Wednesday, March 09, 2011

The Tokyo Marathon (from a hedonist's point of view)

I am not one of those people who think the marathon is some sort of mythical challenge reserved for all but the fittest and strongest among us. Nope. I'm one of those people who think pretty much anyone can complete a marathon. All it takes is a commitment to a training plan that slowly and steadily builds up the mileage.

Finishing a marathon is an admirable accomplishment, to be sure. But let's not pretend it's something bigger than it is. If someone held a gun to your head and said, "Run 42 kilometers or I will blow your brains out!" you would do it, even if you had never run more than a mile in your life. You would somehow force your body across that distance -- run, walk or crawl. It would be painful but not impossible.

So why is the marathon held up as example of something that pushes the limits of human endurance? (I'm not talking about the elite runners here. They actually are pushing the limits of human endurance. They run the marathon at a pace that is so blisteringly fast they practically sprint the entire 42 kilometres.) But for the vast majority of us plodding along behind the front runners the marathon isn't all that difficult (assuming we've trained properly).

I'm not disparaging the marathon. Forty-two kilometres is a long way to run and it's a distance that demands respect. I just don't buy into the whole "massive challenge" mystique that the race wraps itself in. It's a bit of a smokescreen. In reality, the marathon is accessible to almost anyone. If you want to run 42 km, you can. People in wheelchairs do it. Blind people do it. Intellectually impaired people do it. Overweight people do it. People in their 80s do it. And, now, I do it too.

Sergey and I ran the Tokyo Marathon last weekend. And while it was tough, it wasn't nearly as difficult as I thought it would be. I didn't hit the wall. I didn't cramp up. I didn't even break a sweat. This is probably because I was on cruise control the whole way through. My only goal was to cross the finish line feeling good. And while I wouldn't exactly describe the way I felt when I crossed the finish line as "good," I certainly wasn't destroyed.

I took my time getting to the finish line -- a whopping five hours, 40 minutes and 57 seconds. A time so slow it pretty much puts me at the back of the pack. A time so slow it prompted a flurry of emails from friends and family who assumed something had gone horribly wrong. My dad asked if I'd walked most of the marathon. A friend asked if I had injured myself. Another friend wrote, "You have some explaining to do!"

The simple truth is I plodded through with minimal effort on purpose and I'm okay with that. I know what it feels like to push yourself to the limit and it's not a fun feeling. I used to be able to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. But the pain barrier is now something I shrink away from rather than push towards. I wanted to make the Tokyo Marathon as pleasurable an experience as possible. Hedonism is the new masochism.

The only other marathon I've ever run was at the back-end of an Ironman triathlon. And I think the reason why the Tokyo Marathon felt relatively easy was because I didn't have to swim four kilometres and then cycle 180 kilometres beforehand. (Although, amazingly, my Tokyo Marathon time was half an hour slower than my Ironman marathon time.)

Admittedly, I did the bare-minimum amount of training needed to cross the Tokyo Marathon finish line. And Sergey, hobbled by knee pain for the past month, did even less. We signed up for the marathon last summer but our names weren't drawn in the initial lottery (the race is limited to 36,000 participants but because more than 360,000 people sign up each year, runners are chosen randomly. It's more of a challenge to actually get picked to do the marathon than it is to run the race itself). After we lost the lottery we also lost our motivation to train. And then, out of the blue, we got an email in November saying there had been a second lottery and our names had been drawn. So we signed up, with only three months to prepare.

Because of our bare-minimum training, I figured it was better to play it safe and run a conservative race. I planned to be out on the course for a long time so I decided to run with a backpack and fill it with all of the things I needed to keep propelling my body forward for 42 kilometres. What I lacked in terms of raw physical ability I would offset by a constant intake of sugar, caffeine and ibuprofen.

My backpack contained the following items. Six energy gels (taste like crap but they work), some money (in case I decided to stop at a convenience store for a more filling snack), a tube of chapstick, lots of painkillers, sun block, a bottle of coke, a coffee, a bottle of water (not pictured), and my camera (also not pictured, obviously).

Sergey wanted to run unencumbered by extra weight and figured he'd just pick up food and drinks along the course. We started the race together but agreed to run separately. He ended up finishing 20 minutes faster than me. Not bad for a guy who quit smoking six months ago, took up running in the summer, and suffered shin and knee pain throughout the entire race.

