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.


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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Training for Marathon #1: Race weekend

Ah, the curveball. The dreaded “bolt from the blue.” With just over a week to go before the Chicago Marathon, I was lounging in bed on a lazy Saturday morning, watching TV and delaying the start of my day as long as possible. I had to knock out an easy 10 miler later that afternoon — my last long run prior to the race — before coasting through the final week with two short runs on Tuesday and Thursday. I felt great about my training, confident that I’d worked hard to put myself in position to run my best race possible on October 9, and also fortunate that I’d avoided any sort of serious injury that would interrupt my training or affect me on race day.

Then, I felt a twinge in my shoulder.

I had been sitting with my right arm slung over my head, an odd yet comfortable position I often find myself in while watching TV. Only this time, when I stood up, my right shoulder felt a little sore. Nothing alarming at first, just something I figured would pass within a few minutes. Instead, it got worse…and worse…and still worse. The pain got so bad — so sharp and so deep, right behind my shoulder blade — that I was convinced I must have pinched a nerve or something. Knowing the race was approaching and growing increasingly concerned as the pain swelled to an almost unbearable level, I headed for the ER, wondering how the heck I hurt my shoulder so badly while watching TV, and just a week before my first marathon. Fantastic.

The ER doctor gave me a quick examination, ruled out any nerve issues or muscle tears, then gave me prescriptions for a muscle relaxer and pain killer to help treat a strained shoulder. Monday afternoon, still in considerable pain, I headed to my sports medicine doctor, who took one look at my swollen shoulder, noting how far my shoulder blade was “winging out” (his term), and diagnosed me with subscapular bursitis, or inflammation of the fluid-filled sac that sits between my shoulder blade and rib cage. The good news, he said, was because my injury wasn’t muscular in nature, I’d still be able to race Sunday, which was obviously my biggest concern. He gave me a cortisone shot to reduce the pain and inflammation, and my range of motion almost immediately improved. The bad news, though, was that my shoulder would most likely bother me to some degree during the race and, in my doctor’s words, my arm was going to be “extremely sore” afterward. Hey, something to look forward to, right?!

Of course, I’m just relieved I got the green light for Sunday. Then again, the only way I would have even considered skipping the race entirely would be if the doctor told me trying to run through the injury would cause further damage. With that not being the case, I’m ready to gut this out and deal with the pain on race day, to whatever degree. What choice do I have? Sure, the circumstances could be better, but it is what it is. I refuse to let something so random detract from this experience, a moment I’ve been training for since February, a moment I’ve envisioned for years. Crossing the finish line Sunday is going to be an unbelievable experience, even if my shoulder is on fire when it happens. To quote Forrest Gump: Shit happens. I need to manage the situation and adjust my expectations.

When I first started training, my pie-in-the-sky goal was to run better than 3:10 in Chicago to qualify for the Boston Marathon. As the race has gotten closer and I’ve piled up more mileage, I’ve pulled my expectations back a bit. My main priority now is to start comfortably with a reasonable pace that will allow me to cruise through the first half of the race. That may seem obvious or simplistic, but it’s easy to get caught up in the energy and excitement on race day and find yourself coming through the first mile much faster than planned. Strategy goes out the window at that point. Considering the Chicago Marathon ranks as the third largest race in the world, with more than 45,000 participants and a course filled with raucous and supportive spectators, sticking to my plan early and putting myself in position to run a strong second half will be even more challenging.

Assuming things go as scripted, however, my baseline goal is to run 3:30, an 8-minute-mile pace I handily topped on my longest training run of 21.5 miles. Setting a reasonable goal will make it easier to ignore my watch in the early stages and settle into a comfortable pace while also giving me some wiggle room in case my shoulder gives me more trouble than I’m anticipating. If, however, things break my way during the race and I feel better than I’d hoped, I could realistically break 3:20. The chances of that happening may have taken a hit with this freak shoulder injury, but I’m not abandoning my best case scenario days before the race.

Ironically, I had been fighting a cold for the past couple weeks, eating more fruits and veggies while loading up on vitamin C to stave off anything that could sap my energy and complicate things on race day. I even skipped a cold and rainy training run two weeks ago to ensure I didn’t get sick. Fortunately, those actions paid off, but while I may not have been able to avoid injury, at least my legs are healthy heading into my first marathon. For that, I’m grateful.

