Tokyo Marathon

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It took me a while to encourage myself to write this review because I have mixed feelings about this Marathon.

The simple fact of having been chosen in the first attempt when only 10% of those who apply gets selected is a super experience per se.

After London, it’s without a doubt, the most difficult marathon to get selected to because it receives more than 300,000 applications and only 30,000 runners get in.

So from the beginning, I felt the most fortunate person.

Add to the excitement the fact that it’s in Tokyo, one of the most cosmopolitan and glamorous cities in the world and it all points to a wonderful experience. And it definitely was.

The 16 hours of direct flight from the American continent are certainly heavy and worth it.

Tokyo is a chaotic city like no other, cosmopolitan, with traffic, smog, noise, millions of people in only 8,300 square kilometers of the island, with wonderful buildings, and a unique cultural and architectural heritage.

The food, both street food and the more sophisticated, will leave you with a visual experience, as well as incredible flavors and smells.

 

There is no photo to prepare you for what you are going to see. It certainly meets the expectations of the most demanding traveler.

Whether you’re traveling on a tight budget or a broad one, you won’t be disappointed.

Let’s talk about the Marathon.

Tokyo is my fourth major, having lived the experience in Boston, Chicago, and New York, and it was my 14th marathon. Add to that the experience of 45 half marathons and I have several stories of all kinds to tell about each one. And I say it, because this accumulated experience, makes me have broader criteria, but also a greater demand as to what to expect from a marathon or race. Comparisons are inevitable.

I have had to experience the worst and best logistics, routes, weather, and extreme experiences both good and bad. Having run in November the one that to this day I consider the best marathon that I´ve had the opportunity to live, New York, my expectations were extremely high regarding Tokyo. And I have several friends who have already run it and came back amazed, so I was very excited. Tokyo has only 10 years of created and was added to the “Abbott World Marathon Majors” in 2013 and you definitely notice the difference and the experience.

THE EXPO

In America, the chaos that the Disney Princesses expo causes is legendary, the long lines to buy a souvenir, the fights over the merchandise. Also, New York has the fame of having a huge, chaotic expo in which you can easily spend hours in line and buying and waiting for a long time to pick up your BIB if you arrive on Saturday at a rush hour.

   

Nothing of what I had lived prepared me for the immensity of people and lines of Tokyo. Being the marathon on Sunday, and not wanting to get tired of being a tourist from the beginning. I arrived on Friday, I went to the expo on Saturday…… big mistake. You just couldn’t walk, let alone see something.

The Bib number pick up was efficient. The “official” merchandise of the marathon is simply disappointing. And it’s not just because on Saturday there was almost nothing left, it’s because of the quality of what was there was little less than very low. And they really only focused on making shirts, key chains and caps and just one rain jacket which was really designed for the marathon. Practically nothing, if you compare it with the assortment of its other brother marathons. All “Majors” are defined by having a wide assortment of designs and you can definitely find either the technical jacket of more than $200 or the $30 shirt. And each one is worth its price if you are willing to pay it. If you are going to run a “Major”, of course, you want a souvenir that lasts.

      

Not this time. A polyester of the lowest quality and more “massive” were your options to buy. The kind you know that when you start running, you will sweat more and the sweat will stay on the shirt making it heavier. Apart from that, practically all the clothes were from the current season, without any allusion to the marathon. The only worth thing is that the special edition tennis is incredible. Most brands launched very well thought and worked special editions on their most popular tennis’.

THE PREVIOUS DAY 

On Saturday, as traditional in most “Majors”, a 5k friendship race is held, and Tokyo is no exception. Just like NYC, that has a parade on Friday night with all participating countries. That’s where you start to see the great cultural differences between Asia and America. Massive, but extremely cold.

LOGISTICS

As soon as you get to the city of an AWM Major, practically the whole downtown and almost the city dresses for a marathon. Welcoming announces and banners are everywhere where the route passes. NOT in Tokyo. If you add that my hotel was only 1 mile from the start walking at 6 am, as it would be logical in any major or race more or less large, you would expect to find a world of runners walking to the start. NOT in Tokyo. You would also expect to find closed streets, patrols, huge start structures and security controls to be able to pass to the start zone.

NOT in Tokyo.

Just two hour before the start, they put security controls, but it only took them five minutes and they were ready.

And if you add that you can’t find a single soul that speaks English before entering the runner’s zone, it’s pretty surrealistic. You don’t feel in one of the biggest marathons in the world.

Here I am at 6:30 a.m. the day of the marathon thinking if I got the day, start route wrong or if I was running the smaller local race of the town.

CORRALS

The way great races work is that they place you in corral according to your time, and if it’s very big you have different starts gates as in the NYC case and different waves, and in the majority today it’s the same.

With some difficulty, I found my start gate and my start letter.

THE START

I’m Latin, and we are known for being noisy and passionate, I lean towards the less noisy and shy side, but I have spent much of my time in races in the USA and Mexico, for me all the emotion that entails an event of that magnitude is normal, and it keeps moving me and exciting me as my first race almost 19 years ago. Whether it’s a race of 3,000 people or one of 30,000 you feel the excitement.

