Monday, October 31, 2011

Osaka Marathon Race report (long)

My first International Marathon

Capsule report. I ended up typing a LOT for this race report!  So, here is the short version.  I had extremely low expectations for this race going in. The best part about having such low expectations is that you are bound to meet them, which I did.  I ran a race in Japan, I ran most of the way, and while the 2nd half was slower than the first by 14 minutes, and I ran a personal worst time, I had a lot of fun doing it.  Finished in 4:24:41, finished just before it started to rain, and my nagging foot injury literally disappeared.  I had a lot of fun, and recommend it to anyone who happens to be in southern Japan next year.  For those of you who want to spend as long reading my blog as I spent running the marathon, keep reading!

Training.  My training for this race started in July with several runs in New Mexico.  The early training culminated with a solo 18 miler; 3 laps around lake Merced.  The theme for my training this cycle was the solo run, actually, as I was travelling in the US for the first 3 weeks, and then we moved to Japan in August.  Without my regular team, I found the long runs to be extremely difficult.  The weather in Kyoto did not help.  It was 90° and 90% humidity for the first few weeks.  I eventually settled into a routine, doing long runs by time instead of distance (1.5, 2, 2.5, and 3 hour runs in September, peaking at 20 miles).  My October training wend downhill, though.  I am not really sure why.  Some of it was due to touring and festivals in Kyoto, and some of it was due to weather (the hottest day of each week was my long run day).  I only did one almost 17 miler in mid October but was just dying, and while I intended 20, I had a totally awful day, and really lost confidence.  Then, the following weekend, during a 10 miler, I started really noticing my right foot, and it got a LOT worse during the last 2 weeks of my taper.  I was convinced it was plantar fasciitis, and was icing, stayed off it as much as I could, and generally felt miserable about it.  On Monday of race week, I was planning to pull out of the race.  I didn’t want to do irreparable damage to my foot.  But, based on the advice of several people I know and trust (even though its impossible to do long distance diagnosis), I decided to start the race, run at least 13-15 miles or so, and evaluate continuously, being ready to drop out at any point.  With that in mind, we headed down to Osaka (ice bottle in tow) on the train on Friday, October 28th.

Expo.  Based on the extremely limited information I had going in to the expo, I was under the impression that it was going to be “ride the subway in, get number, leave.”  Boy was I wrong.  We arrived in Osaka later than planned so I didn’t get there on Friday evening.  Saturday we spent some time exploring Osaka castle (walkable from our hotel, and the marathon start) and some other sights.  Finally in mid-afternoon, the kids went with W to the Osaka aquarium and I headed one more subway stop further away to the marathon expo and finish area.  When we got to the aquarium stop, I thought to myself “there sure are a lot of people on this train…” It was basically full.  And they all got off at the last stop and more than 50-75% of them walked to the expo with me.  It was a MADHOUSE.  But, in apparently typical Japanese fashion, it went amazingly smoothly.  Everyone lined up in a line, and everyone was calm and orderly.  It was relatively quiet, no shoving or pushing.  I mean, its not like US expos are knife fights, but it just felt… calmer somehow.  After about 15 minutes in line, I entered the expo proper.  This was where being obviously a foreigner helped me out a lot.  People came running up to me to take my paperwork, guide me through the (well-labeled in English) signs to get number, shirt, drop bag, and then get sent into the fun part.  I spent probably 30 minutes wandering around looking at the gear for sale, but as I really couldn’t read anything, I didn’t know what a lot of it was.  Wind jacket or rain jacket?  Japanese running gear and shoes are MUCH more colorful than in the US.  I will have to re-outfit myself before I return.  Eventually I got tired of the expo, but had to follow a strict linear path to get out the other end, going through an entire 2nd expo room, as well as a third “Osaka Food expo” room.  Counting on having hungry runners there I guess.  I decided to pass on unfamiliar Japanese food the night before race day. 
            My race number was C81211.  The number doesn’t mean much, but the C put me in the “C” start corral, WAY up front!  There were about 15 corrals, apparently each with 2000 runners, so I was going to have a good start.  When I registered, I listed my expected finish time.  I don’t remember what I wrote, but probably around 4:00.  I felt like I was way too far forward, but I doubted there was anything I could do about it.  We ended up eating Tako-Yaki (octopus balls) and Okinomiyaki (Kansai pizza/savory pancake) for dinner.  Not your traditional pre-race pasta, but yummy.

people heading in to the expo

the line (it moved fast)

looking back in after I got my stuff

I hope I see this tomorrow!

