Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Souja Kibiji Marathon (Okayama Prefecture)

Sunday February 23rd, 2014

After nearly a week of having no cellphone/internet, the weekend of the Souja Kibiji Marathon was here. I intended on getting a phone prior to traveling to Okayama Prefecture but unfortunately, there was not enough time to get one, being on the island and all. Planned a time to meet a Hiroshima City ALT JET, Danny at Hiroshima Station on Saturday and we hopped on a bus to Okayama at about 2:20pm. The combination of not having a cellphone the past week and not interacting with many English speakers period, it was sure a treat to be chatting with Danny on the bus ride out to Okayama. We had some fun on the bus talking about running and making friends with a drunk couple heading to a wedding party. The bus ride took about 2 and a half hours to get to Okayama.

Once arriving at Okayama Station, we met up with another ALT, Erin, and walked around Okayama for a bit before meeting up with Danny/Erin’s friend Keisuke.
@Okayama Station
 He picked us up in a car and recommended an Indian curry restaurant for us. It was so fun talking with so many people who could speak English and it was kind of a surreal feeling to be communicating so easy. So much isolated time on the island really has helped me appreciate friends, communication, convenience and so much more.
We ordered relatively large meals at the Indian resturaunt which was a large piece of bread type of thing and a couple different curry dishes. 
Wasn’t the most filling meal but then again, there’s no reason to binge eat before running a marathon (binge eating is for after! J).

After dinner, we headed back to the hotel and met up with ALT Emily, who was also staying at the same hotel and would be running her first half-marathon the next day. Per usual, I took the stingy way out of accommodations and just paid Danny to sleep on the floor at the hotel. Never being too picky about sleeping arrangements before even coming to Japan, after sleeping on a thin futon out here I can get away with sleeping on just about any hard surface.  Went to bed at about 10:00pm but due to excitement and nerves, it took a while to get to bed and woke up several times during the night. This was the first marathon I’d be running in over 8 months and first marathon in Japan (although running Honolulu Marathon is quite similar to running a marathon in Japan).

Woke up at 4:30am and couldn’t get back to sleep so waited for Danny to get up and took advantage of the free WiFi the hotel offered. It’s too easy to pass time on the internet but after spending a week without any phone/internet connections, can’t say I’m necessarily more happy with it. Of course it more convenient and makes things easy.

Ate a banana and a riceball for breakfast.

Was a bit anxious how the legs would hold up running such a relatively long distance and also with the course being so flat in comparison to the types of runs I’ve been doing recently. The legs feel powerful and efficient when running up mtn roads and trails but it has became kind of a grind to run on the road. Trying to still keep running the roads despite the uncomfortable feeling because don’t want to lose that “skill”.  My longest road run in Japan was not over 10-miles and the pace has always been relatively slow. In addition, I’ve been logging about ½ the weekly miles in comparison to a typical marathon training plan I usually do back home despite compulsively wanting to try to go sub-3, knew it was not in the cards this time around.

Prior to the race, I considered running a comfortable pace with Kenshu who was also running the Okayama Marathon. With having no phone, was unable to properly connect with him before the race and decided to run with Danny and his goal of 3:20. This was his second marathon and he was looking to better his time from his previous marathon at the Seoul Marathon in Korea.

We checked out of the hotel at about 6am and it was funny how many people were walking around town and occupying 24-hour restaurants in which apparently their nights were just ending. Danny and I grabbed a coffee at McDonalds. We hopped on the first train from Okayama station towards Souja. 
It was cool getting on the train with a bunch of other runners at such an early hour in the morning.
Each following train stop, we picked up more and more runners until the train was jam packed full of people sporting warm-up gear of all sorts. As the train was quickly carrying hundreds of runners towards Souja, the sun was just beginning to rise in the semi-dark, cloudless sky. Despite it being a little chilly in the morning, it seemed it would warm up as the day went on.

Once arriving at Souja station, we walked to the Sports Center which was near the Start/Finish of this race. We checked in and received our race bibs that morning. Not many marathons where you pick up your race bibs the morning of the race!

