Up till last November, plans for returning to Japan was not in the works. I truly missed the country and some friends thought I was going bonkers from all that pining! Having run Nagano (race report here) during the same period in 2014, as a tune-up to my first PR in Gold Coast, I thought I’d replicate the same approach and training formula again this year, and mix in a few days of sightseeing in Tokyo. While I’ve covered a number of wards in Tokyo over the course of the 2012 marathon, there are still plenty of exploration to be done in a far less strenuous mode. Poking around the Internet late November ’15, I found a spring marathon which was still open for entries, a rare phenomena in marathon-mad Japan! After getting the much appreciated blessings from the wife, I quickly threw together a rough itinerary and finalized the flight and hotel arrangements by January. It would be a short visit since the family won’t be able to come along due to the kids’ schooling.
Tsuchiura is a small town of 141,098 located in the Ibaraki Prefecture next to Lake Kasumigaura, the 2nd largest lake in Japan. Hitachi has its roots in Ibaraki and the area is also well known for its lotus roots and curry! Located a 45-minute train ride away, to the North East direction of downtown Tokyo, the town hosts the popular Kasumigaura Marathon (KM) which also incorporates the International Blind Marathon every April. While KM is lesser known to runners from Malaysia, it’s really quite a well-spoken off race in Japan which sees approximately 20,000 runners.
Marathon superhero Yuki Kawauchi won the 2012 edition in his personal worst timing when the event was the 3rd largest marathon in Japan then. Incidentally, KM would be the 6th marathon courses after NYC, Tokyo, Osaka, Nagano, and GCAM, that both of us have run (not always the same edition, and definitely not in the same class!). The event has many charities tagged to it and is very much a community event for the townfolk. The 2016 edition would also be the trials for the visually-impaired athletes for the Paralympic Games. Kasumigaura Marathon is run basically on an out-and-back course, with just a small switchback unlike most Japanese races.
Also unlike other major marathons in Japan, there are other shorter distances such as the 10-Miler and 5K. The start is from the narrow strip of road sandwiched between the JR Tsuchiura Station and the Athletics Stadium in Kawaguchi Athletic Park where the race finishes. The course is front-loaded, with several climbs (the longest approximately at the 16K mark) before settling down to a flat final 21K close to the lake. The organizers even provide several vessels to ferry the supporters out for cheering duties. If one is sufficiently prepared, a smart pacing strategy early on should ensure freshness in the legs ready to exploit the “easier” second half for a negative split race. As mentioned earlier, I went into KM with the same mindset as for Nagano which meant adopting it as a training run. I started Kasumigaura with slightly more consistent training than Nagano, but the mileage logged was nowhere close to something that would bring about a breakthrough performance. Plus, nearly all of the running since December had been at a pace a full minute slower per km than my goal marathon pace! In short, I had no speed and endurance toeing the line. I don’t race often, and the mind and body had been at rest marathon distance-wise since GCAM15, and they needed some jolting if I wanted to fare well this July.
Other than a handful of friends, I kept things hush-hush. The main event was, after all, GCAM. I left my favorite Kinvara 7 at home and instead brought along just the Breakthru. Due to my on-going battle with PF, I swapped out the Breakthru’s sockliner with the softer Ride’s. This time around, I based myself in Ueno, an older part of Tokyo, away from the madness of Shinjuku and Shibuya. I’d have preferred somewhere near Ikebukuro but Ueno is excellent for this trip’s objectives due to its direct connection to/from Narita and to Tsuchiura. As with most parts of Japan, it’s easy to love Ueno. There are the museums, the famous park, zoo (next time with the kids!), Ameyoko-cho and runnable distance to Senso-ji in Asakusa, and Skytree.
After a very pleasant flight on-board ANA (A first for me! Cost RM1,200 all-in), I touched down in Narita (also a first!) on Friday and hopped onto the Keisei Skyliner (did I mention it was my first time? ¥4,300 return) directly to Ueno.
Thanks to Google Streetview and some prior homework, I managed to stumble my way to the New Izu Hotel (RM1,165 for 5 nights) not too far away. Don’t be fooled by the name though, because the establishment isn’t new . Bathroom and toilet were on shared basis, in line with keeping my budget low. The convenience and privacy of a room made things easier what with the race gear to lay out. I was famished by then but nothing a hot bowl of yuzu udon couldn’t satiate.
