by Shizuka Kaneshima
translated by Brett Larner
2015 Hakone Ekiden champion Aoyama Gakuin University wrapped up its primary training camp for the upcoming Big Three University Ekiden season with its annual 42.195 km team run. Surprisingly, even team members not even considering doing a marathon were smiling and laughing as they ran. Making it possible behind the scenes of this unique training run were the preparation and support of the team's student managers.
Their hard work started the day before this annual tradition took place. While the team's runners had lunch and rested up for that evening's practice session the managers gathered in front of the team's lodgings. For some reason they looked unhappy. "We're going to go run the course now to check it out," third-year Ibuki Yoshida said. This was the fourth year that the team was doing the 42.195 km run. The course was the same every year. Why did they need to go see it again? "We have to check whether there are any potholes or whether any of the kilometer mark signs on the side of the road are missing," he said. No kidding. But if you want to check for trouble spots why not do it by bicycle? There's no need for everyone to run it, right? "Well," laughed Yoshida, "there's kind of silent peer pressure from the runners that we should have to enjoy suffering like they do too."
All five male student managers are former runners, but all have been off running for different amounts of time. The longest-serving among them, fourth-year Hitoshi Mine, has been a manager for two years. Yoshida became a manager after the Hakone Ekiden in January this year and has mostly not run since then. Team captain Daichi Kamino smiled down from a window in the team's rooms as the five started their long slog over the course. As they ground it out, the team's female student managers were also busy getting ready for the main workout. Head coach Susumu Hara had said, "Just 35 or 40 km is not good enough. Even if it's not official it's very important to actually cover the actual full marathon distance." Taking that to heart, the women used a measuring device to count off exactly 195 m, stretching a roll of toilet paper across the mark as a finish line tape.
Back out on the roads, early on in the male managers' run they were smiling and waving. According to leader Ryo Uchimura, a fourth-year, "Hitoshi was the most energetic one when we started, but he was the first one to die." 3 hours and 45 minutes after they started all five finished the run more or less on schedule. Yoshida slumped to the ground and had trouble making it up the steps back inside the team's residence. He and the other four were all filled with a deep sense of accomplishment after finishing the workout a day earlier than the athletes on the team, but the female managers were quick to yank them back to reality. "Hey, you have to work tomorrow too, so get it together and stop sitting around!" they scolded the men.
Truth. Making sure that all the runners on the team could safely complete the full marathon distance the next day was one of the managers' biggest responsibilities. Uchimura was scheduled to lead the runners by bicycle with the other four male managers covering drink station duties, handing off bottles to the large pack of athletes running 4:00/km pace at every station.
The next morning, sure enough, Yoshida was in a world of hurt. "I can't move my legs..." he moaned before the decision was made to leave him behind at the accommodations. "If you can't work for the main workout then why are you even here?" the female managers said as they shot him icy cold glares. In his absence one of the women with no experience as a runner struggled to fill his place, gasping for breath as she paced the team's men at water stations to get their bottles to them.
When their run was finished the entire team posed for a memorial picture while their heightened sense of unity was still fresh and vital. They asked me to take the picture. A sea of smiles just as fresh and vital. But I couldn't help thinking, "I'd like to ask all the managers to be in this picture too."