Brit Scoutmaster jogs for health, charity

Colin Yarker's trail running exploits give him the stamina to thrive in Tokyo, shrug off a stroke

by Louise George Kittaka

Special To The Japan Times

Running up a mountain probably wouldn’t be most people’s idea of a pleasant weekend leisure activity, but Brit Colin Yarker thrives on the physical and mental challenge of trail running.

“We take the same route as people who hike up a mountain, but we run instead of walk,” he said. Not only has trail running widened his social circle and inspired him to volunteer for charity, he also credits the sport for helping him overcome a potentially life-threatening health crisis three years ago.

Although you would never guess it from his chiseled physique, Yarker says he was a chubby, unathletic youngster as he grew up near the city of York. “I had no interest in sports whatsoever. At my school, we had to do cross-country running twice a week and I was always stuck at the back.”

When he was 16, an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the vicinity forced the school to change the usual route, and the students were instructed to run along the roads instead. “For safety reasons, they couldn’t have us all running at once, so we set off in order of slowest to fastest. I was the second to leave,” he recalled. One of his faster classmates angered Yarker by taunting him as he passed by. “I decided I’d show him! And that’s when I discovered I could run. Within six month I was the school’s cross-country champion.”

At that stage, he still had no great love for sports, and gave up running altogether when he left school at 18. He gave up trying to be an airline pilot when there were no jobs available. He went back to school to earn a doctorate in physics, and then went on to work for an international glass manufacturer engaged in fiber optics.

The firm had a strong market in Japan and was looking for a way to bridge the cultural gap between staff at the head office in the U.K. and at the Japanese branch. Yarker was handpicked to take on the role of “cultural ambassador” and sent to Tokyo in 1979. “I came here on what is now known as the Executive Training Program, run by the European Union. I was on year one of the program.”

The ETP assists European executives and companies in expanding their activities in Japan, providing opportunities to study both language and business. Yarker and his fellow trainees spent 18 months studying Japanese in an intensive course at a language school. This was supplemented by monthly visits to companies and lectures by successful Japanese businesspeople.

His firm asked him to stay on at the Japanese office when he finished the ETP program. “The U.K. was in a recession and there wouldn’t have been a role for me if I returned. I’d grown to enjoy life in Japan, so I was quite happy to stay here and put into practice what I had learned.”

Another major factor was that he had already met his future wife by that stage. They subsequently married in 1982.

Within a few years, the couple had established their own company, which they still operate today. “We started off importing raw materials for ceramics, such as for use in tiles and tableware, but now our biggest business by far is the import of architectural glass and stone.”

While Yarker still had yet to return to running, he was pulled into a world of outdoor activities when his son joined the Boy Scouts as a first-grader. “He was attending an international school and was termed a ‘passive bilingual’ — he understood English but didn’t speak it unless he really had to. Outside the classroom, he preferred to speak Japanese with his friends, so the school suggested providing more opportunities for him to play in English. That’s when we found out about the scouting program at the Tokyo American Club.”

Father and son started attending Cub Scouts, the program for younger boys in the first to fifth grades. TAC’s group is run under the auspices of the Boy Scouts of America’s Far East Council, which is primarily responsible for scouts at U.S. military bases in the region, but also extends to civilian groups. Parental involvement is a vital part of the program and Yarker quickly came on board as a volunteer leader. “I had absolutely no scouting experience, but I took on various leadership roles during my son’s five years” with the Cub Scouts.

From sixth grade, boys graduate from Cub Scouts and move on to the “big” Boy Scouts.

“Toward the end of his first year with the troop, the Scoutmaster wanted to leave because his boys were getting older. The parents’ committee asked if I’d be interested in taking over.” He pauses and grins. “After a year, I knew enough to think I could do it — but not enough to realize what a challenge it was.”

Clearly, Yarker rose to the occasion, holding the position of Scoutmaster for 10 years. “Scouting is a fantastic experience. My son went on to become an Eagle Scout, the highest rank in Scouting. Even after he left scouts and went off to college, I decided to stay on as Scoutmaster.”

In contrast to the Cub Scouts, where parents plan and lead the activities, Yarker notes that the boys themselves mostly run the Boy Scouts. He says it is very rewarding to watch the boys develop from callow pre-teens into confident young adults. “You see these small 11-year-olds come in, wet behind the ears, and you can watch them grow. They learn how to camp in the snow and the rain, how to prepare a hot meal at the end of a long day of hiking. They develop leadership skills as they go.”

Thinking that it was time for one of the younger fathers to take a turn, Yarker relinquished his role in 2005, but is still very much at the helm of scouting in Tokyo. He currently holds the post of Tokyo zone co-chair, overseeing all the civilian Boy Scout troops and Cub Scout packs in the Tokyo district.

