April 3, 2021 — When I was 11 years old and I had no idea what the heck this “marathon” thing was, but I knew about Fukuoka Marathon. It was a footrace and it was held in my home-country of Japan. And it was a big deal to win it. Why I knew as a young kid? Because when, after 5 years of running it and no Japanese had won it as a hosting nation; for the first time, Japan’s Akio Usami won it in the national record time of 2:10:38. And we talked about it in my elementary school class!! Back then, we had this monthly magazine all students were “encouraged” to subscribe to (because it was an “educational” magazine) and there was a story about Usami in it in the following month’s issue. We finally got the Japanese champion with a very fast time — at that time, we had only TWO runners who had cracked this “magical” 2:10 barrier. Usami's time was the 3rd fastest time in history at that point. At my elementary school, we had a “marathon” footrace in the winter. In Japan, we call any “race” run on the road and any distance further than 1km would be called “marathon” (!!). It was a 2k road race (so it was qualified as a “marathon” by Japanese standard!!) and everybody at school would participate. I was the 5th grader and I finished 3rd overall. I didn’t train for it. All I did was — Usami had this “habit” of squinting his right eye more than left when he ran. So that’s what I emulated!! I guess it worked??? I finished 2nd overall when I was 6th grade and these might have been my first inspiration to running.
Fukuoka Marathon — fondly called — in the early days, was actually officially called: “International Open Marathon Championships”. It was the first (and the only) IAAF approved Open World Championship for the marathon in the 1960th. The footrace itself actually started in 1947 as “Kanaguri Cup Asahi* Marathon” and was held in the hometown of Mr. Shizo Kanaguri, the father of Japanese marathoning, Kumamoto-city near Fukuoka. (*Asahi Newspaper has been the major sponsor of the marathon.) It at first circulated the host cities: Shizuoka, Hiroshima, Nagoya, Kamakura…and, in 1963, it was held over the same course as the following year’s Tokyo Olympic marathon, starting and finishing at the National Stadium. In 1955, they invited foreign runners for the first time and, from then on, it had become “Asahi International Marathon”. Since 1966 when they became International Open Marathon Championships, they had been carefully selecting some of the year’s best marathon runners around the globe to contest the Marathon King of the year. In 1974, the name “Fukuoka” was added to the official name to honor the host city and became “Fukuoka International Open Marathon Championships”.
The race is held on the first Sunday of the month of December each year. I remember; every year in mid-November, they start to post who would be coming to the marathon in Asahi newspaper. November is the Sumo tournament month (it is contested in every odd number month) and also, in the beginning of the winter sports, there’s a ski jump competition or a figure skating competition somewhere to be covered. My teenage-memory is to check who’s coming to run Fukuoka, skimming through sumo wresting and other winter sports articles. They always brought in the best of the bests. If there was Olympic Games, the medalists from the Games marathon would surely be invited; as well as the season’s fastest marathon runners and the winners of major marathons of different continents. Shorter, Rodgers, Drayton…. Ian Thompson, Lasse Viren, Derek Clayton, Ron Hill, Bill Adcocks…. These are just some of the runners in the 1960s and 70s who ran Fukuoka. They brought in Boston Marathon champions (Rodgers, Drayton, Hill, Amby Burfoot…) and European and Commonwealth Games champions (Hill, Thompson…) and, of course, Olympic champion (Frank Shorter)…. Going into the late 1970s and early 1980s, during the hight of Japanese marathoning, most top Japanese such as Toshihiko Seko and Soh Brothers and Takeyuki Nakayama all ran Fukuoka. Fukuoka was “it”. Interestingly, however, anybody can register and participate this footrace….as long as you clear the qualifying time, which is 2:27 (move over, Boston!!). Actually, it does not specify the sex of the athlete. So, when Norway’s Grete Waitz ran 2:25:41 to win her 3rd New York City Marathon title, she was the only female athlete to have cleared this FQ so, technically, she was eligible to run. It sure would have received tons of publicity if she did.
