Tokyo Marathon 2019: Learning From The Unexpected

Updated: May 10

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, i