Shizo Kanakuri - Japanese marathon runner

Shizo Kanakuri – Father Of Japanese Marathon

The story of the disappearing Japanese Olympic marathon runner...

With just over a month to the XXXIII Paris Olympics Marathons – on 10 August (men) and 11 August (women) – we are reminded of one of the oddest stories to ever emerge from the rich pantheon of Olympic Marathon history.

Shizo Kanakuri, of Japan, ran four miles to and from school daily, despite having a weak constitution as a young child. His running strengthened him as in 1911 he won the Japanese marathon trial for the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, in what was reported as the world-best time of 2:32:45 for 25 miles (marathons then were approximately 25 miles). Along with sprinter Yahiko Mishima, he was the first-ever Japanese Olympian.

The journey to Stockholm was long and arduous, taking 18 days by ship and then on the Trans Siberian Railway. Despite five days rest on his arrival in Sweden, Kanakuri was hardly in any shape to run a marathon, particularly in the oppressive conditions, and unable to cope with the local diet.

During the race, around 30 kilometres, Kanakuri suffered acute physical exhaustion and dropped out of the marathon, joining a Swedish family at a garden party beside the route and after drinking orange juice and eating buns, falling asleep on a couch!

The conditions were so severe that of the 68 starters, only half the field finished in front of the 18,000 crowd sitting in the sweltering heat in the Olympic Stadium. Of the 34 who did not finish, 32 dropped out, one – Francisco Lazaro (Portugal) collapsed and tragically died, and one – Kanakuri – had just 'disappeared'.

Instead of officially withdrawing and informing organisers, Kanakuri quietly left his accommodation and returned to Japan, leaving the Swedish authorities with no knowledge of his whereabouts. This resulted in him being officially listed as a missing person in Sweden for over 50 years.

Despite his participation in the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, where he was 16th in the marathon in 2:48:45, the legend of Kanakuri being potentially lost but still jogging around the streets of Stockholm was kept alive by a Swedish sports journalist, Oscar Soderlund, in a light-hearted challenge to his readers to find the missing marathoner.

In 1967, aged 76, Kanakuri was working as a geography teacher and had acquired the unofficial title of 'Father of Japanese Marathon' because of his stellar running career, when Soderlund made contact and Swedish Television invited him to return to Stockholm and complete his Olympic marathon. He even returned to the home where he had aborted the race and once again drank orange juice in the garden with Bengt Petre, the son of his original hosts!

Displaying a great sense of humour, Kanakuri told Swedish reporters: “It’s been a long race, but then I got myself a wife, six children, and 10 grandchildren during it, and that takes time, you know.”

And so the mysterious story of the 'missing' Japanese marathon runner was concluded, with one final twist. Shizo Kanakuri's completion time was humorously declared as 54 years, 8 months, 6 days, 5 hours, 32 minutes, and 20.379 seconds – and that 'fact' is immortalised as: "The longest time to complete a marathon", entry in the Guinness Book of Records.

Photo: Shizo Kanakuri (in all-white kit) via Wikimedia

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