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Letting Go of Preconceived Ideas - Australian Melissa Duncan on Her Time in the Corporate Leagues

Australian Melissa Duncan, the 2019 Oceanian 5000 m champion, is one of only a handful of non-African foreign athletes ever to run in the Japanese corporate team system. From early 2019 to January, 2021 she ran for the Shiseido corporate team, responsible for handling the international stage for the team at both the 2019 and 2020 Queens Ekiden, the corporate women’s national championship race. Now back home, she looked back on the highs and lows of her experience. 

Update: We've reached out to a party involved with the team for comment but have not received a response. We will update further should there be one.

I’ll never forget my first team meeting after joining the Shiseido Running Club. 

The staff were revealing the training for the following day. “Morning training will be..., 11 a.m. training is..., For afternoon training….” I thought to myself, “I’m sorry...What? We’re training three times tomorrow?!” I thought it was a little excessive, but when I learnt that this schedule was for six days a week and not just a one-off day like I initially assumed, I was taken aback to say the least! How much are we expected to be running?

In 2019 I joined the Shiseido Running Club in Tokyo, Japan, a team of thirteen girls with a common goal of being one of the six members selected to represent Shiseido and compete in the Queens Ekiden 42.195 km road relay race at the end of the year. The team is employed to train full-time all year, living and breathing running to be in their best physical condition for the Queens Ekiden. Each leg varies in distance, so there is an opportunity for various girls to be selected based on their specialty, whether it be 10.9 km, the longest leg, or 3.4 km, the shortest. Each team is allowed one foreign athlete, so I was recruited to join Shiseido as the sole non-African international of the competition. 

After being in Japan for two years living and training with a corporate ekiden team, it’s been amazing to look back and reflect upon an incredible journey there, which not only gave me an insight into real Japanese life but has also opened my eyes and helped me understand myself as an athlete, what works for me and what I need to do to be my best.

I’ve travelled quite a lot with my running and so have seen groups from all over the world and their training methods, but I have never seen anything like the Japanese system, where athletes treat training as a literal full-time job. Not just two sessions a day like most professional athletes who consider running a full-time job would, but quite literally spending their free time in between the three sessions a day doing sit-ups, drills, personal training or hyperbaric oxygen therapy. Not to mention massage three to five times per week! 

The girls seemed surprised when I asked what their weekly mileage was. It’s not something they had even considered before. They simply turned up to training and did as the coach said, no question about the purpose or intended outcome of the workout. After considering their last week of training I got figures around 200 km/week as a rough estimate of their mileage, which was significantly more than I had ever challenged myself with. Coming from different cultures can have a clash of approaches. There is no right or wrong, we are just from different backgrounds and so approach situations with a different expectancy. Once I let go of all my preconceived ideas around training it became easier to fit in. 

The remote training camps were the highlight of my experience. As uncomfortable as it was living in tiny Japanese hotel rooms for months and only really being permitted to leave the room for training, it was a fantastic buzz, particularly in the lead-up to the ekiden. Since many rival corporate teams would stay at the same hotels for these training camps, I would arrive outside the hotel lobby each morning to find clusters of athletes gathered in groups ready for 6 a.m. training to begin. Some teams would be doing synchronised warm ups and counting in chants as they all performed the same Japanese-style stretches. 

This was the most unique and awesome scene. With the combination of the dim lighting at sunrise, everyone’s similar haircut and my poor eyesight it would often be difficult to find my teammates amongst all the other athletes, so I enjoyed wandering past all the groups carefully eyeballing everyone and politely exchanging nods and “Ohayō gozaimasu,” good morning. 

Another one of the highlights of being on a corporate team was having a chef to cook for us. We ate our meals together as a team and I could always count on our chef to prepare something exquisite every day. A typical pre-training breakfast for me before I went to Japan would be banana and jam on toast and a tub of yoghurt, so being served fish, vegetables, rice and potatoes for breakfast was an adjustment. But in the end I found myself waking up craving miso soup rather than coffee! 

