Fukuoka Marathon Forever!!

Aerial image of original Fukuoka Marathon course (left) — you can see Lake Ohbori, which would be the name of famous Onitsuka Tiger racing shoes, in the middle — and the course map (right)

Dec. 3, 2021 — This weekend, the last of the Fukuoka International Marathon Championships will be contested. It is the end of the era after 75 years of some of the best marathon competitions in history. I have written a couple of blogs about the Fukuoka Marathon (THIS and also THIS ONE). I literally grew up watching this prestigious race on commercial-free TV coverage on the first Sunday of December. To me, personally, between the era of 1970s and 1980s was it! As shown here, the old original course where the runners would turn around point at Gannosu-Penninsula was almost nostalgic. Many stiff competitions had been fought there. Then the course changed — to ensure fast times to go around the city of Fukuoka to block the wind — as I moved to Minnesota and I almost lost track. All the megalopolis marathons with thousands of participants with big prize money had pushed Fukuoka aside…and the effect of world-wide COVID pandemic pounded the final nail in the coffin.

The first time meeting Frank Shorter — at 2004 Boston Marathon Expo

I started running seriously when I watched Frank Shorter win his second Fukuoka title in 1972 (on December 3rd as well!) as a 13-year-old. I had a chance to meet him at the 2004 Boston Marathon Expo for the first time. I was in the middle of organizing Arthur Lydiard’s USA lecture tour for the second time (the first in 1999). When I saw him at the New Balance booth, I had the urge to introduce myself and thank him for the first inspiration and now brought me all the way to bring this coaching guru to the 20-cities US lecture tour. Anyone who shook hands with Frank might know that the line moves rather fast!! Unlike Bill Rodgers where, unless the organizer stops him and move along, he would be talking to you for a half an hour!! At any rate, I just wanted to say hi and let him know his inspiration had started all this, and tell him what I was doing…. He actually stopped and looked at me in the eyes and said: “Arthur Lydiard, huh? Haven’t heard his name for the longest time…. How is he doing?” Perhaps out of respect to the Old Man, he took extra time with me, suggested we take a picture together. “I think I closed my eyes…. Let’s do it again!” I was grateful!! Later he told me that he considers the Lydiard method to be the most scientifically sound, a make-sense training method and even thanked me for continuing the Lydiard legacy. Talk about coming to a full circle!!

With Mr. Eiichi Shibuya, the Japanese Federation’s official interpreter, at 1985 Hiroshima World Cup Marathon

Any English speaking runner who competed in Japan at the JAAA certified race in the 1970s and 1980s should remember the name Eiichi Shibuya. In my early running days, my heroes were Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers. Every time I saw them in the Japanese marathon races, at the winner’s interview, I saw Mr. Shibuya with them, translating their comments. He was the Japanese Federation’s official interpreter. I had a chance to meet him at the 1985 Hiroshima World Cup Marathon. Dick Quax — also my high school running hero but by this time, he was demoted to “just a friend”…!! — asked me to join the New Zealand team manager, Jack Ralston, to pick up Quax’s “The Right Track” videos to be translated in Japanese. I took a over-night train to Hiroshima and acted as the UN-official translator for the Kiwi team. There I saw Mr. Shibuya. So I introduced myself and asked him to take a picture with him. “Why me!?” he got VERY embarrassed and almost declined!! I told him that, every time I saw Frank Shorter or Bill Rodgers, he was there with them. So, as I “grew up watching Shorter or Rodgers compete at Fukuoka Marathon”, I also grew up watching Mr. Shibuya!! He was so touched and, after that, every time I got into some “issue” because I wasn’t the official translator, if he was around, he would rush to me and said: “He’s fine! He’s been helping me out!” My very fond memory of Mr. Eiichi Shibuya!!

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, it was the tradition to use the image of the previous race for the official poster. Bill Rodgers (#2) won the 1977 Fukuoka title. You can see Lasse Viren’s bearded face behind Rodgers. #8 is Takeshi Soh who would finish 4th at 1984 LA Olympic marathon.

Recently, Frank Shorter was interviewed by Asahi Newspaper as the only runner to have won 4 consecutive Fukuoka Marathon title (Toshihiko Seko won it 4 times as well but not in a row). As a cool analytic person as he is, he said that it is inevitable the changes would happen. Marathons around the world had turned to a mass-event with lots of cash-flow, from multi-million dollar sponsorship deals and thousands of dollars paid to fast times. Even Boston Marathon had to make some tough changes in order to survive. Fukuoka refused to pay the prize money — they must have believed runners around the world would come to run Fukuoka for the sake of championship title. Of course, where they didn’t get $$$ for placing, supposedly, some of the big names received plenty of appearance fee!! It was a bit of the insider’s joke that, when they invited Ethiopia’s Haile Gebrselassie, they couldn’t get anybody else!! :-D But with very limited number of participants (the qualifying time still being 2:25), it had become too difficult to maintain the quality of the competition. Bill Rodgers always questioned why Fukuoka was not included for World Marathon Major. “It is still the unofficial marathon world championships,” he insisted, “when you consider the quality of the competition…”. He gets it. But it was never meant to be. And now the curtain is closing for this Unofficial World Marathon Championships. But to me, Fukuoka Marathon stays, and will forever stay, in my heart as THE marathon race where Shorter, Rodgers, Drayton, Ikangaa, Seko, Nakayama, de Castella….and some of the best marathon runners in history battled the unofficial world marathon title — not for money, but for the sake of competition and honor. Perhaps Fukuoka was where the original Olympic spirit, to compete for the laurel wreath, still lives on…. Maybe that’s the reason for the downfall in a practical sense. But that’s why many of us still look up to Fukuoka as idealistic view. Fukuoka Marathon Forever!! — Nobby Hashizume

Frank Shorter winning the 1972 Fukuoka Marathon — his second Fukuoka title. This image is from the first ever “Monthly Track & Field Magazine” I bought as a 13-year-old, from Baseball Magazine Co., the publishing company later I launched my “Lydiard Running Training” book from.

Post Script: Brett Larner of Japan Running News put together a documentary of Fukuoka Marathon called “Inside the Outside” with messages from past winners and participants around the world which was premiered early this morning (4:00AM here in MN). Brett told me: “It had to be done…”. I praise him for this project and appreciate putting this together. Yes, the Legacy of Fukuoka Marathon needs to be remembered and talked about. Thanks, Brett!! You can watch it on his site or at YouTube; both of which are linked above.