Monday, March 7, 2016

Kyoto Marathon 2016: Race Day

Two years ago I made the bold declaration by saying that my first marathon can and will only happen in Japan and in winter. Much like how Puteri Gunung Ledang laid down her conditions to the king of Melaka, these were my conditions to my friends who kept insisting that I run a marathon. The condition got them to shut up about it but little did I know I had just inception-ed myself. Because the idea just grew and grew.

Two years later, it happened. In Kyoto.

Awaiting Flag Off
On 21st February 2016, I found myself in corral K at the Nishikyogoku Athletic Park, alongside 16,000 other people local and foreigners alike as we waited in chilly temps for the flag off at 9am. Next to me was my mum, a veteran marathon who had ran the Berlin Marathon 2015 with minimal training, my training escort and also the face (or back) of whom I would be seeing for the next 6 hours. Despite getting the earlier start corral F, she opted to give up her timing to accompany me for the whole run, citing she wanted to share the journey with me.

Little did she know what an agonizingly slow journey it was going to be despite my numerous warnings and attempts to chase her away. You see, this was one of those races with strict cut off points and the overall cut off was 6 hours. Well, 6 hours including flag off so technically I needed to be able to run the marathon in 5 hours 45 mins depending on when I pass the start line.

Thanks to the 9am start time, we could sleep in a bit and only left the hostel at 7am to catch the 7:10am Hankyu train from Kawaramachi station to Nishikyogoku Athletic Park. The race village was already bustling with activity with runners and their supporters making last minute preparations before handing over their bags to their respective baggage trucks. At 8:30am, we headed into my start corral to get ready for the flag off.

Even without the wind and with the sun out and shining, it was quite a cold morning (the average temp was about 10 Celsius with 5 Celsius as the lowest) and mom and I were grateful that we brought lightweight Uniqlo jackets the previous day for the race.

Ready, Get Set...GO!
In true Japanese fashion, the race flagged off at 9am on the dot but it would be close to 11 minutes before I crossed the start line. And just like that I was running my first ever marathon.

True to her word, my mom ran with me or rather ahead of me. For the first 10km of the race, I urged her to go ahead without me but she kept running ahead, stopping and looking back to wait for me. I guess she was worried I would fizzle out from the race all together. But in reality, I felt fine. No butterflies or bats in my stomach. If anything, I was more nervous during my Spartan Races last year.

Were my nerves frayed? Was my heart beating like a jackhammer from the excitement and exertion as I drive my legs? Was I nervous? No, oddly enough I wasn't. I felt good, aching bunions aside. The chilly air kept my upper body cool without hindering my nose and lungs. At that point I was running a 7:00 pace as the route took the runners through the west of Kyoto and to Arashiyama. Quite scenic this section was with the course running alongside the Katsura river.

Making the Cut Off Point
The 6.1km cut off point came up and I crossed it with 7 minutes to spare. I could see the race officials getting ready to move with the cutoff rope. I heard they were quite strict with the cutoff times and weren't keen to find out if that was true. Luckily there were signs and timers laid out throughout the course as a grave reminder of the cutoff points.

The constant breaks of ponds, shrines and temples broke the monotony of the race. From 7km to 10km, we passed Hirosawa-no ike pond (which looked like a lake) and also Ninna-jin temple. The course moved into a set of hills after but my training at Bukit Tunku helped me tackle the slopes without breaking my cadence.

Imamiya-jinja temple marked the turning point into the 16km stretch. Cheerleaders and taiko drummers throughout the course kept the atmosphere upbeat and lively while random shopkeepers and spectators held out trays and baskets of food and drinks for us to eat and drink. At times, a simple high-five and a yell of Gambatte! and Fighto! served to propel me forward.

The race continued onto the Kamo river, an iconic landmark at Kyoto as it runs through several major areas of the city, Gion included. This section was the start of many in and out turns to come but due to the calming effect of the river, I didn't mind seeing the majority of the participants on the other side of the river. 

Food was served at the water station here and there were even signs indicating how many water/sports drink/food stations there were and where the last bin was. I popped in a juicy orange and the refreshing seedless fruit was the perfect palate cleanser after a quick gel break.