We found a spot in the Sports Center gymnasium to set our belongings down and began to get ready for the run. Only in Japan would I leave an unattended backpack with a laptop, 2 iphones (1 broken) an ipod, and a wallet containing over $300   Snapped a quick pic near the finish line
while running a marathon. We began pinning on our race bibs and starting to stretch out a bit. With about 20 minutes to the race, we all headed out of the gymnasium towards the start line. We ran into two of Danny’s friends who were also running the marathon. Had been trying to spot Kenshu all morning but wasn’t able to see him.
 and wished Erin and Emily good luck with their races. Jogged around a tad before finding some bathrooms near the start line. We squeezed our way into the start and Danny’s friend Daichi spotted us again.

As this was Danny’s second marathon, it was fun soaking up his excitement and anticipation of this race. It was crowded with marathoners on the left side of the road and the shorter distance races on the right side.  Daichi saw us as Danny and I stood up on the curb trying to be spotted by our friends.  We snapped some pictures prior to the start
 and at 9am on the dot, we were off!

It was quite crowded (as is most marathon starts) and the people around us were running much slower than our 3:20 marathon goal pace (in what we thought was 7:43min/mile but is actually 7:38min/mile. Guess we got a bit mixed up because Danny uses kilometers for distance and pacing.  We slowly danced around the other runners and tried to get to some open road to hit our pace. It was difficult with all of the half-marathoners running together too.

Despite the typical crazy commotion at the start of the race, within the first ½ mile, I spotted Kenshu coming from the back right in which apparently he had spotted me in all the people (not like two blonde dudes stick out in a sea of black heads). I excitedly greeted him and introduced Danny/Kenshu to each other.  Told Kenshu we were shooting for a 3:20 marathon and he say “OK, me too”. It’s funny how flexible he is. Guess you need that kind of mind set when you are training for a 400km race (Trans Japan).

For a bit we had a group of 5 guys running together and we were pretty chatty. Danny was rocking to his headphones as he had prepared a marathon playlist. We saw a beautiful girl in a red/white costume and began talking to her. She said she was wearing a ‘Miiko’ (temple maid) costume and had traveled from Tokyo (Saitama). She was able to speak English quite well and said she had been to the U.S. before to run a marathon in LA. The rest of the guys properly separated from the Miiko girl and I (haha) but after several minutes realized it prob was best to catch up with them. Bid farewell to the Miiko girl and rejoined the group who was running slightly faster than goal pace.

Souja was a relatively local town with occasional spectators throughout the course.  After not long into the race, we ran down a road that had a large temple off to the left in the distance. Many times during the run, was pleasantly reminded that I was in Japan.   With the spectators cheering in Japanese, running by traditional Japanese houses, and hearing the Japanese Taiko drums, I guess that’s a hard thing to forget.

There was aid-stations every couple kilometers that all had water, sports drink, bananas and sandwiches. Although it was tempting to grab a sandwich while only at mile 3, was able to resist those urges.

We split off from the ½ marathoners and the road opened up a bit. There was one spot where we looped around an out and back section of the course and saw the Miiko girl again. After she passed, was thinking, “shoot, might not see her again..”.

Danny seemed to be locked into his pace and was in good condition. For a while he sped up for a bit while Kenshu and I stayed back and stuck to the 3:20 pace.  After a little bit, we caught up with him again.

The course was a bit hillier than expected, but nothing too crazy. Actually the uphills were a nice break from the repetitive pounding that the flat roads we creating.

It was crazy how fast the first 5-7 miles went by but as semi-expected, already at the 10-mile mark, thought that it would be nice to give the legs a break. Was drinking at most of the aid-stations and occasionally grabbing bananas.

The weather was absolutely perfect with the air nice and cool and the sun creating enough warmth to make it not so chilly.  Interesting to be able to wear shorts and a T-shirt outside during February.  

Before the half-marathon mark, there were several other runners following closely behind us and I remembered wondering if it was because in comparison to the Japanese runners, we were giant (wind breakers-not that there was much wind though).

Danny and I were still sticking to pace and I would often call out the pace upon his request as he did not have the instantaneous pace on his Nike+ app. Not long after the half-marathon point, Kenshu was out in front of us  and before long, he was out of our sight. I wondered if we would see him again later during the race.