The course for Fukuoka was relatively fast — mostly flat; but sometimes heading out Gannosu-Penninsula, the wind might pick up. But that actually made the competition interesting. It is, as Arthur Lydiard called it, a “true marathon” with the start and the finish at the same point. And “a real championships course” (Arthur Lydiard) with the track/stadium to be the start and the finish. It is usually nice and cool and the fast times were always expected (due mainly because of the deep competition). History’s first sub-2:10 marathon was run at Fukuoka in 1967 by Australia’s Derek Clayton (2:09:37). That was his breakthrough race before he ran yet another world best of 2:08:34 a year later. The world best time was set one more time by another fellow Australian, Robert de Castella, in 1981 with 2:08:18. But it was always COMPETITION that drew a lot of attention at Fukuoka. There were always head-to-heard confrontation. Ryun vs Hiroshima in 1966 (watch the race HERE); Clayton vs Sasaki in 1967 that produced the world best and the Japanese record; Adcocks vs Unetani in 1968; Hill vs Tanimura for the 2nd place in 1969 behind Drayton; and Usami vs Moore in 1970. I remember the 1975 edition brought a gutsy performance by Canada’s Jerome Drayton. In the pouring rain, Australia’s totally unknown runner, Dave Chettle, running in Nike’s Waffle TRAINER (not even racing shoes!!), passed Drayton and ran into the lead. Drayton, visibly gritting his teeth, hang in there and overtook Chettle 2k to go. His time, 2:10:09, stood as Canadian national record for 43 years!! Afterwards, totally drenched Drayton tried to put his pants on and fell over!! He was so spent, he couldn’t even lift his leg up.
Fukuoka Marathon served as Japan’s Olympic Trial many times. The 1983 edition saw Toshihiko Seko’s perfect marathon race. It was the all-star field with all the top Japanese runners as well as Tanzania’s new star, Juma Ikangaa, and the world record holder (though the record was erased because the course was found to be 150m short), Alberto Salazar. Salazar took his one and the only defeat in the marathon earlier that spring. But he had run some very fast 10,000m the year earlier (27:30, 27:25 and 27:29) and wanted to improve his marathon world record. But instead, the entire Japanese Olympic squad (Seko, Shigeru and Takeshi Soh) as well as Ikangaa finished ahead of him, pushing him into a mental basket-case. Salazar was supposed to be the King; so Seko was always right behind Salazar…until 39.5km (11:30 into THIS video). Ikangaa is trying to take off; Salazar is getting further back…. Seko simply glanced at Salazar; figured he’s “not it” and took off to go with Ikangaa. THAT is beautiful competition!! The race ended with Seko’s devastating finishing kick — one of THE most thrilling marathon races f all time. It also served as Japan’s Olympic Trial in 1987. However, because of the federation’s mismanagement of the selecting process, the new star in Japanese marathoning, Takeyuki Nakayama, was MAD!! In the freezing rain, Nakayama took off and never looked back. He ran a solo 2:08:17 which, under more ideal condition with proper rabitting, could have been history[‘s first 2:06 marathon. It was one of the most impressive display of marathon performances (watch it HERE). 2003 saw yet another Titanic battle with Japan’s Kunichika, Suwa and then the national record holder, Takaoka, battled out for the last 2 spots for Athens Olympic marathon team (Aburaya finished 5th in the World Championships earlier and already got selected). All three of them ran 2:07 — the first time in the marathon history — and only 7 seconds separated 3 runners.
