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.

1 comment:

  1. Good recap and photos. That overhead one of the start is amazing. Also amazing is the suicidal pace at the start of Japanese runners. Haven't they heard about even splits? LOL
    Anyway, have a good one Sunday. Hope you bought a bit of the Japanese weather back with you, or at least a compromise. It's been so hot!