Race Report – Tokyo Marathon 2017

Why I chose to run Tokyo…

Back in 2015 on my 45th birthday I completed my first half marathon – the Bath Half. I finished in 1:44, which was pretty much on target and for some reason it made me think I should do a full marathon. I didn’t want to approach a marathon as a one-off bucket list entry though, I wanted to take the distance seriously and do a corresponding amount of training to get what I would feel was a respectable time versus my existing performances at other distances, preferably below 4 hours and maybe a bit quicker if the training went well.

I knew I’d need a really big event to get me fired up enough to do those lonely long training runs and discovered that there are a set of marathon majors in the world called the ‘Abbott six’, named after the main sponsor. The cities hosting them are London, Chicago, Berlin, New York, Tokyo and Boston.  I decided trying to do them all would be a really interesting goal for the next few years.

I’m not a celebrity or a professional runner so some avenues for getting a place in the big 6 are closed to me, but there are a few methods available.  They are: by meeting a challenging qualifying time (in 2015 I didn’t have a marathon finishing time, and couldn’t hope to meet the requirement anyway), by fulfilling a substantial charity fund raising target (which I wanted to save for later races, rather than annoying everyone by constantly tapping them up for money. Yes – look out, the tapping up is still to come!), by paying for an all-in organised tour (many $$$$s) or by entering a lottery ballot with varying odds. The latter was the only real choice open to me but clearly wouldn’t guarantee entry to any of them if I was unlucky in the ballots.

Back in early 2015 the next lottery up was Chicago, so I gave that a go and happily was lucky enough to get a spot. The journey could begin – with my first event the Chicago Marathon in October 2015.


Winding the clock forward to February 2017 I have now also managed to get into and complete Berlin (September 2016) and Tokyo (February 2017) – 3 down and 3 to go. I didn’t know until Berlin that there was some uber-bling associated with doing all 6 majors – a large medal comprising 6 mini medals, one for each of the events. I am now even more determined to complete the set.

That’s quite a lengthy intro so here’s the TL:DR for the Tokyo marathon, which is what this blog post is really about –

Strava link – Tokyo Marathon 2017 Race

Date – 26/02/17
Weather – lovely. Cool and sunny with only a light breeze.
Course – not memorable. Boring switchbacks up and down some long dual carriageways.
Support – polite and enthusiastic. If only I knew what they were saying!
Race strategy – up tempo first 20 miles, cling on for the last 6.2.
Result – new PB of 3:20:23, beating my previous best at Berlin by just under 13 minutes and taking me under the time of 3:25 needed to apply to run the Boston Marathon at my age, known as a Boston Qualifier (BQ) time.
Bling – girly looking t-shirt, useful towel and a rather splendid gold medal.

And now back to more wordy sections…


My training for Tokyo started in November 2016, giving me about 16 weeks minus a bit of a break over Christmas. My plan was to try to squeeze in several 20 mile long runs to improve my stamina and to spend an increased proportion of my other running at a faster pace than I had done for previous training regimes. I decided mainly to skip high intensity track sessions due to the risk of injury and likewise didn’t do any all-out parkruns for the same reason.

Three changes seemed to have really helped me improve the quality of my training this time around. 1. Moving up to Group 1 for my Wednesday night club runs (Taunton Running Forever Running Club), meaning I spent more time running at around 7 minute mile pace and also more time at the edge of my running ability. 2. Joining the RFRC Sunday All Stars for a weekly long run, often supplemented by a few bonus miles before or after the main event. The great company makes turning out for a long run easier than I could have imagined. 3. A magic handheld roller bought for me by my wife Lisa (thank you Lisa) as a random present from a shopping trip (Magic roller). It has been nothing short of miraculous in enabling me to do more consistent mileage including a section of about 6 weeks where I averaged over 50 miles. Previously my Achilles’ tendons would have been shot to pieces after only a couple of similar weeks. I even managed a few double-days with a morning and afternoon run, which I enjoyed but splitting up a long run feels like cheating.

So the basic idea was more long runs and faster medium runs, but no crazily paced short ones.

Race Strategy:

The idea behind the training was to enable me to perform well for 20 miles. That would allow me to mentally break the marathon in two and apply myself fully over the first section without worrying too much about the final 6.2. I’m not mentally or physically the type of runner who can run a faster second half of such a long race – considered by many as the optimal race strategy, so front-loading the good miles is my best option. That does mean a painful finish is in store but I think that’s heading my way whichever strategy I go with.

I double-checked this strategy with the experienced marathon runners in my running club and the general consensus was indeed to go for a ‘fast’ first 20 and then cling-on!

Race Goals:

As I’ve mentioned in other blog posts, most runners have several goals going into a race usually starting with ‘just finishing’ and working up in increments to a target time which hasn’t been neared in training. Somewhere in the set of goals is the ‘real’ one but it’s better to keep even yourself guessing which it might be! Not wanting to miss out on a good tradition here is my set in ascending order:

‘A’ goal – just finish (I was carrying a couple of calf niggles)
‘B’ goal – faster than 3:42 (my slowest time so far, Chicago 2015)
‘C’ goal – beat my PB of 3:33:18 from Berlin
‘D’ goal – break 3:30, the big round number
‘E’ goal – break 3:25 so I can apply for the Boston marathon (but wouldn’t get in due to competition from faster runners)
‘F’ goal – break 3:22 so I would more than likely actually get a Boston place (this may have been my ‘real’ goal but I’m not saying…)
‘G’ goal – break 3:15. Optional fantasy goal which would get me into London as a ‘Good For Age’ entrant. As per the above, nothing in training indicated this was remotely plausible.

Race recap:

9:10AM February 26th 2017 and I’m standing shivering at the start line in the cold shade cast by the 45 floors of the immense Tokyo Metropolitan Government buildings, 9 hours ahead of the UK and with very little sleep from the night before. We are talking about 10 minutes sleep here, it was almost none at all.

Holding his nose in anticipation?

On the plus side the queues for some tucked away little loos I had found earlier were amazingly short at only 1 person ahead of me – unheard of at a large marathon.



Possibly because of the somewhat basic design? 





