1st Nikko 100km Ultramarathon Race Report

Net Time 12:13:51

Several years ago a good friend of mine and Namban Rengo running mate, Taro Oguchi, posted that he had just completed a 100km run. I was shocked. I could not believe that anybody could run so far. I had read ultra running books by Dean Kanazes, Rich Roll and Scott Jurek but I had never considered it possible for myself, or anyone I knew. However, more and more of my friends started doing them – Harrison, Eric, Derek, Rie, Chika, Mika and Mika, Nick, Yuichi, Yukari, Rika. The list kept growing. I decided that I had better get on this train before it completely left the station.

In November 2016, I had just finished my beloved Ohtawara marathon 8 minutes slower that I had run it the previous year. I was finding the track workouts too tough and harder to recover from. I really felt that I needed a change. I had been interested in MAF training for over 3 years and never had must trouble going out for a long, slow run. The idea of running an ultra was beginning to take shape in my head when Kasao san posted on the Namban Rengo FaceBook page that the 1st Nikko 100km Ultramarathon would be held the following July. I had just made a trip to Nikko with some colleagues the previous month and really enjoyed the scenery and the the atmosphere and now felt that the stars were starting to align.

It is fair to say that I have been blessed with the people I was able to run and train with over the last 6 months. With Namban Rengo, my company Colt and friends I ran over 1,600km in the first half of 2017 and over 300km in April, May and June. Along with the Tokyo Marathon, I ran three half marathons, two 10kms, multiple hill repeats and some very long runs along the Tamagawa and in Nikko itself with Mark and Bob. I also ran an Ekiken and Beer Mile with Namban Rengo and 10 x 1 mile Relay Race with Colt. I am very grateful to everybody who ran with me over the 6 months and made it one of the most enjoyable periods of training I have ever known.

The logistics of running an Ultra Marathon are quite daunting. For the 100km race, you must finish within 14 hours, presumably so that it will be run in daylight. That means that you have to start at 4:30am. In order to make this time you are getting up at 1:45 and eating breakfast at 2am. I left Tokyo for Nikko at 10am on Saturday morning to ensure that I would have lots of time to eat dinner and get at least 6 hours sleep. I posted a note on Taro’s FaceBook page as an “in-joke” between the two of us to say that I was coming for his ultra record. Before I knew it, I was getting messages of support from everywhere. This continued all night and really got me motivated for the race.

As you would expect in Japan, the organization was amazing, From the shuttle bus that took us to the reception and then to the hotels and the instructions at the opening ceremony, to the names of the runners outside their rooms with the words Ultramarathon above them, everything about the Nikko 100km Ultramarathon was very well planned and executed.

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I found myself sitting beside an ultra Ultramarathoner on the bus to the start. He was a chap in his 60s or 70s and was quite chatty. He runs 8 or 9 ultras a year and the previous weekend he had run from Atami to Nagano in a race of just 30 people that took 24 hours before taking the train home. I had felt that I had met Mr. Ultra and he looked clearly disappointed when I told him that this was my first one.

The rain started to fall as we got off the bus and I thanked my lucky stars. The forecast had been 32 degrees and sunny for most of the day and that would have been a disaster for this Irish boy who finds anytime above 12 degrees quite a challenge. This light drizzle was perfect for me. The rain had stopped before we headed off but the sky had remained overcast for most of the day and I was blessed again.

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30 minutes to showtime

I was not sure what to expect toeing the line at the start of an ultramarathon but it was very civilized. At the start of any other race there is always a certain amount of tension. People are stretching, jumping up and down, checking their GPS signal and trying to get the couple of steps closer to the start line. It seems that with these longer races, everybody knows that they will be out there for 8 to 14 hours and anything that they do in these final few minutes before the start will have no impact on the overall result. Even the countdown was low key and when the starter’s pistol fired, there was no mad rush, just a kind of amble to get going.

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As you can see from above, Nikko is a hilly race. It climbs for the best part of 30 kilometers and then drops down for another 30km before undulating for the last 40km. There are cutoff gates at first seem doable, but when you consider the hills, the 33.7km cutoff point after 4 hours and 45 mins (at 9:15am) was not a given.

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Cutoff times were 19.9km at 7:15am, 33.7km at 9:15am, 51.0km 11:45am, 74.6km at 3pm, 89.6km at 5pm, 100km finish at 6:30pm.

I wanted to go out at around 6 min/km pace but my main goal was not to have to exert too much effort or feel like I was trying hard. The early part of the race was lovely as we ran through cedar lined streets, some of it over trials, from ShimoImaichi up to the Shogun Tokugawa’s shrine. We did not go all the way up to the actual tomb but running through the grounds in the early morning light was a great thrill. I was not feeling great, but not too bad either. Just before the grounds I availed of one of the many public toilets in the area. If you are going to do this race in future, I recommend that you write this into your plan as there many places and no lines.

As we left the grounds and headed right towards the Irohazaka climb, I grabbed some bananas from an aid station and started an eating and drinking pattern that would see me gain 1kg during the race. I had read and listened to a lot of people’s experiences with ultramarathon’s. A lot have said that they had serious trouble in the second half because they not eat and drink enough in the early on. A few months ago I noticed that Nick was training with a CamelBak so I sent away for one. I found that it was so successful in training that I decided to use it in the race. I  was a little concerned about the extra weight but I felt that being able to take a sip the whole way really benefitted me. It was not strictly necessary as there was 28km aid stations on the course, basically one every 3km to 4km. As the race went on there was more and more food at the aid stations. I had brought some great vegan bars from Wholesome Japan but I also ate a lot at the aid stations as well.

