On my way to work, I was listening to devastating news from Japan as the nation experienced what was described at the time as twin disasters, but soon described as triple. One reporter’s account struck a chord with me as he reported from Japan for NPR: Japan Struggles to Cope with Disaster’s Magnitude. His subsequent reports have also tugged at my heartstrings. My heart goes out to all who are suffering. One friend posted this helpful resource for supporting the recovery efforts: Japan Earthquake and Tsunami: How to Help.
I have many fond memories of traveling on several occasions to Japan. When Linda McClennan Begley commented on my last article, she reminded me of those trips, each time to escort a USA Team for an international Ekiden competition. At home, it seems everyone has heard of a marathon, but hardly anyone is familiar with this long-distance relay, called Ekiden.
Ekiden (駅伝?) is a term referring to a long-distance relay running race, typically on roads. The Japanese term originally referred to a post-horse or stagecoach which transmitted communication by stages. (Wikipedia)
I remember arriving in Yokahama for the 1986 International Women’s Ekiden. As chair person for the US committee on women’s international competition, I compiled the team including Ruth Wysocki, Robyn Root, Cathie Twomey, Maureen Custy, Lynn Nelson, Pattisue Plummer and Debbie Eide. Joan Benoit considered joining the team, however she was both healing from an injury and writing her book. The coaches and managers included myself, Doris Brown Heritage and Laurel James. Upon arrival, February 17th, there was snow on the ground everywhere, and although it was cold, the sun was shining over clear blue skies. It was beautiful.
To be a guest in Japan is to be treated like royalty. Every day there were countless gifts and tours, so much so, someone said her face hurt from smiling and saying thank-you so much. It’s true! Gift giving is an actual art. I was coached by Doris to be prepared with multiple gifts to distribute. There was a complete variety, from the casual trinkets to hand out as token gifts or to exchange with other athletes and coaches, all the way up to more elaborate gifts to formally present at ceremonies. I studied the hierarchy of the meet organization and the federation. We went to great lengths to bring items that would say “unique from the USA.” The challenge was the wrapping of gifts, passing everything through customs first. How a gift is wrapped is as important as the contents. So I would carefully pack wrapping paper and accessories, to assemble once we unpacked. The organization of one of these events is a marvel that would be hard to replicate anywhere else.
There were tour buses that escorted the runners to their drop-off points where they would receive, not a baton, but a sash worn across your torso on a diagonal. In fact, there was an organized practice during the week to demonstrate exactly how to don the sash, remove the sash and pass the sash. It too is an art. On the buses, bento-box lunches were provided, and to ward off the cold, parkas were provided as well. Despite the snow on the ground, the entire course through the city was lined with flowers! The start and finish to the race was inside an enormous stadium. While the runners were out on the road, the audience was entertained with youth games going on in the stadium and on the big screen, the race was shown live. The distances of the relay legs added up to a marathon, 42-kilometers: 5K, 10K, 5K, 10k, 5K, 7K. Our team reciprocated with an outstanding performance that put them on the medal stand. It was one of the finest performances the US has ever presented. They took third and stood proudly on stage before their hosts.
The dinner party and entertainment that followed that night were incredible! Imagine a dining hall elaborate with ice sculptures and half the hall filled with the finest offerings in Western cuisine, while the other half was filled with Japanese cuisine and an endless sushi bar, which is where I found myself in pig heaven. The sake flowed and the dancing was non-stop.
I did return the next year, and while we did not place nearly as high, we did make a good showing. Mary Decker Slaney gave the team a good start with a course record 15:30 5K, however overall, we finished 7th place. Team members included Ruth Wysocki, Martha White, Cathie Twomey. I was Head Coach and Mary Cullen served as Team Manager. Upon arrival, we were bussed to Chiba’s renowned training center where we stayed until it was time to head to Yokahama for the race. Chiba was a beautiful facility, housed in wooded forests, with cabins for our accommodations. The cafeteria provided abundant food for every international palate imaginable. The training facilities were state of the art, including a floor of cardio machines, a floor of every kind of weight machine, and two huge pools complete with fountains, where I taught aqua-aerobic classes more than once. Following the relay race and post-race celebrations, similar to the year before, the team was taken to Tokyo Disneyland, but Mary Cullen and I departed for Seoul, Korea to get a preview of the 1988 Olympic venues. What an adventure!
When I again returned to Japan in 1989, the journey included taking a marathon team first to Taiwan for the Taipei Marathon. My hostess was none other than my first Track and Field heroine, Chi Cheng. She resided in the Los Angeles area when I first joined the LA Track Club, and she was our star athlete. I remember attending one of the first team meetings to view a slide show of her trip on the European Track Circuit, with all her racing victories, world records, trophies and fame. I could not believe I was actually on the same team with someone that accomplished. In years to come, we came to know and respect one another. I was competing at an LA indoor meet one time, got tangled in a collision mid-race, and took an awful fall. Spiked, bruised and bloody, I lay on the trainer’s table and Chi was the first one to my side. Another time after that, she advised me on my start, saying that I should get out fast, never look back, and pretend a tiger is chasing me. That was her M.O. What a great time to reunite with her in her home country, where she served in high places within her athletics federation.
From Taiwan, I met the US Ekiden team in Japan. The team included PattiSue Plummer, Cathie Twomey, Linda McClennan and Brenda Webb. I served as Head Coach with fellow coach Jim McLatchie.
My last trip to Japan came in 1999, as a Head Team Coach with fellow Coach, Greg Meyer, escorting a co-ed team to Chiba. The men’s team placed fourth and the women’s in sixth, both highly respectable.
In closing, I leave you with a poignant moment of Japan’s Cherry Blossoms, in Brief, Beautiful Bloom, as reported on NPR.