I’d also been given a free pouch of Pocari Sweat liquid gel. In terms of texture it’s a bit like drinking frogspawn but quite tasty once the initial shock has subsided.


After a fairly average amount of ticker tape and some loud fireworks we were off. I was in starting corral C (from A to L) so quite far forward. There wasn’t a staggered start, we all just shuffled forward and after about 2 minutes I crossed the line and the race I’d anticipated for several months was underway.

I should say at this point that this is the marathon course I remember the least of any I have done. I think it’s partly due to my focus on achieving my goal time but more because once you’d seen one part of the course you’d seen it all. I like to watch YouTube videos of the courses ahead of my races and with the Tokyo ones you could skip to any point in each video and it would look pretty much the same – try it for yourself here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BMO_kxhApLY.

As well as the videos, I’d also read about the Tokyo marathon on a number of blogs and was expecting quite a crowded first few miles, which usually means a hefty dose of swerving around other runners. Added to this, the course is notorious for running a bit long due to the number of corners – most people I checked on Strava.com did around 26.7 miles or more, an extra half mile or ~4 minutes. I was expecting these factors to make hitting my goals even more challenging. This year the course route had been significantly altered to finish at the Imperial Palace in central Tokyo rather than at a conference centre out on Tokyo Bay, so it was hard to know whether that would be good or bad for distance. The finishing location was certainly much more convenient for us as we’d managed to find a hotel quite near the finish area and actually on the course itself just near the 29km point.

Speaking of kilometres, this route was exclusively marked in kms – no mile markers to be seen anywhere. I’ve decided I prefer them to miles. Yes, there are 42 versus 26, but they come around so much sooner. I found this particularly lovely at 35km+.

Back to the race…miles 1 to 4 included a bit of downhill but also some congestion. This sort of balanced out and I managed to just about hit my 20-mile goal pace of 7:30/mile during the first section.

By mile 5 my Group 1 training was paying off and I was able to sustain around 7:15/mile for the next 11 miles without feeling too puffed. I even had three 5km sections completed within 1 second of each other. I was a machine! I also managed to see Lisa at the 10km point – we don’t have a great track record of spotting each other, although her blonde hair stood out pretty well here as you can imagine.

So 11 more nondescript but successful miles go by and I’m up to 16 miles now and counting how many minutes I have in the bank versus each goal. ‘Just’ 10 miles to go, plus whatever additional distance I need to do to cover the swerving and the corners. Things were going well on that front too – I was only about 0.15 miles over the course measurement. No sign of my iffy right calf playing up either.

The next section was all about holding on to my goal pace. I didn’t need to exceed it, just not start cashing in precious seconds yet. I got another lift at 18 miles when Lisa and I spotted each other again. To be fair, she was standing outside our hotel so managing to miss each other at this point would have been appalling.

The grind continued and I got through miles 19 and 20 just ahead of goal pace. Unrealistic Goal G (3:15) was gone by this stage but my calculations put me a good 5 mins ahead of Goal F (3:22) and the possible achievement of a really solid BQ time. All of my marathon training has been geared towards achieving a BQ. Partly because of a sense of accomplishment but also out of practical necessity. I need to do Boston to complete the big 6 and you either qualify through a good performance or have to try to raise $5000 dollars in charity funding, arguably more challenging than the race itself.

Now for the tough miles – 21 through 26. It doesn’t sound far but the idea of running for another 50 or so minutes by this stage is quite daunting. I really didn’t want to waste all of my effort so far by slowing down so much that my goals began to unravel, so I made a bargain with myself that I could walk for no more than 30 seconds at each aid station. I was expecting 5 of them so, assuming walking speed is roughly half running speed, the total time lost would be about 15s x 5. I could afford to lose a minute. In the end there was quite a gap between some of the aid stations and I think only 4 in total, not great at this stage of the race but it had the bonus effect of keeping me running for longer.

Lisa was a great pick me up again at 41kms – that made 3 for 3 in terms of spotting each other, a definite spectating PB!  I did crumple a bit during mile 26 but by then I knew I’d done enough and walked for I would guess over a minute. On reflection it’s a shame because I could probably have got a sub 3:20 time and have all 26 miles completed at below 9:00/mile pace.  Maybe next time!

The final km was through a street we’d checked out the day before so I knew I was close. I didn’t really speed up any though, this was pure grind. I turned the final corner and the finish line gantries were less than 100 meters away. As I got closer I could see that the actual finish line was a bit nondescript and was about 30 yards my side of the gantries (which were actually for shepherding finishers through), so only 70 yards to go! I mustered a last bit of strength and held off some random person trying to take my rightful finishing position and in the process managed to steal someone else’s as well.

Final time 3:20:23 for a distance according to my Garmin of exactly 26.40 miles. I was as close to ecstatic as I get – I couldn’t really believe I’d done enough to get into Boston. That was definitely something I felt I was inching towards with each marathon rather than expecting to complete it in this one race.

Post-race trudge:

The huge number of volunteers (~10,000 I believe) were excellent throughout the race, cheering runners on through the drink stations etc. They were even better in the finishing area, forming a sort of guard of honour and giving high fives to everyone which helped to keep energy levels high for what turned out to be a very long walk.  I think I walked about 2.5 miles by the time I got back to Lisa.

First off I was presented with a nice towel (immediately doubling up as a blanket) then a short walk later a foil sheet for more warmth, then another short walk and a bag containing a bottle of water, then more walking and more Pocari Sweat, then more walking and finally the medal (yay!), then more walking and some weird dumpling thing, more walking and a banana and finally more walking and an energy bar, which I was tempted to eat as I was now well into my 27th mile!  That was it for official goodies but there was plenty more walking to come.  After another half a mile we’d moved from the Imperial Palace Gardens to Hibuya Park for the baggage vehicles (didn’t have anything to collect), free non-alcoholic beer, free massage and acupuncture and then finally changing tents.

