Sometimes it can be hard to get back on track after a disappointment, but after failing to achieve my sub 3:30 marathon goal in Berlin, I didn’t really have a choice. Waking up the following morning still feeling absolutely gutted, I mindlessly scrolled through my phone as I usually do.
Waiting in my Gmail inbox was an email from the Tokyo Marathon, gleefully proclaiming that I was one of the ‘lucky’ ballot entrants whose names had been picked in the recent drawing. The previous day’s disappointment still wearing heavily on my legs (and in my heart), I couldn’t quite believe that I was going to have to do it all again. Recovery, training, racing, and hoping that everything would align on the day to give me the result I so craved. It took me a good couple of days to actually sign on to my profile and pay the entry fee, thus confirming my participation in my eighth marathon and third major. If ever there was a sign to keep going and try again, this was it. Tokyo Marathon was on!
Needless to say, there were long runs, speed sessions, hill runs, easy runs and the usual strength training sessions. Around Christmas, despite eating my weight in food glorious food, I began to feel different. Stronger. Faster. More comfortable at marathon pace. A couple of sessions really surprised me. I had been dreading them, and yet, had exceeded my expectations. Needing to do a 40km training run, I entered Dubai Marathon to get reacquainted with fueling and nutrition in a race scenario, and also because everybody else was running the marathon and there was no way I wanted to run 40km alone.
Untapered, I spent much of the race holding back and incorporated some marathon and half marathon pace sections at various points. Finishing in 3:33, I felt fantastic and had unintentionally knocked four minutes off my PB. This gave me confidence that a sub 3:30 was possible in Tokyo IF I stayed relaxed, calm and in control. A half marathon PB of 1:39 in RAK (which was also not an all-out effort, being only two weeks before Tokyo) also implied that things were heading in the right direction. I packed my bags (arm warmers at the ready) and headed to Tokyo about four days before the big event.
A couple of training runs in this incredible city followed, and I soon realised that I would not be able to trust my GPS due to the high rise buildings – my pace was simply all over the place. After speaking to a friend, I wrote the 5km splits on my hand so that I could check in to make sure I was on track. I also wrote the 3:25 splits on my arm, hidden under my arm warmers, ‘In case I have a good day.’ I did an hour of gentle yoga the evening before and had a fitful night’s sleep before waking to do yet more yoga, foam roll and force down my porridge and coffee.
I knew exactly how to get to the start line and had drawn a rough outline of the course on paper the day before so that the out and backs were imprinted in my mind. Dressed in throw away clothes, I made my way out into the freezing air and to the subway for the short journey to the start line. Arriving at the subway station at the start line, it was clear that this was going to be an incredibly well-organised event. Already there were several volunteers meeting runners and spectators who arrived on the trains, directing them where to go.
As well as different corrals, there were also different gates assigned to each runner (I had to enter through gate 2) and a particular bus that you had to leave your bag at (number 31 for me), and separate finishing areas (Hibiya Park). This was a lot to remember, but thankfully all of the information was also printed on the race bib.
Making my way out of the station, I followed the crowds to gate 2, where I was greeted by a huge queue as wristbands were scanned and bags were screened. Although long, the queues moved quickly and I finished the rest of my water (you weren’t allowed to bring water bottles into the start area) before going through security. I debated the idea of queuing for the toilet but decided to drop my bag first. It was a crowded, long walk to my bag drop, with people milling about in all directions, but everyone was friendly.
As always, time seemed to be passing quickly, so I found the entrance to my corral and then located some toilets nearby. I spent about 30 minutes queuing for the ‘western style’ toilets and started to become a little anxious about the time. Thankfully, I managed to get into my corral with 10 minutes to spare before they closed and then tried to stay warm as I waited for the race to start. All of the announcements were in Japanese, so I kind of zoned out and a quiet moment of calm descended over me, despite the thousands of people crammed into the start area.
At 9:10 exactly, we were off! It was a cool morning and I was grateful for my arm warmers and gloves. The crowd shuffled forward, slowly increasing pace as we made our way towards the start line. The street was narrow and had a number of sharp turns in the opening kilometres. Looking at my watch, I could see that I was already way behind pace. Instead of panicking, I remained calm and concentrated on where I was putting my feet. The last thing I needed was to be tripped!
