Sunday, October 2, 2011

Running Festival!

Running Festivals are really a euphemism for a mandatory runs.  As far as I know, every high school in my city – and most in Hokkaido – have some sort of mandatory run for their students. 

At my base school, the girls run 30km and the boys run 42km (26 miles).  All students are required to be there, and the few students who don’t have to run still go to the school so that they can volunteer all day. Of the approximately 600 students at this school, only 10 students had medical reasons to not participate in the running, and almost all the students eventually finished.  The first students starting finishing about three hours after their 7:30am start, while the final students came in around 3:00pm that day.  
(Above) Me in front of my base school and the finish line

I really like the idea.  I still think the distance could pass for torture in the States, but maybe something shorter might be worth considering.  Though I saw a lot of students who just wanted the day to be over, I also saw a lot of camaraderie.  There was school spirit, and students were proud of their accomplishment.  All students – even the best runners – were challenged by this race, but almost none failed to complete the task.  

It’s weird, but 30-40km doesn’t seem too shocking anymore. To be fair, I wasn’t the one running. But perhaps I got used to the idea after last year’s marathon, or maybe it’s because I found out about what other schools do.  

As my base school started preparing for the marathon, I became curious about other high school’s running festivals.  I was wondering how normal an event like this was.  Each Japanese teacher or friend I asked could relate some sort of story about a mandatory run during their high school days. If it’s not all across Japan, it’s certainly entrenched across Hokkaido.

Although most schools – if they have running festivals – don’t exceed a full marathon, one school that I visit still does.  At Hokuto High School, the top academic school in Kitami, the girls run 40km, and the boys run 72km.  It’s been this way for decades.  The teachers arrive at the school at 2:00am, and the race begins by 4:00am.  The English teacher who told me about this is a graduate from this high school.  He had to do it each year when he was a student, and he finished in about seven hours.  Now it’s his turn to encourage his students on.  And so the circle continues. 

There is compassion.  After a set amount of time – both at my base school and at Hokuto – a bus goes through the route and picks up any stragglers.  I’ve nicknamed it the Mercy Bus.  Although most of my base school’s students finish, the Hokuto boys have a more difficult time and about 20% of the boys don’t finish the race.

When I told this to my friends this weekend, my foreign friends were shocked but the Japanese friends just nodded in understanding.  One woman proceeded to tell me about a race that a high school in Asahikawa used to have.

This race began at 10:00…in the evening.  The students ran through the night with a helmet and flashlight.  She couldn’t remember the exact distance, but she was certain it was at least 100km.  The students would run through the night and well into the day, and hopefully finish. I’d guess that there were several Mercy Buses for that school.

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