Finishing the World Marathon Majors

Tokyo Marathon March 3, 2019

Goals

What to say about goals…I came out of Berlin in worse shape than I realized at the time. I had been struggling with what I thought was sciatica, but was told had something to do with my hamstring, and it had not gotten any better. I also had plantar fasciitis in my right foot that wasn’t going away. Less than two weeks after Berlin, I had a night of debilitating pain – lie on the floor-dosed up on painkiller-still feeling 7 out of 10 kind of pain. I couldn’t get up; Derek tried to help me up so that I could go to the bathroom and I passed out from the pain. Somehow we got into see a PT that day and he “diagnosed” it as a bulging or herniated disc that was pressing on my nerve. He gave me some exercises to do to help it to get better; if it wasn’t materially better (almost all gone) in 2 weeks than I should go to a doctor to order an MRI and get it officially diagnosed. So I couldn’t run; frankly I couldn’t sit as that aggravated it, I couldn’t really stand for any length of time, so I did a lot of lying on the floor.

It got better – dramatically at first and then slowly. I think I took three weeks completely off from running or any activity really. Then I did 5 miles in the first week of this “marathon cycle.” I started with walk / run (something like walk 5 min, run 1) and worked my way gradually to a light run. I think I built up 5 mpw, then 10, then 14, etc. So – at that point, my goal for Tokyo was just to finish and get my six star medal.

I focused on a steady build, not pressing myself too hard because I didn’t want to set myself back. And I eventually worked my way up to 40 mpw and started doing some tempo or speed work. I still felt out of shape, sluggish, and heavy, but I was making progress.

At some point – I started feeling like I could go after a strong time. I’m not exactly sure when, but sometime in January, my goal became to break 3:45 (and BQ at every major) or maybe even try for a 3:40. Terry was starting to talk to me about going after a PR, which I hadn’t even thought of at all.

Two weeks before the marathon, we celebrated my birthday in Durango. I’m not sure what happened, although I think sitting for a long day on a train was a big contributor, but I spasmed my back on Sunday. I couldn’t run at all on Monday – I tried, but I kept spasming and it was too painful. That brought my goals crashing back down. I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to finish – as the cutoffs for Tokyo are too tight to walk the whole thing.

I saw Nick Speegle and he told me that I would be fine – it would ease up and be normal before the race. Rest it for a few days, then ease back into running. And that my fitness would be fine. Terry Casey said the same thing about my fitness – don’t worry about the time away from running, just consider it extra rest. I stayed hopeful. It was really challenging to stay optimistic and keep the faith. After a good amount of progress from my first visit to Nick on that Monday, progress seemed really slow. I still couldn’t run on Thursday even for a few minutes. I finally ran nearly one continuous mile on Saturday. And on Sunday, I got myself to run a total of 6 miles – with the longest continuous segment being 3 miles. It was still weak and feeling twitchy or spasm-y – but I got through it.

We flew to LA on Tuesday night and to Tokyo on Wednesday. My back was making progress but so slowly. It still didn’t feel normal and I wasn’t at all certain about being able to run 26.2 miles. I did feel confident that I could run enough miles that I would finish the race within the cutoff even if I walked the rest, so my six stars would still be achieved.

Derek and I agreed – I wouldn’t set any real goal until the morning of the race. I didn’t need to make any decisions until then. We did a light shakeout on Friday and it still felt tight, but I was able to run. Then Saturday was the short Friendship Run – and I didn’t feel my back, but my left glute felt funky and strained – oh no! We stayed off our feet the rest of the day. At some point that day I decided that I would probably just go for it – run and run hard, for as long as I could do it.

So – I guess in the end my goals were:

A goal: Sub 3:40

B goal: Sub 3:45

C goal: BQ or better (sub 3:55)

D goal: finish and get my sixth star

Race Day

One of the neat things about doing the World Marathon Majors is experiencing the nuances from race to race – each race does things slightly differently – especially the international ones. You see their culture reflected in the race. In this case – Tokyo is the tightest on start area security. You are not allowed to bring in any plastic bottles or water carriers. So no Nathan flasks – which meant I had to deviate from my normal fueling strategy. I normally take UCAN – I take a serving before the race that I generally mix up and bring with me in a disposable water bottle and I carry hip flasks filled with UCAN and water for the race itself.

