A Farewell to Lake Biwa

A week ago Sunday, February 28th, 2021, marked the 76th and final running of the Lake Biwa Marathon, one of the most prestigious races in Japan and a fixture on that country’s racing calendar since 1946.

The race was streamed live, and since Japan is 14 hours ahead of Eastern Standard time, I was able to watch the midday start beginning at 10 p.m. Saturday night my time. As the rest of my housemates turned in for the night, I sat rapt in front of my computer, captivated by a race that — beyond its elite status — held a special meaning for me. It was four years earlier that I had been in Ojiyama stadium for the start, had hustled off to various places on the course to follow the progress of the race, and had returned to watch Tyler enter the stadium a few minutes after the top finishers had claimed their podium spots.

I still keep a video of the start of that 2017 race on my phone, four years after recording it from the stands, looking out over the heads of a small but enthusiastic crowd. At the start of the two-minute clip, approximately 250 lightly clad runners — all male and mostly Japanese — walk slowly to the far end of the stadium. As they reach the starting line they crowd together into a formless mass, shoulder-to-shoulder and fifteen deep, spilling across and over all eight lanes of the track. For a few moments, they hold their position, leaning forward expectantly as they await the signal that will finally release them from their confinement. Then a gun goes off, and within ten second the shapeless mass at the start has become an orderly procession of runners three and four abreast flowing around the first turn and down the backstretch with unimaginable ease. Out front, the leaders appear to be pacing themselves for a 5000m race rather than a marathon, covering the first 200m in 32 seconds and the first 400m in a scorching 66.

Before the 2017 race, Tyler and I had talked many times about the tendency of Japanese races to go out really, really fast, and about the risk of getting caught up in this go-for-broke mindset. Only a week earlier we had watched a live broadcast of the Tokyo marathon from our tiny Air BnB rental in Otsu, and were stunned to see at least thirty runners go through the half-marathon in 1:02:30. Predictably, many of those runners were not actually 2:05 marathoners, and would falter in the late kilometers of the race, unable to sustain what anyone could see was a suicidal pace; but impressively, quite a few would hold on and run times that would have placed them ahead of any American that year.

While the Lake Biwa race was much smaller than Tokyo, it was still an elite race, and one that held historical significance for the Japanese running world out of proportion to its size. Contested every year since 1946, and since the 1960s held on a course along the shores of Lake Biwa, the largest freshwater lake in Japan, the race counted among its former champions many legends of the sport. Frank Shorter won the race in 1973, setting a then course record of 2:12:03. 1995 marathon world champion Martin Fiz of Spain won the race three times in the late 1990s, lowering the course record to 2:08:05. Starting in the early 2000s, runners from East Africa began to dominate the podium spots. These included 2009 race winner Paul Tergat, who had a few years earlier become the first man to run under 2:05, and 2011 race winner and future world record holder Wilson Kipsang, who would lower the Lake Biwa course record to 2:06:13, where it stood heading into the race’s final edition. Since 2002, when Ryuji Takei won in 2:08:35, native Japanese runners had come close, but none had stood atop the podium.

The video also captures brief snippets of conversation between me and Tyler’s parents and girlfriend, who had arrived in Otsu two days earlier and who were sitting with me in the stands. You hear us trying to locate Tyler in the pack, and I remark that the pace is really fast. When we finally pick him out and see him complete the first lap in about 77 seconds (roughly 2:14:30 marathon pace), there’s relief in my voice. “That’s good,” I say. That’s according to plan. The fact that there are a hundred runners in front of him is surprising, perhaps, but not worth worrying about.

Over the next two-plus hours, while Tyler is clicking off kilometers in 3:12-3:15, I do my best to navigate the local train system and get to as many places on the course as possible where I can cheer and give him splits. I take along a map of the course, a train schedule (uncannily reliable), and a cheat sheet for calculating pace so I can compare his actual progress to what he hopes to run. If I can see the leaders, it will be a bonus, but I won’t count on it.

