Sunday, April 29, 2018

When It All Goes Terribly Wrong - Canberra 50K, April 2018

Canberra is our national capital and a very confusing city indeed. When I was a child we used to drive through it on our way to the snowfields every year, usually becoming lost as a result, and the tradition continued when I started driving there myself as a young adult. It was only after spending 6 months living and working in Canberra in 2005 that I managed to develop enough of a feel for the city that I wasn't constantly finding myself going in circles or hopelessly lost. And considering my excellent sense of direction, that's really significant.

In 2011 I ran the Canberra marathon for my second attempt at the distance, but since it is generally held on the same weekend as Boston, I haven't been back since. This year, having decided to take a break from Beantown, it made sense to return to Canberra. Back 7 years ago they already had the 50K event but it wasn't terribly popular: you had to run the marathon, cross the finish line and then continue for another 8 kilometers.

At the time all I could think was, seriously? Who would make the decision to keep going after they'd just finished?? It's bad enough in races like Gold Coast where you have to go past the finish chute with another 10km to run, I couldn't imagine how psychologically tough it would be run to that far and cross a finish line but not be done.

Clearly the organisers figured this out at some point, and changed the arrangements so the 50K would start before and then merge with the marathon. Even though the announcement was made prior to race day that there would not be a World Championship event for the 50K distance in 2018, I figured I'd still run the longer event; my main motivation was the chance of winning the National Championship title, although if I'd bothered to look at the prize money for the marathon I probably would have dropped down.

In any case, I hadn't done a lot of running since Tokyo but I figured my endurance would still be pretty good, so I wasn't worried about major mishaps when I set off after working Saturday morning in Wagga. I managed to arrive in time to pick up my bib (amidst a squally, rainy Canberra afternoon), had a lovely catch-up for coffee with my friend Catherine, and then settled in to my very reasonable Queanbeyan accommodation for pizza and an early night. I didn't bother studying the rather-complicated course map in detail, because why would I? In a major city road race, a National Championship race no less, what could possibly go wrong?

There are a lot of numbers on there and the order appears somewhat random, but I'm sure it will make sense on the day

Race Day

4am isn't the most pleasant of times to wake up, and it's probably closer to 4:30 when I make it out of bed to get dressed, but it's a short, easy 10-15 minute drive to the start area and I sort of know already where I'm going to park. The rain has stopped but wind is still howling outside - this is a potential problem, although at least it's not going to be in my face the whole way as in Boston 2015 or New York 2014 - and it's chilly enough that I decide to wear a t-shirt rather than my usual singlet for racing.

I make it to the Elite tent shortly after 5:15am and time flies by, to the extent that suddenly there are only 5 minutes to go and I have to rush out in a panic to the start line. I realise halfway there that I've forgotten one of my gels, and in any case I only had enough for a marathon rather than a 50K (I have no idea why), but whatever: I need to get to the start! There's time enough there to wave to a few friends who are waiting to start the marathon, shed my jacket into the hands of a helpful volunteer, bounce up and down for a bit and then wheeee! Off I go on my 5th attempt at the 50K distance.

The First Part, aka Ignorance is Bliss.

It's still sort of a bit dark as we zoom off around the corner and pretty much directly up the only major hill and around the back of Parliament House. The lead pack of 3 (Vlad Shatrov, Brendan Davies and Barry Keem) quickly gaps the rest of us and by the second mile they and their bike escort are out of sight. I still have about 4-5 male runners visible ahead of me at this point, and am settling into a steady pace that is right around my goal of maybe-just-a-bit-slower-than-3-hour-marathon-pace, roughly 6:55 min/mile or 4:18 min/km. It feels comfortable and perhaps I'm going just a bit faster as we come down the hill again, but I know I'll find my sweet spot soon and so I'm not too worried.

About 1 mile in, blissfully unaware of what is about to happen

In fact, my brain is more occupied trying to figure out if the person 2 places ahead of me is a man (which I suspect) or a woman (doubtful but it's keeping my mind busy) - I'm just churning my legs and paying precious little attention to what's happening around me. We're following the usual circuitous path that road races seem to take in Canberra; it's familiar territory from all the times I've run in this area and I'm just happy to be out in what has turned out to be decent (if very windy) running weather today.