I expected to encounter one or two hurdles in my training, but I didn’t expect something so random to happen so close to race day. I’m hoping to get at least one run in before Sunday, but my shoulder isn’t quite ready yet. On the plus side, I have a few more days to recover, and while I could have done without the monkey wrench, I won’t be the only one on the course dealing with an injury, nor am I the only runner whose training was interrupted along the way. Rather than worrying about factors beyond my control, I’m determined to make the best of a less-than-ideal situation. It’s race weekend, a weekend I’ve had circled on my calendar all year, and I’m as ready as I can be.

When life gives you lemons, sometimes you’ve got to figure out how to make lemon-lime Gatorade.

Jamey has tracked his training for the 2011 Chicago Marathon — his first full marathon — in his Runner’s Journal. Assuming he survives, Jamey will return a week or so after the race to recap the event as he looks forward to running the Tough Mudder next March. Email with comments, questions or your own thoughts on running, and see why Jamey runs.


Training for Marathon #1: Hydration and nutrition

It’s no secret that you need plenty of water before and after a run, but what about during? And while most runners know all about carbo-loading with a big plate of pasta the night before a race, trying to figure out whether you need GU energy gels (pronounced “Goo”) or some other form of in-race nutrition to keep you chugging through the finish line can lead to some tricky trial-and-error experimentation during your training. To GU or not to GU? That is the question.

I’ve put in a fair number of miles over the years, but prior to competing in my first half marathon, the farthest I’d ever run was 11 miles. In fact, during my heaviest volume days in high school, most training runs topped out around six miles and races were anywhere from a half mile to a 5K, or 3.1 miles. Because of that, I never had to worry about in-race hydration and nutrition – by eating well the night before and taking in plenty of fluids prior to a race, my body was prepared for the moderate mileage it had grown accustomed to. Running 26.2 miles? Well, that’s a different story.

I first started looking into energy gels while training for the half last year. Also referred to as endurance or sports gels, these single-serving plastic packets of goopy carbohydrates typically contain some form of simple sugars like sucrose or fructose, and supply the body with calories and nutrients to help delay muscle fatigue while raising blood sugar levels and enhancing performance. The first and perhaps the most popular energy gel – the one you’ll likely see in sporting goods stores or during most longer races – is the previously mentioned GU. I didn’t know if I would need energy gel during the race, but since this would be my longest run ever, I figured I at least should consider it. The first thing I learned was that I needed a test run. Literally. No matter the brand, energy gels in general can cause gastrointestinal discomfort for some runners – most commonly cramping, bloating and/or diarrhea – so you’ll want to introduce them to your system during a long training run instead of a race setting, just to see how your body reacts.

I picked up a berry-flavored GU on the way to my final 10 miler and planned to take it about six miles in. Unfortunately, I didn’t notice the note on the package about taking the gel with some water. I tore off the top of the packet and squeezed the thick, sticky, berry-flavored gel into my mouth. Instant cottonmouth. It was like trying to swallow the world’s thickest, sweetest cough syrup. A mile or so later, I felt slightly and briefly nauseous, but it was smooth sailing once that passed as I finished the final three miles strong despite my sticky lips and dry mouth. However, while my stomach handled the gel fine during the run, I had some problems afterwards and elected to pass on GU during the race a couple weeks later.

Two months after that, I had some stomach issues during another half marathon. In hindsight, several factors likely contributed to the problem, but my main suspect at the time was the GU I took at mile 7. I didn’t run very well in general that day so the GU may not have been to blame, but I certainly didn’t feel any better at the end of that race than I felt without any gel at the end of my first half. Frustrated and disappointed after my poor finish, I swore off energy gels for good. Then I signed up for the Chicago Marathon.

All runners are different, and all runners have different needs. Some have to stop at every water station to stay hydrated and healthy, while others blow through the stations without taking a drop. I’d always been in the second group, but I’ve also never run for three or four hours straight. One day, it dawned on me: I am going to need some kind of nutrition for the marathon. GU again?

