The incomprehensible ferocity of Japanese marathon running
At some point you stop squinting in a search for imaginary secrets and take a hard, open-eyed look at the sheer amount of work in front of you
Brett Larner is an excellent running journalist whose efforts I have neglected to mention here. This is partly he never causes problems, but mainly because he’s based in Japan and focuses all of his efforts on covering Japanese elite running, in an online publication cryptically named Japan Running News.
He’s picked the right country to focus on. It’s not just how fast Japan’s best marathoners are, or even their storied work ethic. It’s how the country’s already seemingly flat-out elite aerobic workforce responded to a tightening of the Japanese Olympic Marathon trials standards, already the toughest on the planet. (Most countries don’t stage a trials race to determine its Olympic marathon runners, but instead rely on selection committees to pick the three best marathoners of each sex within the qualifying period of an Olympics cycle.)
On Thursday, Larner published an article listing the qualifiers for Japan’s 2024 Olympic Marathon trials, the MGC Race, which takes place on October 15 and has a qualifying deadline of May 31. He also describes the country’s intriguing sliding-scale process for qualifying for the race. To simplify, a runner can gain entry with one extremely fast result, a really fast result with a high placing among Japanese runners, or a two-race average of 2:10:00 or better for men or 2:28:00 or better for women.
Japan is staging its trials race usually early—the U.S., for example, won’t hold its corresponding races until February 3, 2024—because that race will only guarantee Olympic berths to the first two finishers, with the third vulnerable to challenge from others for a months thereafter. Thus Japan has not only managed to have the most stringent Olympic trials-race qualifying standards of any nation on Earth, but it has also managed to generate real drama in the process.
What jumps out at me most is this: 117 men (62 MGC Race qualifiers and 55 others) have run under 2:12:00 since Nov. 1, 2021, the start of the qualifying period for the trials race. Not counting times run on aided courses, eleven men from the United States have achieved the same feat in that span. And 39 Japanese women (29 qualifiers and 10 others) have broken 2:30:00 in the past sixteen and a half months. In the same period, eighteen American women have done so.
The U.S. has 2.6 times Japan's population. Imagine those Japanese numbers growing from 117 and 39 to 304 and 101. And remember, that's the number of runners reaching sub-2:12:00 and sub-2:30:00 times; who knows how many have run under 2:18:00 and 2:37:00, the U.S. standards for Olympic Trials entry.
USA Track and Field allows runners to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials on courses considered aided. Conveniently, the USATF-allowed elevation loss is extended to the Boston Marathon’s 450-foot start-to-finish drop, which translates to 3.25 meters per kilometer of course length. At one time, the maximum allowable drop was, I believe, 1 m/km, or 138 feet for a marathon. But since most courses with a significant elevation drop have a significant start-finish separation distance, point-to-point courses and most incomplete loops are currently considered aided by World Athletics anyway.
Boston Marathon and California International Marathon performances being excluded from the World Athletics lists of top Americans doesn't keep many truly fast names off those lists; a total of seventeen American men and thirty American women have run under 2:12:00 and 2:30:00 even including aided courses. Most sub-2:12:00 men and sub-2:30:00 women run more than one marathon a year now, sometimes more than two. And while CIM is big perennial draw for sub-elites, few national-class runners toe the line every December in Folsom.
What accounts for the difference in top-tier marathoning between the U.S. and Japan? For one thing, the Japanese don’t do anything half-assed. They just don’t. If they are already great, they seek to achieve near-perfection; if their level of both efficacy and efficiency at something is already nearly perfect, they seek to draw down to zero an already almost imperceptible gap between unholy proficiency and God-like proficiency.
They even put this in writing—in English, it’s called “kaizen”:
Although this is oriented toward the business world, Japan has professional runners, and it’s not hard to see how kaizen not only permeates its marathon runners but drives and guides them absolutely.
See this 2018 piece by another of running’s few one-of-a-kind journalists, Alex Hutchinson:
Hashizume points out that Takahashi’s former coach, Yoshio Koide, had his runners logging 200 miles a week so that they could close the final 5K of the marathon as fast as possible. Hashizume also recalls that one corporate team coach, the former teammate of legendary marathoner Toshihiko Seko under late coach Kiyoshi Nakamura, had his runners log 60 minutes in the morning, 90 minutes in mid-day and 60 minutes in the evening every day for 4 weeks during the build-up phase.
This echoes a 2016 piece by the same analyst:
While there’s no single Japanese way to train, a common theme is high mileage, sometimes more than 200 miles per week for elites. Two-time Olympic medalist Yuko Arimori recalls doing two 20K time trials, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, with a 31-mile run the next day during one of her Olympic buildups.
