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Filling in the Emptiness - The Tohoku Miyagi Revival Marathon Brings Life Back to Tsunami-Hit Northeast

by Mika Tokairin, JRN associate editor

On March 11, 2011, an unprecedented disaster impacted East Japan. What caused bigger damage than the magnitude 9.0 earthquake was the tsunami that hit the east coast of the Tohoku region. Shocking video that showed monstrous, leaden waves swallowing people, houses and cars was seen world-wide. After six and a half years, how has the affected area changed?

2011年3月11日、未曾有の大震災が東日本を襲った。マグニチュード9.0という揺れ以上に甚大な被害をもたらしたのは、東北地方の太平洋沿岸を襲った津波であった。鉛色の怪物のような波が人間を、家を、車を呑み込んでいくショッキングな映像はインターネットを通じて世界へと配信された。あれから6年半。被災地はどう変わったのか。

Just after 32 km the course rounds Hiyoriyama and the remnants of its shrine. The tsunami reached a height of 2 m up the tree on top of the hill, sweeping away the old shrine.

The Tohoku Miyagi Fukko [Revival] Marathon held on October 1 was established with the concept of letting people see the region's current state and the process of its recovery from the devastation of the tsunami. Imagine the challenges in establishing a marathon event with 12,000 entrants, one of the largest-scale marathons in Japan, in a disaster-affected area where no one can live anymore. Public facilities such as paved roads and public toilets, and even houses and local residents, all the things that normal towns take for granted, simply aren't there. The drive to make this event happen comes from nothing but the organizers’ belief and passion.

10月1日に第1回大会が行われた「東北みやぎ復興マラソン」は、そんな津波の被災地の現在を知り、今後の復興過程を見守って欲しい、というコンセプトのもと立ち上げられた大会である。フルマラソンのエントリー数が12,000名と、全国でも屈指の規模のマラソンを、人の住めなくなった被災地でゼロから立ち上げるということがいかに野心に満ちた無謀な挑戦であるか、想像してみて欲しい。道路や公衆トイレといった公共施設、そして家と地域住民。普通の町には当たり前のようにあるものが、ここには充分にないのだ。これを実現させた原動力、それは主催者の信念とパッション以外の何ものでもない。

Runners line the horizon, the new seawall to their right, construction and trees killed or stripped to their crowns by the tsunami in the flat fields to their left.

The marathon course runs through the tsunami-affected areas of Iwanuma, Watari and Natori, just southeast of Tohoku’s biggest city, Sendai. They used to be beautiful coastal country towns, but there's nothing scenic at all about the present scenery. What you can see now are concrete levees, construction vehicles along the roads and post-disaster scars like half-destroyed ruins and foundations marking where homes used to be. There’s nothing that might be pleasing to runners’ eyes along the course.

Little pieces of long-lost lives amid the foundations where homes stood along the course, a cassette tape, broken dishes, a toy car, rusted scissors.

But here, in this place, this emptiness is itself the scenery to be beheld, a vast nothingness where lives and communities used to be. Volunteers work all-out to try to soften the emptiness and to welcome runners. Roadside spectators cheer “Thank you for coming!” instead of the generic Japanese cheering chant “Gambare!” [“Do your best!”] Runners are exceptional grateful and accept the first-time organizers' few missteps with more than normal tolerance. Everyone involved acts with a warm heart, producing a positive vibe that permeates the event.

コースは津波の被災地である名取市、岩沼市、亘理町。かつては海を臨む美しい田舎町だったと聞くが、現在の景色はお世辞にも風光明媚とは言い難い。目に入るのは、震災後に築き上げられたコンクリートの堤防や、道路脇に停車する工事車両、そして流された家の土台が残る大地と半壊した遺構といった津波の爪痕ばかりで、ランナーの目を楽しませてくれそうなものは何もない。だが、この土地に関しては、「何もないこと」こそが特別なのだ。この殺風景こそ、見るべき風景なのである。何もないからこそ、気持ちでもてなそうと懸命に働くボランティアたち。「がんばれ」ではなく「来てくれてありがとう」と応援する観客たち。そして、第1回大会ゆえに生じてしまう不手際も寛容に受け止め、大会を積極的に楽しもうとするランナーたち。大会に関わるあらゆる人たちの温かい気持ちが混じり合い、イベント全体にポジティブな化学反応を起こしていた。

The new seawall guarding against future tsunami runs parallel to much of the course. Even in the most remote areas enthusiastic spectators cheer runners on and thank them for coming to the region.

I was involved with the production of the marathon’s memorial book, and I had a chance to visit the area beforehand to interview organizing committee members, local runners and volunteers. One woman runner who still uses sunglasses that she found in the debris of her house, another, a mother of three, who says, “When I run, I feel I’m alive.” A male runner who expresses his hope and optimism saying, “If lots of people visit this area, we can change our future toward a better direction.” A local resident who says, “Countless people helped us after the disaster, so I want to return something to them.” From their interviews I learned that they want to move forward while still preserving their emotional scars from the loss of families and homes. I felt that they want to put their hopes upon this sport. They all seemed to believe in the positive power of the marathon.

私自身は、大会の記念冊子制作に携わったことで、大会前に2度ほどこの地に訪れ、ランナーやボランティア、大会主催者等のインタビューを行う機会を得た。瓦礫から掘り起こしたサングラスを今も使う女性ランナー。「走っていると生きている感じがする」と語った3児の母。「たくさんの人が来てくれることで、いい方向に変われる」と信じる地元の男性ランナー。また、「震災の時いろんな人にお世話になった。だからお返ししたいんですよ」という地元住民の男性。そこで知ったのは家族や家を失った心の傷を抱えながら前に進みたいと願う被災者の心境と、マラソンというスポーツに託す希望だった。

Runners and friends relax amid the sun and positivity post-race, but the tsunami escape mounds built all around the area since 2011 are a constant reminder of why they are all there.

The race's organizer Sendai Television Inc. has the ambition to make this event into a premier international marathon in the future. To help achieve this they made it a IAAF certified course for its first running, rushing construction efforts to build roads in time for the race. It’s such a flat course that someday it might produce Japanese or even world records. Who knows?

主催者である仙台放送はこの大会をエリートも走る国際大会にしていきたいという野望を持ち、コースとなる道路の整備を突貫で行ってまで日本陸上連盟の公認を取得した。フラットなコースは、天候次第では記録の狙える高速コースで、将来日本記録や世界記録がここで生まれることもあるかもしれない。

Road construction hastily completed just in time for the marathon.

Nothing is perfect the first time out, and although there are points to be improved, this event has the potential to grow big and become Japan's premier destination marathon, one with a meaning and significance deeper than just, "We need to have a marathon in our city like all the other cities." As a participant, you have the chance to witness firsthand the process of the event’s growth and the revival of disaster-affected areas over time, a palpable sense of loss and rebirth, the return of life and community to the desolation.

改善点も含めさまざまな側面で「伸びしろ」と「将来性」を感じる大会だ。参加する側は、リピーター参加者となることで、今後大会の成長と被災地の復興、その両方を目撃することができるはずだ。

The sun rises on race morning over the tsunami monument near 32 km.

text © 2017 Mika Tokairin, all rights reserved
photos © 2017 Brett Larner, all rights reserved

Comments

TokyoRacer said…
Very good report, Mika. Nice race to know about.
Anonymous said…
Many thanks to both of you for this text and these photos. More excellent work from Japan Running News!

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