A runner who logs 60 marathons a year tries to conserve more than just his energy
By Jon Billman
Hajime Nishi, 58, ran his 496th marathon, the cold and windy thunder Road Marathon in Charlotte, North Carolina, then caught an evening flight, arriving at a Motel 6 Tropicana in Las Vegas, towing only a pilot's case, just before midnight. Six hours later, at the chilly start of the 2006 New Las Vegas Marathon, Nishi cues up in the predawn darkness. He's near the end of the throng of more than 16,000 runners, and he's wearing the same nipple Band-Aids he raced in yesterday.
Reusing Band-Aids (each pair lasts for two marathons) may not seem like much of a conservation effort--unless you run as many marathons as Nishi does. In 2006, he ran 72 marathons in 11 countries; for 2007, he's on track to log another 60 marathons in 25 countries. He averages five a month, and his long-term goal is to finish 1,000 marathons in 250 countries by 2049, when he will be a century old.
Despite his full itinerary, Nishi is never in a rush to get to his next destination--finish lines included. Nishi, you see, is an "ecomarathoner," a term he uses to describe his approach to running, in which his goal is to find "harmony" with his surroundings. And so Nishi lingers and enjoys the environment of the marathon. He never pushes himself beyond his physical limits and is always one of the last to finish. "Amateur runners who race just for time need psychotherapy," says Nishi, whose "worst" marathon time is 3:45, and "best" is 10:32. "What is the purpose? Ecomarathon is beyond competition, but with connection."
Before he was reborn as an ecomarathoner, Nishi was the quintessential overworked Japanese executive. He lost his wife to cancer in 1988 and found himself a single father of three children. "I had heartache," he says. "I was so lonely." After his children were grown, he dissolved his company and enrolled in personal growth seminars at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. His spiritual quest led him to his slow-running philosophy, which was inspired by the Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei, near Nishi's hometown of Kyoto. The monks run for 100 consecutive days in search of enlightenment. Nishi sees himself on a similar path.
Joining the Movement
"This is a wonderful runner's privilege, running the Las Vegas Strip with no traffic!" Nishi says. He runs slowly, his stride full, controlled, and graceful. "The slowest runner is coming."
Nishi does run--he strides and even sprints now and then to blow the cobwebs out of his motor. Nishi wears a waterproof Olympus digital camera tethered to a lanyard around his neck. "There is no other way to capture the marathon," he says. He snaps couples getting married midrace, running Elvises, smiling volunteers, and the long lines at Porta Potties. The lines are one of Nishi's pet peeves, because he says they upset the harmony of the body, mind, and environment. This is the kind of logistical issue that will earn demerits in Nishi's Marathon Data Book series, a register of his ecomarathoning experiences (see "Report Card,"). At the end of the day, Nishi judges the quality of a marathon by how many photographs he takes--more than 100 is his benchmark--which he posts on his Web site (ecomarathon.org).
Nishi brings his own water bottle and asks volunteers to refill it with water. "I am trying to save paper cups," he says. "Thank you very much--you make it possible for us to run." Then he takes their picture. He often tells volunteers, "You are the winner!"
"People are so surprised when you say, 'Good morning,' or 'Guten Morgen,' or 'Buon giorno,'" Nishi says. "These words really work. I would like for every runner to experience the marathon this way." Expressing gratitude, disposing of trash, and carrying your own water bottle are among Nishi's "EcoTips," guidelines for ecomarathoners, which a handful of marathons are now distributing.
"Hajime truly believes in his mission and convinces others that it's possible," says De Sullivan, former race director of Massachusetts's Bay State Marathon, which Nishi ran in 1999. "He feels that runners are role models and should show people how to take care of the planet."
Though certainly not a household name, Nishi did make the Guinness Book of World Records in 1997 as the first person to run a marathon on each of the seven continents in seven months. In Japan, he has humbly turned down an opportunity to appear in a major shoe manufacturer's television commercial because he felt that, at the time, their socio-environmental philosophy was less than admirable. He's not looking for your money--he's self-supported, and there is no way to give on his Web site. He happily refers to himself as one of the financially poorest runners but "the spiritually richest person" on Earth.
"Running is my passport," he says. "A smile is my visa." After Vegas, Nishi is off to Cambodia, then Thailand, Dubai, and Pakistan. He'll make a brief stop in Tokyo to do laundry and resupply his protein stores. "Japanese sushi is the best--sushi other places is not so good," he says. But first he's recycling several silver space blankets he collected at the finish line--he's wiping them down with a washcloth before checking out of the motel. "I can use these again and again," he says. "All over the world."