Ashikaga Takauji-ko Half Marathon

November 6, 2017

One of the things that still throws me about Japan is the way they interpret the word “marathon”. For nearly every other country, a marathon is a fixed distance of approximately 42.195 kilometers, based on the length of road between ancient Athens and Marathon, and only amended slightly over the years.

Yet in Japan, a marathon can be anything: a 5K can be labelled a marathon if someone thinks it will market the event better. Of course, half marathons and full ones are labeled as such, and I haven’t seen any ultramarathons called standard “marathon”s in the country, but it’s still confusing for me to tell a coworker I ran a marathon over the weekend to have him ask “how far?”

When I arrived in Ashikaga by train early Sunday morning, I didn’t see more than a few runners waiting in front of the station. Some were clearly attempting to look the part, sporting the warmup gear and fancy shoes that looked like they didn’t have more than a few kilometers on them. Nevertheless, appearances can be deceiving, and I waited to see what the registration area and starting line would look like.

Yakisoba booths were scattered across the main sidewalk, as were vendors selling cheap shoes and shorts. A costume contest participant made a very convincing Spiderman pose as the official took his picture; other than myself, he was the only one who didn’t look Japanese… it was obvious even with Beauty and the Beast in full makeup.

Fortunately, this was not a crowded event. Ashikaga is far removed from the crowds of Tokyo, and that made it more appealing for a “marathon”. Only a few thousand people and equal number of spectators sparsely filled the park, leaving short lines for the toilets and plenty of room to stretch and sprint.

When the time came for me to approach the start, there were still gaps between every runner; no one was crammed in trying to get a few more seconds off the gun time (or whistle time in Japan). A few were wearing Vibram Fivefingers, but I only saw one other guy out of thousands crazy enough to wear huarache sandals like me; he called me out as I was stretching and threw a smile in my direction.

I wasn’t concerned about my legs; I had put in the miles over the past several months and already run a few 13- and 14-mile training runs. Nevertheless, my speed workouts had been lacking and I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to keep the pace I wanted – sub seven-minute mile – for 21 km. My last half had been in San Francisco when the weather was warm, but the hills brutal. I had let my running lapse in the months following that race and my injury, but now in Japan, I felt I could do better.

Whistle start. I went out way too fast. MapMyRun was set to minutes/mile pace, while I had memorized the pace times in kilometers just in case. Somewhere between one and two kilometers I heard my phone say I was under 6:30. Big mistake.

At nearly every step along the course, the crowds were out in full. Japanese homes lined the dry riverbed on which most of the path was run, so cheers of “gambare” and “gambarimasho” greeted us, even from little children sitting on blankets alone in the middle of their driveway. I, on the other hand, was surely the only one to hear “Gaijin-san! Ichiban gaijin-san!” (Mr. Foreigner! Number one foreigner!)

Even before I had reached the 10-km mark, I wasn’t feeling well. The sun was a lot stronger than I had hoped – most of my training runs had been in the cold and the rain – and all of us were running directly into the wind, blowing strong and freely at the top of the riverbed path. I could feel blisters forming on at least two parts of my feet, and regretted adjusting the straps on my Luna Sandals at the starting line; I had never had a problem with them before, but then again, I had never run at a fast past over such a long distance in these sandals.

Sports drink and water stations were available every few kilometers, but I didn’t see any markers or aid after 18 km; a little frustrating when you’re trying to figure exactly how far it is to the end. The wind had already drained me, but I was keeping a surprisingly good pace once the course came off the path and back down into the streets of Ashikaga. Three kilometers to go, two kilometers to go…

I could see the stadium directly ahead of me, and then the worst possible thing that any race director could design happened; the course demanded we complete one final loop on the track instead of just running straight into the finish corral. When I looked up at the clock and definitively saw I had come in under 91 minutes, I knew I had done well.

The crowd continued to cheer as I shuffled over to the tent for water and to get my finish certificate printed. I do miss the weight of a cheap medal around my neck to show off around town after a good performance, but they aren’t as common in Japanese races.

I didn’t stick around long after that; just a quick stroll past the booths to see if I wanted to buy anything, a short run to cool down, and then a slow walk back to the station to return home for lunch. A few of the volunteers assigned to block off streets asked if I had just run, when I was still wearing my race bib and no doubt crusty with salt.

Japan holds quite a few memories for me in terms of races: Nagasaki Bayside Half Marathon, Miyajima Cross Country race, Hiroshima Peace Marathon (actually a 10K). It’s not as though other cities in the US aren’t suitable for training – San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, and Austin are particularly so – but there’s something about being abroad and in Japan that renews my need for speed. As long as I can hang on to that feeling, as long as I have the strength and motivation, there’s a good chance I’ll stick around this country.

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