On 20 March 1967, Shiso Kanakuri (Japan) completed a marathon in Stockholm, Sweden, that he had started in 1912. His finish time of 54 years 246 days 5 hours 32 minutes 20.3 seconds represents the longest time to complete a marathon.
Before the fateful race at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, Kanakuri had already defied expectations at the qualifying heats in his home country in November 1911. Under the misguided belief that perspiring made an athlete more tired, he refused to drink, making him sick in the lead-up to the event. Just in time, he made a miraculous recovery and, defying all odds, took first place with a time of 2:32:45.
He had qualified for the Olympics and proved that Japan was ready to make its debut at the ultimate global sporting competition. The 1912 Games were the first Olympics to feature athletes from every continent (excluding Antarctica for obvious reasons).
From the get go, circumstances seemed to conspire against Kanakuri. To get to Sweden from Japan in the 1910s was not easy; the trip was a gruelling ten days by train, giving the two-person Japanese "team" – the only other delegate fielded by Japan in 1912 was sprinter Mishima Yahiko (1886–1954) – very little time to prepare. In an attempt to overcome this, Kanakuri resorted to running around every station they stopped at to get in some training.
During the journey, Kanakuri also had to take on another unforeseen duty, when his compatriot fell ill. Between nursing Yahiko and still labouring under the misconception about perspiration, which meant he was drinking very little, these prevailing factors no doubt contributed to the events that were about to unfold.
When race day arrived (14 July 1912), luck was once again not on this marathon runner's side as the temperature soared to 32°C (89.6°F).
The exhausting journey, time spent caring for his sick teammate and the lack of acclimatisation had all taken their toll, but Kanakuri soldiered on, lining up with the other athletes, already sweltering in the heat, determined to represent his country. Given that this was the first time Japan had ever appeared on the world's premier sporting stage, he felt under immense pressure to excel.
Kanakuri's admirable spirit was not enough to see him through though and during the race he collapsed and was taken in by a local family. When he recovered, Kanakuri faced a difficult decision: go to the officials and admit that he’d failed, or travel home incognito without notifying anyone. He opted for the latter, fearing for his country's global reputation as this was their first Olympic attendance. (Little did he know that the extreme heat had forced around half of the entrants in the marathon to quit before reaching the finish line, so he was far from alone!).
When nobody could pinpoint his whereabouts or status, Kanakuri was declared as missing in Sweden, and would remain so for more than 50 years.
Back home, Kanakuri focused his attention on domestic sport, making the most of his experiences at the 1912 Olympics to inform his work. He now knew Japan was massively ill-prepared compared with other nations and, with the next Games on the horizon, he played an instrumental role in establishing the Tokyo-Hakone College Ekiden Race. This relay race designed for students has been credited for the popularization of long-distance running in Japan, so it’s no surprise that Kanakuri is credited as the "father of the marathon" there.
Despite his national fame and – even more bizarrely – despite the fact that he competed at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics in Belgium (where he placed 16th) and the 1924 Paris Olympics in France (where he failed to finish), in Sweden Kanakuri officially remained a missing person for decades.
The case of the disappearing runner was finally solved in 1967, when TV channel Sveriges Television (Swedish Television) tracked the by-then-75-year-old down to Tamana, Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan, where he was enjoying his retirement.
They approached him with an interesting offer: would he like to finish the Olympic marathon that he'd started more than half a century earlier? Kanakuri agreed and, in March 1967, ran over the finish line 54 years after he had crossed the start line making it officially the slowest marathon in history.
"It was a long trip," Kanakuri told the press after the race. "Along the way I got married, had six children and 10 grandchildren."
Of course, nowadays Kanakuri's unprecedented half-century marathon is celebrated more as an interesting anecdote than anything else, with the majority of official marathon races now having a cut-off in place (for the London Marathon, for instance, any time after eight hours is not recognized by the organizers).
Kanakuri, who passed away at the impressive age of 92 in 1983, will always be best remembered for his huge contribution to developing athletics within Japan. His work meant that the country was far better prepared for future national and international athletics events. Many would argue that the groundwork he laid has played a significant contribution to Japan’s subsequent Olympic success; its total 439 medals won at the Summer Olympics to date puts it currently 11th in the world rankings.
Home fans will be hoping that some of the wisdom and experience he passed on will pay off at the 2020 Tokyo Games, taking place between 24 July and 9 August 2020.
While Kanakuri’s place in the record books may focus on the time it took him to complete a marathon, his true legacy is how he used his experience to help others avoid a similar fate.
Slow and steady wins the race…
While comparatively speedy compared with Kanakuri's 54-year finish, check out a selection of other record-breaking marathon runners whose accessories ate into their race times…
Fastest marathon wearing a 100-lb pack: William Kocken (USA), Green Bay, Wisconsin 2018: 6:27:59
Fastest marathon on stilts: Michelle Frost (UK), London 2018: 6:37:38
Fastest marathon by a marching band: Huddersfield Marathon Band (UK), London 2014: 6:56:48
Thumbnail/header image credits: Getty / Wikipedia