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March 5, 2018

Why is a tiny island better at marathons than our entire continent?

Last week’s Tokyo Marathon was inspiring. Nine Japanese marathoners ran sub-2:10 with six of them placing in the top 10. That statistic should stick out to you as ONLY 17 AMERICAN MEN HAVE EVER GONE SUB-2:10. To paint a clearer picture of the Japanese running scene, I reached out to Brett Larner, who runs Japan Running News where he keeps his finger on the pulse of the Japanese running scene for an English-speaking audience. In the past few years, I’ve been fascinated by the Japanese marathoning culture and I highly recommend Brett’s site for keeping tabs on stars who could possibly medal at the 2020 Olympics.

Stephen Kersh: Cleary, the Japanese have incredible reverence for running – specifically long road racing. Can you speak to where you believe this comes from?

Brett Larner: There are historical reasons that you usually see as dating back to the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, such as Shizo Kanaguri and his role after returning in establishing the Hakone Ekiden and other races, but these days I think it’s more the fact that it’s already popular and that continues to drive its popularity. Just like how there are historical reasons why Americans play baseball and football instead of cricket and rugby. American kids these days see those sports on TV or at the stadium and say, “I want to do that!” It’s not as a direct product of some kind of historical drive. Same with distance running in Japan.

SK: Japan regularly produces more sub 2:10 marathoners than the United States – a country with a much larger talent pool. Is it because the top Japanese runners are laser focused on the marathon, not shorter events? Are the best Japanese runners funneling into road racing right away, instead of a more traditional, Western approach to racing? (HS track -> college track -> consider jumping into the road circuit)

BL: Yes, people start road running in ekidens in JHS (junior high school) or even earlier, and it remains the focus all the way with track and XC mostly supplemental throughout the year.

 I think the Japanese system is really geared more toward the half marathon than the marathon, for men anyway, due to the importance of the big ekidens where the stage lengths are around the half marathon distance. When you have develop a large pool of runners with solid half marathon experience it’s not a big jump for some subset of them to be successful as marathoners. But my first answer also applies here. Marathons have all the prestige with live TV broadcasts and that’s where people tend to gravitate.

SK: Is there more money available for Japanese runners? It’s hard for many here in the U.S. to “chase the dream” when there is no real financial stability in running for the bulk of athletes.

BL: The corporate team system offers a stable salary and performance bonus structure for team members, creating a pool of several hundred well-supported runners who can continue on what would elsewhere be considered a professional level post-university or high school.

SK: Can you speak to a few specific training differences the Japanese have compared to Western athletes? You hear about the 60-mile runs, the 200 mile weeks, but is it really just a huge emphasis on aerobic fitness that produces amazing marathon results?

BL: Stereotypical Japanese training is based on loads of mileage, but that isn’t really an accurate picture. There’s a wealth of approaches and ideas, especially among younger coaches who are able to get some degree of independence from the old boys higher up in the social hierarchy. Yuta Shitara who set the 2:06:11 NR last weekend in Tokyo appeared on a TV show this week with his coach saying that running mileage is an old-fashioned way of doing things and that he never runs over 30 kilometers. He said he does a lot of quality and always does a 25-30 km tempo run three days before a marathon, something that doesn’t fit any of the usual stereotypes at all.

SK: Do you have a favorite Japanese marathoner? Why?

BL: Kentaro Nakamoto. He’s the best Japanese marathoner of his generation, not as talented as others but very focused and in control and with a deep understanding of what he’s doing. His record speaks for itself:

  • Sixth at the Olympics
  • Three times placing 5th through 10th at the World Championships
  • 2:08:35 PB
  • In fifteen marathons his only time slower than 2:13 was a 2nd-place finish at a hot summer marathon

More on Brett Larner:

BL: I moved to Japan in 1997 for grad school and ended up staying. Right away I noticed the quality of the running scene here and the fact that there were always races on TV from October through March, and I got interested and started doing my homework. My wife Mika is involved in the running publishing industry here and around the time of the 2007 Osaka World Championships we had a conversation about how there was essentially no information in English anywhere about Japanese athletes or races like the Hakone Ekiden. She suggested starting a website to cover that niche and the rest is history. I’ve seen the quality of what Japanese athletes can do and my motivation is basically that I think their names deserve to be said and their stories told beyond the “Here’s a Japanese athlete” level of commentary you usually hear on international broadcasts. I think anyone who watched the Tokyo Marathon broadcast this year finally saw the best of what I’ve seen here and been inspired by over the last 20+ years: Japanese runners as talented, confident, and believing in themselves.

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