Bonus miles

At this stage I was then able to escape and try to find Lisa, needing to cross the marathon route to do so.  Thankfully Tokyo has huge subway stations with multiple exits so I headed down into one and tried to guess where to pop back up.  I got it wrong slightly and ended up directly opposite Lisa but on the wrong side of the runners.  At least I could wave to her so she knew I was alive.  Crossing the course was NOT an option – the Japanese are quite strict about such matters.  e.g. everyone waits for the green man at zebra crossings even where it’s clear there is no traffic coming.  Down I went again and this time got the correct escape route and was finally re-united with Lisa, approximately an hour after finishing!

I’d happily race Tokyo again, but a 1 in 10 chance of getting in through the lottery and the high cost of getting there probably means this is a one-off.

Tired & cold but happy!

Race Report – Two Tunnels Half Marathon May 2016, Bath, England

Hey all – today’s race report looks at a set of 5 races ranging in distance from 5km up to half marathon which took place on May 8th, 2016 in Bath, England.

(TL:DR Overall score – 67 out of 100. I can’t decide if I will do this one again.  I think the main interest for me lay in the tunnels and the medal – both of which I have now experienced.  It’s not really local enough to just nip out and take part and I think I’m likely to use those longer trips for other races – or perhaps for variety I will do the 10km hilly route next time, despite not liking hills!).

Race Commentary

Bath is a spa city located in Somerset, England and is most famous for its Roman Baths and Georgian architecture.  In running terms it is best known for its well attended half marathon which takes places in March each year and attracts about 13,000 runners of all abilities.

Given the beauty of the city we naturally chose to take part in an event where the route spends a considerable proportion of its time underground, starts from a less than salubrious housing estate away from the city centre and in the case of my event, attracts fewer than 100 participants.

The event was the Relish Running Races Bath Two Tunnels set of 5 races which in ascending order of required effort were 5km flat, 10km flat, 10km hilly, half marathon flat and half marathon hilly.  Despite living in a relatively hilly part of England I don’t really like them but I thought I ought to enter the longer event so settled on the ‘half marathon flat’ option. My other half, Lisa is similarly not keen on hills and has been on a bit of a roll in terms of entering half marathons so fancied a bit of a change and selected the ’10km flat’ accordingly.

The event takes place in May which in UK terms means it is at the mercy of a very unpredictable month for weather.  It can still be chilly in May but also as warm as a summer’s day.  As it happened, May 8th 2016 was both – starting with cold, heavy rain before developing into a lovely day which peaked at 25C.  I’m not great at heat (see my Chicago post) so seeing the weather forecasts in the run up to the event taking a turn for the warmer didn’t really fill me with pre-race confidence.

Bath is about 90 minutes away from where I live in Wellington, Somerset and the race start time was 10:20 for me and 10:30 for Lisa.  That meant a relatively leisurely start at 7:00AM to be away by half past and at the park & ride a little before 9:00AM.  Having expected sunshine and a warm start to the day, the drive was wet throughout and I was feeling a little stupid in my newly purchased Running Forever Running Club super-lightweight vest top and the lightest shorts I own.  But they say to dress for 10 degrees (Fahrenheit) warmer than it is when racing, so I wasn’t that far out – despite the shivering…

Following an uneventful car journey and a slightly hair-raising double-decker bus journey from the park & ride we were dropped off at a bus stop in a housing estate which I will sum up as looking ‘best avoided at night’ (worrying sign number 1), although knowing Bath house prices I suspect even the smaller houses were expensive.  After a short walk down a hill (worrying sign number 2) we arrived at a playing field and set about orienting ourselves, number pick up – check, toilets – check, bag drop – check, free ice-pop station – check…ooh free ice pops 🙂

The sun had by now come out and we were warming through.  We had about an hour to go until our start time and spent most of the time queueing for the aforementioned items, but sadly had to complete our races before we were allowed an ice pop.  We were both in wave 1 of our events (mine only had 1 wave in fairness) so happily queued up in the ‘Wave 1’ queue to receive our numbers.  The application of logic in this situation was a complete ‘fail’ for both of us – I should have been in the wave 3 queue and Lisa wave 4 apparently.  So we queued up again, thankful of the extra couple of minutes of wasted time, taking us closer to the start time.

The ‘real’ Wave 1 was the half marathon hilly group of about 70 runners – and occupying the moral high ground in this set of 5 runs it was only right they were first to set off, which after a high-energy warm-up routine, they did.  As I watched them disappear out of the top-left corner of the playing field I couldn’t help but reflect that it’s always a little surprising and disappointing how slowly even the quickest non-elite runners look when compared to what we are all used to seeing on the TV.  That is of course until you get passed by them and realise they are really motoring!

Wave 2 set off ten minutes later, about 4 minutes later than planned.  I was already thinking that the knock-on effect would mean I will be finishing four more minutes later than I would have if the start was on time and it will be 0.0001C warmer by then…!  I should try to relax more sometimes…

After another ten minutes it was Wave 3’s turn – about 100 of us.  I skipped the warm-up figuring I would need to preserve as much energy as I could for the race.  Skipping the warm-up meant I accidentally found myself on the front row of the line-up, which is something I try to avoid…still we were off to start the ‘flat’ course now, heading towards that top left corner of the park at what felt like a decent pace to me but no doubt looked very pedestrian for the onlookers.

I find that the term ‘flat’ is overused in race course descriptions – and it proved to be the case this time as well, the first 2.5kms were largely uphill and given it was a two lap course that makes 5kms of hilly terrain before even factoring in any other parts of the course.  Personally I would categorise this as ‘undulating’ but in running circles that is really an undercover word for ‘hilly’.  Everything seems to move over one notch and end up being a bit harder work than as described.  I think in reality what I want is ‘pancake flat’ – anything else will inevitably be at least a bit hilly.

I took the hill at a reasonable pace, with km 1 at 4:13 and km 2 slightly steadier at 4:32.  A group of about 5 runners had formed ahead of me and were pulling away but things were going ok, I was certainly within the top 10 by the end of the climb.

