Sunday, April 14, 2013

Kakegawa Shincha Marathon

In my last post, I alluded to a period of blog-silence. One thing that happened during that silent period is that I ran the Fukuchiyama Marathon again, in late November of 2012. The reason I didn’t blog about it at the time (other than me being lazy) is that I was a little embarrassed. I got a decent time (about 3:11, I think), but the race was a disaster. Quinn didn’t really get the distinction; her logic was that if my time is an improvement over the previous one, then the race was a success. The problem is that it didn’t feel like a success – I’d been hoping to break 3 hours and was on track to do so (by a pretty wide margin) until about 32 kilometers (20 miles) in; at which point things fell apart. In distance-running lingo, I bonked. I had no energy left and the thought of running another step was unbearable; I stopped and walked for a while, then sort of alternated walking and running for the last few miles. My legs didn’t even really hurt all that much; the entire problem was that I just ran out of energy.

There are a few possible reasons for this; Gus was about 3 1/2 months old at the time, and none of us were sleeping much or able to focus on much of anything. That’s a lame excuse, though. The real reason is that I did the whole thing without much of a plan. My training plan basically consisted of running a whole lot of miles at whatever pace felt good, my race plan consisted of starting with my 3:00:00 goal time, dividing by 42.195 km to get 4:16 per km, and figuring that if I tried to run every km under that time then I’d be fine. Not so much. I was frustrated with myself, and by the next morning I was itching for a do-over.

So I signed up for the next race I could feasibly train for, the Kakegawa Shincha Marathon (掛川新茶マラソン) in Kakegawa, Shizuoka prefecture. The name means “Kakegawa new tea marathon” – they grow a lot of tea in the area, and at this time of year the new leaves are just coming out. I was determined to do everything differently this time; I got myself a very focused training plan from Marathon Nation that had me running harder and faster than ever before, I wrote out obsessively-detailed pre- and post-race plans, and I was determined that this time I would hit my goal of a sub-3:00 marathon.

Here’s the timeline, in pictures:

The evening before the race, I caught the Shinkansen to Kakegawa, checked into my hotel and headed out for dinner. I was looking for something carbohydrate-rich, predictable, and familiar, and I wound up at Coco Ichibanya. For those who aren’t familiar with it ここいち (as it’s affectionately called) is a chain restaurant that serves Japanese brown curry. It’s decent, and I eat there often enough to make it predictable and familiar. I asked for extra rice (400g total) and made a point of not asking for extra-spicy (which I usually do).

Then I went back to the hotel, pored over the race map and elevation chart some more and was in bed by 9:30pm.

At 5:30am (4h before race start), I woke up and went for my pre-race breakfast. The advice I found on this recommended a carbohydrate-heavy meal (about 1.2-1.5 g per pound of body weight); I was looking at English-language sites so they were very enamored with bagels and oatmeal. Those are sort of exotic here so I went Japanese-style, with daigakuimo (honey-glazed sweet potato) and onigiri (seaweed-wrapped rice balls). I’d done this exact breakfast 4 hours before one of my training runs, but I had a lot more butterflies in my stomach this time.

At 7:30am (2h before race start), I went down to the hotel breakfast area for the second carbohydrate-rich breakfast installment: bread and orange juice. To the left is the race course map, which I’d pretty much memorized by this point.

By 8:30am (1h before race start), I was at the train station waiting in line for the shuttle bus to the race start. Waiting in lines is a time-honored Japanese distance running tradition. If I had to do it all over again, I would have gotten on the bus a little earlier; I was a little bit rushed trying to figure out where the starting line was, stash my backpack, etc.

This is a view out the bus window at some of those famous tea fields. I really had no idea that this is what tea plants look like.

This is my pace plan, copied to the back of my left hand. The ink held up fairly well while I was running, but my reading skills didn’t – next time I’ll write the last few bigger than the rest.

At 9:00am (30 minutes before start), I had the last installment of pre-race breakfast, a “One Second” energy gel. These things are proof that they don’t actually make everything smaller in Japan – 41.4g of carbohydrates in one squeeze. It usually takes me longer than one second to get the screw-top open, but from there the delivery is as quick as advertised. They’re a little too big to fit comfortably in the pockets of my running shorts, but I’d brought four of them to stick in my pockets, planning to put one down every 40 minutes or so.

