Category Archives: Journalism

The Bolt Supremacy: Inside Jamaica’s Sprint Factory” by Richard Moore

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man cannot be both academically bright and good at sports. This is why my student dorm-mate Dan Dan the Ladies’ Man was so infuriating. Not only did he play for multiple teams across several sports, but he was a straight-A student with aftershave-advert good looks to boot. As his nickname suggests, he had an easy manner with the opposite sex and was rarely without a girlfriend. He was charming too, and a genuinely nice man to be around. Bastard.

One day, my friend John and I hit upon what we called “The Deductive Method”. Following a marathon session of Championship Manager, we had the revelation that all men must be born with 100 points, which are then allocated to brainpower, looks, athleticism etc. In Dan’s case we realised that he had spent his points so highly in virtually all areas that there was only one inescapable conclusion. Below the waist, he had to be built like a Ken-doll.

In the case of Jamaican sprinting, the Deductive Method would suggest that being very fast is a trade-off for the disadvantages of poverty and violence that plague the island. However, others who are less familiar with my personal brand of pseudo-science believe that there may be another explanation for all those medals: drugs. In The Bolt Supremacy, Richard Moore (see review of his earlier book “The Dirtiest Race in History”) visits Jamaica to explore the running culture for himself and see if he can find evidence of cheating. He sets out with some understandable reservations about Jamaica’s success. The 10 fastest 100m times in history are held by 5 men – Usain Bolt, Tyson Gay, Johan Blake, Asafa Powell and Justin Gatlin. 3 of these are Jamaicans (Bolt, Blake and Johan), and of the 5 men only Bolt has never tested positive for banned substances. Some think that he has simply been better at beating the testers.

But is this the whole story? Both Blake and Powell claim they tested positive for stimulants found in supplements they believed were legal. Americans have typically tested positive for steroids or testosterone, which have more proven performance-enhancing benefits. The Jamaican media typically takes great offense at doping allegations and the publicity surrounding failed tests – of course they do. They excuse their runners by saying they are guilty of negligence and carelessness rather than deliberate cheating. The argument goes that this small impoverished island lacks the infrastructure for systematic doping, and that the teams around their athletes lack sophisticated awareness of the contents of sports supplements.

Whether you agree or not, the strong sense of national pride in its runners displayed by the Jamaican media provides some insight into the island’s success. This is a country where the Prime Minister was personally involved in bringing a young Usain Bolt from his rural village to the capital, Kingston. A country where athletics is bigger than football. A country where the biggest event in the sporting calendar is a high-school track and field championship.

“Champs”, as it is known, is the centre of Jamaican athletics. Schools from across the island compete over several days, and winners become national heroes and media stars. One school in particular (Calabar) has an extraordinary roll-call of alumni, including multiple Olympians and world record holders. Track and field is the equivalent of American high-school football; it is at the heart of many communities, and the coaches are professionals, not teachers leading physical education classes in their spare time.

One explanation of Jamaica’s “sprint factory” is therefore that it is a culture that celebrates athletics to an unusual degree. In The Sports Gene (see review), David Epstein suggests that in another country Bolt would have been funnelled into a career as a basketball player, but as a Jamaican he aspired to be a runner. Are there physiological explanations as well? Genes may also play a part in Bolt’s success. Many Jamaicans are descended from slaves, and one theory suggests that because only the toughest slaves survived the brutal journey from Africa, today’s Jamaicans have been self-selected for strength. In addition, Bolt, Blake and many other stars are from an area of the island where slaves revolted against their masters and successfully fought for their freedom. Some argue there are therefore “warrior genes” in this region’s population of just 78,000 that explain their physical prowess. Finally, a statistically significant and curious number of top sprinters are the youngest of several brothers. No-one is quite sure why this makes a difference, but it does.

