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From the Albi Ekiden to Chicago

As a Lean Practitioner, it is important to have other centres of interest, or life can become really frustrating (at other times, it can be exhilirating, of course). One of mine is running, which I took up around eight years ago, mainly to keep myself of mischief.

Last night I participated in my very first ‘Ekiden’, in the beautiful cathedral city of Albi, in the south-west France. The format is a marathon (42,195km) relay, with a team of six, running respectively 5, 10, 5, 10, 5 and 7,195 km). And all this starting at eight in the evening, by which time it was obviously dark, and some of the less-serious teams had already been downing the ‘aperitifs’ for a couple of hours.

The interesting fact is that I’ve only just learned this evening that ‘Ekiden’ is in fact a Japanese term. According to Wikipedia,

“The first ekiden race was sponsored by the Yomiuri Shimbun in 1917, and was run over three days between the old Japanese capital of Kyoto and the modern capital of Tokyo, a distance of 508 km, to celebrate the anniversary of the moving of the capital to Tokyo….As written in Japanese, Ekiden combines the characters for “station” (駅) and “transmit” (伝).”

That I consider this ‘interesting’ is due to the fact that, whilst observing people’s behaviours around me last night (there were over 260 teams of six runners), my perception was that the whole thing had a decidedly ‘Lean’ flavour to it. It some ways it reminded me of the school outing in Goldratt’s ‘The Goal’, where the group only progressed as fast as its slowest walker. Last night there were some really fit looking athletes desperately looking for their team members who were obviously a lot slower, restrained by their inferior speed (in this part of France, running is generally an excuse for having a good time, and for some runners it’s the only time they put on their training shoes all year).

But there was no frustration, no hard feelings. A lot of work had gone into defining the exact order of runners so as not to leave anyone too far behind. Mutual encouragement was rife, to the extent that individuals in difficulty were often accompanied by team members over the more testing parts of the course. Advance warning was given of the imminent arrival of your team member through a large screen hooked up to a camera 100 meters down the road. And everything was measured and instantaneously posted on electronic scoreboards each time a runner crossed the finishing line. Everybody knew where the team stood, and what needed to be done.

And it was the Japanese that invented this.

It probably suffices to say that my team didn’t win, but we weren’t last, and in any case was one of those that had already started on the red wine before the race.

However, this time next week, it’s going to be a totally different story. I’m coming over to Chicago for the 10-10-10 Marathon, just as I did last year, and enjoyed it so much I just had to get back as soon as possible. No red wine allowed next Sunday, and there’ll be five less members in the team.

Wish me luck.

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