Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Race Report: Sakura Asahi Kenko Marathon 2017

I ran Sakura Asahi Kenko Marathon 2017 on March 26. I renewed my previous personal best of 3:49:54, which I had recorded in the same course three years before, by 4 minutes and 18 seconds to finish at 3:45:36 (net). Though I fell short of my original target of 3:44:59 by 37 seconds, I am satisfied with the result, because I achieved two other sub-goals: (1) to achieve negative split which means running the second half faster than the first one; (2) to finish strongly. 

It was the most memorable race in more ways than one. I would like to take a moment to review how I ran the race.

The gun went off at 9:30 a.m. The temperature was around 5 degrees Celsius. North-eastern winds were expected, but I didn't feel them much at least near the start line. The congestion of runners was minimal. Time loss was within one minute and a half. In my mind the first 5 K was warm up. There is a little undulation in this part of the race. You don't want to waste energy by going too fast. I carefully controlled the pace, slowly lubricating my joints and muscles. I had my wind-breaker on but I started soaking in no time. The rain was heavier than I had thought. I was in minimalist shoes MUTEKI. They also almost immediately got wet as they only have a very thin rubber sole. 

The 5 K mark was soon in sight. I checked my Ironman watch to see I was almost two minutes behind my target. But I was in no hurry. There was 37 more K ahead of me. Increasing the pace at this stage is too risky. I said to myself, "Don't hop like a bunny. Slither like a snake." 

By the time I reached the 10 K mark, the runners had already spread out, and I comfortably maintained my pace. Every now and then I felt this urge to run faster, but I had learned enough lessons in the past that it's not the time to do so yet.

At the 15 K mark a long and steep uphill awaits runners. This is one of the two biggest challenges that the course presents to runners. When I reached the bottom of it, I leaned forward slightly, and took shorter strides to minimize energy loss. I had developed this technique through repeated training sessions on a hilly course. When I reached the top, I wasn't breathless at all while some of runners around me looked exhausted, gasping for air. 

There were a couple of concerns by then. One was that around the 12 K mark my knee started hurting just a little. I almost never experience knee pain in training, so it's clearly psychosomatic; my subconscious is crying with dissatisfaction with anticipated pain.  However, over the course of time I had developed a skill to resolve this sort of pain by having a dialogue between my superego and subconscious. The former says, "Gak, you gotta run no matter what." The latter says, "Gak, let's call it quits, shall we?" The argument never settles, so my ego comes in and says, "Mr. Subconscious, have you ever heard the term 'delayed gratification'? Though it feels painful, and the prospect of greater pain ahead freaks you out, once it's done, you will feel a pleasure that is beyond your imagination." Mr. Subconscious quiets down. And the pain is mysteriously gone!!

