By Jude Myers Pedersen
When I graduated from the University of Texas in 1986, I decided to go on an adventure and teach English in Japan. A university friend had given me the name of man who rented rooms to foreigners for a good rate with the proviso that his tenants would occasionally speak a little English with him. Shortly after arriving to Japan, I met this man—a middle school teacher whom everyone called Sensei. I found a job and moved into one of his six-mat rooms.
I’d been running regularly since the end of high school and was eager to continue. When I asked Sensei about running routes, it turned out that he was also a runner, so we began running together and having English conversation. After a few months we began running 10K’s and half-marathons.
I had never liked playing competitive sports in school because I found it hard to participate without taking it too seriously. But with distance running I didn’t feel that I had to compete with anyone but myself. Just completing a long distance was a victory in itself.
However, when Sensei announced that he would be running his first marathon and asked me to join him, I promptly refused. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could run such a distance, but, after hearing him cheerfully recount his war story, I got intrigued. While still nursing those aching muscles, he was already planning his next marathon.
I ran my first marathon in a small village a few hours southeast of Tokyo. Sensei had advised me to hold back on my pace as much as possible to reserve energy for the last part of the race. It was a fine autumn day, and we were in the final few kilometers when the woman who had been running alongside me for the last hour said in a soft voice, “Mō sukoshi hayaku hashitte moraemasu ka?” I wasn’t sure if I heard her correctly so I had her repeat what she had said, which amounted to “Could you run a little faster?” I was exhausted and annoyed and wondered why she was making this request. Then she explained, “Because if we run a little faster, we can finish in under four hours.” That was enough to inspire me to pick up the pace and finish in three hours and fifty-eight minutes.
I’d love to tell you that we crossed the finish line together, our hands held high in mutual victory, but that isn’t what happened. As we entered the arena to run a final lap to the finish, the spectators were cheering and I was overcome with a streak of competitiveness and sprinted ahead to “beat” her. Even while I was charging on, I felt myself already regretting it. Had it not been for her I would never have finished in under four hours.
But life went on and I continued running and entering races. The hard training made it come more naturally and I started placing in the top 10 or 20 in half-marathons and marathons. Despite my bad behavior during that first marathon, I was comfortable running these distances and doing my best without worrying about times or what place I came in.
Just a few kilometers from where I was living was the Tamagawa, a 138-kilometer-long river with walking and running paths much of the way. It was a great escape from the cramped city streets. Sensei and I would often run there on weekends when they held local 5K and 10K races. I wasn’t interested in anything under a half-marathon but would sometimes “stoop” to run a 10K. Then one day Sensei asked me to run a 5K and I refused. He kept insisting and after I explained that it was difficult for me to do a short run without trying to run it fast and that I didn’t want the pressure of doing speed, he dared me to run a 5K without being competitive.
When the race started, I felt perturbed as I tried to resist the temptation to run fast. Sensei tried to ease my mind by making small talk and pointing out that the people around us were mostly families who were just out there to have fun. I began to relax and settle in to a comfortable pace when a man came from behind us and began speaking to Sensei in Japanese. Then he asked me in English,
“Are you from the US?”
“I see. What brings you to Japan?”
“I’m teaching English.”
“Ah. Where in America are you from?”
“Boston. Are you familiar with it?”
“Yes, I have been there.”
“Yes, well actually, I won the Boston Marathon in 1953.”
“My name is Keizo Yamada. I was an Olympic runner.”
We got into a conversation and before I knew it, the 5K was over and Keizo, Sensei, and I were heading over to Keizo’s apartment to have lunch. He lived in a high-rise building that overlooked the Tama River.
Keizo was about 60 at the time and was still running every day. He attributed his strength to his unwavering discipline and his wife’s excellent cooking. It was a huge inspiration to see a person his age—which seemed pretty old to me at the time— still running daily and competing in marathons. Here was this Olympic champion that was so down-to-earth and extremely kind.
The three of us became friends and throughout my three-year stay in Japan, he would occasionally invite Sensei and me to his place where, after a run along the Tama River, we would enjoy the delicious Japanese food his wife so graciously prepared.
If meeting him wasn’t enough another strange coincidence was that Keizo and I were not only both 5 feet 2 inches tall but we also wore the same shoe size. The last time we met was just before I was leaving Japan to return home for good. As we were saying goodbye, he handed me a plastic bag. In it was a pair of running shoes that he had gotten but didn’t need. They fit me perfectly.
I am 57 now and still running daily. I take my time and enjoy the scenery. I run for the sake of running and am grateful for every day that I am able to do so. Thanks to Keizo Yamada, I will always remember the day I decided to run a 5K without worrying about time.
Jude Myers Pedersen is originally from Brookline, Massachusetts. After receiving a BA in English Literature from the University of Texas at Austin, she moved to Japan, where she taught English and ran long distance.
Jude has completed over 25 marathons in various cities in Japan and the US. Her personal best marathon was 3:03 at the age of 23.
Jude and her husband live in Denmark, where she continues to run, teach, and sing in a rock band.