It’s at this point that the hills become worth it – the tunnels begin.  The first is about 400 metres long and the second 1700 metres.  The out and back nature of each lap meant that in total I went through each tunnel 4 times for an in-tunnel total of a little over 8kms.  All long distance running events should be in tunnels – they are mostly flat and blissfully, naturally air conditioned.  I loved them both – the hills in this ‘flat’ race were forgiven, even the shallow but lengthy incline through the longer tunnel (the incline had to be on the way back of course…) was pleasant.  The only downside I can think of is that it short-changed the distance shown on my Garmin

I spent most of the first lap on my own, a bit behind the quick guys but kept up a good tempo and at the turn for home at the midpoint of lap 1 I was feeling good.  Much better for the aircon section in the longer tunnel and looking forward to the downhill section at the end of the lap – but trying to ignore that I would be turning right around and going up it again!

The pack ahead had started to split a little and by the end of lap 1 I had picked off a couple of the ones who had gone out too fast, but lost sight of the other 3 and any runners ahead of them.  I’m paranoid about hydration during races so used some of the space I’d made for myself to walk 20 yards through the aid station at the end of lap one, taking on a decent sized cup of water and enjoying the breather before heading up the hill again.

There were plenty more people on the course by now with the much better attended 10km flat waves having been released.  The tunnels were quite narrow but everyone seemed to remember their left from right and there was always space to get around the slower runners.  I even managed to see Lisa twice in the tunnels – high five!

The temperature by now had climbed steadily to the low to mid-20s and I was feeling quite warm, but the tunnels cooled me down which enabled me to keep my position in the race to the lap 2 turn for home at about 15.5kms.  I was going a bit slower by now at about 4:45/km, and my thoughts were definitely more about clinging on than upping the pace for a finish. Thankfully it appeared that most people felt the same way but I was passed by one runner who had put his foot down at about 19kms.  I had a target of my own in my sights so thought I would make up the place again when I passed the obviously tired runner ahead of me.  I passed him with about 200 metres to go, restoring my position in theory, but in reality I had passed a runner from the half marathon hilly wave. So overall, once the race was properly underway I passed 2 and was passed by 1 – a net gain of 1 place.

My finishing time was 1:35:30 for 7th place – a good result for me and my fourth fastest half marathon, which given the hills and the warmth of the day was pretty good.

Lisa performed similarly, finishing her 10km in 52:30 which given the hills and conditions was a good time.

Event Ratings

Overall score – 67 out of 100. I can’t decide if I will do this one again.  I think the main interest for me lay in the tunnels and the medal – both of which I have now experienced.  It’s not really local enough to just nip out and take part and I think I’m likely to use those longer trips for other races – or perhaps for variety I will do the 10km hilly route next time, despite not liking hills!

Event Registration & Pre-Race updates – 7

Registration was good – the website has plenty of information and I found it easy to get signed up for the correct event, which when there are several to choose from on the same day is useful.  Not much email spam, if any – in fact I would say the event erred on the side of too little contact with the runners.  Rating: Above Average.

Logistics – 6

Running multiple events over different distances using predominantly the same course requires quite a bit of coordination.  I thought this was done pretty well although number pick-up could have been simpler – e.g. 1-300 here, 301 to 600 here etc.  instead of waves.  There were boards highlighting which wave runners were in on entry to the park but we decided to ignore them. Given the numbers of people switching queues this wasn’t unusual. I also saw a couple of people miss their race start but that may have been planned – at least one looked like an HM to 10k swap 😉 Rating: Average.

Course – 7

Hold the whole event in a 13.1 mile tunnel and it’s an easy 10 points from me…this was a good course, attractive in places and the tunnels were certainly a different experience.  It wasn’t flat though so I’m docking a point for that. Rating: Above Average.

Marshalling and feeding/watering – 8

Good marshalling – one in particular at the 10km turnaround point was brilliant.  She gave me a real lift on lap two just when I needed it.  I only had the water so can’t really comment on what else was available, there was a nice selection of goodies at the finish though – including those ice pops! Rating: Good.

Crowd Support – 6

There was decent support in the start/finish area but not much out on the course.  The out and back nature doesn’t really lend itself to people making their way along the course but there was random encouragement from people out for a nice Sunday walk/cycle ride. Rating: Average.

PB Potential – 7

A point lost here again for the hills – the tunnels are great for speed but there is a lot of up and down to get between them and the start/finish area.  I was about 2:20 off my PB, so it’s not a bad course but I have run several which are better suited for speed. Rating: Above Average.

Results Accuracy & Timeliness – 8

The event wasn’t chip-timed but finishing times were uploaded to the website really quickly.  This was all the more impressive given people from different waves and distances were finishing at the same time for most of the event.  Rating: Good.

VFM – 6

£27 for entry as a UK Athletics affiliated runner, £29 if not – plus a £2 booking fee.  Pretty standard charging I would say, but at that price there’s a chance of a t-shirt although one was not forthcoming at this event. Rating: Average.

Vibe – 6

I enjoyed the event, there was good camaraderie amongst the runners but the lack of crowd support away from the finish and sharing the paths with people out for their regular walks made it a little low key. I enjoyed it though 🙂  Rating: Average.

Goody Bag/Bling – 6

No t-shirt or goody bag, but a funky medal with a steam train on it which is one of a set of 4 that combine to make a pyramid shape.  Or at least they should.  I tried to combine Lisa’s and mine but managed to snap the top off hers! Thankfully the ribbons are detachable and the medals identical, so Lisa now has a perfect medal and I have a two-parter.  I’m sure some super glue will do the trick.  Rating: Average.

Race Report – Chicago Marathon 2015 #ChicagoMarathon

Hey all – a retrospective race report today, looking at the Chicago Marathon 2015, including an overall rating of the event based on 10 different criteria.

(TL:DR Overall for me this event rated as 86 out of 100 – I will definitely try to get through the lottery again when the other marathon majors are out of the way.  Well worth the travel, especially given how surprisingly nice Chicago is).

Race Commentary

The post covers my first marathon, in Chicago which took place on Sunday 11th October 2015.  It was a significant event for me and as such this will be a longer than usual post – given that a marathon is a longer than usual race…

My journey to Chicago begins in March 2015, just after I’d completed my first Half Marathon in Bath on my 45th birthday.  Before that day I’d decided, like many, that a marathon would be physically impossible for me and running with that theme to the extreme, may even prove fatal.  But after completing the half distance relatively unscathed (aside from awful stitch after drinking too much Lucozade too quickly) I felt duty bound to attempt at least one marathon.