It turns out to be a great day. Tyler runs even splits and moves steadily through the pack. At 15K, he is about 80th. When he passes me again at about 24K, he has moved up to 61st. When I see him for the last time before the finish at 32K, he is in 35th, still looking good, and on pace for 2:15-something. But I know that for most of the last stretch he will be running directly into a headwind along the lake, so he will have his work cut out for him in the final few miles. I board a final train, and barely make it to a street outside the stadium where barricades keep me dozens of yards from the runners as they enter for a final lap and a half of the track. Over the heads of spectators now lining the course, I catch the briefest glimpse of Tyler as he enters the stadium. My watch tells me his time with about 650m to go is 2:13-something. That’s the last I see of him until many minutes later when I’ve finally navigated security and made my way into the stadium. He’s sprawled out on the infield, shoes off to reveal conspicuously bloody feet. He’s extremely satisfied to have run 2:16:06, a PR and still his best-ever time for a record-eligible loop course. Later we’ll find out he was 22nd, the third foreigner and first from the Western Hemisphere.

That trip to Japan was one of the most memorable trips of my life and left me with hundreds of vivid and cherished memories. I remember the thrill of sneaking into the stadium when a local Track Club was having practice so Tyler could do a tune-up workout. After he was done, I remember asking an official-looking person in Japanese if we could get in the next day, and being delighted that he understood my question, even though his response was a firm “No.”

In spite of the fact that our Air BnB — the one advertised to sleep four — was roughly the size of a commemorative postage stamp, I remember it with an unexpected fondness, and although I appreciated having more space, I was slightly disappointed when Tyler moved to the far more luxurious athlete accommodations in a nearby hotel a few days before the race and left the apartment to me.

I remember my own humble morning runs along the shore of the Lake, out-and-back jogs along the mostly deserted boulevard that I guessed would be thick with sight-seers when the weather got warmer. I remember exploring our neighborhood, wandering into random stores where I could practice my Japanese with the unfailingly polite but bemused shopkeepers. I remember the excitement I felt when boarding the train to Kyoto on those days when I was moved to explore more widely. In the ensuing four years I have never stopped thinking that I might return.

Sadly, the news that 2021 would be the final running of the Lake Biwa Marathon made it far less likely that I would ever make it back to Otsu, but it made me especially eager to stay up way past my bedtime and watch the live stream of this year’s race.

It was probably just as well that no one stayed up with me into the early hours of the morning. They would have had to endure regular outbursts from me every time I recognized a landmark or remembered an intersection where I had myself stood. “I’ve been on that track,” I would think; “I’ve sat in that stadium! And there’s the train station where I first arrived in Otsu and where you can look out over the vast expanse of Lake and see the startling sight of waterspouts spraying their plumes of greeting to the exhausted traveller!”

And even if someone had heard those outbursts, they wouldn’t have understood that these glimpses of familiar scenes were more than postcards to me. I remembered the undecipherable smell of the city, the tang of the air along the lake, the pride I felt when I finally was able to navigate the warren of narrow streets around our apartment without making a wrong turn, the sense of accomplishment at decoding the language around me. (Tyler will remember how I would stop repeatedly at storefronts to puzzle over their names and the signs in their windows.)

If my original reasons for watching the live stream were to feed my nostalgia and get a little language practice listening to the Japanese broadcasters, the actual race gave me plenty of other reasons to stay awake into the early morning. I was not surprised that the field was strong and the early pace was aggressive, but the finish was astonishing, and the overall results pit Lake Biwa 2021 in contention for the deepest marathon in history.

There was nothing about the start or the early miles that foreshadowed such an outcome. I watched the mass of runners take the same slow walk to the starting line as I had witnessed in 2017. I saw the field run one-and-a-half laps of the track and then exit the stadium at the North end, heading out into the familiar neighborhood for a short loop before turning South for the long stretch along the Western shore of the Lake. Other than occasionally hearing a familiar name, I couldn’t understand much of what the broadcasters were saying, but I did understand when they noted the pace at the first kilometer split: exactly 3:00 (2:06:30 marathon pace). As far as I could tell from the camera angle, It looked like at least half the field of 200 was running that pace. “Yikes,” I thought.

By 10K, a large lead pack of perhaps twenty runners had gradually edged ahead of that schedule, splitting 29:44 (about 2:05:30 pace). Behind them, an even larger group passed 10K in about 30:00, maintaining the steady tempo. The streaming coverage was excellent, and made a point of showing the second pack every once in a while. I could see that both groups had pacers, and they seemed to be doing a fantastic job.

