Nagoya Women’s Marathon 2015.03.08

If I say, “I’m back!” would people know where I had gone? Hah. A little back story to start things off, and then I am all about recap-ing the amazing race I participated in on Sunday! So, where did I go? Well, many places, physically and mentally. I visited my hometown in Indiana last December and ran a 50K–which I have not made time to write about… I had a great visit with family and certainly recharged and enjoyed Christmas in the USA for the first time in three years. I did, however, come back to Japan with something I didn’t expect, and that was an achy knee. Due to the (insert your favorite adjective here) health care system in the US, I chose to wait to get checked out until returning to Japan. When I got back, I had an X-Ray right away and was told I had IT Band Syndrome. While I was relieved that nothing was wrong with my bones, I quickly realized how pesky this injury can be. I went through withdrawal umpteen times, not being able to run in the mornings before work was getting to me. Even though the doc said I could run, I just couldn’t allow myself to do something that created pain. So I took about 2-3 weeks off. I swam and walked a lot, did yoga, biked, saw a chiro and acupuncturist, and pretty much everything else but running. My pain lessened, but I still didn’t feel like I had found “the key” to fully heal. Since I had this race coming up, I was encouraged to try to run again. The transition was slow. I walked and ran a couple miles a couple times a week and at least felt like I was making progress. I almost felt like I was playing with fire, in the sense that I needed to run to train for my race, but running too much or with incorrect form, I may be setting myself back even further. This is getting too long. In short, I managed to run 16K continuously in two training runs without the knee pain that I had brought back with me to Japan. I did about 20-25 miles a week for 3 weeks before the race, and I accepted that I couldn’t look at this race as a chance to improve my best time. Instead, it would be a time to appreciate what my body could do on that day and also an opportunity to take in more of the atmosphere since I knew I would be walking a bit.

Onto info about the race. The Nagoya Women’s Marathon has quite the long history. It was first held in 1980 as a 20km road race, held in Toyohashi City, and only elite runners were able to enter. In 1984, the distance was extended to a full marathon distance, and a separate 10km race was added, and the race location moved to Nagoya City. Eventually, it became a IAAF Gold Label Race and a Japanese women’s marathon championships race, so the results from this race were taken into account when choosing Olympic competitors. In 2011, the race was cancelled because of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, and in 2012, the race course was chance and the purpose of the race was changed to allow everyday runners to enter. To this day, the race still holds the IAAF Gold Label Race. I am giving away spoilers now, but the course record was set this year by Eunice Kirwa from Bahrain with 2:22:08. The record-holder until this year’s race was the beloved Japanese runner and Sydney Olympic gold medalist, Naoko Takahashi with 2:22:19. I am not sure when the Nagoya City Marathon started, but it is an event held on the same day and course as the Women’s Marathon, but both men and women can enter. Distances for the City Marathon are Half and Quarter Marathon.

As for me, this was the year I was finally able to get registered for this race! I had heard so many wonderful things about the atmosphere and magic felt at the race from my running friends that I had my heart set on running this race before my time here in Japan ended. I had hoped Nagoya would be a chance for me to PR in the marathon distance, but after my 50k in US, I realized I needed to reevaluate my goals. I went from focusing on a PR to not having the confidence to even finish this race. Boy, what an emotional roller coaster. During late January, I ran more than a mile without any pain. Few, that was a relief. Then I tried longer distances and calculated my pace and compared it to the average pace I would need to maintain in order to finish the race (16-min. miles for 26.2 miles). I had a little leeway in my pace, but having finished four marathons before, I know one’s pace tends to slow down in the last 10km, so I was still worried. Slowly, I began to gain more confidence as my pain-free runs became longer. Deep down, though, I knew I would need some luck and the most positive attitude ever during the race to be successful.

My running group and I arrived at the starting venue around 7:30 am. The race started at 9:10 am, so we had plenty of time to drop off our bags, stretch, use the potty, and repeat. The weather was sunny, after a day of rain on Saturday. The winds were chilly, though, so after stripping down to the clothes I planned to run in and dropping off bags, I was a bit cold while waiting for the start. About 40 minutes before the start, we had to be in our starting gates. After what happened at Tokyo, there was no way I was going to the gate any later than 8:30. Standing around for 40 minutes before the race is no fun, and thankfully, the race organizers know this and scheduled warming-up exercises for the time we had to stand still. Some of the jumping and stretches the “pros” had us doing weren’t really necessary since most of us wouldn’t be sprinting from the start. Others were fun and got the blood flowing.

About ten minutes before the start, each block slowly began walking towards the starting line. We walked passed the main stage and waved at all the men in tuxedos who promised to be waiting for us with a Tiffany necklace at the finish. I was in gate C, and I could actually see the start! How exciting! I was starting to feel like I would be running the race. Escalated heart rate, check!

Finally the countdown began. 10, 9, 8, … , 1…bang! Off we went…eventually. Since I had waited in my gate for nearly an hour before the race without going to the bathroom, I knew I would have to use it early in the race. The day before, a friend told me that in years past she chose to go to the bathroom earlier in the race, rather than later, and she said that was a wise choice! Knowing this, I decided to go at the 1.2 km mark, something I would have never done if I was seeking a PR. I didn’t have to be so tense about time…I was enjoying the race so much more already!