Genetics and family history may therefore be a factor. However, world-class sprinting is a sport about individuals, and it is individuals who have brought about the island’s success. As much as anything, Moore’s book is a series of meetings with remarkable Jamaicans. There is a chapter where he interviews Bolt’s dad, and we learn that he used to police Usain’s school attendance and make sure he wasn’t skipping class and training to play video games (“I would strap him”). We meet Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, arguably the greatest female sprinter of all time, whose humble nature means she lacks the world-dominating profile of Bolt. Fraser-Pryce’s story is a genuinely touching one of determination and using her talent to pull herself and her family out of the ghetto…and opening a hairdressing salon in the process.

We also encounter the man who is perhaps the architect of Jamaica’s success. Dennis Johnson returned from a US college scholarship in the early 1960s and decided that he was going to teach Jamaicans how to run fast. Bizarrely, he got sponsorship from a cigarette company and drove around the country in his Rothmans van on a one-man roadshow to educate a generation of runners and coaches about technique and sprinting mechanics. Today’s two top Jamaican coaches – Stephen Francis and Glenn Mills – were both attendees. We learn a lot about the rivalry between these two men, including their uncanny eye for talent. Asafa Powell was not a strong performer at Champs, but Francis spotted his raw potential.

Bolt is an entirely different story, as his talent was evident from an early age. For those who think he sprang out of nowhere in 2008, Moore shows how Jamaica had been waiting for Bolt to make his mark for some time. He set records at Champs and the newspapers tipped him for great things. He struggled initially to make the transition from junior to senior, with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role in the 2004 Olympics, and was heavily criticised in the press. Bolt looks happy-go-lucky, but there is a ton of work behind his performances. Realising that he was physically weak and gangly, he spent considerable time in the gym to build up his muscle mass. He spent hours working on his technique and would regularly do sessions that made him vomit. Whether Bolt dopes or not, his work-rate is undeniable.

The Bolt Supremacy is fascinating, and if I had one criticism, it is that after a while I found the constant questions about doping a distraction. Clearly something unique is happening in Jamaica. The comments from various scientists that Moore consults are illuminating. “They may not be training very effectively at all” says Yannis Pitsiladis, director of the sub-2-hour marathon project. Imagine how dominant Jamaica could be if more scientific precision was brought to training methods. Dennis Johnson says that Jamaicans are not actually running much faster than the sprinters of the 1948; the faster times can be attributed to improved tracks and kit. Pitsiladis thinks that there is nothing inherently “black” about sprinting, and there is no reason why white sprinters cannot run this fast if they trained hard. Interestingly, he thinks that the Dutch may be a rich gene pool for sprinting, and the recent success of Daphne Schippers would appear to support this.

The nature of Jamaican dominance will evolve over time. Moore meets some of the stars of tomorrow, and they are not 100m specialists. They are hurdlers and 400m runners, suggesting we may be on the verge of a great era for events that have not been in the spotlight. After all, when Bolt retires, it may take a while before anyone truly comes close to taking his place.

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“Running with the Buffaloes: A Season Inside with Mark Wetmore, Adam Goucher, and the University of Colorado Men’s Cross Country Team” by Chris Lear

Running with the Buffaloes follows the 1999 season of the University of Colorado XC team, from initial training in August through to the national championships in November. At this point in time Colorado was amongst the top 5 XC teams in the country, with a national star athlete – and future US Olympian – in the shape of Adam Goucher. During the course of the book we witness every day of their training schedule, following their long runs in the trails of Boulder and their brutal interval sessions. It’s like a training diary told in narrative fashion. We learn what they eat, how their coach Mark Wetmore bollocks them when they underperform, and most of all, how an elite team trains for the biggest stage of their college athletic careers.

The approach is probably not for everyone, and the layers of running geekery mean I wouldn’t recommend this book to non-runners, but for those who want to go on the journey, you are in for a treat. After a while the team becomes family. The monotony and routine of their training starts to seep into you. You feel like part of the team, and actively will them to succeed. The thought of a “#5” breakfast of two eggs, hash browns and wheat toast at the Village Coffee Shop for $3 sounds very appealing.

A shocking tragedy strikes during the season, and it changes the whole course of the story. The book is dedicated to the relevant team member, so while you’re reading about each training session, the apprehension levels rise as you know something horrible is going to happen, but not how or when. When the moment comes, you feel the desolation along with the whole team.

