Far Eastern Promise
Tokyo Marathon 22nd Feb 2015
A marathon blog by Paul Cleasby
In a moment of idle speculation I applied in the ballot for a place at the Tokyo Marathon 2015. It’s fabled for being massively oversubscribed with 400,000 people applying for 35,000 places so it was with little expectation that I sent off the application.
I was notified in September that I had been successful in the ballot and it seems that those outside of Japan have a statistically better chance of success as the marathon organisers attempt to increase the global profile of the 6th Marathon Major.
Tokyo joined the elite list of marathon majors in 2013, joining Boston, Berlin, Chicago, London and New York.
As good fortune would have it I have a brother who works in Japan and he had married into a Japanese family so the logistics of Tokyo were not going to prove as challenging as they may otherwise have. There were endless flight options to choose from but the choice seemed to consist of flights that took a long time, flights that took even longer and those that never seemed to end. There was no way of avoiding it, I was in for a long haul flight.
Training began in earnest in December coming straight off the back of a most enjoyable marathon in Valencia in November. With the incentive of another marathon major challenge I was determined to increase the vigour of my training in an effort to crack sub 3 hours for the third time. If I achieved it, it would mean three sub 3s on three different continents. London 2013 (2:58:30), Boston 2014 (2:58:43) and Tokyo. The challenge was enough to reinvigorate my training mojo, which had been hiding since the summer of 2014.
My training would usually consist of 40 – 50 miles per week depending on work and family commitments. For the first time ever I introduced marathon paced sessions on a Tuesday night, usually running 8-9 miles. My other staple sessions were track on a Thursday, Parkrun on a Saturday and long runs on a Sunday reaching 22 miles. My long runs during this session were assisted by running with club mates who were keen to keep the pace challenging rather than allowing me my usual long slow and relaxed approach to long runs.
Due to the race taking place in February there was precious little opportunity for tune up races. The only race to fit conveniently into the calendar was the Brass Monkey Half Marathon in January. I was hoping to break 1:25 for the first time. It was obvious the training was paying off when I finished in 1:23:29 feeling great.
As with all marathon-training programs, rarely do they pass without a hiccup or two. In my case it was an increase in work pressures followed by a week of illness and then 3 weeks of track closures meaning a slight loss of training mileage and a regrettable loss of speed-work. I decided I was experienced enough now to know that a few days off and some lighter training may not do me any harm in the long run and I refused to let it affect my confidence. By the time I needed to taper my illness had cleared up, the weather was getting better and I managed a final speed session at the track. I was not going to be making any excuses.
Race week arrived and I flew out of Heathrow Tuesday morning. The flight lasted 14 hours and then I had to add 9 hours on to get to Tokyo time. I arrived Wednesday at 7:30 am local time to be met by my brother and to be whisked off to his home some 400 miles away from Tokyo but 2 hours away on the bullet train, the world famous Shinkansen.
One of the things in this picture can travel at 200mph. The other can’t.
I had two days to get over the effects of the flight staying at my brother’s place and I managed a couple of decent runs on the Thursday and Friday. I love marathon tourism and it is always exciting to run in a new place. Obviously not speaking sufficient Japanese to allow me to get stupidly lost, Google maps came to my aid. I found a nearby river and ran along the riverbank so there was no prospect of losing my way.
Before I travelled to Japan people asked me about the change of environment and the change in food and whether or not I was worried? We’ve all read the sage old marathon advice about trying nothing knew in training and sticking with what works. It’s not really very practical when you are in foreign climes. For me, I love Japanese food. I love food really but noodles and rice I could eat every day.
For me the Japanese get a lot right. They are after all the nation, which lives the longest. They have quite a high carbohydrate diet accompanied by lots of seasonal fresh vegetables supplemented with small amounts of fish or meat. Eating with chopsticks has a certain logic to it as well. We are all told to eat more slowly and with chopsticks there is little option. Small bowls of food also assist in portion control and you tend to savour the food more than you do when shoveling it in with a knife and fork.