Nothing too dramatic happened in the first hour and fifteen minutes, just an unusually large number of athletes running steadily and outrageously fast. At the half-marathon checkmark, reached in 1:02:35, there were still nearly twenty runners (including two pacemakers) in the lead pack. Surely there would be carnage, but still the pace didn’t slacken.

By 25K, the lead pack was down to 13, including the pacemakers. At that point Hiroto Inoue (second-fastest in the field with a 2:06:54 PR) surged to the front. Was this the break hat would decide the race? Not yet, as pacemaker James Rungaru gradually reeled in the breakaway. By the time Runguru stepped off the course at 30K (reached in 1:28:59, or 2:05:14 pace), there were six contenders left — Inoue, Simon Kariuki, Kengo Suzuki, Hidekazu Hijikata, Shuho Dairokuno, and Masato Kikuchi. Both the course record (2:06:16) and the Japanese national record (2:05:29) seemed to be in jeopardy. Still — there was another 12K to run, now, with no pacemakers to help.

Kariuki led the race for the next five kilometers, and at 35K (1:44:01), only Suzuki and Hiijikata were still with him at the front, although the other three were hanging on behind them. Kariuki’s pace had been solid, but not fatal to the others: he had covered the 5K from 30K to 35K in 15:02, the slowest split of the race so far. As the camera panned back, one could also see a large pack of runners in the distance, perhaps a minute or two back. Although the national record seemed gone, there was still a sense that the race was going to produce a historically large number of fast times.

Shortly after Kariuki had led the front three through another kilometer, he came to an aid station. As Kariuki reached for his bottle, Suzuki swung out from behind him, and took the lead for the first time. His acceleration was sudden and decisive. By the time Kariuki had taken three swigs from his bottle, Suzuki was 20 meters ahead and pulling away, covering the 37th kilometer in 2:53 to open a sizable gap on the others. He was just getting started.

Not among the favorites at the start, Suzuki (2:10:21 PR), ran his next kilometer in 2:52, and then the next in 2:51. He ran the final 5K in 14:22 — two seconds FASTER than Eliud Kipchoge’s overall pace when he ran 2:01:39 to set the current world record. It was astonishing. With a final 200m in 35 seconds, Suzuki claimed the course record, the Japanese national record, and the first sub-2:05 in Japanese history, stopping the clock at 2:04:56.

And then, astonishment only grew as behind Suzuki, a parade of runners rewrote the record for depth at a single marathon race. Hiijikata, who had dropped Kariuki some kilometers earlier, finished second in 2:06:26, the first of four Japanese athletes to run 2:06-something. Ten more runners, including Kariuki (7th, in 2:07:12) and 2018 Boston Marathon champ Yuki Kawauchi (10th, in a PR 2:07:27), ran 2:07-something. Thirteen more ran 2:08-something, and 14 more ran 2:09-something. All told, 42 runners ran under 2:10, and 174 ran under 2:20. Tyler’s 2:16:06, good for 22nd in 2017, would have placed him 109th in 2021.

There are probably many reasons for the cornucopia of fast time and personal bests. The cancellation of many other marathons in Japan, the technological advancements in the shoes, and the ongoing advancement of Japanese marathoning, as graduates of record-setting college Ekiden teams bring their talents to the longer races.

But I also like to think that Lake Biwa 2021 was a national send-off for what has been a great event over the years. In the future, I’ll try to tune in when the race has been incorporated into a mass participation marathon in Osaka, but I’ll be missing the sights, sounds, and smells of Otsu, my adopted home for only two weeks in the late winter of 2017, but two weeks that provided a lifetime of memories.

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for more than thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. Sixteen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past ten years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts. I've been writing about running for almost as long as I've been running, dating back to high school, when I would write meet summaries for the Amherst Record for about $0.33 per column inch. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. Until recently I also had a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. But I am now on what might turn out to be a permanent sabbatical. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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5 Responses to A Farewell to Lake Biwa

  1. Barry Stevenson says:

    Very interesting story. I could actually feel the excitement as you described the race.

    • Jon Waldron says:

      Thanks for the comment, Barry! I’m always at a loss to explain how watching people run for two hours feels so exciting, but this race might have convinced even skeptics.

  2. Paul W says:

    Wonderful post. Do you happen to know why they are no longer holding the race?

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