Tokyo Marathon 2012

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.

The timing chip is the pink rectangular plastic

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.

Walking towards the race precinct
Hordes of runners. Most important is to get the bearings right.
Stuffing the man into the bowling pin costume.

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!”

Photo courtesy of David Ong aka Happy Feet
Photo courtesy of David Ong aka Happy Feet

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.

Photo credit: Photorun

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.

Fuel needle near zero

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!

Mass “changing room”

 

Learnings:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. For a point-to-point race, stay closer to the finishing line.

Why one must run Tokyo at least once:

  1. The volunteers and spectators are spectacular.
  2. Experience the Japanese culture and hospitality.
  3. Excellent race experience, from the sights to the array of food/refreshments served.
  4. 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:

  1. The post-race Death March, exiting the finishing area to the train station.
  2. 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.

Osaka Marathon 2012

Note: After giving it some thought, a short report is still appropriate. So here goes.

The days leading up to the race were littered with tell-tale signs that it just wasn’t going to be the race. I’ve ranted on and on about the untimely fever (not that there ever was a timely illness but this takes the cake) I came down with, C2’s rush to the hospital after vomiting for 3 days, the ill-fated but necessary trip to Penang where AirAsia lost our baggage and the return bus ride back to KL turned into a hellish experience of break down and 10-hour journey. It was as if something was pulling all stops to ensure that this wasn’t to be a smooth outing. I’m not a superstitious person but things were so bad that I was starting to believe in the illogical. But I remained defiant and was determined to make sure that whatever bad omens were befalling me and the family, I wasn’t going to abort my race plans. Or I’d be living with the thought of what might have been.

AirAsia X sponsored running vests for Malaysian participants and this group photo was taken at the Expo on Friday. AAX CEO Azran went on to run a fantastic 3:40. That’s the Asahi Zero in my hand – non alcoholic. Photo credit: Vivien Tay.
Breakfast on the WC.

The choice of Weekly Mansion Otemae as the hotel of choice was excellent. Just a short walk to the start and along the Chuo rail line, this would be the same place I’d be holing up the next time I run Osaka. Race morning started at 5:50am and breakfast was half a serving of cup noodles, a Clif bar and coffee. The room was really small and so that I don’t wake my wife up, I ate my breakfast on the WC. It turned out to be unnecessary as she was woken up by my rustling around anyway.

The group gathered at the lobby at 6:45am and we headed out to the race site soon after. The air was crisp but not as cold as Tokyo or New York, but I regaled at the fall colors on the way there – it certainly brought back memories of New York, that which was my only other fall marathon back in 2008. Despite being thousands of miles away from home, it’s marvelous to still be able to run into familiar faces – I bumped into a blog reader (I’ve ashamedly forgotten his name but I remembered he wore the Brooks Half Marathon vest), Abu Power, Rich and Uncle Yee Choi on the way to the baggage truck. I suppose everyone was headed to the same truck. Mine was # 18 which was positioned just about in between the entry to the athletes’ village and the corrals. My minimally packed bag consisted of only a jacket, some cash for the ride back and coffee, iPhone, dry top, an energy bar and wet towelettes and it was promptly checked-in by the cheery volunteers with customary efficiency. Next was some quick toilet business at the door-less porta-johns last seen at the Tokyo Marathon. On the walk in, I spotted a short photo queue and decided to play along. As you can see, I went with compression shorts, arm warmers, long socks, vest over a Nike Pro top and thin gloves. Shoes were the Kinvara ViziPro.

It would be chilly and I found myself shivering in the sparsely occupied E corral – in hindsight I entered the pen a little too early. E corral was unfortunately positioned in the shade and therefore deprived of the warm sunshine enjoyed by those in D up ahead. I cast an envious eyes at those D runners. In any case, I prefer to be leaning towards being colder than warmer as I knew that I’d warm up to a comfortable level once I got going.

45 minutes of shivering later we were let off. The start was a pretty muted affair – an introduction of the elites and some patriotic music. From where I stood, I couldn’t even hear the gun go off. But was I ever so glad to get the race going. Until after passing the start gantry, there was plenty of shuffling but once I hit the first left turn, the road opened up and I was able to move up to my planned pace. It was all effort based at that time and it was so easy – almost like a training run. I felt great and moving effortlessly. First K was 5:49 but by the second K, I was already on secondary goal pace, very easy given that my tempos and intervals were all done way faster than my MP. By the 5th K, I was logging tertiary goal pace. My plan has always been negative splitting, so there’s no hurry to click off a 1:52 first half. As long as I kept loose and relaxed, I knew I could run a strong 12K to close off the race. The GPS reading was accurate up till 10K but the reading on the Polar started deviating from the visual markers from then on. I’m not sure what’s happening as it was the same in Gold Coast as well. I chucked my drink bottle off at the 12K mark.

