Race Report – The Tokyo Marathon 2017

Tokyo is the most impeccably clean city I have ever visited. I was in Japan about 15 years ago for a business trip and I remember everything being neat and tidy but not like this. I went out of my way to find fault in Japanese discipline, Japanese hospitality, Japanese punctuality, Japanese cleanliness. I failed miserably.

We arrived in Tokyo on Thursday evening, 3 days before the race. We took the Limousine Bus to Hotel Okura, our hotel for the next 5 nights. Okura is a lovely hotel with superb hospitality right next to the US Embassy in Roppongi. There’s a train station (Kamiyacho) less than 5 minutes from the hotel that will connect you to any part of Tokyo (any part of Japan really).

Friday, February 24, 2017
Early in the morning, I ran a quick 5k warm-up run around the hotel. It is hilly in Roppongi and I got lost but thanks to GPS was able to find my way back after a couple of wrong turns.

Official Tokyo Marathon Saucony Kinvara 8 Shoes

We spent Friday morning exploring Tsukiji Market (if you ever go to Tokyo, this should be your number 1 spot to visit) and ate some incredible sushi/sashimi at a local restaurant right by the inner market. You will find plenty of the freshest fish at any restaurant in Tsukiji market. Not a whole lot of chefs will speak English but ordering is easy; it’s like ordering from a catalog with detailed pictures (sometimes the items are described in broken English too)! The specialty in the outer market at Tsukiji is egg. For as little as a buck (about 100 yen), you can eat a cuboid-shaped fused scrambled eggs. We did and highly recommend it.

Next, we took a local bus to the Expo to pick up my bib (number D83213). In quintessential Japanese style, the entire Expo was futuristic with lots of bright colors, neon lights and beautiful girls and boys peddling everything from shoes and sports drinks to clothes and accessories. It was a smorgasbord for running enthusiasts with over-stimulation of senses.

As with any Marathon Major Expo, I bought entirely too much official merchandise including a couple of tech-shirts and the official Saucony Kinvara 8 Tokyo Marathon shoes.

Needless to say that even at the Expo, there was sushi and sashimi being served along with modern delicacies like crab and wasabi sandwiches, udon noodles with boiled wild vegetables and ramen noodles with various exotic fish and meats. Anywhere you go in Tokyo, you will find food, food and more food. Tokyoites (please don’t Google “Tokyoite” cuz it is also some sort of chemical) love to eat out. That was abundantly clear on our first day in Tokyo. By the time we got back to the hotel, it was late in the afternoon. We were jetlagged and decided to rest for a while before heading to a local ramen-noodle restaurant called Ippudo. It’s inside Roppongi station and it’s where the locals go to eat. Oh, and when you eat noodles with chopsticks, you have to make a slurpy sound. It may sound uncouth but ramen tastes better that way. That’s an indisputable fact.

Saturday, February 25, 2017
Raceday eve was today! I wanted to go to the finish line by the Imperial Palace and the starting line by Shinjuku. Off we went in the morning to the Imperial Palace. Right in the middle of the city is a walled fortress with wide open spaces and broad tree-lined avenues. One can only imagine the opulence of Japanese royalty a hundred or two hundred years ago. It’s still grand!

Falcated Duck at the Imperial Palace moat in Tokyo
Grey Heron fishing in the moat surrounding the Imperial Palace in Tokyo

It was a lovely sunny day with light, variable winds. Falcated ducks floated effortlessly in the moat surrounding the palace. A grey heron waded the ponds alertly looking for fish. A large swan squabbled with a few smaller birds. Dusky Thrushes casually searched for grubs and insects in the grass. Around all this beauty, hundreds of runners (no exaggeration) warmed up for the Tokyo Marathon. I had planned to run a quick 20 minutes near the starting line in Shunjuku but changed my mind and ran a loop around the Imperial Palace grounds as Binita soaked in the sunshine. The relaxed loop ended up being exactly 5k. It felt good!

