Running With Perseverance

March 2, 2012 KUMIKO MAKIHARA

The International Herald Tribune/The New York Times

TOKYO — I got a lot of kudos recently for finishing the Tokyo Marathon, my first long race.

But I feel a bit guilty receiving any praise. For me, the run was a self-centered goal to keep motivated to stay fit. I was fortunate to have the time and health to train. And what an added luxury to be able to run amid the cheers of friends and millions of well-wishers.

Hopefully, my parents have forgiven me for such egotism. “Shouldn’t you be devoting your energies to raising your son?” was their reaction when I told them I had beaten the close to 10-to-1 odds in the lottery to enter the event of 36,000 runners. (In the end, they did come out in the cold to see me.)

The Tokyo Marathon has all the fanfare of any major urban race with bands and dancers along the route and runners in wild costumes. But the Japanese values of hardship and humility can’t be missed. The most common hand-held signs and cheers called out, “Gambare” or “Keep Working Hard,” and I also saw one-letter placards with the Chinese character for perseverance.

No one could embody that national spirit of doggedness better than Yuki Kawauchi, a clerk at a high school who stunned the running world when he came in third at last year’s Tokyo Marathon. Unlike most of Japan’s top runners who are employed and heavily supported by large corporations, Kawauchi trains alone without a coach. He runs with a signature grimace and nearly always collapses at the goal where he is whisked away by medical personnel. “I’m willing to die when I’m running,” he said after Tokyo last year. The Japanese love that Kawauchi is an ordinary guy who toils away at the office during the week and gives his all at races.

This time, too, Kawauchi writhed and crumpled at the finish after coming in 14th. It was a huge disappointment as he had hoped a strong showing in Tokyo would secure him a place on Japan’s marathon team for the London Olympics. The following morning Kawauchi showed up at work with a shaved head; an expression of personal failure in Japan. “I was not able to live up to a lot of people’s expectations, so I felt like I had to do something to show my sincerity,” he explained.

A far less serious display of perseverance appeared in the most talked about get-up of the day in which a man with long black hair and a beard wore what looked like a white loincloth and had affixed on his back a cross larger than his body. In this areligious nation, the delighted crowds shouted, “Gambare Christ” as he ran hunched over under the cross.

The spectators were unusually exuberant and friendly by the normal standards here of staid decorum, applauding and high-fiving runners. But inside the course, participants remained reserved and polite.

I spoke with only two people during the run, and one was a man from Singapore who wanted to know what was written on my shirt. It was a collection of messages from friends of the areas devastated by last year’s earthquake. A Japanese woman from a town near the troubled nuclear plants in Fukushima came over to express solidarity. I saw two runners who had written on their shirts apologies for being slow and urgings to overtake them.

Some well-wishers carried small canisters of mentholated sprays and generously drizzled runners who hobbled over with cramped legs. The frequency of atomizing increased as I got closer to the goal, causing me to gag several times from inhaling the vapors. Annoying as it was, I was sympathetic to those pained bodies that I knew were never going to give up.

The last man in, wearing a shirt with “Break a Sweat, Race Through,” written in bold calligraphy, was greeted by Mayor Shintaro Ishihara of Tokyo.

“It’s more moving to see the runners who barely make it in at the last minute than the ones who come in at the top,” he said. And as if we hadn’t seen enough grit, “Japanese these days lack perseverance. The more marathoners we have, the better I would feel.”