Shizo Kanakuri: The Man Who Took 54 Years To Finish a Marathon

Oct 5, 2022 0 comments

Shizo Kanakuri was not a slow runner. In fact, he reportedly set the world record by completing a 40-km marathon run in 2 hours, 32 minutes, and 45 seconds at a domestic event, that qualified him to represent Japan at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. Yet, on race day, he could barely compete and dropped out before he reached the half-way mark. Embarrassed at his failure, Shizo Kanakuri never showed up. It would be decades before he was formally allowed to finish the race.

Shizo Kanakuri competes in the men's marathon race during the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp, Belgium.

Shizo Kanakuri was one of only two Japanese athletes to compete in the Stockholm Olympics. Sports were not highly valued in Japan at the time. The government did not cover athletics' travel costs. As a result, Kanakuri's fellow college students organized a nationwide fundraiser, raising 1,500 yen, while Kanakuri's oldest brother contributed 300 yen.

The trip to Sweden took 18 days, first by ship and then by the Trans-Siberian Railway. At stations, whenever the train stopped, Kanakuri would jump for a quick workout before hurriedly reboarding.

The difficult journey had taken its toll, and when he finally arrived in Sweden, he discovered that the local cuisine didn't agree with his stomach. To make matters worse, Kanakuri's coach was confined to a bed due to tuberculosis, which prevented him from giving two athletes, including Kanakuri, enough pre-race training.

On the day of the race, the heat was scorching. Of the 68 participants, only 34 would reach the finish line. One Portuguese runner was hospitalized and died the next day, the first reported death during an Olympics.

Also read: The 1904 Olympic Marathon Was The Worst Race Ever

Kanakuri had only flimsy street shoes that were inadequate for the gravel course. About half-way into the race, suffering from the heat, he stopped at a house and asked the residents for a glass of water. The family fed him raspberry juice, fruits and cinnamon rolls and gave him a couch to rest. Kanakuri lied down and against his better judgement fell asleep. When he woke up, it was next morning.

Kanakuri was deeply disappointed and ashamed of his actions. He wrote in his journal the next day: “It’s the morning after my defeat. My heart is aching with regret for the rest of my life. It was the most significant day of my life. But failure teaches success, and I can only wait for the day with fair weather after the rain so that I can clean up my shame. If people want to laugh, laugh. I showed the lack of physical strength Japanese people have and their immature skills. I can’t fulfill this burden but dying is easy, and living is hard. To wipe off this shame, I will work with all my strength to brush up my marathon skills and raise the prestige of our country.”

Kanakuri did not notify the race officials, and quietly returned to Japan. His early departure was made fun of by the Swedes, who claimed that he had been running around the country for years, in search of the finish line.

Once back in his country, Kanakuri renewed training, determined to uphold his name and his nation's honour. He shared his experiences with other young people and urged them to begin long-distance running. In addition, he started recruiting and training female athletes. He also taught blind kids how to run by having them grab onto a thread. He is credited with inventing the multistage long-distance relay race known as the Ekiden, which is still well-liked in Japan.

Kanakuri continued to represent Japan in the Olympics. He competed in the 1920 Summer Olympics held in Antwerp, Belgium, where he finished the marathon race in 2 hours, 48 minutes and 45.4 seconds and placed 16th. Kanakuri also participated in the 1924 Summer Olympics, but failed to finish the race.

Around the time of the 50th anniversary of the 1912 Games, the tale of his disappearance started to gain attention. More people became aware of the missing Japanese runner, and many who knew of the folk legend were surprised to learn that he was alive and well in his home country.

Shizo Kanakuri runs into the finish line in 1967.

In 1967, Swedish officials invited Kanakuri, now 76 years old, to return to Stockholm and finish the race that he started 54 years ago. They held a ceremony, which was covered heavily in the Swedish media. When he finally crossed the finish line, his time was announced as 54 years 8 months 6 days 5 hours 32 minutes 20.3 seconds.

A stadium announcer blared, “This concludes all the events from the 1912 Stockholm Games,” and Kanakuri joked: “It was a long trip. Along the way, I got married, had six children and 10 grandchildren.”


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