Unsurprisingly, the book is unremittingly American, with little concession to international readers less familiar with American college sports. I found myself regularly looking up unknown terms and acronyms that were not explained. When an athlete “redshirts”, for example, it means they’re sitting out a season in order to extend their eligibility, because US college athletes can only participate in four seasons . Similarly, I was unaware that “NCAA” stands for the National Collegiate Athletic Association, and is the organisation that regulates all inter-college sports in North America.

However, not being American or an aficionado of US sports can be an advantage too. As I was reading the book, I genuinely had no idea how the 1999 season would pan out, where the team would finish at the Nationals, and whether Goucher would take the individual title. If I had a criticism, it is that as a reader it’s something of a shame that the very first page of the book tells you who makes it to the finals. Only 7 athletes of the initial starting squad of 23 can be chosen for the varsity team, and throughout the book the competition for the spots is intense. Chris Lear would probably tell you that the journey is more important than the “who”, but as you follow the various members of the squad, it really isn’t obvious who is going to make the final 7…except you already know.

Of course, how that squad is chosen is a major piece of the story. For his time, Wetmore was an unconventional coach, emphasising high volume and a return to the training philosophy of Arthur Lydiard. The mileage these guys do, my god. 100+ miles a week is made to feel normal. After a while, you start to wonder why you aren’t running those kind of miles yourself.

Just about everyone gets injured at some point, unsurprisingly, causing headaches for Wetmore’s selection process. There is also real emphasis on being thin, and the coach unashamedly bashes some of his skeletal stars for gaining small amounts of weight, something which makes me deeply uncomfortable after recently reading about the story of an elite male marathoner with bulimia. You do have to question whether all of this is healthy for young athletes, and it is noticeable that for most of them, the NCAA is the pinnacle of their running lives. Adam Goucher’s adult career never quite matched his college promise, and you have to wonder if the demands of college XC meant that he peaked too soon.

For those of us who only took up running later in life, and will never come close to matching the fitness and performances of these young men, Running with the Buffaloes allows us to dream of what might have been if we had only discovered the sport a little sooner, had a little more talent, and did not spend their teenage years with a loyalty card to Hussein’s kebab van.


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“Natural Born Heroes: The Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance” by Christopher McDougall

My son and I are currently making our way through the collected works of Roger Hargreaves. The greatest of his novels is unquestionably Mr Silly. In this parable of the 2016 US election, our hero enters the Nonsense Cup, awarded to the person who has the silliest idea of the year. Entrants include a square apple and a teapot that pours onto itself. Mr Silly beats them all by painting the trees of Nonsenseland (where the trees are of course red) green.

Natural Born Heroes would have been odds-on favourite for winning the Nonsense Cup. It tells the story of Second World War resistance heroes on Crete who kidnapped a Nazi general, interwoven with present-day anecdotes about the sport of parkour, ‘natural movement’ and nutrition. Christopher “Born to Run” McDougall clearly had two different books he wanted to write, but neither was quite fully formed…and judging by the cover illustration his publisher was probably desperate that it be another running book, not a history book about Greeks and eccentric Englishmen. Inspired by the Percy Jackson series of children’s books (yes really), he decided to mash them together, drawing links between the urban free-runners he encounters in Paris, London and Pennsylvania, and how the heroes of mythological and wartime Greece proved to be such impressive warriors.

On the positive side, the story of how British spy Patrick Leigh Fermor and his band of Cretan partisans successfully bogged down the Nazi war machine is a true adventure story, full of spies, derring-do and colourful characters. To train the agents of the Special Operations Executive, whose role was to go behind enemy lines and cause trouble for the Nazis, the British high command recruited the two toughest policemen from the world’s most dangerous city: Shanghai. These cops fought dirty, and taught their students how to knock out an enemy using just a box of matches, then kick him in the groin for good measure. On Crete, their students would mastermind one of the greatest feats of espionage of the war, kidnapping General Heinrich Kreipe near his residence and smuggling him off the island. When the Nazis discovered his abandoned car the next day, they found some Cadbury chocolate wrappers, Player’s cigarettes and an Agatha Christie novel littered around it, just in case the Germans needed a clue as to the nationality of the cheeky kidnappers.