I made a decision to veer off for a pee at the 19K point (a neat feature of the race was the volunteers flash cards on how far the next pee stop was going to be). As luck would have it, the one I chose to stop would have the most stalls and least runners! 19K split was 7:08 but I knew the benefit of emptying the bladder would outweigh the time wasted at the potty stop. True enough, feeling much lighter, I easily made up the lost time by the next K. Halfway mark was achieved in 1:58 near the Kyocera Dome and I was still aerobic and looking forward to the 30K mark to start some racing. Reminded myself to stay patient and keep things in check. I was so into the zone that I didn’t realize my knee length socks had dropped down to my ankles!

The supporters were plentiful but that’s not what warmed up the race. The sun too were making its presence felt. It was downright warm in the sunshine but at least the course had plenty of shady spots to get some relief. I’d rolled down my arm warmers down to my wrists as my forearms were sweating.

Typical of Japanese marathons, there were a number of switchbacks along the Osaka Marathon route, so there was never a dull moment. I tend not to think too much about when the turning would be as it could be a demoralizing and sapping exercise. Better to focus on the few steps ahead. I hit 30K a little off at 2:57, 7 minutes off my secondary goal. I didn’t think too much of the situation as I knew all the hard running will come after that – I was not too worried about having to chip away at the deficit as my finishing in the recent build-up races have been strong. Alas, it was not happening as I felt a sharp pain shooting up from the inner thighs up to the groin area as I started to open up my stride. That knocked me off my rhythm and there was nothing I could’ve done but to slow down to a jog. Shook my head and started to pick it up again but back came the pain. The sequence of 3 photos below at the 30K mark showed me checking my watch, just about to embark on the final 12K. My leg problems would start just after these photos were taken.

When the pain kicked in the second time, I was strangely calm. I remembered weighing my options and thought what the problems would be. I’d never had such issues before. Perhaps it was for lack of stretching at the start, I wasn’t any wiser. It was bad enough that the only thing I could do was to walk. I tried to jog again but it came back. The walk had sucked away whatever minutes I could’ve salvaged. There was no point in pushing for time now, I thought. Just finish. Walk all the way if I had to. The thought of DNF never crossed my mind. I didn’t come all the way to DNF. It wasn’t like I was only 20 minutes from the cutoff time.

But there’s the buffet line to take care of first. I took whatever the volunteers offered, from zucchini, pickles, candies, gummies, rice balls, bananas, I grabbed and ate them all! At the 35K mark, I even sat down by the road divider. The walk up the ramp at the 37K was tough but I hobbled down the other side. I wasn’t even tired, my energy systems were fine but the legs…

The finishing eventually came and there was to be no glory, no fist pumping in the air. Just an “over and done with” feeling. 4:40 was 45 minutes off my goal. My Polar recorded a distance of 43.4K which was probably messed by certain sections where we ran under flyovers. The consolation was that my baggage section was the 2nd closest to the collection point, allowing me to quickly grab, change into dry shirt and get out of the area. I’m not analyzing anything about the race for now and would just want to rest for the remainder of the year. I’ve no more races for the year and that’s fine as I step back from thinking too much about running. Chilling out is what I need.

The rainbow colored medal is one of the most beautiful I’ve earned. Each color represents a compulsory charity. I selected green – no guesses to what it represents.

Pros:

  • Good size, probably brought about by the clash of events in neighboring Kobe and the Fujisan Marathon
  • A near replica of Tokyo Marathon
  • Scenic athlete’s village
  • Quicker exit from the post-race venue
  • Cold at the start but manageable. Mild temps with the mercury climbing along the way
  • Cheaper than Tokyo
  • Even though the Runner’s Guide didn’t encourage costumed runners, folks still came out garbed in bizarre outfits.
  • Other than the killer climb at the 37K, the route is flat. Any flatter, you’ll have to go to Gold Coast.
  • Fall foliage along Mido-Suji
  • Beautiful medal but smaller finisher’s towel.