I am in awe of fellow Running Club members who are able to get motivated enough by local events to put in the training necessary to complete the marathon distance.  I felt I needed something bigger to focus on and settled on trying to get into one of the 6 Marathon Majors – Berlin, Boston, Chicago, London, New York and Tokyo.  I quickly discovered that five operate heavily over-subscribed entrance lotteries, and one (Boston) has a minimum qualifying time determined by your age and sex, known as Boston Qualifier (BQ).  So Boston was out for two reasons – a BQ of 3:25 wasn’t realistic and anyway, I hadn’t yet done a marathon to prove to them that I had achieved the BQ time!

That left the other five – but unfortunately their lotteries are only open for short periods and so the timing of them meant that Chicago was my only hope for completing a major in 2015 and I duly applied on March 18th.

My wife Lisa has developed a bit of sixth sense for these race lotteries and assured me I would get in – and I found out via email on April 28th that she was right 🙂  She has also correctly called my lottery entries for the Berlin (in), New York (out) and Marine Corps Marathons (in).  No – it doesn’t work for real lotteries…

So after that impulsive decision back in March I was committed…and had just over 6 months to train for the full distance.  I initially told myself that just finishing was enough but then quickly decided that I should settle on a notional finishing time – 4 hours.  A nice round figure and a generous 9:00 minutes per mile pace.  In reality this is all mind games and all runners have more than one goal for any race – the hierarchy for mine was:

  • DNF – abject failure
  • Over 4h00m – failure
  • Over 3h45m – ok, not happy but ok
  • Over 3h35m – happy, goal achieved
  • Over 3h30m – #awesome

My training regime was targeted at 3h45m but I decided I would try to go for 3h35m and signed up for a Chicago Nike pace group of that speed.

So, on to the race logistics.  The only thing more painful than the race itself is the hike in hotel prices when a big event is on.  Chicago prices were also inflated but fortunately I chose to book the (free to cancel) hotel in the period between runners entering the lottery and hearing whether they got in, or not.  That meant I was able to get a hotel which was on the course at the 1 mile marker – the theory being it couldn’t be THAT far to the start/finish in Grant Park.

Several months of training ensued – mostly uneventful aside from Achilles tendon issues and a number of warm-up races which were largely successful.  My times for 5k, 10k and half marathon all significantly improved over the summer – there is a very direct relationship between the number of miles of training done and an increase in running ability. This is blindingly obvious on reflection but was still a pleasant surprise 😉

October, the month of the marathon, arrived quite slowly.  I think I was probably at my peak in September so the last few weeks really dragged on, the first week of October especially.  But departure day finally came and after an uneventful flight from Heathrow I arrived at Chicago O’Hare airport 3 days before the race.

This is where I found out that getting from London to Chicago was possibly easier than getting from the airport to the hotel.  Yes – there is a perfectly serviceable and cheap metro service but no, none of my bank cards worked (I’m too cheap to pay the inflated currency rates at airport exchange booths so had no cash).  Four declined cards later I spoke to one of the staff and after some rubbing of magnetic stripes/cleaning of chips on the cards we tried again – but ‘computer says no’.  This is where things took a turn for the better…the staff member just waived us through the barriers and onto the train for free 🙂  Twenty dollars saved but Lisa and I had an anxious journey wondering if we could get through the barriers at other end. Mercifully there weren’t any.

Hotel check-in was similarly unsuccessful on the flexible friend front but fortunately they let us up to our room on condition that we sorted out payment later.  Not a great start but not as embarrassing as having my card declined on honeymoon some years ago (thanks for bailing me out Lisa!).  After a hunt around the local cash machines I eventually found one which was prepared to give out some greenbacks so I hit it for all it would allow. The problem was quite simple – the bank hadn’t been told we were going to Chicago so decided the transactions were dodgy.  A couple of phone calls later and we were solvent again 🙂

Lisa - Lake MichiganBack to the room and a quick unpack then it was time for the best jet-lag cure I know of – a run! Just a short one down the shore of Lake Michigan and back which stopped us wanting to turn in for the night, it was by now about 3AM UK time.


The hotel was as well located as I’d hoped – the entrance actually on the course and a relatively flat walk to the start/finish area.  The marathon is a big deal to the city and that fact was really obvious, really quickly with posters and flags everywhere, local news items and weather reports focused on race day and runners wherever I looked. The epicentre of the event is Grant Park, a very large municipal area next to Lake Michigan. I found having the start and finish in the same place made the event more special for runners and spectators alike – it provided a real focus to the event which is lost a little when the two areas are separated by an appreciable distance.

We had a good couple of days taking in the sights (galleries/museums/boat trips – no bars though!) of what is a surprisingly attractive and interesting city.  We also clambered through some barriers to check out the runners village in Grant Park – where the scale of the event became clear. This is just one row of more than a dozen!


Whilst doing so we bumped in to a runner who had just driven up from Florida and was doing a last training run.  He was in his early-70s and was planning to run a marathon in each US state, a quest he started aged 63.  I was impressed but there are probably more relaxing ways of spending your retirement!

Later on we went to the Expo, travelling on an iconic yellow American school bus, with sweet little children’s drawings stuck above the seats – I was in Emma Burke’s seat apparently.  We had hoped for a short bus trip to the expo but we dived down into the bowls of the city to emerge about 30 minutes later but only 5 miles from where we started – who knows what the logic was behind the route?!

Fortunately the Expo was really good with stands from most major sports manufacturers, where I invested in a couple of t-shirts and a Body Glide lubricating stick for those delicate areas.

The Chicago marathon is a global event with runners attending from all over the world, including more than 500 from the UK.  An app at the Expo allowed runners to add their home location and by the time I got there much of the world was already covered.  There was also an eye opening video of the whole course, which took 8 minutes at an equivalent speed of about 200 mph – 26.2 miles was suddenly feeling a very long way.

