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Kasumigaura Marathon 2016

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Kasumigaura Marathon Race Report

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.

Location of Tsuchiura in relation to Tokyo

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 :D . 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.

With fellow runners from Thailand en route to Tsuchiura on race morning. That’s the Saucony Nomad jacket I had on – lightweight yet offers much protection.

From the station platform to the race precinct.

To the race pick-up tent (for foreigners).

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.

You can choose to stash your baggage in lockers or at volunteer-manned booths. Either option will cost you ¥100. I went with the booth as I didn’t like the idea of wearing the keychain on my wrist.

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!

Hitachi employees have always come out in full support of the runners. Photo of the 2015 edition from the event website.

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.

White-out

Exposed!

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.

Website: https://www.kasumigaura-marathon.jp/
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).

Nagano Marathon 2014 Race Report

I’d started my journey from Matsumoto hours earlier at 5:30am, along with my cousin’s family in the MPV. They were down for a day’s sightseeing in Nagano and shopping in Karuizawa, and I, for what else :D ? The hour-long leisurely drive convinced me that I must return to this part of Japan with the wife, so beautiful were the sights of the Alps to the left and peaceful towns that dotted the valleys to the right. The sun had risen above the horizon and its rays caught the resplendent  snow capped summits, raising the already jaw-dropping factor several notches higher. I was dropped off at the Nagano Station for the free ride to the Kitanagano Station, just a stop away. Having bumped into Budiman at the station, we got on board the train without having to wait.

The Japan Alps as seen from the car.

Staying warm indoors.

From the Kitanagano Station, we took a leisurely walk through the suburbs to the Nagano City Athletic Park. It was chilly when the gusts of wind hit us but otherwise, conditions were great. The 15-minute walk allowed the body to warm up and when we got to the sprawling park, we immediately headed to the nearest shelter to change, fuel up, stretch and just stay relaxed. Several thousand runners had the same idea but we easily found a space on the floor. Before I left the hotel, I’d chomped down an onigiri, and had my black coffee fix. Since there were still 1.5 hours to the start, I topped up my fuel level with 2 mini-sized energy bars and continued hydrating. I left the Protein Bar untouched as I didn’t want the bloated feeling.

With 45 minutes to go, Budiman and I headed outside to drop off the baggage before joining the queue for the doorless urinals. These urinals were also seen at the Tokyo and Osaka Marathons and weren’t a surprise to me but I can imagine their novelty to first timers. With 20 minutes to the start, we finally entered our designated corrals. Even though the signages were mostly in Japanese, we had no trouble finding our way around.

Following several speeches and the introduction of the elites, the race was on! Conditions were good – sunny and mildly cool with intermittent colder winds from the mountains. Despite my poor training, I felt strongly that I could return a much better timing than the 4:21 I ran in PNM last year, maybe a 4:15 result. 4:10 would be stretching luck a little while anything under 4:10 would be too unrealistic. After giving some thoughts to which strategy I should be adopting given my poor training, the plan was to still stick to the goal pace of 5:35. I knew that since hitting the wall was inevitable given the very poor preparations, there was no need to hold back but instead keep the proceedings honest and maintain the goal pace for as long as body can manage.

Capped at 10,000 runners, the Nagano Marathon is less than a third of the size of Tokyo Marathon. While race entry is on a first-come-first-serve basis, there’s a specter of a 5-hour cutoff time snapping at the heels of slower runners. It still has the competitive vibes to it, with some elites already seen standing at the front an hour before the start! These folks were truly serious.

Right from the start, the locals, from the very young in the arms of their parents, to the old in wheelchairs, were out in force cheering the runners. School kids were out decked in uniforms and there were brass bands scattered throughout the course. There was even a senior citizen woodwind band in attendance! The race may be a no-frills event compared to the likes of the Marathon Majors or even Osaka but the level of support shown definitely weren’t inferior – there were plenty of spirit on display! The organizers were also spot on in limiting the field to 10,000 given the narrower streets of Nagano. It would get narrower as we get to the outskirts of the city.