Nikko Aid Stations

Nikko Aid Stations

I pulled into the first cutoff zone, about 35 minutes ahead of the actual cutoff time. I could not maintain the 6 minute pace but if was good enough to give me some level of comfort heading into Irohazaka. This is the most challenging part of the race. It goes on for 8km with an average gradient of 6%, but in some places it is more steep. I came out here with Bob Johnston at the end of April to try it and to prepare myself. I was very glad I did. It was very tough and I chose to walk a few times when I felt that I was beginning to suffer. I knew that I could run the whole hill if I tried but the cost might be too much and I might have to pay for it in the second half.

Getting over the top was great but I did not feel the elation that I expected. I was tired and sore after running for 3 hours and I still had 70km to go. Over the other side of the climb we had to run through a mountain tunnel for 1km as we headed for Lake Chuzenji. The roads are not closed to traffic so we had to run in single file along the footpath and watch our step as we were quite close together. Then the view was beautiful as we headed down to the lakeside.

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Lake Chuzenji

I still was not feeling great as we passed the 30km mark but I plodded on. Japanese people were stopping every few feet to take photos. I had brought my GoPro with me but my heart was just not in it. I guess that I was afraid that if I stopped I might not be able to  get my concentration back again.

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Running along Lake Chuzenji

At around 31km, as we headed for a turn-around, a Japanese runner came up to me and said “Hey, we are running at the same pace, let’s run together”. I saw him try to mask the disappointment when I told that I not in such good shape and that I was planning to walk for a bit. He left me behind shortly after that.

I got to the 2nd cutoff zone in just under 4 hours, so with 45 minutes to spare. I was beginning to feel better and enjoyed the water and the cold noodles. I met an American chap, Brian, and we chatted briefly before I headed off again. The next section was the part that would make or break the run for me. It was the 8km down the opposite side of Irohazaka. Even more steep than the way up and with more bends, I knew that by the time I stopped again at the 40.4km I would either be further ahead on time or looking at another War of Attrition. In the end I benefitted greatly from the downhill. When I ran it with Bob in April, I ran it as hard as I could and I could not walk for 4 days afterwards. I knew that that was not an option this time and I kept an easy pace, as much in the middle of the road as cars would allow, and tried to let gravity pull me down without slapping my legs too much into the ground. My strategy worked well and I saw that I was putting in time between Brian and myself without a great amount of effort.

There is an aid station half way down Irohazaka but I decided not to stop as it would break my concentration so I kept going and by the time I got to aid station number 13, I was over an hour up and in the clear. Now I just had to keep an regular pace and my mind strong and I knew that I would finish.

It is a nice gentle downhill run from the bottom of Irohazaka into Nikko town and I continued to improve my time with respect to the cutoff. When we got to Nikko, we headed back into the grounds of the Tokugawa grounds. Somewhere before here Brian passed me and he was looking strong as he headed off for the 3rd cutoff zone at 51km. In rather comical form, not long after he passed me I caught up to him at a traffic lights where we waited for 2 minutes with 30 other runners for the lights to change.

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Running through the grounds of Toshogu

It was lovely running through the grounds of the Shogun Shrine again but there was a very different feeling now that there were lots of tourists about about clapping and wishing us well. While I missed the early morning quietness, I did appreciate the clapping and all the shouts of encouragement.

Shortly after leaving Toshogu, we arrived at the 3rd cutoff zone where I was delighted to get about 30 messages, posts and likes on FaceBook from people who were following my progress. It was such a joy to see them, although I had no time to read any of them. I ran into Brian again filling his CamelBak and applying sunscreen before he headed off. I thought that was the last I had seen of him. You have the option to drop a bag at the start of the race and pick it up at the 51km point. I had decided to change my shirt, shoes and socks so I settled into the task of changing my numbers and shoe tags. I am not sure that I would do this again as it took about 15 minutes as my fingers were quite stiff.

After filling my CamelBak with sports drink, I hit the road again knowing that I had covered more than half the distance and that in 1km this would become my longest run ever. I also knew that there were now people watching my progress and that they would only get updates every 10km so I wanted to plough on to the 60km point as fast as possible so that they would see me. As I had a full CamelBak I skipped aid station number 17 and kept going and got through 60km just under 7 hours. I kept going. There was not a  lot to see in this section of the course. It was just a matter of getting it done and know that after the 4th cutoff zone you could walk all the way and still make it in time.

Just after 71km you are faced with Furaibashi and a huge amount of steps with a picture of a Japanese Ghost or Monster, painted on them. I saw Brian at the bottom of them looking up.

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Steps at Furiaibashi – Thanks to Satohi san for the photo.

I left Brian and kept on running but he caught up with me at the next traffic lights as I waited for them to change. We were very close to the 4th cutoff zone and I could feel the finish approaching.

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4th cutoff zone at 74.6km

I did not spend too much time here but I did stop to eat and drink and in that time, Brian was in and out and I did not see him again until the end where he finished almost 15 minutes ahead of me. We were now in the Dead Zone. You knew you were moving but you had no idea how. Picking out any marks 100m ahead and trying to make it to them before picking out another one. Never letting your mind wander. Concentrating on little victories and adding them up. Soon after the 4th cutoff zone we were in Tobu Edo World Square, probably one of the most bizarre theme parks I have ever ran through, if not the only one. It totally blew my mind, especially the  little kids who had brought sweets and were handing them out to runners.

