Poor Performance at Sano Marathon

December 10, 2017

“The marathon is a race of attrition. You’ve got to understand that. You’ve got to come to grips with that… No one really wins a marathon. You just survive it better.”
-Again to Carthage

I hadn’t been thinking about those words the entire race until a few seconds after I was forced to stop and walk. Me. A marathon runner. Walking, even stumbling towards the finish with several kilometers left to go. It was beyond embarrassing, and I’m still not in the least bit proud of my performance.

However, I’m starting to understand that bad race days are inevitable at some point, even for something like a marathon, requiring months of preparation. I qualified for Boston my first time out in 2004 with a 3:00:57, and ran a respectable 3:04:46 on Patriots’ Day a year later. Granted, some time has passed, but what exactly went wrong?

Training for a marathon in Japan is probably comparable to doing so in any part of the US; I’ve seen runners going in the middle of the night with headlamps, so it’s definitely a large part of the culture. Other that breaking the spider webs covering the trails in the morning and avoiding Asian giant hornets, my only setback was training around a regular 9-to-5 work schedule.

I’m still not used to choking myself with a tie every day, or physically stifling my legs with the lack of movement associated with desk work. During the summer, there would still be plenty of hours of daylight before and after work to squeeze in some speed work, or even a long run. Once winter started, I found the only time I could see the road was in the morning, and even then, there wasn’t enough time to work in more than 10 miles.

So, I’ve had some challenges in training for the Sano Marathon. Nevertheless, I thought I had brought my legs up to speed with a 16-mile long run, frequent paced runs of 10-13 miles, and only one off day a week. My left leg was stiffer than usual as the marathon approached, but nothing I couldn’t handle with more stretching and massages.

When I woke up on race day, everything went smoothly. I had stuffed myself with potatoes and pasta the night before, and had plenty of time before the 9:30 start to get a decent-sized breakfast with even more fat, protein, and carbs.

I will say this is the first time I’ve lived so close to the start of a race. Even in Austin I had to have my parents drive me, and Boston required a hundred shuttle buses. In Sano, I actually rode my bike the three kilometers to the start, where I stretched, taped my foot (I was running in Luna Sandals’ huaraches), and determined what clothes I would need for the weather.

Sano was definitely one of the smaller marathons, meaning there were only 2-3 food booths for some post-race cravings and an equal number of stands selling sporting goods. As near as I could tell – and it was easy to see everyone – I was the only foreigner competing. I had no problem approaching the start on the track in the last five minutes, having left my compression gear in the basket of my mama-chari.

No countdown. No gunshot. Not even a warmup song, or playing of the national anthem. Just a whistle blow and about 1999 Japanese runners and I were off.

I handled the first 20 km quite easily, keeping my goal time for a 7:00/mile pace and feeling strong. Luckily, there wasn’t nearly as much wind as there had been the day before, but the sun was just as draining, even in the 8-degree chill. I had to stop for a few seconds to explore the bushes, but other than that, all was well.

Even once the first serious hill came up, I thought I could still manage to keep a good pace. However, starting around 25 km or so, my legs started tightening and fighting me. I wasn’t lacking any energy or losing the will to keep going, something that I knew might come up. In fact, I was still joking around with the spectators, throwing back a “日本人だ!” (It’s a Japanese person!) to a kid who pointed out I was a foreigner.

By the time we went up the hill on the other side around 29 km, I was struggling. My pace had dropped by 30 seconds, and I began to seriously doubt if I could finish at all. My body definitely needed more water, and I began to use some of the gel packs I had brought, but the problem lay in my legs. With every kilometer, I was calculating the pace I would have to keep to reach my goal time, and yet each one became slower and slower, mocking me as I heard my phone belt out the 7:30, 8:00, and 8:30 paces for the previous miles.

I don’t remember exactly when – sometime after 35 km, I believe – but I actually stopped and started walking. I wasn’t the only one; I had passed quite a few runners at that point, but now I was the one left behind as the clock ticked down and I realized I would have to run the best race of my life to reach the finish in a time I could still be proud of.

That was the worst part – realizing that if I were at 100%, I would have had the means to finish when I wanted. I was in the middle of the race – there was still time! I did try multiple times, thrusting my torso forward as though that would kick my legs into gear, but they literally had nothing left to give.

I did manage to start up a few more times, and keep running through the last two kilometers, albeit at a pitiful pace. By the time the finish was in sight, the best I could do was not stop so my clock time would read exactly 3:25:00… I’m OCD like that, even in failure.

What have I learned? Despite me thinking my training was complete, it clearly wasn’t. I was certainly tempted to stop in both Boston and Austin – what runner isn’t after 26 miles? – but still kept a good pace for both races. The change in elevation may have been a factor, but Heartbreak Hill wasn’t much of a problem… while I was spending the weeks prior training in similar conditions. Hill workouts and a longer run: that’s what I should have changed.

Though I’m neither happy nor proud of my performance, I can rightfully say I ran a full marathon on another continent. Next? Maybe New Zealand…

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