The second concern was a pee-problem. Shortly after I passed the 13 K mark, I started feeling like taking a leak. It's a bit of a disappointment. I went to the men's room right before the gun went off. I avoided drinking anything with caffeine in it because I know it makes you want to pee more. But I'm afraid it wasn't enough. Apparently I had taken in too much liquid before the race. Two cups of corn soup and a bowl of sweet red bean paste soup must have been responsible. But it was all too late to regret. I had to deal with it ASAP. When it happens in a race, you have a choice. Choice No. 1: you do your best to hold it till the race finishes IF you can do it. It's extremely distracting, and I'm afraid it can significantly affect your overall pacing even if you should be able to save a few tens of seconds by not making a stop at a toilet.  Choice No. 2 is simply to go and take a leak. With this choice, there are a few sub-choices. Sub-choice No. 1. Go to a bush and take a leak. I did it once in the 2013 race. It's totally unrecommendable because the organizer advises runners to abstain from it. So you should consider it as the last resort. Sub-choice No. 2 is to use a designated official portable toilet. They are placed at regular intervals, and their locations are informed to runners prior to the race. So you can use one before discomfort reaches the level where your performance can be seriously affected by it. Sub-choice No. 3 isn't really a choice, because it's to wet your pants. Who wants to do that, you know? To make a long story short, I took Sub-choice No. 2 near the 16 K mark. It took me between 30 and 40 seconds (I didn't time it, but after doing repeated interval training sessions I had developed a fairly good sense of time.)  to get the job done. When I was out of the portable toilet, I felt like a new man, totally focused on running. 
Getting back to reporting the race per se, I ran the section between 15 and 20 K probably most carefully in the first half of the race. There are two reasons. One, you can very easily over-pace yourself here, especially because you have just passed one of the most challenging parts of the race (the first major uphill, I mean), and feel relaxed from pressure. Another reason you should be cautious is that between 17 and 18 K there is a long downhill. Though there is nothing wrong with increasing pace when you go down; you get to run faster anyhow even if you don't try to. But hammering down the downhill can take a toll on your legs later on. Achieving negative split was one of my sub-goals, and I didn't want to risk it. But I have a mixed feeling about keeping the steady pace, because my friends were supposed to cheer me on near the 19 K mark, and I had given them my estimated passing time, but I was more than two minutes behind. I was afraid they might worry that something had happened to me, or that maybe I was not in a good condition. But after some inner talk, I completely dropped that concern, because it was not their race. Mine! So I stuck to my pacing and kept my eyes straight ahead. 

I reached the 19 K mark, Futago Park, where my friends awaited. The park was crowded with volunteer aid workers who were offering runners water, sports drink, and some snacks. I couldn't see my friends, so I figured that they probably weren't allowed in, and that they were expecting me a little ahead. I was right. When I went past the park and was about to take a left onto the Futago Bridge, three figures were in sight, all of whom were waving at runners. I couldn't see them clearly but they looked like one man and two women. They must be my friends. As I got nearer to the bridge, their figures got larger, and their faces were now clearly visible. They waved at me with a big smile on their faces, yelling words of encouragement! I thanked them amply, asking where my personal cheer leader was. Ui-san, the leader of the cheering group, pointed ahead and said, "She is at the end of the bridge, ready to take your photos." I tried to unwrap my wind-breaker off my waist to hand it to her, because I felt warm enough. But I decided not to, because I was afraid of distracting her from taking photos. I kept in around my waist, posed when I ran past the cheer leader, said thanks, and moved on. 

The halfway point came sooner than I thought. I didn't notice, but I seemed to have picked up the pace only slightly. I checked the split, and figured that my original target of 3:44:59 was within reach. 

The section between 20 and 25 K was flat and monotonous. It is in this section, though, that many runners who have only run half-marathons start falling behind, some getting a cramp in their calf and/or thigh, others feeling excruciating pain in one or more of their leg joints, and yet others simply running out of gas...

By the time I went past the 25 K mark and the 26 K sign was in sight, I had well overcome the right knee pain that plagued me in the earlier part of the race. I went down the cycling road leading to the well-known Danish windmill at a steady pace in order to save energy for the final phase of the race which had always presented a major challenge in the former races. 

I reached the aid station at the 28.5 K mark where my friends awaited only a minute or so later than my estimated arrival time. It's a slight improvement from the arrival time at Futago Park. I successfully shed a couple of tens of seconds off each 1 K lap between 20 and 28 K. My spirit lifted. Ui-san offered me a cup of warm Amazake, but I politely declined and moved on. At that stage of the race, I wanted nothing but water. Later that day when he and I had a party with another mutual friend of ours in our hometown, I explained my situation to him and asked him not to feel bad about my rejection.

With the most lively aid station behind, runners, including myself, were back on a narrow and quiet cycling road with only occasional cheerers along the way. The rain kept on falling, sometimes heavily, taking heat away from our bodies. Each time I felt cold, I put my wind-breaker back on. But once the rain got less heavy, I started feeling hot and took it off. It was extremely distracting, and I felt like I was unnecessarily wasting some of my precious energy, so from a certain point on after the 30 K mark, I just kept it on all the time. I looked backed on the 19 K mark where I almost handed it to my cheerleader and shuddered. Had I done that, I would have felt so cold that I couldn't continue the race...

