(February 25, 2018)

After thirteen hours in a window seat flying westbound and chasing a sunset which never ended until after we touched down at Haneda Airport…three or four meals (I lost count) in plastic trays…watching the route map on the seatback screen in front of me never seem to change…and lots of anticipation…my reward was to put my body through four hours of running through the streets of Toyko.  To a normal person, this is the definition of cruel and unusual punishment.

To a runner, it’s what you live for and I’d do it again in a heartbeat!

I never really planned to run Tokyo.  I don’t have a ‘bucket list’ and I never even knew there was a marathon in Tokyo.  But, a funny thing happens to runners along the way.  I’ve never met a marathoner who, immediately after finishing one race, didn’t immediately start focusing on the question that everyone asks:  “…so…what are you running next…”  Everyone I know has ‘the next one lined up’ as they cross the Finish Line.  Maybe we live by the saying that ‘my best race is always the next one’!

Tokyo’s a great run!

It takes place in February which, if you like running in cool weather, is just ideal.  My race day was just like a ‘nice’ day in Toronto at the same time of year.  During the week (I arrived on Tuesday to give myself several days to adjust to the time change before race day on Sunday) I got a little worried as mornings were damp, foggy, and there was some sleet mixed with snow and rain but it was overcast and couldn’t be better for the race on Sunday.

This year was the 10th Anniversary and it was on a new course which finished in front of the Tokyo station and Imperial Palace.  There were approximately 35,000 runners which puts it a little smaller than London and Berlin.  And…there were 1.4 Million spectators along the route which is similar to what you experience in Chicago.  I was told that there were three volunteers for every runner.  The demographics of race participants was a bit surprising to me in that one-third of all entrants were in the 40-49 Age Group and almost 25% were 50-50 years of age.

The race was both ‘normal’ and ‘exotic’ at the same time.  My hotel was two blocks from the Starting Line which was in the Shinjuku area or Tokyo Metropolitan Government district.  If you live in Toronto, think of starting at King and Bay Streets except with wider streets.  Just before we get to the Starting Line, however, let me say that my hotel (the Hilton Shinjuku) was perfect, not only because it was right at the Starting Line but because of things like a Starbuck’s right across the street (I was on a coffee fast but…it was there for post-race!), the fact that it was very much of a race headquarters, on the morning of the race they opened up breakfast early and had special meals for runners, and there was a perfectly-measured 1.1 km running route around the park literally across from my hotel in another direction.

The Starting Time was set for 9:00am on Sunday.  Getting through Security and finding my corral was easy.  Everything was incredibly well-signed (in English as well…) and volunteers (also speaking English) were everywhere.  My corral was about one hundred metres from the elites so I had a nice view.

Starting ceremonies went off at 8:54am…exactly! Every runner has a million things racing through their heads at that time:  I remember a few.  The first thing was the ceremony itself.  I had a tear in my eye as I heard and saw a Japanese children’s choir sing their National Anthem.  I don’t know…it was just a moment and…well…every moment is a moment!  The second one…and it was a bit funny…was when I took my gel just before the gun went off.  A few of my fellow English-speaking runners beside me were joking when we realized that we didn’t dare litter our empty gel packets or throw them away.  The streets…and everything was so clean, that we felt that if we threw them on the street we’d be looked at as the ‘slobs from away’.  It was just funny as we looked at each other and tried to figure out what to do with those packets.  In the end…we did toss them.  Same thing with the throw-away clothes.  There were bins…and you made sure that we you launched your hoodies just before crossing the Starting Line, they landed in the bins!

Everything went off without a hitch under a shower of confetti as the gun went off.  It’s a totally urban course so, again…think Chicago.  On one hand, I was a little disappointed in that I was expecting to see some historic buildings or…well…just something that was different.  On the other, it was comforting to feel as if I was simply running on any other street in any race on a Sunday.  The crowds were unbelievable…and what an uplifting experience for the entire route.  And…no hills…no bridges (you New York runners will know what I mean when I say that!)…all flat.  Water stations were great and…again…no throwing your empty cups on the street…you made sure they landed in the bins.  I almost felt that if I missed hitting the bin, I’d go back and pick my cup up so as not to litter:)

There were two things that struck me as I was running.  There is one ‘out and back’ finger of about 10km on the course so that, most of us on the ‘out’ portion got to see the elites on their ‘back’ portion.  You get that at Scotiabank in Toronto along Lakeshore Drive.  It’s incredible…and I remember all of us literally cheering and clapping for them as they sprinted by the other way.  As I continued along that ‘out’ portion and finally got to do my ‘back’, it was only then that I realized how far ahead the elites really were…and how fast they are.  It’s just unbelievable and humbling and motivating.

