Tag Archives: Marathon

“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.

Tagged , , , , ,

“Running with the Pack: Thoughts from the Road on Meaning & Mortality” by Mark Rowlands

We all have our different reasons for why we took up running. Health. Losing weight. Sense of achievement. It my case, it was to impress a girl by getting fit enough to go travelling with her. Whatever our reasons, I think it’s fair to say that few of us began running because we brought a bloody big wolf home.

The philosopher Mark Rowlands did just that. Before I picked up the book, I assumed the “running with the pack” thing was some sort of metaphor for humans being social creatures. But no, he genuinely owned a wolf, and the book contains the photos to prove it. “When I was 27 I did something really rather stupid” (buying his wolf Brenin). Well quite. Owning a high-energy hound forced Rowlands to exercise with his pet regularly, or risk the consequences. When you start reading the book, you’re looking for insights into why we run. After 20 pages or so, you’re as interested to know if he’ll have any furniture – or indeed limbs – left by the end.

What follows is an enjoyably rambling investigation into the meaning of life, and the meaning that running, in particular, gives life. Rowlands draws on arguments from Aristotle, Heidegger, Schopenhauer and just about everyone else from the Monty Python Philosopher’s Song, showing how the act of running illustrates many of their insights into what it is to be human.

Rowlands interweaves his argument with stories of taking his dogs out running, recounting the various thoughts he had while out with his pack. His central concept is that there is a “heartbeat” to a good run; that feeling of being purely in the moment, where the hypnotic rhythm of running takes hold. As he describes it: “A point where thinking stops and thoughts begin”. I think we’ve all experienced this; the point where whatever was bugging you before the run fades away, and random thoughts pop into your head instead. Mine are usually about what I’m having for dinner.

I was particularly drawn to his distinction between “instrumental value” and “intrinsic value”. If I do something because it leads to other benefits, it has instrumental value. For example, if I do a job because I want to get paid, then the job has instrumental value. Something that has intrinsic value, by contrast, is valuable by itself, irrespective of whether it gets me anything else. If I run because I like running, then running has intrinsic value. Losing weight is an incidental side benefit.

We live in an age that reduces everything to instrumental value. Exercise is for keeping you healthy. The environment is a series of natural resources waiting to be tapped. Education is for getting you a job. Work allows you to move up in society and live the American Dream. Deep down we know this is wrong. Intrinsic value – love, in all its various forms – is what truly matters in the world. Rowlands argues that when we run for the sake of running, when we inhabit the “heartbeat” of the run, we are experiencing a form of intrinsic value. That’s why we run.

All of which sounds, on paper, rather heavy going, but Rowlands has a talent for making the thought of nineteenth-century German miserabilists sound accessible and rather exciting. The book is endlessly quotable, with one of my favourites being “I think a good case can be made for the arse being the crowning bodily development of human beings”. It is our gluteus maximus, not our brains, that truly distinguishes us from apes, because it allows us to run upright. “It is all very well to come down from the trees, but without an arse there’s really not very much to do afterwards”.

That’s the instrumental value of running. It keeps your bum in shape. With all the strange and alarming bodily hairs I’ve started to grow in my 30s, running is the only thing standing between me and turning into a gorilla.


Tagged ,

“Keep on Running: The Highs and Lows of a Marathon Addict” by Phil Hewitt

One of my early jobs in publishing involved reading the ‘slush pile’. This is the stack of (mostly) dross sent uninvited to publishers by members of the public who think they’re the next Tolkein or Ian McEwan. Mostly it’s just unreadably bad stuff, but once in a while you get something that stands out, usually for the wrong reasons. I once had a draft of a book that claimed to be a wartime biography of the author’s mother, but on closer inspection was mostly a rant about her ex-husband, interspersed with several different recipes for scones. For some reason we declined to publish that book, although it did make a guest appearance at our Christmas party.

What I’m getting at is that I have some level of insider knowledge about the publishing process, and yet I’m still slightly baffled as to why Keep on Running got published. In summary, it’s a book about one man’s love affair with marathons, containing his thoughts on training, some funny running stories, and a series of race reports from marathons across Europe.

