On February 27th, I ran the 2017 Tokyo Marathon. It was my 12th marathon overall, 4th World Major Marathon, and first international marathon. Running the Tokyo Marathon was such a unique experience! I enjoyed the runcation and the marathon a lot- at least until kilometer 33. I want to capture my entire experience in the blog post, but I will just attempt at a 2017 Tokyo Marathon race recap, as I know that’s what readers are more interested in.
Way back in July, I applied for one of the 200 entries through the RUN as ONE “Semi-Elite Overseas” category. It’s a program designed to provide qualifying athletes the right to participate in the marathon. There are only 200 spaces but it’s not a very well-known program. Keep your eyes out for next year’s application! In August they notified me that I was in!
Plans for Travel to and Lodging in Tokyo
Initially, only Katie and I were planning to go. But then I convinced my younger brother, Jon, and she convinced her good friend Marianne to join us on your running adventure. A few weeks later, my older brother Mark Thomas also decided to come.
We decided to get an Air BnB like we did for the New York Marathon, and found a great 3 floor place in the Shinjuku neighborhood. We chose it because it was only a 15 minute walk to the start line in the morning, the host offered 2 free pocket wi-fi devices (so we didn’t have to use a data plan), AND it was the largest one we found. Fitting 5 people with lots of luggage into a Japanese apartment was no easy task!
In terms of length of the trip, I knew that I wanted to acclimate to the time change before the race, and have time to do lots of touristy things. Jon and I decided to fly in the Thursday before the marathon and stay through the Wednesday following it. That gave me a solid two days before the race and three full days following it. We took direct flights both ways (13 hours yikes!) I remembered to wear my compression socks, and hydrate with Nuun Vitamins on the flights.
Jon and I took a direct flight from Chicago to the Narita Airport just outside of Tokyo. From there, it was an hour and a half train ride on the Narita Express to Shinjuku Station. The Narita Express has wi-fi, so we were able to look up directions from the station to our apartment. Upon arrival, we walked to our apartment and then passed out.
Training for the 2017 Tokyo Marathon
As I mentioned in this post, the Tokyo Marathon was a “C Race.” I was doing it purely for the fun, the company, the experience, and the pursuit of a Six Star World Major Finisher Medal. My training has been focused on my “A Race” for the year, the Ice Age 50 mile.
In December, I began building back my base fitness level, and in January I began full-fledged training. Two weeks before heading to Tokyo I peaked at 20 mile long run and 63 miles total for the week (I survived my first back-to-back long run weekend!) In addition to long runs, I had been including one day of speedwork and hills when I could.
The 2017 Tokyo Marathon featured a new course. It was very flat and fast, with only minor hills from road bridges. The Imperial Palace is central to the course, benefiting spectators. My brothers and Marianne went to the 10k area and saw us 3 times while only staying within a few blocks. In between, they just picked up more vending-machine and actual cafe-dispensed coffee.
The course was marked in kilometers. Con: this hurt my nutrition pacing. Pro: mentally, I distracted myself. Since I don’t have the exact conversions of kilometers to miles memorized, I distracted myself with math in the later half of the race when I started feeling sick.
Wow the Expo was loud! Held at Big Sky Tokyo, the Expo takes over two floors. On the first floor, runners enter through one door to pick up packets and shirts while the spectators have to enter through a different door. We needed our race card we received in the mail and our passport. On that top floor, there is also the official merchandise for the race. I was very disappointed to see that the shirt was unisex and not gender specific. The shirt SWIMS on me and they would not let me exchange it. Pro tip: If you get into the race, keep shirt size in mind!
In the basement, there were the typical expo booths with clothing and food vendors. Throughout both floors, there were dozens of people handing out flyers and shouting advertisements in Japanese. Once I realized that all the flyers were in Japanese I stopped taking them.
Back at the hotel, I went through the handouts in the official race bag. There were maps, an official program, tag for the gear check bag, the runner’s handbook, and a free metro day pass. I found my name on the semi-elite page!
