You would agree with me with the fact that Japan has one of the best Ultra running team in the world. The question that kept bothering me was what makes them so great? Let us find that out by diving deeper into this topic. In this article, we will be discussing about Japanese ultra runners and their extraordinary performances at world stage. What makes them run long distances super fast and what are their secrets (if there is any)?
First time I heard name of the country Japan was through a Bollywood song “ Mera joota hai japani, ye patloon englishtani, sir pe lal topi rusi, fir bhi dil hai hindustani” Translated to English ” My shoes are Japanese, these trousers are English, the red cap on my head is Russian, but still my heart is Indian”. This song is from a Bollywood movie ” Shree 420″.
One thing that stick out here is Japan has been mentioned in this song along with then super powers England and Russia. The only Asian country along with giants. Why?
It may be because Japan was as developed as two other countries when the song was written. Or their shoes were super fancy at that time. Would any reader from India let me know if that was the case?
Nevertheless, I was again impressed by that country when my friend Olivier who described Japanese work culture, transportation and cleanliness. He was in Japan for his summer research program. Olivier always talk high about Japan and its people. That made me even more interested to learn about them.
I have never been to Japan but had privilege to meet some top world class ultra runners in Croatia. I was also fortunate to run with them. Again, Japanese runners painted the same image of Japan that I previously had in my mind. I started learning more about them by reading articles about their training, base mileage, running history, work culture and other things.
Before we discuss what makes Japanese ultra runners so great, let me tell you a little story about Japanese ultra runners in the 100k world championship 2018 that was held in Croatia.
IAU 100k world championship
I encountered Japanese 100k national team when I represented my country India in the 100k world championship 2018, in Sveti Martin Na Muri, Croatia. I also closely followed Japanese team in the Asian and Oceania 24 hours championship 2018 that was held in Taiwan.
The race course in Croatia was 7.5 km out and back on a road connecting the hotel (where all teams stayed) and village of Sveti Martin na Muri. So we could always see who is leading the race. I was nowhere near the elite 100K runners and had started at my own pace.
In the first group that was leading the world championship was athletes from mainly three countries 1. Japan 2. South Africa 3. USA.
That group had almost 10-15 runners and most of the Japanese runners were among the leaders. I wondered why Japanese runners are so good that all of them are maintaining such a fast pace? Yes, there pace was really fast 6:17 minutes per mile which is 3:54 minutes kilometers. That was faster than my marathon pace at that time.
I started counting the number of runners from each country and observed that 5 out 6 male runners from japan were running in that group. As race proceeded, athletes started to spread out. All Japanese ultra runners were in the top 10. Comrades marathon champion Bongmusa of South Africa along with Geoff Bruns of the US was leading the race. Chasing those two great ultra runners were 4 Japanese athletes.
Around 80 km mark when all of the elite athletes were tired and real race had started, 4 of the Japanese athlete were in top 6. I was thinking that they may sweep the 1-3 position in the world championship. They had guaranteed themselves team gold when 4 of them were in top 6.
Around 90 km mark when Bongmusa was leading the race and two Japanese were following him very closely. At that point, something happened to Bongmusa and he started to walk and slipped to position 3.
At the end of the race, Race was won by Yamauchi Hideaki, Second place Gyoba Takehiko, Bongmusa of South Africa finished 3rd and 4th place was taken by another Japanese Hayasaka Koji. Four of them ran under 6 hours and 40 minutes. I was stunned to see there performance. Here is the clip of top three runners.
Asian and Oceania 24 hours world championship
I did not participate in the 24 hours championship in 2018 but followed the race very closely.
In Asian and Oceania Championship, Japanese runners lead the race and all of them were in top 10 when race started and eventually they finished at 1st. 2nd and 4th place.
Indian star ultra runner Ullas Narayan finished 3rd and in fact caught second place Japanese athlete around 22 hour mark. Ullas won bronze medal in that race and created history by winning the first international medal for India. India won the team bronze as well, thanks to Sunil Sharma and Lallu Lal Meena for the surge at the end of race.
In first 6 runners, 5 were from japan. If you take average time in ultra running no one can beat them. I dig a bit deeper to know why they are so damn good here are my thoughts.
Do you know who dominated the field of marathon running before Kenyans and other African nations showed up? Yes, you guess it right. It was Japan. They won most of the medals in Olympics and international events. Running has been culturally very popular in Japan. Between 1930-1970, most of elite marathoners that world had, came from Japan. I looked at the statistics of those decades and found that Sohn Kee-Chung and Nan Shoryu won marathon gold and silver medal in 1936 Berlin Olympic. Though, I did not find any Japanese athlete winning Olympic medal till 1964 and that may because of world war second when country was going through the tough time. They bounced back again and won two Olympic medals in 1964 and 1968.
