You’d think the title of slowest marathon would go to a schlep. You know what I mean—someone who doesn’t take his training seriously enough, doesn’t get in his tempo runs, intervals, fartleks and hill repeats. The kind of guy who laces up his running shoes and straps on his watch and, with no clear goal but to go…plods. Someone, in other words, like me.
But, in fact, the slowest finisher was one of our sport’s elites—an Olympic marathoner and one of Japan’s track and field pioneers, Shizo Kanakuri. Forget the Clydesdales and walkers rolling across the finish line after 10 or 11 hours. It was 54 years, eight months, six days, eight hours, 32 minutes and 20.3 seconds after he set out on the marathon course at the 1912 Olympics that Kanakuri clocked in at the finish line of Stockholm’s Olympic Stadium.
He came into the marathon a favorite, having reportedly set a world record of 2:32:45 in a qualifier, but midway through the race Kanakuri disappeared. Rumor held that he’d missed his first checkpoint and was still out on the course, running. Kanakuri never showed at the finish line, and race officials considered him a missing person. It wasn’t until the 1960s that a Swedish journalist tracked him to a small town on the Japanese island of Kyushu, where he was enjoying the quiet life of a retired schoolteacher. The mystery was solved.
Half a century earlier, it turns out, Kanakuri had nearly passed out from heat exhaustion along the race course. Running past a garden party, he spied people drinking orange juice and stopped to slake his thirst. Kanakuri was apparently a sociable guy, as he lingered at the party for more than an hour. Then, ashamed of himself (he was one of only two athletes Japan sent to its first ever Olympics), he hopped a train to Stockholm and boarded the first available boat home.
In 1967, Kanakuri was invited back to Sweden to finish the race. “It’s been a long race,” he joked with reporters, “but then I got myself a wife, six children and 10 grandchildren during it, and that takes time, you know.”