Training for a Marathon in Japan

October 25, 2017

The most difficult part of my morning runs isn’t getting the motivation to go; it’s avoiding fresh spider webs and giant Asian hornets that may just decide today is a good day for me to die. Because I’m not trapped in the concrete jungle of Tokyo, I am rather spoiled with uncrowded trails running uninterrupted. However, some days whenever I see one of those 大スズメバチ within striking distance or a long-legged arachnid which leaves me no doubt where the inspiration for some of the monsters in Nintendo games came from, I think I might prefer jogging along the Arakawa River with thousands of others.

For some reason, with few exceptions, I’ve always been better about getting into shape in Asia, Japan in particular. Running is incredibly popular in Japan, but I think my willingness to step up my game (even when I’m not training, I’m always getting in a few miles daily) is a combination of factors: good weather, accessibility to good trails, and a healthy diet. Ironically, my runs tend to improve when I travel, because I keep my schedule pretty consistent.

In South Korea, I woke up at 6:00, taught two English classes to company workers from 6:30 – 8:30, ate breakfast, went to the gym, ate lunch, taught from 2:00 – 8:00 PM, ran immediately after work, ate dinner, watched The Daily Show, and passed out. It was a crazy, rigorous schedule, but I got my speed back by being forced into doing loops around the track, the only safe place to run at night – due to drivers, not crime – in my part of Korea.

In Japan, because I have the same work schedule as everyone else, I wake up at 5:30, inhale some oatmeal and a smoothie, run from 6:30-7:30, shower and make lunch, cycle 3 km to work, and get home around 5:00 PM if I’m lucky, with enough time to eat and hit the gym… but not every day. The last time I had this kind of consistency in Japan, I traveled to Nagasaki to run a half marathon. I got accepted to the Tokyo Marathon that year as well, but couldn’t participate after I broke my wrist.

What is it about Japan that makes training for a marathon easier? For me, there’s a little bit of spite involved in every race, i.e. “I’m faster than everyone else, and will prove it once the gun goes off.” I won’t deny that representing myself as the crazy, fast foreigner in my part of Tokyo holds some appeal, but it’s not about that… not really.

Everyone who has visited Japan or been here long enough has at least one story about being outright gawked at for doing the most innocuous things: walking down the street, buying dinner. However, runners are already an anomaly in any country, an unforeseen disruption to the flow of cars, bikes, and pedestrians people come to expect during their morning commute. As a result, though there’s no universal reaction to runners, those who might gawk in Japan don’t generally do so for runners in my experience.

I’m running through country roads and trails with houses filled with older people who certainly don’t deal with foreigners on a regular basis, but instead of cries of “gaijin!” or “look at that thing!”, I usually get a friendly “good morning”. I’m exaggerating, of course, but even younger children that I pass on their way to school tend to be more accepting of my presence… maybe because they have so little time to react to runners and just rely on instinctive behavior.

There are exceptions. I’ve had a woman stand in my path and try to engage me in conversation when I clearly had no intention of stopping. I still called back to her saying I was sorry, but had no time.

Personally, I feel as though running and other physical activities level the playing field for foreign residents of Japan. It doesn’t take advanced language skills to know when to cross the starting line, and you’re certainly not going to be engaging anyone on the course in deep conversation as you run your heart out. It’s my preferred way of connecting with a community when I’m abroad, when I lack the ability to use my words.

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