The talking, shouting, selfies, hearing USA’s or Mexico’s Hymns and feel how you get goosebumps with the excitement of the shooting, wanting to run as fast as you can when you start and give the best of you.

And suddenly I’m surrounded by 33 thousand people… Silent…. I think it’s difficult to size the feeling that gives you being surrounded by people completely silent, quiet, watching their phones or just standing in silence. At least in Mexico, even at a funeral, you hear murmurs.

And suddenly I start watching the people around me with different bib Letters and corrals (Tokyo calls them doors) and I wonder if I entered the wrong corral, and then no, I was in my corral.

Larger marathons or races have corrals, Start waves and Bib Letters.

Not in Tokyo.

And it doesn’t have it, because although it came clearly printed in your Bib number, start letter and corral, without any control or people to put order, everybody began to change corrals and you could see in the same place someone who clearly was going for less than 3 hours, and someone who would probably finish the marathon in 5 hours or someone who was going to run the 10k race. All mixed.

The fame of order and respect that the Japanese have was not seen in this specific rule of the marathon.

Tokyo is the only major that has a 10k race at the same time as the marathon.

This can turn into a nightmare if you go for a PR or a BQ,  and you are a middle of the pack runner.

The start ceremony is in Japanese so you don’t understand anything and it’s very difficult to identify the moments and instructions.

Being at just  3 corrals of the elite, I didn’t know when they sang the anthem and when they fired the starting gun.

When I started running I didn’t feel that jump you feel in the heart every time you start a marathon and you know that you’re going to do something epic.

And then the trouble started… starting out among people who are going to run only 10k, mixing competitive runners with 10K recreational runners on the same route is not the best experience for anyone who is going after a PR or highly competitive, even with oneself.

I had changed my mind on my race goal time  a couple of months ago and I had decided that except for Boston, I was going to enjoy the rest of the ” AWM Major”, immerse myself in the experience, the streets, the city, the route, people, without worrying about times, since it’s not easy to qualify or be selected for the majority.

So they become almost unique experiences worth to enjoy 100% and with the best attitude.

In NYC my race strategy failed and first, I didn’t train enough and I decided to go with a pace below my comfortable pace and the result was that I crammed in the 30th km and suffered for the last km. New lesson learned.

You have to run them slow but not that slow.

I decided that I would run Tokyo a little faster, slightly below 4 hours, which is a rhythm that I can maintain for a long time and it doesn’t take a lot of effort for me as it’s well below my Lactate Threshold level I have nowadays.

THE ROUTE

This year they designed a new route, Tokyo has the fame of being a quick route, and it surely is for the elite. But for regular people, it can become a nightmare with the changes they made.

I usually try to make negative splits and run my first 3km of a marathon ridiculously slow, allowing my body to gently warm up and get into a rhythm. And I speed up the pace progressively until I’m in my desired time.

In Tokyo, I couldn’t. The number of people walking didn’t allow me to go faster than the people around me.

After the 4th km, the route opened more and finally, I could get into a rhythm and go faster.

But, for someone who has trained for months, it’s not fair in any way for an ” AWMM Major” to mix people who only go for 10km in the same start, corral and Letter. I can’t find any sense in this.

After the 9th km, the route widens and the runners from the 10k divert, you see thousands of people, but now you can go at the desired pace. But 10k has already passed, it’s a lot.

The route is not difficult but it’s by no means flat, like Chicago. They’re rolling hills, they’re not demanding, but you can feel them and there are bridges.

What surprised me the most, and it can be very complicated mentally, is that even though the route it’s point to point, for more than 23km – 14 miles  there are runners going both ways of the street, so you see an endless line of people in front of you, and you never get to see where it ends. This can definitely be very heavy mentally y it can get you out of your pace in a certain way because you get desperate and you feel that you are NOT moving forward. It gives you a slow-motion effect.

     

So we have the first 10k that you run along with the runners that only run that distance plus, add the two-way 23k… For my taste, it’s not the best combination for a pleasant race. But it’s just my opinion.

Being in Tokyo, I would expect to see a beautiful route, taking advantage of the thousands of impressive temples there are, but I imagine it must be a logistical nightmare, so you run most of the race in the downtown, which is like any downtown of any city, you will be surrounded by big buildings and lots of asphalt. Without reaching the magnificence of NYC or Chicago Downtown.

But I dare to think that all of this is because, being Tokyo an island with 33,000,000 inhabitants in the Tokyo area and only 8,300 km of the surface in the urban area, you can’t expect more. It’s easier to bend the route and close fewer streets than to offer a running tourist tour like the other “Majors” do.

While you pass by the Imperial Palace, don’t imagine that you will see a palace, you will see a huge stone wall, or maybe more than 8 meters high, that’s the Imperial Palace and yes, you pass by one of the most important temples, but it’s ONE temple in 42Km / 26 miles.

