Friday, 2 March 2012

Tokyo Marathon - The run itself

Ok, so where was I...I was at the start line of the Tokyo Marathon, had to pee but couldn't and saw many runners in humorous costumes. So, 9:10, the official race start time is quickly approaching. Around me, I hear the constant beeping of GPS watches being activated.  The weather was fairly cool that morning and we are all cramped like sardines. It's difficult to stretch and stay warm. I look around me and am I awe of the skyscrapers in Shinjuku. Ever since I participated at the Chicago Marathon in October, I have been fascinated by the shape and design of these enormous buildings. Although we have plenty of tall buildings in Toronto, it seems that a lot of them lack the character and style that I see in Tokyo, such as the Metropolitan Government Building. Despite a large, powerful speaker being about 10 feet from me, there is little music being played prior to the race as most races usually do. That's no problem because I have my trusty iPod with me. I want this marathon to be my best time ever so I have created an playlist that will motivate and push me, something with a steady beat and awesome guitar solos. I reach into my pocket and put my headphones into my ears. I press play. My iPod (it's a shuffle, so there is no display screen) tells me to load music into the player. WTF?!? There must be a mistake, so I turn it off an put it back into the "on" position. Again, my iPod tells me to load music. This is bullshit. I clearly remember last night that I created a playlist for this run. It was going to end with Born to Run being played while I crossed the finish line, it was going to be epic. I remember deleting the songs I had previously loaded from my iPod and loading...f-uhhhhhhhhhhh-ck. I must have forgotten to load my playlist prior to disconnecting the iPod. Great, it’s going to be 3+ hours of running without music.

Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building: Start Line

9:05 comes and the gun goes off for the wheelchair racers. Once the wheelchair marathoners leave, an announcement comes through the speakers and we hear about all the elite racers who are participating in this marathon. The Tokyo Marathon also serves as the qualifying race to determine which runners would be representing Japan at the London Olympics. Each time a Japanese runner was announced, there was considerable clapping. It's pretty exciting to be in an event with such elite athletes I think to myself. If you told me five years ago that I would be running in the Tokyo Marathon, one of the biggest runs in the world, I would have laughed. I think about how fortunate I am to be competing in such an event. The Tokyo Marathon is a lottery based system by the way, where entry is not guaranteed by registration, and you do have to be randomly selected to participate.

Shoes, Timing Chip and Bib

9:10 finally comes and the starting gun goes off. When I say gun, it was more like several cannons, blasting thousands of pieces of white pieces of confetti into the air shaped as hearts. It looked really cool. Being in starting corral B, we slowly approach the starting line as the runners ahead of us start to move. The runners behind us start pushing their way forward, and the amount of space between us is much less than before. After two minutes we finally pass the starting line, and a familiar bleeping sound is going off, this time because our timing chips attached to our shoes are being activated. Although I have passed the starting line, I am not yet running, nor are those around me because of the amount of people. It takes a good 15 seconds for me to even get a jog going. Hopefully in a couple of minutes the running lanes will widen and the group will spread out.

Me prior to the run
The spectator crowds are large here. Without any music to listen to, I can focus and hear the excitement and encouragement of the thousands of spectators that I pass. There are no dead spots what so ever, just thousands of people cheering. However, I still can't seem to get a decent pace going. I know I can run faster than this, but some of the people wearing large costumes are holding up the runner behind them because they are difficult to get around. Also, some runners are already slowing down significantly. As a sidenote, when you register for this marathon you were asked what time you expect to finish. I am thinking a lot of the runners ahead of me were overzealous with the times they provided, because there are quite a few runners in Corral A who I can clearly see will not finish a marathon in 4 hours, and they are creating a lot of traffic. It can create a dangerous environment whererunners who have to weave in and out of traffic can get injured or injure the runners around them.

I get to the 3 km point, and I can’t hold it any longer, I have to use the washroom. However, because of the large crowds I passed the sign directing me to the first set of toilets. Also, because of the large crowds, I can’t just relieve myself on the side of the road either. It takes about another km for me to reach the next washroom, but there is a line of about 8 runners ahead of me, so I have to wait. This adds a couple of minutes to my time. My first 5km takes me 26 minutes to finish, about 5 minutes more than I would like, so now I have to play catch up. At the 8km mark we start passing the Imperial Palace, the home of the Emperor of Japan. Since it was the home of the emperor almost 150 years ago, it is surrounded by a moat, stone walls and giant gates.

