Elite athlete interviews prior to Saturday’s technical meeting for foreign athletes
I suspect that some of my readers — those who have patiently endured my travelogue so far — have not been distracted, nor have they forgotten that the reason I was in Japan in the first place was to support Tyler as he prepared to run a highly competitive marathon against a strong international field. These readers might allow that taking trains all the way to Tokyo and back to broaden the mind was well and good, but perhaps I should be giving my full attention to the upcoming race?
Indeed, that notion had occurred to me, too. So from Friday evening when I returned to Otsu after a full day of travel, I stopped being a tourist and all my thoughts turned to final preparations for Sunday.
Tyler and I had now been in Japan for a week and a half, and were pretty well acclimated to the time change. For us, Saturday looked to be a pretty normal day, with a very easy run in the morning, a mandatory technical meeting for all foreign athletes in the afternoon, and a welcome ceremony in the early evening that we hoped would be short.
Meanwhile, Tyler’s parents and his partner, Mariana, had arrived at their hotel in Kyoto Friday evening, and jet lag or not, they planned to take the train into Otsu on Saturday morning and join us for brunch at the Biwako Hotel where Tyler was staying. In addition to having a reunion, it would also give us a chance for me to coordinate our spectating strategy with them.
Saturday morning dawned chilly, but clear. I put on running clothes, packed civilian clothes and my laptop into my backpack, and began the familiar walk over to Tyler’s hotel. I arrived about 7:30 and we headed out the door shortly after that.
Otsu harbor, 7:30 a.m. Saturday morning, just before Tyler’s final shake-out run
Tyler wanted to keep the run short and easy. As for the “short” part, he suggested running the final 4K of the course (minus the final 600m in the stadium), and then the roughly 2K back to the hotel. As for the “easy” part, well, that was where I came in. By staying with me, Tyler would be limited to running no faster than eight-minute miles. That’s awfully slow for someone who planned to run 5:10 pace for a full marathon the next day! But Tyler swore that’s what he wanted, and he seemed perfectly content to jog easily while I wheezed through the short run. Actually, in spite of the vast difference in our
abilities, it was really nice to be running with someone for a change.
After brunch and the chance to greet and visit with Tyler’s family, we returned to Tyler’s room where I sat down to work out how we would use the trains to see the race at various spots, and Tyler busied himself with packing and various other chores related to the race.
Speaking of the race, it occurs to me that I should say a little bit more about the prestige of the Lake Biwa marathon, and why it’s a big deal in Japan even if it isn’t well-known in the United States.
This year, the Lake Biwa race was celebrating its 72nd anniversary, making it the oldest continuously held marathon in Japan. It is also a very select race, for men only, and limited to runners who have met the marathon qualifying time of 2:30, or what is judged to be an equivalent time for another distance.
A week earlier we had watched the Tokyo marathon on TV (and FYI, coverage was pretty awesome, compared with TV coverage of marathons in the U.S.). Tokyo is the prototypical big-city marathon, with an elite field up front and tens of thousands of non-elite bringing up the rear. I don’t know how difficult it is for an average runner to get into Tokyo, but there were no hobby joggers at Lake Biwa; all the runners were good.
One thing that we figured the two races would have in common was that they would go out really fast. Watching Tokyo, we had been shocked to see a pack of about 20 Japanese runners run the first 15K at approximately 2:05 marathon pace. It was painful to watch the ensuing crack-up, and we shook our heads when the top Japanese finisher arrived at the finish in the high 2:08’s.
Lake Biwa was also the final race of four (the others were Fukuoka, Beppu-Oita, and Tokyo) that would be used to select Japan’s team for the upcoming London World Championships. Thus, there was a lot of pressure for Japanese runners, in particular, to run fast here. We would find out at the technical meeting what the plan was for pace-makers, but kept telling ourselves how important it would be NOT to get sucked up into an unsustainable tempo early on.
We arrived at the race headquarters early, where we whiled away the time before the technical meeting watching video replays of races from previous years at Lake Biwa. Tyler was especially keen to watch the start, as he was concerned that running 600m on a track with 250 other runners would turn those first few minutes into a wild sprint.
