Marathon (Week LXX)
Friday, February 24
I woke up early. I needed to get deep into Tokyo and back before work started. The reason: the Tokyo Marathon Expo. The marathon was only two days away and I was beginning to feel excited. A trip to the expo would do me well to get pumped before the race. And considering what is needed for a marathon, a little adrenaline would help.
I started my daily routine a little earlier than normal. I put on a suit and was out the door before 10. Six train stations later and I was on a man-made-island in Tokyo Bay, Tokyo Big Sight (東京ビッグサイト.) I moved with the crowds and followed the signs. Tokyo Big Sight is an impressive conference center and it would be easy to get lost in. Like any good Japanese person, I found a line and took my place in it. I looked around. There were hundreds of Japanese, and only a few foreigners. I felt at ease.
At 11 o’clock on the dot the line began to move and we filed through check-in. My entry paper passed a quick inspection and I stood in a shorter line to receive my runners’ bib. A quick hand off ensued and I again returned to following the crowd. Next stop; the expo. The expo was fun. There were hundreds of booths set up advertising and selling merchandise. I cruised up and down the aisles every aware of the time. A variety of pamphlets and freebies were shoved in front of me and I took everything. I even took a 0% alcohol beer. I thought it was a sign from above to continue my abstinence.
I was generally ignored by most vendors because of my skin color. A fact that didn’t bother me. I was approaching the end of the expo when I was ambushed by two sweet, elderly women. Both Japanese, they spoke to me in English.
“Young man, welcome to Tokyo! Won’t you come here and take a map of our city?” The first woman asked.
“Thank you, but actually I live here.”
“Ehh (えーーー),” they said in unison. “Where do you live?” Asked the second woman.
“Sagamihara?!” Again in unison.
“Yes, ma’am. But I would like to have one of your maps.”
“Of course, of course!” The first woman ran over to the table to get a map. The second woman began digging through my bag of handouts. This was very invasive and un-Japanese of her. I suppressed my laugh while she rooted around.
“A shirt. A shirt. You don’t have a shirt yet!”
The stands to pick up the official marathon shirts stood in plain sight. Behind the women and next to the exit. I hadn’t had a chance to visit it yet.
“I’m going to get a shirt when I’m finished looking around. But thank you–”
“Kyoko, he doesn’t have a shirt!”
“I just said I’m going to–”
Kyoko came running back from their stand with a map. “You don’t have a shirt?” Kyoko interrupted. “You must get a shirt. You can get it over there, by the exit!”
“Thank you. I’ll be sure to do that.”
“Oh and you must have a map,” Kyoko put a map in my bag.
“He needs a tourist guide too!”
I was escorted over to their table.
“I know you live here but maybe you have a friend coming to visit. So please give them this guide.”
I gently took the guidebook offered. “Yes. Actually my brother will be coming next month. I’m sure he will enjoy this. Thank you.”
“Brother?!” They said in unison.
“Where does he live?”
“He lives in Nebraska…” I thought about where this conversation could lead. And how long it might take. “Actually he’s from America. Ladies, its been very nice speaking with you. Thank you for the map and book. I’ve got to get going now.”
“Of course, of course. We understand.”
We made a triangle and simultaneously bowed forward to say, “thank you (ありがとうございます.)”
I walked away from the table chuckling under my breath. They were more enthusiastic than I was. What a quaint conversation. I collected my t-shirt, made a charitable donation for the Great Eastern Japan earthquake and left Big Sight.
Five train stations later and I was in the Ono (大野.) I walked into work exactly on time. No time to think about the marathon. It was time to work.
Sunday, February 26
Marathon day. I woke up early and ate a hearty breakfast. I checked the weather. Cloudy skies, a high of 9 (48F), and no chance of rain. Perfect. I grabbed my bag, packed the night before, and hopped one station to Ono. There I met Mari and we took a train to Shinjuku (新宿.) On the train we saw another runner and two volunteers. Who knows how many spectators were onboard too.