The Strava map above shows mile 3 in blue; we curl around under the bridge, the guys ahead of me peel one by one off to the left and I follow like the lemming that I am. Up and around we go towards the bridge across Lake Burley-Griffin. There's a red 5K banner right at the correct spot - I check my watch and it reads 21:30, which is reasonable I suppose. Heading across the bridge there are traffic guys putting out orange cones, which seems a bit late, and my friend Kelly jogging across in the opposite direction. We wave and greet each other enthusiastically, then she's gone. I refocus on the boys ahead and we zip down past a few race officials off the bridge and through the tunnel on Parkes Way.

I remember this part from late in the marathon when I ran it in 2011, and also from late in the half when I ran it in 2016 (foolishly), and it seems weird that we're headed out this way already but I know they've changed the course so whatever, it must be right. The guys ahead of me are still going so I just keep running, but after another 5 minutes, what's this? Men are running back the other way and they're not the lead pack: they're the chase pack. Huh?

It All Goes Horribly Wrong

Suddenly a car appears, driving at speed past me on the other side of the road, with lights flashing and people waving out the windows. The guys who were heading back have passed me, the rest who were out in front of me have turned around; someone yells "Turn! We're going the wrong way!"

Every brain cell I possess jumps to attention and screams "WHAT??" This cannot be happening! The wrong way?? But it is. I turn on my heel and give chase to the guys who are now only just ahead of me: one of them is wearing a strange red singlet with holes in it (purpose: ventilation? or perhaps to avoid chafing?) and stripey tights, another has a bright blue shirt.

"But I was in the lead!" I yell at the driver of the car, which has just done a U-turn and come up behind us. I was, but clearly I won't be by the time I make it back to wherever we have gone wrong.

Back we go across the bridge, fuming and complaining and trying to figure out how on earth this could possibly be put right; one of the people who turned us around was insisting that it would be corrected later somehow, but realistically I know how unlikely this is. By the time Stripey Holey Guy and I have made it back to where we diverged from the correct course, my watch reads over 6 miles, or 10km. Checking with him confirms it: we seem to have added at least 5-6km to the course.

Comically, at this point there's a red flag that says "10km" and I have a moment of disbelieving hope: perhaps this really is going to be fixed somehow? But as we run onwards, runners are now appearing, heading in the other direction on the other side of the road and I watch the two women who were behind me at the start make their way onwards, well ahead of me.

In fact, I'm now at the VERY BACK of the 50K field, it seems. As the course turns I am passing the slowest runners - all of whom are very encouraging, which is lovely but does little to settle my churning mind. Here I am at the very tail end of the pack when I SHOULD BE IN THE LEAD! Grrrrrr. The guy in the blue shirt pats me on the back and says "Calm down, just run your race", and of course I know he's right. Freaking out won't help, but come on, how could this have happened? In a national championship race!?

Making my feelings quite clear

It has happened before

So what happens when runners go off-course in a race? It has all happened before, of course, and what I remember from those instances doesn't give me much reassurance.

In the Venice marathon last October, a relative unknown won the entire thing after the course leaders were taken off-course by one of the motorcycle guides. Not long before that, the top 5 runners in the Kassel marathon in Germany were led astray by the timing car, which resulted in their disqualification from the race. And way back in 1994 at the New York marathon, a Mexican runner in contention for the win took a wrong turn in Central Park and looked sure to have lost the race, only to claw his way back to victory in a thrilling sprint finish.

So what does this all mean for me? I'm fairly certain that no matter what happens, the overall win is out of reach. I could - and do intend to - make an official protest about the lack of signage and direction that led to this debacle. Several of the guys who were ahead of me have now more or less given up and I've caught them, and we've chatted a bit as we've run together. All of them say they'll support me and testify to the fact that I ran all of the extra distance that they did.

These thoughts give me a degree of comfort, but nothing will change the fact that, barring something bizarre happening, another woman is going to be breaking the finish line tape today instead of me. Disbelief is giving way to dismay: I need to stop thinking about yelling at race officials at the finish and consider what on earth I'm going to do RIGHT NOW.

The Options

1. Give up and jog.
Yeah, that's not going to happen. I didn't come all this way just for an extra-extra-long training run, and I'm not interested in spending any more time running today than I actually have to.

2. Run hard to the 50km mark then stop.
Tempting, but no. I will end up with my first DNF if I fail to cross the actual finish line, no matter what my justification.

