Namban Rengo

Barbarian Runners

Considered a solo pursuit to be endured rather than enjoyed, the lonely grind of the long distance runner is a familiar image. For Bob Poulson, the founder of Tokyo running club Namban Rengo, however, running is as much about community building and social engagement as it is an individual pursuit of freedom, health and wellbeing.

07/28/2020

Namban Rengo isn’t your average inner-city running club. Multi-national, multi-lingual, and multi-generational; a rotating cast of 50-80 runners gather each Wednesday evening – rain, snow or shine –  at the Oda Field running track in Shibuya for a short but intense group workout followed by a trip to the local sento, and a drink or dinner nearby in Yoyogi Hachiman.

Currently, the club has an active membership of over 230 members in Tokyo with ages ranging from mid-teens to late-seventies. A number of charismatic and active long-standing members lend the club a sense of longevity and connectedness to the wider running community. Bob proudly mentions the distinctive yellow and black uniforms of Namban runners will often earn a shout or friendly wave from other club runners – both in Japan and abroad.

A (mostly) retired copywriter and Long Island native, Bob first came to Japan with the American Navy in the seventies. Having been a former high school track runner, Bob always maintained a casual connection to the sport until life got into the way. In his thirties that Bob began running more seriously after connecting with a group of American and Irish runners in Tokyo whom he fondly recalls as being “seriously talented.”

In the late eighties, the group decided to form a club after they found surprise success racing in local Ekiden – a popular Japanese relay race with roots in the distance between historic post-towns along the old Tokaido highway. The Okutama Ekiden in particular, where the young club earned a number of top five finishes, has remained an annual fixture on the Namban calendar for the three decades since.

Although he has no qualms about sharing his age (he’s 72), Bob will tell all who’ll listen that he feels more like forty five. In excellent shape and still very much an active participant in the weekly training sessions, Bob runs up to six times a week clocking up over 80kms in the process.

Perhaps even more impressively, Bob routinely leads the group through a series of core exercises after the weekly track workouts, and watching him breeze through gritty sets of push-ups, planks and star-jumps you can sense he gets a lot of energy through sharing the hard work.

“I’ll be happy if running and I can grow old together,” wrote novelist Haruki Murakami in his ode to long-distance running. While for Bob – after almost six decades of lacing up his trainers to run mile after mile – that sentiment certainly rings true, it’s clear that the relationship is all the sweeter for being shared with a Barbarian Horde.