Nagano Marathon 2018

Net Time 3:52:26

Preparing for a marathon is always tricky. But basically, you want to have your best month in the last 6 weeks before the race. This was not the case for me and my first Nagano Marathon. However, before I get into the details, I should point out that I was delighted to actually be able to toe the line at all. This was the 4th Nagano marathon for which I had applied and the first that I actually made the start. In 2o11 we had the horrific North East Japan earthquake and tsunami on the 11th March which caused the cancelation of the marathon in April. In 2012 I was fortunate to be invited to the wedding of a good friend in Ireland. And in 2014, I had to work. I cannot complain about any of these, but I was really happy to make the start on the 4th attempt.

So I turned 50 in March. I know, hard to believe. How could someone born in 1968 ever turn 50?  Well apparently it happens, so you have to get used to it. I had such a wonderful 50th birthday! It lasted several weeks and really filled me with gratitude for all that I have in this world.

The first event was when my running club, Namban Rengo, sprung a surprise birthday party for me in Tullamore Irish Pub in Yoyogi Koen 2 days before the day itself. It was the first time that I had the honor of a surprise party and I was thrilled that all my friends from Namban Rengo were there. My Irish friend Paddy had suggested that we go for a couple of pints with a couple of people after the Wednesday night workout and when I showed up, they had taken over the whole bar and filled with all my friends. It is a very special occasion when a lot of people show up for your birthday and I truly appreciated it. I just wished I could have expressed myself better, and remembered to take off my coat for the photos.

 

 

 

 

 

My actual birthday took place on Friday the 9th March and when I got home from work my wife had put on a great vegetarian spread and decorated the house. 

The next day the two of us dumped the remaining kids on the in-laws and Akiko took me off to the Maldives for 1 week. Going to the Maldives from Japan is not easy. First, you have to fly to Singapore and then hang around a bit. Then, you fly to Male and hand around a bit more. Finally, you get a fixed-wing plane down south to the islands where you hang around for the last time before taking a speedboat to the island where you will spend the next 5 nights. However, once you get there it is amazing. The island has a circumference of 1.6km and there are no shops. Well, there is one shop, but it does not sell much. All you can do is eat, relax, drink, swim, snorkel and maybe run 6km in the morning before it gets too hot. It was a wonderful vacation for both of us and a great start to the next 50 years.

The good life

Drinks by the pool

Snorkeling

Sunset

Nightime

Happy Birthday to me

Snorkeling

My morning run

Sunset


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And the celebrations did not stop there. A week after we arrived back from the Maldives, my brother and my 2 nephews arrived from Ireland. We had a full schedule planned in Kamakura, Universal Studios Japan in Osaka, Kyoto, and Nara. It was a wonderful trip. It is always great showing Japan to your family and we did a lot together. Perhaps the highlight was feeding the deer in Nara. Such a simple thing, but it brought such great joy to everyone. It was also great to get my kids together with the cousins who do they do not see a lot as they live 10,000 miles apart.

Harry Porter at Univeral Studios Japan

Kyomizudera in Kyoto

Kinkakuji in Kyoto

Running with Antoin and Kevin

Antoin feeds the deers while Sean looks on

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So there I was on the 1st April, 2 weeks out from the Nagano Marathon, and only 173km to show for March. I had run double that in February but I was not worried. I just had one of my best months and my best birthday. I knew that it was going to be a slog, but I was prepared for it and knew that I could just do my best.

 

Marcus and myself on the Shinkansen to Nagano

Getting ready to leave the comfort of my hotel.

With Goto san and Kiran at the start!

Nagano Marathon is one of those early start marathons. And by early, I mean 8:30am. That means you cannot get to the city the day of the race and you need to come up the day before and hang out. I went up on the shinkansen with Marcus and we met Kiran in Nagano station shortly after arriving. The three of us then headed off to the Expo which was rather disappointing. And by disappointing, I mean that there was not a lot to eat. I really enjoy stuffing my face the day before a race, but this time there just was not a lot of options. The only good thing was that we ran into Brad as we were leaving the Expo and realized that we were all staying at the JAL City Hotel. It is always hard knowing where to eat the day before a race but Marcus and I found a nice Italian restaurant not too far from Nagano station and Kiran came and joined us. Kiran was a little surprised when he arrived and saw us drinking wine, but we assured him that it was too late us to affect the outcome of the race so we might as well enjoy it.