In a roundabout way, it was through scouting that Yarker eventually came back to competitive running. “In 2000 I was at this campsite at Camp Zama, near Atsugi in Kanagawa Prefecture. There was one accident over the entire weekend and it happened to me. I went and tripped over a Scout and broke my leg just above my ankle.”

Although his lower leg was in a cast, this didn’t stop the intrepid Scoutmaster from continuing to accompany his troop on camps and hikes, but things didn’t go quite so well once the cast was removed. “I was told to rehabilitate the ankle, so I started going for two-hour walks every night, but I still couldn’t flex it. That’s when my doctor said I had a choice between running or physical therapy.”

With a business to attend to and his scouts depending on him, the idea of commuting back and forth to the hospital each week for the next six months didn’t appeal to Yarker. “The next day, I went out and ran for a grand total of five minutes. I built the time up little by little, just running round the neighborhood, and I gradually regained full mobility.”

After their son left for college, Yarker joined a gym at his wife’s bidding. This led to the invitation from an acquaintance at the gym to try running a half marathon in 2003. “I enjoyed that so much that I tried a full marathon soon afterwards, and then moved on to a 100-km road race,” he said.

As his stamina and prowess gained, he continued to look for challenges and was introduced to the sport of trail running in 2008. He became involved with the Oxfam Trailwalker charity event around the same time. “The premise is for teams of four people to run 100 km within a set time limit of 48 hours. Each team gets sponsors and pledges to raise money for Oxfam’s charity work around the globe.

“I did my first Oxfam Trailwalker in Hong Kong in 2005 and, like the majority of the people in the race, I walked it that time. But after the event came to Japan in 2007, I started running the course with my team instead. About 10 percent of teams choose to run. But it isn’t just about speed, as you all have to finish the course together. I’ve participated every year since then.”

In addition to Hong Kong and Japan, Oxfam Trailwalker events are held in New Zealand, Australia, India and several European countries. In May, 179 teams hit the trail in this year’s Japan event, traveling from Odawara, Kanagawa Prefecture, to Lake Yamanaka in Yamanashi Prefecture via Hakone. Participants ranged in age from 18 to 78.

“I usually compete with a group called The Genki Gaijins or ‘the cheerful, vivacious foreigners’ — and we live up to our name. But this year we changed our name to The Not-so-Genki Gaijins, since we were feeling the effects of a 161-km ultra trail running event around and up Mount Fuji two weekends before,” he says with a chuckle. “We were traversing up a 9-km vertical incline in some places on that run.”

With a thriving business and his renewed passion for fitness, things were going well for Yarker when he turned 60 in 2010, but the year almost ended in tragedy. “It was Christmas Eve and I was still at work. I’d had a few drinks to celebrate the season, and I was almost falling asleep at my desk, so I had some coffee. In retrospect, not a wise decision as both alcohol and coffee are diuretics, and are thus apt to make the blood thicker,” he recalls.

“Suddenly I realized I’d forgotten how to use my computer and I found I couldn’t speak. I was having a stroke, brought on by long-term dehydration. Luckily, my scout training helped me realize what was happening and I managed to attract attention and raise the alarm.”

It was found that Yarker had three blockages in his brain, affecting his speech and recall. He couldn’t even remember his name by the time he arrived at the hospital. “It was the cumulative effect of alcohol at a number of yearend parties, combined with numerous cups of coffee to keep me awake in the office, that caused the dehydration, which in turn led to the stroke.”

After being treated with saline and blood thinners, he woke up 12 hours later feeling much better. “My memory had returned and I could speak again.”

Since his stroke, Yarker feels that all his efforts for the Boy Scouts and Oxfam Trailwalker culminated in the gift of a second chance at life. “If it hadn’t been for my scout training, I wouldn’t have recognized the seriousness of what happening to me.”

The doctors confirmed that Yarker’s trail running had also played a huge part in his recovery. “During the stroke, the blockages restricted blood flow to the recall and speech areas of my brain, temporarily reducing brain capacity. However, all that running had helped increase the levels of oxygen in my blood, allowing sufficient oxygen to reach the affected areas. As a result, damage to the brain was avoided and I suffered no long-term side effects.” Under a different set of circumstances, he could have been left incapacitated for life.

With a new lease on life, the very genki Yarker shows no signs of slowing down. Along with his volunteer work for the Boy Scouts, he has recently taken on the role of Oxfam Japan vice president, overseeing operations in this country.

Trail running continues to provide him with the balance he needs in his busy life. “Basically it’s a complete contrast to the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, giving me the opportunity to stay fit and challenge myself in an incredibly beautiful environment with some like-minded friends. The attraction of trail running has to be experienced to be understood.”

For more information on trail running and scouting in Japan:
Oxfam Trailwalker Japan trailwalker.jp/en/
Tokyo Trail Runner www.facebook.com/tokyotrailrunning
Boy Scouts of America’s Far East Council www.fareastcouncil.org/join-scouting