Jason Lawrence: Training for the Hakone Ekiden With Josai University

As the results of last Saturday’s Hakone Ekiden Qualifier 20 km road race continue to reverberate, the inevitable questions about how Japanese runners train have resurfaced. In the summer of 2006 Kiwi runner Jason Lawrence had a rare opportunity to attend 2007 and 2008 Hakone Qualifier winner Josai University’s summer gasshuku, an intensive training camp in the remoteness of northern Hokkaido. Josai is coached by former Hakone star Jun Hiratsuka and one hour run national record holder Seiji Kushibe. Among the runners Lawrence trained alongside at the camp was Yuta Takahashi, the 2nd place finisher at this year’s Hakone Qualifier in 59:23. Lawrence, now the top runner in Singapore, shared his diary from the training camp with JRN.

Summer Training Camp Diary

August 6, 2006:

I flew up to Hokkaido to join the Josai University distance squad for their summer training camp. 12 days of just running – it’s going to be tough. In the afternoon after my flight I went for an easy 10 miler with some of the guys who were just cruising and resting up for tomorrow. Most of them have already been here for 2 or 3 days. I was invited to the camp as Coach Kushibe is a friend of mine. It is very rare that an outsider like me gets the opportunity to join a camp like this as the preparation for the Hakone Ekiden is intense. I’m very fortunate to be here but unfortunate not to be in the same condition as these athletes are. They are super fit and I on the other hand have only a couple months of training under my belt after a long and nasty ITB injury.

Day 1: (AM) 60 min easy (PM) 5 km x 3 (5 min recovery jog)

The morning run was easier than I expected. Normally they run around 4 minute (per kilometre) pace and then a bit quicker for the last 30 minutes. Hokkaido reminds me of the countryside at home, New Zealand. Apparently there is only 1 convenience store in this small town but there are a few interesting local eateries. The town has provided each athlete with a lunch pass that we can use each day at one of the local restaurants– great score! This afternoon workout seems to be one of the camp’s more enduring workouts. The pace was set last night at 15.40, 15.30, and the last one was at your own pace. This happened to be around 14.48 for some of the guys. On the second repeat we opened up with a 3 minute kilometre which was too quick for me right now so it was downhill from there. A few of the guys couldn’t finish the last set and 2 others stopped after 2 sets. When you have 25 guys gunning for a 10-man team, training is tough. I was coughing a lot at the end because somehow, during the hottest part of the summer I picked up a cold. After a shower and a bath, I feel ok.

Day 2: (AM) 60 min free (PM) 25 km @ 3.30 pace

I felt pretty good this morning running with Coach Kushibe. But in the afternoon I wasn’t ready to hit out another workout. I could only hold on to the pace for 10 km then went from 14 km to 15 km in 4 minutes, so I pulled the plug there. The rest of the guys picked up the pace and ran in the last 5 km in about 15.30. Coach had a few words to the aggressors for picking up the tempo. I guess this is why a few guys are out with injuries – if they don’t stick to the prescribed pace and instead push on to impress, things might go bad. Looking forward to 2 days of jogging – I will work on my ping pong and poker. This afternoon’s workout took place 5 miles away from where we were staying. We ran there and back.

Day 3: (AM) 60 min (PM) 60 min

This morning was the first time the pace felt hard. But I did have 2 days of workouts to recover from. In the afternoon I ran easy with one of the guys who are recovering from injury. We talked about how he has been lucky to join a distance squad and make his way through college with his running. I don’t know how tuition fees here stack up against the U.S but some of the fees for just sitting entrance exams are astronomical. The runner I talked to is a senior and with the help of his coach, has already picked up a position with a major telecommunications provider in central Tokyo. He will not become a professional runner as such, but will work a 9 to 5 job with other guys on his team who will train together before and after work.

Day 4: (AM) 60 min (PM) 60 min

Very similar to yesterday, but the pace this morning was faster. For the last 20 minutes we were cruising at 3.30/km pace or better. Yuta Takahashi ran with us this morning before heading overseas for World Juniors where he will run the 10,000 m. He has his own schedule since nobody else is competing over the summer. Who wants to anyway? Even in Hokkaido I walk in the shade as much as possible to beat the heat. That reminds me – we don’t have air conditioning in our rooms, we do however have an electric fan and it has taken a while to adjust the perfect setting to enable a good night’s sleep. After breakfast we drove for 5 hours to our next location. I got out for a jog and strides afterwards with a few of the guys.

Day 5: (AM) 60 min (PM) 1000 m x 10 @ 3 min pace (200 m recovery in about 50-60 seconds)

Once again, the pace was on this morning. But maybe just under 4 minute pace – I’m just not used to it right now. In the afternoon I went down to the track and ran with a couple of the guys doing speed work. I rested every third effort and managed to average under 3 minutes for (1000 m x 2) x 3 and then paced the guys for their last kilometre. I have bumped into several other university and professional runners since arriving at our second location.

