My running strategy can best be described as Hope over Experience, and in Tokyo on February 28, Hope lost again. (It’s never won; I guess I have a very shallow learning curve.)
Tokyo is one of six major marathons, the others being Chicago, New York, Boston, Berlin and London. In September, 2015, I’d gone with Marathon Tours & Travel of Chelsea, MA, to run in Berlin and hopefully get a good qualifying time for Boston (which I did). Tokyo was a bit of an afterthought — “You want to go to Tokyo? We still have slots available.” So yes, it sounded like fun as the Japanese are big running fans. Besides, what could possibly go wrong?
Of course, I wanted to experience as many different activities as I could to make a trip of that cost and distance worthwhile. I’d arrived a day early and braved the Tokyo subway system by myself to visit the Tokyo DisneySea theme park, signed up for the 5K “Friendship” fun run the day before the marathon, and registered for side trips to Nagano and Kyoto afterward. The complication was I’d strained a thigh muscle the last three weeks of training. Add to that a lock-up of my nemesis calf muscle that had cost me the month of December and I was a bit of a head case on the trip over. I wrapped the suspect thigh in an Ace bandage and walked the Friendship Run, got a massage the night before to loosen everything up, and hoped for the best. Incidentally, one of the biggest language problems was the massage. I kept asking for a leg massage, and it kept getting understood as a foot massage. It wasn’t until I pointed to the exact muscles that the masseuse understood what I wanted.
The Japanese are very polite and very regimented. Although the race didn’t start until 9:10, we were required to be in the staging area by 8:15, have our baggage (what we needed at the finish) turned in by 8:30, and be in our starting corrals by 8:45. The staging area was actually on a lower level than the start back up on the surface streets, although it was still outdoors. Security was tight; we had to go through a metal detector and there was even a security checkpoint to get into our hotel, which bordered part of the course. The worst was the Porta-a-potty line. It stretched from one end of the staging area to the other. I got in it, but bailed when it was time to climb the steps and get to my corral. Fortunately, I didn’t need it. By the way, there was an interesting dynamic at work where the line to the potties intersected with the line (mass, really) going toward the stairs to the corrals. No one said anything, they just pushed through each other. It was like a huge, quiet rugby scrum.
The start was televised; there was a camera on a crane right behind us. We watched the opening ceremonies on a giant TV screen, then the gun went off. Despite being in corrals according to ability, there was no staggered start. We crossed the starting line as everyone moved forward and I activated my GPS watch. The computer chip on my shoelaces got the official time.
The race started very well. The course is a net downhill, with most of that coming in the first ten kilometers. There were plenty of aid stations, and something I’ve never seen before, volunteers were in identical outfits. Also, some were holding trash bags open for our drink cups when we were through with them. There were the usual themed runners like any other major. One man had a sign on his back that he had come all the way from Peru; we exchanged greetings in Spanish. A woman from Great Britain wore a sign that this was her 100th marathon. Then there was the Finn who has run 145 marathons. There were also a few costumes, I passed Pikachu!
There were plenty of spectators, including groups of identically dressed people in small grandstands. (I was told these were either volunteers or from sponsors.) One of the few Japanese words I know is thank you — arigatoo. I would occasionally yell “Arigatoo” and wave, and it always got a big reaction.
The weather was almost ideal for running. It was a bit on the cool side to start, but the day topped out at about 55 degrees F. A lot of people were wearing cold-weather gear, but I got along fine in a singlet and arm warmers. The complication was most of the course, especially the second half, was in the direct sun.
The general rule for marathons (if you’re in shape) is the first hour is great as you glide along, a feeling you never want to end. Then fatigue sets in and you want to get the last hour over with as soon as possible. This started a bit early today, just beyond the halfway mark. The backs of both legs got painfully sore, a sign of energy depletion. (Otherwise, the legs actually held up very well, whew!) The runner’s handbook said there would be “Sports Beverage” at eight aid stations, and “Glucose, dried plums, chocolate, candy, etc.” at four. (There were 15 aid stations total.) I was expecting something like an energy gel; I’d only brought one gel plus some gummy bears for this part of the race. What I got were pieces of banana, cherry tomatoes (?), and a round pastry with a jelly filling three times, plus rice balls at one station. There were also mandarin oranges at two locations; I suspect some of those came from spectators. The sports beverage was a local brand called Pocari Sweat. This is where Hope really lost it. Whatever the reason — the sun, the refreshments — I flat ran our of energy about the 22-mile mark.
That was about the time we ran into the upgrades. The finish was close to the harbor at a convention center called Tokyo Big Sight. We had to cross several bridges to get there, two of them flat-out hills. The last two miles the procession resembled a defeated army retreating after a lost battle. I can never remember seeing so many running stretching their legs along the side of the course, a sure sign of cramps. I myself cramped briefly at the 20-mile mark, and I’ve never cramped before. At one point, I passed a Japanese runner who was limping badly. I gave him a thumbs up, and he managed to return a smile.
To try to keep up the pace, I resorted to a trick that worked pretty well in Berlin — try to match another runner who was going a bit faster. I chose a Japanese man whose shoes were making a distinctive slapping sound. But he was at least my age and he eventually faded. There was nothing left to do but gut it out.
I forgot about my time and just kept plugging with a run-walk until Big Sight was in sight. I had enough left to run the last half kilometer. I didn’t even look at my watch when I finished, but my official time was 4:07:53. That’s good, my second fastest as a “master” (i.e., old) runner and technically a Boston qualifier, but my goal was four hours and at one time I thought 3:55 was within reach. The strange part was my watch said I’d run 26.64 miles. When I compared notes with other runners, some had distances of over 27 miles! Was the course long? One of my goals was to get as close to 26.2 as possible because I’d run a 26.5 at Berlin and figured that cost me several minutes off my time right there. Oh well, some things you can’t control.
We got the usual supplies in the recovery area, and instead of a thermal blanket, we got a towel, which was much more useful. One complaint — the Japanese don’t give hugs, and dang it, when I get my medal I expect a hug!
It was a long walk through the recovery area, then through Big Sight to find the busses back to the hotel, amid some grumbling from other runners about the walk and several stops to ask directions (yes, men will ask directions when they’re exhausted). At smaller marathons, I’ll go back and cheer on the other runners, but at this scale (around 36,000 runners), it’s best to get out of everyone else’s way.
But all’s well that ends well. I got back to the hotel and went right to the Fitness Center. Frequently I get a massage after a marathon. This time I put on my bathing suit and worked my legs in the hotel pool for almost a half hour. After a rest, it was off to another hotel for a victory reception. My roommate was talking steak dinner, but there was enough food at the reception that dinner was quickly forgotten. One of the great ironies is that distance running actually kills your appetite; every body function not directly connected with moving the legs shuts down. It always takes awhile for the appetite to return, so breakfast the next morning was a completely different story.
I’ve never been big on calling attention to myself, but I do wear my medal the rest of the marathon day. So my roomie and I were proudly displaying our medals as we returned to our hotel. As we got into the elevator, a man with a British accent looked us over, then said something like “You’re the people who ruined my day.” I figured he meant all the street closures (although with Japanese efficiency, the course barriers went up in a flash and came down in a flash) and I reflexively said “Gee, I’m sorry.” He quickly replied “No, you’re not. Look, you’re still wearing the medal!” Okay, I really wasn’t.
On the way home, I always carry the medal with me, and usually wear the event shirt. (I had to this time; I was out of clean shirts.) I never say anything unless asked. But when I go through airport security, the medal is always on top of the pile.