Around mile 15, took a quick bathroom break even didn’t need to go that bad. It was a nice break to rest the legs for a second and it actually felt nice to need to run about a 6:40 pace to catch up to Danny again.

At mile 16, I remember saying to Danny, “only 10 miles left… does that sound good or bad?” and he comically replied, “only 10km left will sound better”. I laughed at the truth of his statement as we both continued to keep pace. We were actually picking it up a bit and Danny seemed to be running strong still.  We were passing many runners who were going quite slow at this point. The course was a bit goofy as it ran some sections with the half-marathoners, then would wonder off on it’s own course, before rejoining again with the half-marathoners. 

At about mile 22, Danny said he was starting to get a side-ache and our pace was starting to fade. We were running 7:50s for a bit before getting into the 8:00s. Told him that we needed to pick it up a bit and that I would continue to hit the 7:43 pace.  One of our followers continued to follow me and I would occasionally look back to see if Danny was catching or slowing. After a bit, couldn’t see him anymore and with about 3 miles left, decided to speed up a little. Was matched by the follower still and as I continued to speed up, so did he. Looked back at him and he quickly smiled and I let out a short laugh. Funny how with using no words, we communicated so much (or at least I think we did).

After this acknowledgement, he came up on my side and we started to chat. His name was Kazuhisa and he was from Okayama. Was surprised because he was wearing what seemed to be a pretty heavy hooded jacket with a pair of gloves and still seemed to be not sweating and running effortlessly. It was nice chatting with him because it took the mind of the quickly fatiguing legs. We continued to speed up  and were running sub 7min/miles now. It was fun buzzing past many people together and again there were many half-marathoners on the same course.

The legs were getting close to cramping now and was wishing of having done some longer road runs before this. Ran into Erin at an aid-station which she was on an earlier section of the course and wished her luck. During a long straight stretch we made our way closer to the finish and even though the legs didn’t feel like picking it up, tried to speed up maybe just to get the race over with quicker. Was hoping Danny was doing alright and sticking to a decent pace.

Was also becoming a little worried about how much damage my legs were taking from running this race so underprepared. Near the finish, another runner in green came up pretty quick behind us and passed us. He took the lead and ran in front of us for about 30 seconds. As we approached the last turn not far before the finish line, I gestured toward the guy in green at Kazuhisa and with no hesitation we both sped up. He seemed to have no fatigue in his legs as he sped up quickly and I followed him to the finish. We congratulated each other and it felt good to walk around for a bit. The watch said 3:20:07 and I noticed that our target pace of 7:43 had to have been wrong.

At the finish, saw Daichi who got a 3:17? And Kenshu who got a 3:18?. Not long after, Danny came through the finish and we congratulated him on a job well done. He was pretty beat and we all made our way over to the post race food/beverage area.  There was only coffee and soup for runners and the rest of the things were available for purchase. Fortunately Danny borrowed some money to me and I bought a chicken/rice bento lunch and a strawberry bread thing that could not have been healthy but what did I care at the moment. Sat down in the sun together and ate our food.
By chance, saw the Miiko girl for the 3rd time that day and she sat down with us for a bit.  Congratulated her on a 3:47 finish, took a picture together and exchanged contact information. Look forward to running with her sometime in the future!

We went back inside the Sports Center gymnasium and changed into some warmer clothes. Sat down by a heater and exchanged massages to each other. It was kinda funny because one guy would lie down by the heater as three other guys massaged him. Maybe not the most culturally appropriate things in the U.S. or Japan for that matter but all of us being pretty beat from the race, we willingly through aside cultural norms.
After the massages,we headed back outside to watch Erin finish.

It was cool to see her run by us and she seemed to be in happy spirits as always. We then stuck around until the last finisher (which was by chance Danny’s coworker) who had a finishing time of 5:59:50 maybe with a 6 hour time limit.