I was super confused because in my bag there were two race bibs. Why did they give me two? I poured through the Runner’s handbook and the online website but couldn’t find any information. Frantically, I texted Katie, but she had no idea either. We decided to only wear one bib on race day- I packed the second one just in case. I had no problem until I got to my start corral where they informed me that I should have worn one bib on the front and one bib on the back. Apparently that’s what all the elites and semi-elites do! It reminded me of the time I was in the elite corral at the Big 10k and didn’t know the rules… Luckily they let me into the corral without any issues.
On Friday, Katie, Jon and I went on a slow 4 mile shakeout run around the city, and then on Saturday I did another slow 2 miles. The Saturday ones were more because I had woken up at 3am and was getting antsy. Friday we went to the expo and then explored a bit of downtown Tokyo; on Saturday, Jon, Mark Thomas and I went to the Meiji Temple and Harajuku neighborhood. We even saw the Shibuya Crossing, the world’s busiest intersection. I did way more walking around than I would have if it had been a goal race, but the fun we had was well worth it!
In the evening, Jon and I ate at Mr. Farmer, a GREAT vegan restaurant that we discovered in the Shinjuku station. I had a quinoa avocado wrap, smoothie and even some vegan donuts!
Race Day Morning
On race day morning, I ate some oatmeal and trail mix that I had brought with me. I also had my typical black tea. (In this post I talked about some runcation tips and mentioned food). The race began at 9:10am, with corrals closing at 8:45, so around 7am, we left to walk to the start line. I wore a giant Chicago Bears onesie as my throwaway.
Katie and I were both assigned the same entry gate, so we waited in the long line together. After security, we also made sure to get into the porta-potty line. There were two options, Japanese style (a hole in the ground) and Western style (the kind of porta-potty we were used to). There are labels on the Western ones. Pro tip: The lines for these are long and slow-moving! Get in line before you think you need to go.
Afterwards we went to bag check. They have it organized VERY well and it took less than a minute. We went up to the starting corral and laughed to ourselves giddily as we could actually see the start line! Neither one of us had ever been that close to the start line in a World Major Marathon before; we could actually see the elites warming up!
In the corral, a rope separated the men and women to “prevent pace congestion.” I felt really tall. We chatted with some other English-speaking runners, and were happy to hear that we weren’t the only ones who had problems with two bibs!
2017 Tokyo Marathon RACE
Here is what I remember thinking and seeing during the race:
- When the gun went off, tons of confetti sprayed out over the runners. It was quite exciting! Being in the corral with semi-elite runners and all the hoopla definitely made me go out too fast
- In the beginning there was a lot of bumping into each other as the women and men merged, but after about 2 miles the roads widened and I had more breathing room on the course. Despite the aid stations being so long, they congested easily. Most of the runners stopped at the first table and walked, causing any incoming runners to swerve around them.
- The Tokyo Marathon has the best volunteer support of any race that I’ve been to. At each aid station there were at least 5 long tables with 50-100 volunteers handing out water and Pocari Sweat. Yes, that’s right, their sports drink is called Pocari Sweat. In my opinion it tastes as bad as it sounds. At later aid stations they also had bananas and tomatoes to eat! I tried a tomato and it was delicious, although, I’m not sure what benefits it provides during a race. There were even volunteers holding plastic bags to collect trash along the course, with signs indicating distances to the next restrooms, and signs indicating where the photographers sat.
- At a few aid stations, I couldn’t tell which table had water and which had Pocari Sweat. I’m sure there were clear labels, but in the moment I had trouble. At the first aid station in particular I remember grabbing the first cup that I saw and sloshing it down, immediately thinking, “OH GOD THAT’S NOT WATER!” Grabbed a second cup and, “UGH, still NOT water!” Third time, nailed it.
