Saturday, February 28, 2015

Race Report : Running the 6th World Major, Tokyo Marathon, Feb 22, 2015 - Part 1

It's 2:48AM, Saturday Feb 28th, six days after completing the Tokyo Marathon, and I'm wide awake sitting on my couch in sunny northern California wondering why did take a nap after landing at noon in the States!  Yes, major jet lag.
Since, I have nothing better to do on an early Saturday morning let's talk about participating in the 6th World Major Marathon as well as logistics of getting to the marathon and faux pah for the foreign traveler to be aware of.  Let's break this up into three parts:
  1. (This Post): This part about how to get to the race and reflections on the race itself
  2. Part2 : The two weeks we spent in Taiwan prior to the race
  3. Part3 : The three days we spent after the race in Tokyo/Hakone (Hot Springs Area)
If you have never heard of the World Marathon Major Races then you should read about each of them here as each has a rich history of their own.  Tokyo was the last marathon to be added and is the largest marathon in Asia.  Each year more than 300,000 people apply to get in and only about 35,000 are accepted.  It's even harder for local Japanese to get in.

When I found out about the race last year I added it to my 'bucket list' of destination races I wanted to run and knew it would be very easy to convince my wife to go with me.  I filled out the application, paid my non-refundable registration fee and forgot about it.  To my great surprise I received one of those emails congratulating me on being selected to participate.  I immediately informed my wife to start planning and put in a request in at work for a couple weeks off in February!

I started doing background research and came across a three part writeup on one runners experience running the marathon in 2013.  Michele Sun does a great job in summarizing her experiences as well all providing useful tips and tricks. Read about her journey here.

OK on to the discussion about three short days:
  • Friday, Feb 20th - arrive in Tokyo and check into hotel in Shinjuku, then visit expo
  • Saturday, Feb 21st - Afternoon tour of Tokyo, Shopping with wife
  • Sunday, Feb 22nd - Race and post race activities

I) Getting to Hotel Keio in Shinjuku

We were in the departure gate waiting for our ANA flight to leave Taoyuan International Airport in Taiwan when we truck a conversation with other passengers waiting to board the aircraft.  We exchanged flight itineraries and asked them if they ever vacationed in Tokyo and knew the best way to get around.  One young gentleman said he had been to Tokyo many times and said we were in luck because the NEX was having a sell for foreigners where they could use the express train leaving Tokyo for half price.  And, that we could ride the bus to get back from Shinjuku.  We knew we were going to make mistakes since neither of us spoke Japanese and had never been to Tokyo before but now we felt slightly more confident because we had a goal.  Find the NEX train station!

Getting through customs in Narita was a breeze because we had learned from prior mistakes and:
  1. Left the energy bars in Taiwan - since energy bars have a density similar to explosives and set off alarms
  2. NO liquids and no lotions/perfumes greater than 100 grams
  3. NO knives
After we cleared customs we emerged in North terminal and successfully found the JAL counter to pick up our rental cell phone and managed to send our large luggage ahead to the hotel so we wouldn't have to carry it.  A very convenient service you'll find at the airport and nearly every hotel in Japan.  For about ¥1600 you can ship a large suite case to your hotel!  We used JAL but Black Cat (Yamoto Transport) is also popular.

Next, we scored an airport map and eventually found the NEX station on the level below the arrival gate (north wing).  There was a kiosk to buy tickets but we went strait to the ticket agent not trusting our luck buying tickets.  The agent spoke enough English to help us buy a ticket and sure enough it was half price (¥1500)!

It took the 'express' train one and half hours to reach Shinjuku station. Later we learned that the bus can get their in about 50min for half that price!  Oh man is Shinjuku station large.  When you see photos of crammed commuter trains, and bodies shoulder to shoulder racing from one platform to another that is probably Shinjuku main station.  We were lucky in that our hotel has only a couple blocks from the status but it took us more then 30 min to find the correct exist then tow our luggage there.

Celebration lunch aboard the NEX that we made it to the train station

We reached the hotel!  The Keio Plaza is a nice but expensive (¥36,000) hotel that is a couple blocks from the main train station and a couple blocks from the start of the race.  Can't beat the location. It is modern, clean and has several restaurants.  If you paid the extra cost you got breakfast service each morning of your choice of three restaurants.  Each morning we picked a different one and was a nice experience.  There was an exhibit celebrating 'girls day' as well as some advertisements of 'white day or boys day' coming up.