Day 6: (AM) 60 min free (PM) 75 min

Morning run was free (at your own pace) because most of the guys ran a 15 km tempo on the road yesterday. The guys I ran with on the track yesterday had just spent some time doing big mileage at another camp and needed to brush up their speed. I think they were checking out professional teams they may join once they graduate. In the afternoon I ran with one of the massage therapists around the 15 km circuit that was used yesterday. An undulating course on nice smooth country roads. The sweet smell of cow shit must have upset a few runners. I also went for a swim after lunch with the injured list.

Day 7: (AM) 75 min (PM) 400 m x 15 @ sub-70 sec pace (200 m recovery jog)

Ran an undulating course this morning coming home quite hard, largely due to a media crew recording build up content for next year’s Hakone Ekiden. In the morning we run no more than an hour together, after that it’s up to the individual to cool down or run further. This morning Seiji (Coach Kushibe) and I hunted out a grass course and talked a bit. We meet every morning at 6:00 am for a quick chat, stretches, and then depart as two groups in opposite directions. However, some guys are already outside at 5:30 am walking or warming up. Something I don’t get though is why we never run on trails or grass as a team. Hokkaido looking so green and all it just seems a waste and something a lot of the runners could benefit from. For the 400’s we split up into 2 groups and ran the whole workout 200 m apart. It must have been interesting to watch. I skipped every third rep.

Day 8: (AM) 60 min (PM) 30 km @ 3.30 pace

Pace this morning was fine, everyone was aware of the following workout in the afternoon. 30 km at 3.30 pace isn’t a big concern for these guys, but in light of the training load to date, it was always going to be a big task. I started the long run 5 minutes earlier with another guy who had taken yesterday off to let a minor injury heal. I led him out at about 3.45/km pace. At the 14 km mark on the foot of a hill I could hear the footsteps of 20 guys in red uniforms hunting me down. I had only planned to run to 20 km so I spent the next 6 km as pacemaker. It was a cool feeling even though I knew I had it easy. However, you must remember that this kind of training is over and above what I have ever done. We are talking more than 250 km a week – if I didn’t adjust the workouts to my current level of fitness I wouldn’t survive camp. In hindsight, I would have liked to have gone to 30 km. I had no problem maintaining the gap from 15-20 km. I assume I could have slipped into the pack and hung tough for the last 10 km.

The guys clocked 1 hour 45 minutes for the journey. The heat was intense early on; sweat dripping with every single step and shake of the hand. Everyone was together for 20 km then some started to drop. A process that makes the coach’s job of selecting a final 10 for Hakone a little bit easier.

Day 9: (AM) 60 min free (PM) 50 min free with some strides

The day before the final workout. Things were pretty relaxed and I ran with a minor hangover as a few of us celebrated a member’s 20th birthday (The age when alcohol and ‘snack bars’ enter a man’s life). Then in the evening I ran alone summing up camp so far and tried to shake off some fatigue. What surprised me this morning was one of the managers – a short and round looking student, had no problem running almost 10 miles with the pack.

Day 10: (AM) 60 min (PM) 2 km x 5 in 6 min or less, 2 min recovery

Morning run was easy, boys are feeling camp is coming to an end. In the afternoon I knew I wasn’t up for it and barely hung on to finish my 3rd rep. After that I ran with guys falling off the pack over the last few hundred metres of reps 4 and 5. These guys crank these workouts out like clock work and always have enough in reserve to bring the last one home faster. Front guys clocked about 5.50 for the 5th rep. No more workouts – it’s time for BBQ and beers.

Day 11: (AM) 60 min free

Final run with Seiji in Hokkaido. Last night the staff, seniors, and honorary guest runner hit the piss hard. After 10 days of hard core training, beers on the coach’s tab were thoroughly deserved all round. Unfortunately my wisdom teeth were killing me so I couldn’t party hard. I just wasn’t in the mood. A couple of karaoke numbers and then I was off to bed. A lot of guys went straight back to bed after morning stretches without going for a run. I on the other hand made sure Coach got out and paid for his party antics – 60 minutes around random farmland.

Camp Summary:

So, that’s it – a standard summer training camp for teams aspiring to run Hakone. These guys mean serious business. I was concerned with the number of injured athletes and the coaches explained to me that sometimes these guys just push too hard too often. A lot of guys come to dinner most nights with ice strapped to various parts of their legs.

I imagine about half of these guys won’t go on with their running after university. They are good enough to go professional, or at least win a few road races. I would like to say it would be a waste and if I had their talent I would continue running. But to be fair, although most are very talented and gifted runners, some have made their way on pure guts and determination.

For most team members if not all, “Hakone” is the pinnacle of their careers and it’s what they think about 24/7. If they won I’m sure they would roll over and die happily knowing they conquered the biggest and most meaningful foot race in Japan.

PS: The months after camp, I continued with the high mileage but nothing as extreme as what we ran in Hokkaido. I went on to run Personal best times for 5,000 m, 10 km, and 20 km on the road.

(c) 2009 Jason Lawrence
all rights reserved

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