3. Cut the course to make it correct, or as near as I can manage.
Wow, also tempting, but again, against the rules. I hadn't even thought about timing mats or whether there will be any out here today (yes there will) but being caught cutting the course will mean an automatic DQ. And people will probably see me, and that will be really bad because they'll think I am cheating - nobody other than me, the guys I ran off-course with and a few people I have yelled at about it, knows that I have run so much further than I should have; they'll just think I'm cheating - so this option is also a definite NO.

4. Suck it up and just run the 56km already.
Sigh. Ok, I guess I really don't have a choice in the matter now.

What's more, my best chance of convincing the officials that I really *should* have won will be to run the entire way just as fast as I possibly can. I could run hard to 50K and then jog, but that will just look like a massive late-race bonk, so I guess that's not going to happen either.

My challenge now is to pick a pace that I think I can sustain not just to the 50km mark, but 6km beyond it. Actually, that's the easy part; the bigger challenge is what's going on inside my head.

Change your thinking

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I'm a GP and possibly also that I do a lot of work in mental health. I spend a significant amount of time every week trying to teach patients to calm down and learn to manage their negative emotions when these (inevitably) occur. That may sound boring and trite, but the big positive benefit for me has been that I've pretty much had to learn to practice what I preach.

In Tokyo recently I struggled the whole way through the marathon with an inexplicably negative mindset, and today goodness knows I've got an excellent excuse for feeling really, really PISSED OFF, but somehow it doesn't matter. I want to enjoy my run today - even if I'm not going to win - and I want to prove to myself that I can cope in difficult circumstances, so I set about doing so in no uncertain terms. I'm still really annoyed at what has happened, but I'm able to put that feeling to the side and focus on holding my pace. Negative thoughts are swirling around in my head but I pay no attention and eventually they evaporate, and it feels really, really good to be able to do this.

Might as well enjoy myself a bit

A Very Long Race

I spend the next 3+ hours basically overtaking people.

First there's the tail end of the 50K field, then I realise that I'm coming up on the back of the marathon field. I catch the 5:30 pace group, then the 5:00, the 4:45 and the 4:30 groups. It becomes an incentive, drawing me forwards - how many will I catch? Can I figure out which one I should be finishing closest to? (Short answer: no, my mental arithmetic sucks during races, so I can't. But I think it might be the 3:45 pace group. Maybe.)

There are quite a few Wagga runners in the marathon and I get to greet a number of them as I plough past at a decent clip. I hit what my Garmin tells me is the half marathon mark: 1:30:34. That's a bit faster than I should be going, although not at all far off what I had hoped for.

Eventually I'm back on the infamous part of the course where it all came unstuck before; this time I've run almost 24 miles, not just 3. My legs are not very happy. The wind is howling from the left hand side and the long out-and-back where I got turned around earlier is going to be hideous; it's a full-on gale headwind that almost stops me in my tracks.

The marathon mark comes as I'm having flashbacks to NYC 20143:03:15. 
Ok, I'm slowing down, and what's more, I really don't care. Not in an angry, screw-this-crap sort of a way, it just doesn't bother me. So much has already gone wrong with this race that I'm not about to let a mere headwind upset me, although I'm certainly not about to enjoy it either.

Whose idea was this anyway? Mine?  I hate myself.

The wind is ridiculous and miles 26-29 are my slowest of the race so far. I'm sort of trying to figure out in my head how far the marathoners have run already - I've just seen Luke, who is running his first marathon and seems to be ahead of the 3:30 pace group - while also trying not to think of anything at all. Finally the turn comes and at least there's a decent tailwind now; it pushes me along and I manage to pick up a bit of speed again.

Trudging back along towards the Kings Avenue bridge, I'd sort of like to be done now, thanks, but I know I still have quite a long way to run. I'm surprisingly not too upset about this - perhaps my entire brain has just gone numb, who knows? - so I put my head down and keep going. Eventually we're back over the bridge and heading out on yet another long out-and-back. As I circle back and pass beneath the bridge my Garmin hits 50km, or 31 miles, and I note the time: 3:39:45. That's about what I was expecting and aiming for, so that's great! Next challenge: not hitting the wall somewhere in the next 6km. Game on.

Another out and back affords me the opportunity to see Larissa, whom I know vaguely from other races and who is in the lead, which is sort of what I expected. It's sort of depressing to see her sailing along and know that things have gone so horribly wrong for me, but it's close enough to the finish now that I just want to be done. And finally I am: the finish line appears and, amidst a throng of marathoners and slower half marathoners, I cross the line to very little fanfare.

