Looking for motivation to run? Sign up for a race (and pick up some cool gear too)

It’s amazing how quickly expectations can change and perceived limitations can be expanded. I remember crossing the finish line of my first half marathon in 2010 and thinking there was no way I’d ever run a full marathon. “If somebody told me to go do that again right now,” I said to my wife after the 2010 Columbus Half, “I’d punch them in the throat.” A little extreme, perhaps, but at the time, it was an honest reaction to the horrifying thought of finishing a 13.1-mile race and turning around to do it all over again. Not a chance.

Soon after Columbus, though, I signed up for my second half marathon and started to more seriously consider running a full. What changed? Eventually, the exhaustion and nausea from that first race faded and I realized that I was now as intimidated by the thought of running a full marathon as I initially had been by the thought of running a half. Once I began training for Columbus, though, and my mileage started creeping toward double digits, that 13.1-mile target felt less and less daunting. I understood that race day would still be a challenge, especially if I had any chance of hitting my target time, but with each bump in mileage during my training, my confidence continued to grow. With that experience under my belt, I knew the same thing would happen while training for a full marathon.

That faith convinced me to take the plunge and sign up for the 2011 Chicago Marathon. Shortly after clicking “submit” on the online entry form, my faith had vanished. What had I just done? I could barely drag my carcass across the line for a half marathon; what made me think I could double up for a full? But I was committed, thanks in no small part to the $145 entry fee, so I mapped out my training plan and set to work. Sure enough, once my long runs crept up to 12, 14 and 16 miles, that faith returned and then grew in the coming weeks. Unfortunately, race day went unexpectedly awry for a couple reasons, but I finished. A few weeks later, with the bad taste of the disappointing race still in my mouth, I signed up for the Phoenix Marathon in January, and a couple days after that, I received an invitation to run the Tokyo Marathon in February as part of the international press tour. Sure, why not?!

Within about a year, I went from being terrified by the thought of running a full marathon to finishing three in the span of four months. The idea seemed crazy at the time, but I stayed true to my training and finished Phoenix and Tokyo with relatively respectable times. Now I know that, with the proper time and amount of training, any goal is possible. However, it seems I’m only able to carve out the time needed for the proper training when I click that “submit” button and sign up for a race. It worked for Columbus and Chicago, and it worked again when I signed up for the Akron Half Marathon recently. I had intended to take a short break after Tokyo to allow my body some time to rest up, but that “short break” wound up lasting about five months. I kept trying to kickstart my training again but there were always more important things to do.

Then I promised a friend that I’d run the Akron Half on September 29 if he signed up as well. It would be his first half marathon, my fifth, and that promise wound up being the motivation we both needed. I only squeezed in about two months of training so I wasn’t in the kind of shape I’d like to be in for a big race, but I still finished pretty well this past weekend and, more importantly, I challenged myself again and thoroughly enjoyed the race.

Have you been thinking about running a full or half marathon, or even just a 5K or 10K, but haven’t found the courage to hit that “submit” button? You’ll be amazed by how motivated you become when you finally sign up for that big race, and even more surprised by the surge in confidence you’ll enjoy once you fully commit to your training and start logging those miles.

In my preparation for the Akron Half, I had the pleasure of trying out a few different products that added a little something extra to this round of training. The latest, greatest gizmo or accessory won’t magically turn you into a world-class runner, but it can definitely help you improve along the way or just make the training seem a little less grueling.

PYLE GPS SPORTS WATCH

The majority of my competitive running came during my high school days, long before the advent of GPS devices, so I always measured my training runs the old-fashioned way: by driving the route and hoping for the best. I started using GPS apps on my iPhone for more accurate tracking but found that to be a hassle, particularly when I needed to check my mileage during the run. This Pyle GPS Sports Watch proved to be the perfect solution.

The watch comes with a 2.4 GHz digitally coded wireless heart rate monitor that you strap to your chest during a run, bike ride or other physical activity. For me, though, the GPS tracking and customizable displays were the biggest draws. The watch has four main modes: Compass, Time, Navigation and Workout. Workout mode works with the navigation system to record and display information such as distance traveled, average pace, workout duration, calories burned, heart rate and more. Even better, you can choose what data is displayed in each of the three main zones of the workout mode. For example, knowing what I needed to average per mile in the Akron Half to hit my target time, I programmed the watch to display my pace in the main zone, with the overall time in the top zone and the distance traveled at the bottom. This kind of customizable functionality makes the Pyle GPS Sports Watch that much more useful for whatever activity you have planned.

