28.02.2016. 05:30 am.
I woke up to a blaring alarm in a dark cold room full of strangers. I was tempted to hit the snooze button, for the second time. But I knew this was the first of many hurdles of the day that I had to overcome. I sat at the edge of my bed staring at my race kits hung on a black flimsy hanger. My black tee with the bib already pinned, black shorts, black tights, black arm warmers and black gloves that I just bought few hours earlier, black socks, black heart rate monitor chest strap, and black head band, all hung on the already-saggy hanger, bearing the burden of the day to come. I reached down and grabbed my black shoes to ensure that my timing chip was still intact. I was surprisingly calm.
I went for a long shower, donned my race gears, and ate breakfast of peanut butter sandwich with banana.
Most people have this rule of not trying anything new on race day, which I duly abided by. Ironically, in the biggest race of my life, I broke this rule. I was wearing new unused unwashed tee, socks, arm warmers, and gloves. So much of 16 weeks of careful preparation.
Before leaving the dormitory, I stared back at my bed to ensure that I did not leave anything behind, not a minute of 141 hours, not a kilometre of 1,334.5 kilometres, not a day of the past 16 weeks.
It was cold outside despite the layers that I was wearing. I bumped into a group of participants who were assigned the same gate as myself, Gate 4. They seemed to know where to go, so I tagged along. As I was walking to my gate, I just realised that I forgot to bring my pace wristband together with me. I had prepared three wristbands, two that I printed and laminated before I left Malaysia, and one from Asics booth at the expo. I did not bring any with me. I cursed my forgetfulness. It might be a trivial thing, I never had one before, but I deemed it crucial to achieve my target time. It messed with my head. I still had time to rush back to the dormitory and retrieved the wristband and be on time at the gate. But I opted not to take the risk.
Before I got to Gate 4, I stopped by at Gate 6 for a short rendezvous with the rest of Kyserun Krew members, RyckRun and AimaRun. We kinked out last minute details, took some pictures, and bade goodbyes and goodlucks. RyckRun and I were assigned to Gate 4.
The bag check at the gate was seamless. Then we had to brave through the crowds to our baggage car. Mine was at the other end of the gate, Car 31. Before handing over my checked bag, I quickly pulled out a piece of paper, and jotted down 5km split on a piece of paper. Better something than nothing, eh?
I had gone to the loo before entering the gate, but it was so chilly. I had to make another trip. Despite the numbers of the porta potties available, the queues were so long. It was an excruciating wait. I lined up close to 30 minutes before it was my turn to use the loo. By the time I finished, the porta potties area was already empty. Everyone had gone to their respective corrals. I saw a volunteer waving at me pointing the direction to my corral, corral F. I ran gingerly past a group of volunteers who were lining up all the way to my corral. They were clapping their hands and shouting ‘Ganbare’ as I ran past them. I felt like I was some well-known marathon runner for a moment. I ascended a flight of stairs and got to my corral. As far as warm up was concerned, the short ‘run of fame’ was the only ‘warm up’ that I had. I was getting a bit concerned of the lack of warm up, but I ran out of time, and I ran out of space.
I spotted a number of 4:30 pacers in my corral. The entry to the marathon is through a ballot system. During application, it asks applicants of personal best (PB) in marathon. I thought a better PB means a better chance of entry, but I knew some people who gained entry without any marathon under their belts. To gain an entry is a lottery, but the corral assignment is based on one’s PB. On the day of application, I had only run one marathon then, which was in Kuching, with a time of 4:17’34. So here I was, stuck in the 6th out of 12 corrals, together with 4:30 pacers.
It was not long before I felt thirsty. I looked around and spotted a fluid station just outside of my corral. I exited my corral and downed three cups of fluid to the laughter of the volunteers at the station. They must have been entertained by my fidgetiness.