Focused in the 2nd quarter of the race and about to take a corner. I bought this print. But they only deliver to an address in Japan. The dude in red looked like a skinnier Wind Fong :)

The race so far has been unfolding rather well for me. The course is devoid of drastic changes in elevation and hence my pacing has been nothing short of a personal breakthrough, leading to the final quarter of the race. But firstly, the initial 5K marker came and went very quickly before I realized it. Then came the downhill touristy stretch coming down from Zenkoji Temple (where I rolled down in 5:25 and 5:20 pace). I tried looking out for my cousin and her family but didn’t spot them amongst the thick crowd. The next landmark was the Big Hat at the 10K mark where the race expo was held the day before.

Big Hat, the venue for the race pack collection.

First 10K (10K @ 55:52)
5:49 > 5:33 > 5:38 > 5:45 > 5:32 > 5:35 > 5:25 > 5:20 > 5:29 > 5:30

Nothing much happened after that as I got more and more into the zone. I was clicking off consistent splits, hitting every targeted 5K splits on my pace band. My 620 was set to display the Virtual Pacer and by 15K, I’d gained an advantage of 1:40 over the set time. Although it appeared that way, I didn’t set out to put time in the bank. I’ve never been a practitioner of such methods, preferring a pace as constant as possible.

On the other side of the road were the 3:30 pace group. They were just inspirational to observe – strong yet relaxed running form and the focus one could clearly see on the faces of the men and women. It provided a timely reminder to myself to stay relaxed. My legs were holding up well as I’ve spent the last 2 nights thoroughly massaging them.

Soon enough the sight of yet another Olympic venue, M-Wave came up. We ran around the large complex and embarked on a long stretch towards the outskirts of Nagano. I briefly entertained some feelings of optimism here but quickly brushed it off and returned to focusing on clearing each KM as it came. My strides, breathing and heart rate were still relaxed and smooth.

Second 10K (20K @ 1:50.03)
5:31 > 5:31 > 5:20 > 5:24 > 5:24 > 5:24 > 5:27 > 5:23 > 5:34 > 5:33

Halfway (21K @ 1:55.33)

The halfway split was right on the money. All that was left to be done was to dial in a sub-2 hour 2nd half. In theory. In reality, there’s the accumulated mileage the runner had put into the legs and the conditioning of the energy delivery system, both critical deciders in how a race pans out – and incidentally both areas I’d been severely short of. Nothing I could do except to keep going and see how the body reacts.

The road leading to yet another stadium, the White Ring, was the widest yet on the course and I took full advantage of the space by running tangents. Mentally I was just counting down the remaining half marathon distance but I knew the real race has yet to be run. Or walked! Which I did as I hit the 29K aid station where with 4 minutes to the good, I thought I’d reward myself with a brief walk and a potty break.

I purchased this photo. From this angle, the snow capped alps can’t be seen.

Third 10K (30K @ 2:47.29)
5:33 > 5:27 > 5:33 > 5:33 > 5:31 > 5:30 > 5:47 > 5:40 > 6:16 > 6:47

Getting started again was darn difficult. My legs seemed to have lost the plot and I suddenly felt so depleted. No cramps, tolerable discomfort yet I couldn’t will my body to respond. Not even the blast of the alp horns could move me. You read that right, they had alp horns! I checked and there’s actually the famous Ookuwa Village Alp Horn Band in Nagano. This could be the group which performed along the course.

The sun was up and the air was warming up quickly. There were even salt on both my cheeks. I gave up removing my gloves, cap and warmers as I couldn’t stow them away securely. My progress had been reduced to jogs and walks but I wasn’t upset. The villagers (many of whom were old folks) who came out in force and the volunteers ensured that there will be no chance for such nonsense like wallowing in self-pity. In fact I had more time to soak in the atmosphere and sights. I thanked the folks at every opportunity and returned their applause. The aid stations were not the buffet types found in the large city marathons but provide more than enough sustenance in the form of water, Amino Vital sports drink, bananas and candies.

Already in shuffling mode.

Unsurprisingly the next 8K was a tussle between the mind and body. The crowd became significantly thicker the final 2K leading to the Olympic Stadium and when you were cheered as heartily as they did, you made sure you didn’t walk. Once I entered the stadium, everything was just as I’d expected from the videos I’d watch on the race. Kids in colorful costumes and uniform lined up waiting to high-five the returning runners. I crossed the line in 4:18.34 (gun time – 4:22) and felt like great.