The section between 30 and 35 K was the most crucial one for me. In the past races it is in this section that I slowed down suddenly. I was determined not to let that happen. I had trained so hard not to by having a 30 K run three times after the Ohme 30 K Road Race in February, each time going extra miles later in the same day to make the total distance well beyond the full marathon distance. However, just because you did something extraordinary in training doesn't mean you can replicate it in an official race. Pain started building in both of the ankles and the glutes started hurting too. I felt like a machine on its last legs, malfunctioning and about to fall into pieces. I said my favorite chants in my mind: "Don't hop like a bunny. Slither like a snake. Never hop like a bunny. Slither like a snake." It eased the pain for a second as the landing shock was only slightly lightened with a conscious effort. But my body was already exhausted beyond the point where my muscles could obey the orders of my will. I saw other runners. They looked pained as much as I was. I imagined that they and I were shouldering some shared burden of tremendous religious importance, like taking a precious, precious gift to a place of divinity. A feeling of being a part of something larger gave me a moment of relief, but very quickly that feeling too was swallowed by ridiculously giant, and relentless blows of pain soon afterwards. I played a little psychological trick on my by saying that the final phase began not at the 35 K, but at 38 K, and I planned to take my one last energy ball made of heated sake lees and a small amount of brandy mixed up. When I finally reached the 38 K point, I took it from the left pocket of my running shorts, unwrapped it, put it into my mouth. A sweet flavor of raisins spread and then a sharp stimulus of alcohol. I expected it to ease the pain no matter how small an amount it was. But it did not do anything but make my mouth dry. I was disappointed. I learned a lesson very quickly. At this phase of a marathon race, there is nothing you can rely on buy your own physical strength and will power! I kicked, and I kicked harder. With each step, it felt like a nail was hammered into my leg. It was so agonizing that I felt like throwing up. But there was nothing to throw up but an indescribable feeling of misery. Time passed, and I looked around for the 39 K mark. It's nowhere to be seen. Did I miss it? Or is it still ahead of me? I saw my Ironman watch. The most recent lap said 6 minutes something. I couldn't possibly be that slow. Obviously, I missed the sign. So the next sign was the 40 K mark, which came in sight a lot sooner than I thought. Maybe I was picking up the pace. Two more kilometers to go. A familiar landscape was in sight. It's the second last corner before the goal. Far ahead on the left was a hill on top of which there was the stadium where it all started off nearly three and a half hours before. The goal was near. Cheerers got larger in number. Their yells had changed in the course of time. They were now more indicative of the imminent finish. Cheering drums were heard at a distance.  They had been at the outskirt of the hill when I started off in the morning. So this is it. I'm finally within a kilometer or so from the finish line. I took a right into the street leading to the stadium, hearing the drums right on my lefrt, which were tremendously much louder now in volume. Then came that notorious uphill that forbid countless runners from putting on a last spurt! I bent forward, and took shorter strides just like I did when I went up that first long uphill near the 15 K mark. There were some other runners near me. They didn't look as strong as I was. They must be decently well-trained runners, being there at that time with me. But they looked more pained by the challenge than excited by it. I was different. I welcomed it. I had been so determined to run up this hill strongly ever since I signed up for the race. I did two sessions of 1 K by 13 sets hill interval training prior to the race. The training was insanely challenging, but I could tell that all that effort was not paying off. I climbed the hill like a tank, fiercely withstanding the gravitational pull that tried to drag the runners back to the bottom of it. I heard a familiar voice calling my name. It was my cheer leader, trying to take photos of me. I could tell that my face was in a grimace. But the sincere warmth of the caring cheerer brought a genuine smile back on my face for a moment, but another moment later it was once again replaced with a serious expression of someone who had one last job to do. I reached the top of the hill. Near the entrance to the stadium there was an official clock. It said 3:45:XX. Achieving the target gross already slipped out of my hand. But doing it net might be possible. I mustered up what little energy that there was inside, and charged down the home stretch. The finish arch came nearer and nearer with each step. I couldn't believe how fast I was running. Pain was there. Tremendous pain. But it was no longer irrelevant. It was non-existent because I was numb to it all. I was a fireball that could sense nothing but a joy that would surely arrive when I crossed the finish line. A voice from the speaker reached my ears that called my bib number and name. It was one of the official emcees congratulating my successful return. Oh, what a wonderful gesture! Feeling an overwhelming sensation of being one with everyone around me, I crossed the finish line strongly, and then came to a sudden halt breathless.  I crouched with my hands on my knees. My eyes were shut. I couldn't open them. A kaleidoscope of memories could have come back to my vision, but didn't. I was blank. A couple of tens of seconds passed. When I finally able to open my eyes, I was among a number of finishers, some with their smile radiating joy, others limping in a grimace, and still others looking relieved that the ultimate test of endurance finally came to an end.