While delicious, I did have a few difficulties adjusting to the change in diet. One of my first nights in Japan I was taken to a fancy omakase restaurant where the chef chooses what they will serve you. I am a pretty adaptable person, never shy to try new things, but after eating a sea urchin and raw prawn dish my throat immediately began to swell and close in, restricting my breathing. We had to rush to the hospital to get immediate treatment and an injection of adrenaline. It turned out I was very allergic to shellfish. It was a pretty scary experience while in an environment that doesn’t speak English, so I vowed to be slightly less experimental from then on. 

I wasn’t aware of just how much I’d relied on red meat to keep me fuelled and iron levels adequate, so after months without red meat I found myself in a state of constant lethargy, unable to complete training sessions or even jog comfortably. After blood tests I discovered I had developed anaemia, which I put down to diet as well as running on hard concrete daily. I have had low iron in the past, but not anaemia. This was a feeling of chronic fatigue that lingered for months even after incorporating red meat back into my diet and taking iron supplements. The chef was fantastic though. When she found out about it she encouraged me to eat more, and even sourced Australian kangaroo and cooked it for me. 

One of the major challenges I faced was the differences in training approach. High mileage at a slower pace was now expected of me, and if I dared smile or talk during training I would get a growling at by one of the coaches. Having hobbies or socialising is also not encouraged as it means your focus isn’t 100% on your training. I have done a long run almost every Sunday since I began running, so having to give up routines such as this amongst other aspects of my training schedule was hard because I believed it was important in getting me running my best. 

Long runs were a part of the team training, but would only be once every few weeks and only 16 km at a carefully monitored pace. We would be required to run single-file, strictly no talking or smiling of course, with coaches following on bikes and in cars ensuring that every kilometre was recorded and precisely four minutes per kilometre. I was always surprised that the long run was so short, but when you’re doing it at 6 a.m. and expected to be back up for another run a few hours later I was more than grateful to not be expected to run too far! 

The biggest cultural shock to me was how the men would talk down to me being a woman. The coaching style is more of a dictatorship than a partnership, and they have a method that ‘works’ and are extremely stubborn in deviating from this. I really struggled with the high mileage and had an array of niggles as a consequence, but they put this down to me being ‘weak’ and didn’t seem to understand that there could be a variety of methods suiting different people to achieve peak physical condition, not necessarily just ‘the more you run the better.’ One of the coaches has spent a lot of time in Australia learning from Nic Bideau, a very accomplished coach who has produced a number of successful athletes, yet it would appear he decided not to follow Nic’s approach and continued the traditional Japanese methods upon returning to Japan. 

The hardest part for me was in April last year when Japan was having their second wave of coronavirus infections. We were down south in a secluded area for two months, where there weren’t any infections or restrictions. This was the time I learnt that Japan had closed its borders to everyone except Japanese citizens, even foreign residents like me, which meant that as I was required to compete in the Queens Ekiden at the end of November I would have to stay in Japan for the whole year rather than go home for a few months like I had planned. 

This realization, combined with worry about my mum, who had been going through chemotherapy, my sister being heavily pregnant, and then losing my grandma, had me feeling trapped. In addition the Olympics had just been postponed, which meant that I was forced to do the Japanese team training rather than having my external coach write my programs as there were no individual goals now, just the ekiden.

It didn’t take long for my first niggle to turn into an injury with the huge volume of training. I was complaining about a pain at the insertion of my hamstring to which the coach told me that it was painful because I am too fat, which is putting too much pressure on my body. The only way to fix it was to lose weight. From then on I was watched at meal times and had to weigh my rice, only being allowed 150 grams. 

Needless to say, this didn’t solve the problems, but likely opened the door to other issues. When I was finally allowed to get an MRI a hamstring tendinopathy was found as well as a stress reaction in my femur, yet the coach expected me to still do the planned track session that afternoon because in his opinion the tendon wasn’t that bad and the bone hadn’t even cracked all the way through yet. He couldn’t understand why I was hesitant to do the session. I negotiated three days off before having to get back to the program, but it wasn’t long until the hamstring got quite painful and I needed a proper break.

I think my brain is still recovering from how much I learnt over those two years in Japan, not to even mention a whole new language! While I have written largely about the challenges I faced, it was also the most amazing and worthwhile experience of my life. Being immersed in Japanese culture helped me become a more patient and compassionate version of myself. I’ve learnt to listen carefully to others, letting them say all that they have to without habitually butting in and offering my opinion. Be self-critiquing. Don’t take shortcuts. Thank the chef for the meal. Live simply and be kind. 

