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Tokyo Marathon 2007 Through Foreign Runners' Eyes

With less than two weeks to go until the 2nd mass-participation Tokyo Marathon I will be focusing on articles about this race and its impact. First is an article by JRN's Mika Tokairin which appeared in the May 2007 issue of Japan's largest running magazine, Runners. This issue of Runners was dedicated exclusively to coverage of the first Tokyo Marathon; one article sought the opinions of non-Japanese participants.

by Mika Tokairin
translated by Brett Larner
photo by Robin Orlansky

Among 30,000 runners, 1200 foreigners ran through the streets of Tokyo. What did the first Tokyo Marathon look like through their eyes? How did it compare to marathons overseas? What is the running culture like in their countries? We interviewed three foreign runners to find the answers.

Bob Poulson was born in New York and has worked in Tokyo as a copywriter for over 30 years. He is the founder of Tokyo’s international running club Namban Rengo. He frequently runs marathons, road races and ekidens.

Dayan Reuvena is from Israel. She is a graduate student studying Japan’s marathon culture at Tsukuba University’s graduate school. Her point of view of capturing the marathon as a social phenomenon is unique. While she is unhappy about the unpopularity of running in Israel, she enjoys the running life in Japan.

Brett Larner is originally from Winnipeg, Canada. He is a professional musician who plays the Japanese koto. He has raced in Japan, America, Australia and Canada and for the last 2 years has consistently run marathons at the 2:30 level. His best time of 2:34:43 was achieved at last year’s Beppu-Oita Marathon.


To start off with, how were your performances this time?

Bob Poulson: This was my 6th marathon. My time was 3:13:35. I was happy with my performance.
Brett Larner: I ran 2:37:57 and was 78th overall. I wanted to run 2:29 but given the conditions I’m happy.
Dayan Reuvena: I’ll be the fun-runner for today. (laughter) I ran 4:39. As a fun-runner I don’t know the seconds. (laughter) I ran with a camera in my pocket and stopped to take pictures.

Having run the Tokyo Marathon, what were your overall impressions?

Poulson: It was a great event; the whole atmosphere was terrific. I was really looking forward to the course. Running through Tokyo with 30,000 people was an incredible, awesome experience.
Reuvena: Not only all the spectators, but the volunteers on the side were cheering also. In this weather, in Tokyo? Unbelievable. Last year I analyzed the Paris Marathon on video. In the last 2 km before the goal there were no people cheering the runners. The Athens Olympic marathon was the same way. In the Tokyo Marathon, in this weather, I just couldn’t believe the number of spectators. That was a perfect expression of the Japanese marathon spirit.
Larner: I’ve run two marathons in Canada, nine in the U.S. including three Bostons and one New York, and seven in Japan including Tokyo. I also volunteered as part of the start crew in the 1997 Boston Marathon. Overall I had a very favorable impression of Tokyo. The organization was much better than I expected. Races like Boston and New York started off as small events and have built up to having tens of thousands of people running, and they’ve been able to make adjustments to their organization along the way. With Tokyo trying to jump right in to doing 30,000 people from nothing I was prepared for a lot more problems than actually popped up.

What did you think of the course design?

Larner: Before the race my biggest feeling about the Tokyo course relative to Boston and New York was that in both of those races you start in a fairly remote location and run into the heart of the city, physically and metaphysically. You’re running into huge crowds of people and being welcomed by tens of thousands of people at the finish. Tokyo seemed the opposite. You were starting off in the heart of the city with great fanfare and then it was “Goodbye!” as you run out into an ugly, desolate wasteland by the bay. I thought the design was a bit cold, like it was saying “Go away!” instead of “Welcome to our city.”
Reuvena: We are foreigners living in Tokyo, but from the point of view of foreigners coming to Japan for the first time what Brett said is really true.
Larner: I ran the second half of the course twice in practice before the actual race. When I saw the finish in practice I thought there would be no spectators out there and that the last three km would be soul-crushing. Right when you need the crowd support you are in the middle of nowhere. But in the race I was surprised and really impressed and happy that there were big crowds in the last six km, even with the terrible weather.
Reuvena: I wanted to be surprised so I didn’t look at the course map before running. I had no idea what to expect. (laughter)
Poulson: The good thing about the course was the doubling back twice. That was really a lot of fun. Not only could you see the leaders if you were up far enough, but you could see all of your friends and yell to them, not just once but twice.
Reuvena: Brett was too fast so I didn’t see him, but I was able to see all the others from our club.
Poulson: It also gives you a feeling of how incredibly big the race is. After I turned around in Shinagawa and ran five km back to Hibiya I looked over and the other side of the road was still packed with people ten km behind me.
Reuvena: That’s where Bob and I saw each other and then when I came back, ten km behind me it was still packed. It’s different to see the number 30,000 and to actually experience that many runners.
Larner: I think London has a short stretch like that, but Boston and New York don’t have any turnarounds.
Poulson: Neither do Rotterdam, Chicago, or the other big races on TV.
Reuvena: This is a great unique point of the Tokyo Marathon.

What were your favorite points along the course?

Poulson: My top 3 were Ginza, Shinjuku and Asakusa, especially the women doing traditional dance in front of Sensoji Temple. I felt sorry for them because it was so cold and raining and they were out there in these light kimono. The cheerleaders, dancers, musicians and other courseside entertainment were all great.
Reuvena: For me the start, Asakusa and in Shiba Park the big temple. I don’t remember the name. Was that Zojoji? The big daiko drum group there was fantastic!
Larner: The start in Shinjuku was excellent. Having the start line in the center of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building complex’s circular overhead walkway was world class. Compared to running it twice in practice, the last six km after Tsukiji were one of the highlights of the course for me, too. I thought all those hills would be terrible, especially that highway overpass in the last km, but when I actually ran it they were fun. If they keep this course I think that’s going to become one of the signature parts of the Tokyo course, the same way that the hills in Boston and the Midtown bridge in New York are famous spots. For the elite race, I think the Tsukuda Bridge hill at 36 km is going to be a major race point, like the way Sato Tomoyuki dropped Irifune Satoshi there this time. There’s going to be a lot of great racing there.