The first 10km passed by in no time at all. After the slow start, I was keen to increase my pace but was also conscious that rushing off and trying to make up time quickly would be a bad idea. Instead, I tried to settle into a rhythm, which was hard at first with all the crowds.
Eventually, the road widened and things became much easier. I began to embrace the experience and focus on the joy of being there. I waved to the crowd who shouted ‘Gambare, Gambare’ in never-ending swathes along the course. The gloves soon came off and for some reason, I carried them until over halfway. At 10km I was almost on track pace wise, and I ran with a girl from about this point until 14km. Chatting with her, I realised that I was capable of stringing a sentence together, which was a good sign!
At 15km we made the turn around for the first out and back. I had been looking forward to this point of the course as it featured the Asakusa Kaminarimon Gate and then a glimpse of the relatively new SkyTree tower. Looking at the 5km splits on my hand, I could see that I was on pace and just needed to maintain what I was doing for now. I felt good, but there was a long way to go. I continued to smile and wave at the crowd and was given a boost by their enthusiasm. After taking a gel 45 minutes into the race, I took another one at 90 minutes. The water tables were frequent but sometimes they seemed to creep up unexpectedly, and I often found myself on the wrong side of the road with no time to move across. I made a concerted effort to get water at the next station.
I crossed through halfway in 1:44:04, which was slightly quicker than I had planned. Although I had written the 5km splits on my hand, it was still hard to tell how fast I was running each individual km – my watch ranged between 3:45/km (yeah right!) and 6:08/km (which I prayed was not an accurate reflection of my pace). I was, therefore, running mainly by feel and re-assessing every 5km. I had originally planned to increase my pace from halfway, but as I was already ahead of time and was feeling good, I decided to stick with what I was doing and see how I felt at 25km. I believe that making this smart decision was one of the key factors that contributed to my success on the day.
Onwards we surged, through the second out and back, which contained some unexpected inclines. The bad side to this was that I knew I’d have to do it all again on the return leg. But hey, I’d been out to Hatta and was used to hills…these were nothing in comparison! I focused on the positives and again interacted with the crowd. I saw a few runners who were going for their sixth star and congratulated them. Overall I still felt good, but there comes a point in the marathon when you know that the pain is getting closer. No matter how well that first 25km goes, the euphoria and energy are not going to last too much longer. The key is to try to hold it off for as long as possible and to figure out a way to embrace it when it inevitably arrives.
At 25km, I once again decided to hold off any planned increase in pace. There was still 17km to go, which is a pretty long way if you misjudge your ability or effort level! Another 5km followed and at 30km I knew that it was now or never. The time had come to execute the final part of my plan.
At 30km, my watch read 2 hours 27 minutes. I therefore knew that if I could at least maintain a pace of just under 4:58/km, I was on for a sub 3:30 finish. As I was comfortably running slightly faster than this, I had a feeling at this point that I WOULD achieve my goal. The question now was, how much could I get under it? How close could I get to that fine line between pushing hard and pushing hard and blowing up? The weather was perfect, the crowds were on fire, and I was feeling strong. If ever there was a day to give it my all, this was it. I slowly increased my pace over the next couple of kilometres.
At 32km, I felt the first pangs of pain in my legs, and I knew it wouldn’t be long before it would try to take me down. “It’s all in your mind,” I whispered out loud. “Your body won’t give up unless you let it.” I carried on, relieved to get into single digits as the kilometres counted down, running them faster yet somehow feeling like they were being ticked off slower and with much more effort.
At 35km, the pain well and truly started. We had just reached the turn around point of the final out and back. Just before this, I’d seen runners on the other side of the road reaching the 40th kilometre, faces etched with pain and determination, almost cartoon-like in their distortion. These were the ones who would be aiming to break three hours, I thought to myself. Be inspired.
People were beginning to fall by the wayside. One man walked on the line in the middle of the road, his legs absolutely shot. Another man battled cramp, and I could see his muscle contracting so vividly that I almost felt it. One gentleman lay at the side of the road, unconscious and grey…I saw the medics with their defibrillator running towards him, and hoped he’d be ok. It took almost as much strength for me to block out what I saw as it did to keep on running. My legs began to threaten to cramp. I could feel my quads weakening, unused to running for this long at this pace. I passed the 3:30 pace group, which had started ahead of me, and I knew that a sub 3:30 was guaranteed if I could just hold on.