Water resistant up to 30 meters underwater and containing a rechargeable lithium polymer battery, this compact wrist computer made my training much more effective and precise. You can even use the watch to help plan your route and then analyze your workouts afterward. It takes a while to get the hang of all the bells and whistles, but you’ll soon see that it’s all time well spent.

JAYBIRD WIRELESS BLUETOOTH HEADPHONES

Some people enjoy running with music, and some people simply can’t stand running without the distraction that their music provides. I, on the other hand, find the distraction…well, distracting. I often zone out if I’m listening to music during my runs and find at the end of my workout that my pace is typically slower in those cases. That’s not such a bad thing when I am simply putting in some long miles where pace doesn’t matter much and the distraction would be welcomed, though, and it was on one such run where I popped on these wireless Jaybird Sportsband Bluetooth headphones, paired them with my iPhone and hit the pavement.

I initially was worried that the headphones would become uncomfortable after such a long run and maybe slide out of place, but they sat snugly and comfortably on my ears throughout. Integrated controls on the Sportsband allow you to easily control the music (play, pause, skip and volume control) with a click, and it’s equipped with apt-X audio codec for pristine sound quality with plenty of kick. The Jaybird comes with a lifetime warranty against sweat, its rechargeable battery allows for up to eight hours of music time, and with its concealed microphone, it can also be used as a Bluetooth headset for your phone. In short, these sleek headphones are awesome whether you’re on a run, cutting the grass or just taking care of some chores around the house.

ADIZERO FEATHER 2

Runners are particular; about their training schedules, their pre-race meals, the kind of energy gel they use, their choice of socks, their race-day routine, you name it. Most significantly, though, they’re particular about their running shoes. I’m no different: I find a shoe that I like, and I usually stick with it. If they hold up well to all the miles, if they’re comfortable and, of course, if I remain injury-free while using them, I’ll keep coming back to the same shoe company, and often the same shoe, for years. So in the interest of full disclosure, I am not an Adidas runner. I generally like Adidas for my everyday tennis shoes but had never run in a pair when the 6.7-ounce adizero Feather 2 arrived at my front door.

Obviously, the weight of the shoe first caught my eye. I love a lightweight running shoe, particularly near the end of a long training run or race, and these adizero Feathers are lighter than my beloved trainers of choice by a full pound. Wow. In fact, they’re one of the lightest everyday running shoes on the market thanks to the SprintWeb mesh construction, which significantly reduces weight while combining excellent breathability with support and comfort. As the cherry on top, the adizero Feather 2 comes in eight slick color combinations — I love the flash of my blue/orange pair, and there’s bound to be a color combo perfect for you.

With so much going for it, the adizero Feather 2 certainly grabbed my attention. I can’t claim that I’m ready to make the switch – what can I say, I’m stubborn – but the lightweight makeup, comfort and style of the adizero Feather 2 make it a trainer to be reckoned with.

  

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Improve your training with Sportiiiis

As a runner, biker or triathlete, how great would it be to have a navigator with you, offering key information like heart rate, pace, speed and cadence during your workout and letting you know when you’re slacking off or pushing too hard, all without taking your eyes off the road ahead? If you think that’s not happening unless you’re pulling a rickshaw behind you, I suggest a more practical solution: the Sportiiiis heads up display and audio feedback system. From 4iiii Innovations, this lightweight device provides athletes with the kind of performance data they need to improve their workouts and cut down their times, all with just a couple taps of their fingers.

The unit itself is small and simple: Just attach the Sportiiiis system (pronounced “Sport Eyes”) to the arm of your glasses (sunglasses, prescription specs, whatever) using the included mounting bracket, wrap the boom (containing the heads up display) around the front of your glasses, make some final adjustments and it’s all set. The only downside with the setup is that you pretty much need to leave the mounting bracket attached to the glasses you’ve chosen – even when you’re not working out – unless you want to go through the setup process again, but that may only be a minor inconvenience for some users.

So you you’ve got the fully charged Sportiiiiis strapped to your glasses. How does this thing work? Well, you’ll need to put in some study time before hitting the road to fully understand all the bells and whistles. The Sportiiiis synchs with any ANT+ device – like a heart rate monitor, a foot pod or a bike sensor, all of which you can buy from 4iiii Innovations or separately from other manufacturers – to give you the information you want to track during your workout. Just download the user guide and configuration software, set up your profile and determine which “Zones” (heart rate, pace, cadence, etc.) you want the Sportiiiis tracking in conjunction with whichever ANT+ device(s) you’ll be using.