McDougall thinks that combining this narrative with present-day accounts of people rediscovering the “lost” arts of fitness, athleticism and nutrition is a successful way of telling something profound about the nature of heroism, but unfortunately for me it was a real failure. Part of the problem is that so much of his story is incredibly tenuous, based on the smallest of evidence, and some of it is outright cobblers. Take this little gem: “When England was rebuilding after the Great War, [Plutarch’s Parallel Lives] was its guide”. Really? England rebuilt itself after 1918 based on the values of ancient Greek literature? McDougall has clearly never seen Peaky Blinders, or even Downton Abbey for that matter. England after the war was a country filled with violent and traumatised demobbed men, militant trade unions urging a general strike, and a wildly unequal class system. He bases this sweeping statement on a single quote by Narnia author and Oxford professor C. S. Lewis, who was in any event actually talking about England after 1945.

Later, when McDougall used the phrase “tough London borough of Westminster” I threw the book across the room. It’s one of the richest parts of the city.

And then there’s the dangerous, pseudo-scientific aspect to the book. Born to Run was a rollicking romp through the world of ultrarunning, exploring the amazing endurance feats of the Tarahumara people and popularising the exhaustion-hunting theory of why human beings run. It’s an easy, gripping read, and McDougall’s evangelism for running without shoes almost single-handedly started the current barefoot running boom.

Reading Natural Born Heroes, I couldn’t help thinking “here we go again”. Deploying his trademark brand of infectious certainty, McDougall has got a new fitness lifestyle to sell his readers: High Fat Low Carb (HFLC), aka the Paleo or Banting diet. In McDougall’s account, the sports nutritionists have been getting it wrong for years, and carbohydrates are actually a terrible fuel for endurance sport, being both completely inefficient and a source of health and injury woes. Instead, we should be training our body to burn its fat reserves, which is a much more natural fuel source. He cites several examples of elite runners who switched to a fat-based diet and saw colossal improvements in their performance. In a link to his history of the heroes of Crete, he is quick to point out that the traditional Cretan diet involves lots of fat and limited carbohydrates.

Why “dangerous”? McDougall writes in such an accessible style that it is easy to forget he is not a scientist, and that the scientists he does cite do not necessarily reflect mainstream opinion. Many people injure themselves making ill-advised shifts to running barefoot without proper training. Equally, many people may be setting themselves up for health problems if they switch to a HFLC diet without proper consideration. In some people, the diet seems to lead to insulin and ‘bad’ cholesterol issues, not to mention reduced performance.

My own view about both barefoot running and HFLC is that we are all individuals, and what works for one person’s body may not work for another. I also think there are a lot of separate issues being confused in McDougall’s book. Many of the people mentioned as HFLC converts in the book will have seen benefits simply by switching from bad eating habits to thinking more proactively about their diet. It’s noticeable the author himself says he previously would eat pizza and cheesesteaks, but lost the cravings for that kind of junk once he switched to HFLC. Have you ever seen a cheesesteak? It’s a crime against food.

The other thing that makes me very suspicious about movements such as HFLC and barefoot running is that they often come hand in hand with someone wanting to sell you something. With barefoot running it was Vibram Fivefingers – the nonsensical concept of shoes for barefoot runners. With HFLC there is a whole industry of cookbooks and fat-crammed ‘natural’ food products. But perhaps the thing that truly offends me is the Bulletproof range, spearheaded by Bulletproof coffee, mentioned briefly in Natural Born Heroes as the secret potion that helped the LA Lakers NBA team turbo-charge their basketball skills. Bulletproof coffee, sold online and in London hipster coffee shops, is highly expensive gourmet coffee. With a big knob of butter in it.

As Roger Hargreaves might say: how silly.