Cons:

  • Poorer expo, although the Food Bazaar in Hall 3 were fantastic
  • Got a little hot 10K into the race, though not as warm as 2012 Gold Coast.
  • Polar recorded 43.4K??

Event verdict: Must do and I’d probably return in the near future.

Learnings: Good choice of hotel, good decision on bringing less in the checked-in baggage. Need not enter the corral too early so that proper warming up can be done.

 

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.
Website: http://www.naganomarathon.gr.jp/
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.

Kasumigaura Marathon 2016

Up till last November, plans for returning to Japan was not in the works. I truly missed the country and some friends thought I was going bonkers from all that pining! Having run Nagano (race report here) during the same period in 2014, as a tune-up to my first PR in Gold Coast, I thought I’d replicate the same approach and training formula again this year, and mix in a few days of sightseeing in Tokyo. While I’ve covered a number of wards in Tokyo over the course of the 2012 marathon, there are still plenty of exploration to be done in a far less strenuous mode. Poking around the Internet late November ’15, I found a spring marathon which was still open for entries, a rare phenomena in marathon-mad Japan! After getting the much appreciated blessings from the wife, I quickly threw together a rough itinerary and finalized the flight and hotel arrangements by January. It would be a short visit since the family won’t be able to come along due to the kids’ schooling.

Tsuchiura is a small town of 141,098 located in the Ibaraki Prefecture next to Lake Kasumigaura, the 2nd largest lake in Japan. Hitachi has its roots in Ibaraki and the area is also well known for its lotus roots and curry! Located a 45-minute train ride away, to the North East direction of downtown Tokyo, the town hosts the popular Kasumigaura Marathon (KM) which also incorporates the International Blind Marathon every April. While KM is lesser known to runners from Malaysia, it’s really quite a well-spoken off race in Japan which sees approximately 20,000 runners.

Location of Tsuchiura in relation to Tokyo

Marathon superhero Yuki Kawauchi won the 2012 edition in his personal worst timing when the event was the 3rd largest marathon in Japan then. Incidentally, KM would be the 6th marathon courses after NYC, Tokyo, Osaka, Nagano, and GCAM, that both of us have run (not always the same edition, and definitely not in the same class!). The event has many charities tagged to it and is very much a community event for the townfolk. The 2016 edition would also be the trials for the visually-impaired athletes for the Paralympic Games. Kasumigaura Marathon is run basically on an out-and-back course, with just a small switchback unlike most Japanese races.

Also unlike other major marathons in Japan, there are other shorter distances such as the 10-Miler and 5K. The start is from the narrow strip of road sandwiched between the JR Tsuchiura Station and the Athletics Stadium in Kawaguchi Athletic Park where the race finishes. The course is front-loaded, with several climbs (the longest approximately at the 16K mark) before settling down to a flat final 21K close to the lake. The organizers even provide several vessels to ferry the supporters out for cheering duties. If one is sufficiently prepared, a smart pacing strategy early on should ensure freshness in the legs ready to exploit the “easier” second half for a negative split race. As mentioned earlier, I went into KM with the same mindset as for Nagano which meant adopting it as a training run. I started Kasumigaura with slightly more consistent training than Nagano, but the mileage logged was nowhere close to something that would bring about a breakthrough performance. Plus, nearly all of the running since December had been at a pace a full minute slower per km than my goal marathon pace! In short, I had no speed and endurance toeing the line. I don’t race often, and the mind and body had been at rest marathon distance-wise since GCAM15, and they needed some jolting if I wanted to fare well this July.

Other than a handful of friends, I kept things hush-hush. The main event was, after all, GCAM. I left my favorite Kinvara 7 at home and instead brought along just the Breakthru. Due to my on-going battle with PF, I swapped out the Breakthru’s sockliner with the softer Ride’s. This time around, I based myself in Ueno, an older part of Tokyo, away from the madness of Shinjuku and Shibuya. I’d have preferred somewhere near Ikebukuro but Ueno is excellent for this trip’s objectives due to its direct connection to/from Narita and to Tsuchiura. As with most parts of Japan, it’s easy to love Ueno. There are the museums, the famous park, zoo (next time with the kids!), Ameyoko-cho and runnable distance to Senso-ji in Asakusa, and Skytree.