Wait, where's the tape? <grimaces>

Finish time: 4:09:09

Distance on watch: 34.99 miles / 56.31km

Placement: 3rd female, 12th overall.

Someone comes up to put a lanyard and medal around my neck - I've still managed to place, but 3rd instead of 1st - and I urgently blurt out "We went off-course! I should have won!"

The official person knows about this and reassures me it is being looked into, and someone will come to the elite tent to talk to me soon. So I head back there and find Larissa and Karen, the two women who were behind and then in front of me. It turns out they went across the bridge too, but were corrected much sooner than I was: they only ran an extra 3km to my extra 6.3km. Lucky them!

They're both very generous and kind about it all, and the officials from ARF and AURA are both in agreement that I should have won, but nothing can be decided right now. Therefore, the unpleasant result for the three of us is that the presentation has to be cancelled while the whole thing is reviewed. So I head off for a delicious, very late breakfast in a bit of a grumpy mood, wondering why I don't seem to be able to get race distances right in the ACT (see also Stromlo, 2017).

The unofficial results on the ARF app show splits from the timing mats, and they prove what I already know: although it took me just on an hour to reach the first one, after I finally got back on course, I ran from that one to the finish line faster than any other woman in the race. I took 3 hours and 4 minutes to cover the distance; Larissa took 3:08 and Karen took 3:12. I definitely showed that I was capable of winning, but rules are rules, and I'm fairly certain I won't be judged the winner once all is said and done.

The Final Outcome

The Australian Running Festival and AURA both contacted me on Thursday after the race, and I have to say I was impressed with their responsiveness and desire to help. Although I was undoubtedly one of the worst-affected (none of the men who went off course were in a position to place overall but I certainly was), many others had been hoping to use the race as a qualifier - particular for Comrades - and so a great deal of effort was put into making sure these runners were not adversely impacted.

For myself, there's no 50K Worlds this year so I don't really need a qualifier, but I was humbled and gratified that both organisations chose to recognise my effort appropriately, and Larissa and I were co-awarded the title of 50km National Champion.

Looking at the results, there is a gap of just under 36 minutes between the 3rd and 4th finishers, in contrast to previous years when it would have been more like maybe 8-10 minutes. The pointy end of the field in this race got decimated by the unfortunate lack of clear course markings. One of the positive things to come out of all this is that next year's female leader in the ultramarathon will have her own bike escort - I'm just not sure yet if I'll be trying to be that person again.

Later, when I get to look at my data from the race, it's actually pretty gratifying. Rather than giving up, I ran fairly consistently, slowing down a bit in the second half but by no means crashing into the wall. Considering that I knew so early on - around 10km - that I was going to have to run at least 5km more than I had bargained for, this made me feel really good about the way that I handled the situation, both physically and mentally.

Breaking it down into quarters (roughly 14km each);
First: 1:01:05, pace 6:59 min/mile, 4:20 min/km
Second: 1:01:21, pace 7:00/4:21
Third: 1:03:15, pace 7:14/4:29
Fourth: 1:03:30, pace 7:15/4:30

Predictably, I'm now being told by all sorts of people (including the current 100km female World Champion!) that I should try the 100km distance. In much the same way that I once said a marathon was twice as far as I wanted to run, I pooh-poohed that notion to start with. But now that I've had time to think about it......well, still no. I think.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Tokyo Marathon, February 2018

Despite several years of high school spent studying Japanese, I have never really had much interest in visiting Japan. It was a difficult language and all I can remember amounts to pretty much "Hello, my name is Rachel, I'm going to the beach". Tofu might have been what put me off, or perhaps sushi (for which I didn't develop a taste until well into my thirties), but that's just how it was, at least until very recently.

Tokyo marathon has a reputation as a fast and flat one, and it was added to the World Marathon Majors list a few years back, still I wasn't really interested until I finally visited Tokyo on the way to the ski fields of Hokkaido last year and fell immediately in love with the city. Suddenly it made perfect sense to find a way to enter the marathon - behold the 'Run As One' semi-elite program, for which I had qualified in Boston - and we were all set for our first running trip to Japan.

A nice little walking tour of Tokyo, anyone?

The Training

Yeah, ok, I guess I did train for this, although it was far from a conventional marathon training cycle.  Speedwork came only in the form of semi-regular Saturday morning Parkruns (a free, timed 5K that started in Wagga last September but is held in many locations every weekend all over Australia, the UK and various other countries) and perhaps one or two attempts at marathon pace during a long run. On that score, Hobart marathon in January was planned as a training run but predictably became something slightly faster - when chocolate is involved, all bets are off - and thus I found myself needing to recover, peak and then taper again, all within the space of 6 weeks. Right.