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“Two Hours: The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon” by Ed Caesar

Elite marathon running suffers from what I call the “Kiprotich Problem”. The men’s Olympic marathon in 2012 featured high drama and one of the most shocking turnarounds and upsets in the sport. Having been whittled down to a leading pack of 3 runners, one of them fell off the pace, apparently in some pain. The question now was whether gold would go to the world champion, or to the man who had won the London Marathon earlier in the year. Instead, out of nowhere, the man in pain suddenly came surging back, overtaking the other two and claiming a surprise gold. The fact he was an unheralded Ugandan, from a country that hadn’t topped a podium since 1972, made it all the more inspirational. When he returned home to a hero’s welcome in Uganda, he was rewarded with $80,000, a presidential state breakfast, and promptly promoted to Assistant Superintendent at his day job in the Ugandan prison service.

If you follow elite marathon running, all of this was genuinely exciting. Your non-running friends and family, on the other hand, would have seen a race where a runner called (Stephen) Kiprotich beat another runner called (Wilson Kipsang) Kiprotich. Admittedly silver went to a man called Abel Kirui, which is a cracking name for anyone’s firstborn, but the fact remains that elite marathoners come across to the uninitiated as…well…samey.

Ed Caesar’s excellent Two Hours has an admirable mission. The East African runners that we see winning big city marathons are not boring, identikit athletes, blessed by good genes. Instead, in a phrase I love, he describes them as “rare, intriguing men”, and he sets out to prove it.

Caesar has spent considerable time in Kenya, getting to know top athletes such as Wilson Kipsang, Geoffrey Kamworor, and Geoffrey Mutai. In TV interviews, these men come across as polite, easy-going and somewhat shy, and generally being unbothered if beaten in a race. What is very apparent from this book is that this is all a facade. These are intensely driven and competitive men, who kick themselves for months if they lose. It is Mutai’s story around which Caesar chooses to structure his narrative, providing a fascinating glimpse into the mindset of an elite marathoner. Boring? Hardly. This is a man who was nearly chopped up by a machete-wielding mob in 2008. These are not ordinary, mundane lives.

When Mutai won Boston in 2011, he ran the fastest time ever recorded over 26.2 miles. What he didn’t realise until afterwards was that this could not be an official world record, because Boston, with its net downhill and point-to-point course, is not eligible for records. On top of that, people talked about his performance being wind-assisted. In Caesar’s account, despite clinching $500,000 in that race, Mutai was privately tortured and infuriated by this downgrading of his achievement, and from that point on he had something additional to prove to his critics. That something was the quest to set a new world record, and perhaps be the first man to run a sub-2.

Is a sub-2 physically possible? Interestingly, a peer-reviewed paper was published in the Journal of Applied Physiology in 1991 by scientist Mike Joyner, who calculated that if a man had the best possible values for lactate threshold, running economy and VO2 Max, they could run 1 hour 57 minutes and 58 seconds. 1:57:58. This highly specific time has been the subject of controversy ever since, with “dreamers” believing it gives evidence we will smash the barrier one day, perhaps within the next decade, while naysayers such as Ross Tucker (of the Science of Sport blog) think that it simply will not happen because we are already at the edge of racing performance; shaving seconds off the record is conceivable, but knocking off 3 minutes is fantasy.

Perhaps there are other means of making the fantasy a reality? When you read Adharanand Finn’s enjoyable Running with the Kenyans, based on Finn’s experience of living in Iten, you see Kenyan training centres as places of harmony, fellowship and neighbourliness. Ed Caesar certainly shares that view, but he also presents an interesting balance to this image; the East African running community is also a snakepit of gossip, rumour and slander. All the top marathoners, including Mutai, are suspected (on minimal evidence) by their slower peers of doping. “You think you can run 2:03, only with blood?” said one 2:10 marathoner to the author with incredulity, claiming that anything faster than 2:06 was suspicious. Caesar, for his part, believes that Mutai is clean, but he makes a good point that is obvious when you read it: we should pity the poor bastard who does break two hours, because he will be hounded by accusations of cheating for the rest of his life.