How did you feel about the availability of English-language support?

Reuvena: I saw no signs in English at the finish, nothing.
Larner: People coming from overseas would have had no idea how to make the train connections to get back into Tokyo.
Poulson: The starting blocks were alphabetized, so it was no problem to understand.
Larner: I thought the expo was pretty English-friendly.
Reuvena: I don’t think there was enough English. When I went to the expo I saw one helpless guy, a real tourist with a big suitcase; he had no idea where to go, where to enter. When he tried to enter they asked him, “Where’s your ticket?” in Japanese. Most foreign entrants didn’t know to bring the tickets because they weren’t included in the overseas entry packages. If you come all the way from abroad you can’t remember such small details. It should be clear enough that when people come, they can easily understand everything.
Larner: When you got your starting package they had pretty good English-language materials prepared, like English versions of the course map and directions.
Reuvena: I thought it was not enough. I would expect them to give those who apply who are tourists all the Tokyo Marathon stickers, information and other things the applicants in Japan got, but there was nothing for those who applied as tourists.

We’ve heard a bit about your impressions of Tokyo, but we’d like to hear about the running situation in your countries. Dayan, can you tell us a bit about Israel?

Reuvena: If I start talking about the marathon in Israel I’ll go on for hours. (laughter) There is just one full marathon in Israel. It averages about 300 people. 10 km and half marathon races are quite popular but that’s where it stops. The average person has no awareness of the marathon; there’s no TV coverage. It’s a very small group of people who run everything, so when I go to all the 10 km races and half marathons I meet the same people. (laughter)
Poulson: In America you see more joggers than in Japan. There’s an established culture of running for fun and health, and so the level is much lower than here. One other big difference between running in America and running in Japan is that in America there are more races that you can enter on the day, even big races. You don’t have to apply months beforehand. There are a lot more charity races also.
Larner: In Canada there’s a lot of interest in running at the fun-run level, everything from short road races to full marathons, but almost everything is at an amateur level. Few of the big races have any kind of real elite field, Canadian or foreign, and there is very little support available for Canadian elite runners. Jeff Schiebler, who was Canada’s best distance runner in at least 10 years, came to Japan to run as a jitsugyodan corporate runner for NEC to train at a world-class level. Even though Canada had marathoners who met the IOC’s qualifying standards for Athens, the Canadian Olympic Committee changed their standards to be far more strict, actually at the national record level, and so Canada did not send marathoners to Athens. It’s sad that for such a popular civic sport they seem to want to keep it at a low level. The shoe company Brooks is trying to launch a 5-year jitsugyodan-type program to give Canadian distance runners the opportunity to compete on the international level but they’re going up against a brick wall.
Reuvena: Maybe Japan is special. The Japanese marathon population is so huge, both at the civic and elite level, and spectators; every aspect is unbelievable. The level of running among civic runners in every age group is so high it’s crazy.
Poulson: You can say that again.
Reuvena: And all the media. The amazing thing is that people sitting at home who have never run a marathon in their life enjoy watching a marathon. That’s unheard of.
Poulson: Yeah, it’s unthinkable anywhere else.
Larner: One of the things I like about living in Japan is that from fall until spring we can watch marathons and ekidens on TV almost every weekend. People respect running here; the average person knows about distance running and cares. It’s like heaven.
Reuvena: Not only because of the running; they respect the value that running holds, like perseverance, patience, and dedication, the human drama. You don’t have that in any other country. It doesn’t exist. That’s the heart of my marathon research. One interesting example of the respect for running is that as part of my research I gave a questionnaire about marathon knowledge to twenty-five Japanese people and twenty-five people from different countries. Not runners, just average people. One question was “What is the distance of the marathon?” Every single one of the Japanese people immediately answered “42.195 km.” Not even one of the foreigners could name the correct distance. One of these people was an exchange student from Greece, the birthplace of the marathon! (laughter)

In conclusion, do you think the Tokyo Marathon will become a world-class event like Boston and New York?

Larner: The Tokyo Marathon was successful enough that the people who did come from overseas are going to go back home and tell people, “This is a good event.” I think it’s going to build up over time through word of mouth.
Reuvena: For civic runners, it was a great event. All the sightseeing spots along the course, the traffic stopped for runners, these were things the average runner here has never had the opportunity for before. The race has a lot of potential.
Larner: I think it’s pretty clear that Tokyo is positioning itself to become part of the World Marathon Majors. Even though the Tokyo Marathon needs to make some changes it deserves to become part of that series. We all love Tokyo as a city. I think it’s up there with London, Berlin and New York as a great world city, and as an event the marathon should be as well. Of course I’m not talking about next year, more like a time span of 5-10 years.
Poulson: The potential for this race is very high. It needs to take everyone’s ideas of what it should be into account. For myself, I want to run it again next year. I think the competition to get in through the entry lottery will keep getting tougher.

(c) 2007 Mika Tokairin
all rights reserved


Billy Jack said…

I continue to follow your blog with interest.

Thanks for the good work.

I'd love to chat with you some day about koto playing.

Al from Vancouver
Brett Larner said…
Thank you. Is this Al Ramos, by any chance?

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