We brought some Huma gels with us for fueling instead – I practiced twice with them prior to the race. I had them tucked into an elastic bib belt. It turns out – I’ve never run in that bib belt with so much fuel in it (I had 5 gels tucked into it plus one small vial of Base salt). Once I started running, the bib belt kept bouncing down my body – I thought it would fall down! I had to keep fixing it, eventually I just tucked one of the gels into my shorts to keep the whole thing stationary.

Race day weather was rainy and chilly. I’ve always hear that 45-46 Fahrenheit is considered ideal marathoning weather, so I think the temps were actually favorable – although many reports and other runners said it was really cold afterwards. Unfortunately it was going to start raining around 7am (race start was 9:10am) and rain throughout the race. Thankfully no meaningful wind was expected. So – another marathon in rainy weather – but at least this wasn’t the epic sleet / rain storm that Boston was!

The start area was just outside our hotel. In fact, my entry gate was like a block away from my hotel – so it was super easy. They opened the start area at 7am. Derek and I split up – he had gotten in through the lottery, so he had a different gate to enter. They scan your wristband first – it’s tied to a picture of you that they took at the expo. Then they check your bags and you walk through a metal detector. I didn’t have that much of a wait – so I got through quickly. I dropped my bag off and headed to a central area to find Derek.

It took him awhile to get there. We were huddling under an overpass to try to stay dry. Around 8am, we decided to head to the corrals – they opened at 7:45 and closed at 8:45am. We had different stairs to walk up (Derek was corral B, I was corral D) – so we separated again. Turns out, we could have met up once we got up the stairs, but we didn’t plan that – so it didn’t happen. I decided to take one last trip to the portapot and ended up getting in line for Japanese style portapots (squatty potties). I decided to just stay in that line rather than getting in another line for Western style and I managed.

I need to digress here to talk about toilets. Yup, toilets. In our hotel room and in some of the nicer public areas (e.g., restaurants, etc.), they have toilets that have so many buttons on them that it seems like it would take a rocket scientist to figure them out. Truthfully, I never pushed any of the extra buttons – so I don’t know what they all do (Derek did one time, so you can ask him). But – our bathroom toilet in our hotel room had an extra feature – the toilet seat is warmed! I thought car seat warmers were the best thing since sliced bread! I need one of these for our house!

In contrast – they do still have non-western style squatty potties in some places (fairly rare), notably the portapots. Which struck me as so odd – a society that somehow has managed to invent and purchase the most advanced toilets I have ever seen and yet also has your very basic squatty potty. Even funnier – in many of the western-style toilets out in public areas, there are pictograms (probably accompanied by Japanese text, but since I can’t read Japanese, I don’t remember this much) that show you how to properly use a western-style toilet (by sitting on it with your back to the tank area of the toilet). There are also pictograms that show you the incorrect way to use it (with a big red circle and x through it) – essentially showing a stick figure squatting on the toilet (with their feet on the seat?) facing the tank.

Ok – a digression within a digression – something else we learned while in Japan – anything out of the ordinary can generally be attributed to “foreigners,” most likely from other Asian countries. These pictograms – they are for the Chinese; people who wear colored face masks (not the normal white ones) – probably foreigners; Asian women walking around Kyoto in rental kimonos inappropriate to the season – foreigners. We heard this from our Japanese tour guide in Kyoto, the bus driver, Derek’s old college friend who we met for dinner in Tokyo – so this is a commonly shared belief.