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Running past the pyramids in Tobu Edo World Square

I was now walking for 2 mins, about 200m, and then running until my Fenix-3 watch, which my brother had given me for my birthday to make sure I had enough battery life for this run, signaled another 1km had been completed, about 800m, and I walked again. I developed this strategy during a particularly gruelling Otawara marathon a few years ago and I keep it in my back pocket and pull it out whenever I need to dig deep. The kilometers passed more and more slowly. I was pouring more and more water on my thighs and my socks were getting drenched. At around 85km I felt what I thought was a stone lodged beneath my toes. I decided that I would wait until the 5th cutoff zone to take off my shoe and investigate.

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At the 5th cutoff zone I sat down on the chair and slowly removed my shoe. It was not a stone that had been bothering me but the skin of the ball of my foot has been bunched up under my toes. I also had a blister on the side of my foot which I burst with great pleasure. My right thigh was now very sore and I went to the medical tent to ask for Cold Spray but they had none. They was nothing I could do but keep on moving on, like a bird that flew. I was no longer stopping to fill my CamelBak but rather bought a bottle of tea from a vending machine as I could not stomach anymore Sports Drink.

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I promise I am moving

The last few kilometers were all up and down. I was very gratefully for the training that I had done with Mark Feeley in Okutama in June as it was exactly this sort of terrain. It seemed to take forever but eventually I turned left and realized that I was on the main road back to ShimoImaichi and had only 2km to go. I abandoned my walk/run strategy and just put in one last effort to finish. Crossing the line was a great feeling, very much like my first marathon finish in 2009. I got a little emotional before getting my head straight, collecting my medal and looking for the beer tent.

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Collecting my medal and trying to keep my legs straight for the photo.

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Don’t look back in anger I heard you say At least not today

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My final update

Tokyo Marathon 2017 – Race Report

Net Time: 3:34:10

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Gaining entry to the Tokyo Marathon is like winning the lottery. Actually, it is winning the lottery. Around 330,000 people apply for 27,000 places and then there are an additional 3,000 places which can be purchased with 100,000 yen donation to charity. This year I was in 2 lotteries. My company, Colt, had agreed to sponsor 4 runners in the marathon and I joined the mass lottery as well. As luck would have it, I failed to get selected in the Colt Lottery which had a ratio of 2:1 but I did get selected in the mass lottery with a ratio of 12:1. What are the odds?  Well 12 to 1. I learned of my good fortune while lounging in bed with jet lag and a hangover in the Tallbot Hotel in Stillorgan last September. I was back in the old country to help Daughter #1 get set up in college when the news came through. I had been out the previous night meeting up with my brother, my oldest friend Niall and a certain Arthur Guinness in the hotel bar. My brother, who had also applied and not been selected, could not understand how fate could be so cruel.

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At the time I was training with Harrisson for the Ohtawara Marathon in November and everything was going well. Even though I had to travel a bit, I completed all of my quality workouts and finished Ohtawara in 3:24:48, my third best marathon. However, somewhere along the way I felt a strain at the top of hamstring, or the bottom of my glut (I am never quite sure), but instead of taking a few weeks off after Ohtawara, I kept training and started going out to the track again, with my club Namban Rengo. I also managed to complete 320km in Jan by running everyday over the year end holidays. However, on the 18th January I finally accepted that something was wrong when I did the Namban track workout in Yoyogi Park.  Initially, everything was was going great. I was running fast and kept all 4 of my 1000ms at 3:50 or less, something I had not been able to do for a long time. However, during the final 2 x 500m I felt a lot of pain in my left hamstring and struggled to complete them.

The following Sunday, 22nd January, I had the Chiba Marine Half Marathon with a great bunch of Nambanners. I could only manage 1:35:37 in near perfect conditions and not the 1:32:00 I was aiming for. My leg was sore the whole time and I could not push the pace even though my breathing was fine. It was time for drastic measures. When I arrived in work on the 1st February I saw a message from my friend Steve Flynn in Manchester. He had just finished January without a drink for charity, and was asking people to join him for February. I signed up hoping that it would help me lose weight, but also help my leg recover. I had been getting sports massages and while they provided relief, were not really fixing the problem as I continued to train. 3 Weeks on from the Chiba Marine, on the 12th February and after 6 days of rest, I ran the Inzai Half Marathon in 1:36:17. I had been hoping to improve and but it was not to be. I pushed my pace early on but died greatly in the second half.

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My colleagues from work were all training well and we headed to the Expo together on the Thursday before the race. Three of us had done marathons before, and three of us were doing one for the first time. I had arranged the Colt running shirts through my friend Tim Williams in Namban Rengo and even if I say so myself, they looked pretty good.

The day of the race itself was gorgeous. Sunny, moderate temperature and virtually no wind. I opted to run in just the running singlet with no T-shirt underneath. I also bought a cheap hat and pair of gloves that I planned to dispose of a long the way. However, it was so warm standing in Block B that I need not have bothered. Based on my two half marathon results, I knew that 4:30 pace was well out of the question but thought that I might have a chance at 4:40 pace and slip in under 3:20 for only the second time.  As we headed out on the new course from Shinjuku, the atmosphere was great. Thousands of people lined the streets as always and the runners were all in good form. I was feeling good myself as I took my first drink at the 5km mark. Normally I do not drink so early in a race but as the temperature was set to rise to 13 degrees and the sun was out, I knew that I would need it later. At Idabashi, I heard the first shouts from the Namban horde. Throughout the course, they were popping up everywhere, behind bus shelters, on bridges but always roaring out encouragement.