We arrived at the station and found it swamped with runners. The men’s restrooms, normally quiet, had long lines spilling out of them. Everywhere people were changing or stretching. I found a quiet spot and changed over from my civvies to runner gear. I had read online about the horrors of nipple chaffing during a race. So I lifted my shirt and asked Mari to apply a band-aid over each of my nipples. Nipple guards: check.
Looking more like a runner we took a tunnel to the Tokyo Metropolitan Office building and the start of the race. The busy train station had been merely a preview of the humanity in the streets. People were everywhere. We followed the crowds until the end. The runners’ entrance. I said goodbye to my girlfriend and moved past security. I was in.
36,000 people had been selected to run the marathon. 12,000 volunteers. And it felt like that many. The clock was ticking closer to the starting gun and an urgency moved through the crowd. First step, deposit my bag. My duffel bag, complete with clothes needed at the end of the race, had been sealed in a large plastic bag with my name and runner number on it. I followed the signs and found the semi trailer for deposit. I handed over my bag and proceeded on.
Next stop: porta-potties.
I next had to move to my starting block. I followed the easy to read signs and found myself at the back of a huge crowd. A city block wide, we moved very slowly. 10 minutes later and I was in position at the back of my starting block. 15 minutes until the start. I jumped up and out to keep my heart pumping. It was cold. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a paper crane Mari had given me. I unfolded it and read her message. Words of encouragement. She is awesome. I tucked the paper away and put in my headphones. I let slow tempo electronica wash over me.
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
I looked in the sky, three fireworks had detonated over the city. I looked at my watch, 9:10. The race had started. Technically it had started. But it took more than one minute for me to physically move. I was that far from the beginning. Five blocks. We started moving. Walking. Slowly walking faster. We turned a corner and could see the starting line four blocks ahead. People around me started to jog slowly.
“You’re crazy,” I thought. “This is a marathon! Do you actually want to start running before you have to?”
I kept walking at a brisk pace, while those next to me jogged at a slow one. The starting line kept getting nearer. Adrenaline began to pump.
“Marathon,” I shouted. “Ma-ra-thon!”
The official Seiko clock at the starting line read 13 minutes. It had taken us 13 minutes to start. I started my watch. I took my final walking step to the starting line. And then I ran.
I started at a snail’s pace. “Slow and steady wins the race,” I thought. There was so much to take in that I felt no need to rush through it. I was running through the streets of Shinjuku (新宿), past the Emperor’s palace (皇居), south to Shinagawa (品川), through Ginza (銀座), north to Asakusa (浅草), through Tsukiji (築地), and into Tokyo Bay (東京湾). Basically downtown Tokyo (東京). The streets were lined with thousands of spectators. “Good luck (ganbatte ne (がんばってね))” they cried. I looked ahead and could see thousands of people running. I looked behind, thousands more there. I was in the middle of a 36,000 person race. Fantastic.
A little old lady ran up from behind me. “Good luck, Alex (がんばってね、アレックス).” I thanked her and watched her run ahead of me. Mari had written and sewed my name on to my shirt. “アレックス” on the back and “Alex” on the front. It would prove very motivating to hear my name shouted during the run.
So I continued running. I felt like I was moving at a painfully slow pace. People in costumes were passing me. The elderly passed me. The obese passed me. I was being passed by everyone on the course. It was humorous more than irritating. These people were sprinting to the finish line 40 kilometers away. I remembered there was a 10k run too. Some of these people were surely only running that limited amount. The rest? Well the rest were making a rookie mistake. Endorphins feel great while they last. But they don’t last long enough.
I was feeling good. But after four kilometers my left knee started hurting. I’ve often found either of my knees to hurt during distance running. Once it comes it doesn’t go away until the next day. I was disappointed the pain started so early. But it was there. I couldn’t let it get the best of me. And I didn’t want to show the pain. I pushed the thought away and struck the pavement with my strong leg. “We’ve got a ways to go.”
The music in my ears was interrupted by a chime. It was an email from Mari. I looked down at the phone/music player in my hand.
“I’ll be before the 5k marker, on the right, next to a group of people wearing orange.”
I replied with a single emogi; 😀
Sure enough just before 5k I found her waiting there.
“Mari, I feel great! But everyone is passing me!”
