on the Run

For nearly thirty years, Sakai, Japan, has invited and funded a Wellington runner to compete in its annual Senshu International Marathon. In recent years Wellington has reciprocated by inviting a citizen runner from Sakai to compete in the Wellington Marathon. 

Katy McTeigue says Wellington is possibly unique in having a citizen runner exchange with its sister city Sakai in Japan. 

Katy, a new Scottish member who has just run her first half marathon, has also recently been president of the Wellington Sakai Association (WSA). The association is a group of Wellington residents who work with our city council to foster social, cultural and sporting relationships between Wellington and Sakai. WSA and the Sakai Wellington Association, based in Sakai, help organise the runner exchange each year.

If you’ve run the Wellington Marathon in recent years you may have seen Katy at the finish line handing out miso soup. 

“I got into running because of this exchange,” says Katy. “I’ve always had such a great time waiting for our exchange runner to finish at the Wellington Marathon. After the last one, I was watching YouTube videos about running and decided to run the marathon myself. I don’t think I would have done that had I not met all the runners from the two cities. The club should know the exchange is a special opportunity and something to aim for.” 

Other cities have other sporting exchanges. For instance, Berkley in California also sends a runner to Sakai and the Senshu marathon each year – but that runner is usually an employee of the city, such as a firefighter or nurse, rather than drawn from the city’s community of runners. As far as Katy and I know, Wellington and Sakai’s annual exchange of marathon ambassadors is the only reciprocal running exchange between two cities.

Welcome to Wellington

Sharing cultures, promoting peace

Wellington’s most recent running ambassador to Sakai was Wellington Scottish’s Mark Moore. Mark raced the Senshu Marathon this February – probably one of the last marathons run by a Scottish club member before the Alert Level 4 lockdown.

“It’s an opportunity to experience a different culture, especially a different cultural approach to marathoning,” says Mark.

Mark’s point goes to the purpose of sister city relationships. Sister cities became popular after World War Two as a way of fostering friendship and understanding among different cultures. The relationships have been especially significant between former enemies, as a way of protecting peace. Today they are also about building strong economic and cultural ties between cities. 

Hirotaka Tanimoto agrees with Mark. A keen marathoner, Hiro has been a key link between WSA, the Wellington running community and Japan itself. He has helped introduce many of Sakai’s visiting runners to Wellington. 

Hiro says the exchange is important for both Japanese and New Zealanders. He notes that normally when runners travel to Japan, they stay with English speakers.

“However, if we go to Japan as an exchange runner, we meet people naturally. That’s a very good chance to learn Japanese culture and society – Going to the event, to cafés, restaurants or a Japanese home – that is a very special time for us. We can respect each other more.” 

Start of the Senshu Marathon 2020

The Senshu Marathon

By Japanese standards, Hiro points out, the Senshu International Marathon is a mid-scale event. In the eyes of visiting New Zealanders, however, it seems enormous. It regularly has around 5000 participants, including many fast runners. The Auckland Marathon, New Zealand’s biggest, Auckland had just 1600 entrants last year. 

And the scale is made bigger by the Sakai locals’ excitement for the event.

Mark says support for the event was huge. 

“It reminded me of the London Marathon, although not on the same scale. There was support the whole way around the course.”

Ironically, it was a quiet day when Mark ran. COVID-19 had already arrived in Japan. His host family said they were able to find a good spot to take photos, but normally they could not do so because the streets would be too busy.

“The community really gets into it,” says Mark “compared with, say, the Christchurch Marathon where there might be a few spectators along the course who know someone who is running. But otherwise, it is mostly empty and the streets cleared by 10am.”

Wellington’s reputation

Katy says the exchange lifts the calibre of the Wellington Marathon.

“Our marathon here has an overseas marathon guest! Our elite runners can eye up the start line and know that the Sakai runner is one to beat.”

Miyuki Usai

Katy says it’s a good boost for Wellington’s reputation in Sakai when one of our runners performs well at the Senshu Marathon.

“Sakai really appreciates the opportunity to host international runners and its people appreciate that Wellington often sends high calibre runners.”

She notes that when Wellingtonian Ingrid Cree won the citizens race at the Senshu Marathon a couple of years ago, it was very prestigious. Ingrid also got to spend some time with the Sakai runner Miyuki Usui, who had visited Wellington six months earlier. Reciprocal opportunities like this build life-long friendships. 

The Sakai Wellington Association in Japan sends many groups of Sakai residents to Wellington, including potters, archers, school students and rugby players. The Wellington Sakai Association does not have the budget to send similar numbers to Japan, but it is always sure to send a runner to the marathon. 

Learning from our differences and similarities

Mark says the Japanese make a big deal of their running events.

“They are a lot more formal, with big opening ceremonies and formal welcomes for the guest runners and elite runners. It’s a cool thing to see.”

Yumiko Tanaka

As with all who take part in the exchange to Sakai, Mark’s experience was one of being very well looked after and very well organised. He says it is impressive the number of people who give up a lot of time to look after you and show you their city.

He says one difference he noted of Japanese runners was their more courageous mindset.