After the Expo it was time to rest and plan my pre-race fuelling strategy. I had brought pasta and pesto sauce with me but sadly the hotel ‘suite’ only had a microwave oven – usually this kind of room has a full kitchen. Happily being in a big city meant I still had accesss to pretty much whatever carbs I wanted, and those that know me well know that means egg fried rice – one of my favourite foods (along with chocolate and cheese)!  So out we went to P F Changs, a US ‘Chinese’ restaurant chain which I’ve eaten in a few times and knew would have reliably good food, with US sized portions.  One and a half helpings later it was time to pay and I opened the obligatory fortune cookie which read ‘Your hard work will soon be rewarded’.  What a great sign 🙂  I actually kept it and it’s now glued to my ‘Chicago Marathon collage’ which I’ve got framed at home.

I checked the weather one last time before bed, sunny with 24-26C max and 20mph winds from the south.  It had been looking like that for a few days  but I was hoping for a last minute change in wind direction to the north – that change came a day or so after the marathon and took max temperatures down to 15C. Too late for the big event though – so I’d just have to make the best of it.

After a few hours of fitful sleep it was 5:30AM and time to get up – not really a big deal given I’d deliberately tried not to get fully turned around to Chicago time, so it didn’t feel particularly early.

After a quick breakfast and a double/triple check that I had everything I needed we set off.  Being only a mile from the start line the streets outside the hotel were already full of people heading to Grant Park.  After the short walk we said our emotional goodbyes and I was off to join Corral C – for runners with predicted finishing times of 3:35 to 3:45.  Corrals are based on previous race times (at half marathon in my case) so I was pleased to be able to get into one of the earlier starting groups given the temperatures expected later in the morning/early afternoon.

I was funnelled through with thousands of others and then hunted down my 3:35 pace group and waited for the start.  I had about 15 minutes by the time I was in position so not too long hanging about.  It was relatively quiet in the corral, lots of nerves and apprehension I guess but very soon the start was underway and we were shuffling forward towards the start line.

The first half-mile takes runners through a longish-tunnel, at which point a proportion of the (other) male runners made a break for the tunnel walls to relieve themselves.  The organisers have tried to stamp out this behaviour but it seems like it has become a race tradition now!  Shortly afterwards we crossed the Chicago River for the first of six times and I made a small diversion to grab a kiss from Lisa outside our hotel.  Valuable seconds were lost but it was worth it.

The Course the doubles back on itself for a mile or so before heading northwards for 5 miles slightly inland from the lake shore.  I was feeling strong at this stage and was getting annoyed at the bunching around the 3:35 pace group, so decided to go ahead by 50 metres or so to give myself some elbow room.  That worked pretty well and I took the 6 mile turn at the most northerly point feeling really good.  The next stretch heads back towards downtown and the half way point, just past the Sears Tower (or more accurately the Willis Tower nowadays).

I passed half way in 1:45:52 (live tracking here), which was about where I’d planned to be and my legs were in good shape.  I hadn’t even noticed them over the course of the first half of the race so was really optimistic for the next section which headed west for a couple of miles into a quieter part of town before doubling back east again to mile 17.  This section was where I had a glimmer of fatigue and my legs started to feel a bit heavier, much earlier than I’d expected.  I was good for 20 miles in my training runs so I assume it must have been the weather on the day sapping my energy faster than the mild (and often wet) climate of south west England.

I pressed on but started to take short walking breaks at the drinks stations, initially just long enough to glug down the Gatorade but later on I continued for a minute or two to ensure my heart rate didn’t get too high. This routine repeated itself through the next 6 miles as we headed broadly south east and away from the finish.  There’s a particularly nasty corner just after mile 23, which coincided with my slowest mile, when I really wanted to start heading north towards the finish but the route had other ideas and headed due south for a short distance before turning east and finally north onto the 3+ mile home stretch.

Three miles at the end of a marathon feels like an incredibly long way but I dug in a bit on this section and managed to keep on moving – still maintaining my walking the drinks station strategy but getting back to running earlier each time. At some point I must have been passed by the 3:35 pace group but was too tired or preoccupied with getting some fluids to notice – that pace was beyond me in the conditions.  I hope to do better in Berlin this autumn where it should be cooler.

Finally at the 26 mile point I took a right turn, climbed the only hill (slope…) in the race without too much pain and accelerated slightly towards the finish – crossing the line in 3:42:05 in 6530th position out of 37500 finishers.  I was quite emotional at that point, proud to finish the task I’d started months before when I signed up for the race in March.  I vaguely remember saying to myself ‘You actually did it!’ and feeling really happy and relieved.  I talked to myself a lot during the race, but that’s the only bit I remember – the rest was nonsense I’m sure 🙂

Chicago Marathon Picture

The scale of the event meant it was a long walk to the meet and greet area but fortunately Lisa managed to find me part way.  I collapsed on the grass and enjoyed lying in the sun and soaking up the live music and the general vibe whilst giving my legs a rest.  I’d been told it takes about 3 weeks after your 1st marathon before you start thinking ‘I’ll do another one’ but by the end of the day I’d already decided I’d have to do more.  Perhaps I didn’t push myself hard enough, although it felt like it at the time!

After an hour or so it was time to head back to the hotel.  That mile felt harder than the marathon!  The chocolate shake and beer had left me feeling nauseous and my legs had totally seized up, but eventually I made it back to the room and then spent the afternoon in bed, watching films and drinking Coke, Snapple (Kiwi Strawberry ftw) and eating Hershey bars – highly recommended!

Event Ratings

Overall score – 86 out of 100. I will definitely try to get through the lottery again when the other marathon majors are out of the way.  Well worth the travel, especially given how surprisingly nice Chicago is.

Event Registration & Pre-Race updates – 8

Registration very slick – good website and a unique identifier from the start which made me feel like I was already involved with the race, rather than just an email saying I’d entered as is the case with many.  Some useful information about the race and pointers to various training regimes or ‘opportunities’ to pre-order photos at a discount etc.  Rating: Good.