Soon enough, my friend Sarah caught up to me. We hoped to see each other at least once in the race, and I knew there would be a chance when she passed me. It was around 5k, and she asked me how I was doing. To my surprise, I actually had more irritation in my leg than I ever did in training runs during the first 5…Hmmm…We chatted for a couple strides, but I knew she was wanting to run faster, so I told her I would look for her again later in the race when she’d be running on the other side of the road after the turn around.

Speaking of said turn around, I knew I would have a chance to see my lightning-fast friend Hiromi around 12 km. First came the police cars, then the camera cars, and then finally, the professional runners. I know some Japanese elite runners, but they were going so fast that I couldn’t really pick out every single one. I was filled with excitement then, and instead of paying attention to the pain brewing in my leg, I kept searching for Hiromi. Where is she? Is she coming yet? I knew her racing outfit, and the way I sought out to find her was through her pink calf sleeves. I was consumed with looking at the calves passing on the other side of the road. Since the top runners passed, I had been searching for about ten minutes, and then finally, I saw her. “宏美ちゃん、頑張れ!!” is what I yelled out to her. (Hiromi-chan, ganbare!!) She raised up both of her hands and gave me the biggest smile. Ah! How the little things can bring us such great joy and energy–not that I was by any means lacking energy at the 7km mark. ????

My plan for the race was to run as much as possible and walk when I felt too much stiffness in my knee area from all the pounding on the pavement. In the first half of the race, I was able to run 5k, walk for a couple minutes to regroup, and then repeat. Unfortunately, around the 20km mark, I was feeling fatigue in my legs (no surprise there, since I hadn’t run longer than 16km in training), but I was also not able to shake the feelings of discomfort. I look at my watch, which I told myself I was only using to compare my pace to the cut-off times, and I took comfort in the time that had passed. Just about 2.5 hours. Okay, not bad. I took a longer walking break, turned on my music, and felt refreshed.

After making it to the halfway point, I did start to feel like I would finish. I certainly had lots of discomfort, but I had plenty of energy and wasn’t physically fatigued. I turned this into confidence and continued on. I knew at km 22 there would be bananas, and since I was getting hungry, I ate one and doused myself with water, a technique I used throughout the race to stay cool.

During the second half of the race, many more runners than I had expected were stopped along the side of the road, stretching or massaging their legs. I certainly wasn’t the only one walking, either. I continued on, as fast as I could. What I struggled most with was giving myself permission to run. It hurt most when I transitioned from walking to running, and thinking of the pain that I knew would greet me, I opted to walk for a little bit longer some times. Other times, I knew that running would get me to the finish, my Tiffany necklace, my friends, and a chair sooner than walking would.

I received a text from my friend Hiromi around km 33. She was aiming for a sub-3 hour finish time, but was 6 minutes short of it. Amazing! She also said “ganbare” to me in a message, and I started to feel like I finally had someone cheering for me. I texted her back and said I am full of pain…I can’t run anymore! She reminded me that cute guys in tuxedos were waiting for my arrival. Okay, just 6 km to go…

It was almost in a blink of an eye that I found myself nearing km 39. Before the race even started, I had decided in my mind that running the last 2-3 km was very important to me. Of course, I didn’t know how I would feel by this part in the race, and honestly, I had so much more discomfort and pain than I would’ve ever pushed through in a training run. But, yes, there is always a but, I wanted to feel like I finished strong. I wanted to run to the finish, so I realized it was just about go time. This song just started playing on my mp3 player…

It reminded me of the thrill of living in the moment, spontaneity, and wearing your emotions on your sleeves. You better believe I kept it on repeat for the last 15 minutes of the race. In a Forest Gump voice, “… and I was running!”

The knee irritation I had been dealing with didn’t go away completely, but I did feel like my sudden change in mental state affected the pain level. I felt strong and there was nothing that was going to stop me. I passed so many people. Most of them were walking, and I was running at a pace just faster than walking, so it was a small victory. Thrilling, nonetheless. Upon passing the 40 km mark, I could see the dome at which we started from that morning. It felt like a day or two had passed in those 5 hours. Then I hear people saying, “You’ve returned! We’ve been waiting for you! Welcome back!” in the Japanese greeting one uses when a family member returns home, “O-kaeri-nasai.”

Talk about instant tears. I had forgotten what it feels like to run a full marathon and be in the last 2 km, so focused on finishing. I could see the dome. A dream was coming true right before my eyes. And the people gathered on the sides of the road said the one thing I wanted to hear most. More tears flooded my eyes, and I kept going, not even slightly focused on wiping them away or trying to restrain them. This was the moment I had waited three years to be living! I saw the entrance of the dome, and the blue carpet leading into it. I knew that soon the moment would be over. The song kept playing, “Don’t you dare look back, keep your eyes on me.” Okay, I was listening.

I saw the finish. The blue carpet was super soft. Why couldn’t we run more of the race on it, I thought. I glanced at the time…5:25, not bad at all, in my mind. And then, before I could blink again, I had crossed the finish line.