Soon I was joined by my personal cheer leader who only a short while before had taken photos of me in the middle of the last uphill. I thanked her for her moral support and all the precious care. She and I walked to the finish line to wait for our mutual friend who was also running. He came back 11 seconds after the official clock hit 4:00:00, but that he finished under 4:00:00 net was without doubt. He said, "Shit, I could have made it gross."  I knew exactly how he felt because I too missed my target by a fraction of time. But all the bitter feelings were soon replaced with the joy of completing a very challenging race in the cold rain. "We did a good job," I said to the friend. He laughed as he jokingly told me how the last steep hill prevented him from surging for a dramatic gross sub-four finish. I verbally patted him on the back by reiterating he did a marvelous job of finishing under 4 hours net in three consecutive full marathons: Tateyama Wakashio, Tokyo, and Sakura. Hearing this this, he looked flattered, and together we walked to the waiting room for runners behind the stadium.       

With the end of Sakura Kenko Marathon 2017 my racing season 2016-2017 is officially over. From now till Kyoho no Oka 20 K Road Race in September 2017, I have no plans to join any serious race, except for possible fun run events. The result of the race has clearly taught me my weaknesses. I am going to address them in my daily training for the coming six months. I hope to prove to myself and like-minded friends that you can continue to become a stronger version of yourself through purposeful, constant effort even after 50 years of age.

~1K: 7:33.88
~2K: 5:27.96
~3K: 5:16.18
~4K: 5:21.49 
~5K: 5:21.74
~6K: 5:06.79 
~7K: 5:08.57
~9K: 10.35.93 
~10K: 5:17.90 (55:10.44) 
~11K: 5.15.57  
~12K: 5:27.63 
~13K: 5:20.08 
~14K: 5:28.96 
~15K: 5.12.41 
~16K: 5:29.04 (1st steep uphill & pee break)
~18K: 10.26.39  
~19K: 5:02.07 
~20K: 5:11.34 (1:48:03)
~21K: 5:18.68 
~22K: 5:14.03 
~23K: 5:15.93 
~24K: 5:25.86 
~25K: 5:02.30
~26K: 5:19.86 (took candy at the aid station) 
~27K: 5:08.79 
~28K: 5:13.99 
~29K: 5:15.57 (windmill) 
~30K: 5:24.59 (2:40:43)
~31K: 5:25.87 
~32K: 5:19.69 
Data unavailable from the next lap on as the recall function on my Ironman watch only counts until the 30th lap. I guess it's designed for users measuring distance in miles, not kilometers. (Note 42.195 K is 26.385 miles. Max 30 laps is more than enough for taking all the mile laps in the race.)

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