In the early 1980s however, super-fast marathon “war” has started. Rotterdam Marathon was specifically designed for fast times. History’s first 2:07 and 2:06 marathons were run over this super fast flat course. London and Chicago Marathons were also added for very fast courses. Then came super-duper fast record setting Berlin Marathon…. Now prize money and appearance fee were accepted. Thousands of dollars were dangled in front of record-setting performance. These were definitely a positive move for athletes — now they wouldn’t need to rely on food-stamps!! But some of the “traditional” marathons suffered. For a while, Boston lost some top runners participating because they didn’t pay prize money. Same with Fukuoka. Technically, they don’t pay any prize money although there is a “rumor” that they do pay appearance fee — and a lot of it so it covers the prize money as well. But while they lost monetary incentive, they did try to make it even faster course so top athletes would still want to come and run. I was in the office of Professor Mr. Chosa with Federation Director Mr. Sawaki in 1985 when they were discussing about changing the Fukuoka course. They didn’t like Gannosu-Penninsula beause of possible wind. Jokingly, Director Sawaki said: “So we want the course that really squeeze fast times, right?” This actually stuck in my head like dirty words. That Gannosu turn-around point, to me, was a part of this package. I mean, can you imagine avoiding all those uphill from Boston Marathon’s Heartbreak Hills? Changing that to a rectangle shape to go around downtown Fukuoka to avoid wind…. I felt like I was at the presence of a sad turn-around point; and I feel that was the beginning of the end of the era.
This comimng December in 2021, we’ll see the final Fukuoka Marathon. It will close its rich history after 75 years of running due to “difficulty of managing the operating budget”. It is a pity to see this prestigious marathon race to be dissolved in the name of “advancement”. Cash flow and “trend” had pushed tradition and prestige aside. “Everybody is a winner” — fine. But then the sport becomes a whole lot of mass and loses clarity of “heros”. I started running when I watched Frank Shorter win 1972 Fukuoka Marathon. I idolized Shorter and Bill Rodgers in high school. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing with “Lydiard” if it’s not for them. Can you imagine American baseball without Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and….“Shoeless” Joe Jackson!!? (then there would be no “Field of Dreams”!!) I listen to some old songs — Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Billy Joel…, and, of course, Beatles. My wife laughs at me because I don’t necessarily follow “new” songs (some, of course…) and stick to those “oldies”. “Well,” I argue, “but nobody laughs about listening to classical music. Those were written waaaay back…!!” And their place in our heart is timeless.
When Lydiard visited Japan in 1991, he was asked why his runners trained so hard when there was no money in the sport. “To win the Olympic gold medal,” he replied without hesitation — because that’s what it was. They ran for “glory”. The interviewer didn’t seem to get it. So she asked again, “Why?” as if to ask “why; is it really worth pursuing…???” To that, now this time, Arthur didn’t seem to understand why she couldn’t “get it”. “What else do you need?” He didn’t say it; but I can read his mind. Sure, money helps. But some people at some point in time trained so damn hard not to pick up some hefty check. I remember talking to my dear friend, fellow Minnesota runner, the late Steve Hoag who finished second to Bill Rodgers at Boston Marathon in 1975 with the time of 2:11:48, which is still a very reputable time (consider this fact: the British Olympic marathon trial was recently won by Chris Thompson only less than a minute faster than Steve’s time at Boston 46 years ago). He never ran Fukuoka; and that was his regret. More than several occasions, he told me that he wished he had gone over there and ran it. Why? “Because it’s Fukuoka…”. Call me old-fashion. But back in 1975, the course was still the boomerang shape, going out to Gannosu-Penninsula; the same “traditional” course where Clayton ran along for the history’s first sub-2:10 marathon; where Drayton and Chettle had the Titanic battle in the rain; where some of the best marathon runners of the era battled the wind from the ocean; a true out-and-back course and the fireworks welcome the runners coming into the Heiwa-dai stadium…. To me, who literally grew up, watching Fukuoka Marathon, after all these years and even after I moved to Minnesota now over a half of my life, when the first week of December comes and I can smell the ink of the Asahi newspaper and crinkling sound of rough paper and the feeling of looking into some fuzzy pictures of invited runners... The 1977 Fukuoka champion, Bill Rodgers, regards all Japanese marathon races very highly — particularly and specially Fukuoka. A few weeks prior to Fukuoka, he would text me and tries to get some information on who’s running. More recently, I would try to find a live-coverage link and send it to him and I would text him during the race for the updates. I will miss this ritual with my high school hero. “Boston Billy” sitll pays a lot of attention — and respect — to Fukuoka Marathon. He is very proud that he is one of the prestigious elite group who had won the Fukuoka Open International Marathon Championships title. He certainly “gets it”. — Nobby Hashizume