Osaka Marathon 2014
I never thought I would take such notice of the weather forecast until the relentless October typhoons threatened to disrupt my travel arrangement.
At the heel of Typhoon Vong Fong, as a family, we were more than diligently drawn to CNN weather report daily for reassurances that no other imminent typhoons were heading towards the land of the Rising Sun. We cannot ‘afford’ to cancel our trip. Too much hinges upon it. Everyone has been waiting for this break. Even my eight year-old has already planned out her week long itinerary in Osaka. After all, the weather changes so dramatically these days, can anyone afford to take these reports for granted?
So, it was somewhat a relief as we boarded our flights bound for Osaka Kansai Airport, knowing that the weather up north was calm and peaceful. But we were flying MH, (the tickets were booked way before MH370 and MH17), so you can imagine a gnawing sense of trepidation. Though offered full refund for all flights, we chose to stick with MAS. As proud Malaysians, of course we would profess that we have nothing to fear.
So as we touched down at Kansai in the wee hours of 20 October, I sigh a partial relief. “At least half the journey is now complete.” Now began our week long trip in Osaka, which was to culminate in the 4th Osaka Marathon on 26 October.
This isn’t my first trip to Osaka, in fact, it’s my third. Since their inaugural event in 2011, the only year that I have missed Osaka Marathon was 2013. Though somewhat a ‘new comer’ in the ‘Marathon business’, Osaka has nonetheless boasted quite a grand title: The World’s Seventh Largest Marathon. I can imagine why. Since Tokyo’s recognition as the 6th World’s Major in 2013, being an age old ‘rival’ of Tokyo, Osaka has not relented by remaining in the shadow of her Sister City. And with more than 30 thousand full marathon registrants every year, it certainly has the figures to bolster that claim too.
And having done both Tokyo and Osaka thrice, I think I am in the position to compare the two. The two marathons are almost identical in many ways. From the lottery slot for registration, charity contributions, down to the nitty-gritty of race bib collection, expo arrangements, heck, even the route pattern is almost a mirror image of Tokyo. But overall, the Osaka is a ‘quieter’ and less ‘salient’ version of Tokyo in terms of its scale. Even the crowd support isn’t as rowdy as the Tokyo folks. But, that said, if you have missed the opportunity for a lottery slot for Tokyo, why not give Osaka a chance?
As for my training, let me bring you up to speed about my status. The last marathon I did was way back in May at the Borneo International Marathon. In comparison to 2010-13, this year has been a very ‘quiet’ year in terms of race participation. I have even foregone several local half marathons because of the ever annoying Achilles injuries. Getting back into training and shaping up for Osaka was therefore a herculean effort. From HK Marathon in Feb onwards, my stamina had declined tremendously over the stretch of a few months, so when I started training in early August, I was struggling. Working up a 5 min/km pace took a lot out of me. That kind of pace was supposed to be an easy LSD pace back in my fitter days!
So, I had to make up for lost time. But I had to also be ‘wise’ enough to veer from the temptation to set unrealistic goals. To achieve anything between 3:20-3:30 would be a reasonable expectation. But to demand anything faster would be to invite trouble and disappointment.
I have set a series of ‘attainable’ goals. And these come in the form of a couple of marathons leading up to Boston in April 2015. Thus, I consider Osaka as a train up for that. Signing up for races is an essential motivation to train because I for one am likely to slack off if I don’t.
One of the main strategies this time is the avoidance of injuries at all cost. The nagging Achilles tendonitis was my main concern. So, I opted to train less on hills and chose to run on treadmills instead of OTR (on-the-road). This has its drawbacks but I would have to accept that. My weekly mileage was also lessened. Last year, I was accustomed to train up to 140km per week for Berlin where I did my PB of 3:00:25, but now, I had to settle for a 75km week. I knew this would be inadequate. But I was not willing to risk injuring myself and suffer more down time as a result of high mileage. 75km was the threshold that I was willing to negotiate. To make up for it, I worked more on my speed in terms of intervals and tempo runs. I did manage however, to do a few 30km LSDs during weekends to build up on the endurance part of training.
