Modern Matsuri: Tokyo Marathon 2011

Been there, done that, got a t-shirt.

(1364 words)

The End: Often where you finish is more important than where you start. For me the finish was near Asakusabashi, the 30th kilometer of the Tokyo Marathon.

I have been running and walking with leg cramps for 16k, and as I pass the 29k marker, I realize that every step is another personal best.  Ha! This is so cool.  If I can just keep my legs from knotting up, I’ll finish! I try a slow jog and the cramps stay away.  Check my breathing, labored, but acceptable. I continue for two minutes and then walk for two, repeating this until the 30k sign comes into view.

According to my watch, I’m 10 minutes ahead of the pick-up buses that collect the stragglers. Yes, I can finish. I know it.  The route at 34k will turn left to Odaiba, the final push to the finish.

Up ahead the running lane suddenly narrows. A turn, already?  A rope is stretched in front of me. Volunteers are giving me instructions — there’s a crowd of them. One gives me a small bottle of water. Another cuts my timing chip off my shoe. What — I’m finished?  A runner behind me cries out, “No, don’t do this!”

Too late. We are like fugitives duped into trap. Too bewildered to resist, we are guided onto buses. I ask for more water. There isn’t any. Bone dry, we sullen prisoners are hauled to Odaiba. We pass near the finish line and are greeted by jubilant runners. Nobody on the bus smiles. I wonder why the runners are acting this way – there are no TV cameras here to catch their antics. It’s only later, after the pained disappointment has eased that I think maybe they were trying to cheer us and congratulate us for our effort. Even then, though, the thought doesn’t make me feel better.

We stumble off the bus on stilt legs. I pick up my bag, three volunteers bow to me, and I wonder out to yet another crowded bus.  On the bus, I finally take off my bib number. My wife’s name and phone number are on the back in case someone needed to call her. At Hamamatsu-cho, I find the trains and then the subway.  Finally, at my home station, my wife and son are waiting for me. He runs up with a bottle of water, “Here, daddy, otsukaresama.” We go home and give my aching lungs asthma treatment.

The Beginning: Sunday morning brought a wheezing cough and a headache.  So what — you cannot choose when you fight, only how well you fight. I keep my appointment with 35,000 others at the Tokyo Metropolitan Building.

For a rookie, the start of a big marathon offers all the pleasure of running through Shinjuku at rush hour.  After the gun, we slowly churn forward, trying not to step on each other. It takes 8 minutes for us to reach Mayor Shintaro Ishihara and the start line.  Then the race begins in earnest, with hundreds running to the nearest toilets.  (Waiting in the cold to use the toilet is the worst kind of waiting.) My time for the first 100 meters: 18 minutes.

Back into the swirling sea of runners, and soon we are at Iidabashi. The pace, is too fast — I should have signed up for the 10k race. This is crazy. There are cheerleaders.  Somewhere before the Imperial Palace, I step out and pull off my undershirt. We’ve gone from winter to summer in minutes. I accidentally tear my bib number and have to re-affix it, but at least I’m ready to run. A guy shouts, “Go, go! Nice run. Good pace! Go!” OK, I’m going.

In the palace outer gardens a man with a camera says,  “I got two foreigners in one shot!”  The SDF marching band is playing the theme song from “Chibi Maruko” a Sunday evening animation program for kids.

We near 10k and the coward in me suggests exiting with the 10k racers, but I stay in my position, and enter uncharted territory – 10k is the farthest I’ve ever run. Subtracting the 18 minutes delay at the start, plus the shirt change,  my pace is 67 minutes.  A personal best! But at the start of a marathon? This is crazy.

Looking for a place to slow down, but feeling pressure from runners behind me, I continue.  We turn onto Hibiya-dori, and head toward Shinagawa. The runners spread out. It is 13k and I’m winded. Looking for a place to walk, I suddenly feel the catch of cramp in my right and then left calf muscles. It’ll be a short race if a I cramp up. I walk it out for a few minutes. The lead runners are whizzing by on their way back from Shinagawa, and I run again. By 15k muscles tighten again, beginning a routine that will continue  to the end: Run until the cramps start and then walk them out; then run again.  It’s a blessing in a way, dividing my time into increments of 10 and later 5 minutes.

The Shinagawa section is the most difficult because it’s the least interesting –a  long, straight shot down the middle of a dark box canyon of buildings. But suddenly it’s over; I’m at 20k. We turn right at Hibiya, pass the half-way point and into Ginza.  The Ginza 4-chome intersection is the greatest moment in the race: A huge crowd; lead runners coming back from Asakusa in the opposite direction; and noise. I find my family in the crowd. They look great. I wave and look back as I follow the crowd running up Edo-dori.

At 25k, I am upright, an astonishing thought, but my ratio of running to walking in now reversed: 2 minutes running and 3 minutes walking.  When I reach Kaminarimon at Asakusa, I walk for a long time looking at the Sky Tree Tower looming improbably high over the buildings.  We turn ours backs to Asakusa and head toward Ginza again; I try one more sustained run and feel a serious catch in my leg. I walk.

The 29k sign appears and I realize that whatever expectations I had of this race are meaningless. I have long passed into the wilderness of experience; every step is a personal best. It’s all new. This is the Tokyo Marathon– ha! I’ve run all the way to Asakusa to have a look at the Sky Tree — extreme tourism. Now I’m going to go to Odaiba to  finish this race!

I restart my run-walk routine. Unwittingly, slowly I jog-walk my way onto the bus that is hiding for me at 30k.

Epilogue: Looking back, the bus was an honorable end to the race, though I wasn’t happy about it.  Watching a replay of the race, I wonder about completing the final two hills. Surely, my legs would have cramped to the point where even standing would have been difficult. Still, I would have liked the chance to try. I don’t believe I was done.   But this isn’t a bitter, or even bittersweet, ending. Every step was an adventure and I took more than 30,000 of them.

Why run: My son is 6 now. He is faster and stronger every day. I am 51 and going in the opposite direction– every day a little slower, a little weaker. Running is a way of buying more time with him. Participating in the Tokyo Marathon provided the platform and public commitment to stay disciplined. And if along the way, I teach him a lesson about trying being more important than winning, then all the better…And it seemed like a great way to see Tokyo and it was!

Modern matsuri: In this marathon, the city has created a modern Japanese festival. Traditional matsuri consist of teams carrying heavy mikoshi through the streets with everybody cheering them on for hours. Now, instead of mikoshi, it is horde of long-distance runners. This is the only significant difference. The marathon streets are lined with supporters long after the main group has passed. I must have heard 50,000 “gambatte” and 1,000 “nice run” in 30k. A snowboarder at the Nagano Olympics remarked on US television that Japanese were the best sports fans in the world. He may be right. Nobody appreciates a good effort more.