The Way of the Runner, and the Long Game.

 I have completed the Adharanand Finn Trilogy.

First I read his latest (and greatest?), The Rise of the Ultrarunners, then his first book, Running with the Kenyans, and now his middle child: the deep immersion and investigation into the fascinating world of Japanese running culture, The Way of the Runner

I am a big fan of the way Finn writes. He has a simple, elegant style. He is always gracefully poking for the deeper meaning behind the truths of running that he uncovers by committing wholeheartedly to his subject, whether it be running ultras, living and training in Kenya, or doing the same in Japan. 

But why Japan? 

There are, as it turns out, lots of reasons.

The Japanese have a huge and competitive base of distance runners, with a field of competitive athletes way wider than what we have here in the UK. Conversely, they do not have as sharp an edge at the top end as we, and many other competitive nations, do. For all their apparent natural ability, for their obvious love and reverence of running, they have not spread themselves into events beyond the marathon. Why? At least partially the answer is simple:

Ekiden.

Ekiden is, to simplify, a long distance relay. The first ever ekiden was a 3-day, 23 stage run traversing the roads between Koyoto and Tokyo (over 500km). Since then it has become the backbone of Japanese running. It is so popular that good-to-average runners can be paid to train for corporate teams.  

They are so focused on ekiden that those with the natural talent for the 800m or 1500m will be shepharded towards longer distances where their inherent gifts will be sacrificed for the good of ekiden, perhaps benefiting a teams performance in loss of singular athletic potential.

Finn also finds that the vast cultural differences between Japan and say, Kenya, results in differing training strategies. The Kenyans are all about relaxation. Their top athletes train, and they rest. When they train they do so mostly at comfortable paces, and almost always on soft, dirt roads. The Japanese traditionally favour a regime of constant hard work, on concrete. Runners in Japan, Finn finds, do not often have long athletic careers. 

In the time that Finn spends in Japan however, he witnesses a slow changing in attitudes at play, and it is here where the lessons that we can take from ekiden, and Finns journey as a whole, can be found. Running is a tough sport. We can throw ourselves into it, batter our bodies, and perhaps squeeze some results out of the pain. We can grind, we can suffer, and maybe if we can tape ourselves together to get on the start line, we can make something happen. This is remniscent of the traditional Japanese attitude to training. To quote a quote which Finn pulls from You Gotta Have Wa by Robert Whiting (about another Japanese love, baseball): 

‘The Japanese believe that only through endless training can one achieve the unity of mind and body necessary to excel … The traditional view in this rich but cramped and resource-poor land is that nothing comes easily, and that only through doryoku (effort) and the ability to persevere in the face of adversity can one achieve success.’ 

It’s hard to argue with hard work, but is it possible that we misinterpret what hard work really is? Is hard work pain? Suffering? Or is hard work actually patience? Caution? Mindfulness? Is it giving our time to planning, recovery, and nutrition? The coach who Finn most closely works with during his trip is in favour of the latter, after training in his youth more closely to the former. He was an extremely successful athlete, but not a gold medal winner. He believes he could have been if only he had trained with the long game in mind. This is not to say this means training easier, it just means to find a different interpretation of what hard is. 

For example, although it might hurt my legs and burn my lungs, in terms of what it asks of me as a whole it is relatively easy for me to go out of my door and slam my foot to the gas, hurtling down the road, going as far as I can in as little time as I can. By contrast it is relatively hard for me to make the effort to take the time to warm up, to go gently down to the trails, to get a little messy in the pursuit of soft surfaces on which I can work hard without trashing my legs, the precious commodity which allows me to pursue this sport. That takes time, it takes effort. Rolling afterwards, making protein shakes, focusing on nutrition, it all takes effort.

Maybe taking the long term approach means that I won’t get a 30-second PB in my next race, because of the lack of speed work, but it might mean I get a 5-second PB and get on the start line again in a month, and shave off another few seconds. Maybe after a year I’ve taken a whole minute off. If I train harshly maybe I get that 30-second PB first time, but maybe I don’t race again for another 3 months. Not only would that be less fun, because I love racing, but at some point that long game progress is going to overtake the short. 

Let’s go back to the book for a moment. Finn is an investigator, but he is also a runner. He wants his time in Japan to help his training. He wants to participate in ekiden, and really understand the spirit of it before he leaves. He manages to wrangle his way into a few low key events, but he doesn’t feel like he gets to experience the burden of responsibility that competing in a big event, where the whole team believes in a top performance, gives. So before he leaves he puts together his own, competitive, team, and heads out to chase one final ekiden buzz. 

Before he gets to the start line, it is snowed off. The culmination of the trip, what would surely be the crowning moment of his planned book, cancelled.

This is what Finn writes of the moment:

When the race is taken away at the last moment, however, we’re left hanging in this empty, charged space where the questions begin to arise. Why do I run? And in the quiet pause, we know the answer. In every training run, we fill ourselves with the experience of life, the air rushing through our lungs, our hearts pounding. Maybe the thought of the race gets us out the door, but it is only ever the carrot dangled before us. Sometimes we don’t get to eat the carrot, we already know that. And even when we do, it is only ever a fleeting moment of satisfaction. Even if we break our best times, or win the race, a few days later we’re lacing up again. Like the Daigyoman Ajari [in reference to a surprisingly down to earth monk who ran 1000 marathons in 1000 days, and seemed to be more interested in rumours about Princess Diana than going over his experience] who said enlightenment wasn’t an end, but just another step on a lifelong journey, the race is not the end we hold it up to be. Whatever happens, the next day, we need to start all over again.’

Again, I can’t help but come to the conclusion that running is a long game. Whatever happens, we can’t control everything, from race cancellations to global pandemics. So why rush? Why take undue risks? Are you enjoying the process? If not, why are you doing this to yourself?

Short term gains can sometimes equal long term loss, and we cannot fall into the trap of trying to replicate the amazing athletes whose training is so easily accessible via YouTube, Strava, and Instagram. We don’t have ekiden teams, or corporate contracts, and although that sounds wonderful – being paid to train – I’m glad, because if we did it would put an undue strain on our running. Yeah sure I want to improve, I want to get faster, but ultimately isn’t this my hobby? Don’t I want to enjoy it? Isn’t the most important thing that I’m ready to get up and do it all over again tomorrow? And the next day? We should embrace our non-elite status, and revel in the fact that any pressure we inflict on ourselves is self perpetuated. 

Whatever happens, the next day, we need to start all over again, so let’s make the effort to make the decisions which facilitate that. 

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