For me, one of the highlight sections of the book is the breathless account of the 2013 London Marathon, which could also be named The One Where It All Went Pear-Shaped. This race featured the greatest line-up ever (including me), and everything about it suggested “fast time”. Then the men went off at a phenomenally quick pace, led by Emmanuel Mutai (no relation, again exemplifying the Kiprotich Problem), who threw in surge after suicidal surge to break up the pack. The elite group consequently detonated, with the world’s top runners crossing the line in relatively embarrassing times, and the eventual winner coming from around 12 places down to overtake a spent Emmanuel Mutai in the last mile, breaking the tape in a “pedestrian” 2:06:04. Mutai apparently came in for a lot of anger behind closed doors from the other runners for “killing” them and denying a 2:03 or 2:04 finish, but he was simply treating it as a race, not a time trial. And in a race, a winner aims to bury his competitors.

This is why, both Caesar and Geoffrey Mutai conclude, we are unlikely to see a sub-2 in the current climate. Not because the runners can’t do it – Mutai is convinced it can be done – but because the events are not designed to facilitate it. Most of the main city marathons are big-money races, where winning will always take precedence over setting records. What is needed is a special event where a sub-2 is the only goal, with a huge number of pacemakers acting as windbreakers, and a team of stars driving each other on, all of whom would get big paydays whoever actually broke the barrier. To generate the money needed to make this happen, Caesar envisages a big show modelled on championship boxing matches, where much of the excitement is generated in the build-up, accompanied by attention-grabbing HBO-style documentaries about the training and preparations for the race.

But first, marathoning would have to overcome the Kiprotich Problem, and get the wider public interested in these characters, their stories, and what is at stake. A copy of the superb Two Hours, pressed into the right hands, would be a good start.

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“The Way of the Runner: A Journey into the Fabled World of Japanese Running” by Adharanand Finn

Back in the early 2000s I lived for two years in Japan, working as an assistant English teacher in the small Hokkaido town of Mitsuishi-cho, as part of the government’s JET programme. I was not a runner back then, and my hobbies mostly consisted of drinking beer. I recently rediscovered my blog – Japan: The Alcohol Years – from the time. Here is a choice excerpt from 2002:

“So I agreed to run in the school mini-marathon.

Yes, believe it or not, Japanese PE teachers manage to be even more sadistic than their British counterparts. Every single student in my school (ages 11-15) is being forced on Thursday to run 4km in the name of building school spirit….Still, it’s amusing for me, because even though my fitness isn’t great, I’m still 10 years older than most of the students, so capable of outdistancing most of them. The fact that in the practice runs I’ve been finishing in the bottom third is, of course, deliberate.”

All of which is to say that, having completely missed out on the Japanese running scene when I lived there, I was very much looking forward to reading Adharanand Finn’s latest book. Following his success with Running with the Kenyans (see my previous review), Finn moved his whole family to Japan for six months so he could immerse himself in the local running culture. What follows is a classic fish-out-of water narrative, with Finn describing many of the strange things that happened to him while wrestling with a completely alien culture, although none of his stories rival the time that I ate raw fish semen.

Finn’s main goal was to understand why Japan has such deep strength in distance running. Case in point: in March this year, 265 Japanese university men ran a half marathon in under 66 minutes…in a single race. At the time of writing, only 6 British men have done that this year. Japan is generally considered to be in third place behind Kenya and Ethiopia in global distance running rankings.

It quickly becomes obvious that Japan’s obsession with ekiden – long distance relay races – is a significant factor here. The top ekiden races attract large television audiences, with the result that athletics is a much more popular spectator sport in Japan than anywhere else in the world. The Hakone ekiden, astonishingly, attracts viewing figures on a par with the Superbowl. This in turn provides athletes with huge incentives to perform and impress on the national stage. The running system is better sponsored and supported than in the West, with many companies even funding professional teams on their payroll. Runners might find themselves being employees of Toyota or Nissin Foods, making occasional token appearances at the office to boost company morale.

