Guardian editor and amateur runner Finn marks his second embedded experience with distance racers.
In the first, Running with the Kenyans (2012), the author trained in a country renowned for running skills in every known competitive event. But Japan, it turns out, is even more smitten with running; as he writes, if every major race seems to be “won by a seemingly endless succession of superfast Kenyans and Ethiopians,” the Japanese are “at least putting up a fight.” Unlike everywhere else on the planet, it seems, Japanese towns and companies offer runners team positions and salaries, allowing them to cultivate the skills of ekiden full-time. Finn, nearing 40 as he writes, takes a George Plimpton–esque tack and runs alongside them, though he finds that the world of Japanese running is insular in the extreme and the willingness of coaches and runners to bare their souls to him pretty well nonexistent. Finn explores the place of running in Japanese culture, taking sidelong looks at some of its expressions—one is literary, found in the work of Haruki Murakami, a running fanatic. It’s a wonderful adventure, and it’s not far-fetched at all to liken it to one of Plimpton’s escapades, even if Finn seems to be a better runner than Plimpton was a football player. More than being a deep look into a sport—though it is surely that—the book is a lively travelogue and a depiction of a culture that does not give up its secrets easily. “For Hatsuyume,” he writes of a certain holiday, “it is considered a good omen to dream of Mount Fuji, along with an eagle and an aubergine. I’m not sure where those last two come in, but right here, in its full glory, across the lake, is Mount Fuji….It brings a dreamlike quality to the finish of the race. It’s no wonder people are crying.”
An elegant, well-written pleasure even for readers with no particular interest in foot racing.