Hotel was celebrating 'girl day'

First morning meal was Japanese sitdown - very good

Portions were small, but well presented and fresh

II) Getting to the Expo / Tokyo Big Sight

Since the Expo closed at 19:00 we had time to make the expo and pick up my bib so we could spend Saturday just enjoying the hotel and Tokyo.  There was a table just for Marathon Support and we asked about how to get to the Big Sight convention center (in a completely different part of Tokyo).  Oh man, not good.  We took one look at the directions and having to transfer from train to subway and all the confidence slipped away.

Getting to the Expo was not easy but we managed

We did make it to the Expo but the directions failed to point out how much money you needed for each leg and which platform to stand on.  The 30 minute trip took us an hour because we had to figure each part out.  The JR line cost ¥170 and the subway ¥340.  We later learned that there was a more direct subway route that went directly from hotel to Tokyo Big Sight.

III) Expo

The expo was just gargantuan.  There was the initial gate where after showing your 'Number Card Confirmation' Note you picked up your bib, finish sweat bag, goodie bag, then shirt.  Done right?  Not.  Then you serpentine your way to where family waited then made your way through all the stalls where each one tried to attract you away from the other.  There were also product demos, a retail section telling commemorative shirt, 'Jellies' and kids sandwiches.  There was also free non-alcoholic Asahi Dry-Zero beer and a place where you could leave good luck messages to be blessed by a Shinto priest later. We finished some two hours later and had dinner also at the convention center.

Big Sight that evening an hour before it closed

Main entrance to pick up bib

The main 'family area' that show cased the history of the race

The absolutely crazy Expo vendor area

My alcohol free beer I sampled whilst I visited the vender stalls

Race wishes later to be blessed by a Shinto priest

Pickup back including extra race hat I bought separately

IV) Race Day

This marathon is unusual in that it starts at 9AM.  At first I thought gosh that's late since the roads are going to have to be closed many hours before the race and well after the cutoff time.  But, then considered the temperature of Tokyo in late winter and the 35,000 fellow runners that would need to pass through security and line up properly in the correct Gate/Corral and it was about right.  The 'late' start time allowed me to get up at a reasonable time to catch breakfast in the hotel, get ready and slowly work my way to the Gate '4' I was assigned. [I think I had breakfast with Flomena Daniel, Kenyan elite athlete that runs a 2:22 marathon] Even given a map it took me 30 minutes to find then get to the gate.  After clearing the gate security I was finally getting a taste of what I was getting into looking at the number of finish bag drop vans (I was number 81!) and the line for the porta potties.  It was a zoo, an orderly zoo, but zoo non-the-less.  Thank goodness I took care of business at the nearby hotel before coming to the starting area because there was a massive line at the porta potties even at 8AM.

Very last spot a family visitor could be before entering my assigned Gate

Even at 8AM the porta-pottie line wrapped around the corner block and went as far as eye could see

Top-down view of sweat bag drop off vans

Line up waiting for the start gun to go off

Weather forecast for race day was 10 deg C warmer than the previous day (10 deg C low to a high of 15 deg C) with 50% chance of rain.  I came prepared wearing a disposable rain poncho and good thing I did not for the rain (it never did) but to keep warm!  Even amongst all the other bodies in my corral it was chilly in shorts and regular T.  The film poncho kept me reasonably warm.  Many others had ponchos on as well probably for the same reason.

It only sprinkled but was chilly (~10 deg C)

Towards 8:45AM I saw a bunch of people carrying large blue balloons and was wondering what was going on.  Then, realized it was the pace team and a sign reading '4:30' appeared right next to our corral.  Uh oh.  I originally estimated my finish time at 4:15 and was pushing for 4.  I appeared to have miscalculated and got assigned to a slower corral 'G'.   

Pace teams dispersed in the crowd around 8:30

Minutes before start gun fired

The race started 5 minutes late due to speaches and such but I was listening to music taking pictures and chatting with folks next to me so really didn't care that much.  When the gun finally went off we watched the big screen as the elites went out and 8 minutes later our corral passed the start line and the VIP bleachers.  The Mayer of Tokyo and president of the race organizer personally waved us on.  What quiet an impressive sight and many were taking video/pictures to capture the spectacle including me.

VIP bleachers

Actual start line we waited so long to see

Since water bottles were banned from the race, that's correct, no bottles of liquid greater than 200ml, I had little choice but to use on course aid stations.  There turned out to be plenty of aid stations (AS)basically every couple of km.  What I didn't figure on was being in the 'slower' corral and having to fight my way out of it to get to my normal pace.  It took 10km until I was in my grove!

There was a clear cut off time posted at 10k intervals and once we passed the first turn around you could actually see the vans following along at the slowest pace and collecting people.  The other amazing thing was how quickly the cleanup crews could not only break down an AidStation but clean up all debris- all evidence it even existed - within a few minutes.

