Tokyo Marathon 2019: Learning From The Unexpected

March 5, 2021
My starting position for the 2019 Tokyo Marathon

It was yet another chilly, rainy morning that made me giddy as it greeted  me with unapologetic briskness immediately upon leaving the doorway.  This was the day that my countdown had been steadily marching through  for about the last 15 weeks; the 2019 Tokyo Marathon.

On  our 8th day in the country, I felt a distant but intimate relationship  with this city that was unique to any other race I’d done. Being  fundamentally unfamiliar with a place so exotic lends itself to a level  of observation I don’t often engage. For example, I can’t say I’ve ever  noticed the manhole covers of Chicago or Boston the way I did in Tokyo.I  tapped into a calm intensity reverberating through me as I navigated to  my entrance gate and corral. I felt grateful to be where I was and made  a conscious effort to take it all in. This is what I live for, after all.

The  calm was immediately tested when I came upon the actual start line and  realized this marathon would be vastly different from any of the  previous six.For  big races with staggered starting corrals, placement is based on a  previous race time. This was no different, but I misunderstood how I  needed to sign up for Tokyo. The race provided automatic entry and “A”  corral status to men in my age group that had a mark of 2:40:00 or  better. Since my best at the time was 2:30:35, I signed up and was  granted entry.

Unexpected Factor #1: Horrible Starting Position

Image from the expo, hoping that the “B” on my bib didn’t mean what I thought it meant.

Confirming  a suspicion I had since getting my bib was issued, I saw that I had  been assigned the “B” corral. I realized in this moment at the starting  line that the automatic entry required a different sign-up than the  general one I completed on the website. It turns out that I was granted  general entry in the lottery, which starts at the “B” corral. When I got  my bib at the expo, I assumed/hoped the pros were in the “A” corral.  Instead, I was placed behind the corral designated for my time bracket.

It  may not seem like a big difference, but these races are very strict  about only being able to enter your designated corral (on the bib). I’m  usually in the corral just behind the pro athletes and cross the start  line within ~10 seconds of the gun. This time I was firmly packed over  1,000 people behind the start line, still 50 meters of dense crowd  behind a tall sign indicating the 3:00 pacer.

While  I didn’t lose my cool, I certainly went through waves of frustration  and anxiety. There were strong feelings of entitlement to be in front of  all these people that were clearly slower than me, some of which were  wearing costumes.

It occurred to me that this a long race, and accepting a negative disposition at mile 0.0 would not be a winning formula. This was something that I had no control over and anticipated being a possibility.  The situation didn’t change my fitness or my enthusiasm for running  this race. It didn’t change my goals for the day either. I took in the  festivities of the start and readied myself for a big effort.

Similar  to the way I dealt with the weather, amusement and gratitude became  incredibly useful re-frames for the situation that I found myself in. My  race was going to have an added element of fun, and we were going to  see how I handled it. My effort and attitude were two things still  within my control.

Thankfully,  I have experience racing in dense crowds. This was an entirely  different level of congestion, but the same concepts apply:  

  1. Do not panic. Be calm but urgent.
  2. Do not try to make up all the time at once. Move forward gradually.
  3. Conserve energy by changing direction and speed as little as possible. Do not side-step and accelerate/decelerate constantly.
  4. Run your own race (this applies in all situations).

So  I grounded myself and shook off the anxious, angry thoughts. I knew it  wouldn’t be more than a couple of miles until I could run unhindered.

Start line pandemonium. A questionable time for confetti IMHO.

The  race went off and I enjoyed the confetti while getting to the edge as  fast as possible. Instead of opening up into my race pace as usual, it  was just over 30 seconds before I even reached the starting line. I was  still stuck at a shuffle for another ~100 meters because of all the  people! Veering wide to the outside, I began passing people in droves as  smoothly as I could.

There  was an eeriness to the start of such a huge race as the impeccably  polite Japanese spectators used inside voices and docile claps to cheer  the runners on. It felt strange to be running through such huge crowds with the decibel level of spectators watching Tiger as he prepared for his last putt to win the Masters.

As  usual at World Majors, excitement coursed through me as the  long-anticipated race finally got underway. I was passing runners by the  hundreds and moved up by over 1,000 people at the 5k mark. It was  important to me that I settled in and let it feel easy, even if there  was an urgency to get into a better position.