At 10km the race changed from its original course. For the past 10 years it would turn right and run down to Shinagawa but this year the new course turned left and headed up to Asakusa. Shortly after that I saw Derek running in the opposite direction. He is easy to spot in his green tinted sunglasses. We yelled at each other and kept going. My pace had now settled around the 4:50 mark but I felt I was in control and did not need to worry. Near Asakusa I was awakened from my trans-like state by a shout of “Gambare Mako-gan”. Matsushita san from Colt had come out to support us and was holding a teal Colt T-Shirt. On and on and the craic was good as Van Morrison might say and we turned around at Asakusa Temple and headed back towards Ginza, but before we got there we took a sharp left at the 16km point and headed to Monzen-Nakacho and back, an area I know well. Right after I turned the corner I saw Michael Hegarty  from Namban flying down the road. I wanted to shout at him, but I failed to recall his first name in time and all that came out was “Go Go”. Later at the post marathon party, he told me he knew who it was. Then as I passed the 17km point I saw Harrisson and he was just passing the 24km point. I yelled “Go Harrisson” but he totally ignored me. I guess he was in the zone. All the way up to Mozen and back I kept looking out for other Nambanners and maybe a Colt runner, but I missed them all.

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At the end of the road we turned left and rejoined the course towards Ginza. My family said that they would be at the 29km point just outside Takashimaya department store. For that 5km I thought that it would be great seeing them and I imagined that one of them would have a steaming hot cup of coffee for me. It practically kept me going. Of course they had no such thing, so after exchanging some pleasantries I headed off again to see the Colt people who promised to be at the 34km point. Up until 24km I had managed to keep my pace under 5 min per km but I could not hold out any longer as the war of attrition set in. The stretch from 29km to 34km was very tough as we ran down from Hibiya to Tamachi. My pace slowed to 5:30 over this stretch but fortunately it did not reduce much more after that. At Tamachi station the Colt folks were out in force and had brought the cold spray that I had given them. I used it liberally and headed on to the final turn around in Shinagawa at around the 35.5km point.

As I passed through Tamachi the second time, I looked out for the Colt supporters but I missed them as they had crossed the road. It was around here that the local Autobacs store was handing out Coca Cola. I have rarely tasted anything as good in all my life.  It was well past noon now and the day was warm but it was not an oppressive heat. I took my last gel at around the 37km mark with my second Nurofen to ward off the pain and put my head down for home. I know the road from Tamachi up to Otemachi very well. It is wide and open but there was not much wind so I was able to keep an even pace. Just before Hibiya Park, there was a big crowd of Nambanners cheering and taking photos as we went by. It was very encouraging to hear them all in the final stages of the race.

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Finally, I made it to the paved streets of Otemachi and as I turned the second last corner I saw the sign that declared 1km to go. I was holding on to by 5:30 pace as best I could when I saw my family lining the road, holding out a cup of coffee for me. I was hardly going to take it with 500m to go but I appreciated the gesture, however late in the game. A middled aged American woman kept sprinting past me, stopping and walking, letting me pass her and then doing the same again. I thought that I had her beat but in the final run in, she found some extra strength and pipped me at the post right in front of Tokyo station.

I was very happy to finish and while I was a little disappointed that I could not maintain my early pace, I knew that my training had not been sufficient I was lucky to be able to complete this great new course on such a beautiful day with my family, friends and colleagues along the route.

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After the finish there is a 1km walk back to the bags where hundreds of volunteers line the route and cheer and clap and give High 5s. Had it not been such great weather, it would have been a bit tedious, but under the circumstances, it was also a lot of fun.  That evening, the Namban crew were back in FooTNiK in Osaki for the by now traditional post marathon party. There was a great turn out of runners and supporters. Here’s hoping that we get to do it all again next year.

1st Inzai Smile Half Marathon – 12th February 2017

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Net Time 1:36:17

I had never heard of the Inzai Smile Half Marathon when one of my colleagues, Saito san, suggested that we run it together as preparation for our Tokyo race at the end of February. Of course Saito san lives in Inzai where the aptly named race is held and he could leave his house at 9am and still be on time for the 10am start. I, on the other hand, live in Kanagawa ken which meant getting up at 5am and leaving my house shortly after 6am and then hanging around the start of the race for 90 mins with no coffee.

But I do not mean to gripe. This is a well organized and fun event with 6,300 and I was very happy that Saito san dragged me half way across Kanto on a Sunday morning to participate in it. There are lots of food stands and a book of discount tickets for shops and insensitive. For those of you who have not been to Inzai, there are two things that you should know. One, it is really flat, and two, it is really windy. The Inzai Smile Half Marathon has the most direct course of any race that I have ever run. It starts at Inba-Nihon-Idai station and goes 10.5km straight down the road that runs parallel to the Narita Sky Access Line to just after Chiba Newtown Chuo station, crosses the train line and then runs all the way back to Inba-Nihon-Idai station. It is the complete out and back race. The good thing is that it is very flat and direct, the bad thing is that the road that you run is sunk into the surrounding countryside and there is not much in the way of scenery except for modern train stations, bridges and fields of solar panels. However, if the elements are favorable it would definitely be a PB course.

Unfortunately today the elements were anything but favorable. There was a 9m/s wind blowing from the start of the race,  straight down the first half of the race, and it seemed to be amplified by the chute that we were running through.I had run 1:35:37 three weeks previous in the Chiba Marine Half Marathon and my goal this time was to get under 1:35. I hoped to go out between 4:15 and 4:30 pace and if I could maintain that to the turn around point, the second half would be a lot more easy with the wind at my back. This was not a great plan and I was not able to follow it, at least for the second half. I fought hard into the wind and managed to stay within my desired range, jumping from group to group every time the people I was following slowed down. I passed many people and felt things were going well but once I turned the corner to head back it all went pear shaped. I found it harder and harder to maintain pace and gradually saw all the people I had passed in the first half overtake me.