Tokyo Marathon Raceday Eve – quick 5k around the Imperial Palace

We took a quick detour to the food fiesta under Tokyo’s oldest department store Mitsukoshi Nihonbashi (established in 1673). Like I said earlier, Tokyo is about food, food and more food. This food frenzy went beyond just sushi into other exotic cuisines including Korean, Thai, Indian and even a shrimp Barbeque stall. This was an upscale food-lovers’ delight with no sight of ramen noodles (a decidedly blue-collar dish). Instead of sushi, we ended up eating a pasta lunch at Eatly (I know, a downer; but it was raceday eve).

We then headed to Shinjuku to check out the starting line. After wandering here and there, we found it. It wasn’t quite ready yet, but with Japanese punctuality, I had no doubt it would be in perfect order by raceday (tomorrow) morning. We saw men working their magic to set up the bleacher grandstands, the starting gate and miles of barricades.

We decided to walk over to Meiji Shrine (a quick 20-minute walk) inside the Imperial Garden (not to be mistaken with the Imperial Palace). At the shrine, we bowed twice, clapped twice, said our prayers and then bowed once more. That’s the ritual. Dozens of mostly Japanese pilgrims had gathered to pay their respects and say their prayers. This shrine was once only open to Japanese royalty and their close friends and family. We curiously observed a couple of Japanese wedding ceremonies in progress. Soon it was time to catch the train back to the hotel.

Prayers at the Meiji Shrine

By evening time, I was fully in race mode. I knew it would be a cold start on Sunday; hence I had to dress warmly (but not too warmly because it would be sunny and would warm up nicely by race-end). Back at the hotel, I laid out my running gear carefully. Orange and green would be the colors of the day. From top to bottom, I decided to wear my orange Ironman visor, Rudy Project sunglasses, an orange neck warmer (actually belonged to Missy and Simi, and I always wear it for cold races to keep my pups close to me – RIP my friends), a blue Ironman skin with the neon-green TeamForKids singlet on top with my orange race number pinned, blue Lululemon shorts, orange Zensah compression calf-sleeves, white Wigwam Ironman socks and green Saucony Kinvara shoes (nicknamed Arigato).

For nutrition, I was going to carry 3 Gatorade Endurance gel-packs and 2 Eat Dutch Waffles and 6 salt-pills in a doctored up Nuun vial. The nutrition plan was to eat around 150 calories (either Gatorade Endurance of waffles) every 5 miles and swallow 2 salt pills every hour. I would drink Pocari Sweat (a sports drink) and water as needed.

I would also carry my iPod with a playlist similar to the Berlin Marathon but with a new power-song. Instead of 99 Luftbaloons mix that I favored in Berlin, it would be the Domo Arigato mix (yep, it’s corny but appropriate). I had planned to have my power song come up 3 times during the race; at around the 6, 13 and 21-mile markers. I was set. I felt good. After an early pasta dinner at a restaurant called Toscana (right next to Hotel Okura), I was in bed by 9:30PM.

Sunday, Raceday, February 26, 2017

As expected, I slept sparingly. I woke up a few times in the night to drink water and Pocari Sweat (the official sports drink for the marathon) from a large bottle I had bought the night before. I wanted to make sure I had electrolytes in me for the race. I finally got out of bed at 5:45AM and immediately checked the weather. It was just above freezing but it was expected to be sunny with light variable winds.

Kipsang had predicted a world record today. I was rooting for this. In the end, he ended up missing it but I admire people who try the near-impossible and are not afraid to announce that they are trying. Afterall, there is more joy in the journey than there is in the destination. I firmly believe that.

I showered and got ready. I relaxed and used the Trigger Point roller to roll out my leg muscles and my back. I stretched and meditated for a minute or two. My mind was wandering. Race nerves had set in. I bet my heart-rate was already way above my normal resting rate.

At exactly 6:45AM, I left the room and walked to Kamiyacho station. After a brief moment of panic because the entrance to the subway was closed, I found an alternative entrance to catch the Hibiya line and then the Marunouchi line to Nishi-Shinjuku station. By the time I boarded the Marunouchi line, hundreds of runners were all going to the same starting line. Like ants we swarmed out of the train to head to the same place. Some were expending unnecessary nervous energy by talking too loudly or walking up the stairs instead of taking the escalator. I tried to remain calm and walked slowly towards Gate 5 to check-in my baggage.

