Back in the Race

IMG_1427I am back home from Japan and recovering from an exciting run at the Tokyo Marathon.  I continue to reflect on the race and the whole experience.  It is something that I will remember forever.  I could write on and on about the race but this is a blog post, not a book.  Instead I will just give you the highlights.

The race is a big event in Tokyo.  There were crowds along almost the entire course, cheering the runners.  The only place where there weren’t any was the last 2K.  Normally, that part of the course is teeming with people and at the end of a race when I am dragging, I get energized to finish a race by all the cheering.  There were no people at the finish line of this race.  One of the other runners said it was the quietest finish he had ever seen.

For anyone who didn’t want to stand outside in the cold, the race was covered by a local television station.  Unlike in the US when coverage ends when the elite runners finish, the race was still being televised hours after the elite runners had crossed the finish line.

There were an incredible number of volunteers, both at the Expo and during the race.  I read that there were over 10,000 volunteers on race day for 36,000 runners – a 3-to-1 ratio. Volunteers wore color-coded jackets to indicate their function: race judge (gray), medical staff (red), water stop (blue), or general volunteer (yellow).  If the volunteer knew English, they wore a large green sticker to indicate that too.

Volunteers in yellow were along the entire race course holding plastic bags for runners to place discarded clothing and trash.  Runners were very good about heading over to one of the volunteers on the side of the course to dispose of any unwanted items.  There was little risk of tripping over someone’s discarded clothing.  I had a friend who was unable to complete the Marine Corps Marathon one year because she tripped over a discarded sweat shirt in the middle of the road at Mile 16.   All that training down the drain over a sweatshirt in the middle of the road.

Japan is incredibly clean and that didn’t stop at the start line.  I never saw anyone spit or do a “snot rocket” – two things that really annoy me.  I also never saw anyone relieving themselves on a tree, in an alleyway or on a wall.  There were plenty of bathroom options on race day.  In addition to the port-a-potties, runners could use the facilities at railway and subway stations as well as 7-11 stores.  Some of those volunteers in yellow jackets were directing runners to port-a-potties and bathrooms, which seemed to keep the lines moving smoothly.  I was lucky – my two rest stops were very quick.

They ran a 10K concurrently with the marathon.  I have to say that Tokyo gets the award for Most Inclusive race.  While the marathon had the wheelchair category, the 10K had categories for visually impaired, intellectually challenged, organ transplant recipients, and wheelchair participants.

It was very crowded on the course itself, not surprising with 36,000 runners.   Surprisingly, the 10K runners were in Corral E (the last corral was K) – right in the middle.  Twice runners collided with me as they headed to the side to greet someone they knew or to stretch.  Both times, when the runners ran into me, they hit my Garmin and it stopped.  Normally this would just be an inconvenience.  But for the Tokyo Marathon, your official time is the elapsed time from the start gun of the race to your finish, not your chip time.  Since I was in Corral J, it was 30 minutes before I crossed the start line.  So those collisions made me a little cranky because I would not know my actual time.

I had been notified two weeks before the race that runners would not be permitted to carry their own fluids or water bottles (see my post “Countdown to Tokyo” about that).  Although I was concerned about not carrying my own hydration, it was not an issue for me.  I had completed all my training runs the last two weeks before the race using the Tokyo water stop schedule to get my body prepared.  Along the course, they handed out water and Pocari Sweat, which I enjoyed much more than the Gatorade or Powerade that we typically get at races in the US.  I admit that I did not try the tomatoes and bread that some water stops had.  I more cautiously stuck to bananas and the Honey Stinger Cubes that I brought from home.  There is only so much “new” I will risk doing on race day.

The bag pick-up was the smoothest that I have ever seen.  The volunteers cheered and applauded the racers as they entered the bag claim area.  Let me tell you – that cheering really lifted my spirits when I came into the bag claim area.  I was so moved I made a video of them. It took less than a minute for someone to find my bag and give it to me.

IMG_1320The post-race area was huge.  There were changing areas to get into street clothes (though most people changed out in the open) and even an acupuncture treatment area.  I have never seen that before.  There may have been post-race massages too but I was more interested in getting back to the hotel and a hot shower.  I headed straight to the bus.

