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.)

  

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2012 Tokyo Marathon Live Blog

As if running a marathon isn’t stressful enough, I’m traveling more than 7,000 miles this week to run another 26.2. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous about participating in the 2012 Tokyo Marathon this weekend (the race begins Sunday morning in Tokyo, Saturday evening in the States), but I’d also be lying if I said I wasn’t insanely excited. I’ve never been to Japan so the trip alone will be a thrill, but running a marathon on foreign soil will only add to what is sure to be a memorable experience.

In my Tokyo Marathon Preview, I outlined the basic schedule for this race weekend, with a full slate of events as a member of the press tour culminating Sunday morning at 9:10 local time with the start of the race. As that starting line approaches, I feel fortunate to be worn out but generally healthy after 12 straight months of marathon training and countless Sunday long runs. However, while I have my health heading into the sixth annual Tokyo Marathon, I also have some concerns.

© TOKYO MARATHON

For starters, I’ve never been much of an Asian food fan, which poses a potential problem when trying to fuel my body in the days leading up to the race. That’s not to say I won’t try different foods while I’m in Tokyo – when in Rome, right? – but as picky as I tend to be with my meals leading into a big race, I’ll be on the lookout for chicken and noodles more often than not. I’m also packing a few food comforts from home in case I have more trouble than anticipated with the local fare.

I’m also curious to see how my body reacts to the 14-hour time change. If my trip to South Africa a couple years ago was any indication, I should adjust relatively well once I’m in Tokyo and be grab a couple good nights of sleep heading into Sunday morning. If not, well, I’m sure I wouldn’t be the first sleep-depraved person to run a marathon.

My goal is simple: Enjoy the moment. As I mentioned previously, I’m planning on snapping a few pictures during the race, and rest assured I’ll be taking in as much of the city as I can during my free before and after Sunday’s festivities. I’m still in the process of figuring out what my body needs to compete at a high level during a marathon, and I’m hoping my new in-race nutrition plan (thanks to my triathlete buddy for the advice) will help me shave some time off my Arizona Marathon PR of 3:44:10 from last month, but I won’t be too concerned with my watch, not when I’ll be adjusting to a multitude of unique circumstances. I just want to finish, and have a blast doing it.

Be sure to check in throughout the weekend as I update this live blog with some details from my Tokyo visit, and then come back on Friday 3/2 to read my complete recap with some photos from the trip! In the meantime, I figured I’d share the view from my hotel room in downtown Tokyo. Time to get some sleep!

  

Runner’s Journal: Winter running

If you’re almost as likely to see Santa Claus on Christmas Eve as you are to see a snowflake, this column isn’t for you. If, however, you want and/or need to brave the elements during the winter months when temperatures plummet, snow swirls and frigid headwinds greet you no matter which direction you’re headed, keep reading.

Winter running isn’t easy, nor is it convenient. Instead of quickly throwing on a pair of shorts and a shirt, you may need to wear pants or tights, a long-sleeve shirt or two, a jacket to fend off the wind and moisture, a hat or headband to keep the noggin warm, and a pair of gloves. It takes almost as much work getting ready for a winter run as it does to actually do the run, but if you’re training for an early spring race, cold-weather running is a necessity.

Fortunately, training in the winter has its advantages and, like most things in life, you get used to it after a while. In fact, some people enjoy running in the winter more than the summer, men and women who understand the importance of layering their clothes from November to March (or later) every year, who choose the frozen tundra over a boring treadmill whenever possible, who leave for a run on a glacial January morning and return an hour later with wet feet, frosty eyebrows and icicles hanging from their nose. How do they do it?

My high school coach had one standing rule when we started training each January for the upcoming track season: As long as it was above 15 degrees, we ran outside. I don’t need to tell you that 15 degrees is cold, but not cold enough to force us inside to run five or six miles through the halls of our school. Talk about boring.

So we layered up most days, just as I do for my winter runs today. The only real difference is the switch from the cotton t-shirts and sweatshirts we used to wear to the more modern wicking materials that pull sweat away from the skin, help regulate temperatures and provide insulation for your body. On the coldest of days, I’ll usually wear one short-sleeve tech shirt, two long-sleeved ones, a heavier running jacket to keep all the heat in, and then a lightweight windbreaker to block any moisture and wind. It seems like a lot, but it’s been the perfect combination for me over the last couple of years, and if it’s a slightly warmer day, I simply eliminate the second long-sleeve shirt or other layers as needed. Find what arrangement works for you and don’t be afraid to experiment.