After we went to a sports shop near the finish and then waited for a ride to an Onsen in Okayama. Upon arriving at the Onsen, we were warned of how crowded the baths were and that there would probably not be available lockers inside. Indeed, the Onsen was super crowded but luckily for us, we found lockers and were able to hop in the crowded baths with many other runners. It was so so SO nice to be able to wash of the sweat from the day, hop in and out of multiple outdoor/indoor baths and rotate between the sauna and my favorite, the cold bath.  Ahhhh

We spent about an hour there before we had to head out and meet Keisuke who was waiting for us and who would be bringing Erin to the station. We said goodbye to them and Danny, Daichi Hiroki and I headed to a nearby Yakiniku restaurant. Usually don’t eat much meat, but with not eating much that day and being super hungry, I had no problem setting aside any negative ideas of meat consumption to be able to indulge in an all you can eat meat buffet. Yakiniku restaurants are so fun because you grill your own meat right in front of you on a mini-grill. We indulged in cow tongue, heart, other pieces I didn't know, chicken, wakame soup, and some edamame. With all of us stuffed and content, we hopped in the car and made our way back to Hiroshima. We stopped in Fukuyama for bathroom breaks and it was comical how we all limped our way from the car to inside the rest station.

Got back on the road and I was realizing it would be a close call to catch the last bus from Kure City to Kurahashi. Since I didn’t have my cellphone, wasn’t able to access the photo of the bus schedule so didn’t know what time the last bus left. After dropping off Danny at a station nearby his house, going to pick up keys that Daichi had left somewhere the previous day, I was dropped of at a station further east of Hiroshima. Daichi told me I needed to transfer at Takehara so I planned on keeping my ears open for Takeyama. The train arrived at Hiroshima station and stopped for a bit. I ate some nuts and a riceball and wondered if I was even on the right train. I heard that the train was bound for Saijo and that sounded awfully wrong.  I saw another train across the station that said Takehara and wondered if I needed to take that. Asked someone on the train if the train we were currently was on went to Takehara and they told me that in fact, it didn’t, and that I needed to go over to another set of tracks where there was currently no train. I pointed in the other direction at the train that said Takahara and he said, “or that one too..”. haha. I quickly got out of the train and ran up the stairs and over to the other set of tracks and thankfully was able to get into the train. Funny how quickly your body can forget pain/soreness in necessary times.  Asked someone on this train if it was headed towards Kure in which they assured me it was. Phewww. How lucky was I to not miss that train.

Still had to worry about what time the last bus was from Kure to Kurahashi and it was pretty crazy to think that I was in Hiroshima city at about 9:30pm on a school night. Was a bit uneasy what I would do if there were no more buses to Kurahashi Island once arriving in Kure because with no cellphone, would either have to take a 45min taxi or walk home. Comically considered walking home as it would have been a funny story to tell.

The train ride from Hiroshima to Kure went by quickly as I had some old ultra-podcasts on the ipod.  Arrived at Kure station at 10:16pm and knew it was going to be an awfully close call if I would catch the bus. Got off the train as quickly as possible and ran to the #3 bus station. To my relief I saw a group of people standing their among the other now empty bus stations late at night. I now knew there was a bus going to at least my island and not until I looked at the schedule, I was able to learn that the bus I needed to take was arriving in two minutes.

For one of the first times, I happily boarded the bus back towards Kurahashi and with a nice peace of mind now, sat down in the bus. Fell asleep several times on the hour ride back to Uwagi and arrived home about 11:30pm. Scattered belongings and things from the last couple days on the floor, ate some more food and went to bed.

Woke up at 6am as quickly as that, and perhaps was in the same position as I went to sleep in. Decided that my knees were in no condition to ride a bike that’s too short for me to school that day so took the bus. It was funny because the students commented and asked why I was on the bus when it wasn’t raining out.

The first marathon experience in Japan was super fun and I appreciated being able to spend it with other ALT JETs and make new friends as well.  Keep thinking how big of a shame it is that I’m leaving in less than 6 months but should do my best to enjoy the remaining time, and be grateful to have a group of running friends on the other side of the world when I return home.

Next week is Matsuka (Mazda) Ekiden with Kenshu and his friends.

Despite not having a phone this past week, it made some things inconvenient, but it was nice to disconnect and reconnect fully with the moment and others around me.

Now have a phone again though.

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