By Matt Reekie
Unbelievably Bad Contributor
I met the world’s slowest marathon runner on Asakusa Station in Tokyo. It was around five on a Monday arvo and I was dashing to Narita Airport hoping to make check-in for my flight home to Australia. I asked a train driver for help. Like most Japanese, he spoke little English but understood enough of what I was asking to whip out a cardboard timetable from his work bag, point to some arbitrary line filled with Japanese text, and say, “Twenty. Six. Minute.”
As he walked away, a smiling Japanese face speaking perfect English turned to explain how there were two trains to Narita, and that I was in luck as the next one would be the express. From my experience, it seemed rare for a stranger in Japan to speak to another stranger this way, but as I was to find out, this fella was no ordinary stranger.
Hajime Nishi was his name. Japanese, he looked healthy for his age, which I estimated to be somewhere in his fifties (he’s actually in his sixties). He carried a pushbike in a specially made zip-up bag (You can’t wheel your bike onto a train in Japan, and yet people won’t even stand up and offer a seat to a woman carrying a newborn baby. Go figure.).
He asked me where I was from. When I said Australia he told me he’d been there a few times. The previous year he’d spent several months trekking from Adelaide to Darwin, seeing parts of the country I’ll probably never bother to go see.
He told me he was a long-distance runner and that he’d run a marathon in Canberra. He’d run in marathons all over the world, including more than 600 in America. He was, apparently, the first man to run marathons on all seven continents in seven months. He even made the Guinness Book.
His secret? Running slow. One of his mottos, and he had many, was: “Run slow, live long”. Another was: “Lose to win”.
He told me he sometimes made appearances as a motivational speaker, and that his speeches often baffled people.
He told me how, just that day, the mayor of a local province had handed him a letter giving his blessing to an “eco marathon” Nishi was organising.
He told me about his annual eco marathon. Participants would dress up in crazy costumes and pick up rubbish as they ran. Instead of the usual water stations stacked with wasteful paper cups, each runner would carry a hessian water sack to be refilled at each stop. At this I was slightly confused. If the runners had to stop for water refills and to pick up rubbish, wouldn’t that slow them down? Nishi smiled liked a patient parent. Clearly I was not yet picking up what he was laying down.
He told me about old marathon runners who’d committed suicide when age caught up with them. They could no longer make the distance in less than howevermany hours, so they took the ancient Samurai’s way out. If only they’d adjusted their goals to trying to run last instead…
Me and Nishi rode the train together for more than an hour. We shared stories of our families and our lives, and I learnt more about his go-slow philosophy.
He told me how he discovered his calling. He was the CEO of a big company with a Thai wife and three kids. His children had grown up with money, but one day Dad came to them and said he’d found his true purpose and in a few years he’d quit his well-paid position and dedicate himself to his cause. He helped his children save the money to achieve their independence, which is often difficult in an economy like Japan. He then threw himself into spreading the word about slow running.
He told me about a fellow CEO who’d retired at 60 and took up marathon running. At 80, he’s still running, slowly, thanks to the message Nishi preaches. But nobody runs slower than Nishi. He’s proud to be the slowest runner. For him there is a symbolism in running last. If he ran second last, the message would become murky.
He told me his eco marathon was all for charity. Normally this would mean not-for-profit, but in this case he paid for all the set up and administration costs and at the end donated 100-percent of the funds raised to help victims of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake.
He told me how he’d seen footage of people who’d lost everything. A woman who’d lost her husband, her house and her transportation. He said it should have been a wake-up call to all Japanese people, to turn off all the neon lights in the cities, to change their way of living. Instead, little more than a year after it happened, many of the people in unaffected areas had begun to forget the ongoing struggles of the quake victims.
Nishi’s eco marathon – known as ECO INBA – is the world’s first zero-emission non-competition fundraising sports event. He touts it as a “Foreigner-Friendly Registration-Free sports event who donate 5000 yen for Japan quake victims and can enjoy CosPlay, trash-picking up, photo or smile contests on 42km, 21km or 10km safe and scenic course when cherry blossoms in bloom”.
Nishi is all about making the world a better place through unity, charity and deceleration. He has run slowly all over the world, and at that pace, at street level, has developed the view that the human race is worth salvaging. But is it salvageable? Well, here’s where the exception to the go-slow rule comes in. We need fast action. The sooner we recognise we’re all in this together, the greater our collective chance of survival.
Nishi has run dead last in thousands of marathons in hundreds of countries but no one could ever say he’s not a winner.
The seventh ECO INBA marathon is on tomorrow, April 2. For more information on it and its founder, Hajime Nishi, go to ecoinba.blogspot.com.au.