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One of those people was Murakoshi san. I had worked with him for many years and after 5km of the race he came up to me and said hello. He also lives close to the start of the race so I was not too surprised to meet him but it was great to see a familiar face. I think that this was the first race I entered with no other Namban people. We ran together for a while before Murakoshi san told me that the pace was faster than his plan and he dropped back. It was good to know he at least had a plan. At 16km he passed me again and this time I could not stay with him. However, I noticed that he was not making much progress ahead of me and he remained about 50m down the road. Game on! I knew I was not going to make the time that I had set myself at this stage but I could still beat the two people I knew in the race. I kept Murakoshi san in my sights and got up to him at the 20km mark. He stayed with for the best part of a kilometer but as the end came into site I gradually eased past him and he finished right behind me with a half marathon personal best.

We then proceeded the long march back to get our bags and to find a text from Saito san to say that he had finished his first half marathon in under 2 hours. Things are looking good for him in his first full marathon in Tokyo in two weeks.

I enjoyed this race and the organization a lot and will probably come back again next year, if only because I have a habit of doing the same race year after year after year.

 

41st Chiba Marine Half Marathon – 22nd January 2017

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Net Time 1:35:37

This was the 5th time that I had run the Chiba Marine Half Marathon since my first time in 2012. I was supposed to run last year, but something came up and I had to break my streak. This year saw the best weather yet with warm sun and little breeze which while great, was unfortunate as it coincided with my worse condition. I have been nursing a hamstring strain since last year. It had been getting better but I aggravated it at the interval training in Yoyogi Park on the Wednesday before the race and I only decided to run the night before after resting it for three days.

As before, a large group of Nambanners showed up, maybe as many as 15. We met at the Kaihin Makuhari station at the by now usual time of 8:10 before heading over to the reception at the Lotte Baseball Stadium. The weather was so good that I was able to run in a singlet and without gloves. I only felt a little discomfort for the first 1km before I warmed up and did not feel cold again. I had hoped to run at 4:15 /km pace but I soon realized that every time I ran faster than 4:30 I could feel my hamstring twinge so I just kept going at that pace and managed to run all the kms at basically the same pace from start to finish.

At one point, around 7km, a man dropped his gloves, presumably as he was putting them in his pockets, stopped and turned around to try and retrieve them. This happened right in front of me and I had to jam on the brakes to avoid running into him and falling over. As I felt a shot of pain go up the back of my left leg, I screamed abuse at him and wondered if my race was over.

One of the great aspects of the Chiba Marine Half Marathon is the switch backs. There are 2 or 3 where you can look out for your club mates and shout encouragement and receive it as well. Although most of the race is very flat, there is one hill as you have to cross a bridge with a couple of km to go. On the way out it does not seem too bad but on the way back it is tough. However, once you are over it, the stadium is back in view and you know you are on the home stretch.

I really enjoyed this year’s race, mainly because of the weather and the great people from Namban, 5 of whom got PBs. Hopefully we can have the same day again in 2018.

Ohtawara Marathon 2016 Race Report

Net Time 3:24:48

My fifth consecutive time to run the Ohtawara Marathon was really great. I had great support from my coach Harrisson for the 5 months leading up to it. There was a great gang of Nambanners up from Tokyo (and Saitama). Although it was very windy, it didn’t rain and the temperature stayed above freezing. And afterwards we went to a great onsen with our complimentary tickets on the complimentary bus to recover before heading back to Tokyo and the Aldgate Pub in Shibuya for a swift half. All in all a great day. I think you get the picture. Although the stated aim of this blog is to run a marathon in 3:10, and I have been training specifically for that, I think that we can let numbers get in the way of enjoying ourselves and the company of others. One of my Namban friends put it very well in a Facebook post last Sunday that resonated with a lot of runners.

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Gareth’s Wisdom

Unlike the previous 2 years, I had to work on the day before the Ohtawara marathon this year so I was late getting up to Nishi Nasuno. I had bought my Shinkansen reserved seat ticket on Monday morning with the intention of traveling up on the 18:36 train on Tuesday evening. However, when I got to the gate I discovered to my horror that I had actually bought the ticket to go up on Wednesday night, 8 hours after the start of the race. I raced to the JR counter to change it for the right day. Fortunately, this is Japan and it is very easy to do this, but there were no reserved seats available so I had to settle for a free seat. I was worried that the train would be crowded as Tuesday was the day before a National Holiday and I would have to stand all the way to Nasushiobara, so I joined the queue 40 minutes before the departure time to ensure I got a seat. I need not have worried. The train was far from full but I did have a nice conversation with the couple ahead of me in the queue.

Tokyo station was packed. There are lots of places to buy obento but not so many that are vegetarian. After struggling through the packed aisles for 15 minutes I spotted a onigiri specialist shop. Even if there are few vegetable only obento, you can always get lots of seaweed onigiri. Readers of this blog will know that each of the previous 4 years have seen me in Big Boy restaurant in Nishi Nasuno for a pasta and curry rice meal. This year with my vegetarian diet and arriving later in the evening I wanted to eat on the train so I was considering eating 5 ongiri as my pre-marathon meal. However, lady luck was shining on me and the woman in the onigiri shop pointed me next door where they did have vegetarian bentos. The train had not long left Tokyo when I tucked in.