Well, I recently gave GU another try but after mixed results, I turned to apple-cinnamon flavored Hammer Gel for a 14-mile training run last weekend. The Hammer Gel, which contains real fruit juice and no added simple sugars, wasn’t nearly as thick or sweet, making it much easier to swallow while cutting down on the cottonmouth, and it tasted pretty good to boot. I took a few sips of water from one of the bottles in my new hydration belt (more on that below) and, after another slight but brief bout of queasiness, I finished the second half of my run rather well. Once it was clear later that day that my stomach had no problem with the Hammer Gel, I had officially found my in-race nutrition.

There are, of course, dozens of other options available to the running public, from Clif Shots and Accel Gel to PowerBar Gel and Carb Boom. You can also try chewable products like GU Chomps, Clif Shot Bloks, Sport Beans and even regular ol’ gummy bears. I’ve had Sport Beans and GU Chomps, but only before runs because I find that chewing while I’m running disrupts my breathing and rhythm. Some runners use Honey Stinger gel or simply grab single-serve packets of honey for their long runs, while others create their own homemade portable energy sources (a quick Google search will yield plenty of options for you DIYers). Most casual runners probably don’t need to consider energy gels or other forms of nutrition– they’re typically recommended for people running for 45 minutes or longer – but if you’re thinking about signing up for a big race (think 10K, half marathon or more), you probably will have to spend some time experimenting like I have to find a nutrition option that works for you, and don’t be afraid of a little homework. Different runners prefer different products – I have friends who swear by GU, some who love the Sport Beans and others who don’t like any of them. The web is littered with comparisons of these products, tips on how to take them, and a host of other issues you should consider while doing your research.

Hydration, on the other hand, is a little simpler. Every runner needs fluids, some just more frequently and in greater quantities than others. I don’t like holding anything when I run so water bottles aren’t an option, and I’ve never been particularly adept at drinking from the little cups they hand out at water stations – I usually end up spilling 97% down the front of my shirt and another 2% dribbles down my chin, allowing the remaining 1% to actually reach its intended destination. For those who choose to walk intermittently during a race, however, the stations are a perfect place to take a breather, rehydrate and maybe wash down some energy gel.

If, like me, you need an on-the-go solution to your hydration needs, there are plenty of options. You could go with a handheld water bottle for shorter runs, but that seems like the least effective option. I recently bought a Nathan Speed Waistpack with two 10oz bottles, knowing I’d need some help getting through my upcoming 16-, 18- and 20-mile training runs. I admit that it took a bit of time getting used to those two bottles sloshing around on my waist, but by my second long run, I barely noticed them. And when it came time to take my Hammer Gel, I had the water I needed to wash it all down. It may look and feel a little goofy at first, but if it gets the job done, who cares? There are an endless number of hydration belt choices out there with all sorts of various factors to consider, including comfort of fit, number of bottles and waist size.

If you need more water than a hydration belt offers, consider one of the Camelbak Hydration backpacks. I’ve never used one but have seen plenty of other runners with them, and customer feedback on sites like Amazon is overwhelmingly positive. An added bonus is the ability to stash essentials like keys, wallet and/or phone in your Camelbak. My recommendation would be to try on several of these packs and belts at your nearest running or sporting goods store to see how they feel, but you won’t know what works for you until you hit the road with one strapped to your hips or back.

So what about pre-race hydration and nutrition? Well, that’s a much bigger can of worms. I drink plenty of water and some Gatorade before a run, and will also have some coconut water between runs to help keep me hydrated consistently. On the morning of a race, I add Gatorade Prime to the water and standard Gatorade regimen. Food, of course, is much trickier and, like so many other factors, varies wildly from runner to runner. I recommend doing your own research on this subject and, as always, experimenting to find what works for you and what doesn’t because, as you’ll discover when you start increasing the length of your races and training runs, your needs are going to change along with the mileage. What worked for you on a two-mile jog or 5K race probably won’t be enough for a 10K or half marathon. And, I think it goes without saying, what works for a half marathon most certainly won’t work for a full. editor in chief Jamey Codding ran competitively in high school, took a brief 15-year breather, and then came back to run his first half marathon last year. He’s currently training for his first full marathon, in Chicago on October 9. Only 44 days to go…but who’s counting, right?!