Sunday, April 1, 2018

Race Report: Sakura Asahi Kenko Marathon 2018

On March 25, Sunday Sakura Asahi Kenko Marathon 2018 took place in Sakura City, Chiba. I ran the race and finished in 4:03:21 gross (4:02:22 net). The time is the worst of the four races run in the last two years, and the race was by far the most painful one. But nonetheless it is one of the most memorable days for me, thanks to companionship of my runner friend, Hashimoto-san, as well as friendship of many who came over to cheer me: Ui-san, Yukie-chan, Kiuchi, Nemo-cchan, and the Nakajima Sisters. Although the time is far from what I wanted, I feel proud that I ran the race in aqua shoes with no cushioning, and that I took them off with 1.5 K remaining, and that I crossed the finish line in bare feet as a tribute to my all time fitness hero late Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia who won the gold medal in men's marathon in the 1960 Olympics in Rome without wearing shoes. Running with less reliance on modern athletic technology than the previous season was a big goal for me and I achieved that goal.

Below is how I ran the race. I hope those who consider joining the race next year can benefit by reading it as it describes some characteristics of the course and how I approached it to run it well.

(Two hours before the race)
The race was officially under way at 9:30 a.m. It doesn't take much time to reach the official start line from your corral as there aren't as many participants as major races such as the Tokyo Marathon or the Ohme 30 K Road Race. I always start my watch at the official start time, but it was only a minute or so after it when I crossed the start line. 

Once out of the stadium, the course begins a long steep descent into a road that eventually leads to Keisei Sakura Station. You go over a hill that stretches over almost two kilometers. My strategy here was to use it for warming up myself. It's a long, long race. You don't want to hammer it up and waste energy here. I enjoyed a comfortable climb at an easy pace. An episode to illustrate how relaxed I was is that I saw a guy running in a pair of "warachi" flip-flops and had a friendly chit-chat with him. 
(Shortly after the gun went off)

Soon I crossed the 10 K mark, and took a quick look at my watch, which said 57:00. I thought not bad. I wanted to run the fastest in the last 7 K, so I decided to keep the same pace until I reached the 30 K mark. I had water at almost every water station. It was important, because it was hot. Daytime highs were expected to reach 20 degrees Celsius. Also, I hadn't had much water before the race to control my urge to pee during the race. In the previous full marathon in January in Tateyama I took total 3 pee breaks during the race, and I had so much trouble catching up to the 3:45 pacers after taking the third one. I didn't want to make the same mistake. 

(Near the 14 K mark)

Near the 14 K mark I saw my bilingual companion. I asked her to prepare half a piece of sweet sponge cake when I pass the 18 K mark which was not so far from where she was. Soon after I left her behind came one of the biggest challenges the course had to offer--a long steep hill leading to the Kusabueno Oka Hill. I took shorter strides and slowed down so as not to increase my heart rates. A number of runners overtook me, but I didn't care. They are inexperienced runners who knew nothing about its consequence. At the top of the hill many were gasping for air. I ran past some of them like I picked apples from the tree. 

Near the 18 K mark I received the sponge cake from my bilingual companion and also had some water from her water bottle. Up to that point I had water as well as sports drink at every water station, but I found myself slightly dehydrated. At the halfway point my watch said 1:50:00. I was running faster than I had originally planned to. But I didn't feel like I was pushing, so I went with the flow. At the 26 K mark the course turned into the cycling road. I was feeling hotter and hotter with each step. I felt my heart beat harder though I was running any faster. I felt the need to slow down to save energy for the final phase of the race. No sooner had I slowed down a bit than I heard approaching foot steps from behind, and in less than a minute I found myself being overtaken by a large group of runners led by 3:45 pacers. Though I wasn't aware I was running in front of the pacers, I clearly realized at that moment that my pace was getting slower than theirs, and if I wanted to finish under 3:39:59, I had no choice but stick to them. So although it was getting tougher and tougher for me to keep the same pace as in the first half of the race, I decided to hang on to them. Soon I came to the largest cheering spot at the 28.5 K mark near the windmill, where I was cheered by local friends mine from my junior high school days. I looked hard for them and found them at last, but I made a fatal mistake at the same time. I missed the water station that was on the opposite side from the one my friends were on. The next station was between the 33 and 34 K mark. I prayed for god that I would last till there. 