Back to my toilet digression (bet you guys thought this was a race report and not a thesis on toilets in Japan) – along the race course – there would be volunteers holding up signs indicating where the portapot stops were. These signs also had a distance written underneath the normal bathroom sign (I saw distances ranging from 400m to 1.2 km). Neither Derek nor I needed to use the bathrooms on the course – so we both assumed that this was the Japanese being super organized and that the distances indicated the distance to the next set of portapots. What we found out later from other runners was that this was actually the distance to the portapots! So, in some cases, people had to divert an extra 1km off the course to wait in line for the bathroom and then return that 1km back to the course!

Ok – back to the race report – I got into my corral around 8:15am. It was unusual – it was me, an Australian woman, and hundreds of Japanese guys! Ok – there were a couple of Japanese women too – but they didn’t show up until later. I was there pretty early, so it was just standing around, trying to not get too wet, and staying warm. I left my throwaways on until 9am to stay as warm as possible.

The race itself

They announced the elites – I recall hearing the wheelchair athletes and the male elites. And then we were off! The gun went off and they fired off confetti (which was a sloppy mess at the start line by the time I got there). The results show that I was across the start line in about 3 minutes – so really pretty fast.

We ran towards our hotel and then took a quick right turn. Of all the majors, Tokyo was by far the one with the least congestion – I was able to run from the get go and hit pace pretty quickly into it. During our shakeout run, we realized that our watches were not going to track pace or distance well because of the buildings. Thankfully – we had planned ahead and gotten pace bands with the time we should hit every 2 kilometers (the course is only marked in kilometers). So – I had planned to just run by feel and check it when I crossed the kilometer markings.

I had a 3:40 pace band and a 3:45 pace band – I put the 3:40 on my left wrist and the 3:45 on my right wrist. My goal was to stay on the left wrist for as long as possible! Surprisingly, I was doing a pretty good job of hitting the pace times without my watch. I knew my watch was off because it had me running at something like 6 min/mile in that first mile – I can’t run that fast!

I had a huge smile on my face – I was just so happy to be able to run and to (most likely) finish my sixth star! I knew that the cutoff at 10km was one of the toughest – so once I passed there with plenty of margin – I felt confident I would finish the race within their time limits, even if I had to walk. The first 10k of the course is a relatively straight shot from Shinjuku (where our hotel is) toward the Imperial Palace. I did feel my back a bit in this first 10km, so I was a little anxious that it wouldn’t hold out for the full race. But as I’ve done before, I told myself – it doesn’t hurt now, just run, you can deal with it when it does hurt. Essentially, run the mile you’re in. This has helped me not expend precious energy or anxiety worrying during a marathon.

Then you take a left turn and head toward Asakusa and Sensoji Temple. We had visited this temple on our city tour on Friday – so we knew what the gate would look like. The gate was the turnaround point for this out and back. The course itself had several out and backs which was awesome – because I got to see the lead wheel chair athletes at one point and the lead male runners. And Derek and I saw each other twice on the course!

In some ways it was super fortunate that the course was only marked in kilometers – as I generally had no real sense of how far I had gone or how far I had left. So I didn’t think about how many miles I had left – I just ran. I recognized a few sights from our tour – the Sensoji Gate, the Skytree, the Tokyo Tower, a Nissan dealer in Ginza – but mostly it was me just running through random streets in Tokyo in the rain with people yelling incomprehensible things at me.

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The crowds were great – there were people the whole way and they were actually cheering for the runners (not like the Berlin marathon which had “just looking” spectators). There’s clearly some cheering phrase they use that, to me, sounds like my name – because I definitely felt a couple of times that I heard my name. I knew it wasn’t my name, but hey – I could tell myself that everyone in Japan was cheering me on!

Halfway passed by, and then I got to 30k – just 12k to go! I was still feeling pretty good. By now, I had stopped noticing my back – so I felt strong. I was even harboring the crazy idea that maybe I would finally negative split a marathon (nope – didn’t negative split it). I just kept telling myself to hold strong – I could do this – I even thought I could hold onto that sub 3:40, which seemed unbelievable in the two weeks before the race. It was my stretch goal even before my back tweak.