I got back into my corral, listened to the national anthem of Japan, watched the live broadcast of the elite’s flag-off on a big screen, and started to walk to the starting line. Most participants around me were walking to the starting line while pointing their phone to the air, taking selfies, pictures and videos to be posted in social media. I had to walk patiently behind them. Gun time was of no interest, as I was very far behind. I was not here to run neck and neck against the Kenyans and Ethiopians for the lucrative prize money, or win a place in the Olympic. I was here only to shave some minutes off my mediocre PB. So when I saw porta potties just before the starting line, I made another trip to avoid any unnecessary stop during the race. I also used this opportunity to do some light stretching while waiting for my turn to use the loo.
I peeled off my poncho and disposable hoodie and discarded them just before crossing the starting line.
(I found out that I crossed the line 16 minutes after the gun, after the conclusion of the race).
People were still busy taking selfies, pictures and videos. There was little room to get past the sea of people. This was the disadvantage of starting from an unfavourable corral. Whenever I saw a gap, no matter how small it was, I would speed up to get past people who were taking it easy. As the race approached KM2 mark, the course went underneath a railway in Shinjuku, before going a little uphill. I thought the traffic had cleared up, but as I reached the top of the little climb, the traffic just got worse.
I manoeuvred through the jam-packed traffic, zig-zagging left, right, middle, and even running on the kerbs. There were a lot of grazing, brushing, shoving, pushing, and bumping. I saw people fell down on the tarmac due to the contacts. It was bloody. I was grateful for my short and small frame, as I was able to squeeze through the littlest of gaps. Every time I squeezed through, I’d say “Sumimasen’, and when I made contact with others, I’d say “Gomenne”.
I was gaining positions little by little, but the traffic had not eased off at all. After a while, I figured out that the least jam-packed line was the outside line, where the fences that barricaded the spectators were. It might be the cleanest line, but it was the riskiest as well. This was where the sloping drains were, where a misstep would have resulted a twisted leg, where the spectators would reach out their hands for high-fives and to offer food, where the cheering was the noisiest. There was an instance where a participant in front of me spread his right hand to give a high-five to a spectator as I was about to run past him. I grabbed his hand, lifted it up, and said “Gomenne” as I ran underneath his arm. There was another instance where I had to make an abrupt turn to the left just to avoid a volunteer who was holding a rubbish bag. In spite of this, I enjoyed running at the outside line as this was where the cheering was the loudest. I replied to the high-fives from the crowds most of the time too. The atmosphere was unbelievable.
I was so busy making up the lost time, trying to be ahead of this congested pile of human. I was not really paying attention to the surroundings and landmarks. I glanced at my watch and was surprised that I had only run 2.8 kilometres. I knew I had covered more than that. To my horror, there were two lines on top of my watch’s display. I had accidentally paused my watch. I did not know for how long and how far I had paused my watch. This disrupted my entire race. I quickly calculated and guessed that I had paused my watch for the last 1.2 kilometres (at least), but I could not be sure. However, distance was the least of a concern as there were KM markers at every kilometre. Only I had not seen one yet. On a more pressing matter, I could not tell the time elapsed of my race. This also deemed my makeshift pace paper null. I never had to pull it out of my pocket.
I was frustrated but I should not dwell on this for too long. Now, my strategy was to run on feelings, instead of the target pace. In spite of running through the megalopolis of Tokyo, the air was crisp and cool. It was a treat to my lungs. I was running well below my target pace but I was feeling fresh and fine. The first KM marker I saw was KM6 which brought some confusions. Few hundreds metres after passing the first KM6 marker, I saw another KM6 marker. Later, I learnt that the second KM6 marker was actually ‘KM6 Medical Station’.
I still had to weave past the crowd, and probably wasted precious energy and glycogen by doing so. At about KM7, I heard a familiar voice calling out my name. It was RyckRun. It was good to know that he was running fine. Few moments later, my heart rate monitor chest strap became loose and measured the rumbling of my stomach for the rest of the race.
Just before KM10, the road was separated into two. One for marathon runners, and another for 10KM runners. I risked disqualification by running in 10KM lane, just to avoid bumping into people.
