Tokyo Marathon 2019: Learning From The Unexpected

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.