Final Slogfest (4:18.34)
7:13 > 6:40 > 8:53 > 8:12 > 6:48 > 6:11 > 6:57 > 8:08 > 8:12 > 7:10 > 6:58 > 6:55 > 2:36

In the final analyses, I thought I ran a good race. It was a fair timing considering the many things I didn’t do in training. I went in fully aware of my shortcomings but even if my endurance was poor, there wasn’t a complete abandonment of hope. I felt that I was still good for the pace up to a certain point and stuck with the plan. I ran with my mind those first 30K and I discovered that I could really focus. It was the fastest 30K I’d ran in a marathon and that gave me much confidence. Eventually though, the body will have a say in the scheme of things – there’s no denying nature. The marathon starts at the 30K mark and how well one prepares will be laid out for all to see once the 4th quarter of the race commences.

Came off the final curve and into the finishing stretch. Still managed to maintain some form.

Even so, 4:18 was quicker than Tokyo 2012 and Osaka 2012. It was also quicker than GCAM 2011, 2012 and PNM 2013. That means every marathon I’ve ran since my 2008 PR in NYCM. That’s like taking a few steps out of the marathon wilderness. And that coming off with very little training, makes me truly wonder.

The event mascot. An apple for a head. Scrunch!

Pano of the baggage collection tents.

Pano of the festivities around the stadium. I’ll make it a point to not rush back for the post race party to instead hang around the site. So much to see and eat!

Street dance performance in progress. Not bad at all!

F&B stalls everywhere. I was salivating. Really.

The Olympic Torch.

With fellow Malaysian, SC, who ran a great race! Check out the queue for the shuttle ride back into the city. The line moved quickly though. To our left and right were stalls selling everything from BBQ meats, udon, kebabs, ice cream, donburi but I couldn’t just step off the queue to grab the mouthwatering temptations :)

I’ve yet to repeat a race in Japan but I just might go back to Nagano again. Here’s the official video of the 16th edition which was published 2 days after the race.

And here are some notes on the Nagano Marathon, should you be interested.
Website: http://www.naganomarathon.gr.jp/
Entries: Opens 3rd week of October for foreigners, capping at 10,000 runners.
Race Fees: ¥10,000 (approx RM320)
Entitlements: Event towel, short sleeved tee, finisher medal (first year this was issued)
Description: Reasonably flat point to point, breathtaking vistas of the alps and countryside. Definitely a PR course. Small city vibes. Organization is superb and focused on delivering what’s important and little of the flashy. Compact expo. Race starts 8:30am. Complimentary  train ride from Nagano to Kitanagano Stations and the post race bus ride back to Nagano Station. Complimentary post race party and dinner for foreigners.
Weather: Hard to predict. The 2013 race saw heavy snowing at the start. This year’s race was sunny and warm (10 Celsius at the start – 18 Celcius). You could be lucky, like me, to catch the Sakura season.
Challenges: Frustrating search for accommodation in Nagano. The rooms are sold out quicker than the race slots. There’s no direct flight from KL, so your options are to get to Tokyo or Nagoya and train from there, which could be costly.

To Nagano

Retrospective post:
Woke up the next morning and thought I’d do a short run to Sengaku-ji, the Zen temple housing the graves of the 47 Ronins, yes those of the movie which had so much potential yet utterly destroyed by Hollywood. From Google Maps, the temple is located just a little north of the apartment and since I had some time before leaving for Nagano, a short sightseeing run to stretch out the legs would be a good idea. A foot tour around the neighborhood is always a great way to get adjusted to the chillier environment. The distance worked out to be approximately 4.8K.

A cup of freshly brewed black coffee from the coffee maker in the apartment lounge got things on the way. There were the usual office workers in typical black attires rushing to work but I didn’t mind the disruption to my passage. Tokyo’s skies were grey that morning and there was a light drizzle. Temps were in the low 10s which were comfy except for my hands.

Once I passed the BMW showroom, I knew that I was close to my destination and sure enough, a left turn and up a short slope and there was the gates to the temple.

