I wasn’t ready for Osaka Marathon. I’d signed up with the intention of doing two months of hard training after the triathlon Worlds, but instead spent a month nursing my broken rib. I did a couple of weeks’ training for Miyazaki triathlon, and then just two weeks for Osaka. I managed just two longish runs, one 20 km and one 28 km, plus a couple of shorter runs. The week before the race I spent my time alternately resting and trying to persuade myself to at least get myself to the start line. I say all this because my finishing time was much better than I could ever have hoped for.
Pre-race Zero beers with Motozo, Steve, and Yuko
The start line is in front of Osaka Castle beneath a line of ginkgos in autumn yellow. I was in Block A feeling rather overdressed in my long-sleeved Namban shirt atop a thermal shirt. All around me, athletes in vests shuffled from leg to leg, shivering in the cold. Just before the block closed, I spotted Motozo hurrying towards the start and called him into the middle of the block. He had overslept and only just made it to the bag drop in time.
Arriving for the race
5 minutes to go and the wheelchair race started. I stripped off an old sweater and a plastic coat I had got from a convenience store, and immediately felt the chill. As usual, I needed a pee, but it was too late to do anything about that now. The gun went off, and we were cantering up the street through lines of cheering people.
For the first 10 km, my main thoughts were not to go too fast, and to find a toilet near the edge of the course. At each toilet sign, desperate runners peeled off in search of relief, but I was able to wait till just before ten kilometres where there was a line of cubicles right by the road. Do professional runners face this problem? Why is it that such mundane things can determine the success of your race?
In much more comfort, I settled back into my rhythm. My Garmin beeped the kilometres, in chorus with those of runners around me, but gradually it got ahead of the course markers. Perhaps the elevated roads above us were interfering with the signals. At each beep, I glanced at my watch and tried to keep my pace at something manageable. Time and time again I would find that I had run the previous kilometre at around 4:20 pace which I knew I wouldn’t be able to sustain. But every time I slowed down, someone would pass me and my chase instinct cut in.
At some point, perhaps around 15 km, Steve caught up with me and we chatted for a couple of minutes. I told him I would have to let him go and soon he was off in the distance. A little further along, David passed me, but this time at speed. I just had time to mutter something incoherent, before he had disappeared out of sight. Three times I heard my name, and smiled at Keren and Makiko cheering me on. It gives you such a boost to have someone shout you on. Thank you, K & M!
Without a target time or a race plan, I just tried to keep a comfortable pace, drink a little water at each aid station, and swallow a gel every 9 kilometres. Until 30 km, my body continued to surprise me. My 5 km splits were 21:38, 22:52, 21:51, 21:55, 21:47, 21:57. Excluding my one-minute toilet break, I was churning out a fairly metronomic 21:50 average. How on earth was I maintaining this pace? But of course, the marathon really starts after 30 kilometres; the first part is just a prelude to the suffering to come.
My legs started tightening from 30 to 35 km but I still felt fairly comfortable. I slowed a little for fear of cramp, and also due to the onset of a stomachache. I needed another gel, but I knew I would pay for it with stomach cramps. Instead, I slowed a little more and used my energy to calculate my likely finishing time. I was amazed to realise that I was on schedule for a new PB.
In climbing, every good route has a crux, the point at which most either succeed or fail. Osaka Marathon’s crux is an estuary bridge at 38 kilometres. Until that point, I was moving okay, but like so many others, that short, steep slope broke my rhythm and presented me with the problem of how to complete the last 4 kilometres. Simultaneously, my legs were seizing, my stomach was cramping, and my head was floating off into another world. The only way to continue was to reduce the stress and slow down, but that just made the finish seem further and further away.
The excellent tracker app allowed people to watch athletes crossing checkpoints
It is at this near-the-end state when the distance-remaining markers start to appear. 3 kilometres to go: from Everest base camp to the summit is about 3 vertical kilometres. It felt about the same to me at this moment. 2 kilometres to go: three times the height of Tokyo Skytree. 1 kilometre to go: who had measured this course? My Garmin was telling me I had nearly done 42.2 kilometres. 200 metres to go: a pack of runners surged past, clearly having left too much in their respective tanks. Another poor chap lay barely conscious on the road, surrounded by helpers, within easy crawling distance of the finish. I stayed upright, crossed the line and willed myself to keep moving. If I stopped, I knew I would keel over, like several other people littering the sides of the finish chute. All I wanted was an invigorating sports drink, but someone had cruelly placed the drinks tables an unreachable distance away. A medal was placed around my neck, a towel over my shoulders, and finally a PET bottle in my hands. I entered the post-race feed station where I was given a huge bag and a tiny cake. I kept on walking as the waves of dizziness subsided and the normal world began to reappear.
At the bag collection zone, I met up with Steve and David, who had both had great races. Steve had come in at 3:03, and David had clocked an incredible 2:55, only two weeks after finishing his third ever marathon in 3:08. I wasn’t sure of my time, but I thought it was around 3:10 or 3:11. It just goes to show: give something a try and you never know what might happen.
Later we met up with Keren, Makiko, and Motozo, who despite his rush to the start had finished in under 3:30. We drank craft beer in the upstairs room of a pub with a moody manager, lacklustre food, and the atmosphere of a railway waiting room. But there was delicious Baird beer and the most comfortable chairs I think I have ever sunk into. Now to start training for Himeji.