Wikipedia defines ekiden (‘駅’, ‘伝’) as: “…a term referring to a long-distance relay running race, typically on roads.” (Respectively, the characters represent ‘station’ and ‘transmit’.)
Author Adharanand Finn’s convinced the Japanese are on to something. Worldwide, perhaps curiously, but still wholly, the running elite are respected. In Japan, a native with such skill is revered to an even higher degree, tinged with awe. Japanese viewing results for some broadcasts of marathons and ekiden races can be comparable to the Super Bowl. Maybe, instillment of the “team” mentality (e.g., ekiden) has something to do with it. Or, their willingness to seemingly work harder than any other people, from anywhere else in the world. Then again, the Japanese coaching methodology has a reputation for being particularly harsh, even brutal. Could that be the driving force?
In order to gain more understanding, Britain-based Finn enrolls his wife and children (willing participants, mind you) in a transcontinental locomotive journey to the land of the rising sun. Specifically, Siberia evoking thoughts of endlessness and doubt. Then, upon finally reaching Japan, they immerse themselves into Japanese culture (i.e., gaining housing and furnishing it, the Finn children attending school, all in a society generally regarded worldwide as closed off). Meanwhile, scribe Finn maintains an investigative focus, injecting himself into the Japanese racing scene. Striving to meet university and corporate coaches and teams of runners. Interviewing some of Japan’s best runners, as well as engaging locals considered to be core components of the Japanese running engine. The result, “The Way Of The Runner”, pulls back the curtain, leaving the reader more culturally enriched and better informed.
Finn had me captivated with his accounts of the Marathon Monks. Although the monks are intensely private, Finn gains access to their world. Legend has it, “…the monks of Mount Hiei run a thousand marathons in a thousand days in their quest to reach enlightenment.” (Later, it’s acknowledged the thousand days are not continuous.) Still, as of the book’s writing, it’s a feat accomplished by only 46 men over the last 130 years, in straw sandals, and a few have even done it twice. Then, if a monk succeeds at that, he spends the next 9 days in a dark room without food, water, or sleep. They don’t view running as an opportunity to race. Rather, the exhaustion effect produced by running enables an entry of a consciousness, or awareness, of what’s beyond everyday living. A new, healthier perspective of the big picture (so-to-speak).
Finn’s segue to several run improvement techniques kept me engaged. First, he righteously calls out Christopher McDougall’s book Born To Run and the barefoot running techniques it espouses (although Finn opts for super-thin shoes). As a result, Finn personally reports faster marathon times. Then onto form, and the concentration needed throughout runs in order to avoid landing heel first. Next, squatting. In rural communities (e.g., Kenya), and Japan (due to their traditional toilets being nothing more than holes in the ground), mobility and strength in their feet and ankles, attributed to squatting, exceeds westerners. To Finn, exercising squatting carries benefits. “…practice squatting holding on to a door handle until I can do it unaided, and to walk around as much as possible barefoot.” Finally, Finn digs in on the benefits of muscle activation, courtesy a treatment he likens to torture. What appears to be simple finger press treatments produces intensely painful reactions. However, Finn equates the results to a “miracle”.
Lastly, a foray into Yuki Kawauchi’s background brings joy. (Was anyone not thrilled with his 2018 Boston win?) Kawauchi’s mentality flies in the face of the standard Japanese conformist streak. Self-coached, self-motivated, no agent, and with a full-time job in tow, he’s the “Citizen Runner” (an appropriate nomenclature considering the unbranded, scuffed trainers Finn eyes him wearing during the Fukuoka marathon). His race intensity endears him to running fans. “Kawauchi is a phenomenon.” He cherishes his freedom, spurning the Japanese corporate running culture, racing every weekend if he so chooses. During college, Kawauchi battled significant enough injuries that in his last year only one corporate team invited him to join. A snub that apparently didn’t go over well. Post college, his preference now to race, and beat, elite runners, all on his own. He’s not in it for the money but to, “…satisfy my own interest and my own challenge.”
Constructive criticism? Occasionally, throughout “The Way Of The Runner”, Finn lavishes praise on Alberto Salazar. Given Salazar’s 2019 and 2020 allegation and suspension plagued years, those pages haven’t aged well.
#DidYouKnow courtesy “The Way Of The Runner”: While monitoring an ekiden team, Finn notes the intensity of their stretching routine (static stretching for more than a few seconds), prior to running. It’s in stark contract to Finn’s Kenyan running adventure, as well as his English background. “In Kenya the runners rarely stretch before their morning run, while in Europe the advice is clear that stretching a cold body … can weaken muscles and cause injury.”
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