Race day.  I slept well the 2 nights before hand so I wasn’t worried at all about whether I slept the night before.  I ended up sleeping pretty well.  I had an alarm set for 6am, but got up at 2:30, 3:30, 4:30 and then 5:30.  I knew there was no point so I got up then.  I had laid out all my gear the night before.  I got dressed and ready and was out the door by about 6:15.  Weather forecast rain, so I had my raincoat and hat, and a complete change of clothes for the finish.  I only forgot my GPS, which I went back for after 10 minutes walking away (SORRY W!).  A lot of people were walking to the start, so I was able to follow the crowd.  I walked from the hotel (Osaka Castle hotel) all the way clockwise around the Osaka castle to drop my bag and then get to the start.  Nice 2.5 km warmup.  I kept the hat but left the jacket.  It wasn’t raining and I hoped for the best.  I had a little food, so I just sat calmly on the street for about an hour.  I did a lot of mental imagery for my foot at this point, willing it not to hurt.  W had convinced me that it was a physical manifestation of an emotional/intellectual struggle.  I’ve read and heard enough about these things from other people, and now have begun to experience enough of it, that I decided that I should accept it as true, and see how it went.  So, I sat sort of meditating on my foot for 30 minutes.  At some point there was an official opening to the race, and everyone stood and moved forward a bit.  Some music played, the wheelchair racers were off, and then WE were off!

this is what the start looked like at 745 am

This is more like 815

845, looking forward

845 looking backward!

845 looking WAY backward, continuous people for 1/4-1/2 mile!


            I had a great start position; I was only 2 minutes back from the gun.  And, it looked like I was in a reasonable place, based on who I was passing/who was passing me.  The crowds were thick, but since everyone was really moving at the same pace, I didn’t get tripped up at all.  That was great.  I very carefully pulled back, trying to keep my pace at 9:30/mile for the first 10.  It was hard to run that slow with the adrenaline of race day and the fact that everyone else was going sub 9 minute miles, but I knew I had to rein in the pace.  One thing that I was worried about was doing math on the course (I knew it would be marked in km, whatever those are) so I really needed my watch to stay on pace.  I planned on meeting my family on the course at about the 11 k mark (Starbucks near the hotel) and then I would have 3+ more hours alone.  First few miles were fine.  I really wasn’t tired physically or mentally, and the most amazing part was that my foot really didn’t hurt AT ALL.  I have to say, I know it because of the mental stuff I worked on with my family.  I came through 10k still feeling fine, but hot, so I had taken off the rain hat.  I was sweatier than I am used to (I am still not used to the humidity here!) so I was glad to hand off my hat to my family.  I stood there for a bit and chatted, took a photo of them, and then kept going.
THANK YOU FAMILY for being there for me!!!!!

            There was water and electrolyte every 5k or so, and I was carrying my 750 mL bottle and 5-6 Gus.  I brought my own food because I just wasn’t sure what they were going to have.  I have found some Japanese brand energy gels, but I wanted something familiar for the race.  I also brought salt tabs.  I had a gu every 45 minutes or so for the first 2 hours, and then took 2 more more quickly, and then forgot to eat at the end of the race.  I didn’t want to eat.  I think I would have done better if I had taken in more calories.  Need to work on that.  The electrolyte drink on the course “Amino-Value” was pretty good.  I think it has protein in it.  No idea.
            I should point out that there were a LOT of people in costumes for the race, including Doraemon, a few men wearing tutu’s with swan heads 2 feet over their own heads, power rangers, and all sorts of other stuff.  And sushi head man.  (I ended up chatting briefly with sushi head man; he is a master sushi chef, so at least that one makes some sense). 