After a very pleasant flight on-board ANA (A first for me! Cost RM1,200 all-in), I touched down in Narita (also a first!) on Friday and hopped onto the Keisei Skyliner (did I mention it was my first time? ¥4,300 return) directly to Ueno.

Thanks to Google Streetview and some prior homework, I managed to stumble my way to the New Izu Hotel (RM1,165 for 5 nights) not too far away. Don’t be fooled by the name though, because the establishment isn’t new 😀 . Bathroom and toilet were on shared basis, in line with keeping my budget low. The convenience and privacy of a room made things easier what with the race gear to lay out. I was famished by then but nothing a hot bowl of yuzu udon couldn’t satiate.

Saturday started with a shakedown run towards the Sumida River, right up to the Azumabashi and Komagatabashi bridges with their distinct red and blue paint jobs respectively. Since I was already close to the Kaminari-mon I decided to extend the exploratory run a little before heading the same way back.

With Tsuchiura just a little journey out of Tokyo, I thought it would be a good idea to have a recce of the area. A one way ticket isn’t that cheap at ¥1140 (cost of a good meal), but I still wanted to be sure of the place.

I’m one who want as little surprises as possible leading up to a race, so I decided to proceed. The journey was smooth and after an hour, I found myself in the small town who will be hosting about 16,000 runners the next day. The race precinct was easy to locate, just 7 minutes’ walk from the train station. The site was being prepped. There, I met a couple of runners from Wisconsin, Marie and Jaime. We chatted a bit and Marie warned me of strong winds the next day, something which I regrettably didn’t pay enough attention to.

Comfortable with the site orientation, I decided to check out the Kasumigaura Comprehensive Park (I don’t know who comes up with such names! ) a 15-minute bus ride away. The park was truly beautiful with the signature tulips and windmill, a large park where families were seen enjoying the outdoors, and patient anglers by the waterfront trying to land a catch or two. There was even a helicopter ride for those who were willing to pay for it. The skies were overcast throughout but a few seconds of sunshine peeked through and I was lucky enough to be well-positioned to take the following shot.

A few hours later, I was back at the hotel after a simple pasta dinner and proceeded to lay out all the gear. I had no trouble sleeping early that night since I had been pretty deprived of it the last 2 nights. At 5:30am the next morning, I made the short walk to Ueno Station. It was surprisingly bright by then.

I was very early just the way I like it, and there were plenty of seats available on the train which departed right on time at 6:04am. Along the way, I made some new friends from Thailand.

With fellow runners from Thailand en route to Tsuchiura on race morning. That’s the Saucony Nomad jacket I had on – lightweight yet offers much protection.
From the station platform to the race precinct.
To the race pick-up tent (for foreigners).

When Marie told me about the strong winds, I had no sense about how strong a 46km/h wind would feel like. The strongest I’ve felt was on the slopes of Hong Kong’s many hills during my DNF in TNF HKG. After collecting my race pack (KM is one of the Japanese races when foreigners get to pick up their race numbers only on race morning), I had trouble finding a sheltered spot to get ready and change into my race gear before depositing the bag. It was increasingly blustery but thankfully not too cold. I cast an eye to the skies to see the gathering of dark clouds. Weather forecast had predicted rain in the afternoon but I wasn’t too concerned since the rains I encountered over the years in Japan were nothing like the thunderstorms back home. My gear for the day was a disposable tee over the Saucony Endorphin singlet which in turn was over a short sleeve compression top. And I had a thrash bag over everything else. I had the Saucony DryLete thermal arm sleeves on but no gloves. The plan was to stash the sleeves into the race belt once I warmed up along the course.

You can choose to stash your baggage in lockers or at volunteer-manned booths. Either option will cost you ¥100. I went with the booth as I didn’t like the idea of wearing the keychain on my wrist.

With 90 minutes to go, I scurried to the pier-side to warm up with some strides and stretching before joining a queue for the Family Mart toilets. The KM organizers got it right this time by providing plenty of porta-potties but Family Mart was the nearest to where I waited. Plus, it was warm inside!

Before the flag off, I needed a second visit to the loo having guzzled down a bottle of sports drink prior. I was definitely well hydrated. The sugar rush must’ve got to my brain because I started off with the masses only to realize that it was the 10-mile race! Luckily I “woke up” in time and sheepishly made my way back to the marathoners who were still waiting! Had I crossed the starting line, I was sure to have been DQ’d. Sharp 10am, the fireworks were lit and we were finally released.