I sat on the stairs in the waiting area and ate a banana. I used the restroom and waited some more before it was time to change and head the the starting line. It was chilly out. There were random announcements in Japanese; I haven’t a clue what was being said. I was starting in the D corral which means I would be one of the faster runners. My best guess was that A was for sub-3:00 runners, B was for 3:00 to 3:15 runners, C was for 3:15 to 3:30 runners and D was for 3:30 to 3:45 runners. I had indicated my self-predicted time to be 3:43 (that’s what I ran at the Berlin Marathon late last year).

I had read somewhere on some blog that the Tokyo Marathon restroom situation is sketchy. I experienced no such issue. Not only were there plenty of restrooms, they were clean and even had flushes. In fact, they are the cleanest portable toilets I have ever experienced in any race, or really anywhere. The restrooms were in the waiting area after you went through a security check at the gate and a few right at the starting line.

I removed all the outer-clothing revealing my race outfit and checked in the bags. By the time I got to the starting blocks, it was 8:45AM. Nervous energy was everywhere. Some were jumping up and down, some were stretching vigorously, some were doing weird calisthenics and some where even doing short sprints. Chill people, it’s a marathon and not a 5k! “Rookies,” I thought as I shook my head and rolled my eyes.

A couple of helicopters hovered above us. They were way above the tall skyscrapers all around us. I’m sure we looked like little ants from up there. I heard an announcement to remove our caps and stand in attention (I presume this was because the Japanese national anthem was about to play). Not many people even heard the announcement but some did take their caps off and stood stiffly.

9:10AM: Starting line to mile 5
This was it. With tons of confetti and a few loud bangs, the race was flagged off. In a couple of minutes, I crossed the starting line and started my Garmin. Here we go. In less than 4 hours, World Marathon Major number 5 would be in the books! The first thought that came to me was that the confetti I saw floating everywhere at the starting line was the only trash I had seen on the roads of Tokyo. With light winds and runners swarming, the confetti danced aimlessy all around us. They were small pieces of thin white paper all shaped like hearts. It was actually a very pretty sight.

The first 5 miles of the race was gradually downhill. My plan was to run completely relaxed and let all the faster starters pass me. I saw runners weaving and zigzagging to pass others. I remained calm and patient running behind slower runners until there was enough space to pass them without expending any extra energy. I silently complimented myself for playing it smart. Tens of thousands of spectators had lined the streets. Even while cheering us on, you could feel the formal politeness of the Japanese spectators. Their smiles were almost coy and shy as they tentatively raised their hand to high-five a few runners.

At the half-mile mark, I glanced at my Garmin to see my pace. 6:37. What? I’m a fast downhill runner (IMHO) but something was not right. I quickly realized that GPS was not picking up my precise location because of the tall buildings all around us. As per my Garmin, I ran the first mile at a fast 7:25 pace but I knew this could not be right. Based on the first 3 kilometer race-markers and the distance showing on my Garmin, I did some rough calculations in my head and realized that my Garmin showed that I had run around 0.3 miles longer than I already had.

Since we were still running downhill for the first few miles, I ended up running miles 2 and 3 at a pace of 8:07 and 8:06 respectively. I was constantly doing math in my head as to how GPS inaccuracies was affecting actual miles run. All I could do was manage my heart-rate to hover around 140 and not worry about anything else. I managed this quite well for the first 4 miles. At the 3.5 mile marker, the course takes a right turn as it meanders slightly left and then right and then left again through the streets of Tokyo. The course had flattened out by now and it was hard to cut corners not knowing which way the course was going to turn. I ran miles 4 and 5 at a pace of 7:55 and 8:04 respectively but my heart-rate had crept up into the mid 140s. I remained skeptical about GPS accuracy even with most of the tall buildings behind us now.

9:50AM: Mile 6 to 10
At the end of mile 5, I ate a Gatorade Endurance gel pack (4 gels). With the first 5 miles setting a faster-than-expected pace, the stage was set for a good race. If I could hang on to this pace and have enough left in me to finish strong, I had a chance of breaking the 3:40 barrier. On the other hand, if I had issues at the dreaded mile-18 mark, it would be curtains. Only time would tell…

The next few miles felt easy. I picked up a few Pocari Sweat cups and downed them to stay hydrated. The course continued to zigzag as the 10k runners (they call it the 10k Marathon) split up.