In woman marathon category, Japan comes first as far as most medals won by any country is concerned. Even at world athletic championship, Japanese woman lead the medal tally. They won 11 medals in recent history whereas Kenyan women has 9 medals.
But how about ultra running. They do not disappoint you in any distance or any timed event. Look at the recent history of world 24 hours running championship and they have secured most medals in both men and women categories. Look at this data from Wikipedia.
Look at any stat and you will find Japanese athlete among the medalists. The history of running in Japan would certainly is one of the reason why they excel in this sport.
2. Hakone Ekiden
If super bowl is a big sporting event in the US, Cricket in India then In Japan they have a famous or very popular relay race called Hakone Ekiden. This runs from outskirts of Tokyo to the foot of mount Fuji (Hakone) and then back. Students from various universities participate in over 200 km long relay race . Each team has 10 team members who has to cover 200 km relay as fast as they can.
The race has 10 stages and it runs over a period of two days. Each section of race has half marathon distance (21km). First day they run from Tokyo to Hakone and second day they trace back to Tokyo. This is a widely publicized event where it is televised on national sports TV in Japan.
This race has huge fan following in Japan and like Boston Marathon the race course is full of spectators. Most of the teams are sponsored by big companies like Nike, Mizuno etc.
If you have running events like this one, it is no surprise more people will take that sport seriously and train harder.
3. Culture of hard work
Normal working hours in Japan was reported to be 80 hours per week. This is double of the time than rest of the world. I am not sure how true is that but based on what I have observed, discussed, read and seen, this does not surprise me. One of the other story that my wife told me was about a Japanese graduate student in University of Wisconsin Milwaukee who finished his PhD in 3 years. The average time in the US to get PhD in theoretical physics is more than 5 years.
The same thing applies to running in Japan. They work really hard in any field and hence dominance everywhere is normal for them.
This brings another thought in my mind about Elon Musk who is known for his ability to work really hard. His point is, if you work harder than others or double than others, you can do things in half of the time. That is exactly what Japanese do.
They work harder than any other on the planet earth. I do not know if it is true or not, the method of strike is totally different from what other nation follows. In other countries, people stop working when they do strike. In Japan, they start to work more when they are at strike without disturbing the public life. I found this piece of information on strike of Japanese bus driver to support what I just wrote.
4. Out of the box base mileage
Since culture of hard work is so much ingrained in Japan, it is no wonder that whatever Japanese do, they work really hard. This means that their base mileage will be very strong. When 100 miles per week is considered very high mileage. 150 miles per week is considered high in Japan. Shear volume of training put them on top.
Even more, a Japanese Olympian Yuki Arimori who had won two Olympic medals used to run 200 miles per week for her Olympic build up. Running 320 km per week or 1000 km per month is not for everyone. The base mileage that Japanese athletes remain unmatched.
5. Running sponsorship
Contrary to other countries where athletes are mostly ignored unless they are world or Olympic champions, Japan has great culture of sponsorship of runners. Ekiden teams are sponsored by big corporations and money often times is not the main issue. Japanese runners live well on the bucks that they make. Therefore, most of time runners can totally focus on training without worrying about other worldly necessities.
When athlete has enough time to train and culture of hard work then it becomes relatively smoother to be best in the world.
6. Meditation during run-Kaihogyo
When you are impressed by someone who run a half marathon or 20 miles each day, think of someone who run 84 km per day for more than 100 days straight. Yes, this is exactly right, 2 marathons each day for more than 100 days. Marathon monks of mount Hefei run extremely long distances.
There are several stages of this self imposed challenge and this may last for several years. Each year monks run several kilometers each day for consecutive 100 days. The volume of running keep increasing for the next year. This article explain gives some details of this challenge. This is in total a 1000 days challenge spanned over a period of 7 years.
Kaihogyo challenge is a type of meditation for Buddhist monks. They get fulfillment by challenging themselves by running until nothing is left in their body. They say that if we want to be one with the universe we need to leave nothing in the body. This can only be done when you are so tired that pain does not hurt you and you become one with the universe.
Adharanand Finn had written a great book “The Way of The Runner” about Japanese running culture. He had also written another book ” Running with the Kenyans”. He describes his meeting with a marathon monk of mount hefei in this article.
These are some of my thoughts why Japanese runners are great in all distances and specially why they rule the world of ultra-running.
Please feel free to share and comment on this article. If you have any other point that you would like to add to this article, I am looking forward to hear from you.