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Now for the mushy part.  It occurred to me on race day that I was running the Tokyo Marathon because I got Transverse Myelitis (TM).  I had never thought about traveling to Japan before.  Sorry, it just wasn’t on my bucket list.  But when TM rocked my world, all my prior goals went out the window and I redefined my life.  So out of something really bad came something very good.  I set new goals, started enjoying life and having as many enriching experiences as I can.  The silver lining, if you will.

The theme for the race was “The Day We Unite”.  That theme held even more meaning for me.  My fall and broken arm in September prevented me from running in Berlin, the Marine Corps Marathon, the Goofy at DisneyWorld, and the Freedom Half in West Virginia.  I had to sit on the sidelines and watch my runner friends enjoy the races that I had been training hard to do.

As I walked to the entrance gate for the runners’ village on race day in Tokyo, I started to cry.  I cried as I stood in my corral.  I cried as we approached the start line.  It had been over a year since my last marathon but I was back.  I was re-united with my fellow runners.  I thought about that as I ran the race.  Because of the hardship of last September and the challenge of training on a treadmill for 2 months for fear of falling, the race was that much more special to me.  This quote by the Buddha pretty much sums everything up:

“You have no cause for anything but gratitude and joy.”

On Sunday I was filled with gratitude and joy.

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Runners got this finisher towel instead of a mylar blanket. The blue line on the right of the towel is the race course. Although the race was a point-to-point course, there were two out-and-back loops along the way.

Interested in running the world?  Check out Marathon Tours.  They organize running tours to many international races including the Marathon du Medoc, which has to be the most fun looking race that I have ever seen. 

Packing for Race Day

I have been making a list of all the things I need to pack for the race in Tokyo.  This is a big trip and I want everything to go smoothly.  One of the worst feelings for a runner is getting to the start line of a race and realizing that you don’t have some important race gear.  This happened to a friend of mine a couple years ago.  She got into her corral and realized that she didn’t have any lip balm.  It was a cold and windy winter day too.   No place to buy lip balm in Corral B.  When the race started, she started running and in the first mile or so, there it was – on the ground, missing the cap – lip balm.  Yep.  She picked it up.  Before she used it, she twisted it up to expose a quarter inch or so, knocked it off with her thumb and then used the “fresh” end.  Sounds bad but, as they say, necessity is the mother of invention.  (I foolishly wore a new shirt in a race once and started chafing badly.  I used my lip balm in place of Body Glide.  You have to be resourceful out on the race course.)

I have traveled to many races but I have never typed up a list that I can reuse every time I pull out my suitcase to pack.  As a result, I spend a lot of time trying to remember what I will need to bring.  If anything, I overpack out of fear.   Even if I did forget something, I figure that I can buy whatever I need when I get to my destination.  Last June I forgot to pack my pre-race breakfast bar when I went to Boston for the Heartbreak Hill Half.   I found a Trader Joe’s down the street from my hotel that sold them.  Crisis averted.

Traveling to an international race is a bit more complicated because it might not be so easy to buy whatever I forgot to pack.  I was in Germany once and developed some nasty blisters on my feet.  I headed to the apotheke (their version of a drug store) and asked for bandages.  My German was limited and my language book didn’t have a translation for Band-Aid.  The clerk returned with a roll of gauze and a roll of tape.  I am not good at charades so I couldn’t get her to understand what it was that I wanted.  Finally the clerk took me back into the shelves so I could poke around and find what I needed.  (FYI – if you ever need the equivalent of a Band-Aid in Europe, ask for an elastoplast.)

When I pack, I will bundle things for the race together (clothes, shoes, watch, nutrition) and put them in my carry-on bag.  I also plan to do a quick inventory of all my critical race day gear when I arrive at my hotel.  Better to find out early that something is still sitting on the kitchen table at home.  I will have time to find a replacement for any missing gear before race day.  Fortunately, there will be someone traveling with me who is Japanese so I have a resource who can help me with translation if I need it.