Saturday started with a shakedown run towards the Sumida River, right up to the Azumabashi and Komagatabashi bridges with their distinct red and blue paint jobs respectively. Since I was already close to the Kaminari-mon I decided to extend the exploratory run a little before heading the same way back.
With Tsuchiura just a little journey out of Tokyo, I thought it would be a good idea to have a recce of the area. A one way ticket isn’t that cheap at ¥1140 (cost of a good meal), but I still wanted to be sure of the place.
I’m one who want as little surprises as possible leading up to a race, so I decided to proceed. The journey was smooth and after an hour, I found myself in the small town who will be hosting about 16,000 runners the next day. The race precinct was easy to locate, just 7 minutes’ walk from the train station. The site was being prepped. There, I met a couple of runners from Wisconsin, Marie and Jaime. We chatted a bit and Marie warned me of strong winds the next day, something which I regrettably didn’t pay enough attention to.
Comfortable with the site orientation, I decided to check out the Kasumigaura Comprehensive Park (I don’t know who comes up with such names! ) a 15-minute bus ride away. The park was truly beautiful with the signature tulips and windmill, a large park where families were seen enjoying the outdoors, and patient anglers by the waterfront trying to land a catch or two. There was even a helicopter ride for those who were willing to pay for it. The skies were overcast throughout but a few seconds of sunshine peeked through and I was lucky enough to be well-positioned to take the following shot.
A few hours later, I was back at the hotel after a simple pasta dinner and proceeded to lay out all the gear. I had no trouble sleeping early that night since I had been pretty deprived of it the last 2 nights. At 5:30am the next morning, I made the short walk to Ueno Station. It was surprisingly bright by then.
I was very early just the way I like it, and there were plenty of seats available on the train which departed right on time at 6:04am. Along the way, I made some new friends from Thailand.
When Marie told me about the strong winds, I had no sense about how strong a 46km/h wind would feel like. The strongest I’ve felt was on the slopes of Hong Kong’s many hills during my DNF in TNF HKG. After collecting my race pack (KM is one of the Japanese races when foreigners get to pick up their race numbers only on race morning), I had trouble finding a sheltered spot to get ready and change into my race gear before depositing the bag. It was increasingly blustery but thankfully not too cold. I cast an eye to the skies to see the gathering of dark clouds. Weather forecast had predicted rain in the afternoon but I wasn’t too concerned since the rains I encountered over the years in Japan were nothing like the thunderstorms back home. My gear for the day was a disposable tee over the Saucony Endorphin singlet which in turn was over a short sleeve compression top. And I had a thrash bag over everything else. I had the Saucony DryLete thermal arm sleeves on but no gloves. The plan was to stash the sleeves into the race belt once I warmed up along the course.
With 90 minutes to go, I scurried to the pier-side to warm up with some strides and stretching before joining a queue for the Family Mart toilets. The KM organizers got it right this time by providing plenty of porta-potties but Family Mart was the nearest to where I waited. Plus, it was warm inside!
Before the flag off, I needed a second visit to the loo having guzzled down a bottle of sports drink prior. I was definitely well hydrated. The sugar rush must’ve got to my brain because I started off with the masses only to realize that it was the 10-mile race! Luckily I “woke up” in time and sheepishly made my way back to the marathoners who were still waiting! Had I crossed the starting line, I was sure to have been DQ’d. Sharp 10am, the fireworks were lit and we were finally released.
The start was crowded but with fresh legs, everyone was going the same pace. The congestion lasted only a Km and the roads gradually opened up. The next 5K taking us gradually away from the town center. For a comparatively small population to, say Tokyo or Osaka, the level of support from the folks were fantastic. Everyone was so eager for a high-five, from kids to the old folks!
Things were always great the early stages of a marathon and there’s really nothing to report other than I’m still able to keep to a consistent pacing, the enjoyable running and good crowd support. Even the PF was behaving. At the same time I was under no allusions that I will not suffer eventually. Nevertheless, I averaged 5:23 in the early stages and the trouble with the early inclines didn’t materialize. I stuck to my trusted fueling plan of a gel every 25 minutes and a cup of water/sports drink at alternating stations. At the 22K mark, a pee break was so well executed (I spotted a row of toilets and as I approached, the first door open and I ran straight in!) that I lost only 20 seconds that K.
