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Training Japanese Style
by: Weldon Johnson

Click here for some photos of the trip

Well, I recently went to Japan to run in the Izumo City Ekiden. (An Ekiden is a road relay race and they are extremely popular in Japan. Our race, which serves as one of four national championships for Japanese collegians, was televised live nationwide for 2 hours). The team I was on consisted of Ivy League graduates who are invited to a collegiate ekiden every year in Japan. Our coach was Jack Fultz, Boston Marathon Champion in 1976.

The race is incredible, and the trip was a wonderful ten days. This was my third time to go on the trip, but this one was even more special than the others because we got to interact with one of the Japanese teams after the race for 4 days. We went to the Mt. Fuji area where the Yamanashi Gaukin team, arguable the best collegiate team in the world, was holding a week-long training camp. We were fortunate enough to interact with, train with, and see some of the secrets behind the Yamanashi team.

In case you do not know, long distance running is revered in Japan. And Yamanashi is one of the distance powerhouses on the collegiate level in Japan. They finished second in this year's Izumo City Ekiden, and have been arguably Japan's top team the past decade. (In the past, the school was not a running power, but that all changed once the current coach, Masahito Ueda, took over the program in the 1980s. Prior to his arrival, the school's running reputation was so poor that Mr. Ueda had never even heard of the school.)

The highlight of our running exchange was doing a 30k run (19 mile run) with the runners from Yamanashi. In the days before the run, we visited the University and saw the tremendous commitment and single-minded focus the runners have to being great. On our tour of the school, we met with the athletic director of Yamanashi, who explained that Yamanashi focuses on excelling in 7 core sports (men's wrestling, men's distance running, judo, women's field hockey, and a few others), but surprisingly not soccer or baseball which are Japan's 2 most popular sports. (Can you imagine a U.S. college not having a basketball or football team?)

Yamanashi’s commitment to success is exhibited in the school's results. Besides the distance runners, the wrestling team often is the Japanese national champion, and the team’s coach was the Olympic coach in 1992 and 1996.

We began to sense perhaps we were going to be in trouble on the 30k run when he learned more about the track team at Yamanashi. The better term perhaps is distance running team. The team has 80 members on it, and all 80, yes 80, are distance runners (800 meters and up). The majority of the team members go to a preseason training camp at a resort in the mountains, and then they sometimes take a week off from school during the season to go to a training camp in the lakes area around Mt. Fuji. This is the training camp we interacted with them at.

We learned that 55 runners were at this week-long training camp (only 6 had run in the Ekiden race). As the 30k run approached, there was some trepidation on our part that we perhaps would embarrass ourselves, as we knew how serious and good the Japanese teams are. This was my third trip to Japan, and every year I am amazed at just how good and deep the teams are (I never knew that some of the teams had 80 members). People talk about Stanford and Arkansas as the top collegiate teams, but in the longer Ekiden style relays, I am confident they wouldn’t stand a chance again these Japanese teams.

On our bus ride from Tokyo to the training camp area after the race, we talked to coach Ueda about the training of his runners. We knew that Japanese ran a lot of miles, and he confirmed that some of his runners ran up to 300k (185 miles) a week. However, after hearing the specifics of their training, we seriously wondered if they actually do more.

The race took place on a Monday. On Tuesday, we traveled, but the Japanese runners were going to do an hour and half of easy running in the late afternoon (say 13 miles). “Recovery” was important to coach Ueda, so Wednesday was also some easy running. An hour at 6am (say 8 miles if they went real slow). An optional hour of running or walking at noon (another 8 miles). And then another hour and half (at least 13 miles) in the evening. This was 29 miles if they ran all three times. This was the recovery day before the 30k effort that was to be at a faster pace.

Just how fast the 30k run (we thought that perhaps us Ivy Leaguers might be able to sneak by doing 2 loops of the lake (20k)) was going to be was a concern because most of the guys in our group rarely ran this far and I was the only marathoner in the group. Coach Ueda assured us it wouldn’t be too fast, and that there would be different groups. However, we were worried as we thought we heard him mention something about people running 3:30 a kilometer (5:30 mile pace), but perhaps it was 3:40 a kilometer.

Regardless, we soon found ourselves getting off the bus at 10:30 in the morning for the big 30k run. We got off of the bus looking like an American team out for a training run. Everyone had on different shorts, different shirts, and we just sat around waiting for the run to start. What we saw surprised us.