It’s not bad, just…mediocre. The author is quite likeable, and the book does raise a few chuckles, but I didn’t get much more from it than that. It has “wet Sunday afternoon holiday read” written all over it. The best part of the book for me was probably the race reports, which did give an indication of what the courses in Dublin, Paris and Amsterdam are like (Paris has the most urine at the start, apparently).

On the other hand the author makes the grave mistake of dispensing advice, mostly wrong, all of which angrily caused me to stand back and play a game of “you know you’re a running snob when you hear someone say…”. For example, the author repeatedly talks about the importance of hydration during marathons, and making sure he drinks at all of the water stations. No no no! Most people end up drinking too much during marathons, not too little. He also insists that it is vital to rest your legs completely the day before the race, so he usually watches TV in his hotel room. Again, silly advice – a sure route to muscle stiffness. Much better to keep your legs moving by walking a few miles the day before.

There’s also some fairly banal advice about intervals (he does exactly the same session every time because he’s never bothered to explore others), as well as some bland descriptions of his training, which to me seemed pretty inadequate and probably explains a few of his more disastrous races. For a man who loves marathons, he seems curiously uninterested in researching how to do them better. Worst of all, the author can’t see the point of being a member of a running club! Heresy!

So why was the book published? The author isn’t anyone well-known – he’s a journalist for a regional newspaper. He’s run a fair number of marathons (25+), but that hardly puts him in the 100 Marathon Club. He’s run some reasonable times (a 3:20 pb), but again, nothing exceptional. Ultimately, the book just feels very ordinary. It’s an ordinary account of an ordinary man running a (relatively) ordinary number of races in ordinary times. The publishers probably went: “Running is hot right now, particularly marathon running. Let’s publish any book we can on this subject. Then, when the Books About Running reviewer types in the words ‘running’ and ‘marathon’ into Amazon, our book will come top of the list”.

There’s a sucker born every minute.

*NB Other opinions are available. I know a couple of clubmates who have really enjoyed this book. They’re wrong of course.

Tagged , ,

“The Sports Gene: Talent, Practice and the Truth about Success” by David Epstein

My great-great-great uncle William Cayley was a country doctor, infamous for once riding up on his horse to a patient’s house. Peering through the window from his saddle, he intoned to the man’s wife that “he will be dead in 3 days”, before galloping off into the distance. I come from a long line of such consummate medical professionals, so you would think that science and medicine would be in my blood. However, I am the black sheep of my family, the rest of whom all work for the NHS. Somewhere along the line my genetic inheritance took a funny turn, and I ended up being a history geek with a terrible grasp of basic anatomy.

I therefore approach any popular science book with a sense of trepidation, anxious that it will highlight my feeble understanding of the subject. So I do not say it lightly when I pay The Sports Gene the highest compliment in my arsenal: This book is so compelling it will even make you care about Alaskan dogsled racing.

As a jumping-off point, David Epstein takes the current nature vs nurture debate. A number of writers, most notably Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers, have popularised the idea that when it comes to sporting or artistic success, practice is a far more significant factor than innate talent. In particular, the concept of a ‘10,000 hour’ rule has taken root, this being deemed (based on one small study of violinists) to be the approximate amount of time required to master a skill at a world-class level.

Epstein doesn’t dismiss the importance of rigorous practice and the right environment, but his book investigates the other side of the question: is there such a thing as innate talent, and what are the genetic markers for it? While there is no single sports gene that makes someone a talented sportsperson, there are a number of genes that make people more disposed to excel at particular sports.

For example, he tells the story of Donald Thomas, a student from the Bahamas, who took up high-jumping at university for a dare, and within 8 months won gold at the World Championships. Thomas has a particularly long and springy Achilles tendon, something determined by a particular combination of genes.