You’re not quite ready yet, though. You’ll cycle through the various settings and readings using a series of touches and taps on the side of the unit. It’s not overly complicated but you won’t just be able to figure it all out on the fly. For example, pressing the power button once starts and stops your session; holding the power button for two beeps turns the unit off; holding it for three beeps switches to bike or run mode; double-tapping the side switches between the paired sensors you’re using. Be sure to put the Sportiiiis through some test runs before taking to the road.

Once you’ve done the homework, though, you’ll see firsthand just how useful this device can be. The display is made up of a series of seven LED lights that indicate where you are in the particular zone you’re tracking. For example, if you’re hitting your target heart rate, the LED blinks green. Fall above or below that mark and different lights flash to let you know it’s time to slow down or pick up the pace. This system is programmable by color and position so you can tweak it to best suit your needs. Additionally, the audio function announces when you’ve successfully switched between zones or modes and can tell you when you’re on target, or above/below, via the tiny speaker at the back of the unit. It’s all pretty cool and, once you get the hang of it, pretty easy to use.

The one drawback is a personal one that will vary from one athlete to the next, since some simply don’t like wearing glasses while they work out. Bikers probably don’t mind at all, but as a runner, I’ve never been a huge fan of wearing shades on the road – all that bouncing around can get on my nerves. The Sportiiiis, however, may very well make me reconsider that stance, particularly during an important training run. I’d probably leave the unit at home for simple maintenance runs, but for those who like to have all of their metrics available to them on the go, there may not be a better solution than the Sportiiiis.

  

Tokyo Marathon Recap: A runner abroad

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My wife was worried. My mom was worried. Even my nine-year-old daughter was worried. And yes, I too was a little anxious as my departure date for Tokyo drew closer.

I'd never been to Japan before, so the thought of making my own way through customs and then from the Tokyo Narita airport to the Keio Plaza Hotel more than an hour away was a bit concerning. Would I find people who spoke English? Would I have any trouble exchanging my dollars for yen? Would I get on the right shuttle bus to the right hotel? Even though I assumed everything would work out fine, it all was a little intimidating for an Ohio guy who spends most of his days working from home and carting his kids to and from school.

And then, there was that whole marathon thing to worry about. I spent a couple hours in a local ER getting treatment for severe dehydration following the Chicago Marathon last October, and my body powered down for a quick nap in the chute after the Arizona Marathon in January. Needless to say, I was hoping to avoid any such experiences in the Tokyo Marathon, considering I would be in a foreign-speaking country more than 7,000 miles from home. The less post-race drama, the better, and I hoped my body would more easily handle 26.2 miles the third time around.

The good news is, I didn't wind up in a Tokyo hospital last weekend. Even better, I had no trouble finding my way to the Keio Plaza Hotel upon my arrival, and I even found a small Italian restaurant for a traditional pre-race meal Saturday night. The people of Tokyo -- from the hotel staff and the workers at the Shinjuku train station to the more than 2 million spectators who lined the street during the race -- were friendly, helpful, patient and incredibly gracious. Many of them even spoke English (to varying degrees), which was a bonus for a Yankee like me who only knew how to say "thank you" in Japanese, and I even screwed that up repeatedly on my first day.

© TOKYO MARATHON

The bad news? I didn't run as well as I'd hoped, but after the unbelievable week I had in Japan, I'm not really complaining. I've learned something about marathon running in each of my three races, with the main lesson from Tokyo being that I can never just assume that I'm drinking enough water along the way. I went into the race confident that my modified hydration and nutrition plan was sound and would help lead me to a PR if I just ran a controlled race, but evidently I didn't take in enough water in the later stages and faded badly down the stretch before battling severe nausea once I crossed the finish line. The Japanese version of Gatorade brought me back from the dead, thankfully, and ensured that an otherwise fantastic day would not end on a very unpleasant note. I'm frustrated with the finish, but it didn't tarnish the experience.

Race day started with some photos of our press tour group and, soon after, a realization: Wow, it's cold out here. Colder than we expected. Fortunately, I had chosen heavier clothes than I otherwise would have, thinking I could ditch a layer prior to the start if I overdressed. Instead, I kept every last stitch on throughout the day, including the earband and gloves. In my right pocket: my little Canon Powershot camera, which I would soon learn is the perfect size for photorunning. (Someone asked if I coined the word "photorunning." Considering how many photo opps unfold on a typical run, I doubt it, but I like it either way.) A suggestion from a friend convinced me the best method to document the race was to take shots on the move rather than stopping to compose the photos, with the resulting crooked and/or occasionally blurry pictures suiting the event well. Second-best decision of the weekend. (The Japanese Gatorade was #1. Easily.)