Along with the big miles is a willingness to take recovery runs as easy as needed, sometimes as slow as a walk. The goal is to cover long distances on tired legs. While few of us can handle 200-mile weeks or 1,000-kilometer months (another common benchmark), slowing will allow you to go longer without breaking down.
There’s also this March 2021 post on Medium by Lydiard Training Academy:
When Coach Susumu Takahashi decided to switch the prep work of Masayuki Nagata for Lake Biwa Marathon in 1962, Nagata was running about 400km (about 250 miles) a month.
At one joint training camp in 1979, Nakamura saw Soh Brothers doing 50-60km run. “Seko is not doing that!” Now Seko was doing 60-80km run! Then in a NZ camp in the spring of 1984 as a preparation for LA Olympics, Soh Brothers did the epic “Around Mt. Egmond” run of 125km!! (Remember, the 2018 Boston champion, Yuki Kawauchi did a 100km trail run?) By then, 1,000km (=620 miles)/month had become a norm by Japanese marathon runners.
The second Japanese to run sub-2:07 (2:06:51) by beating the Sydney Olympic marathon champion, Gezahegne Abera of Ethiopia at 2000 Fukuoka Marathon, Atsushi Fujita, flirted with 1,200km/month and last weekend’s Nagoya Women’s Marathon champion, Mizuki Matsuda, reportedly ran 1,400km in the month of January!!
And there’s this November 2021 profile of Molley Seidel by Brian Metzler, another old industry warhorse:
When Seidel started training with Green in late 2019, he first put her on a new training regimen that pushed her weekly mileage from about 80 to 100 miles per week into the 110-115 range during the early winter of 2019-2020. The increase in volume was offset with less intensity. If in doubt, they erred on the conservative side when it came to harder workouts — mostly threshold work by way of long tempo runs, slower fartlek workouts, and long repeats at half marathon race pace. As her fitness blossomed, so, too, did her confidence.
(Okay, I only found that one because it has a photo of Seidel competing in Sapporo. Still, the principle is evident.)
I know U.S. elites don’t draw their inspiration from running magazines and blogs, but it’s safe so conclude that if the U.S. were infused with a little more kaizen at the expense of stuff like this, they would slow down and run farther, and there would be more really fast American marathoners.
When I was at my fastest, the Olympic Marathon Trials standard was within my reach. That was something to organize my running around, but the fact is that if the qualifying standard at the time had been 2:12:00 instead of 2:22:00, I would have just found a different reason to become the best runner I could be and homed in on that instead. Maybe I would have thought, “I might wind up as the top New England finisher at the Boston Marathon one day.” Probably not, but that’s as far as I got, and I was happy anyone even noticed ad hoc achievements like those.
If wait for external motivation to try to become the best runner you can be, you will never find it. But anyone, even someone who can’t see or run without mechanical assistance, can find all the reason they need to nurture a personal ethos of kaizen if they only take a fearless stroll through the glowing orbs perched atop their necks. Even the silly dog that merely ensures that you get out the door today might keep you in good enough shape tomorrow to keep you dreaming of starting lines as long as some kind of ember keeps that wobbly orb lit.
Great article. Even for me, I'm seeing gains coming off of an injury, just building up slowly to 40 mpw right now--and holding it. Nothing but EZ volume and getting stronger. The workouts come later...A lot of runners make the huge mistake of jumping up volume too soon, or doing too much speed, etc.
Running by feel is the way to go too, at least with base mileage. Maffetone HR has the *right* idea but he's obsessive about numbers and going too slow blows up your form. I'd rather run higher in the 9:xx bracket and get that HR down to 120-130 over time, so you can cruise at that speed, and yet not compromise form and also not be gray-zoning it in the 8:00-8:59 range. But if you stick to just HR only it will take most runners ages to get from 10:xx to 12:xx down to a reasonable level where your HR is where it is supposed to be. I'd rather be running 9:xxs in the 145-150 bracket for some time and then as I get fitter the HR drops. That way I can still volume-load and crush workouts, yet my EZ days don't take hours b/c 9:00-9:20 EZ is a lot faster and easier to handle mentally than 11:00...it starts cutting into other parts of your day.
Also the Japanese treat every run as a progression. I'm kinda learning to do the same thing--go as slow as 10:3x on the opening mile and notch down faster as my muscles warm up. Then even if it's not a workout day I'm finishing my EZ run at 9:1x pace but also my average HR is below 145...
I'm a huge admirer of Japanese distance running and do think they know something we don't about running fast marathons. But it's interesting to me that in my lifetime US men have won one more Olympic marathon medal than Jaoanese men have done, 4 to 3.