The Religious Experience That Is Running the Tokyo Marathon
A lot of things happened at the 35-kilometre mark. My legs started cramping. I gulped down the most exquisite tasting Coca-Cola (everything tastes exquisite when you’ve been running non-stop for close to four hours) I’ve ever drank from a cheerful Japanese man. And a human-sized Starbucks coffee cup ran past me.
It caught me by surprise too. I had seen a lot of ridiculous costumes along the route. There was the trio dressed as the starter Pokemon – Squirtle, Bulbasaur and Charmander – with Ash Ketchum in tow.
There was a man in a sumo wrestler fat suit, which resulted in him half-running, half-waddling his way to the finish line. There were ballerinas, salarymen and even an American man wearing only the stars-and-stripes underwear and nothing else, waving a miniature flag.
But the Starbucks coffee cup costume definitely took the overpriced Oreo cheesecake. The man’s attention to detail was amazing. There was all the information you usually see at the back of the cup as well as the carefully reproduced siren logo. If not for the fact that he was actually beating me I would have stood there, taken a photo and applauded him. But I don’t think my ego could take being beaten by a man in a coffee cup costume. It was already crushed by fellow ASICS ambassador Stephanie Carrington, who completed the Tokyo marathon in four hours, 17 minutes and a few irrelevant seconds.
So I plodded on, my spirit willing my tired body on for the last seven kilometres. As you can see above, I slowed down quite a bit at the 35-kilometre mark. My ASICS running coach Andy Neo told me that the final 10 kilometres in a marathon is the true test of your mental toughness. Honestly, I didn’t put much stock into his words until I found myself in that situation. Every fibre in my body was telling me to give up and walk the remaining distance but I knew that if I did, I would never be able to meet my target time of five hours.
The ASICS GEL-Nimbus running shoes I chose to wear were a great help. And I say this as objectively as possible. In those last few kilometres when my legs and hips were fatigued, the cushioning in the shoes helped me to propel myself forward. The soles of my feet were never in any pain and I’m thankful for that.
But the rest of my body was, so I distracted myself from the pain by thinking of the fresh sashimi at Tsukiji Market; the piping hot ramen from the Mutekiya restaurant; the moist madeleines and vanilla cream puffs from Celi Ginza. Yes, a lot of food items were involved.
When I finally crossed the finish line, all I felt was numbness. Some wept tears of joy. Others raised their hands in victory and relief. I just really needed to use the toilet.
But as my pack of runners slowly shuffled out of the arena, dozens of Tokyo Marathon volunteers waved, clapped and congratulated each and every finisher. They were genuinely proud of us and before I knew it, I too was grinning and shaking hands and patting the other runners on their backs. Nothing like going through Hell together to build a sense of camaraderie despite the language barrier.
A few people asked me what it was like to run the Tokyo Marathon. I told them, “It honestly felt like a religious experience. It has changed my life.” The atmosphere was incredible, almost carnival-like, and helped to make the first 30 kilometres pass by quickly. For the residents of Tokyo, the annual marathon isn’t a hindrance to daily life (large portions of major roads were closed for the run) but an occasion to party. People lined up along the sides of the entire route. They waved flags, held up signs of encouragement and clapped raucously. Some gave out freshly made bread to runners while others held bottles of Salonpas aerosol sprays for runners suffering from cramps.
A couple more asked me for training advice and general words of wisdom. The most important thing is to really train consistently and slowly increase your weekly mileage. Start training at a distance that you’re comfortable with and gradually increase it with each run. Every week, your distance ran should be higher than the previous week. And remember to eat and sleep. These tips helped me to complete my first ever marathon.
But truth be told, you’ll always feel fear and dread. Let that move you forward each day. Nothing can prepare you for a marathon except the marathon itself but on the actual day, let the other runners beside you act as encouragement as well.
And while everyone was running together, the mental battle could only be fought alone. My ASICS running mate turned good friend Boon Hwa, who ran alongside me for the first 30 kilometres for the race, gave me marathon advice that, truth be told, can be applied to life too. “In a marathon, you’re not competing against 29,000 other runners. You’re only competing against yourself. And the only person you need to beat is the voice inside you telling to stop.”
It certainly helped me to keep running for the final seven kilometres. Well that and a Starbucks coffee cup. And for the record, I beat him.
Special thanks to ASICS for sponsoring my Tokyo Marathon trip and giving me running advice and tips during my three-month training regime. The people at the running brand have been nothing but supportive of this old man.