With the early start to the race, it meant an even earlier breakfast. The hotel had advertised a 6am breakfast, but I had been fooled by that before and headed up to the dining area at 5:50am which was already in full swing. After eating well at the breakfast buffet, we checked out just before 7am and head back to Nagano station to get the train to the start. I had chosen not to bring any bag with me and to leave all my stuff at the hotel. At the start, I met Kiran and Goto san. Both were in good form and looking forward to the race. A light rain was falling and I wore a plastic raincoat that I was soon to discard. I knew that I had not trained enough but hoped that I could hang on to a 5 minute/km pace for the first half of the race and then dig deep later on.

 

 

 

 

 

The truth was something different. Once the race started, I knew that I was in trouble and that a 5 min/km pace would be too much for me. The Nagano Marathon, despite being set in the center of the Nagano Mountains, is not a hilly race. There are a few inclines at the start but they soon give way to a fairly flat course. However, I still was not able to maintain my desired pace. I struggled early on and was soon paced by the 3:30 pace makers and later on by the 3:45 pace makers. At 17km, Hayakawa san tapped me on the shoulder with a grin and then flew past me. I saw him later after a switch back and then he was gone and I never saw him again.

I knew then that I was fighting myself and fighting Kiran. Myself, because I had run 3:52 in my last marathon in Ohtawara in November and I wanted to do the same again. Kiran, because we work together and I did not want to lose bragging rights. He had been training well and looking good on Strava and had run 3:56 in Kyoto in February. I knew that if I slowed down more, or walked, he would easily catch me. So I pushed on. Down along the Chikumagawa River that I know so well from my time in Ueda and back up the other side. I stopped a couple of times to make use of the free Cold Spray which was readily available but did not walk or stop to eat.

It was a tough finish around the stadium but I kept going and kept ahead of Kiran … barely. He had a really good run and came in right behind me as did Marcus. Goto san ran the same time as he did last year and was very happy. As soon as I was done, I got my medal and towel and headed for the bus back to Nagano station and the Onsen and soba that awaited me.  It was a great weekend and a very enjoyable race. I am glad that I finally made it.

 

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Namban Rengo 5 Questions

Every Friday Paddy from Namban Rengo asks a member of Namban Rengo the following 5 questions. This was my turn.

 

And … we’re back! Happy New Year folks! When Pádraig (pronounced “paw rig”) came to the track all those years ago, I immediately had him down as one of those Oda Field one-hit-wonders. But if I learned one thing about this Dubliner – from the wrong side of the river – he’s a stubborn and persistent auld dog. He’s now one of the clubs most committed and dedicated members. Not only that, he’s a sound man. This is the highest compliment you can pay to an Irishman. Just make sure you read his blog posts. To the end! No longer content with the mere full marathon distance he’s started to dabble in ultras. This probably isn’t going to end well … Let me know if you need the number of a good surgeon. Over to you, Pádraig …

Hometown: Dundrum, Dublin.

Currently live: Musashi Mizonokuchi

1. Namban years active?

I first came out to run with Namban on Wednesday, 10th June, 2009. It was quite a memorable beginning … at least for me. I had just ran my first marathon, Tokyo, the previous March and my Irish friend, John Guckian, told me about Namban. He said that it was originally linked to The Irish Tokyo City Harriers (ITCH) which our friends Olly and Monica had run with in the 80s. I really enjoyed my first night running and came back for more. I remember Bob holding up a copy of Born to Run and recommending everyone to read it and Paddy coming over to say “howya”. I still find it amazing that I found so many new friends as I headed into middle age.

2. Running high point(s)?

It might sound superficial to say that every run is a high point, but it is only when you are injured and cannot run that you realize that it true. Most of my high points have not been races but runs in different parts of the world. Although I have run along the Tamagawa river 500 times in the last 10 years it never fails to disappoint. Whether it is first thing in the morning, or late at night, it is always full of life and nature. Many times Paddy and myself have discussed what a great resource it is and how lucky we are to live near it, although Paddy might live a little too near on a rainy day. My most memorable runs along the Tamagawa were in the days and weeks after the Great Tohoku Earthquake in 2011. If you were not in Japan, it was a time of great uncertainty and we were very lucky to be able to meet at Tamagawa station and trash out a steady 30km, still hoping that the Nagano Marathon would not be cancelled. Deer Park in Dublin sits above the city with a great view right across to Howth and the Northside. Less that a kilometer from where I grew up, there is no finer sight that the Lansdowne Road Stadium shimmering in the morning sun while you pound out the one mile circuit amidst local mamas power walking in groups of 3 and students cycling to UCD. I never ran when I lived in Ireland and now I am hardly back 5 mins when I am out the door in my shorts and clutching my iPhone. Running on holidays is always a pleasure, but one that has to be enjoyed early in the morning before your family wake up and realize that you have escaped into your own private world. I have ran in every country I have been to in the last 8 years but the lap of Diamond Head in Oahu was definitely special. Coming round the top with the most magnificent view of Waikiki Beach ahead and passing the young lad in the bright yellow running shirt who passed me on the way up will live with me forever. I could go on. And on. The Marina in Cork. The Phoenix Park in Dublin. Shimin no Mori in Nagano. Hyde Park in London and the pouring rain and getting lost in Chelsea and nearly missing my meeting. The park with all the stray dogs in Bangalore that scared the crap out of me. The beaches in Surin, Kona, Da Nang and Kuta. East Coast Park in Singapore and Victoria Park in Hong Kong with 100s of ladies doing Tai Chi at 6am. Every place I have been is linked to a run and I am grateful for every one

3. Running low point(s)?

There are no low points. Why should there be? What the hell was Paddy thinking asking this question? Probably of Nagano Marathon 2012 when I gave him my number but that is another story.

4. Favorite sports movie, sports book and sports/motivating song?

Movie: Escape to Victory. I was 12 when I heard that this movie was being made and I could not imagine a better movie than one that had Pele. Unless of course it also had The Incredible Hulk.

Book: Born To Run. After Bob recommended it to us, John went out and bought it and I borrowed it from him. It is an amazing book that makes you want to get up out of bed and run, even though it is 1am. Another great book that John lent me was Ultramarathon Man by Dean Karnazes. I think we are seeing a trend here. Dean’s love of running is infectious and this book is highly recommended.

Song: Kylie Minogue – Can’t Get You Out Of My Head. Obvious reasons.

5. Your next big goal, ambition?

At the start of 2017 I decided to run an Ultra Marathon and completed the Nikko 100km in July. In order to prepare for it I did a lot of long slow runs and stopped doing the intervals with Namban. Right after it I thought that this was great and I would like to run it again. However, now at the end of the end of the year as I reflect on all the running that I have done, I feel that I missed a lot by not joining in the weekly track workout. My next goal is to get back to running on the track on Wednesday nights and doing the 5km time trial at the end of the month.

Knights In White Lycra 55km Charity Run

Net Time 5:54:56

In the beginning of August 2017 I got a message from my long time friend and fellow Everton supporter Ben asking if I would be interested in running a 55km run with the Knights In White Lycra (KIWL) in December. I guessed that he had seen my report from the Nikko 100km ultra I had run in July and reckoned that I would be up for the job. I jumped at the opportunity and asked him to send me the details. It was only later as I read through the literature that it finally dawned on me that this was a charity run and that I would have to raise 30,000 yen for the Mirai No Mori charity which I knew nothing about. If I am honest my first reaction was – Crap, how do I get out of this. My only experience of being sponsored for an event since I left elementary school was when I ran the 2012 Tokyo Marathon in support of the Dublin hospice that had taken care of my parents in their final weeks. That did not go so well. I had the flu in the preceding week and had to drop out at 23km. I then had to spend the next 2 days trying to find a replacement race which ended up being along the Arakawa in June in 30 degrees heat.

Anyway, I did not give up immediately and with gentle probing from Ben I committed myself and completed all the documentation. I then mailed some of my friends in my running club, Namban Rengo, who like running long distances and have a social conscience. To my surprise they all said yes. There was no backing out now.

In early October we had our first meeting near Tokyo station with the KIWL who were organizing the event. This was the first time that I met the people behind the event – Rob who was the driving force to get people to sign up, Kozue san from Mirai no Mori who was so passionate about the children and what can be done to help them, Roger a soon to be fellow Nambanner and the man who was to go out and map the 55km route and Manfred from International Volunteer Group who was to play such a major role organizing everything and on the day itself. It was also great to catch up with Andy from Namban and Ben who had initially roped me in. Kozue san gave a very clear and impressive presentation about Mirai no Mori and explained the challenges that the children who live in these homes face and what we can do to help them. It was very moving and I came away filled with passion and conviction and more than a little trepidation.

My first challenge was how to raise 30,000 yen. Worst case I could always pay the money myself but I knew that if I did that, word about the good work that Mirai no Mori do or the challenges faced by children who live in homes in Japan would not be known. I decided to set a goal of reaching many people directly via e-mail and asking each of them to contribute 1,000 yen. I contacted about 60 people reasoning that if half of them responded to my request, I would clear my target. So one Friday night I sat down and composed my mail while thinking of myself as the Bernie Sanders of charities, looking for lots of small donations. I sent it out twice. One mail to the people at my company, Colt Data Center Services, who I had supported in the past or who I thought might want to support me, and one to my family and friends.

I went to bed feeling good about myself as I had drunk several craft beers while writing the mail but woke in the middle of the night wondering what had I done. I need not have worried. I woke Saturday morning to lots of messages from colleagues and friends saying that they would support me. I knew that I was on track to meet my target.

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Getting our running shirts and a 36 page presentation before we started 

The run was scheduled for 9th December and we had one final meeting on the 5th when we received our super cool running shirts and got detailed instructions from Roger and Manfred. And when I say detailed, I mean detailed. There was a 36 page presentation with tons of photos which 4 days later I wished I had paid more attention to as I ran through Kawagoe.

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The gazebo

As the meeting time on the day was 6:30am near the Arakawa River in Tokyo and I live on the opposite side of the city near the Tamagawa River, I woke up at 4:30 and was on the road just after 5am. Fortunately I met Ben at the train station and we made our way over to Ojima Komatsugawa Park together. We found the meeting point at the gazebo without much trouble thanks to Ben’s excellent sense of direction. The mood was good as we mingled with the other runners and the weather was fair. We were blessed all day with good weather which is always a good sign for an event like this.

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At the start in my Colt shirt

Just before we headed off at 7am, our friend Michael Rayner showed up and he was to run the first 5km with us. It was a beautiful morning and as we headed up the Arakawa River and all seemed good with the world. After Michael turned off for home we were then joined by another Nambanner, Rika Honma, who ran with us for another 5km. It was great to get so much support from the start and before we knew it we were arriving at the first Check Point (CP1) at 17km moving at a smooth 6 min/km. That is all of us except Austin who quickly disappeared off the front into the distance at a space none of the rest of us could match. Just before CP1 we met another Nambanner, Derek Leong, who appeared on his bicycle bearing drinks.

I kept going through CP1. My plan was to make it to CP2 at 27km without stopping and then I would be in the second half of the run. I am the type of person who likes to get things done quickly and then look back. The second section of the run from CP1 to CP2 was tough. Although Austin had gone ahead there were many runners together including Alan, Andrew and Mark from Namban Rengo as well as Paul and Ben. We were all trading places at the front as people took bathroom breaks but we regrouped at CP2 where we found Roger waiting for us. Roger had left at 4:40 that morning to ensure that he finished with us and was looking in good condition when we met him. As were the volunteers who managed each check point. Their support was very encouraging and the CPs were a real oasis of recovery during the run.

I arrived at CP2 right behind Paul and left right after him and I was glad that I did. I was able to focus on keeping up him and I did not have to worry too much about the route. Later on it got a bit confusing but we muddled through it together with the help of the great bicycle support from IVG and made it to CP3 at 41km and lots more friendly faces.

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At CP3 Austin and Mark were out in front and Alan, Andrew, Paul and myself regrouped for the last leg to the children’s home at 55km. It was clear from the start that Alan and Andrew were in the best shape and gradually pulled away from Paul and myself. As we were running through the town we were following pink ribbons which were tied to lamp posts and railings. These were real lifesavers but I wished that I had paid more attention to Roger’s and Manfred’s presentation the previous Monday. Eventually Paul dropped me as we made our way through Kawagoe but I did not get lost. At times I felt unsure I was on the right path but I managed to stay on track and make the correct turn to the final leg of the run.

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The last 5km along the Iruma River after leaving Kawagoe town were wonderful. I knew that I was on the right track and I knew that there was not much left to run. My only challenge was to complete the run under 6 hours and it soon became clear that was within my reach. As I got closer to the finish there were several people from Mirai no Mori out taking photos and there was a great welcome crossing the line with soup and sports drinks.

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But the best was yet to come. After a quick bath and some soba at the local onsen we headed back to the start to meet all the kids from the local home who had gathered to welcome us back. They were all in great form and were genuinely delighted to see so many runners. We gradually made our way back to their home with them where we were greeted with a party and an awards ceremony. Each of us the runners got an individual certification that the children had made. It was a very moving event.

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Then we all did the motions to the song “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” which is no mean feat considering must of us had just run 55km. But the enthusiasm of the children was infectious and we all joined in with as much energy as we had left.

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All in all, the event met its target of raising 1 million yen for Mirai no Mori. That may sound like just a number but what it means is that 10 children from the home will be able to attend next year’s summer camp where they will learn skills and have experiences that will help them throughout their lives. I was very honored to be involved  in the event and hope that I can contribute more in the future to Knights In White Lycra and Mirai no Mori and all they do to help disadvantaged children.

2017 Ohtawara Marathon

Net Time: 3:52:10

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T’s Ramen in Tokyo Station

It is hard to know where to begin, so I guess that I should start where it all went wrong. One Saturday, 12 days I was due to run the Ohtawara 2017 marathon, I went to a friend’s Yamanote Line Run to celebrate his 40th birthday. The Yamanote Line is the 40km circle line around Tokyo. I have done this run before and really enjoyed it. Although it is very long, it is generally run at an easy pace and there is lots of fun. This time was no exception as we all dressed up for the big day.

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The motley crew running the Yamanote Loop

Although I had been out late the night before I was having a wonderful time running with friends through the streets of Tokyo. Then, after 7km, disaster struck. I tripped while running along a canal and came down hard on my left side. My knee was all cut and I had pain in my hip and chest. I tried to put a brave face on it, but it was too much. Actually, I was afraid that my ribs were cracked again. This has happened to me several time, most recently before the 2014 Ohtawara Marathon, and I know the feeling very well. I gave up and walked back to Osaki station before making my way home with my tail between my legs. As soon as I got home, I got down my old girdle and wrapped it round me for added protection.

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Me Girdle

The next morning I woke with trepidation. The litmus test for cracked ribs is getting out of bed. You immediately know as you go from a horizontal position to sitting on your bed. That dagger in your chest cannot be mistaken. Fortunately, on Sunday morning I felt no such pain. I was still sore and shaken after the fall but I did not feel terrible. I took it easy for the next 3 days and only started to run again on the Wednesday, 8 days before the race. I did a 3km warm up and then a 10km run at 4:45/km which is what I hoped would be marathon pace. It went ok. On Saturday I did another 16km run, but this time easy. I still was not feeling great but went ahead and booked my tickets for Ohtawara.

The race was on Thursday, 23rd Nov, a National Holiday in Japan, so I went up on the Wednesday night and stayed in my usual hotel, the Route Inn in Nishi Nasuno. I ate vegan ramen in T’s Ramen in Tokyo station and so when I arrived at the hotel I had nothing to do and went to bed nice and early.

In the local gymnasium I met the rest of the Namban Rengo crew. Everybody was in good form preparing to run the 10km and the marathon. It was raining but it was due to clear up later in the morning.,

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Before the start with the Namban Rengo crew

It was still raining as we lined up to start the race. I was beside Bob and Nick and both were looking in good shape. Nick took off very quickly and I ran beside Bob for a couple of km before he drifted ahead of me as well. At around the 10km point my left hip started to hurt. I am not unused to leg pain during a race but this was too soon to be feeling this pain, especially as my pace was around the planned 4:45km.

Gradually I got slower. Before one of the turn arounds, I saw Bob and Nick running together coming from the opposite direction. They both looked strong and confident and I envied their composure. I had not taken any pain killer before or during the Matsumoto Marathon on the 1st October and I had planned to do the same here. However, after my fall I decided to bring some ibuprofen with me and by the 20km mark I was glad that I did. I took 256mg but I cannot say that it had much effect. I kept running, still felt sore and kept getting slower.

The Ohtawara  marathon course is one big loop. It gradually goes down hill for 23km and then you turn a corner and gradually run uphill until the end of the race. More often than not once you turn the corner you start running into the wind, and so it was this year. I struggled on. I kept going and took the gels that I brought with me. Around 35km I started my walk/run war of attrition. This involves walking for 1 minute and then running to the next km marker. It seemed to last forever. There is a 4 hour cut off in Ohtawara but I was never in danger of missing that. I was just somewhere in no-man’s land hoping for it all to be over.

Finally, the stadium came into view and all I had to do was to run down the beautiful treelined street before suffering the 350m of humiliation as I tried to make my way around the track to the finish.

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I’m glad it’s all over

After running 3:42 at the start of October on a warm Matsumoto day, I had hoped to do something better in Ohtawara but it was not to be. Still, I finished what was to be my 18th marathon. Afterwards I headed off to the onsen to lick my wounds and to plan my next event.

1st Matsumoto Marathon Race Report

3:42:58

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.

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.