“At the introduction speeches for the guest runners the Japanese all signed off saying they will ‘go their hardest’ and ‘give it their all’” says Mark. The officials all shouted ‘faito’ – struggle and overcome.

“They are not afraid to fail. They aim high, set off at a pace they hope for rather than expect, and one time they might succeed.”

Hiro notes that Japanese runners train differently to New Zealanders.

“There are no grass fields, no trails but heaps of cars and traffic lights. How do they train for the marathon? They are running the small loops (400m/500m/600ms…) at a small park, the counts are 10, 20, 30,,,100 laps! So, they are disciplined with their training not only physically but also mentally.”

By contrast, Wellington has a great environment for running. 

“We have a lot of grass fields, trails, beaches and not busy streets.”

“Wellington events are very organised and it’s not too huge. Therefore, we can avoid negative situations. (For example, we don’t get stuck or waiting an hour on the start line, we don’t need to wait for the toilet etc… )”

“We don’t have huge numbers of marathoners in New Zealand. So it’s not easy to find an athlete at the same level. Sometimes it’s hard to challenge and achieve big workouts.”

Hiro says Wellington runners are more relaxed before a race. “We are not thinking too much. We think “just do it”. We just wake up, have breakfast, wear our running gear, shoes, jog, drills, stride and start. Also, we are very strong in headwinds and hills!”

“Japanese runners are very focused on producing a good performance,” says Hiro. They will have a much longer and more structured technical pre-race routine that could last for hours before the race.

Hiro notes that Japan has two types of runners – corporate runners and citizen runners. 

“Corporate runners are competitive, and citizen runners are retired from their running career. Usually, Japanese running teams belong to companies, universities, or schools. So there are not many social running clubs for kids or adult runners in Japan. We don’t have a runners’ community or group with our running. Always just solo running.”

“By comparison,” says Hiro, “New Zealand’s runners are still challenging for their big performances unless they stop their running – even though they are not professional or corporate runners. They may know ‘we can challenge anytime, anywhere’.”

Hiro notes, however, that lately, some Japanese citizen runners are trying to build running communities and groups. 

“Wellington running clubs are a great example for them. The last ambassador to run the Wellington Marathon, Tsubasa Hokamura has created his own running club. He was very inspired by our running community and by Scottish. (Latest news, I let him know about the Scottish Virtual running challenge. He would like to try to make a similar one with his running club.)”  

Wellingtonians supporting the exchange

Mark says there are a lot of small cultural differences between Wellington and Sakai.

“I think we should create more opportunities for the Wellington running community to connect with the Japanese runners while they are here in New Zealand.”

Hiro agrees. And he says it is easy.

“Try to give your smile, say hello or ‘konnichiwa’, talk and run together.” 

“Normally, they would like to try to speak English. But Japanese really worry that they can’t speak English fluently and they can’t catch your native sounds. Just keep speaking and talking to them with your English even if they don’t understand it. Probably they will give you only a smile and yes, but in their mind will be relief.” 

“I would like to say ‘sports communication’ is the best way. Especially going for runs together for us. That is an entrance into another culture and society.”  

Katy says it would be good if more people get involved in hosting the runner when they visit. The Wellington Sakai Association usually has a translator available to help Wellingtonians meet the Sakai runners.  You could meet them briefly, show them a part of our city and talk to them about training or racing. 

“They are here for such a short time and they really like the opportunities to meet and know local runners – runners like talking about running!”

Each year Sakai City invites and funds one Wellington runner to compete in the Senshu International Marathon in February. And Wellington invites and funds one Sakai runner to compete in the Wellington Marathon in June. The invited runner alternates gender each year – a woman, then a man, and so forth.  If this year’s Wellington Marathon proceeds and international travel restrictions have been lifted, the fastest woman at February’s Senshu Marathon from Sakai will represent her city. And the fastest Wellington woman to finish the Wellington Marathon will have the opportunity to travel to Sakai and the Senshu Marathon in February next year.

Wellington Marathon Ambassadors to Sakai

  • 1996 – Max O’Kane 
  • 1997 – Maryanne Palmer
  • 1998 – Bruce Blair
  • 1999 – Ian Westphall 
  • 2000 – Justin Duckworth 
  • 2001 – Bev Hodge   
  • 2002 – Oliver Woodbridge 
  • 2003 – Stewart McRobie
  • 2004 – Mick Finn 
  • 2005 – Bill Barrett
  • 2006 – Sally Anderson
  • 2007 – Helen Anderson
  • 2008 – Stuart Beresford 
  • 2009 – Tim Horne 
  • 2010 – Christine Jones
  • 2011 – Kevin Pugh 
  • 2012 – Catherine Quin 
  • 2013 – Stephen Day and Michelle Van Looy 
  • 2014 – Grant McLean 
  • 2015 – Andrew Wharton
  • 2016 – Tim Sutton
  • 2017 – Letha Witham 
  • 2018 – Dan Lowry
  • 2019 – Ingrid Cree
  • 2020 – Mark Moore

Sakai Marathon Ambassadors to Wellington

  • 2016 – Yumiko Tanaka
  • 2017 – Kosuke Hamada
  • 2018 – Miyuki Usai 
  • 2019 – Tsubasa Hokamura