The main problem with becoming obsessed with completing all six World Marathon Majors is not particularly the running six marathons, it’s the word ‘world’. Inconveniently, only one of them is in my home city. You’d think they would have put a few more in London to make things a bit easier for me. It becomes rather an expensive business and one that takes a good deal of planning and time, especially when there’s a three-year- old in tow. With all that in mind, Tokyo was always going to be a challenge but the series wouldn’t be complete without it and Japan has long been somewhere I’ve wanted to see; I just needed a good reason to make the trip. Getting extraordinarily lucky in my first attempt at the marathon ballot (most of my friends missed out and one chap I spoke to after the Boston Marathon last year had been throwing his hat in the ring for ten years without any luck) was the spur I and my long-suffering wife needed to get the flights booked and make the trip one to remember.
Although it promised to be an extraordinary experience, we both dreaded our departure in a funny kind of way. The emails from the organisers didn’t fill me with confidence; it was all rather haphazard and far from the slick, seasoned operations I’d seen in Boston, London and Berlin. In fairness to them, the Tokyo marathon is young in comparison to its competitors and has grown enormously in a short space of time. They must still be getting to grips with all the issues it throws at them and doing their best to improve things just a little, year on year. Still, there was an uncomfortable sense that the powers that be were flying by the seat of their pants and that’s ever so slightly alarming when you’ve got a few other worries to contend with, such as surviving 18 hours of travelling with a toddler and the prospect of managing the Tokyo transit system, which looks like Jackson Pollock has thrown a giant bowl of noodles at the world’s largest canvas and then given it to my daughter to doodle over. Terrifying. Sometimes, though, you just have to throw yourself in and deal with it and we managed to make the trip, find our apartment and get the hang of train tickets without any major trauma, thanks to my better half and her relentless planning.
The expo was pretty standard stuff, little different from its counterparts at other big city races, which restored a bit of confidence to proceedings. We arrived at midnight on Thursday, visited it on the Friday and were still trying to get over the jet lag by Saturday. Race day had crept right up on me as this time, we’d decided to do things the other way around from Boston, where we had to have the holiday part of the trip first with the race at the end, so as to fly back for the London Marathon the following weekend. Now, the idea was to get the race out of the way early so we could enjoy Japan for as much time as possible afterwards. Better, but it doesn’t make for the best performance; not to make excuses (I actually am making excuses) but you’re unlikely to give your best when you arrive at the start line still exhausted from your travelling. That was always going to be the case though, and it took the pressure off to a large extent; Tokyo was unlikely to be my best performance of the year for that reason (and because I loathe winter training and wasn’t in tip-top shape leading up to the race anyway) so it was very much a case of give it my best shot and hope all the stars are in alignment, the wind is at my back and it’s one of those days when you can’t put a foot wrong. But then accept that it probably won’t be and adjust expectations accordingly.
So it was that I arrived at the start line fully expecting to have a decent first three-quarters but suffer and slow in the last 10k and end up with a decent but not spectacular time, which is precisely how things panned out. The start area itself was slightly odd; bringing a bottle of water through security wasn’t allowed, for reasons that still escape me, and that nagging feeling that the organisers were a little out of their depth began to creep back in. There was a slightly amateurish feel to things and the starting pen and line itself were remarkably low-key for such a major event. Boston had its pair of Black Hawk helicopters and star-spangled pomp, Berlin had its pyrotechnics, big screens and important-sounding announcer. Tokyo had a strange little hymn of sorts which was probably meaningful to the Japanese competitors but lost on everyone else and a couple of small smoke machines (they could have been tiny fireworks but you couldn’t see) next to the start line and then we were off, in as anticlimactic a manner as could have been arranged.
So, to the race itself and its aftermath. I’m going to be a bit critical of certain things, but there were plenty of good points so let’s give them a nod first: the aid stations were very frequent, offering water and electrolyte replacement drinks from the off and more substantial stuff later, for those who enjoy a bread roll, some tomatoes and a banana in the second half of their race; there were plenty of very well-signposted toilets on the route for those people who want them (I never do); the distance markers (kilometres only but no surprise and indeed no problem there) seemed accurately placed and were very visible, along with timing mats every 5k for tracking and post-race analysis; there was great support on the course for those who appreciate such things (I don’t personally like being yelled at by strangers during any run); and the frequent out-and- back stretches, while disliked by some, I enjoyed, as they gave me a chance to spot Wilson Kipsang roaring away at the front a few times and also allowed me to scope out the terrain of the miles immediately in front of me as I ran the other way.
Now, the not-so- great aspects: the organisers inexplicably placed crowds of slow runners at the very front of the starting pen, providing me and hundreds of others with the dubious pleasure of still having to weave around girls jogging along in rabbit ears in the second 5k. Large races are often crowded at the start but I’ve never felt so frustrated at being unable to run at more than jogging pace for such a long time; to record any kind of decent splits for the first few miles meant sprinting, darting sideways, halting, jogging, sprinting through another gap, hopping on the pavement a bit, running in the gutter and doing anything I possibly could to keep the numbers on my watch going in the right direction. The result was that I got to about 10k in a decent enough time but all over the place in terms of my rhythm and pace. Not an enjoyable start. There were no particular issues for the rest of the race, apart from my own poor fuelling strategies and customary dodgy last 10k. I was in such poor shape that I was even more desperate than usual to see the finish arch (“why the hell am I doing this again in London in two months? I hate this crap”) except there wasn’t one. If I hadn’t known exactly where I was on the course having studied the map beforehand, I wouldn’t have known I’d finished until I was crossing the line. Again, very low-key stuff. No arch, no gantry, just a couple of signs saying ‘Finish’ either side of the timing mats and a few guys standing around, alarmingly empty-handed. No sign of medals or, more importantly, water. “Ah,” I thought, “we turn around this corner to the left. It must be just round there.” Nothing. Just another empty bit of road with a few nervous-looking marshals who’d clearly been told to do little but smile and clap. So I kept walking, around the next corner, where, finally, the same electrolyte drink was waiting. Enticingly called ‘Pocari Sweat’, I decided to give it a miss and wait for the water, which arrived what seemed like several years later, along with such things as a rather nice finisher’s towel and the sweetest peanut butter sandwich known to science. The medal is rather nice, I’ll give them that, but marks deducted by annoying the hell out of me before I got it by the wholly unnecessary vast expanses between the finish line and the freebies. If I was annoyed by then, the long, Dr Zhivago-like trudge to the bags reclaim tipped me into the realms of murderous rage, delayed further as it was by a grinning photographer who insisted I stop and adjust my towel and clothing sufficiently for him to get the optimum shot of my race number. I could have shoved my ‘Pocari Sweat’ where he would have had considerable difficulty extracting it. It was hard to stay angry for long, however, as I was the only runner in the bags area at the time (my finishing time was 2:47, ahead of the main crowds, if I may be so bold) so I received an ovation and high-fives from every one of the hundred-odd orange-jacketed marshals on duty who formed a kind of human tunnel of congratulation leading to my little bag of green trousers and cigars. A surreal experience indeed.
Looking back at this rambling diatribe, there’s been plenty of complaining but none unfair, I think. That said, I’ve never regretted entering a marathon (once I’ve recovered a bit) and the extraordinary experience of the journey to Japan, negotiating Tokyo and taking part in a race with tens of thousands of others and some of the world’s top marathon runners far outweighs any of the negatives. If you enter this race yourself, just make sure to manage your expectations and you’ll have a great time. Don’t expect seamless organisation; you won’t get it. But at least they make the trains run on time.
Now for London. With Chicago looming large in the background…