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Vegetarian Bento

It was sad to see my ritual broken but at least I was staying at the same hotel, The Route Inn, and I feel that they recognized me as I checked in and got the  key for my room on the 10th floor. I eventually got to bed around 10:30pm and fell straight to sleep. However, 30 minutes later an earthquake hit Fukushima which woke me up rather abruptly as my 10th floor room started swaying back and forth. There had been a big earthquake followed by a small tsunami that morning in Fukushima that made everybody remember the terrible events of 2011 and this was an aftershock, albeit a weaker one. I texted my wife but she did not feel anything in Tokyo. After that I tried to go back to sleep but never quite managed it. I was nodding off for the next 4 hours and eventually got some decent sleep from 3am.

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In the hotel room, trying to decide what to wear

I woke up with the alarm at 6am and wished that I could sleep some more. In previous years there has always been a line to breakfast room 20 mins before it was due to open. I reckoned that it would be the same this year so I ended up waiting by myself in the lobby of the hotel at 6:15 although I had been told breakfast was from 6:45. Fortunately there was free coffee in the lobby and they actually opened the dining room 15 minutes early. Not eating meat was not a problem as they had lots of vegetables, bananas, bread, rice and okaiyu (a watery form of rice). I loaded up and stepped outside to check the weather.

The days preceding any race, but especially any race that will last longer that 30 minutes, are filled with speculation about the weather. As I am Irish, I find warm weather very difficult to run in but I am also not thrilled about freezing weather either. And while a light drizzle does not bother me at all, a strong wind will have a big impact. The forecast was for a bright day with 5 m/s winds from the north west and as I stood outside the Route Inn looking up at the morning sky, I felt that they had got it right.

Obviously, the great thing about staying a 10 minute drive from the start of a race is how much time you save in the morning of a race. After breakfast I took my first 400mg Nurofen and then went back to bed for an hour before getting up and getting my taxi over to the gymnasium at 8:45. The other Nambanners were already there and had marked a good spot out in one of the corridors by the weight room. We chatted and discussed the route until  little by little people started to head off to the bathroom and the start of the course. I had discussed what to wear with Harrisson and as the temperature was going to be 7 ~ 9 degrees celsius he suggested that a singlet with no long sleeves should be just fine. Just fine for running that is but not for standing around in the wind at the start, so I was almost the final person to leave the gymnasium. And that is the great thing about the Ohtawara marathon. You can leave the warm gymnasium at 9:45 and be in your block at 9:50 for a 10am start.

As I arrived in block B, I saw Bernard and then Gildas and Derek and we chatted for a bit before Derek headed off to block A. Standing in the wind it was cold. I tried to crouch down but as I was on the outside of the block there was nowhere to hide as the wind ripped through the event flags that lined the course. I took one of the 4 gels that I had in my pocket, mainly to reduce the weight. It was a water based Hi 5 gel so I could take it without a drink. I normally don’t take gels at the start of a race but this time it felt like the right thing to do. The race started and we were off. I got to the start line in only 20 seconds and had no difficulty exiting the stadium ahead of the traffic jam that Ohtawara is famous for.

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Ohtawara Marathon Race Course

The Ohtawara Marathon course is one big loop. It starts off by going down hill for 23.7km and then goes back up to the finish. This year we had the wind with us for most of the first half of the race. Of course that means that we had it against us for the second half as we were running uphill. I found the first half of the race OK. Well, I was running downhill with the wind at my back. Harrisson had advised me not to let my heart rate get over 170 so I never really stuck to my goal of running at a 4:30 pace  but I was close enough. I knew that the race would be won and lost in the second half so there was no need to be pushing early on and not being able being able to close out the race.

The countryside around Ohtawara is really beautiful with wide open fields divided by the Houki river and lined by evergreens in places. The first 13km were uneventful as I concentrated on my form and pressing the lap button on my Garmin at each km marker. I have long since given up on the automatic 1km lapping of the GPS watch as it quickly goes out of sync with the actual race markings. I was worried that pressing the lap button every 1km would have a bad effect on me mentally, but it was not the case. I found that the km passed smoothly and later on it helped me concentrate on the remainder of the race.

At 14km there is a sharp downhill that you have to mange carefully or you will end up going too fast before the road rises again and turns off to the left. This is the point when you know that you are in a race. Although the course continues to go downhill for a further 8km, your heart rate has spiked and you have started to look out for the next drinks stand where before you were not bothered about taking a cup or not.

The only switchback in the race comes at about 17.7km. I always love these switch backs as I look out for my Namban friends and shout encouragement to them. I saw Derek about 700m from the turn around and he was looking strong but Gildas and Khalfan had already gone and I missed them. As I got to the turn-around cone, I saw Bernard just ahead of me. He was also looking strong and powerful with his arms swinging. 300m after the turn, as I reached the 18km point, I heard Chika call to me and shortly after that Terri. The two of them are always my rivals in races and have beaten me many times. There are both very good in the second half of a marathon when I start to fade and I was shocked to see them so close to me at this early stage. It made me refocus my efforts. During this stretch, I missed Nick, Gareth, Mika, Rui, Yasuo and Yukiko but I heard later that they were running in a group and really enjoying the race.

Shortly after the 18km point there is a left turn and a 5km straight stretch down to the 23.7km point. I caught Bernard just after the turn and eased past him and headed down the road concentrating on my pace and heart rate. It was still downhill and I just needed to avoid overdoing it. I went through half way in 1:37:51 which is 2 minutes faster than I ran the Sendai Half Marathon in May this year and a minute slower than I ran the first half last year. I tried to drop out of this race at the 22km point 3 years ago after having had anemia so this has always been a key point for me. Since then I always tell myself that if I can get through here I will be fine. Mind games I know, but they work. It was around here that I remembered that I had a second 400mg of Nurofen in my pocket and I took it before the pain in my legs got too much.