I felt good as the powersong for the race started to play. Domo Arigato Mr. Robato had a perfectly catchy beat synchronized nicely with my cadence.

At around the 7-mile mark, we saw the first of the weelchair runners coming back towards us. They were at the 27-kilometer mark already as they had already taken a couple of U-turns on this strangely laid out urban course.

An hour had passed. I calmly reached back and unzipped my back pocket, took out two salt pills from the Nuun vial and swallowed them.

At the 8-mile mark, we saw the elite runners for the first and only time. I could see two rabbits (aka pace-setters) and Kipsang and a posse of runners running in a tight group. The rabbits looked a bit strained but Kipsang looked relaxed.

Even after 9 miles of running, there was no real rhythm to running today. There were so many runners that no tight groups were forming. I tried to find a key to follow. Momentarily, I found a girl in blue but that did not even last a mile; a guy in gray lasted a few hundred yards. Nothing!

Whoa whoa, what’s that? I saw this dude running towards us with nothing but a Speedo colored like the American Flag. It was just wrong. He didn’t even have a bib number. Someone posted an Instagram of him and someone else posted that he was whisked away by the authorities for breaking the rules (no bib, no race).

After the 9-mile mark, the course takes it’s first U-turn. I ran miles 6 through 10 at a pretty brisk pace of around 8:10 per mile. I felt good.

Tokyo Marathon Race Splits (by mile)

10:31AM: Mile 11 to 15
The start of mile 11 is when the course goes through a few undulating humps (small bridges). After a quick left turn and a right turn, there is a long straightaway stretch that tests the mettle of all runners.

So far, I thought I had run a pretty smart race but my heart-rate had started to inch up into the 150s on the short uphills. To make matters worse, I completely forgot to take in my nutrition at mile 10. I simply blanked. I realized this at mile 12 and quickly reached in my side pocket to tear open a waffle. Ugh. It wasn’t soft and moist and sticky. It was hard and tasted like cardboard. Ugh Ugh. I ate most of it anyway (I had no choice). In my haste, I ended up dropping the last morsel (maybe a deliberate Freudian drop).

The short hills continued. As expected, I would slow down on the uphills trying to regulate my heart-rate only to speed up on the downhills. My heart-rate was flirting up into the mid-150s. It was the first sign that I wasn’t having as good a race as I had thought. My nutrition snafu didn’t exactly help!

I drank Pocari Sweat whenever I felt like it and ran on towards the second U-turn. I felt good but knew that I was in real danger of crashing before the race was over. “For now, keep running smoothly,” I told myself, “maybe you will recover from your stupidity!” Harsh but deserved thoughts as I shook my head in self-dismay (more like self-disgust).

I crossed the half-way mark just as Domo Arigato, my power song came on again. The short hills continued. A few runners had started walking now. They had obviously gone out way too fast (probably their first marathon). They had a long way to go!

At mile 14 (around the 2-hour mark), I swallowed 2 more salt pills. I ran miles 11 through 15 at a pace of around 8:12 per mile. I did math in my head to know that my Garmin was showing 15 miles while I had actually run only 14.6 miles. This meant that the total course-length as per my Garmin would be 26.6 miles (instead of 26.2 miles). This would add around 4 minutes to my time.

11:12AM: Miles 16 to 20
The undulating hills finally ended at the start of mile 16 as the course took another left turn. From now until the end, I knew that the course was flat. There was a slight tailwind pushing us along. I still felt pretty good.

It was time to try and rectify my nutrition mistake. At around the 16-mile mark, I picked up some sort of Apple-flavored drink from a nutrition station. The idea was to consume some quick sugar and calories. I looked on the packaging to see how many calories it had. It was all in Japanese, but I reckoned it had maybe 120 calories. I untwisted and took a swig. Ugh. Ugh. It had little bits of Apple and a nasty, gooey composition. I had the presence of mind to swallow it and not spit it out. I imagined this is what baby-formula tasted like. I had no choice but to keep drinking it. Another sip. Cringe. Another sip. Cringe. Another sip. Enough. Enough. Nobody cares if I finish in 3:40 or 3:50 of freaking 4:50. Another sip. Ok, that’s it. I tossed it away by a garbage bin and thanked my lucky stars for there was a Pocari Sweat station right after to wash away that disgusting taste.

