Group offers healthy change of pace

Namban Rengo club provides novice joggers, experienced runners with facts, friends and fun

by Kazuaki Nagata

Not many people would argue that sports aren’t a great way of connecting people. The proof can be found at Namban Rengo, an international running club that meets every Wednesday near Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park.

At a recent practice session at just about 7:15 p.m., though the sky was already dark, the spring weather made it a comfortable evening to spend outside.

The good weather brought out the sports-minded, and Oda Field in Shibuya was so packed with people it looked like a school athletic event was in progress.

Among them was a mixed crowd of Japanese and non-Japanese gathered a bit off to the side of the track. Some people were stretching, others just spending the time chatting. They belonged to Namban Rengo, founded in 1989 and currently boasting approximately 120 members. Foreigners, made up of peoples from some 12 different countries, account for about 70 percent of the group.

According to Bob Poulson, one of the founding members of the club and the current club captain, about 30-40 people usually show up for the weekly training session.

Poulson pointed out that part of the club’s attractiveness is its balance of the serious and the casual. “It’s a good club because it’s informal,” said Poulson, explaining that there are no strict rules, and people can attend the training at their convenience.

“It’s basically just a place to gather for training and to find out information about races,” Poulson said, mentioning that it was often difficult for non-Japanese to get race information on their own.

Many Namban Rengo members take part in a number of competitions, including the Tokyo Marathon, some ekiden relay races, and even some races overseas.

Weekly workouts usually consist of six 1,000-meter runs. On the last Wednesday of the month, there is a 5-km time trial.

The recent session, which happened to be the final Wednesday of the month, started with members gathering in a circle and Poulson announcing the club’s upcoming events.

After newcomers introduced themselves and were welcomed by the others, the workout kicked off with a 400-meter warmup run. After that, the time trial began.

Despite the differences in speed among the runners, one could sense the serious nature of the work at hand simply by looking at the serious expression on the runners’ faces. As they did laps around the track, some checked their times on their watches.

Though the club is casual, “everyone is pretty serious about running. They want to get into shape,” Poulson explained.

“If you do want to become a serious runner, we can help you with that, too, because we do have good runners. We have quite a number of really good runners,” he said.

At workout end, expressions relaxed and the atmosphere lightened again. With the evening’s work behind them, the group members then got together to socialize over dinner, a weekly custom.

Running together, dining together, Namban Rengo’s weekly training is a great opportunity to meet others passionate about running or just getting interested. It’s also a great place to meet foreigners, as well as Japanese who are interested in speaking English.

Wendy Kelder from Holland came to Tokyo about eight weeks ago. She knew no one in Tokyo and found the club on the Internet. “It’s a very nice and open group,” Kelder said. “It’s not only a sports event, it’s also a social event,” she said. Kelder also said the club has helped her meet new people.

“Running definitely connects people,” said German Jurgen Wittstock passionately over Vietnamese cuisine at the postworkout dinner. Wittstock has been a club member for 16 years and pointed out that the club is neither a foreigners’ club nor a Japanese club, but a bit of both, indeed, a healthy mix.

Namban Rengo’s weekly training is held at Oda Field near Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park in Shibuya Ward on Wednesday. See the group’s Web site at: www.namban.org or contact club captain Bob Poulson by e-mail at roadrunr@gol.com