2019 Tokyo Marathon – Race Report

Some races leave you dejected and send you back to the drawing board, and other races are there to be destroyed. Tokyo was a bit of both. In a similar theme to the previous marathon (The one in Chicago in October 2018), there are pros and cons, there are ‘silver linings’ and ‘what ifs’. I finished the 2019 Tokyo Marathon with a personal best/record time of 3:23:43. Here is a race report of my experience, written belatedly because I am a procrastinator, and because I am too lazy to write a race report, but got enough energy somehow to train and finish such a race… One of many runners’ paradoxes I guess.

The good bits:

  • Marathon number 13!
  • Racing in a new city and country, in a totally different environment
  • Getting a PB (3:23 as mentioned previously, beating my previous personal best time by four minutes)
  • Being one step closer to finishing the World Majors, with 4 out of 6 under the belt. It is likely that the number of World Major races will be increased at some point this year or next year, but till then, I am happy to have raced these four, and I hope I will be able to run the remaining ones (New York and Boston) in the next two or so years.

What wasn’t so good:

  • Not getting the time I was targeting in my training, as I was gunning for a sub 3:15 finish
  • Not enjoying the race experience itself as I was freezing my a** and every other body part off before, during and well after the race

Before continuing this report, I need to make it clear that this is more about my personal experience, and not about how to enter the race, where to stay, what to do before and after the race, tips etc. (I’m only stating this because I’ve seen several race reports which discussed in painstaking detail the above-mentioned topics).

The lead up to Tokyo

I entered my name into the ballot in early August, and I did not really expect to get a spot, as the chances for foreigners to enter the marathon are pretty limited. This is something I have also observed at the race itself as well, as there weren’t that many non-Japanese runners (My guess is that 10% or even less of the total runners were non-Japanese).

The race organizers sent out the emails to ballot runners in late September, and while I was delighted to get a spot (The vast majority of runners in the community here got regret letters), part of me was hoping to not get it for 2019 as I was hoping to get some time to recover after Chicago, and to enjoy more of the local races, but hey, it’s a massive World Major, and people try to get in for years, so I wasn’t going to let that opportunity slip.

Post-Chicago, I took a couple of weeks doing little more than light training, mixed with physiotherapy work and sports massages to sort out that hip problem that derailed my race in October, before getting back to full on training and the fun long runs.

I had completed the three main half marathons on the local scene (Abu Dhabi Striders, Dubai Creek Striders and the Rak Half), and gradually improved my time in each race, but not getting a PB before Rak in February, when I felt was in peak condition (Time was 1:26:40 there). I enjoyed training, despite missing out on many short local races. Away from the sweaty track sessions and the half marathons, there were some ‘changes’ at work recently, and training for the race in Japan helped me stay focused and gave me purpose.

For the geeky number lovers, the total mileage covered between November and February (Race was on March 3rd) was 1,208 kms, so the average was just over 300 kms per month. I think this was my highest ever average kms per month for a marathon, and it was combined with strength training and cross training in the shape of swimming and spinning/indoor cycling.

I was concerned about the visa to Tokyo, so I made the arrangements for that via the Japanese embassy in Amman (To my surprise, the visa application was free there for Jordanian citizens). I had made a booking in the cheapest hotel I could find close to the start line (Hotel Rose Garden Shinjuku in case anyone is wondering). The race starts and finishes in different parts of town (Unlike Berlin and Chicago), but thankfully the Shinjuku area is well-connected with countless metro lines that go through it (The Shinjuku train station is ‘only’ the busiest in the world after all ;)).

In Tokyo – Pre-race

I traveled to Tokyo on a direct flight from Dubai several days before the race, which was one of the main learnings I took from Chicago, when everything felt a bit rushed ahead of the race and I couldn’t get over the jetlag in time for the race, not that this happened properly in Tokyo anyway, but at least I got to familiarize myself with the city better, understand the metro system and the area I was in, and get to do some touristy stuff.

The metro system proved to be very straightforward, and all the stations had good signage in English and Japanese, and except for the main train stations (Tokyo and Shinjuku), navigating the metro lines was a walk in the park. The area I stayed in (Shinjuku) was a busy business district, but it was very quiet at night. It was still within a couple of metro stops from the happening areas, and the hotel was within a 10-minute walk to the start line. The hotel room was tiny, although it was not cheap (Or maybe we are spoiled here in the UAE, I had a hotel room four times the size the weekend after the race when I went to Abu Dhabi to take photos at a triathlon!)

The few friends that managed to get spots landed in Tokyo within a day or so, we got to meet up with the Tokyo Adidas Runners and some other ones from other cities. The Expo was… Weird to say the least, it was outdoors with a couple of indoor tents, which was not convenient considering that it was cold and wet most of the time before the race (The conditions were okay-ish when we went on Friday afternoon though). The Japanese race organizers had many volunteers on the ground to help out, and there were quite a few English-speaking volunteers to help us out, the clueless international runners. They had cameras for facial recognition, and we had to put on bracelets which would be scanned on the morning of race day to ensure that the registered runners and nobody else is allowed into the race village. I had struggled to sleep much while tapering, which is common when you’re used to being in a state of close to sleep deprivation throughout your training months.

The city itself was fascinating, lights, noise, with intriguing smells, sounds and sights all around you, it got overwhelming at times, but Japanese people are quite patient and friendly, and never once had I felt that I was this ‘ignorant clueless tourist’ (except perhaps when asking for cutlery at an old style ramen place by the old chef).

It was also helpful that the country is doing a lot of work to make certain neighborhoods, tourist attractions and public transportation easier to navigate by having more signage in English and getting more people to learn and to speak English in anticipation of the 2020 Olympic Games. I stayed for one week, and it was a low-key trip, with the main ‘crazy’ highlight being the race itself. I would love to visit it again in the future and to hopefully explore other cities in the country.