At 23.7km the road takes a sharp turn to the left and if you did not know you were running a marathon up until then, you found out quickly. The road quickly starts to rise and this year we wear running into the wind. There is a very hard stretch from this corner to the next one at 30km. It is all uphill and  a lot of it is exposed to the wind. Last year I found a runner to run behind and I maintained my pace and this year I desperately searched around to do the same. I found a few people but nobody who could take me all the way and I found myself surging from group to group to get shelter.

I tried to take a gel at 24km, but as I ripped the top off with my teeth it fell out of my hand. I decided to leave it and grabbed another gel from my pocket. I had no more Hi 5 gels left and my other 2 gels needed water so I had to be a bit more clever where to take them. I was now taking sports drinks at each drinks station and pouring the water over my legs as my muscles started to burn. Harrisson had told me that the intensity training on a long run would pay off in the second half of the marathon as my legs would know what to expect. He was right. Although my pace slowed and I struggled against the wind, I never wanted to give up and I never wanted to walk.

The turn at 30km is a welcome relief. Not a lot changes in terms of terrain or weather but by breaking through the 30km barrier you feel that you are on the home straight. You are on major road and there are more shops and people cheering and you feel your spirits lift. I put the head down and counted off the kms. At 35km I took my last gel. I was feeling the pain in my legs but not in chest. My heart rate remained in the low 170s except when I was cresting the hills. The wind had not abated but there was no rain and it was getting warmer. Wearing a singlet was the right decision.

Just before the 40km mark I came up on Derek out of nowhere. Normally a sub-3 man he was clearly struggling that day. I yelled at him at the top of my voice and although I briefly passed him, he got back to me in 30 seconds. It was great running along with him as I don’t get the run with my friends in a race that often. At 41km we saw Taeko from Namban on the pavement. She had already run the 10km race that morning. She took the photo of Derek and myself at the top of post and it turned out really well. We kept going, getting closer and closer to the finish. With 1km to go I looked at my watch and saw my time at 3:19:51 and said to Derek that if we maintain this pace we would finish with 3:25:20. Derek told me to just concentrate on finishing throwing both arms forward over his head. I took his advice and upped my pace and ran as fast as could to the end. On the stadium track I kept going and passed a bunch of guys who looked my age to finish in 3:24:48. I was 334 in my age group and 686 overall.

It was a great race. Although it was not a PB, I did thoroughly enjoy it and the company of my running club mates.

Afterwards, my collage friend Peter in Nice went through the race link that I sent him and put this graph together. I think that it is a very good depiction of the race and the struggle in the second. It just needs to capture the joy and the fun of running through the countryside with your friends and having a great time. I think that Peter can work on that for next year.

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Peter’s Graphs

After I got back I looked up my old race records. Unfortunately, I could not find the one from 2012 but here are the last 4 races and how I did.

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Finally, I would like to close this blog post by saying a big thank you to Harrisson. He stuck with me for 5 months and gave me the best advice to stay healthy while getting fit and preparing for a marathon. I am sorry that I could not follow all his advice and shed the kgs needed but such is life in the modern world. I learned a lot from him and believe that the work he made me do really helped me get through the tough conditions and come out the other side.

Week 18 Training Ohtawara Marathon 2016

And so ends my 6 months of training for the Otawara Marathon. It starts in 2 and a half days and I would like to think that I am as ready as I ever will be. Of course that is not true. The amateur runner with a job and children and other commitments will never be as ready as he ever will be but he can be as ready as as he could hope to be. There have been many real life events that have interrupted my training over the last few months. Some I could not have avoided, some I chose not to avoid. At the end of he day, the overall choice was my mine and I will live with it. I have trained as hard as I wanted to and not as hard as I could have and I when I out my toe on the line on Wednesday I will know that this is my race.

Now all I need to do is to get three good nights sleep and eat well. There is no more running to be done until 10am on Wednesday.

Week Total

  • Number of runs: 5
  • Distance: 40.3km km
  • Time: 3 hour 35 min

It was good to complete five runs and 40km in the week before the marathon even if three of the runs were 5km. Last year I completed 3 runs and 28km but I don’t think that you can compare one single week. However, I have always been lax the week leading up to a race and I feel that this has been a problem. We will soon find out if the extra runs will have had any benefit.

Monday 14th November

  • RHR: 45
  • HRV: 67
  • Weight: 83.6kg

Although Monday is generally a rest day, I had hoped to run as I was getting over a cold and had not run over the weekend. However, when I got back from work on Monday night it was raining. I generally don’t care if it is raining or not, but this time it was too close to my race and I was afraid that my cold would start up again. So I took some extra rest and hoped that I would get better.

Tuesday 15th November

  • RHR: 43
  • HRV: 72
  • Weight: 83.4kg

Tuesday I had a real life event after work so I could not run. My cold continued to improve.

Wednesday 16th November

  • RHR: 53
  • HRV: 61
  • Weight: 83.7kg
  • Run: Easy
  • Distance: 5.3km
  • Time: 29 minutes
  • Avg HR: 146
  • Avg Cadence: 175
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Autumn in Chiba

On Wednesday I woke up feeling terrible. Life had eventually caught up with me and I was miserable. Unfortunately after waking at 5:45 I could not go back to sleep so I went out and did an easy 5km. This was my first run in 7 days. Totally unplanned and unpexpected I made it out the door just after 6am and broke the spell.

Thursday 17th November

  • RHR: 47
  • HRV: 72
  • Weight: 84kg
  • Run: Easy with 8km at goal HR
  • Distance: 14km
  • Time: 1 hour 13 minutes
  • Avg HR: 154
  • Avg Cadence: 173

On Thursday I was feeling a lot better so Harrison gave me this workout to see how I was fixed for the race.

