Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Running a marathon in Japan

So three weeks ago I ran my first full marathon.

It had been, of course, a dream for some time.

But running a marathon takes a combination of elements that are often not always available. You need to be ready to make a big committment to training. 42 kilometres is a distance that demands respect - it cannot be done without the training. And the training takes time. A lot of time and energy and psychological wherewithal.

So you need to make that committment, a committment for several months. Running several times a week. No late Friday or Saturday nights on the booze, because you know you will just not get up the next day and train.

Yep, the training is the hardest part. 200 hundred hours or more. I have often felt sorry for people who do shorter sports- sprinters, polevaulters, gymnasts. All that training and 1 mistake can ruin it all come competition time. A figure skater who trains for years to make the Olympics only to slip on a patch of rough ice, fall over and lose years of her life. That's not an issue in the marathon, as the hardest work is done in the training and the actual day is just the inevitable result, good or bad.

So my job gives me free time, back early enough most afternoons to run, and each glorious Tuesday all my own. That became my long run, starting at 10 kms and eventually weekly in the 30s. My longest was 38. Everything after 30 hurts.

Every time.

When the day came I was confident I could finish, just keen to do as well as I could. When you put in those hours, you start thinking about what your finish time will be, because you inevitably want to get the most out of your training that you can, get the most return on the pain you have invested.

The marathon is popular in Japan. It fits well with the Japanese psyche, the paradigm of grim endurance. And make no mistake: long distance running is about putting up with pain. And the solo aspect works well too; despite their much vaunted reputation for teamwork, the Japanese are hopeless at teamsports. Teamsports require leadership and flexibility.

So on the day I was one of a mere handful of foreigners amongst 10,000 Japanese running the Sakura marathon in Chiba. It was very well-organized, staffed and serviced.

And extremely cold. The temperature never topped 6 degrees and was often close to zero. Cold even for a marathon, when in general you want it to be cold.

The start was at a stadium. The feeling in the air was quite sober, unlike the atmosphere at Western races. A few people had funny costumes or hats, including a trio dressed as Ultraman. The gun went off. We were a couple of minutes behind the starting line but microchips we were wearing recorded the exact time we cross the starting line. I was with my friend Dave. We had often trained together, and planned to stay together for a large part of the race. Unfortunately that was not to happen, as Dave has toilet troubles and after the first 5 kilometres he stepped off to pee and I never saw him again. It was like he had been taken out by a sniper in mid sentence. I shall miss him.

That left me and the entire nation of Japan. Dave had been thinking that we had been starting too fast and should slow down. Left to myself, I decided to let my body follow its own pace and speeded up slightly. I settled into my stride. I was not yet tired and I was passing people. To my surprise one of the people I passed was the 4 hour 30 minute pacemaker. One of the disadvantages of competing in a country where you miss a lot of the language is that you miss things. If I had known there were pacemakers things may have gone differently. I resolved to keep passing people until I reached the 4 hour pacemaker and stick with him. In the event I never managed that.

I passed a lot of people. Up ahead I could see one of the costumed entrants, a young man in a yellow full body lycra suit and an umbrella hat. He was my next target. I did not want to be beaten by a cartoon character. For a long time I held him in sight, but he was passing people as I was and I gained on him only slowly. At about 15 km I stopped to pee and lost a lot of ground. My pace at that time was good. I was thinking I would keep the same pace until the 30km mark and speed up if possible, finishing in a negative split. At the halfway mark there was a timer displayed on the road that read 2:03. I was cautiously optimistic about finishing in under 4 hours.

After the halfway point I started to take drinks and sweets at the rest stops regularly. Until then I had only drunk once. After about the 25km mark I was still gaining slowly on Yellow Man but now I was starting to hurt. I was familar with the feeling but I was worried about how long there was to go. After a while the gap between me and Yellow Man grew no closer even though I was still passing people. By the time I passed 30km I was in pain; my goal was merely to maintain my current pace and then see if I had anything left at the very end. I stopped to pee again; it seemed to take a long time and when I rejoined the pack the Yellow Man was 400 metres ahead.

It really began to hurt. Each kilometre marker seemed much further than the previous one. Were they lengthening the kilometre as the race went on? I concentrated on maintaining my pace. In my mind I went through quotes from the movie 300, imagining myself holding the line against the enemy. I can do this. I can do this. It was still gruesomely cold. After 35 km the pain became agony. All around me the Japanese were moaning. It was the first time I had ever heard Japanese express pain; normally they are a stoic, reticent people. I had ceased to pass runners and concentrated on holding my spot; next to me an old man grunted "Oi!", "Oi!" with every breath. The strain was etched on every face around me. I knew I would finish now and exerted all my effort into not slowing down, holding the pace. Some minutes were easier than others. I swore I would never do this again. My left knee, never in good condition, was a ball of flame. The last 3km seemed to take forever. People were lining the course cheering us on. I just wanted it to end. The last 400 meters was a hill climb back up the stadium. It was Hell, but it was a short Hell and a different Hell to the flat. I shift and place my weight on the balls of my feet and keep running.

My finish time was 4:05. I wonder if I could have done better but I doubt it. When I finished I had nothing left. Nothing at all. I don't know if there will be a next time but if there is I would like to get under 4 hours. But I am not sure; when I started writing this I was excited about doing another marathon but near the end the memory of the pain came back and I have my doubts.

After the race I waited for Dave to finish (toilet stops had cost him 25 minutes) and we ate and ate. One of the good things about a marathon is you can eat anything you want when you finish. You have just lost 2 kilograms after all. And the fast Japanese food available was good: fried chicken and fried noodles, hotdogs and okinomiyaki pancakes.

I think I'll start training again.

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