More than 36,000 runners gathered in the street in front of and around the corner from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, a majestic two-tower structure that now has served as the starting point for each of the six Tokyo Marathons since 2007. At 9:10 am local time, we heard the starting gun from all the way back in corral G and slowly made our way toward the starting line. Eight minutes later, my race had officially begun.

The energy at a race of this size is always intoxicating, but the amps seemed to be cranked up even more Sunday morning. The whole city was buzzing, and I felt honored to be in that place, in that moment, however insignificant my role would be. I snapped a few pictures as we crossed the starting line, went to deposit the camera back into my pocket and then realized I was better off strapping it to my wrist and just keeping it on standby. Every curve in the road brought a new memory begging to be captured, from the sea of runners rising and falling in front of me and the 10,000 cheerful volunteer members of McDonald's Team Smile, to the landscape of colorful buildings and street signs and the spectators lining the course in crazy costumes, holding up homemade signs and taking high-fives from any runner willing to give them. The runners themselves took part in the fun, with countless participants dressed up in outrageous gear, including one guy who ran as Jesus Christ, cross and all. (The proof is in the slideshow at the top of the page.) And every few seconds, I heard someone yell “Ganbatte!”, a traditional word of encouragement loosely translated as, “Do your best!” The word still echoes in my mind almost a week later.

My head was on a swivel, enjoying the sights and sounds with a goofy grin on my face and taking picture after picture after picture (after picture), all while darting through the heavy congestion and trying to stick reasonably close to an 8-minute per mile pace. Unfortunately, there were no mile markers on the course, as we've all grown accustomed to here in the States, so I tried to settle into a pace of about 25 minutes per 5km, a plan that worked well in the early stages and allowed me to largely ignore the clock as I made my way through Tokyo, passing the Imperial Palace, the Tokyo Tower (above) and the Zojoji Temple along the way. Before I knew it, I was 20km into the race with the halfway point approaching.

Because I was just six weeks removed from the Arizona Marathon, my legs weren't as fresh as I'd hoped coming into Tokyo. I held up fine through 25km but began to lose some steam after that. I wound up taking more than 300 photos during the race -- many of those unusable shots of the road or of blurry landmarks sitting behind even blurrier runners -- and considering how few of those came during the second half when I had trouble finding the energy to raise, point and shoot, I'm guessing the photorunning at least partially contributed to my slow finish. Still, I wouldn't do things differently if given the opportunity. These pics will last a lifetime -- I even stopped at one point when another runner offered to take a picture of me in front of the Tokyo Sky Tree (below). I'll have other chances to run a PR, but I wouldn't have had another chance to get that shot.

As usual, the last several miles were a struggle, made even worse by the creeping dehydration. I'm a sweater -- not in a Bill Cosby kind of way, but in a "what's with all the crusted salt on your face?" kind of way -- and apparently I need to take in even more water than I thought during a marathon to avoid crashing and burning. Nevertheless, I eventually dragged my carcass across the finish line in 3:59:25, fought back against my gurgling stomach and then slowly made my way through the chute to the gear check area, where volunteers applauded every runner as they came through to pick up their bags. On my way out, I noticed crowds of runners enjoying some time in an ashiyu ("foot bath") and minutes later, I pulled up a spot and dipped in my feet. Ahhhh…. Who do I talk to about bringing these to the US?

I was still feeling the post-race effects in the hotel lobby Sunday evening when a Japanese man approached and asked if he could take a picture of the medal hanging around my neck. He told me (through an interpreter) that he was one of the more than 300,000 people who applied for the 2012 Tokyo Marathon but he wasn't accepted. He stared at the medal, awestruck, telling me that I was fortunate to have been one of the 36,000 runners on the course that day. He said he hoped to get the same opportunity someday soon, and then asked how I ran. When I told him my time, his eyes widened and he provided me with my biggest laugh of the weekend, asking if I was a professional runner.

Not wanting to insult him, I hid my amusement as best I could and thanked him for the compliment, but told him there were many, many other runners who finished ahead of me. His reaction to seeing my medal and his deep desire to run the Tokyo Marathon himself one day proved that the organizers of this young race have built something special in a very short time. We learned during a symposium Friday night that the Tokyo Marathon hopes to one day be listed among the other World Marathon Majors, alongside legendary races like the New York and London Marathons. After what I experienced last weekend, I'd say it's only a matter of time.