  • 3km easy warm up with 3 x 15 sec strides
  • 8 km @ 165 ~ 175 heart rate which was the same as Ohtawara 2015
  • 3km easy cool down

 

This was my first hard run in over 10 days and it went well. I was able to run the 8km portion in 36:31 which is at a 4:34 pace and with an average HR of 169. The first half was  better than the second half as I was wearing too much clothes and I started to heat up when I was running into the wind on the way back. However, my right foot was sore right after I had finished the 8km part and I had to take my shoe and sock off to massage it. I then ran home very gently.

Friday 18th November

  • RHR: 47
  • HRV: 72
  • Weight: 83.4kg
  • Run: Easy
  • Distance: 5.4km
  • Time:  30 minutes
  • Avg HR: 133
  • Avg Cadence: 171

Friday was another easy day with 5km around the neighborhood. I was finally winding down.

Saturday 19th November

  • RHR: 50
  • HRV: 72
  • Weight: 83.3kg
  • Run: Easy with strides
  • Distance: 5.3km
  • Time:  29 minutes
  • Avg HR: 140
  • Avg Cadence: 172
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Juicing

Saturday was an easy 5km run with 30 seconds of strides at the end of each 1km. It went well and I was finished before lunch. I made myself a whooping big juice with beets, curly kale, apple, turmeric and wheatgrass to celebrate before heading out to see the art exhibition by my friend George and meet my other friend Alan who was over from London.

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George’s Art

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Alan in Japan

Sunday 20th November

  • RHR:
  • HRV:
  • Weight: 83.7kg
  • Run: Easy with pace work
  • Distance: 10.3km
  • Time:  53 minutes
  • Avg HR: 150
  • Avg Cadence: 177

On Sunday morning I got up at 5am to bring my son to the train station for his rugby game. I got up as soon as I woke up so I had no chance to take my heart rate or HRV. After dropping him off I went back to bed for 3 hours before heading out for my last training run just before lunch.  Harrison hag given me the following:

  • 3k easy, 500m @ 4:05, 1000m @ 4:15, 3k @ 4:25 ~ 4:30, WD

and it went  to plan. I ran it at

  • 500m in 2:00
  • 1km in 4:09
  • 3km in 13:01

with no serious impact. I then went home and spent the rest of the day getting my car tested. I finally succeeded sometime after 6pm.

 

Week 17 Training Ohtawara Marathon 2016

So Week 17 was not a very good one for me. It started off fine and I was expecting to do two hard runs to cap off my training but I felt sick on Wednesday, got worse on Friday and hopefully am making a recovery on Sunday. Anyway, this is how it went. 10 days to race day.

Week Total

  • Number of runs: 2
  • Distance: 10.8 km
  • Time: 1 hour 12 mins

Monday 7th November

  • RHR: 47
  • HRV: 73
  • Weight: 83.4kg

Again a rest day and I was feeling fine just chillin’ at home. Nothing to see here.

Tuesday 8th November

  • RHR: 46
  • HRV: 76
  • Weight: 83.4kg
  • Run: Easy run with Michael
  • Distance: 5.3km
  • Time: 37 mins
  • Avg HR: 115
  • Avg Cadence: 164

Harrisson had put Tuesday down as an extra rest day but as my boy was going for a run about the time I got home from work, I decided to go with him as it would be nice and easy. It was an easy run and I finished it feeling great although the boy refused to get into any photos with me.

Wednesday 9th November

  • RHR: 42
  • HRV: 75
  • Weight: 82.9kg
  • Run: Easy run as it happens
  • Distance: 5.5km
  • Time: 34 mins
  • Avg HR: 130
  • Avg Cadence: 162

I am not saying that it had anything to do with my run and condition, but all day Wednesday we spent every available minute checking in on the US Presidential results. It really captured everybody’s imagination in Japan. Even my wife was texting me as it became more clear that Trump would win. It was quite a shock.

I got home at a reasonable time and headed out the door to do my run. At the beginning I was feeling great as I bounded down the road and made the second corner in extra quick time. It was shortly after that that things started to go wrong. I started feeling dizzy and lightheaded. The plan was to run 5km at 4:15 ~ 4:20 pace but when I got to the river I knew that I was not up to  it and just turned back for home, stopping at a Convenience Store to get an energy bar. I don’t know what had gone wrong, but I really felt out of sorts.

Thursday 10th November

  • RHR: 49
  • HRV: 65
  • Weight: 82.7kg

On Thursday morning my HRV had dropped 10 points to 65 and turned yellow. I did not feel too bad and still had hopes of doing the hard run that evening when I headed out for work. Even as I was walking home from the station, I was trying to talk myself back into it. However, when I reached home I was admitted to myself that I was just too tired and needed to rest more.

Friday 11th November

  • RHR: 46
  • HRV: 68
  • Weight: 82.9kg

My HRV had recovered a little my Friday morning but I was feeling cold with a runny nose and sneezing as I headed out the door. I felt OK during the morning but after lunch my sneezing and runny nose just got worse and worse and by 3:30pm I had to accept defeat and head home to bed. My wife collected me at the station and 10 minutes later I had drunk a Hot Lemon drink and was in bed shivering.

Saturday 12th November

  • RHR: 44
  • HRV: 73
  • Weight: 83kg

Saturday my HRV was back to normal but I was still feeling weak and I spent most of the day in bed.

Sunday 13th November

  • RHR: 44
  • HRV: 72
  • Weight: 82.9kg

Sunday and you are probably glad that this blog post has to end. Hopefully I will be  fully recovered in the next couple of days able to get in a few more runs before my race on 23rd November.