Every time the pain threatened to take over, I spoke to it in my head. “You think you can stop me? Well, I’ve been waiting for you, and I’m ready. Try your best, but I’ll always be stronger. If you want a fight, bring it on!” I felt empowered somehow. This was different to Berlin, where I had crumbled. That was my lesson, and I had learned it well. I just knew I was winning. Right there and then, it was me against every failure, every time I’d let myself down. That wasn’t going to happen today. This was MY time, and I was owning it. I was bigger and better than I had been and I felt a determination within me that I had also felt at the end of Comrades.
With 5km to go, the course began to count down the kilometres. I had already noticed that I was just slightly outside a sub 3:25 time, arm warmers hastily pulled down to my wrists as I had naturally become warmer during the race. I knew that if I sped up further and gave it all I had, I had a chance of dipping under 3:25. I wrestled with the decision for a while. I’d come here to get under 3:30 and would have been delighted with 3:29:59. If I suddenly committed to this new goal and failed, I would have been disappointed, even though I had achieved my original goal! Still, I had to push on. I knew that the closing kilometres of the race would be hard, but I had always imagined that I’d smile a Kipchoge smile and get through it, taking in the atmosphere.
What actually happened couldn’t have been further away from this vision. Rather than smiling, I gritted my teeth and gurned my way through the last 2km. The road surface changed and I could hear more and more people shouting, but it was as if they were all completely removed from where I was. All kinds of strange noises came out of my mouth as I gave it all I had, legs burning, breathing laboured and everything else fading away apart from pain and determination. I had ceased to exist and was merely a moving form with one goal in mind – the finish line. I pushed frantically, praying for the left turn that I somehow remembered would signify the closing 200 metres. And suddenly there it was.
Next question: where the **** is the finish line?! I don’t even know if I looked at my watch, but I knew that it would be close. I saw the finishing arches and it felt like I just threw myself at them. I had thought that there was nothing left to give, and yet I found more in those closing metres than I thought was possible.Over the line. Stop the watch. The familiar feeling in my stomach as I began to hurl and felt whatever was in there about to make an appearance. Here I was in a race that prided itself on being clean and emphasised that runners should responsibly throw their litter in the bins provided, and I was about to throw up all over the finish line, right in front of a volunteer. As if from nowhere, she magically produced a sick bag, and to my relief, I found that I did not need to use it.
I looked at my watch: 3:24:56. I had achieved my goal AND had gone beyond what I thought I was capable of. I felt invincible! Cramp soon threatened, and we faced a long walk to our bags. Volunteers applauded the whole way, forming walls of congratulation and making us feel so special. I only wish I could have enjoyed it properly without worrying that I was going to be brutally stopped in my tracks by my cramping quads. I drank and ate anything I could get my hands on during that walk, and fortunately managed to stave off the worst of it.
The changing tents were a welcome relief from the cold, and I spent a short time enjoying a warm foot bath before deciding to call it a day and head back to my hotel. Even at the finish, there were plenty of volunteers on hand to let you know which exit to take to get to the subway station you needed to get home. It seemed to be a lot of walking, which is annoying at the time (especially when there are lots of stairs to navigate), but I really believe that this is the first step to recovering from such an event.
At the subway station, the railway assistant helped me and told me which line I needed and where I should change. My poor brain just wasn’t up to it at this point. I also didn’t have any change, and he very kindly sorted that out for me when a machine wouldn’t work. The whole event was made all the more special by these amazing volunteers and kind people who must have had to deal with a lot of weary runners that day. I’ll never forget the amazing hospitality, even though the memory of finishing at the iconic Imperial Palace has been completely obliterated from my mind.
Tokyo Marathon is definitely up there with my favourite races so far, and not just because of my result. It is supremely well organised and the crowd support is never-ending. The course is mainly flat, barring a couple of ups and downs, and the weather is usually perfect for running, meaning there’s a good chance of achieving a PB. It’s also not too crowded after the first 10km or so. The start and finish areas, in terms of atmosphere, are a little underwhelming, but the main part of the run and the reception you get upon receiving your medal is what counts the most!
Tokyo is notoriously difficult to get into, and I was extremely lucky to be successful in the ballot (only about 10% of applicants are selected). Otherwise, you can enter via a tour company. It’s a great way to see Tokyo and there’s plenty to eat, see and do as part of your celebrations afterwards!