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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.