Considerably less than my usual training for a major marathon
These days I can legitimately claim advancing age as a reason for keeping the mileage lower,  I suppose, but I know that overall mileage is still one of the most important parts of marathon preparation. So, not hitting my usual totals should have made me fairly cautious about my chances in Tokyo - but on the other hand, optimism (and a dash of denial) probably helped me set off for Japan with fairly high expectations. What could possibly go wrong?


To save my legs before race day, we take the daytime flight and arrive on Friday evening. This means I don't have to drag my sleep-deprived self around Tokyo all day after the overnight flight, but it's still a long train ride from Narita and almost 10pm (midnight Sydney time) when we finally make it to our Airbnb apartment near Shinjuku. Yawn.

The next day my jet lag happily wakes me at my normal time, which is very frustrating because here it's only 4:30am. By 5am I've given up trying to fall back asleep and clearly it's going to be a very long day. Our only goals are to get to the expo to pick up my bib, which turns out to be a massive expedition that takes almost 5 hours to complete, and eat. More about that later.

The expo is strangely underwhelming, being split into 3 parts, but being unaware of this we are amazed to find absolutely NO merchandise of any sort in the booths through which we pass once I've gotten my security wristband, had my photo taken, my timing chip checked and everything but a DNA test to make sure the race will be as bandit-proof and secure as possible. All there seems to be, in fact, is towels and cookies and the odd keyring. What on earth??

Downstairs, however, there are two areas with clothing and shoes and - to my delight - I find a whole stand of ASICS Tarther shoes, my former favourite racing flats that have been extinct (other than in Japan) for at least the past 3 years. And there's an INKnBURN stand too!

Usually on the day before a big race I'll try to get as many carbs in as possible, but nothing much is very familiar and I've forgotten to bring along the powdered Gatorade I so efficiently packed. Oh well, I'll just have to settle for a massive bowl of ramen noodles, with extra noodles and rice, instead. What could possibly go wrong?

Race Day

For once the jet lag works in my favour, as does the late start (9:10am!) and the fact that we're staying a mere 650m from the starting line. Awake by 6:30am, I have plenty of time to choke down my customary iced coffee and a strange Japanese pastry or two - sourced from the local 7-11 last night - as well as relax and use our own bathroom facilities (with heated seat, no less) rather than queueing for some nasty porta-potty. This is very excellent.

Ready to rumble, or at least shuffle

Shortly before 8am I decide it's really time to head off and, with my throwaway tracksuit top and hat in place, venture out into the chilly 5C/42F weather to make my way towards Gate 2, block A. This takes surprisingly longer than I was expecting - there doesn't seem to be such a thing as shortcuts in Japan, not to mention I have to get my wristband scanned and pass through a metal detector as part of my journey.

I've got my phone in a velcro armband that I picked up at the expo; this is new for me but totally essential if I ever want to find Joel again after the finish, and predictably enough it seems to set off the detector but nobody pulls me over so I just keep walking. And walking, and walking. Eventually with the help of an English-speaking volunteer I find the right spot, and take up a position about 6 rows back from the front. The start is still 45 minutes away so I park myself on the roadway - women on the left side of the median strip, men to the right - curl into as tight a ball as I can manage and focus on conserving warmth. Brrr.

Not too far back at all, and at least I look marginally more fashionable than the person in the yellow garbage bag

Various celebratory events take place in front of me, including a choir of kids (very cute) and a bunch of men wearing "SuperDry" hoodies (strange - I don't recall exactly what they did), then finally the wheelchairs are started and the elites parade out to take their place right by the line.

Everyone around me is stripping off and throwing their clothes to the side so I do the same with my purple jacket, but I'll keep the hat until I feel warm enough to do without it. I've still got my gloves on - they're my favourite NYC ones and I don't anticipate ever needing to chuck them, nor would I want to - when the countdown timer hits zero: the announcer yells out "Ready, set, GO!" and the Tokyo marathon is underway. Wheee!

Start - 5km: 20:25 (6:34 min/mile, 4:05 min/km)

In practical terms it's a mega-stampede, the likes of which I have never seen before. I'm running as fast as I can but people are clawing their way past and almost over me pretty much constantly for the first 1km. So many that I'm almost annoyed - I have to remind myself this is Tokyo, not some country NSW race - because wow, I'm being elbowed from all sides and pretty much left in the dust.