Nothing new or complicated, but sometimes we need an experience like stepping into another culture to remind ourselves what’s important. I've been back in Australia for a couple of months now and am enjoying my life with more enthusiasm about my running than ever before. My experience in Japan has not only made me more grateful for all that I have, but also a better person and tougher runner.

text © 2021 Melissa Duncan, all rights reserved
all photos c/o Melissa Duncan

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Stefan said…
I really enjoyed reading this article. It certainly shed some light on what the coaching philosophy and expectations are for their athletes. And it somewhat goes a way into explaining why so many young athletes with great potential and results leave the sport due to injury or burn out. You cannot dispute the talent and the results speak for themselves but for a foreign athlete it must be so challenging to thrive and assimilate in such a culture especially one where the male coaches talk down to you and where you outside hobbies are frowned upon and even enjoyment during running (talking, joking, smiling) is a no no. That insight was one I was not aware of. I will follow Melissa's career closely to see how her running progresses post her Japan experience. Thank you for such a great article.
Anonymous said…
Thanks for letting Melissa tell her story, very interesting read. I sometimes was a bit frustrated about the lack of content on her stay in japan and also kind of assumed that she wasn't always happy by following her social media channels, so it is good to get some back-story now. Can you estimate how common those „old-fashioned“ things still are in high school/university/corporate ekiden teams? Of course they might correspond to the cliché of japanese running culture in the west (high mileage+multiple runs per day+clear hierarchy+121th country in terms of gender enquality etc), but still by following from the outside I kind of have the impression that more and more coaches nowadays attempt a more „modern“ approach by at least mixing old and new things. But then again I don't even speak the language, so surely others can judge this much better than me.
Geoff Burns said…
This is a phenomenal and educational piece. Thanks, Melissa, for writing it, and JRN for hosting it. Your candid and pragmatic reflections are really refreshing. I really respect how you communicated what were some apparently backwards and even harmful guidance and structures - presenting it all without a judgmental tone or bias and even finding the positives in it. It felt like a very honest and detailed description of what life is like on the inside of one of their teams, which described from a non-Japanese athlete’s perspective, is rare insight. The resiliency that came through and the habit of embracing tough situations are both qualities that are worth their weight in gold in endurance sports. Everyone who reads this will be looking forward to following you through the next chapter of your running career. Brava, and thanks again!
Andrew Armiger said…
Fantastic report, most interesting! Thank you for sharing this.
Anonymous said…
Thank you, Melissa Duncan, for an excellent and very informative report about your experience. You must be very tough physically and mentally and emotionally. The Japanese coaching culture and approach to athletes which you describe is very different than what many of us non-Japanese are used to. It sounds sexist and borderline abusive at times. But Japan has incredible depth of high quality women and men distance runners, far exceeding the US, for example -even though the US has 3.4 times the population of Japan, in the 20-34 age group (62.6 million (2019) versus 18.2 million (2020)). What does this all mean?
AJ said…
It seems like their training is heavily culturally influenced instead of science based. Maybe it isn't representative of all teams and coaches but your coaches expecting you to run on a stress reaction.
Bruce Watt said…
Great article. Unbelievable that the Japanese coaches are so out of touch. I’ve just read Emma Carney’s biography. Another story of how poor and dictatorial coaching can ruin athletes.
Brett Larner said…
Bruce--You should be careful about taking the environment under one coach and extrapolating that to all coaches of a particular nationality. I'm sure the team in question is not the only one like this, but it's equally safe to say that not all of them are like this.
yp said…
I would encourage all to read the piece about Melissa’s journey in Tempo Journal.
Tktf agu said…
I really thank her to post this. I used to be a runner in the most strict university in Japan. I retired because of my mental issues because of the stress from the team. I am not saying that the environment in Japan is bad but a lot of good runners quit because of the high stress and they can’t handle it.One my friend had to go to the hospital because of his mental problems and I think it’s bad that he had to take a year off of school. I really hope that the strict environment of Japanese coaching Philosophy would change.

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