Nagano Marathon 2014

I’d started my journey from Matsumoto hours earlier at 5:30am, along with my cousin’s family in the MPV. They were down for a day’s sightseeing in Nagano and shopping in Karuizawa, and I, for what else 😀 ? The hour-long leisurely drive convinced me that I must return to this part of Japan with the wife, so beautiful were the sights of the Alps to the left and peaceful towns that dotted the valleys to the right. The sun had risen above the horizon and its rays caught the resplendent snow capped summits, raising the already jaw-dropping factor several notches higher. I was dropped off at the Nagano Station for the free ride to the Kitanagano Station, just a stop away. Having bumped into Budiman at the station, we got on board the train without having to wait.

The Japan Alps as seen from the car.
Staying warm indoors.

From the Kitanagano Station, we took a leisurely walk through the suburbs to the Nagano City Athletic Park. It was chilly when the gusts of wind hit us but otherwise, conditions were great. The 15-minute walk allowed the body to warm up and when we got to the sprawling park, we immediately headed to the nearest shelter to change, fuel up, stretch and just stay relaxed. Several thousand runners had the same idea but we easily found a space on the floor. Before I left the hotel, I’d chomped down an onigiri, and had my black coffee fix. Since there were still 1.5 hours to the start, I topped up my fuel level with 2 mini-sized energy bars and continued hydrating. I left the Protein Bar untouched as I didn’t want the bloated feeling.

With 45 minutes to go, Budiman and I headed outside to drop off the baggage before joining the queue for the doorless urinals. These urinals were also seen at the Tokyo and Osaka Marathons and weren’t a surprise to me but I can imagine their novelty to first timers. With 20 minutes to the start, we finally entered our designated corrals. Even though the signages were mostly in Japanese, we had no trouble finding our way around.

Following several speeches and the introduction of the elites, the race was on! Conditions were good – sunny and mildly cool with intermittent colder winds from the mountains. Despite my poor training, I felt strongly that I could return a much better timing than the 4:21 I ran in PNM last year, maybe a 4:15 result. 4:10 would be stretching luck a little while anything under 4:10 would be too unrealistic. After giving some thoughts to which strategy I should be adopting given my poor training, the plan was to still stick to the goal pace of 5:35. I knew that since hitting the wall was inevitable given the very poor preparations, there was no need to hold back but instead keep the proceedings honest and maintain the goal pace for as long as body can manage.

Capped at 10,000 runners, the Nagano Marathon is less than a third of the size of Tokyo Marathon. While race entry is on a first-come-first-serve basis, there’s a specter of a 5-hour cutoff time snapping at the heels of slower runners. It still has the competitive vibes to it, with some elites already seen standing at the front an hour before the start! These folks were truly serious.

Right from the start, the locals, from the very young in the arms of their parents, to the old in wheelchairs, were out in force cheering the runners. School kids were out decked in uniforms and there were brass bands scattered throughout the course. There was even a senior citizen woodwind band in attendance! The race may be a no-frills event compared to the likes of the Marathon Majors or even Osaka but the level of support shown definitely weren’t inferior – there were plenty of spirit on display! The organizers were also spot on in limiting the field to 10,000 given the narrower streets of Nagano. It would get narrower as we get to the outskirts of the city.

Focused in the 2nd quarter of the race and about to take a corner. I bought this print. But they only deliver to an address in Japan. The dude in red looked like a skinnier Wind Fong 🙂

The race so far has been unfolding rather well for me. The course is devoid of drastic changes in elevation and hence my pacing has been nothing short of a personal breakthrough, leading to the final quarter of the race. But firstly, the initial 5K marker came and went very quickly before I realized it. Then came the downhill touristy stretch coming down from Zenkoji Temple (where I rolled down in 5:25 and 5:20 pace). I tried looking out for my cousin and her family but didn’t spot them amongst the thick crowd. The next landmark was the Big Hat at the 10K mark where the race expo was held the day before.

Big Hat, the venue for the race pack collection.

First 10K (10K @ 55:52)
5:49 > 5:33 > 5:38 > 5:45 > 5:32 > 5:35 > 5:25 > 5:20 > 5:29 > 5:30

Nothing much happened after that as I got more and more into the zone. I was clicking off consistent splits, hitting every targeted 5K splits on my pace band. My 620 was set to display the Virtual Pacer and by 15K, I’d gained an advantage of 1:40 over the set time. Although it appeared that way, I didn’t set out to put time in the bank. I’ve never been a practitioner of such methods, preferring a pace as constant as possible.

On the other side of the road were the 3:30 pace group. They were just inspirational to observe – strong yet relaxed running form and the focus one could clearly see on the faces of the men and women. It provided a timely reminder to myself to stay relaxed. My legs were holding up well as I’ve spent the last 2 nights thoroughly massaging them.

Soon enough the sight of yet another Olympic venue, M-Wave came up. We ran around the large complex and embarked on a long stretch towards the outskirts of Nagano. I briefly entertained some feelings of optimism here but quickly brushed it off and returned to focusing on clearing each KM as it came. My strides, breathing and heart rate were still relaxed and smooth.

