Quite some time ago, I had spoken with Ihira-san, the head of the Shakotan Board of Education, about running. For a silver haired man in his sixties, Ihira-san is incredibly energetic and healthy-looking, and as it turns out, he loves to run. When I said that I also liked to run in my free time, he physically examined my calves as a way to gauge how much I ran. He said that my muscle was impressive, and then showed me his calves, which were incredible, softball-sized rocks hiding under his pant legs. It was clear to me that he was much more of runner than I.
Ihira-san was excited that Shakotan’s resident exotic foreigner was also interested in running, and he invited me to run with him in an annual race in the nearby town of Furubira (古平). He referred to it as the “Furubira Marathon”, which sounded frighteningly long to me. When I was assured that the race would not be the full (or even half) marathon length, I agreed to do it. At that time it was early summer, so the October 10th date seemed a long way off.
Fast-forward to October, and race day was upon us. The Furubira Road Race Taikai (古平ロードレース大会) was scheduled for the second Monday in October because this is a national holiday in Japan, called Heath and Sports Day (体育の日 – たいいくのひ). Participants could choose between different distances to run; 15km, 10km, 6km, or even 2-4km. I assumed that Ihira-san would be running the longest distance, so when asked I chose the 15k race. Ihira-san actually chose the 10k, so perhaps I overdid it.
The Yamazaki family picked me up around 9:20am. We then picked up Ihira-san, and drove on to Furubira. Yamazaki-san, along with his wife and daughter, was running the 4km distance. While I had been told that it was going to rain on race day, the early morning weather was still dry. It was overcast, humid, and a little cool—so it looked like it had the potential to rain—but when we arrived in Furubira, it just felt like perfect running weather. We picked up our information packets, and Yamazaki-san and Ihira-san explained what each of the enclosed tickets were for; apparently I had hot soup and cold beer to look forward to after the run. We got ready for running and I did some quick active stretching. Then, twenty minutes before the 15k race was set to kickoff, the rain started as prophesized, and it rained hard. Clearly, a very wet run lay ahead.
My friends gave me many a “gambatte” (頑張って – persevere, do your best) as I headed for the starting line. Right before the race got underway, I ran into Kazama-sensei from Hizuka ES. He was actually running the 15k as well, but he told me that he planned on taking it easy, so I shouldn’t wait up for him. Kazama-sensei had spent some time in Cameroon, and was able to speak French and English. For the race, he was sporting a green and red Cameroon national team soccer jersey with his given name, Naoki, and the number 22 (his birthday, in February) on the back.
The crowd of runners, already cold and wet, shuffled around at starting line. There were about 99 people doing the 15k run. At the sound of a starter pistol we were off, a mass of people running down the small, puddled streets of Furubira. I had made a playlist especially for the race, so as we got started Japanese rock and pop songs played through my headphones. I again felt like I was getting a new, unique Japan experience, something interesting that not every foreign visitor would do. And at 15 kilometers, I was also running my longest race to date. An odd feeling of camaraderie came over me. Here my fellow runners and I were testing not only our endurance on the road, but also our mettle against the elements.
After the first kilometer or so, the track flowed out of town, onto country back roads. Most of the race was run just outside of Furubira and not within the limits of the town itself. The rain did not let up, instead, it intensified. A flash of lightning startled me, with an ominous clap of thunder immediately to follow. Soon it was pouring rain so hard that I could hardly see 20 feet in front of me. The rain drops themselves became blinding, blowing into my face with stinging velocity.
As my clothes became waterlogged, I remembered why it’s good to wear shorts—and not pants—when going on a long run. The rain got in my ears and my music became muffled and distorted, as if the speakers were underwater. After fighting with my headphones a bit, I came to find that the volume of my iPod had been severely reduced. Whether the problem was caused by wet headphones, or a wet iPod, I’m not sure. In either case, the pounding rain and rolling thunder provided the race’s new soundtrack.
The mountainous hills on both sides of the road, combined with the roar of the thunderstorm, made for an epic race. The run was challenging, but satisfying. The lightning continued for at least the first half of the race, and for a while I was sure that race officials were going to call it off. Apparently nobody saw the storm as a real danger because we all just kept on trucking. Eventually the rain lessened in the second half of the race, but never completely abated. Somewhere in the middle I saw Kazama-sensei; him coming up one side of the road, while I ran back down the other. We exchanged quick words of encourage and a high five. Kazama-san said “Fight!” (ファイト), a word used often in Japan simply to say, “do your best”.
Coming back onto the Furubira streets at the end, I tried to keep up a decent pace, and sprinted the last 100 meters or so. Yamamzaki-san and Ihira-san met me at the finishline, and after changing into drier clothes at the van, we proceeded inside Furubira’s B&G gym for post-race fun. While I had been wise enough to bring a fresh pair of socks, I had neglected to bring other shoes, so my new socks were quickly soaked by my thoroughly saturated running shoes. Everyone who ran the race received complimentary fish snacks, like hokke, a delicious bowl of miso soup, and one free drink. While some juice or tea probably would have been the healthiest options after running, I chose to get a draught beer. I was celebrating the end of the running season, or so I rationalized it in my head. At some point, Ihira-san surprised me with a second beer, so I ended up having a two-drink lunch.
The post-race festivities involved a little ceremony recognizing the runners with the fastest times, and then a raffle with prizes. As a general rule, it seems that you must always have prizes whenever a big enough group of people gathers in Japan. The gymnasium had plenty of familiar faces, but I was very surprised to run into Marta and Michal Sylwester there. Marta and Michal are a Polish couple, so they stand out a bit in rural Furubira. They live in Sapporo and had come to the Shakotan area for the weekend, apparently fitting the race into their schedule as well. I had only just met them at a party at a JHS teacher’s house a couple days before hand, so it was a pleasure surprise to see them again so quickly.
By 1:30, I was back at my apartment, taking a long hot shower. My official time for the race was just under one hour, 12 minutes (1:11:57), and I had come in 35th place.