Ojiyama Stadium, Otsu, Japan — Start of the Biwako Mainichi Marathon — March 5, 2017
In the audio, you can hear me say that 77 seconds (for the first 400) is “2:12:30 pace…”
It is actually about 2:14:30 pace. This miscalculation had amusing consequences later…
After almost two weeks in Japan… after the long travel, the adjustment to the ten-hour time difference, the efforts to maintain a familiar diet in an unfamiliar environment, the exploration of every turn on the course… finally it was time for Tyler to run the race that had been the focus all along.
The weather forecast was almost perfect for the 12:30 p.m. start: slightly overcast skies with temperatures in the mid-fifties (Fahrenheit), light winds out of the South, and low humidity. Later we would hear the Elite Athletes Coordinator say that it was the best weather he had seen for this race in 20 years.
The late start made for an unhurried morning. I had plenty of time to make myself breakfast in the Apartment, write a few emails, and pack everything I thought I might need for the day, before walking over to the hotel around 9 a.m.
Ten minutes later, I was in Tyler’s room, as he and Mariana prepared to check out. Tyler had already had his pre-race breakfast, had already been out for a 10-minute shakeout jog, and had already prepared and labeled all the bottles he would have out on the course. There was still plenty of time before we headed downstairs to wait for the 10:00 a.m. shuttle bus to the stadium where the race would start.
At the Stadium
Arriving at Ojiyama stadium with over two hours before the race, we took a few moments to take it all in and snap some pictures on the track where the race would start and finish. Tyler and I had been in the stadium a week earlier when it was being used for a club track practice. Now there were numerous signs around the stadium with the names and logos of companies sponsoring the race, as well as IAAF banners and other decorations.
Mariana and Tyler, about two hours before the race.
There were a few spectators milling around as we showed our race credentials to enter the roped off area of the stadium. Tyler went with the other runners to check that his timing chip was working properly, and then we all headed to a temporary structure that had been set up to allow the athletes to relax before it was time to warmup and report to the start. There wasn’t too much to do, but I remember that Tyler and Mariana spent about 15 minutes reading aloud from their current literary obsession, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, while I scribbled thoughts in a notebook I had brought along for that purpose. Around us, a roomful of extremely capable marathon runners lay sprawled against the walls, trying to nap or listen to music through their earbuds — the calm before the storm.
At about 11:30 or maybe a little later, there came a point when suddenly we went from being a party of three to being a party of two. Without anyone really saying anything about it, Mariana and I realized it was time to leave. Tyler’s attitude had also changed, as he got up and prepared to begin his final pre-race routine. We exchanged a few words, wished him luck, and left him to his own devices.
Mariana and I went off to meet Tyler’s parents, who were coming on a train from Kyoto at around 11:45. For the next twenty minutes, we wandered among food vendors who had set up their tents in a park adjacent to the stadium. I was surprised that everyone else was hungry — Even when I’m not running, I find that I have little interest in food when there are races to be run. At about 12:10 we went back into the stadium and took seats where we could watch the runners assembling on the track below.
Tyler and I had had numerous talks about how the start was likely to play out. To begin with, we assumed that the top runners (and the pacemakers) would react to the gun by running their first lap of the track very fast. We also expected a lot of traffic, as the rest of the runners jockeyed for position. We guessed correctly that Tyler would start in the second row of runners, but we didn’t know what this might mean in terms of having to run in the outside lanes. We even went so far as to calculate the extra distance involved in running the 600 meters on the track in each of the Lanes.
When the gun went off, Tyler did well to keep his cool and find a comfortable spot in Lane 1. From the video, it appears that Tyler ran his first 400m in a very reasonable 77 seconds (5:09 mile pace). After all our worries about the start and the fear that he would need to sprint to avoid being trampled, it turned out that Tyler was able to run his target pace almost from the beginning, hitting the first kilometer in 3:15, actually a few seconds slower than his target 3:12 pace.
Watching the video, it appears that Tyler leaves the stadium in about 80th place.
Train Schedules and Running Schedules
I mentioned in a previous post that I spent a lot of time on Saturday planning our strategy to see Tyler out on the course. Without going into all the details, this strategy depended on the trains that ran reliably from Bessho station, about a 1-minute walk from the stadium, to Karahashi-mae station, about five mile away. From Karahashi-mae we could walk about 200m to intersect the course at about 10.5K, then walk another 200 meters across a bridge and see the runners for a second time at 19K as they headed up the other side of the lake. We could then wait at the same spot and see them on their return trip (23K), walk back across the bridge to see the runners at the 31.5K mark, and finally board a train back to Bessho to (maybe) catch the finish.
Needless to say, I had consulted all the train schedules and I had a complete plan, including options depending on how fast Tyler was running, and how confident we wanted to be about getting back to the finish on time. Tyler had responded to my plan by joking that he really ought to run the first 30K very fast, and then slow way down at the end to ensure we’d see him cross the line. No way, I said.
It was a minor flaw in the otherwise brilliant plan that the train we really wanted to take left Bessho station at precisely 12:34. The race started at 12:30, and, because we wanted to watch the first 600m in the stadium, we would have slightly less than two minutes to hustle out of the stadium to the station. We did our best, but as we approached, a train from the other direction came through, resulting in the gates across the track coming down. There was nothing we could do but watch from across the tracks as others boarded the 12:34 (running fans who had come up with similar schemes for seeing the race at multiple points), and the train left without us. It wasn’t a disaster, since another train would be along soon, but it resulted in us missing Tyler at the first checkpoint.
Other than that, the plan was good. We caught the next train at 12:42, took it all the way to
Karahashi-mae Station, and, since all of the runners had already passed by that point, continued across the bridge to wait for the leaders to arrive at the 19K mark.
