17 October 2014

on the run ... with brett larner

welcome to another interview in the on the run series ...

when it comes to political news the media often has foreign correspondents on the ground providing in-depth insights into what's really happening in that zone or territory.  for the running world, one of the most important foreign correspondent voices is brett larner, the founder of Japan Running News.  as someone born in western culture but now integrated into the japanese world, brett provides a unique window into one of the planet's most fascinating and successful running nations.
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1.  At first glance it seems like you're a citizen of the world - a Canuck by birth, college studies in the US, now focusing on music in Japan. Where does your heart consider home?

(a) Winnipeg - I'm Canadian by birth and will always be a Canuck!
(b) The USA - having studied and run for Wesleyan College, that's where my formative days were spent
(c) Japan - studying and performing the koto brought me here, and I've been here a whole lot longer than I thought I would be
(d) Wherever my wife is!
(e) Other

BL:   "E" - I don't really feel any particular connection to a specific place.  When I was five we moved from Winnipeg to Atlanta, and I think I've moved twelve times since then, usually internationally.  As a result I'm fairly rootless and tend to view things as transitory.   I do love Tokyo, though.   It's a good place for people who don't really fit in anywhere and I've lived here longer than anywhere else, so in those regards I guess it is home even if you can't really be at home in Japan as a non-Japanese. 

While it's true that studying music initially brought me here and that I worked professionally for quite a while, I stopped performing and recording professionally about five years ago.  I still play privately and for fun but it would not be accurate to say that I focus on music.  My focus now is on running-related things.

2.   Your web platform Japan Running News has been active in helping bring some of the outstanding Japanese talent to major races in other parts of the world (e.g. Yuki Kawauchi to 2013 and 2014 NYC Marathon, Yoshihisa Hosaka to 2013 Toronto Waterfront Marathon). What would be the key contribution(s) of JRN in making these appearances happen?

(a) Connections - it's all about who you know, baby
(b) Dollars
(c) Providing chaperones and translation services
(d) All of the above
(e) Other

BL:   "D" and "E" - All of those things play into getting Japanese athletes overseas, but I'd like to think that JRN's main contribution has been to help get people outside Japan interested in the running culture here, its high level of achievement that is otherwise mostly invisible, and in some of its most unique and compelling people.  That was my main motivation in starting JRN since it impressed me so strongly when I came here, and to the extent that I have any connections they have all come from faithfully sticking to that mission for the last seven and a half years.   I never imagined that it would lead to actually working directly with athletes, but I'd only been doing JRN for a little over a year when races started contacting me about getting Japanese athletes, and less than two years before I did it for the first time at the 2009 Copenhagen Marathon.  Their elite coordinator Gavin Doyle was kind enough to bring over two good Japanese amateurs, Toyokazu Yoshimura and Chihiro Tanaka, and they were both kind enough to win. That got things rolling.   Thank you, Gavin.

3.   It sounds as if there was a bit of a pot stirred up on LetsRun.com around comments that quoted you as saying that when compared to achievements in American marathoning history, Yuki Kawauchi's marathon performances in 2013 expose a potentially serious systemic problem with the US training program. What was the key issue in this debate for you?

(a) The difference in focus between Japan's long distance running and the U.S.'s all around approach
(b) The contention that Japan's marathon success might be attributed to physical stature (average Japanese male height of 5'7")
(c) There are too many other competiting opportunities for sporting success and development in the American system
(d) The real issue was lost in translation
(e) None of the above / Other

BL:  "D" or "E" - (d) or (e) I didn't know there was a pot stirred up, or a debate.  When it comes to long distance Kenya and Ethiopia are the best without a doubt, with a few other African countries close behind. Japan and the U.S. are the only other countries really able to compete with them and I'm curious about what each is doing to try to bridge the gap.  How do you keep the fire burning when you know you're not the best?  I find it really interesting to look at the two of them in comparison and see the differences in approach, where each of their strengths and weaknesses are.   Since Japan is quite insular there is not much awareness elsewhere of how good it really is and people tend to assume the U.S. is superior without any question.  Whenever I have put together the numbers that show where Japan outperforms the U.S., like the KGRR surpassing the NCAA in producing quality collegiate distance runners, most people have seemed to find it as interesting as I do but it has often touched a nerve with others. 

In the case you're asking about, I haven't really thought about it since then but as far as I recall I was saying that given how good the U.S. is at other distances, the fact that one person could equal the best year in its history at a distance at which it has a long record of accomplishment suggests problems in its development system, which for whatever reason produced a response saying "Japanese suck at middle distances because Asians are genetically inferior," of which the less said the better, instead of talking about the actual question. It could have been an interesting discussion.  Maybe next time.  I still think that looking at where each country's system has success and each trying to learn from the other would help both take a big step forward.

4.   Many people have tried to dissect the 'East African mystique', especially with the last five marathon WR holders originating from that locale. However, there's no question that formidable contenders in many marathons (both female and male) originate from Japan. In your view what's the biggest contributor to Japanese running success?

(a) The pack/ekiden mentality
(b) National pride in the land of the rising sun
(c) The oriental culture of discipline
(d) High mileage training
(e) Other

BL: "E" - I'm personally highly averse to exoticism and mystiquing.  The existence of a well-established support and development system that extends all the way from junior high school to the pro level, skillful marketing to a commercial base that can support distance running as a spectator sport with regular TV broadcasts, and a history and legacy of excellence.   That system got Japan to that level of excellence before anyone else, and while it plateaued for a long time and has always held back the best Japanese athletes from reaching the medal contender level of Rupp or Ritzenhein it still works in mass-producing quality.  Japan may not be producing Lamborghinis or Ferraris but it is unmatched in turning out reliable Hondas and Toyotas.

*** you can follow brett's reporting on Japan Running News' twitter accounts here and here.  the rendezvoo point also encourages you to support JRN by donating online here so that all of us can continue to learn and grow from the experiences of japanese runners, and those runners have opportunities to learn and grow from encounters beyond the borders of japan.


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