Back in March, I was honored with an invitation to run in the Tokyo Shibamata 100k road race, and inaugural event, all expense paid, with $1000 appearance fee to boot. Having never been to Japan, or offered an appearance fee (!?!) I was thrilled to accept. The elite recruiter, Souhei, was very helpful throughout the planning, all the way to meeting me at the airport, and escorting me via train to my hotel in the old city of Asakusa. He is a small, polite, patient and friendly man, and helped me tote my big-ass bag up and down stairs, checking me in, and letting me know what tomorrow’s agenda was. My room was comfortable, complete with slippers, robe, fridge, hot water pot, and the toilet had several settings – bidet or splash with variable pressure, plus a heated seat. I could get used to that. Refreshing.
One goal I had for my visit was to eat sushi everyday, so I accomplished this on day one, after which I collapsed in my bed for a decent night’s sleep. Next morning, Amy and I met up for a run along the river to get the kinks out.
We had the day to relax and do minimal exploring, so as not to be on our feet for too long. Amy had discovered a phenomenon in Japan called “Cat Cafe” – a place where folks who are too busy to have pets can hang out with a bunch of kitties and get their fix without the responsibility. So driven by that curiosity and love for cats, we found one near by, hung out for an hour playing with them and doing some internet catching up. The owner uses her place for a sort of half way house for homeless kitties – she likes to be able to place them in homes eventually.
The next place we stopped for lunch was itself an small adventure. Both feeling like some noodles, we spotted a tiny sidewalk cafe, and tried to squeeze into the counter/kitchen/one-man-show, first through the front door, and seeing not much space, went to the side door. The cook/owner came out and through sign language, grunts, pointing, we were instructed to go back to the front. He then pointed to a box-machine on the wall and instructed us to pick out what we wanted. A kind patron got up from the counter and helped as Amy shoved money into the machine for the both of us, it spit out two tickets, and we gave them to the cook. We watched as he served up large bowls of noodles, veggies, and broth to the customers before us, and finally we had ours. It was delicious.
That evening, the local organizing committee hosted a dinner for Amy, Georgio Calcettera and his partner, Veronica, and I. It was served by women in traditional kimono, and there were a few pre-dinner welcoming speeches that we didn’t understand except for the important message that we were very welcome and they were so happy to have us there. Then the food started. Small roe dish, then crab legs, followed by tempura. Next out came the hot pot, with a huge platter of meat and some veggies for each table of four. The kimonoed ladies kept dipping the beef into the pot and putting it on our plates, then some veggies, and then doing again. Our beer glasses were continually being filled, although it was not strong enough effect us much. Finally, when we were all about to pop, they brought out the sushi, and oh my it was a sight to behold. Photos of everyone finished the evening, with so many poses and variations that it felt a bit like a family reunion.
Friday morning we runners were picked up in a van and driven to the race venue. First we were driven out to one of the early aid stations so we could get a view of the course. One of the organizers, Rui, sighed and said “well, I think it’s actually pretty boring.” But at least it would be a potentially fast course with the only real turns being the two out-and-back sections, and the hairpin turns on some switchbacks going off the levy to underpass several bridges.
We headed back to the race venue and Georgio, Amy, and I were interviewed for one of the TV news programs, which was a lot of fun, with Souhei acting as translator. After returning to the hotel we rested up, and that evening had dinner with our Japanese ultra running friend who lived in the US until recently, Mikio, who planned on coming out to watch us race the next day. A good night’s sleep ensued, and Saturday morning I was up at 4:45 to slowly get ready for the race. I ate rice, egg, chia seeds, coffee, and fixed a bottle of Vitargo to sip on afterwards. Our van came to pick us up at 6:15, and before 7 we arrived. Our holding room was inside a community building, and at 7:20 we headed to the venue. The masses were gathering, complete with some mascots of Japanese characters that somehow I had missed out on in my childhood, like Monchichi. But Amy seemed to know him and enjoyed having her photo taken with him. Souhei asked us if we would each please say something in Japanese as we were each introduced on the stage. I chose “Konichiwa”. A Japanese drum line got our blood pumping, and we made our way up to the start line on the narrow bike path. The three of us were instructed to stand at the very front of the racers, the LOC chairman made a grand speech, a countdown ensued, and then we were off.