- I lost Katie around the one mile mark and ended up running the rest of the race solo. As a result, I tried talking with other runners who had English written on their clothing. I had a nice conversation about how much Pocari Sweat tasted like microwaved Gatorade mixed with actual sweat with a man from Fort Worth, Texas (at least that’s where the race shirt he was wearing had).
- “Man, it’s in kilometers! Ok… If a 5k is 3 miles, then how much is a 4k? How far have I gone?” My GPS watch was useless with the tall buildings in Tokyo. With the race marked in kilometers, I was having trouble pacing myself. Apparently according to those tracking me, I was incredibly even with the splits through kilometer 30. All the practice running based on perceived effort is paying off!
- I missed my family at the 10k mark, but I did see them when I came back (roughly the 23k). I had been looking mostly on the left side of the course for them. I’m not sure what made me glance to my right but I did right as I was approaching them. I was all smiles and waves, and that gave me a big adrenaline rush.
- “I should have worn my Nuun visor, it’s sunnier than I thought. I’ll just try to run in the shade.” (This “shadow-hopping” could have led to some extra mileage too) “Hey someone is playing the YMCA! Just like during Chicago! Maybe I’ll find the Mystery Man again!”
- In terms of the crowds, spectators lined the streets for the whole race; however there were long stretches where they were silently watching us run. I’m never one to pump up my arms asking the crowd to cheer, but I did here. Didn’t get a response. I chalked it up to a cultural thing, but I could be wrong
- “Am I running next to Pikachu?!” Apparently, the Tokyo Marathon is know for costumes. Thousands of participants dress up to run; in the final finishing stretch I spotted Mark Thomas on the side lines and was waving to get his attention. He however was distracted by a masked man running next to me. Jon snapped the photo:
- At the 30k mark, runners make the final out and back of the race. I had been feeling really great through this point, but was acutely aware that I was getting hot. My normal plan is to eat a Huma gel every 6 miles and have a Nuun tablet every 3 miles after the gel; with the course in kilometers and my unreliable GPS splits, I mis-timed my nutrition. Suddenly, at kilometer 33 my body said, “You’re going to PUKE.” Me: “Becca you can’t puke! Tokyo is too clean of a city to puke!” My body, “I make no promises.”
- My even pacing fell apart shortly after that. While I did not get sick on the course, I felt more nauseous than I ever have during a race. As I think back on it, a combination of de-hydration, over-dressing, the heat, accidentally drinking
Devil JuicePocari Sweat and mis-timing my nutrition all played a role in my nausea.
- “HOW IS THIS ONLY THE 40K MARK? MY WATCH SAYS I’M DONE.” I dwelled deep in the pain cave from kilometer 33 to the end of the race. My legs and hips tightened and I couldn’t make myself take in any more fluids or foods. Pace promptly took a nosedive. Overall, I ended the race in 3:27:14. I actually was shocked that I was able to come in under 3:30. I thought for sure that I wouldn’t even make it to the end, that someone would pull me off the course. That was my first time finishing the race and actually having to put my head down at the finish line.
After the race, it was the longest post-race finisher chute I’ve been in, even longer than New York. Volunteers drape runners with a finisher towel, give us interesting puffy sandwiches and the medal. All told it was about 1/2 a mile long. Then runners exit the finish area based on their assigned bag pick up location. I had to walk another mile to pick up my bag. However once there, there was a huge changing room for us. I met up with Katie and then we went to the Tokyo Station to find our fans.
Luckily my nausea had subsided then. It was an easy train ride back to the apartment. That evening, Jon, Mark Thomas and I went out for celebratory vegan ramen!
Overall, despite my nausea during the race, I loved and am so grateful to have participated in the 2017 Tokyo Marathon. I approached this race with the mindset to have fun, enjoy the experience, and enjoy the trip abroad with friends and family. I accomplished all three of those goals- yes I even enjoyed the race while nauseous! I’d highly recommend this race.
Have you ever run the Tokyo Marathon? Do you hope to one day? Let me know what you think in the comments below!