First turn around ~10k
Official AS distribution - didn't mention unofficial foods
Aid Stations were plentiful and well managed

There were police and doctors ON COURSE

The crowd and business participation is simply amazing.  Basically every meter of the 42km long course is covered in cheering crowds offering support, spray on muscle relaxer [Air Salonpas], or food.  Yes food.  Many small businesses had sample food for runners.  The aid stations offered plenty of normal fare (bananas, oranges) and some that wasn't as normal (cherry tomatoes, preserved plums, rice cakes), but spectators, small businesses has rice in nori, sweet tofu wrapped sushi rice (Inari sushi), mocha, whatever. It was amazing and I tried most of it.  Don't ask me how many calories I ate. No idea.  I did drink so much fluid that I had to hit the bathrooms twice on course.  New experience for me and no doubt wasted a bit of time in lines.  The electrolyte fluid at each AS was Pocari Sweat of course - which tasted really quite good.

Cherry tomatoes and preserved salty plums were my favorite foods

Fellow runner I named 'tipsy Salary Man'

Had to take selfie with Salary Man - nice guy

V) Post Race

After finishing the finish line, I picket up my medal, towel imprinted with race logo and theme, drank an entire bottle of Pocari Sweat then made it slowly towards the hall to pick up my sweat bag and change in the gym.  I thought for some reason that there would be showers but no just a big gym where to change.  That was enough.   Celebrated with fellow finishers with a non-alcoholic Asahi Dry Zero beer and made it to the family area. My wife and I already agreed to meet at zone '10' because it was between 1 and 20!  Sure enough she was there and explained what an ordeal it was traveling because of the crowded subways.  Took some pictures then bought some food in the family area.

Finished one of the funnest marathons ever

Spot on official time of 4:05 - distance was questionable

Row one of three medal trees

One very large sweat bag pickup gym

We took the subway all the way back to the hotel, showered then turned right around and went on an exploration of the famous Ginza shopping district and to grab a proper dinner.   The restaurant we ate at was on the fourth floor and had a great view of high-end department store lined streets below.

On a quick aside.  There were several aspects of Japanese culture I learned/confirmed on this trip and just want to dwell on one.  In Taiwan, there is a Mitsukoshi department store across the streat from my mother in law (MIL) house and in the basement you can not only shop for delicacies and savory food but EAT them at at table there.  Not so in Japan.  We went to the same department store, recognized familiar name brands of clothes, went down to the basement and also saw similar grocery store and food court.  What was different?  Not a single place to eat the food anywhere.  There was even a sign on a side table that read in several languages, "Please do not eat nor rearrange your items here".  In Japan stores (many street food stalls) may offer food but NOT places to sit.  The foot or item you buy will be packaged up to go with the understanding that you are on your way home to eat it.  Not only is it considered rude to eat while walking it is not customary to eat food at a table unless it is a sit-down restaurant.  Not sure why this bugged the heck out of my other than maybe because I was normally far away from our hotel room and there wasn't anyplace near to enjoy the treasures we found.  On one such occasion near Kannon Temple, I bought a taro cake and something to drink and the owner kindly pointed to a sign that said to eat around the corner and not in front of the store.  I complied but wasn't apparently fast enough because an assistant that was hanging on the corner also asked me nicely in Japanese to go around the corner behind the line to eat. [A local translated for me]  I didn't litter and wasn't eating while I walked I was just too slow to take my items to the designated area or just had the look like I was going to liter or eat on my way.]  I definitely going to ask a Japanese friend of mine more about this to find out exactly why food is not normally consumed near a stall and/or whilst walking.

VI) Race Results

My goal was to finish in four hours and I finished in 4:05. I accomplished everything I set out to accomplish and had an amazing experience in Japan.  I feel I could have easily trimmed those 5 minutes off had I not used the restroom twice, took so many on course photos and started in a faster corral but not complaining.

My Garmin 310xt data is suspect.  The watch recorded 28.2 miles and 1832 ft of vert. I do believe my average 154 BPM HR because I never felt like I was pushing it and kept an even pace the entire race.  This is the first marathon I've run where I finished and felt like I could run it back.  The course is FLAT with two tiny overpass bumps near the finish.

A couple interesting result notes.  If you look at the 'runner record' below you will make two interesting observations:
  1. There were only 586 finishers from the US (out of 35K) or 1.7%
  2.  Of the finishers, 26836 were male so about 23% were female.
Either the lottery wasn't completely random or non-US males make up most of the worlds marathoners?

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