So much for rectifying my nutrition mistake!

At mile 17, I finally found a couple of runners of run with. There was a guy in a peach shirt running with a girl in a headband. They were running easily and smoothly. I ran behind them. Their pace was right around 8:20 per mile. With the wind pushing us, we ran just a bit faster.

At mile 18, I took out another Gatorade Endurance pack and ate all 4 gels. I was feeling the first signs of fatigue but still felt good. Maybe my nutrition mistake won’t cost me today. I just have to hang with these two runners and I’ll be good.

At mile 19, the course takes a left turn by the Imperial palace. I knew I had a 3 mile stretch, a U-turn and a 4-mile stretch back. Keep on running. Keep on running. My legs felt fatigued and my body was getting sore. I kept at it though, right behind the guy in peach.

I ended up running miles 16 to 20 at around an 8:14 per mile pace.

11:53AM: Miles 21 to 25
Right at the start of mile 20, I felt my pace slow. I was still running with the couple but their pace slowed too. I wasn’t the only one suffering. We were still running with a slight tailwind but fatigue was setting in. It was crunch-time.

At mile 21, I swallowed two more salt pills and stopped at a Pocari Sweat station to take in some fluids. I walked a few steps and found it hard to start running again. I had lost the guy in peach and his partner. My pace slowed but I still ran on. The sun was beating down on us now. I was hot, tired and losing it. I still had 5 miles to go. My pace for mile 21 was 8:36.

At mile 22, I lost the mental game. My self-talk included a few F-bombs. F this and F that. Why the F do I go through this torture twice a year? Does anybody even care? I started walking, if only for a few yards before starting to run again. Ironically, the power-song came on again. Oh F the song too!! We took the final U-turn with 4 miles to go. My pace for mile 22 was 8:34.

At mile 23, I broke open the final Gatorade Endurance gel pack and ate all 4 gels. I was walking a few yards and then running again. I decided to run for at least half-a-mile. Really, I could have run on but I had lost it mentally. My usual mantra, “Relax and Flow” had escaped me today. I didn’t even utter it once. My pace for mile 23 was 8:56 per mile.

At mile 24, I knew I had no chance of breaking the 3:40 barrier. I continued to walk and run and walk and run. Many were doing exactly what I was doing. The crowds cheered us on. I high-fived a few eager Japanese fans. They loved it. I was trying to draw energy from them. It didn’t work. My pace for mile 24 was 9:09 per mile.

At mile 25, I drank the final Pocari Sweat and continued my run-walk pattern. I tried to tell myself that I only had a mile to go. So? It was as if my brain was telling my legs to run, and my legs were snapping back, “Screw you brain, why don’t you run while I give you all the commands!” My pace for this mile was a miserable 9:29 per mile.

12:37PM: The final stretch
It was slow-go for the final stretch too. The crowds cheered as dozens of runners passed me. A quick left and I could see the end of the road where another left would take me to the finish line.

The course measured 26.63 on my Garmin as I finished with an official time of 3:42:20. It was a decent time but a sucky effort over the last few miles. I had the right training, the right plan to break 3:40 but today it was not to be. Still, I had to be happy with my time; I beat Berlin by more than a minute.

So now, as I head back to the US to get back into the routine of life, I can reflect on the race and say that I made a few mistakes:

  1. I went out a little too fast
  2. I should have studied the course a little better to cut every corner
  3. I should have tested that disgusting waffle I was carrying
  4. My mental game definitely needed work
  5. I’m an idiot for forgetting my nutrition at mile 10

Next up is the Chicago Marathon in October. I will start training for it in June. I’m sure I will run a few races this summer; maybe even a triathlon or two.

Official Time – Tokyo Marathon 2017

The day after the race, we traveled to see the Snow Monkeys of Jigokudani. I will blog about that in a few days.

For now, we say Sayonara to Japan. It was a short but great trip. I was coached by McMillan Running and supported a NYRR charity called Team For Kids. Thanks to all who contributed towards the charity; and thanks to my coaches at McMillan.

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