Meanwhile the skies remained dark and gloomy and as we cleared the suburbs and reached the wide expanse of lotus root plantations and the lake beyond, the first drops of rain came down. It was so light that I thought it would help in keeping us cool. That thought may have somehow angered the Gods, because not long after that, the winds started building up several notches. It was as if someone was toying with the intensity knob, ratcheting it up little by little just to spite us. The runners gamely fought on, thinking things won’t get any worse. But it did.
At 33K, it stopped being a race and more of getting myself to the finish line. The menacing weather decided it was tired of playing with us and finally unleashed its pent-up fury. The wind coming in from the lake whipping up wavelets on the plantations, driving the rain sideways. We were buffeted from the left where there was nothing to block us save for a shed or two located far apart. It was all either headwind or from the side. The 60kg me had to run at an angle and with my head down. A dude running next to me then had his palm covering his ear to prevent rainwater from entering while I was more concerned about the race bib being ripped off my vest.
Puddles formed along the coastal country road which we were running/walking and my shoes had been soaked for some time so I no longer cared. I was more concerned about the feeling of nausea that had cropped up. Never before had I encountered this over the course of a race but it was bad enough that I felt like blacking out. Breathing deeply, I fought hard to maintain my focus and not to lose consciousness. An ambulance parked by the side tempted me for a moment but I didn’t come this far to DNF. And with the unwavering support of the locals, young and old, despite the weather conditions, no one would throw in the towel. So we slogged on and having walked like 10 minutes or so, the nausea wore off and I resumed my shuffling to maintain my core temperature. Because my gaze were fixed downwards, I saw plenty of road kills on the road – frogs! The paddy field-like plantations must be home to many of these amphibians.
The battle with the elements continued for the next 7K and for some reason, the ambulance sirens were only heard as I neared the town center. By then, I had wolfed down 2 delicious anpans (red bean buns), and 2 cups of hot tea from an ad-hoc kiosk manned by concerned supporters in view of the weather. They even kept a fire going to warm us up! Just wonderful. I would’ve stayed longer had there been no race to complete! A 5:40 pace for the next 7K would’ve snuck me under 4 hours but it was useless trying to fight the wind. At that point, I just laughed at the whole thing rather than being depressed. In fact, I attracted some stares when I “woo hoo’d” as the wind continued to rachet up that close to the finish. I was a little concern that power lines could be brought down and remembered praying that the potty that I was in won’t be blown over, as I hurried on with my business!
I eventually finished my 30th marathon in pretty dramatic weather conditions. Unlike most marathons, there are no finisher medals, towels for Kasumigaura. An event tee, a banana, a bottle of water and a pack of lotus root noodles were what awaited finishers. And also an on-the-spot certificate. While I went into Kasumigaura as a training run, I’d lie that I wasn’t a little disappointed at not being to keep the sub-4 streak going. Yet, at 4:15:05 it was 3 minutes quicker than Nagano prior to a 20-minute difference logged in GCAM the same year. Whether I’m able to run 3:45 in GCAM16 will depend largely on these final 2 months. The marathon is a fantastic event where one needs to have a blend of speed and stamina to nail it. I already have the sense of pacing and locked down fueling strategy. What remains is the cultivation of the right blend of training needed to get the job done, and so we shall see.
Entries: Opens sometime in November, capping off at 15,000 runners.
Race Fees: ¥6,000 (approx RM220)
Cutoff: 6 hours.
Entitlements: Short sleeved event tee, a pack of lotus root noodles, instant race certificate, post-race banana and drinks
Description: The inclines weren’t too much of a concern and with a flat 2nd half, this can be a PR course. Small town vibes with plenty of countryside farming scenery. No complains on the organization and the team improved on the many feedback on the lack of toilets. Love the town folks’ support.
Weather: Hard to predict Spring weather. Monitor the weather constantly.
Quirks: Overseas participants can only collect their race kits on race morning between 7:30am to 9am! ¥100 baggage deposit.
Challenges: Frustrating search for accommodation in Tsuchiura, with only 2 hotels in Booking.com within reasonable distance to the start/finish. In my walkabouts, I did see a few smaller ones which weren’t found on the booking website. Consolation is that the race starts at 10am, and it’s about an hour from Ueno. Post-race commute back to Tokyo will be arduous.
Good: Small town vibes, post-race runners’ village with plenty of food stalls.
Bad: I don’t think there’s any, just some quirks (see above).