When I get back from Japan, I plan to create a trip checklist that I can pull out when it comes time to pack for a race.  An added benefit of a checklist is that I can easily update it with changes based on lessons learned along the way.  I have six race trips planned over the next few months and I want to have trips that are fun and not stressful.  Maybe I should just keep a suitcase packed and ready to go to races. 🙂

I am looking forward to this weekend and the Tokyo Marathon.  I hope to have lots of stories to share with you next time!

Countdown to Tokyo!

The countdown continues until race day in Tokyo and my return to marathon running.  I am busy with preparations for the trip and finishing up my training.  Last week I read the Tokyo Marathon Runner Handbook – a 20-page guide to anything and everything the runners and even spectators will need to know about the Expo and the race.  As one can expect with any large marathon, there is lots of important information about bib/packet pickup, corrals, and, more importantly, restrictions.

One of the restrictions is that runners are not permitted to carry any fluids, i.e., no hydration belts.  I had not seen anything about this restriction before, though I could have missed it.  When I read this restriction (which I later confirmed with the race director), I had a small panic attack.  I have heard stories of races (not the Tokyo Marathon but other races) running out of water and I never wanted to be in the position of needing fluids but not being able to get any.  I have never run a race without my own water or Nuun for this reason.

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Source: Dictionary.com

After my moment of panic, I collected myself and started thinking of how to deal with not having my own fluids. Remember runners never do anything different on race day.  This is out of my control.  I have to either deal with it or not run the race.  But this race is going to be an adventure and an adventure, according to the dictionary.com definition, is “a bold, usually risky undertaking; hazardous action of uncertain outcome.” I am going to be outside my comfort zone.  I won’t become a better runner unless I challenge myself a little.

This past weekend I was scheduled to run my last long run, 20 miles.  I decided that during my long run, I would only take fluids at the corresponding mile for each of the water stops.  This would give me the opportunity to train my body to only take fluids at those points.  Although the weather had improved, I decided to run on the treadmill so I could more easily see when I reached a “water stop”.  I followed advice from Jeff Galloway and started out running about 30 seconds a mile slower than I expected to run at the finish.  That was a reasonable approach since the course will be very crowded at the start.

I broke my run up into three segments of 7 miles, 7 miles, and 6 miles.  Jeff has said that “you can’t run a long run too slowly or take too many walk breaks.  You’ll get the same endurance based upon the distance covered.”  I decided to take my walk breaks by walking around the room.  Between segments, I popped downstairs to check in with my husband before heading back up to the treadmill.

For the first few “water stops” I would anxiously watch the distance meter on the treadmill and grab a water bottle as soon as I hit the mileage for the stop.  My brain, which normally focuses  on how many more miles until I finish the run, was focused on how many more miles until the next water stop.  I also noticed that I was taking fluids differently than when I carry my own hydration.  I am a constant sipper when I carry my own fluids.   Consequently, I usually drink too much and end up in a line for a port-a-potty.  With the “Tokyo water stop” plan, I was taking one good long drink at each stop and I never had to stop for a bio-break.

By the end of my training run, I felt confident I will do well in Tokyo even without my own hydration belt.  If this was going to be a warm weather race, I probably would still be concerned.  But the temperatures in Tokyo will be in the 40s and 50s (and possibly in the 30s when we are huddled at the start line).

The Tokyo Marathon will be different from any race I have run so far.  But it is exactly what I am looking for – it’s an adventure!

Active Vacations

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Marathoners of the Caribbean

 

This past weekend was the Super Bowl and it made me recall last year when I watched the big game on a cruise ship in the Caribbean.  My husband and I were part of the Caribbean Running Cruise organized by John Bingham and Jenny Hadfield.   The cruise was a great way to get out of the cold and away from weather forecasts with two of the worst words (in my opinion) in the English language – “wintery mix.”

The running cruise was a staged marathon or half marathon – depending on what you chose to do.  Each time the ship stopped, our group would go ashore and run a 5K or 10K.  For this trip I elected to do the half marathon so that my husband (who is not a runner) would have a partner in this adventure.