Ōishi Kuranosuke Yoshio, Lord Asano’s principal counsellor,

It was just too bad that the gate to the path up the small hill where the tombs were locked, and so I was unable to head up to look-see.

Photos taken, it was time to head back the same way I came and freshen up for the journey to Nagano.

It’s Been Awhile, Tokyo!

Shinagawa Station. Photo credit: Wikipedia.

“Shinagawa is one of Tokyo’s 23 wards, and Shinagawa Station is one of the city’s busiest stations. Its convenience as a transportation hub has attracted many hotels, offices, restaurants and shops to the area. Shinagawa has been catering to travelers since the Edo Period (1603-1867), when it was the first stop on the main road linking Tokyo with Kyoto.”  Excerpt from japan-guide.com

This is my 4th visit to Japan and yet I’ve experienced but a tiny bit of what the country has to offer. Due to work and family commitments, I can only afford a short solo trip this time around. Everything, from my itinerary and budget (RM3,300 all in excluding shopping which I don’t plan to do), is carefully planned allowing just a little breathing room to maneuver. The cost would’ve been a lot cheaper if not for the return Shinkansen rides between Tokyo and Nagano. I guess I’ll know over the next few days how well my plan pans out!

My visit is to run the 16th Nagano Olympic Commemorative Marathon or simply Nagano Marathon. The event is run annually to celebrate the history of the 1998 Winter Olympics and the route takes the 10,000 runners through the many Olympic venues before finishing in the Olympic Stadium. The field is small – less than a third of Tokyo’s – relative to the other big city marathons and from the course elevation chart, flat. More on the event in the race report.

Arrived! Haneda Station.

Waiting for the Keikyu train to Shinagawa.

Like the travelers of yore, I made Shinagawa my first stop too, just for the night before heading off to Nagano the next morning. Getting to Shinagawa from Haneda – my first experience with the airport – was supposed to be straight forward: ride the Keihin-Kyuko (Keikyu) Airport Express (¥410) to Shinagawa. Total commute time was to only take 19 minutes. However, I ignorantly hopped on the wrong train (same network, different platform) which was headed to Kawasaki! By that time I realized my folly, the train was already 18 stations in the wrong direction. I exited the next stop and after gathering my composure (I had to beat the last train at midnight), found my way to the correct platform and just managed to sneak in it before the doors closed. 30 minutes later I was safe where I needed to be.

Shinagawa Station is a major hub with several train lines running through it but nothing in complexity as Shinjuku, Tokyo or even Ikebukuro Stations. I exited via the Takanawa side and walked southwards towards my friend’s apartment. Being on a budget means no checked-in luggage and everything was shoved into my small cabin bag. I was, therefore, pretty mobile. I need to be so since there will be plenty of moving around for me in the days to come.

I quickly showered and freshened up as quickly as I could before heading out to grab a very late supper. The famous Shinatatsu Ramen, a strip of ramen shops, just below the train lines was already closed. Luckily there was another small outlet a couple of minutes from the apartment that was still open. Nothing like a bowl of comforting noodles on a mild Spring night. There was no need for a jacket tonight but with showers predicted later today, temps should dip.

It’s now way past bedtime, and I’m back at the apartment. So it’s goodnight, or rather, good morning from me from the Land of The Rising Sun. I’ve got to grab myself some quality sleep. Heading off to Nagano tomorrow morning!

Race Report Redux: Osaka Marathon 2012

Note: After giving it some thought, a short report is still appropriate. So here goes.

The days leading up to the race were littered with tell-tale signs that it just wasn’t going to be the race. I’ve ranted on and on about the untimely fever (not that there ever was a timely illness but this takes the cake) I came down with, C2’s rush to the hospital after vomiting for 3 days, the ill-fated but necessary trip to Penang where AirAsia lost our baggage and the return bus ride back to KL turned into a hellish experience of break down and 10-hour journey. It was as if something was pulling all stops to ensure that this wasn’t to be a smooth outing. I’m not a superstitious person but things were so bad that I was starting to believe in the illogical. But I remained defiant and was determined to make sure that whatever bad omens were befalling me and the family, I wasn’t going to abort my race plans. Or I’d be living with the thought of what might have been.