The race staging area was in a big field in Tsumagoi (つま恋, literally “wife love”) park. The weather was nice (warmish but mostly cloudy), and people had tents and tarps set up. There were booths with food, souvenirs, etc. around the perimeter and a stage set up with live music. I left my stuff in an easy-to-find spot and headed for the starting area.

Once I got into the starting corral (packed in like sushi, as they say), I suddenly realized (to my horror) that I’d forgotten the gels that I’d planned on putting in my pockets. They were still sitting in my backpack, and there was no way that I’d have time to run over, grab them, and make it back before the start. I just reminded myself that part of the plan was to stick with the plan even if some pieces of it don’t work out, and promised myself not to pass up on any drink stations.

My goal was to finish in 2:59:55, leaving myself a small margin of error. That translates to a 6:52/mile pace; my plan was to run 7:07 miles for the first five miles, and speed up to 6:47 for the next 15, then have the option of slowing down to 6:52 for the final 6.2. I usually spend the first few miles of a race weaving through the crowd, jumping up on sidewalks to pass people and generally getting the adrenaline pumping. This time, I made an effort to keep it slow and conservative and let lots of people pass me.

I stayed on my pace (actually a tiny bit ahead of it) until the 5 mile mark, and then started to speed up as the initial hills ended and the race flattened out. I actually had a little bit of trouble setting my “cruise control” to 6:47 after running a few miles at 7:07 – I can run fast and I can run slowly, but staying at an in-between pace like that is challenging sometimes. After about two miles I’d gotten into the rhythm of a 6:47 pace and managed to stay there from then on. I lost a little bit of time during those first couple of miles, though – it didn’t help much that I had a headwind for most of the first half of the race. In keeping with my plan, though, I forbade myself any thinking (in particular re-adjusting the plan) until I got to the 20-mile mark and had some sense of what I had left.

After 20 miles, I was about 30 seconds behind my planned-out split time, but still felt really good. I decided that instead of slowing down, I would run the last 6 miles at about a 6:47 pace, so that I could make up those 30 seconds. The last 6 miles were fairly hilly, so what I really ended up doing was running about 6:30 on the downhill parts and then just trying to keep moving on the uphill parts. The last mile was all uphill, and I took it as fast as I could. That last mile was without a doubt the most difficult thing I’ve ever done while running; I just kept repeating to myself “I’m going to make it, I’m going to make it.”

And make it I did – 2:58:41, more than a minute faster than my original goal. I was a little worried that I might faint (the people running the finish area were probably even more worried), but I managed to hold it together.

When I got back to where I’d left my backpack (and those four energy gels), I got my camera out and asked someone to take my picture. It’s not a great picture of me, but it captures the moment perfectly. My eyes are closed, but not because I blinked. As soon as I handed off the camera, my right calf seized up and I’d closed my eyes because it hurt so much. But I’m still smiling.

I left Quinn a voice mail to let her know I’d survived, and drank a whey protein shake thing that I’d packed as a post-race toast. The next item on my post-race plan was to head to Shinrin no yu (森林乃湯, literally “hot water in the forest”), a hot spring bath located at the north end of the Tsumagoi. There was supposed to be a shuttle bus, but when I got to the area where it was supposed to pick people up there was no bus and no one waiting for the bus, so I walked, eating most of a loaf of raisin-walnut bread while walking (also part of the plan).

I don’t have any pictures from Shinrin no yu because, well, it involved a bunch of naked dudes and they frown on picture-taking. (I didn’t actually ask; I’m just assuming.) Totally the best post-race activity ever. In addition to the usual hot-water baths, they also had a few cold-water baths that were probably getting a lot more traffic than usual, as people were using them to ice their battered muscles in between (longer) stays in the hot baths. My legs felt much better after several rounds of the hot-and-cold treatment.

Then it was a shuttle bus, another shuttle bus, a panicked search for an ATM, and a Shinkansen ride home. I'm definitely not in the mood for a do-over this time. In fact, after I finished I saw some kids (presumably waiting for a parent to finish the race) doing something that might become my new preferred form of exercise for the near future.

 Bungee-assisted trampoline! How cool is that?


  1. That is impressive - a sub-3 hour marathon . . . just to prove you could. Glad you guys are posting again!

  2. I'm sure you know my opinion of running - your wife shares it. But, between your excellent writing and the photos I really enjoyed your training and marathon blog. Congratulations on your successful time. The power of planning (and a little determination.)