Story of a 2:38:50 marathon runner who teaches the world why to run slow

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Professor Hiroaki Tanaka shares the inspirational story on his life as a runner, scientist and slow jogging advocate. Enjoy!

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“My life as a runner started in my elementary school days. Tokyo was chosen to host the 1964 Olympics, and children across the nation took interest in sports, dreaming of participating in the event. I felt enthusiastic about running and took my first steps on the track. Over the years, I started training more seriously, and in high school I specialized in distances between 400 and 1500 meters. Back then, however, I had many injuries and no spectacular results.

Like most young runners in Japan, I dreamed of participating in the Hakone Ekiden, one of the most prominent relay marathons for university students, not to mention one of the most famous sporting events in Japan. It was the main reason why I eventually turned to long-distance running after entering the university.

I put my life and soul into training, only to soon find out that my body wasn’t quite able to keep up. The cycle of injuries, recovery and frantic training continued until I ended up in the university hospital for a complete body health check. I was diagnosed with an innate heart condition that disqualified me from further training. I was allowed to do only low-intensity light exercise, such as walking and easy gymnastics. I was only 19 years old.

Brokenhearted, I couldn’t get track and field out of my mind, and became a team manager for the students running in the Hakone Ekiden. After graduation I decided to continue my studies at the university to research the field of physiology of exercise and endurance training, such as exercise prescriptions to improve cardiovascular functions.

As the years passed, I researched the field of sports science but didn’t really have a lot of time to run or exercise myself. In the meantime, I became quite nervous about my health, and whenever I felt tired, I associated it with my heart disease.

At the age of 37, I lived in Montreal for my sabbatical year. I was there doing a collaborative study on the harmful influence of hard exercise such as all-out marathons. We didn’t have enough subjects in our experiment, so I wanted to participate as both researcher and subject. I didn’t have all those small tasks that kept me so busy back in Japan, so I resumed running. I jogged slowly for an hour every day, usually covering 5 to 6 miles.

The 1984 Montreal Marathon was my first time to experience running with thousands of other runners, and it felt incredible. I was doing really well in the first half, probably faster than 8:00 per mile, but from then on my legs felt heavier and heavier and I wasn’t able to keep my speed. Other runners, even some much older than me, started passing me. From the 21-mile marker, I was literally dragging my heavy legs and eventually walked my way to the finish line. My finishing time was 4:11. I was pretty sure that was the first and last marathon of my life.

After returning to Japan, I was again too busy for more than a slow weekend jog of 2.5 to 3 miles every now and then. I led a mostly sedentary life and started putting on weight. On my 45th birthday the scale showed 22 more pounds than in my school days. A health check showed that I was also suffering also from fatty liver and high cholesterol. I felt like a doctor neglecting his own health.

After that wake-up call, things start to turn around. I was asked to become an advisor of a semi-professional ekiden team and a group of runners preparing for the 1993 Honolulu Marathon. I knew it was my chance to take on the marathon once again and see how my theories were going to work in practice. I decided to run a marathon for the second time.

My training consisted mostly of a 3-mile jog once or twice a week. I tried to predict my results scientifically with an incremental test: running at gradually increased speed and verifying my body’s reaction. To my huge surprise, having barely been running a total monthly distance of 20 miles, I came up with a highly unbelievable estimated time of 3:30 to 3:45.

 

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In the race, considering that I hardly ever ran longer distances, around mile 6 I got seriously anxious. I kept running repeating to myself a mantra: “Believe in science. Don’t give up.” Dr. Peter A. Farrell, a specialist in studies on running performance, had proved that scientific estimations of marathon finishing time were quite accurate. I wound up finishing in 3:30:03. Unlike in my first marathon, the second time I managed to run at a constant pace. In the second half I felt slightly tired, but not to the extent that would force me to slow. I felt quite confortable and confident overall.

Nine years had passed since my first marathon at the age of 37, so getting slower would have been perfectly natural. I also was more than 20 pounds heavier than 9 years earlier. Despite all that, my time was more than 40 minutes better. I did some calculations right away. Going back to my weight from my university days, I could become light enough and therefore fast enough to break 3:00 in my next marathon.

The following year, after weight reduction and training based on slow jogging, I did so. In my sixth marathon, in Aoshima, Japan, I finished in 2:55:11.

That was when I started thinking about running technique. I was inspired by the way sprinters effectively use the springs in their feet by landing on the midfoot/forefoot, and I applied their technique to distance running. My usual runs at a slow pace allowed me to work on modifying my technique, and year by year I steadily improved my results. In 1998, at the age of 50, my big dream came true and I completed a marathon under 2:40. That result qualified me for the elite Betsudai Marathon in Oita, Japan. There, in my 18th marathon, I ran my personal best of 2:38:50.

More than 30 years have passed since I ran my first marathon, which at the time I thought would be my last. Since then I have completed 65 marathons in 13 countries, some fun and some as serious races. My running technique—the one we’ll describe in detail later in this book—has kept me injury-free. My next dream is to run a sub-3:00 marathon at the age of 70.

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A footnote: At the age of 25, I had my heart re-examined. It turned out that what had been diagnosed as a heart condition was really the result of my poor diet and too-strenuous exercise. So there never was a reason for me to stop competitive running in the first place. With today’s ultrasonography techniques, a similar mistake would never happen now, but back then the wrong diagnosis became the reason I gave up my career in sport and focused on research instead. Many years later that led to creating the niko niko pace and slow jogging theories you’ll learn in this book.”

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This story was originally published as a part of our book “Slow Jogging: Lose Weight, Stay Healthy, and Have Fun with Science-Based, Natural Running” – get it to find out more and let us know what you think!

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