Although we assumed that since this was a meeting specifically for the foreign runners all information would be available in English for non-Japanese-speaking Kenyans, Ethiopians, and Westerners, we had also hedged our bets, language-wise. Tyler had written down his most pressing questions, and I had spent a fair amount of time looking up words, and making sure that I could ask questions in Japanese if the need arose. Looking back at Tyler’s questions, and my scribbled notes, this project seems sort of ridiculous to me now. Of course it would make much more sense to find a competent bi-lingual speaker (and there were several working with the race), rather than testing the limits of my Japanese abilities. But I suppose I wanted to feel useful, and these notes are the result.
Here’s one of Tyler’s questions: “Will there be digital clocks at every kilometer, or just markers?” In my notes, I changed this to, “Will there be clocks at each kilometer? Where will the clocks be?” God only knows whether, had I been forced to ask this, I would have even understood the answer. Here’s another: “What is the prize money distribution,” which I changed to, “As for prize money, how will it be awarded?” Oh well, this kept me busy, and I learned how to say “prize money” in Japanese.
In fact, we needn’t have worried. The meeting was pretty straightforward: the race director spoke at some length in Japanese, and then a woman went over the main points in English. These points included how to prepare and label special fluid bottles, what the schedule would be for shuttle buses to the stadium (and back after the race), and other details. Then another man stood up, introduced the three pacemakers, and announced that they would be instructed to run 3:00 per kilometer through 30 kilometers — 2:06:40 pace! This guy turned out to be the person who had assembled the field of foreign athletes. It was interesting that he then commented, “these men do not work for the runners, they work for the race; they will not listen if you ask them to speed up or slow down. Their job is to run 3:00 per kilometer.” One coach asked whether the runners might stay in the race, presumably wondering whether any of them might be able to finish and place, but the man didn’t seem to acknowledged the question, and just reiterated that they would run 3:00 pace for 30 kilometers. The coach needn’t have worried, as all the pacemakers would drop out on schedule.
I actually did ask one question, in English, about whether it was permissible to attach a gel to a fluid bottle. “Yes,” as long as it was declared on the form that showed the contents of the athlete’s bottles at each stop. And with that, the meeting was over.
I don’t remember how I spent the next hour, but I probably went back to Tyler’s room and caught up on email and other stuff. The welcome ceremony was at 5:00, so there was only about an hour to kill before heading over to the ballroom where the ceremony and banquet would take place.
Tyler, Mariana, and I went over together and our first thought was that we were woefully under-dressed. Tyler, at least had dress shoes, but I still had my running shoes to go with my khakis and absent-minded professor sweater. This felt way too informal, as the room was filled mostly with Japanese men in business suits. Here and there, once could see athletes standing around in their track suits, or in similarly casual attire, but I had no such excuse.
The last thing a marathon runner wants to do the evening before the race is spend excessive time on his or her feet, so we were a little apprehensive as the speeches began. Unlike the technical meetings, all of these speeches were in Japanese with no translation provided. I gathered that the speakers were from the Japanese Athletic Federation and from major companies sponsoring the race. I tried to catch words here and there, and was able to form a vague idea about the speakers’ general topic. I heard lots of references to London, to last week’s Tokyo marathon, to 1946 and the first Lake Biwa marathon. But other than that, I understood little.
At some point, the master of ceremonies introduced the top international athletes, and presented them with gifts. Then the top Japanese athletes were introduced, and a similar presentation took place.
Welcome ceremony: Introduction of elite foreign athletes.
Finally, after about 40 minutes, there was a ceremonial toast, and we all raised our glasses (ours had water), and shouted “Kanpai!” and then the guests were invited to partake of the fancy food that had been brought in.
Instead of staying at the banquet and partaking of the rich food, Tyler, Mariana, and I took the toast as our cue to make our departure and walk the ten minutes back to our humble apartment. As for dinner, Tyler’s plan was to cook his special and decidedly un-fancy pre-race meal. I would make my own food. After we had eaten, watched a little TV to get a weather forecast, and spent some more time talking about the next day, it was time for Tyler and Mariana to head back to the hotel. I would come over at about 9 a.m. the next morning, which would give us plenty of time to go over any last details and catch the 10:00 a.m. shuttle to the start.
The weather forecast looked great. Sunday was going to be a fast day.