Story by: John Dawlings
For many years now my two main hobbies have been running and travelling. Why it has taken me 44 years to realise that I could combine the two is quite beyond me and confirms my opinion that you don't have to be a rocket scientist to be a runner. Indeed quite the contrary - I couldn't name a single rocket scientist who is a runner (or for that matter one who isn't).
Notwithstanding, when I read that the World Veterans Road Running Championships were to be held in Kobe, I decided to book my flight and head off.
Throwing caution to the wind, I arrived in Osaka at ten o'clock at night with no accommodation booked. To make matters worse the plane contained about 300 Japanese people returning home, about 20 Filipinos going to Japan to work, one German who was being met by a friend and me - the only person without a place to stay. I prayed that the Japanese tourism industry would be used to idiots like me turning up. And so they were. The hotel booking office at the airport was still open and found me a local hotel offering bed and breakfast at a reasonable price including a service bus from the airport. If they had asked double I would have paid and I started liking Japan and the Japanese from this point on.
Next day I moved on to Kyoto using the marvellously efficient train service and again had no trouble finding accommodation. This time the room had no en-suite and I was introduced to the concept of the communal bath. A simple question - what would you do in a communal bath? Wash? Wrong. Saved from committing a terrible faux pas by my trusty guide book, I discovered that the technique is to wash in the adjoining showers before entering the bath. I felt quite the local as I entered the lift in my hotel kimono and descended to the communal bath. This confidence was soon destroyed as I tried to come to grips with taking a shower whilst seated on a 6 inch stool. The people who stayed in my hotel in Kyoto that night are probably still telling their relatives how Australians shower - or maybe they just agree with Australians that poms wouldn't know one end of a bath tap from the other. It was quite a relief to get off the stool and into the bath even though it was so hot that I suspect they boil lobsters in it when nobody's watching.
To ease me into Japanese eating I was glad to find some vaguely recognisable things available for breakfast and off I went for a day's sightseeing.
The next day I made a bad mistake and got up late. I negotiated the shower with less trouble but on reaching the dining room found all the western food was gone. So pickles and rice and soup it was - and boy does that wake the taste buds up in the morning.
By now I had found that getting food in restaurants should be really easy as they have plastic models of each dish in the window with the price next to it. Inside however you are given a menu in Japanese only. It is no mean feat to get a waitress to follow you outside a restaurant by beckoning - try it some time in Australia. They are understandably somewhat suspicious and quite relieved when they discover that all you want to do is point out a dish in the window.
After a few days I moved on to Kobe, the venue for the race and the city nearly destroyed by an earthquake three years ago. If an Australian city was devastated by an earthquake, three years later we would have an inter-departmental committee delivering an interim report on strategies for reconstruction and counselling services. In Japan they have re-built the city and there are almost no signs there ever was an earthquake.
In Kobe I discovered the cultural sensitivity for which MacDonalds is so highly regarded - they sell Big Mac Teriyakiburgers! Honest. I was only in there for a coffee of course but once I saw a teriyakiburger I had to try one.
I have eaten MacDonalds in cities as diverse as Beijing, Frankfurt and Manila and have learnt that there is no need to understand a single word of what is being said as it always the same. The conversation goes like this.
Me: One teriyakiburger please. Waitress: Unintelligible sounds. Me: Yes, I will have fries with it. Waitress: More unintelligible sounds. Me: To eat here please. Waitress: Further unintelligible sounds. Me: And you have a nice day too.Everyone smiles, money changes hands and off you walk with your meal.
And so to the run. Two races were organised, a 10 km and a half marathon. 10,000 people in the 10 kms and 7,000 in the half. 1,200 people in my category alone - the male 40 - 44 year olds in the 10kms.
The run itself was across the largest suspension bridge in the world, the Akashi Kaikyo bridge. Being a proud Sydney-sider I felt a degree of outrage that anyone would ever dream of building a bridge bigger than ours - but if they've beaten us in the engineering, the least I could do was beat them in the run. This was obviously going to be difficult as there had to be some pretty good runners out of 10,000 people and I also had a sneaking suspicion that the other foreign runners would have to be pretty useful to have come all the way from England, Russia and Czechoslovakia etc. (I discovered later that the bridge was normally closed to pedestrians and so this race was the only chance that people were ever going to get to walk across it. Rumour has it that many people joined the Japanese Veterans Athletic Association just so they could enter the race and walk across the bridge. I wish I had known this at the time).
And difficult it was to prove - but not as bad as I had feared. The gun fired and the men and women in the 40 - 44 age category took off - about 2,000 of us. I got a good start and was able to see two runners, an Englishman and a Japanese, break away from the group straight away. The rest however weren't running faster than me and after a kilometre I found myself sharing third place with two Japanese runners. The bridge is about four kms across and I was content to sit on the guy in third place as the nature of the course made it pretty windy. At the half way mark we saw the two leaders coming back on the other side of the road several hundred meters ahead and way out of reach. As we turned I tried to pick up the pace and managed to drop the guy who had led us out but couldn't get rid of the other runner.
Being so long, the bridge has a reasonable degree of elevation on the way to the middle. I hadn't noticed this on the way out but it felt like running into a brick wall on the way back. The runner sitting on me went past as if I was standing still and I was left hoping that I could hold onto fourth place. A two kilometre hill is not what you want when your legs have just turned to jelly but I guess it was the same for all the runners behind me as no-one seemed to go past. The long run home gave me time to marvel at the runners still heading out, some of whom even had cameras clicking as they enjoyed their once in a lifetime walk across the bridge.
Finally the finishing line came in sight and I staggered across 34 minutes and 53 seconds after I had started. About a minute slower than I had hoped for but nevertheless a pretty good run. The first two runners had finished in about 31 minutes 30 with the third place getter running about 34 minutes. Then came the marvel of modern technology - all our times had been automatically recorded using microchips attached to our shoes. Finishing certificates were automatically produced on a laser printer with our names, times and places as we left the recovery area.
And so we staggered off to the finishing ceremony and talked about how we were going to go to next year's event and run faster times than ever.
Cool Running Australia 24.04.98.This article first appeared in the Woodstock Runners newsletter, May 1998 Issue.