The second thing was a bit more personal.  As I was moving through the course, there were times when I almost made a point to ‘stop and smell the roses’.  What I mean is…I felt like pinching myself and saying ‘…do you know where you are’?  You are running a Marathon through the streets of Toyko.  And, I was honestly humbled and almost had another tear.  I mean…who gets to do this?  I was actually there…and I likely won’t be there to do this again…and how many people in the world simply get the opportunity to do any of this.  All I can say is that I felt very special and humbled at the same time.  As a runner…appreciate every single moment that you’re out there because there will come a time when you won’t be doing this.

The final 5K was along bricked streets and there was that feeling that we all have as we peer and stretch and look ahead around the next corner:  where’s the damn finish!  It says 42 km on the sign but why is that last .2km taking so long?  Will it ever get here?  And, of course, it does.  You simply scoot around a corner and you’re in.  I did it!

Post race is a bit of the dreaded ‘death march’ to get out of the secure area.  Water…peanut butter sandwiches…great towels with the Marathon emblem on it…everyone congratulating you…and the most beautiful medal of any Marathon yet…all perfect.  The only ‘drag’ was that it took an hour on the bus to get back to the hotel.  It’s the opposite of Boston where you get the bus out to the Start and run ‘home’.  Here…you start at ‘home’ and have to get back at the end.  An hour in a bus after the race isn’t great and…I thought some people were going to need crowbars to get them out of their seat.

Another digression and funny thing.  When the bus did drop us off, it was right at the Start Line.  Now…this was only about six hours after the Start but…there was not one sign indicating the race had ever even started there.  The bleachers were all gone…streets were clean…and it was like nothing every happened.  Kinda weird!

I flew back the next day (Monday) and, with the time change, I actually arrived back in Toronto before I left.  I had two Mondays.  As I was looking out the window, I also had some of those moments when you just sit and both wonder and wander!  The flight takes a northern route across the Bering Straits and over Alaska and…I had this flashback to my high school geography as we did that because you can literally look down and see how our ancestors could have walked from Asia to North America across the Aleutians.  It’s an amazing sight to just watch the world go by.

I was a bit worried about getting in a plane right after the race, but it was fine.  I think there’s two kinds of ‘hurt’ after a marathon.  There’s the immediate ‘sore’ feeling and, well…you can see that by just looking around the hotel lobby and seeing the walking wounded!  And then there’s the ‘tired and fatigued’ feeling that lingers on for a few days after that.  But…it’s ‘good’ sore and ‘good’ tired!!

After I race, I always reflect in an attempt to ‘step outside of myself’ to try and articulate some take-a-ways.  They were different this time and, while they’re mine, I’m sharing them because I don’t think they’re unique.  We’ve all had them.  This was the slowest Marathon I’ve ever run and while I push and strive to run faster and better every race, I realized that I’m getting ‘older and slower’.   Of course, my outlook is always that the glass is half-full and I do see that everyone in my Age Category is getting older and slower as well and I’m still competitive against my peers:  I didn’t finish last!

Now…I’m not exactly resigned to pulling out the Muskoka chair and ‘hanging up the cleats’, but I tried to appreciate the moments.  As I wrote earlier…not everyone gets to do what we do.  Racing is special…it hurts and is hard…but there’s a feeling that is so deep  and renewing about it.  For me…I was on the streets of Tokyo.  Who gets to do that?

So…my ‘take-a-way’ is a bit of advice to everyone who races:  race as if there’s no tomorrow because there absolutely will come a time when it’s just not there the way you want it to be.  Don’t back off when it gets hard…find those extra nineteen seconds!  We all have a unique gift…and that’s the simple ability to ‘left foot…right foot’ our way on every single training run and every race.  Live it…love it…and…’every moment truly is a moment’.

(Editor’s Note:  Mitch finished in the top 25% out of 850 runners in his Age Category in Tokyo.  He’s running the London Marathon in April 2018)