“Don’t push yourself too much. Just enjoy it!”
I took her sound advice to heart. I got a good-luck kiss on the cheek and ran away.
I passed the 10k finish line. I was feeling great. I knew I would. My heart pumped at an even rhythm. My breathing was calm. I didn’t have a drop of sweat on me. I turned a corner at the Imperial Household and felt my optimism take a hit. On the other side of the road were some serious runners. They had finished the Shinagawa (品川) turning point. I had just crossed the 10 kilometer mark and directly across from me they were 21 kilometers finished. “Keep calm and carry on, Al.”
The first turning point, or loop, totaled 11 kilometers. I felt loose, happy, and energized. I made the turn at 15k and was still getting passed, but not so frequently. My phone beeped again, Mari. She was ahead.
I found her waiting near the 18k marker. I stopped and talked for a minute. She had seen me running at 10k, and even had been running with me. I was too focused and had missed her. Apologies. I asked a woman standing next to Mari to take our picture. Last chance for a picture before I looked awful. High five and goodbye.
I finished the loop and turned a corner. The halfway point. Just then the dubstep music in my ears hit the bass drop. The endorphins, adrenaline and testosterone were flowing. I felt invincible. I punched the air a few times and let out a hoot.
“Oww! Halfway home baby! Ain’t no thing!”
The runners around me gave me a small berth.
We entered Ginza (銀座) and began the Asakusa (浅草) loop. On the other side of the road I saw professional runners tearing down the final stretch of the loop. This time I felt motivated to keep moving. I would be there in no time. Indeed after 20k that I began to overtake more people than were passing me. It had taken two hours of steady running but I had caught up with some of those people from the beginning. I felt great!
Quiet by chance I ran into Mari before the 25k marker. She was trying to find some cheap headphones for me. Mine had broken during the run. I had sent her an email asking for a replacement. Technology is great. She had poked her out over the gate and we saw each other. We didn’t talk long. I felt too good to stop and chat.
No sooner had I seen Mari before I found the first food stand. I slowed down to grab some quick grub. A banana and a handful of raisins. The banana was probably the tastiest thing I had ever eaten. I washed it back with a cup of water and hit the road again. I could feel my stomach immediately digest the food. I was hungry.
The race continued. My enthusiasm peaked at 27 kilometers. Then optimism and spirits slowly faded. At 28 K the race was no longer fun. It was now work. Thankfully the sun had come out and warmed my back as I ran. I started passing more people. “I’ve got to hit the 30 kilometer marker with all I’ve got,” I thought.
In marathon talk, there is a “wall” around 30 kilometers. “The wall” refers to a sudden and dramatic fatigue caused by an absence of glycogen (from carbohydrates.) One moment you’re on top of the world. The next your body shuts down. You can read more about it here. Since the farthest I had ever run was 25 km, I was sure the wall was going to be huge. However the 30k marker came and went and my body carried on.
What I wasn’t prepared for were the emotions. For reasons beyond me, I wanted to cry. After 30k I slowed to a walk and drank a cup of water. I tossed my cup and ran through the rest of the water station giving high fives to 50 volunteers. All of them shouting, “Arekusu! Ganbatte!” Their encouragement was amazing. I ran next to the crowd continuing my high fives. “Ganbatte! Arekusu!” I felt like they had all come out just to see me. And then hit happened. Tears came to my eyes. I wasn’t sad, but I had an uncontrollable desire to cry. I felt pubescent again.
My phone chimed, it was Mari. She was just ahead at 33 kilometers. I had to get it together. I wiped the tear from my eye and looked ahead. In front of me was a man in giant radish costume. I laughed. I passed him just in time to hear the crowd encourage him. An old man with a deep voice shouted out to him, “good luck, raddish (がんばってね、だいこん!)”
I couldn’t hold back the laughter. “Pfft, bhahaha! がんばってね、だいこん,” I shouted. The exchange was what I needed to keep moving. The tears retreated, but I would fight them back the rest of the day.
I found Mari. She was with two friends and fellow students, Daisuke and Ban. I drank some of the carbohydrate/calorie gel Mari offered me.
“How do you feel,” they asked.