AirAsia X sponsored running vests for Malaysian participants and this group photo was taken at the Expo on Friday. AAX CEO Azran went on to run a fantastic 3:40. That’s the Asahi Zero in my hand – non alcoholic. Photo credit: Vivien Tay.

Breakfast on the WC.

The choice of Weekly Mansion Otemae as the hotel of choice was excellent. Just a short walk to the start and along the Chuo rail line, this would be the same place I’d be holing up the next time I run Osaka. Race morning started at 5:50am and breakfast was half a serving of cup noodles, a Clif bar and coffee. The room was really small and so that I don’t wake my wife up, I ate my breakfast on the WC. It turned out to be unnecessary as she was woken up by my rustling around anyway.

The group gathered at the lobby at 6:45am and we headed out to the race site soon after. The air was crisp but not as cold as Tokyo or New York, but I regaled at the fall colors on the way there – it certainly brought back memories of New York, that which was my only other fall marathon back in 2008. Despite being thousands of miles away from home, it’s marvelous to still be able to run into familiar faces – I bumped into a blog reader (I’ve ashamedly forgotten his name but I remembered he wore the Brooks Half Marathon vest), Abu Power, Rich and Uncle Yee Choi on the way to the baggage truck. I suppose everyone was headed to the same truck. Mine was # 18 which was positioned just about in between the entry to the athletes’ village and the corrals. My minimally packed bag consisted of only a jacket, some cash for the ride back and coffee, iPhone, dry top, an energy bar and wet towelettes and it was promptly checked-in by the cheery volunteers with customary efficiency. Next was some quick toilet business at the door-less porta-johns last seen at the Tokyo Marathon. On the walk in, I spotted a short photo queue and decided to play along. As you can see, I went with compression shorts, arm warmers, long socks, vest over a Nike Pro top and thin gloves. Shoes were the Kinvara ViziPro.

It would be chilly and I found myself shivering in the sparsely occupied E corral – in hindsight I entered the pen a little too early. E corral was unfortunately positioned in the shade and therefore deprived of the warm sunshine enjoyed by those in D up ahead. I cast an envious eyes at those D runners. In any case, I prefer to be leaning towards being colder than warmer as I knew that I’d warm up to a comfortable level once I got going.

45 minutes of shivering later we were let off. The start was a pretty muted affair – an introduction of the elites and some patriotic music. From where I stood, I couldn’t even hear the gun go off. But was I ever so glad to get the race going. Until after passing the start gantry, there was plenty of shuffling but once I hit the first left turn, the road opened up and I was able to move up to my planned pace. It was all effort based at that time and it was so easy – almost like a training run. I felt great and moving effortlessly. First K was 5:49 but by the second K, I was already on secondary goal pace, very easy given that my tempos and intervals were all done way faster than my MP. By the 5th K, I was logging tertiary goal pace. My plan has always been negative splitting, so there’s no hurry to click off a 1:52 first half. As long as I kept loose and relaxed, I knew I could run a strong 12K to close off the race. The GPS reading was accurate up till 10K but the reading on the Polar started deviating from the visual markers from then on. I’m not sure what’s happening as it was the same in Gold Coast as well. I chucked my drink bottle off at the 12K mark.

I made a decision to veer off for a pee at the 19K point (a neat feature of the race was the volunteers flash cards on how far the next pee stop was going to be). As luck would have it, the one I chose to stop would have the most stalls and least runners! 19K split was 7:08 but I knew the benefit of emptying the bladder would outweigh the time wasted at the potty stop. True enough, feeling much lighter, I easily made up the lost time by the next K. Halfway mark was achieved in 1:58 near the Kyocera Dome and I was still aerobic and looking forward to the 30K mark to start some racing. Reminded myself to stay patient and keep things in check. I was so into the zone that I didn’t realize my knee length socks had dropped down to my ankles!

The supporters were plentiful but that’s not what warmed up the race. The sun too were making its presence felt. It was downright warm in the sunshine but at least the course had plenty of shady spots to get some relief. I’d rolled down my arm warmers down to my wrists as my forearms were sweating.