The first stop was Haiti where we ran a relay race.  My husband and I took turns going out a half mile and back until we each had done 3 miles.  We were not allowed to run with a watch or Garmin so I never knew how fast I was going.  I was stunned when he told me that I had run a mile under 9 minutes.  I never run that fast.  It was an interesting lesson in how our watches influence our pace.

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Linsey with the donations behind her

While we were in Haiti, we got to meet Linsey Jorgenson, an incredible young woman who started Streethearts, a non-profit that provides a safe haven for street kids of Cap-Haitien.  Linsey met the kids during her daily run through town.  Her interactions with them built their trust and she was able to keep track of their welfare.  Ultimately, she got a house where the kids come to sleep, shower, and have a meal, under the watchful eye of Linsey and her staff. The marathoners had brought donations of much needed supplies like shoes and vitamins for the Streethearts kids.  The pile of donations was amazing.

DSCN0311Our next stop was Jamaica for a hash run with the Kingston, Jamaica Hash House Harriers club.  On the bus ride out to the hash run, we passed Usain Bolt’s grade school.  There was no fancy paved track – just a grass oval.  The club members were gracious hosts for a traditional hash run, followed by a cookout on the beach and more Hash House traditions involving beer.  The day was full of laughter and fellowship with our Jamaican hosts, many of whom had taken a day off from work to be with us.

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My Guy Harvey lunch – Yum!

In Grand Cayman, the race was run on the official course for the Grand Cayman Marathon.  For anyone interested in that marathon, I can tell you that this was the flattest course I have ever seen.  Following the race, I had the best meal of the whole trip at Guy Harvey’s Restaurant – so good that I took a picture of it!  (Guy Harvey is a well-known marine wildlife artist and conservationist whose work you would recognize.)

Our last race was an “Amazing Race” style adventure through Cozumel.  We had been told to pack costumes and dress as pirates for this race.  I am not one for running in a costume but my husband was game.  He dressed up like Captain Jack Sparrow, complete with facial hair.  His costume was so real that John did not recognize him at the pre-race meeting.  My costume was a red scarf, black shirt with skull and cross bones, a large earring, and a two-pound talking parrot (not live, mechanical).  I had programmed the parrot to say a few phrases like “Surrender your booty!” in addition to its squawk.

Our pirate costumes

Our pirate costumes

We were given a crude map and told to go to a series of landmarks in a specific order, taking pictures of ourselves at each one.  The locals must have been startled to see a large group of costumed runners, heading down the street.  Just like the television show, we needed to figure out for ourselves the best way to get from place to place.  I don’t speak Spanish so I resorted to asking for directions in French, which surprisingly was very effective.  My husband and I found the last landmark with another couple hot on our heels.  Not wanting to be passed by them, we took off for the finish line.  I shoved the parrot under my arm like a football and ran as fast as I could.  We were the first team to finish the 5K race.

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One of our waiters balancing beer mugs (full too!) and trays on his head!

The Cozumel race ended at the Jimmy Buffet Margaritaville restaurant where the marathoners received their finisher medals and enjoyed food and drinks, and shared stories about their adventures. The waiters got into the celebration and demonstrated their skills balancing mugs of beer and trays on their heads.

My parrot with my medal

I enjoyed the cruise a great deal but I won’t be able to go back on another Caribbean Running adventure.  While I enjoyed the break from the cold February weather, I found out very quickly that running in the heat and humidity of the Caribbean was not something that agreed with my Transverse Myelitis.  My normal coping mechanisms for running in warmer weather were not as effective on this trip.

A “runcation”, as Jenny calls them, is a great way to enjoy an active vacation and have a real adventure.  Their trips are not just for runners; both runners and walkers are welcome to participate.  In addition to the Caribbean Running cruise, John and Jenny organize an Alaskan cruise as well as active vacations in Europe.  Check out their web site – Marathon Expeditions – for more information.  I guarantee if you go on an adventure with John and Jenny, it won’t be your last.  You will be hooked!

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Jenny created this little video of scenes from our cruise.  Check it out (and then make that reservation to join them!).

Interested in learning more about Streethearts?  We were so impressed by Linsey’s work that we continue to support Streethearts.  I hope you consider helping them too.