Book Review: The Way of the Runner: A Journey into the Fabled World of Japanese Running

The Way of the Runner: A Journey into the Fabled World of Japanese Running, by Adharanand Finn. Pegasus Books, 2015. Reviewed by Laura Clark for the Fall 2017 edition of the Trail Times newsletter.

Upon his return from Kenya (Running with the Kenyans), A. Finn posted an impressive series of PRs in a variety of distances. But two years later and pushing forty, he has stalled. Was that to be it then? Unlike the rest of us who might turn to yoga, an online coach or a vegan diet, Finn naturally turned to another country (and another book!), setting his sights on Japan where elite half marathon times would be considered world-class anywhere else.

Japan’s national obsession is not the Super Bowl or the World Series but the ekiden race — the focus of high school, collegiate and corporate teams and a valid excuse for a spectating holiday for anyone else. With ekidens ranging from a few hours to several days, living in Japan would be like being plopped down into an intense Ragnar experience, but without the lighthearted fun. These runners are focused and serious, with nary a painted van to be found. The pressure on Japanese teammates and coaches is intense, so much so that athletes burn out well before the age of twenty-five, felled by hard pounding on the roads mental staleness, thus curtailing their showing on the international stage.

It is into this closed world that Finn goes to seek running redemption. What he gets is mental training in persistence and ingenuity as he seeks to join a Japanese team, battling the isolationist, rigid mores of that society. He learns that ekiden rarely gives you the rush of competing against the hordes. Instead, everyone is handed a frontrunner experience, excellent for developing mental toughness but difficult to maintain over long isolated stretches of road.

And it is in just such a focused, narrow environment that Finn “discovers” flow, first detailed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his landmark book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. He learns that when he runs at a deliberate pace, he connects to his environment, like the legendary Japanese marathon monks. But when he moves into fourth gear, tunnel vision narrows his focus away from scenery, aches and pains and random thoughts. “Then running changes from an exploration of your environment, a chance to drift like a leaf on the wind, to an exploration of the depths of your soul.” And you don’t have to be a champion to do so, just the best that you can be.

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