At 2 hours 20 minutes into the race and with 10 minutes to spare, I crossed the 18.4km cutoff point at the bridge to start my return journey down the river. On my return, I saw the back-end runners and judging by their distance from the cutoff, knew that this would be the end of their marathon journey.

I swore that wouldn't be me so I kept moving. As the 19km section came up, I felt a sharp pain in the tendon above my foot and ankle. The pain was like someone was pressing dry ice to my skin and the nerves were being ice-burnt to death. I slowed to a walk to adjust my leggings hem, tucking my socks inside to cushion that part from the compressing material. It helped. For a while.

Half the battle Fought
At the halfway point, I achieved a PB of 2:39 once again, a result that showed up during my LSD training. I was elated but at the same time aware that the real race was just beginning. The 21km to 28km section was the must mentally taxing part of the race for me because it had a buck load of U-turns along monotonous long road up and down a gentle slope. I could see the middle pack comfortably on the other side and as the distance wore on with no U-turn in sight, I wanted to throw a shoe at the person who decided to make the route like this. Just to get in the distance.

I saw the 25km point as a crucial point because the next cut off point came up at 26.6km on the return run in front of the Kyoto Concert Hall and at this point, most were tired physically and mentally. Race organisers have dropped the average pace from 7:40 to 8:15 in the second half but due to the tight finishing time, it looked like even that won't be enough for many. 

Pain in da Bunion!
My ankle pain was kicking in once more even as we turned into the Kyoto Botanical Gardens and on top of that, my bunion has decided to join in on the 'let's torment our owner' fun. I hoped that the change in surface would help elevate the pain by a little but it didn't. A Japanese dude with a green afro wig sprayed on deep heat over my feet and legs and that helped a little. I ended up walking and jogging this section. However a light drizzle from the hovering dark cloud and strong icy winds forced me to don on my gloves and pick up the pace once more to keep warm.
Near the exit, I saw a troupe of geishas and maikos wrapping up their shamisen performance and paused to snap a photo because where and when else do you get that many geishas and maikos at once? 

Banking on the River
29km - 32km along the Kamo River this time offered a much needed reprieve for the feet (and the cursed bunion) with the softer surface of the river bank. The road also narrowed to only three person-wide and I found myself zig zag between walkers and slower runners. The ground was also a bit wet and slippery on account of the 12 hours drizzle and occasional downpour the previous day but that only forced my brain to snap to attention on where to place my next step. It would suck to turn an ankle at this point.

But that didn't stop me from taking in the spectators parked on the grassy areas beside the route with snacks and drinks. I saw someone offering coke but didn't dare grab one for fear of a stomach upset. I regretted that decision instantly as I continued running.

The furthest I have gone in training was 30km and I opted to leave the remaining 12km to fate and the state of my body during the marathon. Thankfully, the river made going past 30km easy. A quick mental check of my body - save for my ankle and bunion - told me that I was fine. No threats of cramps, no urge to vomit my lungs out, no shortness of breath. It was a zen-like experience to running alongside the Kamo River.

On to City Hall!
Unfortunately the river section ended and we soon came into the middle town streets of Kyoto where we ran right next to the Kyoto Imperial Palace before turning back towards the Kyoto City Hall. A very slight downhill towards City Hall set a nice pace for me until my ankle pains kicked in yet again. This time, I pushed it aside and kept running because the cutoff point coming up was at 34.9km. I could see the sweeper buses already waiting like vultures and the sight of that made my mum speed up. I decided to hold my pace and soon I could hear the carnival-like noises at City Hall.

There were more cheerleaders and even more taiko drummers egging the runners on. Water, food and sport drinks stations awaited us and with a quick gulp of water, I continued on, spotting two official photogs on the way back up the road.

I passed the 34.9km cut off point again, secretly grateful I was on the run back as not long after, I saw the 6 hours pacers with a horde of runner glued tightly to them as they raced towards the cut off point. The stream of runners that can followed after were the most heartbreaking sight ever because they were so close, just 7km short of completion but to go even faster and still be able to continue going after was too hard. Their faces told me they were too spent, all emptied out.