Logistics – 7

40,000+ people require a lot of herding about so it was inevitable there would be queues, especially in light of the Boston bombings.  I got there in plenty of time though and was in my corral well ahead of the start.  The logistics were good but it wasn’t as pleasant as, for example,  a turn-up-and-race event of a couple of hundred people. Rating: Above Average.

Course – 8

It’s a really flat course with no hills, aside from a very small on-ramp at mile 26 – not ideal timing I guess!  There’s enough going on though to not get bored with the monotony.  The western and south western areas were a bit bleak, with fewer spectators just when you needed them at miles 17+, although even here it was far more than a typical event.  Not many iconic buildings compared with a route like London but I enjoyed it. An extra point for me because it was flat – I needed that for my first marathon! Rating: Good.

Marshalling and feeding/watering – 9

Excellent marshalling, no chance of taking a wrong turn and all roads fully closed.  Loads of up-beat people were handing out drinks at the very frequent refuelling points, plus gels and bananas later in the race.  The crowd got in on the act as well with anything from beer, through coffee and tacos available – there was even a barbecue complete with sizzling sausage (tempted!).  I could have eaten enough for a week if I felt like it 🙂 One point deducted for having cups not bottles – especially given the heat. Rating: Excellent.

Crowd Support – 10

What does running past 1.7 million Americans feel like?  Loud and encouraging that’s what – ideal for a marathon.  Lots of bands, funny placards, impromptu food stops, vaseline boards etc.  A really great turn-out and it lived up to what I was expecting.  I got asked my name several times so I could be cheered on (note to self: get it printed on my shirt…).  I was misheard once and greeted with ‘You can do it Lionel’ – which kept me going better than if they’d got my name right. Rating: Amazing.

PB Potential – 10

It’s a world record setting course, second only to Berlin.  The roads were really wide and you get allocated to a corral based on evidence provided of a previous time (at half or full distance).   That means little weaving and not too many runners who have ended up in the wrong pace corral.  The weather wasn’t ideal for my run, peaking at about 25C during the later stages of the race and with a gusty wind, but on a cooler, stiller day I have no doubt I could achieve my best possible result on this course. Rating: Amazing.

Results Accuracy & Timeliness – 10

Live results during the race and afterwards – including zones and local McDonalds where spectators could follow their runners’ progress.  This was also possible online and was really easy to use.  My mum ‘watched’ me cross the line in near real time using a web app.  I received an ‘Official Results’ magazine about a week ago which makes a very nice memento.   Rating: Amazing.

VFM – 7

This is a costly race – at around $250 for a non-US entrant.  It’s a BIG event though so I could see where quite a bit of the money went.  It’s not a price I’d be happy to pay more than a couple of times a year for really big races but I didn’t feel ripped off. Rating: Above Average.

Vibe – 10

The city really takes the marathon to its heart – you can feel its impact pretty much everywhere downtown and it features in the local news bulletins etc.  Having tens of thousands of runners and their support crew in the city in the run up to the race also added to the sense that I was taking part in something really special.  The ‘buzz’ about the run carried on for a couple of days afterwards with people wearing their bling out and about and receiving generous congratulations from waiters, shop assistants and passers-by in general.  I couldn’t fault it. Rating: Amazing.

Goody Bag/Bling – 7

I had high expectations for the goody bag and it was wasn’t quite lived up to.  The medal is of high quality with a very smart ribbon and I got a free pint of beer and a chocolate protein shake – I seriously advise against drinking them in quick succession, I felt awful!  Then there was the usual banana and various energy food combo, plus random (inedible) leaflets.  What was missing was another t-shirt imo – I got a participant T-shirt at the ExPo but it wasn’t a finisher t-shirt, and that’s what it’s all about…so I bought a couple the day after at Nike Town.  I think for $250 I should have got a finisher t-shirt.  The follow-up with an official results magazine was nice given I was an international participant.  Rating: Above Average.

Race Report – Taunton Half Marathon 2016 #running

Welcome to my second race report. These reports will include commentary on how the race went for me and a more useful section which rates the event in more general terms, such as the quality of the course, the value for money of entrance, how quick the results get on-line (a personal bugbear but increasingly not an issue as chip timing becomes more prevalent), PB potential etc. etc.

(Overall for me this event rated as 68 out of 100 – I will do it again because it’s local and enjoyable but personally I wouldn’t travel more than 1h30 or so to do it).

Race Commentary

This blog post covers The Taunton Marathon/Half Marathon which took place on 3rd April 2016 in and around Taunton, Somerset – England.

This is one of my local races and with a 10:30 start time and only a ten minute journey to get there we (my wife Lisa and I) had an easy start to the day 🙂  Breakfast and a short dog walk to warm the legs up and we were away.

We arrived very early for us, with about 45 minutes to go – just in time for the group photo for the running club we belong to (Running Forever) . The club had put in a great turnout with about 60 runners across the half and full marathon distance – about 20% were crazy enough to do the full two laps.  I wasn’t one of them…it takes more than a run around our local country roads to motivate me for the pain of the full distance!

The start area was compact and busy and I’m reliably informed that there was only a 2 minute queue for the ‘proper’ loos – that’s pretty incredible compared to most races.  Perhaps everyone had sworn off the cider for the morning.

We then had two brief moments of (potential) fame – a recording of 5 running club members was made by a local radio station (Apple FM I think) and the local newspaper Wellington Weekly News wanted a photo of all Wellington-based runners, which included a celebrity…none other than Clinton Rogers from the BBC Points West team (he’s from Bradford on Tone though, so had muscled his way in…clearly this opportunity to further enhance his fame was not to be missed).

After just about managing to calm down following so much glamourous excitement we then headed off to the start line.  About 1100 runners do the half marathon with around 150 die-hards going the full distance.  I slotted in towards the middle of the 1:30 section, hoping I was going to be on reasonable form. My only previous go at this event was last year and it didn’t go to plan with my finishing time over 1:45.  I was planning to exorcise those demons and get under 1:40, preferably 1:38.

The first few miles are mainly flat or false-flat uphill and I ended up standing next to a runner I knew with a similar PB.  Unfortunately she likes to start quickly so zoomed ahead as we ran past shoppers making the best of the wonders Taunton has to offer on a Sunday morning in April.