There are all sorts of astonishing facts in the book. If an American man is 6’2” there is a 5 in a million chance that he plays in the National Basketball Association. If he is 7 foot tall, it drops to 1-in-6. Or how about this: 17 American men in history have run a sub-2:10 marathon; 32 Kalenjin men from Kenya went under that threshold in October 2011 alone.

One point that boggled my mind is that there is often more genetic diversity in single African populations (e.g. the Maasai) than the rest of the world combined. This is almost certainly because non-Africans are mostly descended from a small group that left the continent around 90,000 years ago. This has huge implications for sport. The sheer amount of genetic variation means that Africa is very likely to contain the extremes – the outliers – in a given athletic activity. Africa is potentially where you will find both the best AND worst at any sport – the fastest marathon runner and the slowest.

And the Alaskan dogsled racing? The Iditarod is a 1000-mile race across some of the harshest conditions on earth. In 2007 the sport was revolutionised by a simple discovery; if you breed huskies for their work ethic (i.e. their willingness to pull a sled all day and night) rather than their speed, the race could be won in 9 days rather than 14. Huskies that were pulling at 7mph could beat those that pulled at 15mph, something which previously had seemed counter-intuitive. There’s something vaguely comforting about this; somewhere out there is a sport for me that would reward my ability to grind out the miles, even though I am not the fastest greyhound in the pack (although I was robbed of the senior men’s road title, I tell you, robbed!).

Alas, I am missing the crucial genes. I’m not a dog.

Tagged , , , ,

“The Art of Running Faster: Improve Technique, Training, and Performance” by Julian Goater

I am ashamed to say that I hadn’t heard of Julian Goater until he was interviewed on Marathon Talk last year. He is a former national cross-country champion, who has represented GB at international level at 5000m and 10,000m. This book is a distillation of his thoughts about improving performance, interspersed with anecdotes from his running days.

He’s from the “tough bastard” era of British running in the 1970s and early 1980s, when he and his rivals such as Dave Bedford and Steve Jones set records that still stand today…and knocked back as many pints as they’d run miles. Having read a number of Runner’s World articles about taking things gently and not overdoing the mileage, it’s refreshing to read a training book that’s uncompromisingly old-school. Goater clearly believes in banging out the miles. His example marathon training plan in the appendix suggests 70-mile weeks.

Don’t let that put you off though. If you followed the guidance in this book to the letter, you’d essentially be Mo Farah. Only the most committed of mileage-hunters would take up his suggestion that we should all run twice a day 5 days a week. And after reading this book, I’m still bobbins at keeping to a stretching routine.

But there is stuff in here that everyone can benefit from. I was particularly interested to read his thoughts on “gearing” when going up and down hills; adjusting your cadence and arm swing to help you power up the gradient more efficiently. He also convinced me to finally join in with the cross-country season last winter, which noticeably brought strength benefits to my Edinburgh marathon training.

Interestingly, he’s pretty dismissive of Yasso 800m repeats – the session where you try and run 800m in the min:sec time that you would run the hour:min of a marathon (so 3mins 15secs for a 3hr 15min marathon). To Goater, doing this over and over again: “That isn’t progress. It’s stasis”. I think I’d agree with this. In my training, I’ve seen more benefit from shorter, more intense intervals, such as 400m repeats or 1min on-1min off fartleks.

Presentation-wise, the book has a terrible, 1980s-BBC-style, cover, which I hope won’t dissuade people from giving this book the attention it deserves. Inside, the book is actually very nicely designed, with great vintage race photos, call-out boxes for the key points, and helpful end-of-chapter summaries.

So, brass tacks: has it made me faster? I’ve been dipping into this book for over a year, and in the 2013/4 season I set PBs in 5k, 10k, 1/2 marathon and marathon distances. The 10k and 1/2 marathon PBs were particularly gratifying, as I finally went sub-40 and sub 1:30 respectively, which had been long-term goals; since then I have got even faster. While my performance improvement is inevitably down to a number of factors (fewer pies being the biggest), the book has definitely made me think about my speed training and weekly mileage in new ways. Recommended.

Tagged , ,
%d bloggers like this: