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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.