World Heritage Himeji Castle Marathon 2017

This was supposed to be plan B. 

Knowing the notoriety of Tokyo's tough ballot, "kiasu-ness" demanded that I concurrently apply for World Heritage Himeji Castle Marathon (26 Feb 2017) just as a fail safe plan. Lo and behold, it turned out to be more than a cushion when Tokyo's rejection came. It was a blessing. 

Never knew anything about Himeji until I decided to take the plunge. Apparently the iconic landmark Himeji Castle was the first in Japan to be recognized as a World Heritage by UNESCO. (Runners get a free pass for the castle as well. How thoughtful!)

However, being a relatively newcomer, the marathon has yet to be AIMS certified. The participants were only about 7000 strong. Small in comparison to races like Tokyo, Osaka or Kyoto etc. Nevertheless, don't let its 'smallness' fool you. It is still at par with some of the big boys in terms of event organisation. True to the perfectionist work ethos, the Japanese takes great pride (and at great pain) in ensuring a high level of precision, efficiency and thoughtfulness in their running events. Frankly, in my opinion, Himeji Marathon is even better than some of the so-called AIMS certified races that I have been in. In short, if you ever find yourself in a predicament over Tokyo's ballot woes like me, give Himeji a go. It will not disappoint. 

Flew in to Kansai with my family for a quick 4 days getaway. Decidedly I had wanted this to be a family thing. After years of frequent solo 'in-out' trips, it gets a bit lonesome and pointless. Besides, it would be our first trip to Himeji. So, flowing with the current trend of 'running tourism', we were glad to contribute to the local economy in ways that runners do best: GO RUN. 

Just at the heel of SCHKM 2 weeks ago, with the calves still a bit stiff from the 3:04:09 attempt, I anticipated a physical lull which was likely to impede an all out race in Himeji. Therefore, came into this with just a 'run and see how la' kind of mentality. But true to my competitive nature, I wasn't about to pass up a chance to run my best race. 

Studied the elevation chart and noticed quite a gradual incline from the start to 16 km. (see chart). Then, it looked as though the subsequent 16 km would be a downward drop. A 'gift'. Hmm, I thought: this is doable! So, I mentally started visualizing on the variations in pace based on the elevation chart as I normally do. But as I would realize later, nothing is what it seems.....

Route Map and Elevation Chart for Himeji Castle Marathon 2017

Race day morning. One word: Cold. It was forecasted as between 1-3.5 degrees Celsius, partly cloudy. So we knew it would be cold. But the message didn't quite hit home until the piercing chill penetrated to the bones as you step out into the pent with nothing else but race apparels. My heat pads were defenseless against it. Before long the shivering and clattering set in. All runners huddled together like penguins, braving the onslaught. This is when you would beg that they'd just get on with the formalities and start the race already!

A 'local' race with hardly a word of spoken English, this is as Japanese as it gets. (And no apologies needed for that too.) That was before the warrior Samurai dance and Japanese drums came on. You know you are getting the real deal. And nothing quite stirs the heart like the beating of the drum as it unleashed the primal warrior spirit in you. Gosh! I actually felt 'pumped' for lack of a better word! 

I had veered from expectations too high but if there were one thing I had learned from HK two weeks ago was this: Do not underestimate the power of God's grace. I may not be altogether ready, but never discount Him from the equation. (In fact, count on Him, and Him alone!) I reminded myself of that as I waited for the countdown.

I was in perfect peace. 

Then there it was. As the gun went off, I was a mere 10 seconds from the START arch, thus not overly hindered. Still there were already hundreds of fast runners ahead of me.  

Made my way up the first 16 km towards the countryside. The view was transformed from the generic concrete rises to stunningly serene hills, rivers and valleys. I could definitely run there everyday! 

Mentally I was constantly checking with the elevation chart but somehow the climb was never as obvious as I anticipated. Nevertheless the route felt undulating enough. Later, it dawned on me that the elevation reflected in the chart was in fact an overall incline/decline. Not a km by km reflection of ascent/descent. So, that threw me off a bit; more so upon the return from the 16 km turning point where the chart was supposed to reflect a drop. That, never came.

But I wasn't too phased by it. In fact I was feeling great. Paced intermittently by the 3 hour pacers, I used them 'loosely' as a reference point, careful to never be sucked into their pace. This is a lesson learned from past pacing experiences. I realized that my pace fluctuates from time to time during the race,  that is naturally in keeping with effort running. (And I am pretty sure the pacers' pace fluctuates too!) Therefore indiscriminately sticking to someone else's pace will not only disrupt your own, it will inadvertently mess up the race altogether. 

