For half a century, the Lake Biwa Mainichi Marathon has been held along the shores of Lake Biwa in Otsu, Shiga. Locals have long given it their full support, turning out as volunteers and to cheer. We talked to them about their memories of the historic race ahead of its final running before moving back to its original home in Osaka.
Kikuji Kawamura, 85, a former Otsu municipal employee who has been a part of the race's operational team for decades, is known locally as a living encyclopedia of every aspect of the Lake Biwa Mainichi Marathon. In 1965, the year after the Tokyo Olympics, a friend asked him to help accurately measure the course's 42.195 km distance. The winner that year for the second time was two-time Olympic marathon gold medalist and famed barefoot runner Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia. Kawamura has vivid recollections of talking to Bikila there.
"Before the race Abebe was warming up in the stadium and I noticed how skinny his legs were," Kawamura says. "I asked him which one was thinner and he grinned and stuck out one of his legs for me to check them. I couldn't believe that they were only about as thick as my arms, but strong and supple like an antelope's legs. I was surprised that this was the build of a world-class marathoner."
After meeting Bikila, Kawamura became fascinated by the marathon and started working seriously with the event's operations team. He worked on making changes to the course, seeking to facilitate better athlete performances by cutting the sharpest hills and pushing for more of the course to be run along the flat lakeside. But runners still had to contend with the strong winds known to blow down toward the lake from the western face of the nearby mountains.
Aiming to mitigate the effects of the wind in the late stages of the race, Kawamura spent time independently researching the typical wind patterns at different times and locations to find the ideal timing and configuration. Finding that the wind tended to increase after 2:00 p.m., he recommended changing the start time from noon to morning, and suggested tweaks to the course to minimize athlete exposure. "I tried a range of things to create the ideal environment for the athletes," he says. "I was really happy to see good times run there and proud to see the event's name and reputation spread."
Thanks to the efforts of Kawamura and others on his team, the Lake Biwa Mainichi Marathon became well known in Japan and abroad as a fast course and attracted many top-level competitors. With this year's race being the final edition to be held in Shiga prefecture Kawamura has a bit of a sense of something left unfinished. "This was a race where people qualified for the Olympics," he says. "I've seen firsthand all the anguish and joy of the athletes who've run Lake Biwa, and it makes me sad that I won't see that again."
Ryusuke Harada, 77, is another local resident who will be sad to see the race go. As a volunteer, Harada has worked in course-side security for over 50 years. Harada is in charge of security at the difficult spot known as Hiratsu Pass at 13 km and again at 28 km after the turnaround. "That spot has an elevation difference of about 7 m, and you can see its effects on the athletes' faces," Harada says. The second time through Hiratsu Pass is often where people will make a move, and whenever it comes on the TV broadcast Harada, who lives close by, feels a thrill of pride.
Due to the coronavirus crisis people have been asked not to come cheer along the course, but Harada will be in charge of security on that part of the course as usual so that athletes can run in safety. He wants to keep the memory of the race's last edition in Shiga alive in his heart. "The Lake Biwa Mainichi Marathon made more people aware of Lake Biwa than anything else so I'll be sad to see it go," he says. "But all the same I want to make sure the race goes off without any problems so that we can add one last piece to its eternal beauty."
As the Lake Biwa Mainichi Marathon reaches its final milestone, the two men's words remind us of just how much respect and love the local people have had for it over the decades. Watch the final running in its entirety live and ad-free on NHK starting at 9:15 a.m. this Sunday.
interviews by Yuki Matsumoto, NHK Otsu Bureau
translated by Brett Larner