The course passed by familiar places, Hibiya Park and Imperial Palace, where I did my shakeout run 2 days before. The scene was amazing. There were performances and the roars and cheering were so loud. The energy was contagious. I was spurred by this and unintentionally quickened the pace.
In the middle of puffing sound from surrounding people gasping for air, tapping sound of footsteps, loud roars coming from the roadsides, I found myself in solitude. The soothing cool crisp air obliterated my respiratory tract from nasal to my lungs, giving similar sensation of drinking icy-cold water after sucking a tablet of lozenge, purging contaminated carbon dioxide of my system. My body was on override. Pace, strides, cadence, form, leaning angle, all did not matter. I just let it flow. The deafening noises were suddenly muted. The only sound I heard was “full of running” mantra that I muttered silently deep inside. It was not particularly runner’s high euphoric. Instead, I was in a trance. Perhaps, this calmness was what Geofrey Mutai described as ‘The Spirit’.
The number of participants had now disseminated, making it easier to run in a straight line. I was still running way faster than my target pace, sometimes dipping below 4:00 min/km. I was feeling good but I knew sooner or later, I would be caught out. The sense of running on feelings was so liberating. I was having fun pounding the pavement and I wanted it to last. It was hard to put my foot off the gas pedal.
But it did not last long. After KM15, the course took a U-turn back to Hibiya Park. Suddenly, I found myself in the middle of a headwind crossfire. The headwind was so strong that it blew me off my perch in a running nirvana back down to earth. Now, I was becoming aware of my pace, strides, and form. My small and light frame made it more difficult to resist the wind, but I was not the only one who was affected. I could see most runners leaning towards the right hand side of the road, closer to the skyscrapers, trying to shield away from the relentless headwind.
In cycling, cyclists draft behind other rides to protect themselves from the wind, in order to preserve some energy. It makes a lot of sense because they are pedalling at high speed where the drag becomes so significant. With a relatively much slower pace that I was moving, drafting would not be as significant, but still made a lot of difference. I followed behind a small peloton of people, passed them, and repeated the process. I crossed the halfway mark, nowhere near my redline, ahead of my target time based on my flawed calculation.
We ran past Hibiya Park once more where the 10KM category’s finish line was, and the amazing atmosphere had not subsided yet. The race now headed towards Tokyo’s luxury shopping district, Ginza. The headwind suddenly disappeared, presumably because of the change of direction of the course. Buoyant by the never-ending raucous roar of the sporting crowds, and the disappearance of the wind, I found my “Second Wind”. My pace dipped below 4:30 min/km again. I was feeling as strong as I just had started the race.
I caught glimpses of elites and semi-elites on the other side of the road. They already had covered 34 kilometres or so. Some were still going strong that they made it look so effortlessly easy, while some had already succumbed to the strenuous demand of the distance.
I was buoyed every time I ran past participants who started the race in corral A, B and C. I saw few of them. It was an indication that I was having a good race.
My “Second Wind” only lasted for 5 kilometres though, when it was dramatically nullified by the second coming of the headwind. I was exerting the same effort but my watch was displaying instantaneous pace of 5:00 min/km and slower. I would blame the bad GPS signal but this slowing in pace was justified by a drop in cadence. I quickly rectified this by ramping up the cadence and managed to stay below 5:00 min/km, albeit barely.
The spectators were still lining up behind the fence along the road. But somehow, they had gone quiet. The cold and windy weather, and standing on their feet for far too long might have played a part. The atmosphere was a little subdued.
Along the way, I had to stop and retrace my steps twice. First, when I dropped my salt tablets, and second, when I dropped my energy gel. These were the cues that disaster was just about to strike.
At KM28, just before another big U-turn at the famous Kaminarimon Gate, I started to feel a slight pull on my left thigh.
In distance running, this is the thing that I fear the most. Cramps.
I always bring salt tablets with me during a race in order to prevent cramps from happening. The golden rule is to take salt tablets before the first sign of cramps. Once you are hit with a cramp, salt tablets are of little use.
