Adharanand Finn is an active runner, an editor at the Guardian, a freelance journalist and the author of Running with the Kenyans, The Way of the Runner and The Rise of the Ultra Runners. In this interview, we discuss what he learned from the running culture in Japan and Kenya during his research.
Greg: As an athlete, what attracted you to running? When did you realize running offered a bridge between different cultures?
Adharanand: I first started running when I was about 10 years old, when the whole school was sent out to do a cross country run—my first time ever doing it—and I won. I’ve been running ever since. As a teenager, I was fascinated with the Kenyan runners because they were so mysterious and so fast. I used to be amazed by their power and aggressive front running, but I knew so little about them. However, it wasn’t really until I was in Kenya researching my first book that I realised that running was like a universal language, and that when you run with people you form a sort of connection—or, as you say, a bridge.
Greg: I never would have guessed Japan is the “most running-obsessed country on earth.” What do the Japanese love about running?
Adharanand: Long-distance running became popular in Japan after the second world war when the country was trying to rebuild itself after the devastation of the two nuclear bombs. To be good at running marathons requires discipline, effort, commitment to hard work, etc.—all attributes the country was trying to foster in its people after the war.
What also made the sport so popular at that time was that the big races were set up and sponsored by the main newspapers, which are still huge in Japan today. So the races got very wide media coverage, which helped foster interest and make them popular. Today, Japanese culture still greatly admires effort, and so when a marathon runner is straining to finish, pushing himself or herself to the limit, it is very moving and people in Japan love to see that. The runners who seem to be trying the hardest are usually the most popular.
Greg: What can the Japanese approach to running teach us about the sport and about Japanese culture?
Adharanand: As for the sport, it teaches us that long-distance running can be a popular sport to watch—in the rest of the world people often think of marathons as boring to watch. But what happens in Japan is that the television coverage is brilliant, the newspapers tell the backstories of the runners, with lots of big interviews, profiles, etc., so the public knows who the runners are and can decide which ones they like and who to cheer for. Sport is like a soap opera and if you know the characters and their histories, it is more interesting for sure.
Most of the runners in Japan also compete for teams, and many of the very biggest races are actually relay races between these teams. This helps the sport’s popularity because it is easier to get behind a team, to cheer and get excited about a team, than it is about an individual.
So I think the way running is presented to the public in Japan is very different to other countries, and it proves that if the stories are well told, and you can introduce a team element, then it is actually a really moving, exciting sport to watch.
Greg: Your previous book was Running with the Kenyans. How do the Japanese and Kenyan approaches to running differ? How are they similar? What were your most important takeaways from each running culture?
Adharanand: They are so different. In Kenya, everyone is always relaxed. Kenyan athletes love to sleep many hours a day. They like to run their slow runs very slowly and do their speed sessions very fast. Kenyans prefer to train on dirt trails whenever possible.
The Japanese on the other hand take running very seriously—which makes it stressful sometimes and not so much fun. Often if they are not training they are working in an office or doing other things—Japanese people generally sleep the least amount in the world! The Japanese train too hard, according to the Kenyans. In practice, this means they never run slowly like the Kenyans, but always at a medium pace at least. And this means they are always too tired to do proper speed work. And finally, the elite Japanese road runners almost never train on the trails. Which may explain why they’re so often injured!
How are they similar? Well, they both live and train in groups and I think this is key to forming a successful running culture. The athletes help each other a lot—they have a good spirit of sharing and being part of a group. In Europe and America, many athletes lack that strong training group environment.
There are so many takeaways from Kenya, but I love their relaxed, playful spirit— they believe training should be fun, and not always tough but sometimes just easy. In Japan, the takeaway is perhaps the value of the group—that being good at running requires a team, and that it is hard to be successful on your own in running —even though it is an individual sport.
Greg: What did you learn while researching and writing The Way of the Runner that most surprised you?
Adharanand: I guess I was surprised by the extreme seriousness of elite road running in Japan and how for many of the runners it’s not that much fun being an athlete. While the fans are very passionate and that is wonderful, the runners themselves suffer from too much expectation and pressure from the team bosses and the pressure to do their best all the time.