RUNNING IN TOKYO

Picking up the pace of urban life

by Yukari Pratt

There are mile markers in life, and an impending 40th birthday recently forced me to take stock of my health. I had put on weight while at culinary school and, being a complete nonathlete, I never managed to lose it. I had a gym membership, but the only sweat I ever worked up was in the sauna. Running only happened when I made a mad dash for the last train after a night out.

Then fate interceded. At a business dinner one night, I met Bob Poulson, a founding member of Tokyo running club Namban Rengo, which loosely translates as the Barbarian Horde.

To my surprise, Tokyo is a great city for runners. There are a handful of good courses right in the middle of the city: a 5-km loop around the Imperial Palace, a 2 1/2-km run in Yoyogi Park, 3.3 km around the Akasaka Geihinkan (state guest house) and 2.2 km through Komazawa Park among them. There are also great trails an hour away by train in such places as Takao, Oume and Kamakura. Fellow Nambanner Jay Johanneson goes so far as to venture: “I think Tokyo is the best city for running in Asia. The climate is tolerable, the streets are clean and safe to cross, the air is breathable and you have a huge local running community and great foreign running community.”

Namban Rengo and other running groups meet at Ota Field in Yoyogi Park on Wednesday evenings, and Poulson suggested I come along after investing in a good pair of jogging shoes. At first it was daunting to see so many runners in one place. There are hundreds of them, from sprinters to speed-walkers, and even runners who are sight-impaired and tied to a partner at the wrists.

Getting started was not easy. I could not go any distance without puttering out. My knees hurt, but a well-cushioned pair of new shoes quickly took care of that. It takes time to build some stamina and energy. But Poulson was really supportive, advising me not to not push myself too hard right away and reassuring me that being part of a group would motivate me to keep at it.

That turned out to be so true that I soon joined the others in incorporating stretching or yoga into my routine. Former runner Michael Glenn teaches a class, “Yoga for Runners,” at BeYoga in Hiroo. In a session, we stretch and learn poses, and Glenn describes how certain muscles will affect us while we are running, as well as how stretching these muscles will help reduce the risk of injury and improve overall efficiency.

Far from being a social running club like the Hash House Harriers, whose events in every major city around the world end with rapid-paced boozing, Poulson describes Namban Rengo members as people who “aspire to run in races and run faster.” The club formed among a group of foreign runners who met at races in Japan. At first, they started training with a Japanese club on Wednesday evenings and then joined together in 1989 to run an ekiden, essentially a long-distance road relay race. They eventually gathered about a dozen runners to start their own club, which now counts about 60-70 regular members. There are several other running groups in the city and an active e-mail community where runners share their experiences at different races around the country. Recently, Namban Rengo member Gareth Pughe organized the second Tour de Yamanote — in which an impressive group managed the 42-km course beside the Yamanote line through central Tokyo.

Running has become contagious for me. I never thought I would look forward to putting on my shoes and getting out on the road, but that’s what I now do. It is a great way to see the city. Smelling the smoke from the yakitori stalls, the flowers in spring, or the crisp autumn leaves are some of the pleasures I have experienced. Along the Sumidagawa River, I watch as the yakatabune (Japanese houseboats) head out past Tsukuda toward Tsukiji and Tokyo Bay. I have even found a great tofu shop in my neighborhood by running down back streets I would otherwise avoid.

Eight months have passed since my debut at Ota Field. While I am still the slowest around the track and have a lot more work ahead of me, I feel great about the progress I have made.

My next aim is to run a 5-km race in competition. I have lost several kilograms, my pants are now too big and I often crave healthy foods. And although I still find myself running occasionally for the last train, I am not short of breath after making the dash.

Getting started

Tokyo is a great city for pounding the pavement, with many different running paths, local groups and an active running community. If you want to get into shape, consider giving it a try. There are several running clubs in the city. Check out the following Tokyo running clubs’ English Web sites:

*www.namban.org

*www.tokyohash.org

*www.yokotastriders.com

Japanese Web sites:

*www.harriers.jp

*www.amy.hi-ho.ne.jp/atomi

Yoga for runners:

*www.beyogajapan.com

Tips for beginners

Namban Rengo’s Bob Poulson offers the following advice:

*Join a club for motivation and camaraderie.

*Buy a pair of shoes with good cushioning; any brand is OK.

*Start by alternating walking and jogging for five minutes each.

*You don’t have to run every day. Three or four days a week is fine for a start. Always take at least one rest day per week.

*Set goals. For example, to run a 5-km race within five months. (The Tokyo English Life Line charity race in the first week of May is a good place to start [tel: (03) 3498-0261].)