At around the 9 km mark, I notice that the road splits, and that the Marathoners are to go left and the 10km runners are to go right. I didn’t realize that the 10km runners started the race at the same time as the marathoners. This causes a problem as there are about 35,000 marathoners and only about 3,000 ten km runners. This causes bottleneck for the marathoners, and again, it becomes difficult to pass runners.

At around the 12 km mark we pass the Tokyo Tower, not my favourite part of Tokyo, but at this time I also see Haile Gebrselassie, former world record holder going the opposite direction, neck and neck with eventual winner Michael Kipyego. It was good to see Haile competing for a first place finish. Just a few months ago he was mulling retirement, and had a few DNFs in his past races due to knee issues. He would eventually finish 4th. I also saw some faces that I saw on TV the day before on a press conference, such Arata Fujiwara, who finished in second by 11 seconds and Japanese favourite Yuki Kawauchi, who appeared to be labouring and was behind the pack of elite runners. He would not end up finishing amongst the top 3 Japanese runners, and I assume failed to qualify for the Olympic team. While I do not enjoy runs that are back and forths because you see the same sites twice, it was really cool to see such great runners in person with so much on the line.

Tokyo Tower

By now the heard is starting to thin out and it’s pretty easy to keep a solid pace going. I’m passing the occasional runner. Through km 20-25 I feel really good and strong. I pass a few bakeries and the smells coming from them are so good (During this trip I rediscovered my love for Japanese pastries and sweets that I had as a child and had since outgrown). At around the 22 to 23 km mark I see the elite women passing in the other direction. I know that at the 28 km mark, there is a hairpin turn that has to be made in Asakusa, where the Senso-ji Temple and the Kaminarimon Gate are located, but the course from km 25 to 28 seems so dead. There are spectators still, but there is not much to see except for a cheerleading squad. It seems like an eternity to reach the turn, but I finally reach get there, knowing that the lack of interest from 25-28 is going to be revisited immediately.

Kaminarimon Gate: the 28 km landmark. Behind this gate are the tastiest  snacks money can buy
Up until the 31km mark I had been continuously running, taking no walking breaks but my body finally gives out. I need to take a walking break. I look at the other side of the road and I see the runners who are at the 25km mark. Recall how I said in my previous post how much it would suck to be placed at the back of the pack if you missed the cut-off time for entering your corral? Well from km 31 to 34 all I saw on the other side of the road was basically a conga line of marathoners, except not as fun as a conga line. I could not imagine being able to pass anyone amongst that throng of people. I did see the guy who was dressed as a whiskey bottle again. He was 10 feet behind me at the start of the run, now he was labouring, realizing the difficulty of running in such a costume.

With my legs refusing to co-operate, my split times were getting progressively worse. I had been running my 5km splits in about 22-23 minutes from kms 5-25. Kms 25-30 took about 24 minutes, but km 30-35 took 26 minutes and 35-40 took nearly 30 minutes. Never had I felt such pain in a run. I thought I was going to pass out at certain points. I was able to push through the last 2 kms and finished with a time of 3:28:01, not one of my best times, but I found that in these Gold level races, it is pretty difficult to get a great time because of the amount of participants.

At the finish line they had provided us with our medal, a towel and some food. I was disappointed that there was not much festivities after the run, and additional food/drinks for purchase.

Front of medal

Back of medal
For the next 10 minutes or so I was trying to walk off the pain in my legs and not barf. I had never thrown up after a race and am proud to say that is still the case, but this one was definitely close. While it was disappointing that I did not achieve the time I wanted, I was still very happy about participating in this run. The costumes, spectators and the friendliness of the volunteers was absolutely amazing. While there were some definite flaws with the organization, the course was flat and fun. The popularity of the marathon is very high in Japan, and can be seen in the spectators and media coverage. This was also a major event as it was the first Tokyo Marathon since the deadly earthquake and tsunami last year. There were many runners doing this run for friends and family who were affected by the disaster. Unity and friendships were major themes at this marathon, and I believe the spirit of the Japanese runners greatly displayed these values. I can’t wait to do another marathon in Japan sometime. Next time I may even bring a camera to take pictures during the race.

Resting my legs post-race
Me with a mascot for an AED manufacturing company