We didn’t have long to wait. The leaders came by in a fairly large pack (running 2:06:30 pace!), with an even larger second pack about 30-40 seconds behind. Our prediction that the race would go out really fast, and that there would be many casualties, was coming true before our eyes. If Tyler ran evenly, he would be able to move up through the field as many of the fast starters tired.
After counting about 65 runners go by, we saw Tyler finally appear, looking strong and fairly comfortable.
Tyler in ~65th place at 19K, about four minutes behind the leaders.
From where we stood, the runners were only 2K from the half marathon mark and the turnaround. This meant that we only had a few more minutes to wait before the leaders returned. When they did we could see that already the pack was splitting up, with only five runners at the front (including the two remaining pace makers). A few minutes after that, Tyler came by. He was now in 58th. His progress moving up through the field had begun.
The lead pack at 23Km.
In discussing our race-viewing plans with Tyler’s parents, they had expressed a strong desire to see the finish. As a result, we had made the decision that they would take an earlier train back to the stadium, ensuring they would arrive in plenty of time to see Tyler, as well as the leaders, circle the track one and a half times before crossing the line.
Tyler had specifically requested that I remain at the 31K mark, and so I was prepared to miss seeing him finish. Thus, I was waiting alone on the side of the road when I spotted him for the third time, only 7 miles from the finish.
My first impression was that he looked really good. He was still running his goal pace, maybe even a little faster, and he looked far better than any of the runners near him. I told him he was in 41st place, and that there would be “carnage” up the road as other runners reckoned with their fast early pace.
And then he was past me, flying up the road.
I sprinted to the train station and just managed to board a train that arrived 30 seconds after I had crossed the tracks. I stood in the crowded car, which seemed to be full of marathon spectators heading back to the stadium. Several of these people were streaming the race live on their phones, and so I was able to follow the action and hear that there were now just two Kenyans leading the race, that the top Japanese runner was about a minute behind.
I was also constantly checking my watch. As I got closer to Otsu, I made a quick calculation that my best bet to see Tyler again would be to get off one stop before Bessho, and then run to the final turn where the runners would enter the stadium. If I was right, that would give me one last chance to cheer for Tyler as he prepared for his final 600m on the track. It would also mean I wouldn’t have to fight through the thick crowds getting off at the stadium.
I executed my plan, exiting the train one stop early, and began running toward the stadium, but — oh no! — I didn’t recognize the street I was on. Did it actually lead where I hoped it would lead, or was I heading in the wrong direction? There was nothing to be done but to keep running, hoping at every turn that I would find my way out of the narrow labyrinth of houses, and emerge near that road where I knew the runners must pass.
Finally, after what seemed like a long time, but what my watch said was only four minutes, I came around a bend and saw that I was a block from the stadium. I ran up to where the crowd was massed near the entrance. It seemed that the first three runners had already entered the stadium and were on their final lap. As a Japanese runner came by, I asked another spectator — using gestures more than words — whether this was the fourth runner, and he confirmed that it was.
Now I had only to wait, counting the runners as they came by, and looking anxiously at my watch. After another period that seemed much longer than it was, I saw Tyler approaching. I knew that he had slowed, but he had also moved up into 24th place. I screamed at him some inarticulate words as he made the turn and headed up the slight ramp into the stadium and onto the track.
In those last 600 meters, Tyler caught two more runners before crossing the line with clock showing 2:16:06. That moved him up into 22nd place, and gave him his fastest time ever on a loop course, only 14 seconds off his PR that he set on the downhill, point-to-point Hudson Mohawk course in the Fall of 2016.
He had slowed over those final kilometers, but so had everyone else. Poring over his splits later, we would realize that he had run his last 7K as fast as the leaders, who, after running 2:06:30 pace through 30K, hadn’t even broken 2:09.
Contradicting the weather forecast, a significant headwind had faced the runners over those last 7K. Tyler himself had been on 2:15 pace at 35K, but lost a minute, despite catching so many people. He certainly didn’t let up at all, running his last 400 in about 75 seconds, two seconds faster than he had run the first 400 over two hours earlier.
Tyler, 22nd in 2:16:07, his fastest time on a loop course.
The depth of the Japanese field — only one week after Tokyo! — is astonishing.
Having finished and found Mariana and his parents, Tyler finally began to reveal how much he had suffered in those final kilometers. He had the classic marathon finisher’s limp, as he hobbled over to where his bags and warm clothes were waiting. He told me his feet had started hurting early in the race, and that they were on fire by the end. At some point he took off his shoes to reveal bloody blisters.
We made a slow, painful walk over to the medical building to have his blisters disinfected and dressed, and then rejoined his family for subdued congratulations.
Why subdues? It would turn out later that Mariana had heard my earlier comment about 2:12 pace — or perhaps had heard that Tyler wanted to run 3:12 pace (per kilometer) — and had got it into her head that Tyler would be disappointed by anything slower than 2:12, and certainly by a 2:16. In retrospect, it was pretty funny that Tyler’s parents were trying really hard to be supportive, assuming they needed to console their son, who had just run a fantastic race and was pretty well pleased with himself.
The next few hours were a slow recovery. Tyler, Mariana, and I took the shuttle bus back to the hotel, where we (mostly Mariana and I) snacked on food provided by race organizers. We said our good-byes and thank-you’s to the race personnel and the athlete rep who had helped Tyler and me since we had arrived almost a week earlier, hailed a taxi to take our crippled runner back to the apartment, and listened to him yell as he inflicted an ice bath on himself.
That evening we would splurge on another taxi to take us to Kyoto, where we would relive and celebrate Tyler’s race at a popular Japanese chain restaurant, joining Tyler’s parents and the same couple who had given Tyler and me a tour of the course several days earlier.
For the first time in a long while, none of us worried about what we were eating and drinking.