: 336 pages
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Publication Date: 02/04/2015
Category: Marathon & cross-country running