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The Way of the Runner

Book notes for “The Way of the Runner”, A journey into the fabled world of Japanese running by Adharanand Finn

In 2013, the year in which our story is set, only six of the hundred fastest marathon runners in the world were not from Africa. Five of those six were from Japan. loc 78

In the same year, the year following the 2012 London Olympics, not a single British runner managed to complete a marathon in less than 2 hours 15 minutes. In the USA, twelve men ran under that time. Yet in Japan, a nation with less than half the population of the US, the figure was more than four times higher, with fifty-two Japanese men running a marathon in under 2:15. loc 81

He goes on: ‘In Japan, live broadcasts of marathons and ekiden events, which carry all the expert analysis and technical quality given the NFL here at home [in the US], garner staggering numbers. While US marathon broadcasts rarely creep above 1% ratings, in Japan a 10% rating for a major ekiden or marathon would be a disappointment; certain athletes and events can bring Super Bowl-like 40%-plus ratings.’ loc 126

In 1965, ten of the top eleven times worldwide were run by Japanese men. In 1966, it was fifteen of the top seventeen. loc 467

‘They once tried to introduce European honey bees to Japan,’ he explains, ‘but they were wiped out by the giant Japanese hornets. The European bees had no defence. When the hornets arrived at the hive, the worker bees would rush out one by one to fend off the attack. But they were no match for the giant hornets, which used their sharp claws to rip the heads off the European bees one by one. A small squadron of hornets can massacre an entire hive in a matter of hours. ‘The Japanese bees, however, take a different approach. Rather than rush out in a hopeless flight to the death, they wait for the first scout hornet to enter the nest. Then, in unison, all together, they swarm around it in one tight cluster. Rather than attempting to sting the hornet, they all vibrate their wings until the temperature begins to rise, and the carbon dioxide they produce fills the hive. The hornet, unable to survive such high temperatures or levels of CO2, has no chance and dies. ‘The power of the group,’ he says, loc 484

Numerous studies have looked at the effect of portion size on eating habits and have all concluded, perhaps not surprisingly, that offering someone a bigger portion of something results in the person eating more. In one study, even when the food on offer was stale, fourteen-day-old popcorn, those given the bigger portion ate more, even though afterwards they freely admitted it tasted terrible. loc 807

The habit of skimping on a full night’s sleep, however, can have a detrimental effect on people competing in sport. Research in the US found that adolescent athletes who slept eight or more hours each night were sixty-eight per cent less likely to be injured than athletes who regularly slept less. loc 1479

Shorter runners are also better able to tolerate hot conditions, as a smaller frame can dissipate heat more efficiently. This was a big advantage for Mizuki Noguchi when she beat the much taller Paula Radcliffe to win the gold medal in the 2004 Olympic marathon in the baking summer heat in Athens. In the world championship marathon I watched in Moscow, two short Japanese women finished third and fourth in sweltering conditions. In men’s running, too, the greatest long-distance runners of them all are mostly tiny. The man usually regarded as the greatest of them all, Haile Gebrselassie, stands at five feet five inches (1.65m), while Kenenisa Bekele, the world record holder at 5,000m and 10,000m, is only a fraction taller at five foot six (1.67m). loc 1665

A French study found that the average height of the top hundred male marathon runners in the world in 2011 was five feet seven inches (1.70m). This just happens to be exactly the same height as the average Japanese man. loc 1672

Outside on the track, real athletes are warming up, bristling with grace and power. In some ways, it is in the moments before a race that these top runners are at their most impressive. They seem to grow taller in preparation for the race ahead, their eyes focused, striding along the track with complete ease, all long legs and sinewy muscle, like a separate species of super beings. loc 1699

In 1951, nineteen-year-old Japanese runner Shigeki Tanaka famously won the Boston marathon wearing a pair of tabi shoes. loc 1806

A few days later I take myself out for a six-mile run along the river in Kyotanabe. The pace is slow. I’m completely focused on my form, like never before. Every step. I focus on my backlift, kicking my legs out behind me as I run. That seems to help. Lee Saxby told me not to think about how my feet are landing, as it happens too quickly, but to concentrate on keeping my head up, neck straight, and making sure my stride is quick, rather than long. Three strides a second, he says. It sounds like a lot, but once you get into a rhythm it feels fine. When I first started forefoot running, Saxby gave me a metronome to listen to while I ran. I wish I still had it with me. Instead I count to myself, quickly, one-two-three, one-two-three. By the last mile I can barely run my calves are so sore. This is like when I first started ‘barefoot’ running. My initial shock that I was still heel-striking is soon replaced first with relief – that it might explain my sore achilles, and those photos of me at the end of races – and then with excitement. For a long time now I’ve been struggling to find my top form, to chase down those ever more elusive best times. Doubts have been slipping in. Am I just getting too old? But here is another handbrake left on. How many more are there? All I need to do is release it, correct my form, and I’ll be back up to full speed. As the weeks go by, I begin to run faster again, concentrating always on holding my form. Quickly it becomes easier. My calves stop hurting. It feels different. In the same way as when I first started running ‘barefoot style’ a few years earlier, when I first began to feel like a runner, another transformation is now taking shape. From a runner, to a better runner. It doesn’t sound like much, but it feels great, as I cruise through my runs, head up, heels kicking back, quick feet, pat, pat, pat. Amazingly, within just a few days, my achilles stop hurting. loc 1951

Just like in running, in learning the mind will shut down and get defensive under stress. Joe Kelly loved talking to me about Usain Bolt, about how relaxed he always is before the start of a race, pulling faces for the cameras, shooting imaginary arrows into the sky. It’s like he’s just playing out there. Then he breaks the world record. ‘It’s his trick to stay relaxed,’ says Kelly. If his mind is relaxed, his muscles will function properly as they’re not tensing up under stress. I remember watching the great Haile Gebrselassie on the start line of races, always smiling and grinning while the others were fretting and looking tense. He rarely lost either. loc 1995

When I found you could buy a Japanese language CD course based on the Michel Thomas method, I ordered it and we started straight away. loc 2015

The problem with living in a country where you don’t speak the language is that you start to sound like a child when you’re speaking, and so people begin to treat you like a child. Then, to complete the circle, you begin to act like one. loc 2211

In Murakami’s novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the main protagonist discovers a dry well in the garden of an abandoned house. He takes to climbing down it to sit at the bottom for hours at a time. Days even. He begins to look forward to it. Down in the well, the world is gone. Without even light, he becomes a being of pure sensation. He revels in it. It reminds me of the feeling of running hard. I often think to myself, just before a race, that I’m about to head down into my well. Down there it is dark, difficult, perhaps even a little bit scary, but it is pure sensation, brute simplicity. Down there, with everything else stripped away, life, the core of life, the breath itself, fills you entirely. loc 2610

Running on hard surfaces, running too many miles and not enough speedwork – these are recurring themes, at least when I talk to the east African runners. loc 2839

In 1984, the year a Welshman, Steve Jones, broke the world record, eleven different British men ran a marathon in under 2 hours 14 minutes. In the same year, seventeen Japanese men achieved the same time. Fast forward to 2013, however, and the picture is very different: while not one single British man broke 2:14, in Japan they’re now doing even better, with twenty-five men breaking the 2:14 barrier. loc 3080

In an article in Outside magazine in the US entitled ‘Alberto Salazar’s 10 Golden Running Rules’, the great coach’s rule no. 4 is: ‘Stay on the trails.’ He says: ‘Pavement damages joints, tendons, ligaments and muscles. The more you can run on grass, woodchips or dirt, the better off you are. My athletes run 90 per cent of their workouts on soft surfaces.’ loc 3330