Typical of Japanese marathons, there were a number of switchbacks along the Osaka Marathon route, so there was never a dull moment. I tend not to think too much about when the turning would be as it could be a demoralizing and sapping exercise. Better to focus on the few steps ahead. I hit 30K a little off at 2:57, 7 minutes off my secondary goal. I didn’t think too much of the situation as I knew all the hard running will come after that – I was not too worried about having to chip away at the deficit as my finishing in the recent build-up races have been strong. Alas, it was not happening as I felt a sharp pain shooting up from the inner thighs up to the groin area as I started to open up my stride. That knocked me off my rhythm and there was nothing I could’ve done but to slow down to a jog. Shook my head and started to pick it up again but back came the pain. The sequence of 3 photos below at the 30K mark showed me checking my watch, just about to embark on the final 12K. My leg problems would start just after these photos were taken.

When the pain kicked in the second time, I was strangely calm. I remembered weighing my options and thought what the problems would be. I’d never had such issues before. Perhaps it was for lack of stretching at the start, I wasn’t any wiser. It was bad enough that the only thing I could do was to walk. I tried to jog again but it came back. The walk had sucked away whatever minutes I could’ve salvaged. There was no point in pushing for time now, I thought. Just finish. Walk all the way if I had to. The thought of DNF never crossed my mind. I didn’t come all the way to DNF. It wasn’t like I was only 20 minutes from the cutoff time.

But there’s the buffet line to take care of first. I took whatever the volunteers offered, from zucchini, pickles, candies, gummies, rice balls, bananas, I grabbed and ate them all! At the 35K mark, I even sat down by the road divider. The walk up the ramp at the 37K was tough but I hobbled down the other side. I wasn’t even tired, my energy systems were fine but the legs…

The finishing eventually came and there was to be no glory, no fist pumping in the air. Just an “over and done with” feeling. 4:40 was 45 minutes off my goal. My Polar recorded a distance of 43.4K which was probably messed by certain sections where we ran under flyovers. The consolation was that my baggage section was the 2nd closest to the collection point, allowing me to quickly grab, change into dry shirt and get out of the area. I’m not analyzing anything about the race for now and would just want to rest for the remainder of the year. I’ve no more races for the year and that’s fine as I step back from thinking too much about running. Chilling out is what I need.

The rainbow colored medal is one of the most beautiful I’ve earned. Each color represents a compulsory charity. I selected green – no guesses to what it represents.

Pros:

  • Good size, probably brought about by the clash of events in neighboring Kobe and the Fujisan Marathon
  • A near replica of Tokyo Marathon
  • Scenic athlete’s village
  • Quicker exit from the post-race venue
  • Cold at the start but manageable. Mild temps with the mercury climbing along the way
  • Cheaper than Tokyo
  • Even though the Runner’s Guide didn’t encourage costumed runners, folks still came out garbed in bizarre outfits.
  • Other than the killer climb at the 37K, the route is flat. Any flatter, you’ll have to go to Gold Coast.
  • Fall foliage along Mido-Suji
  • Beautiful medal but smaller finisher’s towel.

Cons:

  • Poorer expo, although the Food Bazaar in Hall 3 were fantastic
  • Got a little hot 10K into the race, though not as warm as 2012 Gold Coast.
  • Polar recorded 43.4K??

Event verdict: Must do and I’d probably return in the near future.

Learnings: Good choice of hotel, good decision on bringing less in the checked-in baggage. Need not enter the corral too early so that proper warming up can be done.

 

Race Report: Osaka Marathon 2012

I wish I could get my frustrations off my chest like the fella in the video. Injury-free, training well, lead-up races executed nicely. Blighted 2 weeks before the race. I think I fall into the category of runners with ultra slow improvements and I’m not even dreaming about representing the country!

Bonding

Sometimes, not understanding a language isn’t going to prevent you from appreciating what you see or hear. Some languages are universal, like love. The wife and I were waiting to board the return flight to KL at Kansai International Airport and we happen to observe this mother (I’m assuming she’s the mother) and son play. Quickest was to grab my iPhone and shoot the following sequence of shots.Have a great weekend of bonding!

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