 

So the photos of the race you once saw advertised, are not exactly what you will live. It’s not a visually pretty marathon. You have to separate the beauty of the city as a tourist, and the chosen route, the great advantage is that the avenues are very wide, so you will run comfortably among 33,000 people.

But be prepared mentally for what I just told you. It’s important so it won’t become an exasperating experience.

THE SPECTATORS

Although you definitely feel that there are almost 1.6 million people watching the race, Don’t expect screams, cheers, bands, people shouting your name or “high 5” when you pass by.

The oriental culture marks a modesty and a seriousness that are impressive and you can definitely feel that difference.

THE HYDRATION

Tokyo does NOT allow you to bring your own hydration, bottles filled with liquid, so you have to settle for what they give you. There’s no problem with the water, and in my opinion, the equivalent of Gatorade you get, is quite tasty and less sweet, but if you’re delicate or obsessive in that aspect it’s something you have to take into consideration. I didn’t try the equivalent of GU, because I don’t use it, but you can take your own gel, so there’s no problem in that section.

THE WEATHER

It was winter in Tokyo, but precisely the day of the marathon, the temperature was around 20C/ 68F so I felt it warmer than expected, I definitely could have run in shorts and would have been much more comfortable. I’m super chilly, and the rest of the day I felt very cold. So you never know. But as I always say, you can’t be confident, and you should always be prepared for extreme weather and carry 2 sets of clothes according to those conditions.

THE FINISH LINE

It’s at a park, and it’s very similar to the finish line of NYCM, they give you a thermal blanket, and the food is plentiful, bread, pretzel, banana, oranges, etc. Volunteers, as in all races are friendly and do a wonderful job helping to make the final experience very good.

THE PICTURES 

I want to talk about this subject because I think it was a real abuse. There are professional photographers throughout the route, and also at the end of the race, but you have no option to buy one, you have to buy them all; the package is digital and it costs $200 us dollars.

MY CONCLUSION 

Participating in the race without a goal of time in mind, allowed me not to be nervous or frustrated, and to be a much more active observer and with a more critical perspective of the whole experience, always thinking about sharing it. And this, I have been doing since I ran NYC. Being the ambassador of the Abbott Marathon Majors, I want to share relevant issues, as well as my experience, which is simply that, the way I experienced the race, and it may be totally different to how other runners experience it.

You live the cultural differences and lack of expertise in organization and they’re real, and it’s something that must be taken into account, just so they don’t take you by surprise when you get there. If you’re looking to race all the Abbott World Marathon Majors, Tokyo’s is definitely worth running. I wouldn’t recommend it to achieve PR unless you’re a runner who does less than 3 hours and you can start in corral 1 or 2.

If you’re a passionate traveler, and also a runner, it’s an experience that you have to live, by what it means culturally and by how the Orientals live and experience the sport. All the differences and details that I  point out, are enriching if you go with the best attitude. I could live all of these without them worrying me or bothering me, because I had no pressure, and throughout the race, I felt strong, without any pain or discomfort, which made running an extremely pleasant experience.  I started and finished super strong. If I had gone for a BQ or PR, it would have been extremely frustrating because of the experience I have running marathons, I know that simply for that logistic I would NOT have achieved my goal.  

 

WORLD MARATHON MAJORS STANDARDS

As a marathon, there is an abyss of difference in my criteria, between NYCM organizations, Boston or Chicago organizations (which are the ones I know and have run). You immediately feel the inexperience, or maybe just the cultural differences. There are so few of us Westerns who run it, that there’s no great need for bilingual follow-up, the virtual experience in social networks, in communication via mail, etc. Is completely non-existent. Don’t expect emails that say that there are 20 weeks, or 10 weeks left, emails with tips, etc. As in the other marathons. Although I haven’t participated in London, I have entered the lottery, and they have a follow up of their runners and a constant communication, like the rest. Tokyo doesn’t.

I would expect all of them to have a very similar standard since it’s an association and organization that brings together the best and biggest marathons in the world, they should have a standard and similar criteria in planning and organization.

What can I expect of the 3 new races? I’m not very excited thinking that, in China, it would be a similar experience, 9 or 10 Majors without the quality of the Originals, in my opinion, would blur the concept. But it’s just my opinion and experience. I definitely hope it does NOT happen.

One of my goals is to run the 6 Majors, now 9. Because for me, to travel the world running is one of the most wonderful things that exist and that makes me infinitely happy.

And remember, everything is better with coffee

Thanks for reading, if you like it, please comment, share and subscribe

Ilya

RRAC Running Educator, Health & Mindset coach, content creator 22 years running, 200+ races & creating magic at Instarunners

One comment

  • Miram aparecida Paulino dos santos says:

    Adorei as informações prestadas não imaginava que tokio era tudo isso , mais um pouco , fiquei impressionada com a história de corredores correrem em dois sentidos , até o 10km e por todo centro de tokio , por mais que as ruas sejam largas ! Parabéns pela matéria

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