Some runners stick with shorts in the winter months as long as they can, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found my knees, ankles and just about every muscle in my legs stiffen up in cold weather. In the most extreme conditions, I’ll turn to slim fit track pants to keep my legs warm and toasty while adding as little wind resistance as possible. Those baggy warm ups you wear to the gym will only slow you down in gusting winds and driving sleet or snow.

On dry, milder days, I prefer to wear black wicking tights under my running shorts. Sure, you may feel goofy at first, but they’ll keep your legs warm while offering virtually no wind resistance. Plus, you can use them under your pants when you’re sledding with the kids or shoveling the driveway.

As for the other gear, I use a set of wicking gloves along with a headband or, in really crummy weather, a stocking cap with a small bill on the front to shield my eyes from the snow and rain. I usually wear my standard wicking socks throughout the winter, but am intrigued by the various all season waterproof socks that are available. My feet tend to stay warm during cold-weather runs, but one misstep can leave your socks soaking wet, with a blister or three sure to follow.

Knowing what to wear is only part of the winter running equation. The roads can be treacherous for any runner even in perfect weather; slick conditions only increase the danger. Do your best to protect yourself by avoiding busy roads and/or those without a shoulder to run on. That’s good advice for any season but is particularly useful in the winter when icy roads can quickly lead to disaster.

If possible, it’s also best to avoid running during any sort of moderate snowfall. You don’t want to get five miles away from home only to realize your path back has become much more hazardous than the path out. And with daylight running out earlier and earlier, be sure to give yourself plenty of time to finish your run before darkness hits. Running on roads at night in the middle of a snowstorm is no fun for anyone.

Winter training does offer a few benefits, the most obvious being the reduced risk of dehydration, heat stroke and other issues that come with summer running. All things being equal, I’d much rather run in 30 degrees than 90 degrees, as long as I’m dressed properly. Plus, your body works harder to keep you warm during a winter run, and it takes more effort to run on snow and ice (like it does on sand), which means you’ll burn more calories than you would in the summer.

On a personal level, I enjoy the solitude of a winter run, punctuated by the sound of crunching snow and ice under my feet. The path I do my long runs on is littered with runners, walkers and bikers during the warm months, but I only saw three or four other people during my 20-mile run two weekends ago. For those of us who enjoy the peace and quiet of a good run, the winter is where it’s at. On top of that, forcing yourself outside even once or twice a week can help stave off those dreaded winter blues.

Now, all of that said, I’ve grown to appreciate the practical advantages of owning a treadmill after buying a NordicTrack C900 last month to help with my marathon training. I still do my weekly long runs outside, in part because I’m not eager to put in 15 to 20 miles on a treadmill, but having the NordicTrack in my basement gives me the freedom to get my shorter and/or faster runs done on my own schedule during the week, without having to deal with the notoriously fickle Mother Nature. I’d still rather run outside than on a treadmill, but that’s simply not always possible if you’re trying to brave an Ohio winter when a snowstorm can wreck your training schedule for a week or two.

So don’t hang up your running shoes when the snow starts falling. Instead, get some warmer gear, get motivated, get bundled up and get outside. As long as it’s at least 15 degrees out, of course.

Bullz-Eye.com editor in chief Jamey Codding ran competitively in high school, took a brief 15-year breather, and then came back to run four half marathons and a full marathon in one calendar year. He’s currently training for his second marathon, the Arizona Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon, on January 15 and just learned he’ll be running the Tokyo Marathon six weeks later. Read his Chicago Marathon recap and learn why he runs.

  

Runner’s Journal: The race day hangover

You trained for months, sliding on your running shoes to head out into the rain, snow or blistering heat, logging miles when your legs were begging for some well-deserved down time in front of the TV, all in preparation for that moment you had circled on your calendar for ages: race day.

Whether you’re a competitive runner with dozens of races under your belt or a newbie who’s anxious to cross the finish line for the first time, there’s nothing quite like race day. After all the training, adversity and anticipation, it all comes to a head on race day. Doesn’t matter if it’s a 5K or a marathon; all that matters is the task at hand, the race that lies ahead of you. Even better, you’re surrounded by people who’ve gone through the same experience to get to this moment, and most of them are just as excited to see what the day holds. As a runner, you’re part of a growing community — the number of marathon finishers rose to a record 467,000 between 2008 and 2009, a jump of nearly 10% — and on race day, you can see it. You can feel it. It’s an awesome experience.