So, armed with that, I came to Osaka with the only aim to ‘reacquaint’ myself with marathon running. At this stage, I have ‘reclaimed’ enough lost time and improved on my stamina over the past few months. Therefore, I felt confident enough to attempt a sub 3:15 but knew that I was still far off from ever thinking about sub 3. But what remains to be seen is the execution part of the race….
I will skip the part about our week long trip in Osaka. Suffice to say that we had plenty of food savoring and excessive carbo-loading in the forms of sushi and sashimi. I was getting a bit worried about my sedentary state that I had to force myself to make a trip to Osaka Castle Park to just squeeze in at least one run. And it felt good to be able to get some ‘tune up’ done. For the first time, I actually felt ‘ready’!
Race day: We were well aware of the weather forecast. Humidity level 30%, and a bright sunny day with top temperature of 25oC. It was much warmer in comparison to 2011 and 2012. My wife was doing her inaugural challenge run (8.4km). Therefore we parted ways as she made her way to her starting block M, while I took a leisurely 15 minute stroll towards Block A. I had not raced for a while. So, no matter how prepared one may feel, there is always that element of ‘unknown’ in any race. No one can be ‘sure’. I suppose this is expected. Even for elites. But at least I felt calm. I was just ready to run and give it my best shot.
9:00am, gun off. I went off at a comfortable average pace of 4:20 in the first 2 km. I was matching up my GPS with the actual mileage marker and noticed a discrepancy of almost 15m in the first few km. Of course this grew to about 285m longer at the completion of the course. (This is almost always expected because of our ‘zigzagging’ throughout the route). So, it was better to just follow the marker as you time yourself rather than relying too much on the GPS. Believe me, I had to learn this the hard way back in 2012.
As I moved into the 3rd km, I increased the pace and was able to cruise along at 4:15 pace with reasonable comfort. This carried on until 21km as I completed the first half in 1:30 with an average pace of 4:13. I felt strong. And that made me more determined to push forward.
The route design of loops with several U turn points was quite ingenious. This allows us to see the front runners as they loop back and thus motivates us to give chase. Well, at least it worked well for me. On top of that, with the cheering crowd along the route from start until finish, who would not be motivated? This is the one thing that I enjoy the most about Tokyo and Osaka. The running culture here is not only rich but the people are also very supportive. Back home in Malaysia, if it doesn’t involve you, most would not even bother getting out of bed on a Sunday morning, leave alone cheer for someone else. Why have we become so self-absorbed?
Anyway, it was at about 25km that I bumped into Boon (a fellow Malaysian). Imagine bumping into your own countryman amidst 30 thousand runners! What are the odds of that?! Boon commented that the weather was too hot and asked me what my target time was. Judging from my condition, I told him that I should expect 3:10. I thought he was aiming for sub 3. So, I encouraged him to move up his pace if he was aiming for that. I then offered myself to pace him but as soon as he feels the urge to push, he should overtake me and move ahead. But that was the last I saw of him during the race.
I move on to complete 28km in 2 hours. Well on target for a 3 hour finish if I could maintain this pace. But this was also the point where I saw my average pace slipping from me. It gradually fell from 4:13 to 4:15, then 4:17 to 4:20. By the time I reached 32km, I knew that I had to resort to the original plan of 3:15 finish. By the time I reached 35km, 2:34 has elapsed. The funny thing was: I felt alright. In fact, I thought I was maintaining my pace. But in actual fact, I was already slowing down to 4:23 pace. Then came the Osaka version of ‘Heart Break Hill’ at 37+km. It was crunch time. So, I push forward and maintained my pace as much as I could at 4:25 until I cleared it. It drained me. But beyond that, somehow, there was enough reserve in me to push through the final 4.5km. Though there were some who stormed passed me at this point (men and women), I couldn’t be bothered. I was just glad to be able to maintain an even 4:25-26 until the very end.
I clocked a surprising 3:08 for my effort on that day.
It was actually more than I had hoped for. And I was glad that I managed to give my best shot. But the most satisfying thought was to complete this feeling strong. Not bonking after that 32km was a gift. Sure I didn’t achieve sub 3. But that was never the plan anyway. I am happy that I am back on track. Osaka has become my come back race. Next stop, HK Marathon 2015 for another train up run; Then off to Boston 2015.