Friday, February 12, 2016

Initial Thoughts on The Way of the Runner: A journey into the fabled world of Japanese running by Adhanarand Finn

The below were some of my initial thoughts on the book before a book club meeting. They focus on three main strands:-

     ~ The standard of the journalism / research and preparation in Japan and Adhanarand (“A”)’s desire to place himself in the centre of the story without really committing.

~ The lack of focus on what the Japanese actually do from a training perspective other than that they run on concrete and critically comparing it to the Kenyan’s (rather than just one random Kenyan runner in Japan’s opinion)

~ The lack of proper UK context (Green Belt, Round Norfolk Relay, 12 stage, 6 stage etc.) (again lazy journalism?)

First point is that so much of this story is about how badly A has prepared for this trip. Japan is not Kenya – you can’t just rock up and hope to join in with sessions. The Japanese teams are famously insular. There’s only one English language reporter on Japanese running – Brett Larner of Japan Running News ( a US native who has lived in Japan since 1997 and provides great news articles and translations of domestic articles. Now Brett gets mentioned one in the book and once in the acknowledgments but if I was starting to write a book about Japanese running he would be my first port of call as he has at least some sort of access to the teams / professional runners and if nothing else would be a fluid translator. I felt slightly ripped off by the time I got halfway through the book and he hadn’t basically managed to talk to anyone at all.

Unfortunately for a lot of the book it feels like he’s telling his personal journey. That’s the way with running books (intermingling the personal tale of growth / discovery with the background about the culture he’s going into) – it’s part of what makes Feet in the Clouds and Born to Run so eminently readable but in this case he just hadn’t done enough of the background work about Japan’s historical running culture and the influences – including the Soh twins and Toshihiko Seko etc. I quite liked in Running with the Kenyans (RwtK) his own little marathon team the Iten Town Harriers – everyone seemed quite motivated to be part of it and excited about it. That was in stark contrast to his team in this race where it came across far more as a vanity project…

The second bit that disappointed me was the lack of rigour about understanding what training the Japanese actually do and what the benefit of it might be. He seemed to be obsessed with their constant running on concrete / asphalt and didn’t really consider what the impact of having the longer runs, more steady work etc. was in comparison to the Kenyan approach. This article goes into about as much detail as the book ever gets into with maybe a thousand words! Japanese training is very different to Kenyan training and again to UK training and to US training (all ultimately based in Lydiard with the exception of the US / UK training in the 90s) but it felt like he got obsessed with the concrete and failed to really consider what was happening physiologically.

There seemed to be a lot of disdain for the Japanese system because the Kenyan’s are better marathoners – in fact the word of a random Kenyan who trains with the team is taken as gospel that Kenyan training is the right way. Kenya has only ever won a single Olympic gold marathon at the medal – Sammy Wanjiru in 2008 – who was training in the Japanese system at the time. The only other Kenyan medallists in the marathon prior to 2008 were Douglas Wakiihuri and Erick Wainaina – both Japanese trained… The conclusion that A seems to reach in the books is that if the Japanese all trained like the Kenyans then the Japanese would be the best in the world – my view is quite different – that the Japanese are not particularly talented but train relatively close to perfection for the marathon (compared to the UK and US and probably Kenya) and that if the Kenyans trained with that level of discipline then we would probably have already seen a sub 2 marathon…

The final bit is the lack of a UK context… The race he chooses for his team to “capture” the feeling of Ekiden is a relay race which is a side show to an actual race with no serious competition where he drafts in some semi-elite runners to bash people doing it for a bit of fun… (Oddly one of the blokes is James Ellis who I’ve gone numerous relays with as part of the Beagles and Tom Payn who we spotted on one of our trail runs last week). The UK has a great tradition of relay racing – in particular the 12 and 6 stage (6 and 4 for the ladies) at both Southerns and Nationals where the atmosphere can be pretty electric and you race incredibly hard. Olympians and world record holders routinely attend these events (Seb Coe and Steve Ovett were both regulars, Mo ran regularly for most of his career, Scott Overall and Chris Thompson have both been out in recent years) and they have a great history.

In recent years with my PBs sadly out of reach often the only time I have run seriously has been in road relays knowing that my team-mates depended on me. You’ve also got events like the historic London to Bristol relay (now sadly defunct). That A didn’t really seem to know about or consider attending any of these events struck me as very poor on his part. Similarly – events like the Green Belt Relay and the Round Norfolk relay whilst not quite as competitive still engender that same spirit and the rush of trying to break the individual stage records. You could even look at the Thunder Run as an example of a recent event which sold out within hours despite a midnight launch.

Basically – I guess I actually don’t think the book was a great effort. That said – it’s still good to have books on running on the shelves and this is definitely a useful introduction to a very different world of running than Western audiences are used to…

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Bryn Running

Training diary and musings on running in general.