“Exhausted,” I thought. “Great. I could do this all day,” I said.
No time to talk, back to the race.
35 kilometers. Feet began to hurt. Diaphragm tightened. Breathing became a chore.
“Can’t quit now.”
Another chime. Mari. 38 k. The little engine that could, “I think I can. I think I can.”
I stopped to talk for a minute. Mari could see the state I was in. She encouraged me.
“I’ll see you in three kilometers. At the finish,” she told me.
Just then a man in Jesus costume, complete with a cross on his back came running by. Barefoot.
Two thoughts. “Wow! What a trooper!” And, “there is no way this guy is going to beat me.”
“Okay, I’ll see you there. Time me!”
I pushed off from the gate and forced my legs to return to running. I felt like my body had aged 70 years in the last hour. But I was now passing people at an incredible rate. I was one of the fastest in the pack. I ran up and down little hills before the end. I like hills. They motivate to increase my pace and get to the top as soon as possible.
I kept running. I no longer took pictures or whistled to the music in my ears. I was working. It seemed the gray clouds above had descended all around me. My vision was focused on the path ahead of me. I needed to stay focus. I was going to finish the race no doubt. But I didn’t want to let up in the final stretch. Keep running. Keep. Running.
I turned the final corner. One kilometer to go. I took out my headphones and listened to the crowd shout and cheer. I saw the finish line and began to run fast. I sprinted. I passed everyone. I was using my last bit of energy to get across the line as soon as possible. In one final stride, I leaped across the checker line and was finished. I had just run a marathon.
I crossed the finish line and walked in to deafness. I was back at Toyko Big Sight, where I had been on Friday. The end zone was silent as everyone caught their breath and regained senses. I had finished running but was now walking quickly. My legs were trying to continue their motion. I forced myself to slow down and assess the situation. I was a little confused. For 5 hours all I had thought was, “Run, run, run.” Now I was finished running. What should I do? Do the Tokyo thing of course! Find a line and stand in it.
I advanced through the stations. Sports drink. Towel. Medal. Fruit. I took everything handed to me and gave a polite thank you (ありがとうございます.) Keep moving, follow the crowd. My muscles began to tighten a little. I walked with a limp, my knee really hurt. I followed the crowd, read the signs and found bag pickup. I was handed my bag and proceeded to the changing area.
The changing area proved to be the only part of the marathon that wasn’t perfectly executed. The changing are was a giant airplane-like hanger. No men’s & women’s sections. No dividers, walls, or curtains. I also have no sense of decency. So no problem. I found a group of men, an empty spot and sat down. It felt heavenly to sit. I took my new towel and wrapped it around my waist. I took off my bottoms and put on underwear. Shirt off, shirt on. Ready to go.
Mari called. Where to meet. See you soon. Soon was actually slow. I took every provided form of automated transportation. Escalator & moving sidewalk. I moved with the crowd and she found me first. I got a big hug from behind. I looked down and saw tears in her eye. She couldn’t be crying, I was the one fighting back tears earlier! I gave my greatest fan a tremendous hug and had our picture taken.
Time to get back. the 10 minute walk to the station took 30 minutes in the crowd. We caught a series of trains home. I was thankfully able to get a seat on every train home. Normally I stand on trains. However after a marathon I tend to sit.
We arrived back to my apartment. I took an ice bath while Mari cooked dinner. Dinner was followed by a good massage. I walked Mari back to the station and saw her off. The walk took longer than normal as I hopped on my one good leg. We said goodbye and I hobbled back home.
In conclusion, I was very pleased with everything marathon related. Leading up to the race I had mixed feelings. To begin with, I didn’t think I would actually get selected to run. So when my name got called I was genuinely surprised. I altered my workouts from 30-60 minute runs to long distance. My knee became an issue the further I ran. The weather turned cold and the days short. Making running a once-a-week activity. And on more than one occasion I encountered an unpleasant condition called “runners trot.” If you’re curious look it up. I think the less said about it, the better. Prior to the actual race my furthest run was only 25 kilometers. 25 is definitely shy of 41. And historically speaking, the majority of the Tokyo Marathon had taken place in the rain. In conjunction these issues made the marathon seem daunting.
