The Slowest Marathon in History Took More Than Half a Century to Complete

On March 20, 1967, 76-year-old Shiso Kanakuri of Japan completed a marathon in Stockholm, Sweden. But it wasn’t the elderly runner’s age that was noteworthy. It was his time: 54 years, 8 months, 6 days, 5 hours, 32 minutes and 20.3 seconds.

You see, Kanakuri had embarked on the race decades earlier during the 1912 Olympic Games in Sweden. But the Olympian, one of the athletes representing Japan in its first Olympics, disappeared mysteriously midway through the race. And as the world gets ready for the 2020 Games, starting on July 24 in Kanakuri’s hometown of Tokyo, it’s a good time to remember the remarkable tale behind the longest marathon ever run.

As far as Sweden was concerned, Kanakuri was a missing person …

Strange things used to happen all the time in the early days of the Olympic marathon — and not just the legendary feat of the very first marathon runner, the messenger Pheidippides, who ran for two days from the town of Marathon to Athens to deliver word of victory over the invading Persians in 490 B.C. only to collapse and die of exhaustion. At the steaming hot inaugural 1896 Games in Athens, only nine of the 17 runners finished, and one of them (the third-place finisher) did so by covering part of the way in a carriage (he was disqualified).

It got worse. “The Olympic marathon in St. Louis in 1904 was a disaster from the start,” says author Richard Benyo, the former editor of Marathon & Beyond, “and probably should have been canceled.” The event, taking place in 90-degree heat, was run over uneven dust-covered roads in which participants had to dodge pedestrians, wagons and even trolley cars. There were only two water stops. Only half of the runners finished, one of them was a Cuban postman named Felix Carvajal, who had lost his travel money in a dice game and had to hitchhike to the games. Despite wearing cut-off trousers and street shoes, and stopping at an orchard midway to eat apples and take a nap, the Cuban managed to finish fourth.

By 1912, when Japan sent its first “team” (two athletes, including Kanakuri) to Stockholm, it was still an ordeal just to get to the games. The men endured an 18-day journey, including 10 days on the Trans-Siberian Railway in which Kanakuri, a 20-year-old student from the Tokyo Higher Normal School, tried to stay fit by running circles around every station they stopped at on their long trip.

Things did not get easier once they got to Stockholm. The temperature the day of the marathon — July 14, 1912 — was around 90 degrees and even before Kanakuri (in his traditional two-toed canvas shoes) lined up at the start line, he was already worn down from his lengthy journey. But he was determined to represent his country. Around the 17-mile mark, the exhausted Kanakuri collapsed from heatstroke. He was taken in by a local family and fell asleep on their couch. Upon awaking, the humiliated athlete opted to return to his hotel and then to Japan without notifying race officials. Little did he know, his DNF was no anomaly: Half of the race’s entrants hadn’t made it to the end. 

As far as Sweden was concerned, Kanakuri was a missing person, one whose whereabouts would not be discovered until 50 years later, in 1962, when a Swedish reporter tracked him down in Tamana, Japan, a retired geography teacher who had spent his life popularizing running in his home country.

Five years later, at the behest and funds of some Swedish business leaders, Kanakuri, then 76, was offered the chance to return to Stockholm and finish his long-abandoned race. “Allowing him to come back to finish his marathon,” says Benyo, “was a gracious and warm way of bringing closure to his running adventures.”

Kanakuri agreed to finish the race on camera, and even sprinted the final 100 meters for good measure and broke through a ribbon. After finishing the slowest marathon ever run, he was asked to comment about the unusual feat. “It was a long trip,” Kanakuri observed. “Along the way, I got married, had six children, and 10 grandchildren.”

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