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?
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.
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.
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?