So I watch them pass me by at about 8 - 9 km. To keep my mind from distracting thoughts, I reminded myself that I only needed to vigilantly hone in on One voice. As I regained focus, there it was, the familiar 'Trust in Me with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding' came to mind like a soft familiar whisper. It sharpened the focus and anchored the resolve. I felt more relax than ever. 

Feeling settled into the race after the first quarter, I came alongside the 3 hours pacer at about 16 km. Then,  I was nudged into overtaking them. I would usually be weary of pulling a stunt like that. But that moment, I just obeyed and went forward. I remember thinking: "I must be out of my mind!"

But that quicken pace was the right move. That day, I finally realized that there is no real set pace in a 42 km. It will fluctuate. Go with the effort. Now I begin to understand the whole point of training by effort. And not be overly bogged down by the indication on the GPS or stopwatch. Use them if you have to but only as a reference. Not doggedly follow to a Tee. 

I felt like I could fly. I cleared 20km in a little less than 1:24. And at about half way point, I was in control. I felt oneness in body, spirit and soul. And the Godhead was directing, orchestrating and empowering the whole show. Yes, it was awesome!

However, at 32 km, I think I got myself a bit ahead of God. There was no water station in sight, though I could hear Him clearly say to take a gel (like NOW!), I reasoned and ignored it; thinking "How la? No water ma!"

Soon enough, I felt the momentum slowing as somehow I began to feel the strain of the race. But I was going so well! Yet imminently, a mini wall was heading my way. I quickly gulped down a pack (without water). Within a km, I gradually recovered my pace and managed to evade that dreaded wall. 

Lesson learned: Don't get cocky.

Cleared 35 km in 2:27. By far my fastest split to date. But with 7.2 km more to go, its anyone's game and definitely not the time to get cocky again. 

Felt the strain of the race catching up by 38 km. With the sudden appearance of the 3 hour pacers, I felt a certain doom. 

Not like this. No, No, No, No, No.....

Fought hard. My toughest. And I kid you not. Yet I could only watch as the last of the pacers gradually (and nonchalantly) pulled away by 40+km. 

Time waits for no one.

Lord, will this end like this? Again? I am tired, Lord. Yet, please just let me finish this one with my strongest finish. 

I hesitated no more. Emptied all my remaining might; quicken the cadence and pace; arms and legs in full swing with rapid breath and a total 'Bo Chap' (don't care) abandonment, I inched towards the finish with the Castle Gate in sight. 

Took a quick glance at the stopwatch and saw 2:58:50 with about 250++m to go. My God! Could this be true?! Heard a distant calling of my name. My wife was cheering me on as I close in towards the FINISH arch. 

A run had broken out into a mad sprint for my dear life. 

And this time, it is finished!!! No longer bound by 3 hours. I have broken through. Even by the skin of my teeth, I have it. 

2:59:43 on my watch but officially 2:59:45. 

Printed on the spot at the exit point for the runners. Talk about super efficiency!

Success is indescribably sweet. Especially after such a long waged battle of over 6 years! As Moey would put it: It is sweetest when the struggle was greatest. I totally concur. And in particular for veteran runners like us too!

I grappled with the reason why this result could be possible whereas other similar attempts failed. So much so that after the race, I wandered around, and inquired from other runners their GPS readings in case this race was somehow 'under-distanced'. (Fortunately all readings were between 42.43 - 42.56 km). Sorry, the kiasu-ness revealed again.

How did I do it? Seriously?  

I toed the line. Yes. I ran the 42.195. Yes. I finished it. Yes. This body went through it. Yes

But there is something else at work. 

From every angle and through every conceivable perspective, there is only one conclusion. The impossible has happened. And if you'd prefer: A miracle. 

Because I know my routines and I do not exaggerate or dilute any facts. I know exactly how much has been put into this. And as for my current form, I am not nearly as fit as what I used to be just a few years ago. 

Just in case you doubt. Here's my typical routine:

Monday: Rest
Tues: Recovery 6 - 8 km
Wed: Tempo 10 - 12 km
Thurs: Crescendo Tempo: [my own term, gradual increasing pace until the last 20min which peaks at 10 km pace] 9 - 12 km
Fri: Easy Run 8 - 10 km
Sat: Rest
Sun: LSD 21 km

As you can see, this will not cut it for most (if not all) who aspires to sub3. This is as mediocre as it gets. I am sure you would not cast a second glance at it. And just in case, no, I have not unintentionally omitted the intervals and core. It is not that they are unimportant. I just don't do them. Intervals for the fact that I injure easily and I try to stay away from high intensity workout. Core, by the sheer fact that I find it boring and am too lazy to actually do it. 