Ready, set, run right over the person in front of you

I swear I'm in there somewhere, but so are 35,000 others and they're all running on top of me right now

My Garmin split for the first mile looks spot-on, which makes it even more surprising that I'm still being passed by so many runners and not only that, so many WOMEN. In retrospect my Garmin is probably not very accurate at this stage, on account of buildings and general Garmin city-weirdness, but I know for sure I'm running a pace that will bring me in well under 3:00.

My legs feel great, what's strange is that I've looked at last year's results and of the 700+ runners who broke 3 hours, less than 100 were female. The obvious conclusion is that a lot of these runners - both male and female - are going out WAY too fast. I guess maybe it's the do-or-die philosophy that drove the kamikaze pilots in World War II, translated into running?

In fact, I read a story just yesterday about Japanese runner Yuta Shitara, who made his marathon debut here last year and drew attention by going through halfway on world record pace, before fading to a still-honourable 2:09 finish. Fearless? You bet, and it's clear that plenty of his countrymen (and women) are running today in the same style: go hard and hope for the best. Not a strategy I can embrace, myself, but still very interesting to behold.

5 - 10km: 20:28 (6:35, 4:05)

Ooh, it looks like there are timing mats every 5km and a clock proclaiming the elapsed time since the race began. I haven't been organised enough to figure out how fast each split needs to be for something under 2:55 (which is my rough goal for today, other than my usual one of "as fast as possible on this particular day") but something around 20:30-21:00 seems about right.

It's incredible how many people are still zipping by; it's difficult resisting the temptation to accelerate and stay with them. One of them is a guy dressed as some sort of anime character, complete with long green hair. Well, that's a new one. My Garmin beeps a couple of ridiculously fast miles (6:07, which is 3:48 min/km, also known as Rachel's 5K race pace) but I'm pretty sure about my own ability to run to pace, so I ignore the watch and focus on taking in my surroundings.

We're heading directly east across from Shinjuku towards Tokyo station, where the finish precinct awaits my presence in hopefully just over 2 hours or so. The crowd is reasonably big and in parts quite vocal - I don't know what they're yelling, but the occasional "Jai-yo!" is a welcome sound and one that reminds me fondly of that horrific race experience that was the Fuxian Lake 50K last year - and there are amusing stretches where everyone is dressed the same and waving the same inflatable batons. Leave it to the Japanese to take marathon spectating to another level of organisation and harmony!

The volunteers are another part of this race that is unique: there's one every 20 meters or so, holding a garbage bin liner and part of their job is clearly to clean up anything we runners might drop. Japanese streets are remarkably clean (something I also noticed in China last year) and it feels very impolite to even think of littering, so I'm glad to have someone to throw my hat and empty GU packets at, even though that sounds fairly rude also. It occurs to me that I'm totally overthinking this race. Sigh.

Thought bubble: Are we there yet?

10 - 15km: 20:40 (6:39, 4:08)

Ok, this pace seems about right, although I don't really want to go any slower. The early-race springiness of my legs is starting to fade a bit, and it seems I've picked the right pace because cardio-wise I'm completely fine - unlike some of the people who are still huffing past, sounding for all the world like they're in the final stretch of their local Parkrun. Seriously?

The water stations are happening in earnest now and they are epic. Even though I'm not remotely thirsty (it's still only about 6C and I have barely cracked a sweat yet), I've figured out that the cups with "Pockari Sweat" on them really ARE full of Pockari Sweat - a disgusting-sounding Japanese electrolyte drink that is best avoided - and have been taking water as per usual.

The water is in plain paper cups, the kind that are perfect to squeeze into a spout and drink from without ending up either inhaling or wearing most of the contents, but I've discovered another drawback: my left glove keeps getting wet. I briefly experiment with taking the gloves off altogether, but quickly discover that makes my hands way too cold, so the damp one goes back on and I'll just have to be more careful.

What's remarkable is just how long these water stations are - they go on and on for at least 100m each. There's enough time to tear open and eat a GU, then wash it down with one or even two cups of waters, all without even slowing down. It's very impressive.

