6am and the iPhone alarm rang. The buzz was really not needed as I’d 2 snorers who were cooking up an operatic duet throughout the night. You can’t tell the maestros to clamp up when they’re inspired and putting up with other folks in a confined space are all part of dorm stay experience. It was different in NYC as I had fellow runners Seow Ping and Geraldine with me and the 3 other guys who shared our room were not in most of the time. Then we had the dorm to ourselves much of the time. In Tokyo, most of my room mates were one-nighters, even stressed up workers who were just passing through. I packed ear plugs but was afraid to use it for fear of not hearing the alarm. To make matters worse, there were no single rooms available so I needed to gut it out another night. Chalk that down to learning. Unless the entire dorm room is made up of runners, I’ll opt for a hotel room the next time.
As my baggage were all packed the night before, I was out within 30 minutes. Mawar and her entourage who happened to stay at the same hostel were just stirring. I made a brief stop at Excelsior Caffe before heading to nearby Shinjuku. The plan was to meet up with Chloe and the rest of the Malaysian group at the Washington Hotel, which from earlier research, can be accessed via an underpass from the Shinjuku Station South Exit. The plan totally went down the drain when for the life of me I couldn’t locate it. Asking around only generated perplexed looks. I told myself to get topside so that I could get my bearings right. Once topside those plans too were screwed as the entire area was teeming with people. Other than the twin towers of the Tokyo government building, I couldn’t tell one building from the other. People were walking in all directions so there wasn’t any obvious way to go – if I know Japanese, it probably would’ve helped as there were plenty of volunteers. Some frantic moments later I SMSed Chloe to forget about waiting for me as the clock was ticking down. Furthermore the other guys were already at her place and were good to go.
A few traffic cops I asked had no clue where the Washington is, and all gave me different directions that I wasn’t prepared to risk heading to. I was at the point of panicking on how to manage my bags when a fellow runner, a Japanese speaking Caucasian, who saw that I was in trouble spoke to the cop but she too couldn’t get any clear picture for me.
It became obvious that in order for me to still run without carrying my bags along the whole course would be to stash my backpack into the clear deposit bag. Which was a tricky thing to do since it’s a 43-liter bagpack! And I wasn’t sure if Tokyo was going to be like NYC where nothing else are allowed into the deposit bag other than visible items themselves – no other bags nor plastic wraps. And I was going to put a big black bag into a bag! The good Samaritan runner and I did just that. Inspired by videos of conductors pushing commuters into a packed Tokyo train, both of us pushed, squeezed and punched the backpack into the deposit bag, ripping a hole in the process. The clear bag is made really tough and other than the small rip, we eventually did it. With a wish for good luck, she pointed me to the direction of the waiting baggage vans which I made just in time. In my haste I forgot to ask her name but did thank her profusely. When I got to the trucks (mine was # 32)
The volunteers taped up my pack, laughed at me as I struggled with my numbed fingers to tie up the cord and graciously wished me luck in my race. On the way to my designated G corral, I joined the queue to the porta-potties while munching on a Clif Bar and took in a GU. 10 minutes later I was already part of the 35,000 strong ready to race. With a field this big, G corral was located a kilometer to the starting mat.
The wind dampened the spirit of race morning as we stood in the open. As TV crews were running here and there interviewing runners and helicopters whirred above, the mood was rather quiet were I stood. The body still ached from the rushing around from Osaka to Tokyo late Friday night. I’d overestimated the abuse my body could take, the choice of opting for 2 large backpacks rather than 1 roller bag a very bad one. My cousin was shocked at how heavy my packs were. The pain and soreness were troubling enough that I popped a couple of Tylenols and a lozenge for the throat before bedtime on race eve.
After like forever standing in the freezing wind, the skies to the left suddenly erupted in balls of puff. The cannons had been fired, a cheer went through the crowd and the race was underway. For the leaders, at least. We were still standing there and only a few minutes later started shuffling forward, stopped and resumed again. Adrenaline was slowly taking over as I took a left with the thousands of runners to the main avenue. The atmosphere along the main road was fantastic. The earlier airburst of the trademark sakura and heart-shaped paper shower littered the ground as runners made their way through the streets of Tokyo.
First K was slow due to the crowd unlike NYC and Gold Coast, when race pace was a get go from the the start. It would be the 2nd K before I could run under a 6-minute pace. However, it was obvious from the 1st kilometer that the Tokyo spectators and volunteers would be special. I thought that NYC would be a very difficult act to follow. Where NYC comes alive once the runners get off the Verrazano Bridge into Brooklyn, Tokyo had thousands of spectators from the very beginning and the spectacle never lets up. I was advised by a globe-trotting marathoner that Tokyo should be run as a fun race because there was so much to absorb gut-wise – spectators offering everything from M&Ms, miso soup, plums, oranges, bananas, chocolates, pickles, fluffy pastries – a veritable buffet of carbs and sugar. Your visual and auditory senses will be maxed out as well. Performers range from rock bands, disco dancers, cute dancing kids, 2 YMCA-singing groups, belly dancers in costumes out of the Arabian Nights, old folks singing and performing traditional songs in front of the Asakusa Temple, and basically hundreds of thousands of shouting and screaming spectators. Tokyo may not have the horns of the Brooklyn fire trucks but she has many taiko drummers keeping beat. It’s like the crowd of NYC’s First Avenue throughout the 42 kilometers. An image that will stick in my mind long after the race was the volunteer who was on the verge of losing her voice but was still screaming encouragements near the finishing stretch.