When I woke on Sunday morning I pushed all of these thoughts out of my head. I was lucky to be running. I needed to have a positive attitude to get through the day. And that was that. I got to the race and there was a 0% chance of rain. After the race I felt a sense of accomplishment. I had run a new distance. I never walked. I finished in a dead sprint and passed everyone in front of me. I had finished in under five hours. I looked at my pace. I had kept the same momentum every five kilometers for 41 kilometers. That’s a pretty good day.
Ultimately the marathon was not as difficult as I expected. I had challenged myself and rose to the occasion. I felt good to be finished. I felt good to be alive. No physical challenge seemed like too much. Heck, now a triathlon is starting to sound tempting.
-The Honeymoon is Over-
I’ve put off talking about this topic for as long as possible. I don’t like writing about negative things. I don’t want people, Japanese or others, to get a bad impression of me, the country or my experiences. I have had a wonderful time living in Japan. I’m continuing to have a great time. But the glow of the “honeymoon” has faded away. I think that’s worth talking about.
The honeymoon, my recruiters told me, would last about four months. Luckily for me, they were wrong. I had about a year of honeymooning. I was enthralled with everything, the people, the food, the culture. You name it, I loved it.
Over the last three or months I’ve caught myself rolling my eyes a lot more. Nothing major or terribly upsetting. Just minor things throughout the week that elicit a sigh. Patronizing comments meant as compliments. False kindness. Superficialness. Sexual preoccupation with youth. Cultural superiority. A lack of critical thinking.
The last part, critical thinking, is really what gets my goat. I feel, as a college educated westerner, that critical thinking is essential for successful adults. I also feel that critical thinking is a still a foreign concept here. It seems I use a lot of my energy internally questioning assumptions. Internally because if I choose to be vocal, watch out. Usually my comments or questions are met with a blank face. The Japanese person does not understand why I would say, “Stop. Why do we need to…” So now a simple question of “why” has become a full-blown conversation. Now I have to explain why I’m questioning something rather than having my question answered. Exhausting.
Allow me to give a broad example. There are three times a year in Japan when people travel; Golden Week, Obon, New Years. The travel industry refers to this as “busy season.” Transportation at this time is very expensive and hard to come by. It can also only be purchases from authorized travel agents. So it would appear that transportation companies have gotten together and made several agreements. Limit supply and therefore raise demand, inflate prices, and keep prices the same. Then limit access to tickets and keep a buffer between the customers and the company. In effect they have monopolized vacations.
A Japanese person might comment and say, “It’s expensive because there aren’t enough vehicles. We need travel agents to tell us what options there are.” Or some other form of justification and rationalizing. Me? I call foul. Where is the competition? This situation screams for a new company to come in! Sell tickets cheaper, pick up customers and make more money than the crooks in cahoots. Suddenly capitalism takes off. It’s every man for himself. I tell my Japanese friend, “customers benefit from cheaper tickets. Businesses become more competitive. Middlemen become obsolete. Technology and services advance. Customers benefit again and again! You are a customer!”
And here I am met with the same blank stare previously mentioned. The Japanese brain isn’t wired to think like this. Now I’ve worked myself up with a great idea, have vented some frustrations and would like some kind of a response or feedback. Some agreement. Instead, “Alex, just pay the company.”
Something like this happens every week. Frustrating and irritating. Enough to take the shine off the honeymoon.
However, let me say that the end of the honeymoon does not make Japan a bad place. I have serious problems with my home country. Particularly popular culture. Every country and every culture has problems. In contrast with many other places, Japan’s problems really aren’t that bad. In fact this country is so great that I’ve renewed my original stay and am continuing to live here. I’ve taken a Japanese woman as my girlfriend, and I’m crazy about her. Sometimes Japan really annoys me. But Japan is great.
While on the surface the conclusion of the honeymoon was a bad thing. At a deeper level it’s a good thing. I am now able to transition my mindset from a wide-eyed foreigner to an expatriate. One with experience and understanding. Well the understanding, that’s still to come. But now I’ve got a goal.