To avoid getting carried away at the start I’ve come up with an opening race strategy which is to do the first mile or two at a pace which is not too fast nor too slow – Goldilocks pace I guess you could call it (how else do you think she escaped from those bears?!). Today that meant around 7:00/mile pace, with a couple of the first five miles dipping just under. The course gets harder during the second half, so contrary to all running opinion ever submitted to the internet I decided I would ‘get some quick miles in the bank’, certain that I would pay them back with interest later on.  Too late now though – it was mile 5 and my average was still more or less spot-on 7/mile pace, about two minutes ahead of PB pace.

For a half marathon I break the race mileage down into three phases, first 5 / next 5 / last 3 to help with the mental game – which I generally find harder than the physical side of running once I get beyond 10k distance. So the first phase went really well – now phase two and time to try to cling on after the too quick start.

Miles 6 to 10 went pretty quickly.  Just before 6.5 there’s the first ‘turn for home’ which also includes a nice long descent so I glugged down a gel (don’t usually bother with them but was determined to put last year’s performance to bed!) and pressed on into the noticeable headwind now we were tracking south.  The gel seemed to help me zoom (relatively speaking) up the short, sharp incline crossing the River Tone at the 9 mile mark where I started to suffer last year. The miles were a bit slower on this stretch averaging 7:10/miles, but that was still tantalisingly 1 second per mile inside my PB pace.  No meltdown yet – but the hills were coming up quickly.

Miles 10 to 11 include the second and final ‘turn for home’ but also two fairly nasty hills at a small hamlet called Rumwell (locally known for it’s pub, farm shop and wood-carving-lay-by-man) and these caught me out last year, including a short walk.  Still feeling pretty good on the approach though I managed to keep some rough semblance of running form up them both, recording my slowest mile at 7:40/mile but all was not lost – those banked fast early miles kept me well ahead of my PB time.

Taunton Half FinishSo to cut a longish blog short – I then ticked off the next 2.1 miles, which include some blessed downhills, at 7:08/mile pace and crossed the line with a massive grin in 1:33:01, a PB by 1m42s…(Strava activity).

The moral of this seems to be don’t believe everything (anything?) you read on the internet and that ‘interest free’ does not only apply to sofas 🙂

Event Ratings

Overall score – 68 out of 100.  Would do it again, especially given it’s so local.  Nightmare last year – enjoyable this year, if hard work.

Event Registration & Pre-Race updates – 5

The website isn’t really up to date, e.g. results seem to stop in about 2010, and sometimes the site seems to be hijacked off to different domains – but when working as intended it is straightforward to use so I don’t really have much to grumble about.  Rating: OK.

Logistics – 8

Logistics for me were really simple – drive 10 minutes and find a car space less than 400m from the start.  The line up for the start gets a bit congested and you can end up further back than planned but I just clambered over a fence and slotted in, so nothing insurmountable.  Loo queues as reported above were very short and the whole start area was nice and compact, without being too small.  The countdown to the start was low key but it went away on time.  The finish area was large enough to cater for everyone as well. Rating: Good.

Course – 7

Before today I hated the course and dreaded the late hills, but I think in reality I had built them up to be something bigger than they are.  It doesn’t take place in the most scenic of Somerset’s roads but they are fine and there’s plenty of space despite the roads being largely open to traffic. Just one lap (for the half), which I much prefer. Rating: Above Average.

Marshalling and feeding/watering – 8

Good signposting and very friendly hordes of enthusiastic but well controlled cub scouts handing out bottles of water and sponges at frequent intervals – no complaints at all.  Water bottles instead of cups also gets a big ‘yes!’ from me.  Rating: Good.

Crowd Support – 6

Not huge crowds except for the centre of villages we passed through but enough.  I’m told it gets very quiet for the marathon runners on lap two but never intend to find out for myself.  As a local runner from a well known club and wearing the appropriate t-shirt I got plenty of encouragement. Rating: Average.

PB Potential – 7

This section is going to be contradictory – I think it’s a poor choice of course to try for a PB in general but then again I beat my old PB by quite a margin today. The course feels like it has more uphill than downhill on balance, which is impossible for a circular course…so really I think it’s a 6 (Average) but I’m going to give it a 7 because it went so well for me today. Rating: Above Average.

Results Accuracy & Timeliness – 8

The results were up really quickly and are already integrated into the Run Britain Ranking website.  Very impressive.  Rating: Good.

VFM – 7

Entry is pretty reasonable for the length of the event – I believe it’s about £15.  This is reflected in the quality of the bling though – more later.  I’ll need to get better at noting down the cost of runs when I book them, usually week/months before the big day.  Above Average.

Vibe – 8

The whole event was really friendly, possibly due to the number of fellow club runners taking part, but then everyone seemed to be having a good time.  Rating: Good.

Goody Bag/Bling – 4

Probably the low point of the event (but it was quite cheap to enter) – the medal is unimaginative and the t-shirt best used for decorating rather than running (it’s not a wicking material).  Other than that there was a banana and a bottle of water.  I did also blag a nice cupcake but that wasn’t ‘official merchandise’.  There wasn’t a goody bag at all – items were just handed out loose.  Rating: Poor.

Taunton Bling

Woohoo I’ve won the lottery! #RunWithTheMarines #41MCM

After failing to get in to the NYC marathon I decided to try for another major US marathon, the Marine Corps Marathon (MCM) which has upwards of 30,000 entrants.  The big difference to New York is that this time I got in 🙂

Like New York (Chicago, Berlin, London etc.) it’s a big marathon with an even bigger lottery.  Last year’s numbers were something like 80,000 applicants for about 15,000 lottery places.  Marathons continue to become more popular so I’m sure the chance of getting in this year was even lower.  But who cares – I’m in 😉

So now I have two marathons to train for – Berlin on 25th September and the MCM exactly 5 weeks later on 30th October. Hopefully that means I get two marathons out of one lot of training, rather than ending up unable to put in a creditable performance at the MCM due to its proximity to Berlin.

My training starts in 6 weeks!