Then, what is it?

It's an impossibility. All the years of training, accumulated knowledge, scientific facts, programs, books...everything I could get my hands on. Everything I have improve, to slice the minutes and seconds off...

Everything. They just did NOT work.

Then He comes along. Strips me bare of all these. In the end, there was just nothing left to depend on. Nothing. And in this weakness, I come before Him. Totally dependent on this Grace. And begin to trust in Him.

For He said: I created you. I formed you. Don't you think I know how to help you? For what is impossible in your eyes, I will do. I will show you how to turn the natural into supernatural.

As with this weak vessel, and all that is in it, He knows all my limitations. And He defies all the reasons and rationale of man. Yet true power and greatness is revealed in this: Transforming the weak and feeble into strength and power. This, is His glory. 

For "My Grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness."

I have come so far. Yet it feels as though there is more. And with this, it is not so much so as in just chasing another PB, but in the discovery of running my best along with the sheer pleasure of such an incredible experience with God. Yup, I can say with more conviction now: I run for His glory! And He takes pleasure in it too!

What a relief!!!

unique clay finishing medal 


  1. Indeed sometimes you just can't explain it! Super job!

    1. Yup, that is the secret ingredient. There is none. :) Thanks Jamie!

    2. Amazing achievement. Bravo doc !

    3. Thanks Dragonfly Runner. Thanks!

  2. That's really awesome! 2 incredible marathons 2 weeks apart, with very good timings & a sub 3.👍💪

    Heartiest congratulations again!! 👏

    Thank you for sharing doc, hope to learn & find some inspirations from you in my quest of becoming a better runner. 😃😃

    1. Thanks Calvin! It is a journey for all of us. One of constant discovery. For you, you are still very young at it and already very accomplished. Keep working at it and I am sure you will fly very soon!

  3. Congratulations Francis ! Much deserved after so much effort . Well done !

    1. Thanks Sheel! I have always been inspired by your amazing pace and yet such humility and meekness. I am just glad that this is finally a reality. But also looking forward to more of such experience and the exhilaration of good pacing. Hope to run with you one day (and keep up with your pace too!)

  4. Francis, I am overjoyed for you! Congrats on breaking that 3 hour barrier. I've always known you would do it, it was just a matter of time. Like Jamie said, super job!

    1. Thanks Nick! It is an amazing joy and privilege to be granted this breakthrough. I must say I do not deserve all the credit because it isn't all me. God has everything to do with it. I have always thought that I should be able to do it. But to do it like this? Never in my wildest dream! Thanks for being the friend who cheers me along all this while. You, believe me, have been one of the most consistent encourager to me. THANK YOU Nick! I am truly grateful!

  5. Beloved, I am literally crying, overjoyed for you, celebrating with you. I appreciate your detailed description of the whole race - the technicals, the emotions, the prayers, and your inner struggles and negotiation with God... ending with a big crescendo! Although you've always been a super fast runner since young, this accomplishment is a particular testimony of God's grace and abundant gift to you, because result per effort is remarkably high, in fact miraculous, as you confessed your pathetic training schedule. God truly loves you. "Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart." We must meet to celebrate!!!

    1. Celene, thanks for coming alongside me to be such a dear friend who has constantly encouraged me to look upwards as I battle through this. Yes, this is nothing but the amazing grace of God. And His mercy was particularly real in those testing moments. I have always modelled it after your free running spirit. This is how running should actually be. Not bogged down by too much technicalities; it is all about our partnership with our beloved Abba Father. Who loves us and wants to give us great gifts. If only we would trust and obey Him. And it has taken me such a long time just to appreciate this simple yet powerful truth. Does God ever withhold anything from us when we truly delight in Him? :)

    2. AMEN. AMEN. He is so good! Please celebrate!! It pleases HIM.

  6. Inspirational! Tq for your testimonial n giving all glory to Him! God Bless!!

    1. Thanks Lilianw. He deserves all the glory. The sweetest thing is to achieve it in His strides. That is the greatest reward!

  7. Happy for you! A fantastic marathon.
    God Bless!

  8. Amazing feat Mr Yeng....hehe..Francis. You've finally did it! I am very proud.

    Moey came awfully close too. You guys are just amazing.

    And you started to doubt yourself in getting the time. All I can say in running it usually turn out well when you least expected it. That when you let loose.

    As for the training, I guess you have avcumulated so much miles in the past, it is just a matter of putting the piece into puzzle.