Finn explores other factors too, such as the famous Japanese work ethic, and the much-touted healthy Japanese diet. While it is true to say that the emphasis on fish, pickles and steamed vegetables in traditional Japanese cookery plays a role in a healthy lifestyle, I think this can be overstated in modern Japan. Most people don’t eat like this all the time. There is a lot of junk food in current Japanese cuisine, including tonkatsu (fried cutlets), creamy curry and greasy ramen noodles. All delicious of course, but self-evidently not conducive towards great performance. It is noticeable that in Finn’s account, even the elite runners he hangs out with go to the American chain restaurant Denny’s for breakfast.

The book takes an interesting turn when Finn realises that the question he should be asking is not “why are Japanese runners so good?”, but “why are Japanese runners not better?”. Despite the depth of running talent in the country, Japanese athletes are still not able to pose a serious challenge to the East Africans in international races. This becomes the crux of the story, and it turns into the opposite of Running with the Kenyans. Whereas in Africa Finn learned how to be a better runner, in Japan he learns how not to do things. He observes various things in Japanese running he takes issue with, such as poor running form, training constantly on roads, and – most of all – how excessive monotonous training can turn running into a chore instead of fun. Many Japanese runners, overwhelmed with pressure from their university ekiden coaches, burn themselves out before hitting their prime running years.

The national inward focus on ekiden, at the expense of standard global race distances, creates some perverse anomalies too. The Japanese record for the half marathon stands at 1hr 25secs, but this has actually been (unofficially) beaten during one of the stages of an ekiden. The problem is that, by focusing on national relay races, most Japanese runners do not take global 5ks, 10ks, half marathons and marathons seriously, despite clearly having the talent to beat the majority of nations on a good day.

For me, given that the book marries two of my favourite things – Japan and running – the issue became “why is the book not better?” Alas, despite the various interesting elements I’ve picked out above, the book is a disappointingly shallow read, especially compared to Running with the Kenyans. Part of the problem is that Finn clearly never got the levels of access he needed in order to fully explore his questions. Japanese culture has the twin concepts of tatemae (outward appearance) and honne (true feelings). It took me 18 months of living in Japan to make some true local friends, where we could talk freely and easily at the level of honne, instead of the surface-level pleasantries of tatemae. With only 6 months in the country, and with no understanding of the language, Finn never broke down the polite barriers of tatemae to understand what the athletes truly thought and felt.

Added to this is the gigantic Zou-san (Mr elephant) in the room. Japan Running News is the website for English-speakers wanting to learn about the Japanese running scene. In terms of access and understanding, the site – and ideally an interview with its owner Brett Larner – should have been essential for Finn’s account. However, it gets just a single reference in the book, and Brett Larner is not even mentioned by name. Perhaps there was some sort of disagreement or professional jealousy between the two – I remember seeing that Japan Running News blocked Finn on Twitter a couple of years ago – but whatever the reason, it’s a huge weakness for the book. For those who want deeper insights into Japanese running, I encourage people to seek out Larner’s interview on Marathon Talk.

Overall, despite my reservations, this is still an enjoyable book, and Adharanand Finn is as charismatic a narrator as ever. Although he is never able to fully deal with the questions he asks, the observations and details about ekiden racing are genuinely fascinating, and something that completely passed me by while I lived there. To be honest, according to my blog I was too busy doing this:

“Got extremely pissed for a second night in a row, as the teachers kindly organised a welcome party. Theme: what crazy ethnic alcohol will this stupid gaijin drink in the name of not offending us? Three hours of this and my conversation had deteriorated to the point of telling the men that, if they want to compliment a girl in English, they should compare her to a pavlova.

Well, in my defence, it is a nice-sounding word.

In a wonderful piece of Japanese scheduling, the next day was the mini marathon. Actually, thinking about it, they just have a cruel sense of humour. After the 3rd kilometre I had to veer off course to do a tactical chunder behind a tree.”

I have, of course, improved immensely as a runner since then. My tactical chunders now all take place at around the 10k mark.

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