After my run on Friday morning it was time to get the bullet train back to Tokyo, check in at the hotel and hit the expo. I was looking forward to this and warned by brother and his sister in law that we might be in there some time. For those who have not done a major marathon an Expo is a mega exhibition of running paraphernalia where running obsessive’s can spend hours checking out the latest kit or tasting the latest sports nutrition on offer. More practically it is where you pick up your race number and timing chip.
The Tokyo expo was the most excitable expo I have ever been to. Think Tokyo stock exchange on fast forward. Well organised, but insanely noisy with stall-holders clamouring for your attention showing an enthusiasm that never seemed to diminish.
As is customary you pick up your finishers shirt at the expo but the medal and finisher’s towel are provided at the end of the race along with a bag for life, a flannel and a can of muscle spray.
With the expo experienced on the Friday, Saturday is a day of rest. There’s no point wearing your legs out the day before the marathon. Some people like to do a gentle 3 mile run but looking at my best times, they have all come off the back of a total rest day on the Saturday. The day was spent eating and making sure I was well hydrated. Noodles were the order of the day for lunch and pasta for my evening meal.
Race morning arrives and no matter how close your hotel is to the start it is always an early start. Up at 5:45am. Coffee and pastries for breakfast. The hotel restaurant did not open early enough to allow breakfast so pastries were the best contingency I could find. A short train journey to the start where I was well assisted by my hosts. A long walk through the largest train station known to man and then on to the start area. A feature of modern marathons post Boston 2013 is the rigourous security checks that now take place. Kit bags are provided and they are clear polythene to allow easy inspection. Tokyo implemented a bizarre restriction on liquids. You could have a max of 400ml of any fluid. I take 4 gels with 60mg in each leaving me the option of finding a bottle that could hold as little as 160mg! I decided not to stress, there was plenty of liquid on the course so no need to panic.
I was allocated block B starting pen and I was about 100metres or so away from the start line. It looked promising that I would get a decent start. After the National Anthem was played the gun sounded, confetti hearts exploded above our heads and then we were off.
It’ll come as no surprise to those that know me that I had done as much research about this marathon as is humanly possible. I knew those folks in block A were not all fast runners and it may take a little time to get into my stride. 1 minute 45 seconds later I was shuffling across the start line. Not good but the sage advice once again states not to panic and use the slow start to ease into your pace. I tried. The shuffle went on and on. At one stage I glanced at my watch (OK I did this rather a lot really!) and it read lap pace 9:30!!!. Why panic you might ask?
Well my aim was to go sub 3. I thought I should be in pb shape so 2:58:29 was in my sights and if all went really well the gold medal target was 2:57. 9:30 minute mileing was not part of that plan and would mean I was 2½ minutes behind schedule in the first mile. The congested start was a pain. I started to have negative thoughts. Was this supposed to be a major or not? If so why was the start not appropriately seeded as I passed yet another shuffler? I’ve ran in a bad mood before. It’s no fun. Running a marathon in a bad mood is a disaster. Some self talk got rid of the negative vibes. The weather was perfect. The crowd were enthusiastic, I was feeling fit, I had family to support me and there was a long way to go. Having done my best to pick up the pace and weave past the shufflers I finished the first mile in 7:30. Not too bad and only 40 seconds to make up over the next 40km’s.
I settled well into the run and ran pretty comfortably. The weather was perfect for marathon running. Cool, overcast and no wind. The course was busy with supporters and also busy with runners. At no point was I running on my own.
Splits were available every 5k on the roadside clocks. Although I felt I was running reasonably well the 5k splits did not match with my watch data which claimed I was running a fair bit faster. I didn’t know whether it was the tall buildings or low cloud cover but I knew some of the data feedback I was getting was inaccurate. My watch claimed I was running 6:30’s – 6:40’s yet even by 10 miles I still had not caught up with the sub 3 pacers. I did eventually catch them and ran with them for a few miles, regularly checking my watch, wondering why my pace was showing so much quicker than the 6:52’s they needed for a 3 hour marathon? Sadly my Japanese and the pacer’s English did not allow us to discuss my dilemma. I went through half way in 1:28:45. If my watch pace had been right I should have been hitting half way in about 1:27.