At the cross junction between the Imperial Palace and the river, I saw the last runner still struggling to stay in the race even though the timing would mean a cut off at the checkpoint. He got the loudest cheers from the crowd which was nice.

Home Stretch 
The 5km sign beckoned from a distance once we crossed the bridge and was once more running next to the Kamo river but on the road this time. Many runners around me started picking up their pace. I on the other end, had stopped to guzzle down a cup of coke from a friendly Japanese couple on the roadside next to the river. After thanking the couple, the burst of energy had me bouncing off and I soon caught up with my mother who had stopped up ahead to look for me.

However the road to the finish line wasn't so straight forward. In fact, it involved a kilometer long uphill street, U-turn and back down the way. This hill was pure evil and the final cut off point at 41km after the hill weeded out the walkers from the runners. On the return run, I could hear the sweeper bus and the announcer sitting in a hearse-like car egging the runners on or face the ride of shame in the bus.

Putting that behind me, I continued on for the last two kilometers. I considered emptying out my tank for the final stretch but decided against it. Cramps have been absent during the run and it would sucked to cramp out at the finish line.

As I turned into the road to Heian Shrine, I saw the 42km sign and couldn't resist a photo. Just 195 meters left and I could see the finish line after turning the corner. I hear a familiar voice calling out to us from the sideline of spectators. It was my sister Carmen who had found her way to the finish line as planned after visiting a flea market at Toji Temple. She had her camera out and ready but because we were on the other side of the road and already running as fast as we could, we gunned it for the finish.

And just like that I crossed the timing mat. Slowing to a walk, I stopped my Polar watch and found that it clocked in 5:37:53 for 42.95km. I had done it. My first marathon.

The volunteers draped my finisher towel over my shoulders and placed my beautiful pentagon-shaped medal over my head with words of congratulations in Japanese. A little further down, we were given a banana and a packet of energy drink.

After collecting my finisher entitlements, I staggered to the baggage collection area. As soon as the volunteer spotted me and my bib number, it took her less than a second to find my bag and hand it to me with an encouraging smile. That was Japan's efficiency right there.

In the changing room, we were in for a treat as it was tradition for the Kyoto Marathon to have a maiko photo taking area for the racers. Of course I couldn't resist grabbing a picture with her as well. Her kimono was so pretty. To be able to hold up my finisher towel and my medal in the photo with the elegant Maiko, a cultural icon of Kyoto, was just the ideal way to wrap my Kyoto Marathon adventure.

There was a racer's rest area across the road where I heard they had a foot spa, free miso soup and massages but at that point, I just wanted to go back to the hostel and sleep.

Looking back
I was aching all over but for me, someone who once loathed running, it was a personal milestone achieved. In the months leading up to the race, I was sure I would bonk out at the first cut off point. I went into it with the plan to just stick to my pace and adjust as I went along. That worked out just fine.

Kyoto's zen and stunning scenery, its smoothing rivers, the ancient temples and the impressive structures in the countryside and in the city, the perfect chilly weather, the volunteers and spectators cheering us on the whole way, the precised organizational skills of the Japanese - these will be forever ingrained in my mind. The experience of my first marathon in Japan will be one to cherished and one I'll look back on and talk about for years to come. 


Unknown said...

WOOHOO! Congratulations!!! <3 <3 <3

Tania said...

Tenkiu Chee Ching! :D

Elie said...

Omg I run 21km and I like want to die, you did 42km and still alive to take photos. COME I GIVE YOU LIKE.

Faizal Ariff said...


Tania said...

Bagi banyak like!

Tania said...

thank u faizal!

Faizal Ariff said...

This is the best blog ever! Training In Progress!

Unknown said...

Well done..thanks for sharing your experiences...

Tania said...

thanks, kh chua! :)

ADN said...

Thanks Tania, Im going next year. Do you have a write-up on the hotel to stay ?

Tania said...

Hi Anthony, I dont think i actually found time to blog about the place but i stayed at Khaosan Hostel Kyoto right smack in the center of Kyoto's shopping district. Book early and try to get a private room far from the toilets for a good rest before the race.