Of course, I can't end this without thanking the Tokyo Marathon Foundation and our guides during the weekend for their incredible generosity. When I signed up for my first marathon a year ago, I never would have guessed I'd be given the opportunity to run a race halfway across the globe. I met so many amazing people, including several runners who have competed in dozens of races around the world. I can only hope to be fortunate (and healthy) enough to try something like this again someday, but after spending the past year training for one marathon or another, I'm just looking forward to a break.

(My official results can be found here. The site has me at 4:02:38, but whereas I stopped my watch when I chose the wrong porto-potty line during an early pit stop, their clock kept ticking. Hence, the discrepancy.)

  

Tokyo Marathon Live Blog: A fitting end to a memorable weekend

I’ve only run three marathons, but one of those was Chicago, one of the five World Marathon Majors, and Tokyo sits atop my admittedly short list. Granted, the race today was a wholly unique experience for a foreigner like me, but the 2012 Tokyo Marathon was energetic, welcoming, challenging and tons of fun, a sentiment that everyone from our press tour (pictured above) shared as well.

I’ll be posting a more detailed recap next week, along with a boatload of pictures (I snapped more than 300 alone during the race today), but that opinion won’t change. The more than 2 million spectators were thrilled to be cheering on 36,000 runners this morning, no matter their nationality, and there were all sorts of costumes and signs alongside the course to help the runners briefly take their mind off the demanding task at hand.

The course itself was spectacular, and though we took a guided bus tour of the course yesterday afternoon, there were still so many things that caught my eye (hence the 300 photos). From all the colorful signs in the various parts of the city to the Tokyo Tower (below), the Imperial Palace, the Tokyo Sky Tree and Thunder Gate, there was no shortage of landmarks and other memorable sights to grab the attention of even the most focused marathoner.

Unfortunately, I didn’t run as well as I had hoped, finishing at 3:59:25 (unofficial), but as I’ve said all along, this race was about much more than my watch time. This is one I’ll remember for the rest of my life, as I was wowed by the hospitality of the people of Tokyo and the surrounding areas. The race was fantastic, and the city is even greater. As the Tokyo Marathon positions itself to join the list of the world’s elite races, any marathoner has to put Tokyo on their to-do list.

  

Tokyo Marathon Live Blog: Let’s get this party started

Tokyo Marathon sign

In just about 11 hours (7:10pm EST Saturday night), the 2012 Tokyo Marathon will begin, and I’ll be one of the 35,000 runners in the field. It’s still hard to believe that I’m here, sitting in my hotel room at the Keio Plaza Hotel, waiting to a marathon in Japan. The experience so far has been everything I imagined it would be, and we haven’t even hit race day yet.

As I mentioned in my previous post, the members of the press tour began our day with the International Friendship Run, a 2K fun run set up to allow international runners (and their family and friends) a chance to meet one another the day before the marathon. I won’t lie — the weather was downright crummy, with temperatures in the low-30s combined with steady rain making for a dreary morning — but the organizers, as they have all weekend, still put on a great event. Hopefully the weather cooperates for future International Friendship Runs, but if it was going to rain at all this weekend, we’re all glad it happened Saturday and not Sunday.

After we all toweled off and changed, we were taken on a bus tour of the marathon course, led by our tour guide Maya san, who did a marvelous job showing us all the sights Tokyo has to offer along the course. We stopped for a traditional Japanese lunch and took some photos outside the amazing Thunder gate in Asakusa, which I’ll post with my recap next week.

The tour wrapped up at the finish line for the race, and we all piled out of the bus and into the race expo at Tokyo Big Sight. I’ve been to my fair share of race expos, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one quite like this. The building was buzzing as runners from all over the world made their way through the various booths, with highlights including the newest offerings from Asics as well as an impressive display at the BMW booth. We picked up our race bibs (I’m #36054, if you’re curious) and made our way through the sea of people at the Tokyo Big Sight, picking up some mementos along the way.

Tokyo Marathon sign

Then it was back to the hotel for a little R&R before race day. I managed to find a small Italian place around the corner from the hotel for my usual carbo-loading dinner before heading back to the hotel to get all of my gear ready for the race and, well, to write this blog post.

I’ve met a ton of great people from all over the world this weekend, with representatives from places like Italy, Spain, the UK and Australia also taking part in the press tour. Now comes the hard part: the race itself. The weather should be cold but clear, which is welcome news after this morning’s sogginess. I have a time in mind that I’d love to beat but I’m more focused on enjoying the moment and taking in as much of the experience as I can. If I can do all three? Well, that would be the perfect end to an amazing weekend.

  

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