But eventually, the race will end. Whether you’re happy with your time or just happy to have finished, you’ll cross the line (or get booted from the course) and that moment you waited for, the dedication and hard work…will be over. Then what?

Like the much more common hangover, a race hangover can cause physical pain — body soreness (obviously), a headache (if you haven’t properly rehydrated), and even nausea and diarrhea. Unpleasant, perhaps, but true in some extreme cases. For me, though, the toughest part is the emotional letdown once the excitement wears off and everyday life takes control again. I felt fantastic after I finished my first half marathon last year — well, okay, I felt like shit, but I felt good about feeling like shit. I’d worked my tail off all summer and ran four miles farther than I had ever run before, and I finished with a strong time. It was a great day.

Then I realized I didn’t have anything to train for anymore. After being so focused on this one race for so long, I suddenly felt lazy and uncommitted. Was I going to fall back into my life of inactivity and excuses now that race day had passed? The mental and emotional shift — from race prep to race recovery — was pretty startling. The cure? Well, I signed up for the Vegas half marathon two months later, but different people will handle their race hangovers differently.

If you choose to jump back into the racing community, be sure you’re realistic about your goals and that you give your body enough time to recover. Obviously, your down time should be longer between longer races, but as always, just listen to your body and be smart when you choose your next race. Don’t let a particularly persistent race hangover force you to commit to something you can’t handle. If you’re new to this, take it slow and enjoy it along the way. As you get more miles under your feet, your racing frequency will jump too. That’s when it really gets fun.

Nearly six weeks later, my hangover from the Chicago Marathon is still lingering. Fortunately, I finally figured out why everything went so horribly wrong — I was taking Tylenol with codeine to help me sleep through my shoulder pain, and didn’t know that codeine can cause dehydration and electrolyte imbalance, a particularly brutal combination for a marathon — but now I’m just anxious to get a quality time on the board after finishing more than an hour slower in Chicago than I had planned. Not wanting to waste my eight months of marathon training, I’m aiming to run the Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona Marathon on January 15. Tick tock.

My legs have been more tired and sore than anticipated as I’ve ramped my training back up, which makes me wonder if I’m trying to climb this mountain too soon after my last attempt. I’m being cautious, though — I haven’t signed up for the race yet or booked any flights — and I finally had a strong run earlier today, so I feel like I’m on my way. I’d prefer to not have to train through an Ohio December, but so be it. As long as my body holds up, I’ll be out there on January 15, gunning for 3:30 again.

Some hangovers are just too strong to ignore.

  

2011 Chicago Marathon: Making the best of a bad situation

For eight miles, everything was perfect. For the next 18.2 miles, nothing went right.

I came through the first mile marker of the 2011 Chicago Marathon at about 8:05 and comfortably held a steady pace for the next seven, soaking in the energy from the incredible crowd, taking in the view of the city and thoroughly enjoying the start of my first marathon. It was a pristine morning, with the race’s 45,000 participants treated to 64-degree temperatures and a gorgeous blue sky, and my goal of savoring the moment early on instead of obsessing about my time had thus far unfolded as planned.

I crossed the eight-mile marker in just about 64 minutes and prepared to settle in for the next 12 miles, hoping to start shaving some time off my pace before hitting the final six-mile stretch. I knew I’d need to have something left in the tank to finish strong, having topped out four weeks earlier with a 21.5-mile training run, so I was planning on listening to my body to see just how much I could safely push the pace.

I didn’t like what my body had to say.

The good news? My shoulder felt fine. Actually, it felt great. I had a case of subscapular bursitis crop up the previous weekend (NOTE: the injury has since been diagnosed as nerve compression), and while it was a painful injury, I learned during a six-mile run on Thursday and a slow two miler Saturday morning that it actually felt better while running. Hoping to prevent any late-race soreness, I slapped Icy Hot medicated strips onto three different spots of my back, just to be safe. That may very well have been my first mistake of the day.

The bad news? My legs weren’t feeling nearly as good as my shoulder. At a time when I should have been finding a mid-race groove, my legs were tired. Too tired. Certainly too tired for mile 8 of a 26.2-mile race. I knew I would be pushing my body to an extreme that day, but I wasn’t ready to do it yet. Okay, I thought, I’ll just maintain pace for now and hope my legs recover in time for a strong finish. They didn’t.

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