The start was crowded but with fresh legs, everyone was going the same pace. The congestion lasted only a Km and the roads gradually opened up. The next 5K taking us gradually away from the town center. For a comparatively small population to, say Tokyo or Osaka, the level of support from the folks were fantastic. Everyone was so eager for a high-five, from kids to the old folks!

Hitachi employees have always come out in full support of the runners. Photo of the 2015 edition from the event website.

Things were always great the early stages of a marathon and there’s really nothing to report other than I’m still able to keep to a consistent pacing, the enjoyable running and good crowd support. Even the PF was behaving. At the same time I was under no allusions that I will not suffer eventually. Nevertheless, I averaged 5:23 in the early stages and the trouble with the early inclines didn’t materialize. I stuck to my trusted fueling plan of a gel every 25 minutes and a cup of water/sports drink at alternating stations. At the 22K mark, a pee break was so well executed (I spotted a row of toilets and as I approached, the first door open and I ran straight in!) that I lost only 20 seconds that K.

Meanwhile the skies remained dark and gloomy and as we cleared the suburbs and reached the wide expanse of lotus root plantations and the lake beyond, the first drops of rain came down. It was so light that I thought it would help in keeping us cool. That thought may have somehow angered the Gods, because not long after that, the winds started building up several notches. It was as if someone was toying with the intensity knob, ratcheting it up little by little just to spite us. The runners gamely fought on, thinking things won’t get any worse. But it did.

At 33K, it stopped being a race and more of getting myself to the finish line. The menacing weather decided it was tired of playing with us and finally unleashed its pent-up fury. The wind coming in from the lake whipping up wavelets on the plantations, driving the rain sideways. We were buffeted from the left where there was nothing to block us save for a shed or two located far apart. It was all either headwind or from the side. The 60kg me had to run at an angle and with my head down. A dude running next to me then had his palm covering his ear to prevent rainwater from entering while I was more concerned about the race bib being ripped off my vest.

White-out

Exposed!

Puddles formed along the coastal country road which we were running/walking and my shoes had been soaked for some time so I no longer cared. I was more concerned about the feeling of nausea that had cropped up. Never before had I encountered this over the course of a race but it was bad enough that I felt like blacking out. Breathing deeply, I fought hard to maintain my focus and not to lose consciousness. An ambulance parked by the side tempted me for a moment but I didn’t come this far to DNF. And with the unwavering support of the locals, young and old, despite the weather conditions, no one would throw in the towel. So we slogged on and having walked like 10 minutes or so, the nausea wore off and I resumed my shuffling to maintain my core temperature. Because my gaze were fixed downwards, I saw plenty of road kills on the road – frogs! The paddy field-like plantations must be home to many of these amphibians.

The battle with the elements continued for the next 7K and for some reason, the ambulance sirens were only heard as I neared the town center. By then, I had wolfed down 2 delicious anpans (red bean buns), and 2 cups of hot tea from an ad-hoc kiosk manned by concerned supporters in view of the weather. They even kept a fire going to warm us up! Just wonderful. I would’ve stayed longer had there been no race to complete! A 5:40 pace for the next 7K would’ve snuck me under 4 hours but it was useless trying to fight the wind. At that point, I just laughed at the whole thing rather than being depressed. In fact, I attracted some stares when I “woo hoo’d” as the wind continued to rachet up that close to the finish. I was a little concern that power lines could be brought down and remembered praying that the potty that I was in won’t be blown over, as I hurried on with my business!

I eventually finished my 30th marathon in pretty dramatic weather conditions. Unlike most marathons, there are no finisher medals, towels for Kasumigaura. An event tee, a banana, a bottle of water and a pack of lotus root noodles were what awaited finishers. And also an on-the-spot certificate. While I went into Kasumigaura as a training run, I’d lie that I wasn’t a little disappointed at not being to keep the sub-4 streak going. Yet, at 4:15:05 it was 3 minutes quicker than Nagano prior to a 20-minute difference logged in GCAM the same year. Whether I’m able to run 3:45 in GCAM16 will depend largely on these final 2 months. The marathon is a fantastic event where one needs to have a blend of speed and stamina to nail it. I already have the sense of pacing and locked down fueling strategy. What remains is the cultivation of the right blend of training needed to get the job done, and so we shall see.