Unlike Sergey, I didn't have to deal with too much pain during the race but I did have to deal with a brain reluctant to push my body the entire distance. To keep my mind occupied, I divided the time up into regimented little chunks. Every 10 minutes, I walked for one minute and drank two gulps of water. Every 60 minutes, I walked for two minutes and popped one gel and took two ibuprofen. Every aid station, I drank a cup of gatorade. Every food station, I ate one banana. I was so busy focusing on these little tasks it took my mind off how tired I was feeling.

Things became mentally tough at kilometre 28. I was ready for the race to be over. I needed to find a way to keep myself going so I invented a hackneyed Hollywood plot and put the marathon at the centre of it. I imagined we were running through the streets of Tokyo 100 years in the future. But it was a bleak future. The world's population had grown so large it had strained the earth beyond its breaking point. Life was a post-apocalyptic nightmare. There was not enough food to eat or water to drink. The air was dirty and gray. Famine, disease, and death were widespread. Totalitarian governments were in power the world over. They wanted to cull the population and create a superior race of human beings. Their solution was to force people in the biggest cities to run marathons. Anyone who dropped out of the marathon before reaching the finish line would be shot and killed. Imagining there was a sniper by my side ready to shoot me in the head if I stopped running helped keep me going. (Zero points for originality but whatever works.)

Things became physically tough at kilometre 37. I felt a sharp pain in one of my toes that was so intense it almost brought me to a dead stop. I assumed one of my toenails had ripped right out of its bed and my shoe was filling up with blood. I could feel the detached nail shifting around inside my sock and the blood squishing between my toes. I didn't want to stop and assess the damage because I was pretty sure I would faint if I came face-to-face with the mess inside my shoe (turns out it was only a blister that had popped).

By kilometre 38, the pain had dulled and I hobbled through the last four kilometres. My legs were so leaden it felt as if someone had joined them together with elastic bands at the ankles. I wanted to lift my legs but I couldn't. I crossed the finish line feeling okay. Not great but not destroyed.

Still, it was an overwhelmingly positive experience. The weather couldn't have been better. Blue skies, 15 degrees and only a hint of a breeze. From start to finish, the organization was top-notch. Everything went so smoothly it was like floating from one cloud to another. From registration to the bag drop to the start line to the finish line there was not one wrinkle, not one kink. All 36,000 of us got the Japanese white-glove treatment from the organizers, volunteers and supporters. It was, hands down, the best-organized event I've ever seen. Every little detail was handled with meticulous care, right down to the bananas handed out to runners on the course.

(Side note: The bananas are actually kind of a funny story. Dole developed a banana specifically for the Tokyo Marathon. According to the company, the banana was created in the Philippines where growers played "runners' favourite songs to help in cultivation and make it even tastier." The songs played included the theme to Rocky and Queen's "We are the Champions.")

If I had one complaint, it would have to be the toilets. There's just no way to set up enough porta-potties along the course to satisfy 36,000 runners. There were several porta-potty stations but the line-ups were at least 15 minutes long. But there were plenty of convenience stores along the way and a few enterprising runners (myself included) decided to get off the road, push our way through the crowds, run down the sidewalk and jump into the nearest 7-Eleven toilet.

Also interesting to note was the large contingent of runners dressed in costume. I counted at least three salarymen running in full business suits. There were a few men dressed up in schoolgirl uniforms and wigs. Another runner went as Michel Jackson (black shoes, white socks, black pants, white t-shirt, single glove, fedora) and moonwalked most of the marathon. Dozens of runners dressed up as Japanese anime characters. Darth Vader, Spiderman and Captain America also made an appearance. It was somewhat demoralizing to be passed by a man in a Pikachu costume but my spirits picked up when I kicked Jesus' ass.

Would I do another marathon? I don't know. I think, like the Ironman, it's something I only want to do once. To cross it off my bucket list. I don't like the way the regimented training puts a stranglehold on spontaneity. The reward isn't big enough to make the sacrifice -- the huge investment of time and energy -- seem worth it.

I like running. I like the purity and simplicity of it. I like the solitude of it. I like the low-cost, low-tech, low-skill freedom of it. And the marathon is kind of the opposite of all of that. That's not a bad thing. I'm just not really sure it's my thing.

I'm happy I ran the Tokyo Marathon. It's something I've wanted to do for a long time. I set a goal and I accomplished it. It wasn't a mythical challenge but it was good.

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