Ultrarunning in Japan

[Alex Bollfrass in conversation with Masayuki Kameda]

Many American ultrarunners in search of races in new lands have hitherto traveled to Europe’s Alps or Africa’s Comrades Marathon or the Marathon des Sables. With the exception of the Himalayan Stage Race, however, few have taken their trail gear to Asia. For those looking for a new destination, Japan may well be worth a visit.

Alex Bollfrass (AB): Japanese runners, women in particular, have an exceptional track record in the marathon. In addition, when Michael Wardian won bronze at the 2010 100k World Championships in Gibraltar, the gold went to Japanese runner Shinji Nakadai, as did the team championship. Can you explain the place of running in Japanese culture?

Nakadai Buud Wardian 2010 IAU 100k World Championships

Nakadai, Buud and Wardian after 2010 IAU 100k World Championships.

Masayuki Kameda (MK): The marathon became a national sport after a self-defense force officer named Tsuburaya won a bronze medal in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, which was a huge event at that time that symbolized Japan’s complete recovery from the war. The expectation of Tsuburaya to win another medal in the next Olympics was so great that he was overwhelmed with pressure and committed suicide. He left behind a note that he was too tired to run anymore.

AB: That’s terrible, but the relationship to running seems much more positive today. In the United States, we know that the Tokyo Marathon is enormous, but what about distances beyond? It seems that at the ultradistance, trail races as we know them here are less common in Japan than timed races.

MK: Actually, trail ultras are rapidly gaining popularity in Japan. There are already numerous trail races held throughout the year, such as the 100k Nobeyama Utramarathon held every May in Yatsuga Mountains, considered one of the toughest races in Japan with a cumulative climb of over 1000 meters.  And of course, now there is the Ultra Trail Mount Fuji.

Mount Fuji

Mount Fuji. Photo courtest of www.77en.com.

AB: There’s been a lot of buzz and few details about the new Ultra Trail Mount Fuji. What can you tell us?

MK: It will be the first 100-mile trail race in Japan. It starts on May 20th and has a generous 48-hour cutoff. The organizers want to advertise the beauty of Mount Fuji that has captured the hearts and minds of the Japanese for centuries. The starting line is in Ohike Park, which faces the picturesque Kawaguchi Lake. The course runs through the Mount Fuji trails with a cumulative altitude gain of half a mile. The field is limited to 800.

Mount Fuji sunset

Mount Fuji. Photo courtesy of www.netchaya.com.

AB: I always wondered why Japan dominated in timed races. While we were all excited about Scott Jurek’s new American record at last year’s 24-hour IAU championship, he was still beat by a Japanese runner. [corrected]

MK: Running for 24 hours is actually a common athletic challenge. In fact, there are televised races in which celebrities see how far they can get in a day.

AB: You’re kidding.

MK: Not at all. There is a popular fundraising telethon called the 24 Hour TV aired each year in which we watch a celebrity running for over 24 hours to see whether he or she can finish on time. The distance varies from 70-km to 200-km, depending on who is running.

AB: Who runs in these races?

MK: Mostly celebrities like comedians and pop idols. It’s kind of like Robin Williams or Backstreet Boys running. A former world boxing champion as well as a famous lawyer has also participated in the event in the past. Perhaps thanks to the popularity gained through his hard running, that lawyer is now a member of the House of Councillors.

AB: That’s amazing. How many people watch this on television?

MK: TV ratings are always high, averaging around 15 to 20% of TV viewers. Also, everyone watches the long distance relay race called Hakone Ekiden, in which colleges compete against each other, during the New Years vacation.

AB: That certainly challenges the assumption that ultrarunning is too boring for TV!

Call for Comments
Any Japanese readers care to add about the important or meaning of ultras in Japan? What are the races like? Have any non-Japanese readers run over there. If so, what did you think? Anyone gearing up for TNF Ultra Trail Mount Fuji?

There are 14 comments

  1. Karl Jarvis

    It seems like Americans think of Japan as being a crowded, developed place, but the Japanese really value their wild areas. I've spent time in the backcountry there and absolutely loved it. There are tiny, pristine mountain towns way away from the big cities, and you can get onto sweet singletrack up there. The forests are dense and green, and there are plenty of serious mountains scattered all over. It seems like everyone there, athletic or not, has climbing Mt Fuji on their bucket list. If I had a chance to go back to race there I would definitely do it.

  2. Koichi Iwasa

    Thanks for article on Japan! Yes, more and more runners in Japan are getting interested in trail running and ultramarathon. I'm not kidding the lawyer Maruyama-san in this article is now trying trail races. I live in downtown Tokyo, but 1.5-2 hour trip by train takes me to nice mountains and ridges like Okutama and Tanzawa. UTMF is definitely the most exciting ultra trail event this year in Japan. Hope to see, and welcome to fellow trail runners from the world!

  3. Tony Mollica

    Nice article on Ultrarunning in Japan! I knew that Jurek didn't win when he set his American record; however I did not realize that two Japanese runners finished ahead of Scott. They must be quite exceptional runners! What are their names, and have either of them raced in the US?

  4. MikeC

    I know Duncan Callahan is heading over to UTMF(maybe the race will reach acronym status?!) Excited to read his race report…

  5. Eddy

    1st: Shingo Inoue of Japan with a total of 273.5KM covered in 24 hoursS. Scott Jurek finished second with 266KM, just 7KM short of the Japanese runner. Ivan Cudin of Italy was third with 263.5KM.

  6. Jonnifer

    I am interested and have in fact asked for the English egistration form. I have always wanted to go to Japan and run. This might be a good prep for UTMB :)

    Cheers,

    Jon

  7. roger hanney

    Great snippet of background to Japanese running – thankyou.

    Just to correct this reply – Scott Jurek took 2nd, there was only one runner in front of him, Shingo Inoue (Jap) with 273.5km, Jurek (USA)266km in 2nd, Ivan Cudin (Ita) 263.5km in 3rd. Of interest, every runner on the podium took their national record. But there weren't 2 runners ahead of Jurek.

  8. new runner

    Please check your hyperlink for the English signup form. It links to porn which is definitely unsafe for work. I came here for ultrarunning info, not porn. Thank you.

    1. Meghan Hicks

      Thanks for letting us know and we’ve updated and removed the links as applicable. This is an old article and the race has moved web addresses in the six years since. Obviously there’s a new owner of the previous website address. :) Thanks again for the heads up!

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