On to D-day…

Race day!

So, after yet another night of not sleeping much, I made my customary pre-race coffee, breakfast (fruits and bread/croissants) and water. The race kit was prepared the night before.

I made my way to the race village and the start line. The lines at the security check for the bags was moving slowly, but the volunteers and security personnel were very friendly. After that, I queued up for the portaloos, which in Tokyo are notoriously long (this is an issue for the race overall, which is something I will touch upon later on here in this report).

I got in with plenty of time, and then I dropped off my bag and then tried to find a spot to shelter myself from the rain and blistering cold conditions. I managed to squeeze myself in a spot as close as possible to the start line, but the lesson learned from this experience is to layer up before the race when and if the conditions are THAT cold (It was 5-degrees out there at the start, and it went down to 4 during the race). To be completely honest, I was advised specifically by Angeline, the coach of the running club that I train with in Dubai (Super Sports Abras Athletics) to keep myself as warm as possible before the race, but I thought that I would be able to deal with the cold without the additional layers, and how wrong I was. I only had an old long-sleeved football jersey to keep me warm.

After what felt like an eternity, the race started right on time, with Japanese precision. My feet had an odd numb sensation for a good 10-15 minutes after the start, and for some time I feared that it will persist and derail my race, but thankfully that went away. I threw my long-sleeved top around 6-8kms into the race, thinking my body was warm enough by that stage, only for the rain to get heavier soon after and for the temperature to drop.
I had gloves on and arm sleeves, which helped for the most part.

My strategy was to try and maintain a steady pace for as long as possible and try to do a few faster kms towards the end if stamina permitted, and hope that I wouldn’t hit the wall badly or get any niggling cramps. As with some of the big city races, maintaining a steady pace was a challenge, not because of the other runners (overtaking and maneuvering was straightforward here), but the city’s towers wreaked havoc with my Garmin’s GPS signal, and despite the fact that I also have a foot pod, which should in theory help in recording the pace and distance, but alas. For most of the kilometers, my watch would bleep after 850 to 950 meters, so I had to manually ‘lap it’ (basically start a new km lap) when I passed the actual distance marker to have some idea about the time it’s taken for each kilometer. This meant the pace was completely off for 80% of the race. This was annoying, but it was not as frustrating as not being able to refuel…

I prefer to race in running shorts that have a smallish pocket with a zipper on the side or at the back, and while this was the first full marathon I race without a waist pack/fanny pack, I’ve done several races this season with gels and my keys in the small side/back pocket. In Tokyo, the pocket was big enough to hold just about 3 or 4 gels, so I held an additional one in my hand and had it after about 8k (I struggled to open it for like a minute or two). The problem when it’s blistering cold (It went down to 4 degrees Celsius) is that your hands and fingers become super cold, and it becomes very difficult to open zippers and packets. I could not even open my short’s side zipper, let alone open the gel packets, so in other words, I ran the majority of the race with barely any fuel, unless you count the water, whatever sports drink they offered at the support stations and the fruits. Looking back, I cannot really tell if I would’ve performed better if I had fueled up well in the race. It was one of the very few full marathons that I have completed without walking at all, and although I struggled in the last few kms (as you tend to do in marathons), I jogged at an okay pace which kept me comfortably well within breaking my previous personal best time, but nowhere near the time I had aimed and trained for. I did not need to use a portaloo during the race, but there were countless stories about these being way off the race course, with runners having to go for as long as half a mile off course to get to one. There were runners who missed the strict cut-off time of the race because of this as well, which did not go down too well obviously. This is something one would expect a World Major race to have rectified by now, but it seems to be a recurring thing every year.

Smiling through the pain and the freezing cold
The distance and pace on the Garmin are obviously way off

By the time I reached the last 2-3 kms, which went through a busy and modern district of the city, my energy reserves were depleted, I could not even look up at the crowds that lined up the wet roads in massive numbers, I just wanted it to be done. I wanted to get to the finish line, rehydrate, refuel, warm myself up and get back to my hotel room to defrost. It took some time to get to the bag collection area on very sore and tired legs, putting on warmer clothes. Putting them on was a nightmare as I was still freezing all over, and the rain had no plans of subsiding. Eventually, I was able to get dressed, get to the closest metro station and make my way back to Shinjuku.

Post-race

I had one of my longest ever showers to thaw and to get back to functioning like a normal human being afterwards (assuming I am a normal functioning one), I probably drank 2 liters of water in less than 15 minutes, and had enough chocolate bars that could fill a small candy store.

On the ‘celebrations’ front, well, they were low key, as we were shattered, but most of the Dubai-based runners had strong races, with one of them finishing in just under 4-hours with a mad dash in the last kilometer to sneak it in. She was chuffed!

For the rest of the trip, I did some (slow-paced) sightseeing on heavy Marathon legs, tried some random foods, and contemplated the next steps and life in general (joking, I’m not that deep).

Learnings

  • Maybe gels are not essential? It was not the first time I do a long run with little fuel. I had actually done some of my hardest and longest training runs with little or even no fuel (Except for water, juices and/or chocolate bars).
  • Wear shorts with normal pockets when it’s cold AF like it was in Tokyo
  • Sleep more perhaps before the race (by taking sleeping pills)
  • Do more core exercises and strength training, as that makes a significant difference

For the number geeks…

I usually share the Garmin and Strava data, but since they were waaay off (Pace was 4:34 on Garmin, in reality, my time of 3:23:43 meant that the actual average pace was 4:50 min/km). I will only share the official numbers and splits from the tracking app and the official results page:


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