Sushi-head man

Sushi-head man later

            Not a lot to say about the race. I saw the 4:00 pace group in the first few miles and I just started saying “let them go, let them go.”  I had no business running with them! I really enjoyed the taiko drums along the course at several locations; a lot better than bad college rock bands.  There was incredible crowd support; there wasn’t a place where there weren’t crowds.  The race never really thinned out at all.  I consciously slowed down from miles 10-20 to try to save some shred of dignity for the last 10k.  My mile splits in here are all about 10:30 or so, though I took one or two walk breaks (and also lost GPS reception a few times while running along train overpasses) so I am not that sure.  The official course splits (every 5k) show me continually slowing down from the start to the end, but not by as much as I had feared.  I was really looking forward to 32 km mark; I was able to do enough math in my head to know that the traditional division of the marathon into thirds (10 m, 10 m, 10 k) would be 16 k, 16 k, 10 k, so when I got to 20 (still with absolutely no foot pain, mind you) I know that I would finish the race.  I began to run-walk here.  Mostly run.  I had initially intended to run a mile, walk a minute from the beginning, and maybe I should have, but I only walked once or twice on the course before 20 (not counting maybe 2 or 3 water/electrolyte stops that I walked through, again, the humidity!).
taiko drummers on the course

My view for 4 hours.  

            The last 10 k of a marathon is always tough, and I struggled here.  The 4:30 pace team came through and passed me when I was walking right around mile 20, and I decided to just hang with them.  At about mile 22 there was a slight uphill and I was feeling good.  I thought “I can just run the whole last 5k without stopping, and Erin (a running partner from SoCal) will be so proud of me!”  Needless to say, that lasted a little while before I dropped back to walking again.  The 4:30 pacers were well ahead of pace, so when they passed me with 2 or 3k to go, I wasn’t that worried.  I did run the last 2k without stopping, and I was passing people left and right at the end.  I slowed, but I slowed less than the average person. 
            I came through the last turn, saw the finish ahead, and kept plugging away passing people.  The timing company kept track of pace at each 5k split (cool!) and while I was 5658 at 5k, I rose up to the 83-8400s for the middle part of the race.  But at 40 k I was 8194 and at the finish, I was 7997.  Top quarter of all registered runners (have no idea how many finished).  Came through the finish chute at about 4:26 by the gun (and I knew my chip time was about 2 minutes faster) so I was happy with that.  I didn’t stop my GPS for a while, so I don’t have a good finish time except my chip time which I will assume is correct at 4:24:41.
Done.  I am tired.

Post race.  Not a lot to say here.  I was totally spent.  I got water and sports drink, turned in my chip and got my medal.  I’m sad that the medal is in English; I was hoping for Japanese.  I staggered around and got my drop bag and then collapsed in a heap for 20-30 minutes. I ate 4-500 calories. My legs were just totally done.  After a while, since everyone else was just wrapping up in the finishers towel and changing, I did the same, and took the long circuitous route up 2 escalators, through some random room, and then down another escalator to begin the long (1 mile?) walk to the train with 15,000 of my closest friends.  Japanese crowd management appears to consist of long orderly lines, no (pushing or shoving), and megaphones.  I walked steps where I could, I felt a lot better with food in me and my legs appreciated the stretching out.  I got home, showered, and that was the end of marathon day.
The escalator ride post-race

The sea of umbrellas headed for the train

Wrap-up.  First international marathon.  An amazing cultural experience.  I mean, in many ways it was just like every other marathon I’ve done, but in others, it was just… different.  People shouting “Gambare” at you instead of cheering.  Not understanding what people say to me, the subtle things.  But the race was incredibly well organized, efficient, and a lot of fun.  I’d do it again if I didn't  have to travel 5000 miles. This was also my first “big” marathon, and a lot of the issues I had with the race were issues of crowd control, but really, I’m not sure you could do it better, just different.  Maybe it's the Japanese way, but everyone filing around in long lines to get out of the expo or out of the finish area seemed non-obvious to me.  I wandered around for 10-15 minutes at the expo trying to leave, and at the race finish, I would have preferred to just walk away.  But, in a race of that size, maybe it was better to send everyone the same way. 


  1. "Oh, Frabjuous Day, Calloo Callay," he chortled in his joy. Great job, Adam!

  2. Congratulations Adam! I really enjoyed reading your race report and the photos's were an added bonus :-). I was especially interested because, like you, I am training for a marathon (Houston) with mostly solo runs as I travel around the country. Fortunately, I get to CA once a month and get to enjoy some "team" runs but no one who is training for the same race.

    My struggles are different, in that my schedule is so inconsistent that my training is inconsistent as well. I am blessed in that I won't be running the marathon alone as I signed up with my sister and her friend. We'll at least start the race together and hopefully I'll be able to stay with one or both of them. I know they "lost" each other the last half of the marathon when they ran it last year. It will be my biggest marathon with around 30,000 runners.

    My point is, that reading your story gave me inspiration to keep plugging along in my solo training journey.

    I look forward to running with you again when you return!