Second 10K (20K @ 1:50.03)
5:31 > 5:31 > 5:20 > 5:24 > 5:24 > 5:24 > 5:27 > 5:23 > 5:34 > 5:33

Halfway (21K @ 1:55.33)

The halfway split was right on the money. All that was left to be done was to dial in a sub-2 hour 2nd half. In theory. In reality, there’s the accumulated mileage the runner had put into the legs and the conditioning of the energy delivery system, both critical deciders in how a race pans out – and incidentally both areas I’d been severely short of. Nothing I could do except to keep going and see how the body reacts.

The road leading to yet another stadium, the White Ring, was the widest yet on the course and I took full advantage of the space by running tangents. Mentally I was just counting down the remaining half marathon distance but I knew the real race has yet to be run. Or walked! Which I did as I hit the 29K aid station where with 4 minutes to the good, I thought I’d reward myself with a brief walk and a potty break.

I purchased this photo. From this angle, the snow capped alps can’t be seen.

Third 10K (30K @ 2:47.29)
5:33 > 5:27 > 5:33 > 5:33 > 5:31 > 5:30 > 5:47 > 5:40 > 6:16 > 6:47

Getting started again was darn difficult. My legs seemed to have lost the plot and I suddenly felt so depleted. No cramps, tolerable discomfort yet I couldn’t will my body to respond. Not even the blast of the alp horns could move me. You read that right, they had alp horns! I checked and there’s actually the famous Ookuwa Village Alp Horn Band in Nagano. This could be the group which performed along the course.

The sun was up and the air was warming up quickly. There were even salt on both my cheeks. I gave up removing my gloves, cap and warmers as I couldn’t stow them away securely. My progress had been reduced to jogs and walks but I wasn’t upset. The villagers (many of whom were old folks) who came out in force and the volunteers ensured that there will be no chance for such nonsense like wallowing in self-pity. In fact I had more time to soak in the atmosphere and sights. I thanked the folks at every opportunity and returned their applause. The aid stations were not the buffet types found in the large city marathons but provide more than enough sustenance in the form of water, Amino Vital sports drink, bananas and candies.

Already in shuffling mode.

Unsurprisingly the next 8K was a tussle between the mind and body. The crowd became significantly thicker the final 2K leading to the Olympic Stadium and when you were cheered as heartily as they did, you made sure you didn’t walk. Once I entered the stadium, everything was just as I’d expected from the videos I’d watch on the race. Kids in colorful costumes and uniform lined up waiting to high-five the returning runners. I crossed the line in 4:18.34 (gun time – 4:22) and felt like great.

Final Slogfest (4:18.34)
7:13 > 6:40 > 8:53 > 8:12 > 6:48 > 6:11 > 6:57 > 8:08 > 8:12 > 7:10 > 6:58 > 6:55 > 2:36

In the final analyses, I thought I ran a good race. It was a fair timing considering the many things I didn’t do in training. I went in fully aware of my shortcomings but even if my endurance was poor, there wasn’t a complete abandonment of hope. I felt that I was still good for the pace up to a certain point and stuck with the plan. I ran with my mind those first 30K and I discovered that I could really focus. It was the fastest 30K I’d ran in a marathon and that gave me much confidence. Eventually though, the body will have a say in the scheme of things – there’s no denying nature. The marathon starts at the 30K mark and how well one prepares will be laid out for all to see once the 4th quarter of the race commences.

Came off the final curve and into the finishing stretch. Still managed to maintain some form.

Even so, 4:18 was quicker than Tokyo 2012 and Osaka 2012. It was also quicker than GCAM 2011, 2012 and PNM 2013. That means every marathon I’ve ran since my 2008 PR in NYCM. That’s like taking a few steps out of the marathon wilderness. And that coming off with very little training, makes me truly wonder.

The event mascot. An apple for a head. Scrunch!
Pano of the baggage collection tents.
Pano of the festivities around the stadium. I’ll make it a point to not rush back for the post race party to instead hang around the site. So much to see and eat!
Street dance performance in progress. Not bad at all!
F&B stalls everywhere. I was salivating. Really.
The Olympic Torch.
With fellow Malaysian, SC, who ran a great race! Check out the queue for the shuttle ride back into the city. The line moved quickly though. To our left and right were stalls selling everything from BBQ meats, udon, kebabs, ice cream, donburi but I couldn’t just step off the queue to grab the mouthwatering temptations 🙂

I’ve yet to repeat a race in Japan but I just might go back to Nagano again. Here’s the official video of the 16th edition which was published 2 days after the race.

And here are some notes on the Nagano Marathon, should you be interested.
Entries: Opens 3rd week of October for foreigners, capping at 10,000 runners.
Race Fees: ¥10,000 (approx RM320)
Entitlements: Event towel, short sleeved tee, finisher medal (first year this was issued)
Description: Reasonably flat point to point, breathtaking vistas of the alps and countryside. Definitely a PR course. Small city vibes. Organization is superb and focused on delivering what’s important and little of the flashy. Compact expo. Race starts 8:30am. Complimentary train ride from Nagano to Kitanagano Stations and the post race bus ride back to Nagano Station. Complimentary post race party and dinner for foreigners.
Weather: Hard to predict. The 2013 race saw heavy snowing at the start. This year’s race was sunny and warm (10 Celsius at the start – 18 Celcius). You could be lucky, like me, to catch the Sakura season.
Challenges: Frustrating search for accommodation in Nagano. The rooms are sold out quicker than the race slots. There’s no direct flight from KL, so your options are to get to Tokyo or Nagoya and train from there, which could be costly.