Himeji Castle Marathon

So here I am, again, at Mister Donut to write about today’s marathon. I was so pleased when I woke up this morning that the rain had gone, and I was also pleased that the large amounts of food I had eaten yesterday had not upset my stomach. 

I ate breakfast in my room - coffee and a bun, luxury after my race breakfasts in India - and walked to the start by Himeji Castle. It was absolutely freezing and I was in no doubt that I had made the correct decision to wear tights. The wait in the starting chute seemed unnecessarily long, with a drumming interlude, lots of speeches, introduction of elite runners etc and I wanted to get going, but surprisingly the race started dead on time. It was just very cold so the wait felt longer.

We ran away from the castle and through the town. The field was very dense with runners, 7000 in this marathon apparently. There were masses of spectators, all cheering, and it was generally extremely noisy. I settled into what felt to me like an average sort of pace but in actual fact was very slow. I think I am still weakened by having been so sick and not yet back to normal running strength. I decided upon a modest goal of beating 5 hours and at this stage I did not think I would have much difficulty.

Once we left the town we followed a river on a straight road, so I could see runners way ahead in the distance. Japanese runners always look very colourful so it was a pleasant picture. The wind was icy. The whole route was lined by marshals in green jackets, and there was barely a metre without any spectators, even out in the countryside. We went along the edge of many villages - I guess the field was so large that we couldn’t go through any villages - and past those small communal farm plots. We were surrounded by low and not so low hills looking very wintry with leafless trees and grey-green grass.

As I ran along I realised quite soon that my right hamstring/glute area was causing me more discomfort than usual. It threatened to make the race very uncomfortable and I did my best to ignore the increasing pain.

One of the race highlights for me came at around 15 km when I saw tiny white flakes in the air. Snow! There’s nothing as good about running a marathon in Japan as when it snows. I don’t know why, I just love it; it’s like it lets me excuse the extreme cold. This wasn’t much of a snowfall, but it got thicker for about five minutes before stopping and starting for a while.

By 18 km I had yet to see another Caucasian, when suddenly a half-Caucasian appeared next to me. I was happy I could speak, even if only briefly, to someone. He told me he was with NHK, the national broadcaster, and wanted to interview me. That was fine and I told him why I love running marathons in Japan. I do love them, but today I was in more than a little pain so I had to remind myself constantly of my goal. 

By half way the pain was bad. I tried to tell myself that soon enough I would be at the finish and I would look back and think this wasn’t too bad. Luckily the aid stations quite suddenly remembered that they were in Japan and morphed from modest water and Pocari Sweat tables into the buffets that they are supposed to be. Good food can go a long way towards alleviating pain.

First there was a tent dispensing big bowls of noodles. I passed on that one. There followed a table with tiny bowls that each held just 2 noodles in ponzu sauce. Delicious. And so cute. Then there were tables with banana and mandarin segments, and bowls of that famous Japan marathon food: cherry tomatoes. There were frequent tables with wrapped lollies and wrapped chocolates. I picked up some chocolate croissants one time; not chocolate covered but with chocolate in the dough. One time I took a risk and tried a wrapped cylindrical thing called 'hamochiku' having checked first that it was food and not a hand wipe; it tasted like seafood and I found out later that it is a rolled sheet of solidified fish paste cooked on a skewer. And green tea mini kitkats. I didn’t take up the offer of red bean soup.

Needless to say (I hope it is needless to say) I didn’t have all these foods at once, but over the next 20 kilometres. 

My hamstring was getting worse and I stopped twice to spray on the ice spray that they always offer at Japanese marathons. I wasn’t sure if it helped but it may have controlled the pain a bit. Lots of people were walking and I started to pass quite a few people. The spectators were still cheering and not appearing bored as if they had been standing there for hours; instead they looked as if they had been waiting for this very moment that we would come by. That was great, but one of the worst parts of the course was a stretch that was inaccessible to spectators so there were loudspeakers offering cheer instead. I hated this even though I could not understand much of it. I think someone needs to pass on to the Japanese the news that silence is golden. Not forever. Just for a while.

We came back into town on a bike path along the river. Actually we had never really left the river. There were a couple of school bands playing, and some drummers. The fervour of the spectators had not diminished at all, but their chant had changed from 'ganbatte' or 'fight-o' to 'mō sukoshi' (just a little more). At the 39 km mark I heard loud cheering and realised that the 5 hour pace group was right behind me. That was a shock but acted like a bullet up my backside and I ran to the finish as fast as I could. Which was not fast. I had been too focussed on making the numerous intermediate cutoffs and forgotten about my 5 hour goal. 

It was wonderful to suddenly see the castle moat and then the castle, then a few turns and we would be done. I made my goal, finishing in 4:58 on the clock and 4:56:03 net. I would never have believed it could be so hard to get under 5 hours. I was slow, I was down near the back, but at least they weren’t yet packing up. 

Here’s a marathon where you not only have a fabulous castle as the backdrop to the finish but you then have a compulsory walk through the zoo to get to the refreshments area. Isn’t that wonderful? The zebras, flamingoes and - yes - kangaroos, didn’t mind either having so many visitors. Oh, and also I was interviewed by 2 journalists about my race experience. I tried to speak some Japanese but it was a big effort and not so successful.

In the finish area there were nice foods. First, hot broth. Then a dough thing with a savoury creamy centre on a stick. Then hot soupy rice pudding. And then you got your certificate to prove that this was not all a dream.


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