    Congrats again and hope to be like u.....hopefully it will come one

    Yit Kiat

    1. Yes, fellow Boston qualifier. I am glad that I had gone in not expecting to do it. It really takes the mind off the pressure. I guess it should be like this in further events. With or without sub 3 under my belt, I should just run my best race and see how things turn out. You will get there Yit Kiat. It is a matter of time. But like you said, you procrastinate too much....

  9. Congratulation . Thanks for sharing and inspiring

    1. Thanks Chiau Wu. I am glad it does. After all, we live to be inspired and to inspire others too.

  10. Congratulations Francis. I reckon it's the sweetest moments after all your accumulative hard works and determination. Very inspiring. I hope I could run my PB again after reading your race report.

    1. Hi Kok Keon, yes, often I think we hesitate when setting certain aims and goals, not knowing if we should or should not strive for that elusive PB. But through this, I realize that it is not about chasing after a PB or fast time. It is a matter of why we do it and how we do it. The target should always be there. Else why bother having a start and finish line and why bother mark out a 42.195 standard? But through the journey of pursuing it, we discover more....of ourselves, our reasons, our purpose and our passion. It promises a far more enriching life than just a mere number. We should all see it like that.

  11. Have followed your blog over the years. Congrats on getting under 3 hours.

    1. Hi Ted, you know, for someone to come alongside you and cheer you on years on end, and encouraging you not just with words but good sound advice on training etc, I am so blessed! Thank you because you have been that person. It is an amazing adventure. And I appreciate your support and encouragement. From the bottom of my heart. Thanks Ted! And me we all continue to run our best no matter what!

  12. I was unable to describe my feeling when I read this!
    Congratulation is not enough to describe it!
    Feeling happy, excited, high, as if I were the one who broke that nasty 3!
    I can imagine that... time spent in training, conflicting ourselves with methods, ways, strategies, and it didn't happen. Then in one fine morning, everything just come together. Like everything dissolved completely in the water (my own description). Sparkling, clear, pure...
    And then we look back and puzzled, have we done anything different from all those time?
    It was like a dream. Sometimes just unable to explain why, but to believe that something is really happening...
    This indeed the best news for me this year~
    Embrace and celebrate!

    1. Thanks so much Kent. I totally agree. It is not what we think. This elusive sub 3 is like chasing after a shadowy figure. Still waking up in the morning thinking: Did I really do that??!?! Yet I know that this isn't just me and my brute force and gungho. It is God's amazing grace. One thing I have begun to realize is to receive from this inexhaustible grace. And that would be the key, I am sure of it. Because tried the same thing year after year, with better shape and form, better mileage and technique, yet none worked. Thanks for being there for me as a friend who consistently encouraged me to strive hard. You are my inspiration Kent. And I hope we will continue to spur one another onward to discover more!!! A big bear hug to you! :)

  13. Hi Francis,
    A big big big congratulations to you on your sub 3!! So so impressive and awesome!!! I'm so so happy for you!! It must be a dream come true for you!! How I wish I have a pair of legs like yours.. :) Can do operation to exchange legs? haha!

    Reading your race report is so inspirational and motivational. Seeing your awesome achievement of sub 3 (3:59:45)is simply making me think that there is still hope for an older folk like myself to improve my time.. Well not to your level (it can only appear in my dream..haha), but at least few more minutes of improvement before I can't really fight the age factor no longer. :)

    As I read through your race report, I also try to learn about your training program. After seeing your weekly training schedule, now I know there are so many things missing in my own training. The one key missing part in my own training is TEMPO, CRESCENDO TEMPO and the weekly mileage of around 60 km.

    My own training is: Mon-Fri 3km each day on treadmill, Sat rest, Sun 30km LSD. Total 42km.

    What a shame! :(

    I'm now motivated by your sharing to learn about TEMPO running as well as to increase my weekly mileage to around 60 km like you. I will do my best to find time from my work to do so on weekday - the best I can. Otherwise, I think I will not be able to further improve.

    Again - thanks Francis. You are the one to tell me NEVER SAY NEVER! And you have proven it once again with your sub 3. I'm really inspired.

    Congrats once again!!

    1. Thanks Vincent,
      Wow, 42km and you are already so fast! I can only imagine when you work more on the tempo, it will help you. No doubt about it. But a cautious word, don't try to increase the mileage too soon. Allow time to recover too as the body needs more adaptation. Especially for us veterans. I hope my current post will explain more in that area.
      All the best to you!

    2. Hi Francis,
      I'm slow lah compared to you all! haha! ok.. ok... I will listen to sifu.. now i'm motivated to work more on the tempo which I haven'done all these years.
      Hopefully I can share good report to you one day, hopefully by end of this year. :)
      Thanks again.


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