Time for a re-assessment. I had worked hard to regain the lost time at the start. I felt like I had run a hard first half of the race and was concerned that if I was not sensible the second half could turn rather ugly. Sub 3 was now the sole focus of the run. I had 75 seconds to play with over the next 13.1 miles to ensure I hit my time target. I gave up on my watch and tried to concentrate on running efficiently. The sub 3 pacers left me, a challenging time for my morale but I was convinced they were going too fast. Looking back in the cold light of day it was obvious why, they were running a sub 3 hour marathon on gun time whereas I only needed to go sub 3 on my chip time. I confess this never occurred to me during the excitement of the race.
Having fixed my head I relaxed into my pace and focused on the course. The majority of the course consisted of two out and back stretches where you could see the race leaders on two occasions. The marathon course is very much centered in the city itself until the final few miles when it branches out to the port area. The crowd were fantastic and the support from the marshalls /volunteers was warm hearted. The vest received warm support from the Japanese and also the expat community. The drink stations were plentiful and superbly organised. There was also no litter. No discarded gel packets, no cups thrown into the road. The streets were immaculate. A lesson from the Japanese to the other 5 majors I would have thought.
The timing mats at 30km and 40km revealed I was just on course to go sub 3 as long as my pace did not tail off. A slight worry here because this section of course features a few small hills and at the end of a marathon they can sap your will and reduce you to a walk. Not for me on this occasion. I felt tired but strong. If I was not going to get sub 3 I certainly was not going to be walking, I would at least take that out of the race.
When it got to 40km I had about 9 minutes left to complete the course. I had negotiated the hills and just needed to maintain my pace but things were beginning to hurt now. I knew my Garmin was measuring the course long so the next big worry was how long? 41km came and I had 5 minutes to spare. A marathon is 42.195km. It would take me 4:15 to run the final km if I could maintain pace and then I’d have about 45 seconds for the final 195m. It was going to be very tight indeed.
Start of the sprint for the line!
2:58 struck on my watch. I could not see the finish line. I still had another right turn to do and I did not know how far down that last turn the finish was. I resolved to run as fast as I could once it got to 2:59. I would sprint for that last minute and see if that was enough. I turned the right hand corner and the finish was in sight, probably about 300m away. I forgot to look at my watch and just sprinted anyway. I would see the race clock reading 3:01 but I knew I had a cushion. With the line just 20 metres away I knew I had dipped under the three hours. To say I was happy would be an understatement. No Pb, No gold medal time but a cracking run on an interesting course with a number of race challenges successfully overcome.
As these photographs show, there was sheer joy at completing another marathon and I was thrilled to have dipped under the 3 again. I felt I ran a strong race and obviously still had enough in the tank for a sprint finish.
Official time 2:59:37. My 3rd best marathon time ever.
Having crossed the line it was time to collect the medal, banana, isotonic drink, finishers towel and muscle spray. All of the volunteers at each station bowed and congratulated you with such sincerity and charm you could not fail to be impressed.
I was interviewed by a tv camera crew shortly after crossing the line as they’d cunningly spotted that I was from the UK. They asked me about my experience of the race,
how I found the course and whether Japan would make a good job of hosting the next Olympics in 2020. Having gone sub 3 (did I mention that?) I had only positive things to say about the marathon, the course and the volunteers. I kept to myself my frustrations with the start and my personal Garmin issues.
With an armful of marathon finisher goodies we walked through the finishers corals to some seats. I got chatting to two other Brits at this point. My first conversation for 3 hours or so. To a man everyone was very positive about their race experiences. All of our Garmins told us that we had all ran 26.8 miles. We must have been doing some serious weaving!
Post marathon, it was time for some resting and then some refueling. Korean Barbeque was the order of the day and as is obligatory after a marathon finisher’s shirt and medal were worn.
If you’ve got this far you too deserve a medal. Thanks for reading.