Our plan had been to run together for hopefully a couple of hours. Amy and I are similarly enough paced that it made sense to stay together as long as possible. Working with someone on a flat paved long straight road has a lot of appeal, especially if there is any wind involved. Before long we were clicking of 7:07 miles. We didn’t need to run that fast, but we were comfortable, and I use my heart rate monitor during races to keep myself in control. For the first couple of hours it was 155 or lower, which was right on target for a sub-8 hour day. Aid stations were frequent, some with only water, others with traditional aid station fare. I carried a gel flask full of hammer gel, plus some S!Caps in my sports bra. I took little nips from the flask regularly, and S!Caps every hour initially. The course was pretty much unchanging, although the buildings on the horizon came and went more quickly than I imagined they would. Aid stations did not have gels that we are accustomed to in the US, but did offer “Amino Vital” Jelly at about 25k. I picked up one, and after failing to figure out how to open it, had Amy twist the top off for me. And then I took a swallow. Ewwww. Weird. It was like jello that had been in the blender. But it was wet and it was calories, so I forced it down. At 40k or so, we finally saw the lead men coming toward us. The South Korean runner Sim Jae Duk was leading, followed by a young Japanese runner, and in third was a very comfortable looking Georgio. Knowing full well that Georgio is a patient and smart runner, I wasn’t surprised at his placement here. After him, there were probably only a few more men ahead.
It was beginning to heat up, and by the time we hit the 29 mile mark/turn around it was pretty toasty, and our average pace was about 7:15. At this stop I drank a little soup, ate a banana, drank more water, and we were soon on our way back towards the finish. Twenty-nine miles away. Since the turn around section was actually a lollypop loop, it was hard to be 100% sure there were no women close behind, but it was some 15 or 20 minutes before we saw another female. At this point Amy asked if, since we were still running together pretty well, if we continued feeling the “same-ish” for the duration, did I want to finish together. “Works for me!” It made sense to work together. The field was very spread out, the view before us seemed a bit like infinity, there always seemed to be some wind coming at us, and, well, misery loves company. We also both didn’t want to kill ourselves prematurely, or at all for that matter. We both had Western States coming up, and I wanted to follow Craig’s advice of “Don’t leave your Western States race in Japan!”
I continued to nip away on the gel, drink water or sports drink from the aid stations, and ingest S!Caps once or twice per hour. I needed to use the toilet pretty badly, and stopped at a porta-john, and opened it up on some poor unsuspecting runner. Now, there are several versions of toilet in Japan – some of which are very low to the ground, as was this one – and the person using it was seated on it facing away from the door. I still don’t quite understand how that works, and I apologetically shut the door quickly, and decided I could make it to the next aid station.
Our pace was continuing to slow, and we both alluded at times that if the other one of us wanted to pull ahead, it would be okay. But Amy did have to wait for me through 3 port-a-potty breaks, and those breaks were pretty awesome. It felt so good to sit down for a few seconds. We continued along, striving to get “there”, trying not to really know how many hours we had left. I had one more chance with the Amino Vital jelly, which was just as weird as the first time, but my gel was gone and I really needed the calories to continue. Seemingly miraculous, we reached the 90k mark which was at the start/finish venue. The time was 6:59, and we had 10k to go. Veronica was there yelling at us “See Georgio? See Georgio?” We replied we had not. She replied “maybe retiro!” and proceeded to hand us the gels she was saving for him. I was very grateful as I knew they were basically sugar and caffeine, and I was definitely in need. Mikio and Souhei were also there, cheering us on.
Amy had proposed some time before that we treat the last 10k like a cool down. That helped mentally prepare for leaving the finish line area. We really had no intention of slowing down. A fair bit of the course turned to gravel, and my feet weren’t particularly happy about that. I followed Amy on the path that had shown the most traffic, or else ran on the grassy section next to the gravel. There were several sporting events going on to our left – baseball and cricket mostly – and the late afternoon air was pleasant. The last aid station which we would visit coming back as well had watermelon, and it was magical. At this point we had only seen 2 men ahead of us, a Japanese runner, and the South Korean. Wow, this course had taken it’s toll on the men’s field. When we had about 1k to go, we saw Georgio running toward us! He hadn’t quit, and we learned later that he had really had a bad day. I was impressed with his finish and his humility.
The caffeine and sugar from the gel was now fully kicked in. Amy and I were gathering momentum, and it felt good to be running hard. We neared the finish, joined hands, and crossed together. Our time of 7:50 and change was one of my faster runs, and I was happy to have any time under 8:00. We enjoyed a cold beer, a finisher’s towel, and a post race interview. We awaited Georgio, then hung out for another couple of hours for the award ceremony.
It was at this time we learned that my big ol’ foot had crossed the finishing mat ahead of Amy, so technically, I was first. I didn’t really like being declared the “winner” as we had tied. Our mindset was definitely different than if we had raced to the finish. We both had good days, worked well together, and helped each other get through the slow grind of the second half.
The following day we had time to be tourists and met up with a friend of Amy’s to visit Tokyo. We saw the Imperial Palace, and some downtown shopping districts. In the evening we had another amazing meal with Amy’s cousin and her husband. And next day, we were on our way back home.
It was a whirlwind trip, and I would love to do it again! I loved Japan with its warm people, ease of getting around, cleanliness, and safety. I fulfilled my dietary fish requirement for at least a month. I felt honored to be so well taken care of before and after the race.