Three minutes to paradise

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Himeji seems a good place for a marathon. It is a small city with a lot of space and a magnificent white egret floating over the north part of the town. The White Egret is the finest surviving example of Japanese castle architecture, and usually crowded with World Heritage sightseers. But for one day of the year it becomes both the start and the finish of a rather good marathon. As with every race I have attended in Japan, the route is lined with cheering spectators, who somehow found the energy to cheer and shout through a bitter northerly wind.

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Although it is a young race, it is well organised and sure to grow in popularity. It is also timed nicely to catch disappointed Tokyo Marathon applicants like myself. However, I had left my search for a hotel too late, and had to make do with the Station Hotel in the extraordinarily named Aioi, 20 minutes away by local train. Apart from having 4 consecutive vowels in its name (something which apparently only occurs in one other language, Kiribatese), there is not much to say about Aioi, apart from the fact that it has more hotels than people. It would be a good place for a conference on Micronesian linguistics.

On Saturday, I ducked out of the heavy rain and into a crowded registration hall where I was whisked over to the overseas entry table. I was then jumped upon by a local TV crew eager to interview a genuine overseas entrant, but their enthusiasm faded when I told them I had only popped down from Kanagawa. With the rain still pouring down, there was not much to do but to go to Aioi, eat a fish supper, and get an early night. I was trying to be serious about this race as I had trained harder, or at least longer, than for previous races. I hoped I could take another step towards three hours.

In the morning, I obsessed over all the usual runner’s obsessions: a big, early breakfast (muesli, banana, bread and jam at 5 a.m.), no coffee, gels in the back pocket of my shorts, anti-chafing cream around my toes, the right combination of clothing (thin long-sleeved thermal top plus long-sleeved running top), and of course setting the virtual pacer on my Garmin to the all-important 4:16/min. I wouldn’t run at that pace, but I would at least know how far off three hours I was. And of course, I have missed one obsession that every endurance athletes knows about – the toilet. The huge queues in front of the portaloos at ever race tell me I am not alone with this concern. Having lost time for a pee stop during Osaka Marathon, I had researched long and hard about this issue. My conclusions were as follows: no coffee on race morning, keep warm before the race, find a way to use the loo as near to the start time as possible, and wear warm gloves during the race. Anything is worth a try.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWalking out of Himeji station

I arrived at Himeji station at 7 a.m. and emerged to a line of volunteers and schoolkids cheering us loudly. This was going to be a good day. The castle was catching the early morning sun, and the rain-drenched streets were already starting to dry. It was 2 degrees and the wind was whipping through each gap in the buildings. I was glad I had dressed properly for the occasion.

 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWalking to the start

The next couple of hours passed slowly as I made my preparations and checked my bag into a huge subterranean car park beneath the castle grounds. At least it was warm there. The entrance to the starting block did not close until 8:45 which is a big advantage of a smaller race. I then played my final tactical card: I grasped my stomach and asked the volunteer guarding the starting block if I could pop out to the loo, and he obliged with a sympathetic smile.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWarming up with 90 minutes to go…

The race was started by a man with a fine set of lungs, and we were off running down a much too narrow street to the first turn. As usual, I quickly lost all sense of direction as we turned several times on our way to the river we would follow out into the countryside. Instead, I tried to pay attention to keeping a pace of 4:18/km, the arbitrary pace I had set for myself. This proved hard to do. One moment my Garmin showed 4:10 pace and the next 4:25. I felt like I was speeding up and slowing down all the time, so in the end I took my eyes off the watch and instead followed a chap with leather sandals and a strange arm swing. Anyone planning to run 42 km in leather sandals must know what he is doing, so I kept with him for the next few kilometres. Finally, I found my pace and left him and his swinging arms behind.

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From 2 km to 16 km the route gradually climbs from close to sea level to 80 metres. All this way there was an icy wind – at least the predicted 6 m/s – which buffetted both runners and spectators. At least the scenery was splendid. We ran up a river valley planted with yellow blooming rape and mountains rising all around. Despite the cold, every villager and farmer seemed to be standing by the road, and from time to time taiko drum groups belted out a thunderous beat. I can only wonder at the fantastic enthusiasm in Japan for running races.

At 16 km we turned back down the valley, crossed the river, and ran close to the mountainside for a while. The wind here was worse but by then I had reached halfway and my world was narrowing. I ran in group for a time trying to find shelter and support, but it was hard to keep up. The string between us kept promising to snap, but time after time I willed myself to hold on to them. I hadn’t reached 30 kilometres, but already I was struggling to hold my 4:18 pace.

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My next target was 32 kilometres; at this point I would be in familiar territory – a 10 km run. Olympic distance triathlons often come down to a 10k run on tired legs. All I needed to do was convince myself that this was just one more run leg of a triathlon…and it worked. Somewhere I found my legs and pulled away from the group that had made me suffer for the last thirty minutes. I started chasing down one fading runner after another and found to my surprise that I was holding a 4:15/km pace. My fastest kilometre split came at the 39th kilometre – 4:13. This was something completely new for me. It was hard to know which part of my body hurt the most, but it felt good to have finally beaten the dreaded fade.

Before and After

The last part of the race winds around the castle walls, past lines of cheering spectators, through a gate, and into the castle grounds. I slowed my pace to savour the last minute of running inside a World Heritage Site, and crossed the line in 3:02:38. A medal was hung around my neck, a bottle of Pocari Sweat placed into my hand, and I was then ushered with all the other weary finishers into of all places the city zoo. What a terrible shock. I had run the marathon of my life and then suddenly I was plunged into a stinking hell of imprisoned polar bears and elephants and kangaroos sitting in mud. I found the solitary caged polar bear particularly shocking. I had never seen one before, but turned away in guilt.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARunning into the castle grounds

I waddled away from the zoo as fast as my wooden legs would carry me. After picking up my finisher’s certificate, I entered a new paradise – a tent full of onsen footbaths. I slipped my poor feet into the steaming water and actually shed a few tears of joy. From hell to heaven in three minutes. Now I have the matter of a different three minutes to ponder over till next season.

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My Garmin Data

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