The  ability to run freely came after the first 10–15 minutes and it was  nice to constantly reel in the next runner. I felt calm and collected,  able to simply focus on executing and taking in the experience of  running through the rainy streets of Tokyo.

At the 10k mark in position 458, passing people every few seconds.

During  the middle 20k of the race, I felt as good as I ever have in a  marathon. The weather was cool and I was picking off runners at a steady  clip, flying blind but feeling great.

The gray skies made the colors of the city pop and I kept reminding myself to take mental snapshots of the course.

As  with all World Majors, the marathon course showcases each city’s unique  characteristics. Landmarks are incorporated and the overall ethos of a  city is on display. All of the senses are engaged; sights and sounds of  buildings and crowds, the feel of the topography and weather, the energy  of the day. Tokyo did not disappoint with its temples and skyscrapers,  along with 3 turnaround points in the race.

The rest of the race was relatively standard. I kept running hard even as I felt myself running out of gas. The challenge of staying engaged in the task at hand grew with each passing kilometer and I was reminded of the insane time warp that the experience of racing a marathon brings.

The 2nd of 3 turnaround points, this one at the half marathon mark.

The first half of the race flies by, and then somewhere around 18 miles things begin to slow down horrendously. The last 5 miles feels longer than the first 20, and the torture of slowing down elongates the suffering. I was still passing, but at a noticeably slower rate. The  last 10k, as always, were a blur of struggle and privilege. I strained  to stay relaxed at the pace that felt trivially easy just an hour  before. My form was falling apart and I began to indulge in thoughts of  self-pity. To shake myself out of this, I employed the mantra of saying  “yes” to this experience.

The  honor of taking all this in is what I’ve found to be a huge reason for  living, and it’s most important to remember that in the depths of the  pain. The difficulty is the very thing that makes it special, that gives  me the opportunity to learn insights I would otherwise not have access  to.

Vain  attempts to surge every few moments only slightly offset my fading  pace. The only people that I was passing were completely done and just  trying to make it to the line, a feeling that I had much empathy for.

All aboard the pain train.

I  made it to the last few hundred meters when I finally saw a time that I  could confidently interpret: I wasn’t even close to a personal best.  This would be my first race at this distance that would not be a new top  mark after 6 straight PRs.

After  finishing as strongly as possible, I wobbled my way toward the  finisher’s area to get my belongings. Cold began to set in viciously and  combined nicely with my cramping legs to make for a painful commute.  It’s easy to forget, but the pain of the marathon does not end at the  finish line. There’s still a whole other test of will to get changed and  back to the hotel.

Other  than the physical, I felt a massive wave of familiar frustration, one  honed by years of dissatisfaction with my race results through high  school and college. It was a gross but delicious temptation to indulge,  to criticize myself and throw out the entire experience of the day as  soon as it was over because it didn’t hold up to my expectations.

World Major #3 complete

I’m happy to say that I’ve grown since those days. Instead of  self-loathing, I tapped into how cool it was to accomplish what I did. I  still covered the distance, and there was honestly not much more that I  could have done. This was still part of the day that I earned, and I  wanted to continue absorbing it without cluttering my head with negative  thoughts.

"Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last  of the human freedoms - to choose one’s attitude in any given set of  circumstances, to choose one’s own way."

- Victor Frankl

Takeaways from my first international race:

On a big race day, be ready for unexpected things to happen.  Some things can be accounted for in training, but the most powerful  antidote is a mindset ready to handle whatever may come up. Confidence  in preparation is key for a big performance. Inoculate yourself against potential pitfalls by being mentally prepared to do your best no matter what happens.

Not every race will be a personal best. That’s just the reality of any endeavor. Progress is not linear. For both of these factors, the biggest difference-maker in perception will be expectations. Choose to judge the performance on effort and execution rather  than a specific time or place. Many things can happen over the course  of a 26.2 mile race, so it’s important to focus on what is controllable  rather than what’s not.

The  rest of my trip in Japan is one that I’ll remember for a lifetime. My  girlfriend Sarah and I stayed for another 2 weeks to visit Mt. Fuji,  Fukuoka, Hiroshima, and Osaka before returning to Tokyo for our flight  back to the States. We’ll be sure to visit again!

Unofficial splits and race placement each 5k.

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