I knew I was in a big trouble. I had been taking salt tablets in frequent intervals, two tablets at once. Because of the cold weather and minimal loss of salt through sweat, I did not see this coming. I started with 11 salt tablets, and now I only had 3. I was still some distance away from the finish line. I tried to shake it off and decided to save the remaining 3 for later. This turned out to be a poor decision.
I crossed KM30 fending off cramps that had now crept to my right thigh and calf. In consequence, my pace dropped drastically. I was now consistently running slower than 5:00 min/km. Every time I tried to fight the cramp, I came out worse. The temptation to stop and walk was at an all-time high. I tried to rediscover the trance state that I was in earlier in the race, but to no avail. I panicked. I even forgot my own mantra. I was murmuring “free of running” instead of “full of running”.
I tried to conjure up some strength by reminiscing the hard work that I had put in the past 16 weeks leading to this race.
Lonely mornings, lonely nights, selfishness, arguments, disagreements, sacrifices, missed social gatherings, tears.
It did not work.
I tried to motivate myself by visualising my wife and soon-to-be-born baby. Alas, it still did not work.
I fought against my inner-self for the next few kilometres. I told myself that I would only stop and walk at the water stations.
At the end of the day, I did not want it badly enough.
Just shy of KM35, few spectator were waving deep-heat spray by the road side. I stopped and walked for the first time in the race.
Here, I was defeated.
The untimely pit stop aggravated the cramps on both legs, instead of relieving them.
From that point onwards, walk and jog became a routine. I would run for few hundreds metres before halting to a walk for few hundred metres. I was battling the excruciating cramps with zero ammunition of salt tablets. My mind wandered. On top of the cramps, my once soft cushion of the Boost-midsole of my Adios felt as hard as a brick, particularly at the forefoot area.
I was now at the hardest stretch of the course, where the pancake flat course suddenly turned uphill. A long gradual climb back towards Tsukiji was a prelude of what to come in the last 7 kilometres. The gradual climb was not really a killer but was enough to debilitate me.
There was a little respite from the harmless-looking but actually harmful climb when I reached Tsukiji, but it was not long before the course met the steepest inclination of the race.
Not knowing the time elapsed of my race was really damaging. When I ran PBIM, I hit the wall early at about KM26. I almost missed my target time. But I knew the time and subsequently what was required to finish within my target time. I ignored the pain and soldiered on on a pace that was needed to cross the line within my target time.
Without any indication of the duration of my own race, I was hapless. I may well be within my target time, I may not. I did not have a clue. I walked most part of the climb.
Seeing the KM markers shrinking from 5 to 4 to 3, failed to urge me on. I stopped for oranges, strawberries, cokes and deep-heat sprays. There was a long stretch where I felt isolated. There were people in front and behind me, but nobody was either on my right or left.
While I was strolling in self-sympathy, there was an old granny, probably in her 80s and 90s, shouting “Ganbare! Ganbare! Ganbare!” at me. I could only muster a smile.
We were more than 3 hours into the race but the crowds were still energetic. Whenever I started to jog after a lengthy walk, they would cheer to keep me going.
I could now see “40KM” marker. I was not far from the end of yet another disappointment. I told myself to break this walk-jog rut and summon whatever left in me to just run the remaining 2 kilometres or so. It lasted for few hundreds metres before I caught the sight of the last bridge that we had to cross over to the finish line. The sight of the bridge sent chills down my spine, if the strong chilly wind did not already.
The bridge was the last obstacle of the race as the last few hundreds metres were as flat as majority part of the race.
Before the race, I had thought of poses that I would do crossing the finish line. Did it really matter now?
This was my best shot at running a 3:30 marathon. On my flight to Tokyo, I met an old Japanese man who sat next to me. When he knew that I came to Tokyo for the marathon, he asked me of my PB. I was ashamed to tell him it was 3:57. Before disembarking the plane, he tapped my shoulder and said “3:30!”.
I smiled in confidence.
3:30 was well within reach, but I chose to run 3:20.
I crossed the line in an official time of 3:37:53.
Neither a 3:20 nor a 3:30.