The runners themselves are no less colourful. You can easily spot Power Rangers, Samurai Warriors, Ultraman, Pikachu, Doraemon, Panda and Spiderman costumes amongst the runners. Quite a number had the Tokyo Tower and Sky Tree replicas poking out of their heads. A few days after the race as more and more photos were uploaded to Facebook, I saw that there was even a guy who ran as Jesus Christ – barefoot and topless, in loin cloth carrying a cross! That definitely put a new twist to the phrase “on a wing and a prayer!”
Meanwhile the race was unfolding for me. It hadn’t warmed up by much and my pacing had been very comfortable (28:54 at 5K, 58:12 at 10K). It was still very cold and breathing through the mouth took some getting used to. But I was moving well and I believe adrenaline numbed whatever physical soreness I had. The course offered several opportunities of catching the elites on the other side of the road but I missed seeing Haile, the African contingent and the top Japanese elites around the Roppongi stretch. I saw the chasing packs behind the leaders and what a sight that was. Totally inspiring. People were talking about maintaining smaller steps and higher cadence. But in all the major races, I’ve yet to see these runners in the top packs. The runners in the upper echelons possess long flowing strides and maintain long “air time”. Very quick touch-and-go and they’re off.
My pacing has been rather consistent and my race has been rather uneventful, which was great. My PF issues have been non-existent probably numbed by the cold, no cramps, no blisters, no rogue pebble in the shoes. Status was green and I was able to cover extensive stretches in the zone. As I was carrying a bottle of sports drink, I skipped the water stations in the first 12K and from then onwards, drank from alternate stations. I took a pack of GU Roctane every 8K, which caused some bloating and gas. My only struggle from the halfway mark onwards (about 2:01) was my bladder. Every single toilet stops had long queues. Losing time was never a concern of mine but allowing the body to cool down further will present some issues of having to get back the momentum. In fact some waiting runners were seen jogging around the toilets to stay warm! And so I held on. And ran on.
Other than the hyper crowds, my race stayed pretty uneventful. I appreciated the bursts of energy from the bananas, every now and then. I only noticed that I started dropping pace from 26K onwards when I slowed down to 6:0x-ish pace. It was more a gradual phenomenon rather than sudden thing. The cold water served along the route had started to cause some stomach issues and I did consider emptying my bladder on the run but somehow just couldn’t do it.
Ginza was undoubtably the hardest stretch and I believe that only the sight of the elites on the opposite side (35K for them) prevented me from sliding further because I made a conscious rally at that point to not lose more ground. I dug in and clung on to a pace which ranged between 5:54 to 6:12. That got me to the 36K mark. It was great and the crowds were the thickest I’ve seen in this part of the route and they certainly played a big part too in getting the weary legs moving.
37K was where things started to get unravel. Unsurprisingly it had to do with a bridge. I walked up that one and from then on, I stopped looking at my watch. My race was over and it was damage control time, employing some shuffling and walking. I was depleted yet I was glad that other than the wall, there were no lower back and PF issues. With the proceedings the way it was, I hopped into the toilet for a well-deserved release. More walking ensued. The last 2Ks were very tough, inclines littered the way in the Ariake area. I ambled through 41K in 6:59 and 14 minutes later turned right towards the finish line. On the stage were the winners, including Haile who looked rather despondent with his 2:08 fourth-placed finish. My timing of 4:24.57 on paper is about a minute slower than my 2011 Gold Coast Marathon but I was surprised to find that the distance of the Tokyo race is 42.9K, nearly a whole kilometer longer. My friends also had similar readings on their Garmins with the max recorded at 43.1K. It the distance was indeed longer, I’d probably had ran and walked faster than Gold Coast 🙂 . Considering the physical toll my body was under, I was ecstatic with my timing. The slightly conservative approach minimized the effects of my pre-race fatigue.
Once the finish line was crossed, we had to walk about 200 meters to where the post-race refreshments were handed out, including the finisher towel, drinks, sports sprays and bananas. The volunteers’ genuine graciousness made me rather misty eyed and I was really touched by the show of warmth on this cold and overcast day. If not for the race, it would’ve been a downright gloomy day. After taking a breather and changed back into my dry clothes, I hobbled a mad 2K to the train station. Due to the setup of the finishing area at the Tokyo Big Sight, tired runners were forced to walk a ridiculously long way to exit the area. That was perhaps, the only downer. I texted Chloe that I’d like to bail out of the post-race gathering before making a long trip back to the hostel. I spent the night doing laundry before deciding that it was time for some undisturbed sleep in the privacy of a single room. Yup, I upgraded my bed from the dorm to a proper room. I dozed off to sleep with no problems basked in the warmth of the supporters and volunteers of the Tokyo Marathon, my 19th. My 20th shall be in sunny Gold Coast Australia!
- When travelling to an overseas race, preserve your body. Take the roller bag and don’t be a hero by using a 50-liter backpack on top of a 43-liter one. Your shoulders and back will thank you.
- Spend a bit more on a hotel room. Sleep is very important and you’ll have privacy to get ready for the race without disturbing your dorm residents.
- For a point-to-point race, stay closer to the finishing line.
Why one must run Tokyo at least once:
- The volunteers and spectators are spectacular.
- Experience the Japanese culture and hospitality.
- Excellent race experience, from the sights to the array of food/refreshments served.
- While not as flat as Gold Coast, it’s still a PR course. The last 8K will be over rolling streets and crossings. The weather is tricky – cold this year but warmer in 2011.
Not so good:
- The post-race Death March, exiting the finishing area to the train station.
- Cost for Malaysians. While accommodation and flight tickets present great deals if sourced early, food and transportation are expensive. It may be cheaper to fly Delta from Singapore to Narita and leave after the race.
For fantastic photos, check out the gallery at Lets Run.