The “back” part of the last out-and-back was into the wind. I noticed a headwind, but would have guesstimated that winds were still single digit, maybe high single digit mph, but single digit. I saw an article later that described it as an “unrelenting headwind.” And when I read this statement in disbelief while waiting for our plane home, a woman inserted herself into our conversation saying that the weather was really bad and the winds were strong – she knew, because *she* ran the marathon. (a nicer person than me would have let that one go, but I couldn’t help telling her that we had both also run the marathon).

The finishing stretch of the marathon is on this stone road near the Imperial Palace. Those stones sucked – they were slippery and hard. And I was really trying to push it (although it seems now that it was my “marathon” sprint – which, well, doesn’t really resemble a sprint at all). I wanted to stay under 3:40, potentially negative split, and just finish strong. That last kilometer seemed like it lasted forever. I knew that we still had to turn left before we finished and all I could think was – that finish line better be freaking right around the corner.

Finally I reached the turn! And the finish line *was* very close to the turn thankfully. I put my “after burners” on (LOL) – and raised my arms in victory. Then I did something like ugly cry gasping – overcome with joy for finishing this adventure, finishing it strongly, and posting a good-for-me time.

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I picked up my medal, got my six star medal at the Abbott tent, waited to get a photo there and then walked in the now very cold rain to the bag check area.

For some reason – the Tokyo marathon has the bag pickup very far away from the finish line. Okay – maybe not terribly far if the weather is nice. And while running in a chilly rain isn’t bad, the second you finish – you are freezing. And here’s where another cultural experience came in – the Japanese are a very rule-obeying culture. So as we were walking in the cold rain to the bag pick-up area, we had to cross several one lane roads. These roads were closed off (so no cars could cross). Despite this, they had volunteers who manned every cross-walk and actually put their arms out to stop you from crossing against the signal – despite a tiny road, zero traffic, and a blocked off road. When you are nearly hypothermic, it takes all you have to remain polite and respect another culture!

They are also a very clean and neat culture (this trip has explained a lot about Marie Kondo to me). It seemed like every 10 feet or so along the race course, there was a volunteer on the side of the course. Generally this volunteer was holding a plastic bag to collect trash. So I felt obligated to throw my used gel packets into some volunteer’s bag rather than just tossing it on the road.

Finally – after what seemed like an interminable amount of time that even managed to wipe the stupid, silly grin off of my face – I arrived at the bag pick-up area. Thankfully it was inside a building, so it was warm! And Derek met me at the top of the escalator – that’s when I found out how much he had crushed his race! I got my bag and we went into the change rooms to put dry clothes on. I knew I had some bad chafing – I had felt my right underarm chafing from very early on (maybe the first 10k) and my left arm decided to join the party sometime after the halfway point. It was excruciatingly painful to take my shirt and sports bra off. Later on – when we were back at the hotel, I saw just how bad it was – huge red welts on both sides of my body, some redness (blood presumably) on my singlet. Ouch! I had never chafed there before – but maybe the rain, my arm warmers, and a little extra weight did the trick.

We caught the bus back to our hotel area and got ready to party! We were both on cloud nine having had such strong races!

One final note about running a race overseas. Adjusting to jet lag and the time shift can be challenging. For London, Berlin, and Tokyo – we arrived 2 to 3 days before the race (Friday for London, Thursday for Berlin and Tokyo – all of the races were Sunday races). Generally, I have used Benadryl to help me sleep and adjust to the time zone. I would take one or two little tablets each night. When I ran London – I had felt like my legs were really sluggish and heavy early on in the race. In Berlin, I had that same dead leg feeling. So I started wondering whether the Benadryl was having that effect, as I should have been in great shape for both, especially Berlin. This trip, I opted to avoid Benadryl. Instead, we took melatonin gummies each night to help us adjust. I don’t know if this made the difference, but I didn’t have that dead leg sensation – so I think it did help!

Results

3:39:14

In Gender 847 / 8201 (10.3%)

In Division 1242 / 6326 (45-49 Age Group Men and Women) (19.6%)

Overall 6314 / 35431 (17.8%)

US placement 243 / 1038 (23.4%)

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