Cornering hard in Asakusa, with fancy scenery

15 - 20km: 20:32 (6:36, 4:06)

I look up just before the 15km mats to see an impressively Japanese-looking gateway: it's the entrance to a major shrine called Senso-ji that we're planning to visit over the next few days. It's there and then it's gone within seconds and the course turns towards the Skytree, another popular tourist spot that will make a nice backdrop for race photos. There are in fact large flags bearing camera icons at each official photography site, which makes it easy to pose and wave but also easy to be caught grimacing like a gargoyle. But more about that later.

This 5km split is pleasingly spot-on but what's less encouraging is that I'm not feeling that great right now, for reasons unknown. My legs and hips are a bit achey, more so than they really should be, and my brain just can't find that state of watchful peace - I think it's also know as "flow" - that is so helpful in the marathon. It's flipping between worrying about the state of my legs, calculating how far is left to run (never a good idea until the final 10km, and even then not really) and fretting over whether or not I can hold this pace all the way to the end.

I think part of the problem is that in the past few weeks, when asked, I've somewhat over-confidently stated my goal time as "low 2:50s". In reality I know my days of being close to 2:50 are over; I just didn't want to admit it to myself, but now there's no avoiding it. I'm on pace for 2:53-2:54 and there's no way I'll be any faster than that. And that knowledge is not sitting right with me.

Around 18km, however, there's a random Australian voice yelling out "Go Rachel!!" - much later I'll figure out that this was Georgie, one of the Aussies with whom I raced in China - and this gives me enough of a boost to get to the 20km mark with more positive thoughts than negative. Almost halfway; maybe I can ignore my brain for another 90 minutes after all.

Not entirely hating it right now

20 - 25km: 20:38 (6:38, 4:07)

There's a U-turn and a timing mat that my Garmin - inaccurate by a greater margin than I had anticipated - is convinced should be the halfway point, but it's not. That's about another 400m up the road and I glance at my watch as I pass it: 1:26:39.

Ok, well, that's 2:53, probably 2:54 more likely, and even if I really hit the "fade" button at the end, there's still a reasonably good chance that I'll make it under 3 hours. All these thoughts zip through my mind and are promptly filed away so I can focus on the task at hand: keeping my legs turning over.

The long out-and-back sections mean I've had a couple of glimpses of the race leaders: the men in a large, all-African pack, the women bunched in behind a phalanx of pacers. I've seen a couple of speedy Aussies, too: David Criniti - he's shooting for 2:17 or faster and I've seen him a few times at Manly doing punishingly fast long runs on Sundays - and Alex Rogers, whom I met at RunCamp in 2014. Hopefully both of them are on target for their goal times; now I need to make sure I still try to hit mine.

Focused. And my shoes match the traffic cones

25 - 30km: 20:41 (6:39, 4:08)

There's another long stretch with plenty of runners coming back the other way, and somewhat frustratingly we are headed yet again back to Tokyo station, although my sketchy grasp of the local topography means I'm not uncomfortably aware of the proximity of the finish line.

The negativity in my brain has quietened down somewhat now, to my relief, although I'm still more acutely aware of how far I have left to run than I'd prefer. What's helped to some extent is the fact that I'm now passing runners, a few of whom are clearly in big trouble. One is stretching and trying to walk; another is clearly in a rictus of agonising cramps.

What did I say about going out too fast, hmmm, class? Seriously, though, I've been guilty of it enough times myself. It just amazes me how many people never want to try doing something different. And with that thought, I find myself suddenly passing a female wearing an elite bib. Wait, what?

Nobody looks very impressed here.

Being almost exclusively focused on the process of running, I don't have many brain cells left to use on memorising the runners near me like I might normally do during a long race, but the appearance of another female inspires me to look around a bit. There's a (presumably) German one with a singlet that reads "Ick gloob det nich!" and something about a 100 mile race in Berlin, there's more than one with a bib on their back indicating this is their 6th (and final) Major, and now there's a Japanese woman in pink who looks like she should be in my age group. I cruise past but nope, she surges and disappears ahead of me again. Seriously?!

That's more than enough for now; I close off that part of my brain and busy myself looking awful for the photographers.

30 - 35km: 20:51 (6:43, 4:10)

Uh, oh.  I'm not good at mental arithmetic at the best of times but the clock at the 35km timing mats looks suspiciously like almost 21 minutes has elapsed when I cross. I need to hold it together now, really I do, because the wheels - while not yet falling off entirely - have definitely begun to wobble.

This stretch provides another opportunity to watch runners who are a whole lot closer to the finish than me, but I'm too far gone to notice anyone I know. Instead I focus on the fact that I'm actually passing quite a lot of people now - runners who are no longer running.