(At the 28.5 mark by the windmill)

Unfortunately, I didn't last till there. With each step my dehydration became more and more apparent. And finally near the 30 K mark I got a first spasm in my left hamstring. I had to stop. My heart sank. I stopped there for about twenty seconds and did some stretching. I knew then that I would never renew my PR today. But I never wanted to quit just for that reason. I never want to be a quitter. I slowly started to run again, but was stopped from time to time by a series of painful cramps. I wanted to cry from misery. When I finally saw the next water station near the 34 K mark, although it was visible, it seemed like an unreachable paradise across the ocean. It seemed like a phantom that I could never touch. It looked so far far away... When I finally reached there, I came to a complete halt and gulped two cups in a row. I grabbed a cup of sports drink too and had it in one gulp. Soon my stomach felt like a balloon full of water inside. I started running again, but I felt heavy. I no longer felt like a runner. I felt like a patient. But I kept on dragging my legs forward. 

 (At the 35 K mark)

At the 35 K mark the bilingual companion was waiting. She knew something was wrong. I saw her face. She looked sad. I felt so bad that my running wasn't impressive. I put so much effort into it, and she believed that I'd run a good race, and now this. I briefly told her what happened, but that I would never quit. I left her behind and moved on. 7 K is a breeze when you are full of legs. But once they start malfunctioning, it feels like forever. When you are running well, cheerers encouraging comments bring out the best from you. But when you are not, they don't necessarily. In fact, there is nothing you can do to live up to their expectations, that you feel so miserable that you almost want to kill those well-intended people for a moment. You can be that desperate. 

Shortly past the 39 K mark I was finally overtaken by the 4:00 pacers. I made my utmost effort to stick with them, but I could only do so for a little less than one kilometers. And when I finally crossed the 40 K mark, my legs were so sore that I almost considered dropping that idea all together of taking off my shoes for that glorious barefoot finish as a tribute to my all time athletic hero, late Abebe Bikila. But the main street was in sight, where the road condition improved and there were more cheerers, I made up my mind to stick with my original plan. I stopped and took off my aqua shoes, and rolled them up and grabbed them in my hands. It was at that moment a switch was turned on and I felt like a reserve tank was untapped. I forced down the road like a new man. Taking a right turn into the street leading to the stadium, the sound of cheering drums became louder with each step. Suddenly I heard a female voice saying, "Gakuji senpai!" Not many people call me that. I turned to the right. And there was my team mate from my high school tennis team together with her older sister who is a hard-core sub-3 marathoner. I thanked them for their cheering, and headed for the final hill-climb which is the highlight of this course.   

(800 meters to the finish line)

With 500 meters remaining the road splits into two, one going right and down and the other going left and up. The course, of course, goes left and up. Some cheerers noticed I was going barefoot, and threw some words of admiration at me. They gave me some extra power to forcefully ascend the heart-break hill. The bilingual companion was halfway up the hill on the right side of the road, ready for memorial photo-shooting. The moment I saw her eye-catching green down vest, I threw my right arm up in the air with a clenched fist. I took steady quick steps up the hill with my back upright. I wanted to finish strongly. 

(400 meters to the finish line)

When I finally reached the top of the hill and the course became flat again, the large yellow arch above the finish line was in sight 300 meters ahead of me. I surged for the last time, swinging my arms like a track athlete. The track of the stadium was comfortable on my soles. All the effort was finally being rewarded. The time was far from what I wanted. But I was about to cross the line in bare feet. I couldn't run as fast as so many runners who had already finished the race before me, like Abebe Bikila beat all the shoe-clad rivals in the 1960 Olympics in Rome, but I beat the demon of the sport who whispered into my ear countless times that I could quit and that I should keep shoes on. Half a minute later I became an official finisher of Sakura Asahi Kenko Marathon 2018 with the gross time of 4:03:21.

As soon as I finished the race, I gave my runner chip to one of the volunteer people, and grabbed a few cups of water offered by another young volunteer worker.  I lay down on the grass inside the track after the drinks, and a moment later fell asleep. It was almost half an hour later that I was waken up by an aid worker who worried that I might be dead and asked, "Are you OK?" I said, "Yeah, I'm OK. I was just sleeping." I was that exhausted.  

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