This year a new marathon was added to the race calendar of the already over-reached and undertrained runners in Japan. Matsumoto is a city I have always wanted to visited, but when your in-laws have a house in Ueda, on the other side of Nagano, you do not get much of a chance. Hence, I was quite surprised when I strolled up to the JR ticket booth on Friday afternoon to find that it is not served by a Shinkansen. I was under the impression that everywhere of note in Japan was by now connected to the Bullet Train SuperHighway. Instead I had to go to Tachikawa and get a Limited Express. It was not all bad, as there is now good food and drink to be found in Tachikawa station to make the 2 and a half hour journey to Matsumoto less challenging.
The Limited Express that I assume stopped more times than an Actual Express which left Tachikawa just after 12:30 and arrived in Matsumoto at 3pm. It was a very pleasant journey winding up through the fields with the autumn sun beating through the window and again I wondered why I had never done this before.
I booked the race and travel in March after a friendly tip off from Chika san but it was already too late to get any of the cheap rooms for the marathon weekend. I ended up spending 20,000 yen on a lovely double room in Hotel Dormy Inn when I really only expected to pay half that. Still, it did have its advantages. The Dormy Inn is really nice, the room was fairly big and the onsen was great. I checked in at 3:15 and by 3:20 I was out on the street again, heading for Matsumoto Castle.
Matsumoto Castle is one of the main reasons that people visit Matsumoto and painted against a clear blue sky it looked absolutely stunning. I tried to go and get a tour but there was a 50 min wait, and since this is not Tokyo Disneyland, I declined and went for a walk around the grounds. There were many tourists about but it was not packed and I really enjoyed the atmosphere. As I was leaving I came across a poster announcing that there would be a moon viewing from the castle and music that evening, so I headed off for some omori pasta and came back in time to hear Michelle by the Beatles performed by a flute quintet. It was really fantastic.
I was up before 5am the next morning and off to get a shuttle bus to the starting point at 6:15. It was all so smooth that I got the 6:22 bus from Matsumoto station, arrived at the start at 6:32 and I was done checking-in at 6:35. I then had to wait around for the 8:30 start. Next year I will know better and leave the hotel around 7am to get the bus. The last shuttle will leave at 7:10.
I was in A block as I had put a rather optimistic finishing time on my application last March. Still, I did not feel too bad as I hung around in the morning sunshine with some serious looking runners. The temperature was allegedly 8 degrees when I left Matsumoto Station and 13 degrees when the race started but it felt much warmer in the sun and I felt just right in my Namban singlet. The speeches started around 8:10 but they were short and good humored. The highlight for me was seeing Kenji Kimihara who ran the marathon in 3 olympics and came second in Mexico in 1968. He is now 76 (same age as Bob Dylan) and was running the Matsumoto Marathon. I checked the results just now and he did not even come in the top 6 for the over 70s.
The race started at 8:30 exactly. The man doing the count down hit the man with starter’s pistol on the back, he fired and we were off. I love this ceremony. My plan was to run at 5 minutes per km but I had not studied the start of the race very well. It was all downhill and before I knew it I was running at 4:35/km and feeling great. I knew that it would not last and I tried to put the brakes on but to no avail. It took me until the 9th km before I could slow down to a 5 minute pace and it was too late by then.
At 4km the 3:30 pace maker went by me running at 4:40, a time that would see her finish in 3:16 if she kept it up. At 5km Chika san flew past at about the same pace. I had met her at Motozo’s birthday party on Friday night and she had told me that she had planned to run under 3:30. She was already looking much better than that. As the course went up and down I managed to fall into a nice rhythm. The countryside was beautiful as we ran along small streams and through lush rice fields with distance mountains looming over us. The organization was great with aid stations every few km, which was just as well as the temperature gradually increased. It might have gone to 25 degrees by the end of the race, but who can be certain.
At the 14km mark, just before a switchback, I saw Chika san again and calculated that she was about 2:30 ahead of me. I then saw Nick and Yuri and calculated that they were about 4:30 behind me. I was surprised at the gap but then realized that they started in C block and I would need to pull up my socks again to stay ahead of them.
I went through half-way in 1:44:33 which is right on a 5 minute pace but I knew I was in for a struggle as my previous kilometer was 5:09 and I had a long way to go. This was the first marathon that I had run drug free. It was a pure accident as I forgot to bring up my Ibuprofen from Tokyo and I decided to give it a try while having a Yona Yona beer on the train up on the Saturday. Normally I take 200 ~ 300 mg with breakfast and then another tablet around the 27km mark, but this time I decided that I would feel the pain. David Layden, I hope you are happy.
And feel the pain I did. There were quite a few aid stations with cold spray and at 27km I stopped and liberally covered my legs. I then had my first gel as I headed further into the War of Attrition. After a while I started taking extra cups of water and pouring them on my knees and my hips. I ran on feeling more sore with every step and consuming more sports drinks. I even walked through several of the aid stations so I could get more drink into me.
The road went on and on and while my pace gradually decreased, it only went into the 6 minute are a few times at 36km, 41km and 42km. At 32km I saw Chika san again and she was 13 minutes ahead of me. Shortly after that I saw Nick and he had reduced the gap between us to 2:30. He was looking strong. I could tell because when I saw him he was not stopping to get a drink at the aid station he was passing. I, on the other hand, was leaving no aid station go untouched. At the 35km mark I stopped again and gave myself another liberal dose of Cold Spray. At the 38km mark I saw Nick again and he was just 40 seconds behind me. He did not see me but I yelled at him anyway. Soon after that he passed me and kept going to deliver another amazing PB.
I struggled on. It got harder and harder but I was determined not to stop and walk. At the end the organizers make you run all the way around the outside of the Shinshu Sky Park Athletic Stadium before you go inside and do 3/4 of a lap. It goes on forever and I had to sprint at the end to get in just under 3:43.
Afterwards I relaxed in the sun with Nick and Chika san, drinking beer and waiting for other runners to finish. It was very peaceful and enjoyable. I then took the shuttle bus back to Matsumoto and Dormy Inn where I enjoyed the onsen again.
A wonderful race and one that I would like to do again, and again, and again.