They are walking, or standing and stretching, or hobbling painfully towards a sympathetic volunteer. Some are lying on the ground wearing space blankets and one vomits, projectile-fashion, into the bushes as I pass by. How picturesque. I guess these are the people who stampeded past me in the early miles of the race; I bet they really regret going out at 10K race pace now.

Tokyo Tower, wheee!

The carnage all around me is quite distracting and I find myself almost enjoying the race again, despite the protests of my legs. Passing people in the dying (ha) stages of a race is always sort of gratifying and there's nothing like a game of Assassin Mode to pass the time.

35 - 40km: 20:54 (6:44, 4:11)

Shortly after the 35K mats there's a hairpin turn and finally we are on the way back towards Tokyo Station and the finish line. There's some very interesting scenery to my left, some sort of temple thing that I was vaguely aware of about 4km ago when I went past on the other side of the road, and I'd love to stop and look at it but I've reached the point of things where I just want to be done.

Again I'm able to somewhat distract myself from the increasing fatigue and discomfort in my legs by looking at all the late-race blow-ups that are occurring around me, and telling myself there's only x miles left to run, and when this doesn't work I resort to counting mindlessly in my head: one-and-two-and-three-and-four etc. in time with my steps.

It seems to be working - the mile splits are still ticking over more or less consistently and I'm not slowing down very much, all things considered - but oh boy, I want to stop running soon.

I'm still passing people hand over fist and it does occur to me that I'd like to look some of them up later, just to see how badly they are tanking right now. At the 40K timing mats there's a guy I've tried to pass a few times already but he kept fighting me off; he's totally done now and I won't find this out til the photos come online, but he shoots me a look of pure anguish as I finally pass him once and for all:

Some serious side-eye 

When I look him up later in the results, it all becomes clear: he ran the first half in 1:20 (over 6 minutes faster than me) and yet in the end I beat him by almost 2 minutes. Even worse - but also not surprising - he's half my age! No wonder he was pissed when I sauntered past....

At any rate, the end is nigh. Finally.

40 - 42.2km: 9:14 (6:45, 4:12)

The final couple of kilometres take me in a fairly straight line towards the Imperial Palace and the finish line. The crowd is larger again and quite vocal, but I'm way past being able to pay attention. I just want to stop - it's taking everything I have to keep my legs turning over now.  I'm part of a small group that is struggling to stay together: one Marathon Major Sixer, a small Japanese woman and a tall British guy wearing a Comrades shirt. I passed the Majors guy a while back but he comes pounding by again as I'm grinding my way down the final mile. This is unacceptable! yells my brain, and I abandon my plans to stop right now in favour of giving chase.

Suffer Street, aka the rather uninspiring scenery of the final mile

At last there's a sharp left hand turn and I'm in the finish chute. A glance up at the clock, which is showing 2:53:xx, tells me what I expected: I'm heading for mid-2:50s rather than low-2:50s, but whatever.  I'm almost there, at last!

Ugh, urrgghh, ahh! The many faces of the marathon

Finish time: 2:54:16  (6:37 min/mile, 4:06 min/km)

Half splits: 1:26:39, 1:27:44 (+ 1:05)

Placement: 57th female, 2nd AG (F 45-49)

It's freezing but I didn't drop any clothes, figuring I could just make my way to the Family Meeting Area to meet Joel who has everything I need. But that would mean a left turn after the finish area and because my bib is blue, I have to go right. I try everything I can to indicate that I want to go left - English (but nobody speaks it), increasingly vehement/begging sign language (ineffective), my very rudimentary Japanese (laughable) - but nope, I have to go right. Bloody Japan and their inflexible rules!

This means a detour of what seems like 10km as I make my way around the finish area, along the fenced-off course and eventually down into a subway station, wearing just my race outfit with a towel and space blanket on top. It's still seriously cold, probably around 9-10C at best, and I'm moderately hypothermic by the time Joel finally locates me.

But I survived! And a look at the Strava data later confirms what I already knew: I was red-lining it all the way so really I couldn't have gone any faster.

A small positive split means a race well-executed, and so despite the overall time being a little slower than I'd have liked, I'm satisifed. And even more so after a long afternoon at the most awesome sushi restaurant ever! I love Japan but in future I'll stick to tourism, food
and skiing - this marathon thing is getting a bit tough.

Refuelling, Tokyo-style.