The Yamanashi runners were in full sweats warming up around the lake (10k). Some runners were observed doing strides to get loose. Sensing that this for sure was not your typical American long run where everyone runs really slow the first few miles until they get warmed up, we decided that perhaps we too should do some warming up.

After a brief warm-up, it was time to get going. We looked like a rag-tag group compared to the Yamanashi runners. Every single one of them was in racing shorts and a racing singlet with racing shoes on (I never saw a Japanese runner run with training shoes on, they always had racing flats on even though they always ran on pavement). To look a little more uniform and like a team, we decided to take off our shirts. Coach Ueda got his runners in 4 single file lines, and then 2 of the Ivy Leaguers filled in randomly in each line. Coach Ueda addressed his runners, they bowed to him and then we were ready to go.

Each group was to start a minute apart and besides that we did not have a clue as to what was going on. I was in the first group. We started off, and it was immediately apparent that Japanese training was very different from American running. First, we were running single file in a line of about 10-13 runners, but no one was talking. The language barrier would have prevented communication with the Japanese runners, but they were completely silent. I did not hear a single word from any of them until 20k (more than 12 miles). When we were passing someone along the road who was walking, instead of saying that someone was coming up on the left, they just would put out their arm on the left and continue in silence.

Well, the silence would have killed me, but luckily I had Dan Lesser of Brown to talk to. We mainly just discussed how amazing this whole run was. The pace was not too bad as we were going at about 6:20 a mile. The Japanese runner in the lead, ran like he was a metronome. Our 5k splits never varied by more than 10 seconds. We were greeted every 5k by the team manager who had about 5 watches around his neck to record our splits. Even more amazing was that coach Ueda would drive around the lake to get out of his car and observe us at least every 2.5k. Usually, he didn't say much except for hello to the Americans, but occasionally he would correct a runner's form. We were surprised to see him so often and wondered what he was trying to observe since we were running at a pace that was comfortable. In college, our coaches only observed us during interval sessions.

The entire run was meticulously organized, as we were handed water bottles at least once around every 10k loop. As we approached the end of the second 10k loop, I was feeling good and knew I would do a third loop. Coach Ueda had told us to do 20k, but most of us felt pretty good and did not want our egos bruised too much. As the third loop began, soon I heard some footsteps behind me. (Early on in the run, I had heard footsteps behind me and it was the Fujitsu corporate ekiden team. The Japanese companies have a full-time squad of runners who compete in the corporate ekidens which also are very popular. The Fujitsu team wasn't running single file, but in pairs. And they were really moving (probably sub 5 minute mile pace). All 10 to 12 guys flew by us like we were standing still.)

The footsteps I heard this time were those of the group that had started a minute behind. Soon after that the group behind them, and then the 4th and final group caught up. The groups got intermingled as the runners from the groups behind began to increase the pace and whoever felt good continued to go with them. I think the general plan for the run was to start in 4 groups, having the slowest group go first (which I unkowingly and perhaps a bit luckily put myself in) and to have each group run a fairly consistent pace for the first 20-25k, so that they came together at some point on the final 10k loop, and then to run the last 5k at a quicker pace.

Each minute difference in starting time meant that in order to catch up to the group in front of you, one had to run 4 seconds a mile faster for each minute it started behind - thus the fastest group ran 12 seconds per mile faster than the slowest group.

The single file running groups disappeared the final 5k as the pace quickened, but fortunately the Asahi beer and sake that coach Ueda had entertained us with the night before (and not his own runners -was it a conspiracy??) was not having too much of an effect. But just barely, as the pace continued to quicken each kilometer during the last 5k. With about 2 miles to go, I remarked to Donal O'Sullivan (an Irish guy on the trip who had gone to Brown) how I felt pretty good. But by the time we got to the finish, we were in agreement that if we had to go another kilometer or so we would have started to get in some sort of trouble.

But fortunately we only had to go 30k. The whole experience had been very educational and fun. We saw the total seriousness and dedication of the Japanese approach to distance running. We all had no trouble believing that a runner on Yamanashi had run a 2:10 marathon while in college last year (a Japanese collegiate record), and we felt we had learned some things we could use in our training to make us better runners (#1 for me is to try and run as efficiently as the Japanese). But we also had some more important sightseeing to do that day as we were going to go to Mt. Fuji and some hot springs. We could leave the running for the Japanese to worry about. Believe it or not, they had to run another hour that afternoon. And and I forget to mention that some of them did an hour that morning at the crack of down.

Click here for some photos of the trip

Do you know anything about the Japanese corporate Ekiden teams? Click here

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