Website: https://www.kasumigaura-marathon.jp/
Entries: Opens sometime in November, capping off at 15,000 runners.
Race Fees: ¥6,000 (approx RM220)
Cutoff: 6 hours.
Entitlements: Short sleeved event tee, a pack of lotus root noodles, instant race certificate, post-race banana and drinks
Description: The inclines weren’t too much of a concern and with a flat 2nd half, this can be a PR course. Small town vibes with plenty of countryside farming scenery. No complains on the organization and the team improved on the many feedback on the lack of toilets. Love the town folks’ support.
Weather: Hard to predict Spring weather. Monitor the weather constantly.
Quirks: Overseas participants can only collect their race kits on race morning between 7:30am to 9am! ¥100 baggage deposit.
Challenges: Frustrating search for accommodation in Tsuchiura, with only 2 hotels in Booking.com within reasonable distance to the start/finish. In my walkabouts, I did see a few smaller ones which weren’t found on the booking website. Consolation is that the race starts at 10am, and it’s about an hour from Ueno. Post-race commute back to Tokyo will be arduous.
Good: Small town vibes, post-race runners’ village with plenty of food stalls.
Bad: I don’t think there’s any, just some quirks (see above).

Strength And Dignity

JapanThese 2 words came to mind when I observed, as I’d love to, the goings on of the daily lives of the Japanese people. Not those in the big cities, but folks in the smaller towns. Our 2nd day in Kyoto brought us to one such place which was along our way to Arashiyama. We had been treated to the spectacle of Kinkakuji and have got off a 205 bus en route to hopping on board the Randen train. Having had no breakfast we decided to pop into a corner supermarket to grab some grub – I settled for a sushi in a box set while the wife got an okonomiyaki. While enjoying the meal on the bench by the supermarket entrance, what better than to watch the folks go about their daily lives.

Firstly, in Japan, one hardly sees a person lounging around doing nothing. Whether the person is a groundskeeper, housewife, old folk, the Japanese people are always engaged. In doing something. No “Jom minum” mentality we see in Malaysia. In the small suburbs, even home owners turn a small section of their frontage into a business, selling snacks or handicraft and souvenirs.

The photos you see below are those showing the elderly doing their grocery shopping at the said supermarket. It seems that it’s the usual practice to bag your own shopping, once the shopping are paid. The checkout staff will tally up your items and transfer them to another basket. The shopper then will carry this basket to a separate table to bag the stuff or stash them into their shopping cart. All done quietly, with no rush nor the pressure of speed. Age didn’t seem to be a factor as well as both the wife and I were astonished to see a few folks bent double yet were out doing their “chores”.

One of my colleagues asked me what captivated me the most about Kyoto, now that I’ve visited the place twice. It’s not the glitz of the metropolis, because I certainly don’t miss Tokyo’s packed trains even at 11pm. Of course, we know about their famed punctuality, precision (bordering on bureaucracy and steadfastness on clinging to the old ways), food and cleanliness. But what opened my eyes were the peoples’ enthusiasm, appreciation for their natural heritage, sense of order, honesty and pride. Insecurity that we increasingly experience and see here in Malaysia – think security sensors in shops, chained products, non-placement of goods by the store entrance – are not a factor there. In Tokyo I gaped at the electronic gadgets left unattended at store fronts. In Kyoto, I passed a handful of shops without a visible clerk, probably on toilet break.

The other thing is the seeming simplicity of their the Kyotolites’ lives. We already know that their homes are compact. There are, of course, mansions and villas but they’re exceptions. The size of a typical Japanese home would not warrant a 60″ 3D LED TV or a 3+3+2 living room furnishing. Neither would they have space for voluminous bookcases and walk-in wardrobes. Everything will have to be purposeful, equally compact, efficiently organized and laid out. Other than a Porsche Panamera, a Golf GTI and a Mini, I didn’t see another turbocharged car in Kyoto. Tokyo’s Ginza, however, are the opposite with all the flash. All material things that we seem to be chasing and shaping our lives around. A 20×60 home isn’t large enough? Well, move to a 22×75 then! It’s never enough and there’s no end to that pursuit of a “better life”. Instead of pursuing bigger and faster material things to accommodate increasing and seemingly must-have possessions, I’ll be always reminded by what I saw to instead strive to shed and scale back.

And the most important observation? To never equate progressing age to the diminishing ability to stay active and productive. I guess Red’s words in The Shawshank Redemption, “Get busy living or get busy dying” certainly rings loud and true.

Published December 4th, 2012