Shizuoka’s Kakegawa may be a small city, smaller than where I live, in fact, but it has a very nice castle, an exotic birds zoo, and of course, the Kakegawa “New Tea” Marathon.
I originally decided to run Kakegawa because I wanted to run a 3 hour, 30 minute marathon and couldn’t do that in last December’s Nara Marathon because I was injured. Kakegawa was not so far from home and the course didn’t look as hard as Nara.
Another reason for choosing Kakegawa was that race numbers and are sent out in advance by mail, so there’s no need to go down the day before to check in at an expo. I had intended to drive down in the early hours of the morning, but in the end we made it a family weekend away and booked a hotel anyway!
On the Saturday, we rode the Oigawa Steam Railway, taking in some beautiful views of the tea fields and rivers. The train was like nothing I had ever ridden on before. All the passengers were tourists and the staff entertained us with music, singing, photo shoots and commentary. The atmosphere was like a party! We finished the day with pasta and pizza at an Italian restaurant, just as we had done before the Nara Marathon.
I took an early bus to the marathon start and whiled away a couple of hours looking at the food stalls, sports shops and watching the acts on stage. The event was very well put together, but it lacked the epic-ness of Nara. Maybe because it was my second marathon and the excitement wasn’t quite there.
The day started with some cloud, but the sun was strong and things warmed up quickly. I wore a sleeveless shirt, a hat and sunglasses. I regret not putting on sunscreen as I would later get sunburn.
My strategy was to start off slowly so I tucked in behind an older, gray-haired guy who looked like he knew what he was doing. He was wearing a racing bib, short shorts and had those little round energy patches stuck on his neck. Without earphones or a watch, I figured he must be so experienced that he just knew how fast to run. For the first few kilometers we moved along at a little over 5:00/km pace which was just perfect. From the 5km mark, he seemed to be slowing a little and everyone was passing us. I figured this was experience in action and stayed with him, thinking everyone else would burn themselves out early on while we had lots in reserve.
By 9km, my running app told me that I was about 2 minutes behind my target pace and that gap was growing. I didn’t want to, but it was time to leave my pacer and find another one. For the next three kilometers I followed another runner going at about 4:55/km pace. That felt comfortable and would allow me to slowly claw back the lost time… until I needed the toilet. I knew I’d have to go at some point, and I decided to go early to give myself more time to catch up.
I lost about a minute and a half at the portaloo which put me over three minutes behind schedule. And this was where I made a bad decision, one which I’d pay for later on. Coming out of the toilet, having had a 90-second standing rest and now relieved of bladder concerns, I grabbed a cup of water and felt amazing. I knew that the next 10km were almost flat and that this would be my best chance to get back on pace before the hills that were to come later, and so I took off. I flew past packs of runners, logging kilometers as fast as 4:32 and 4:24. I quickly reeled in the lost time, bringing the difference down to about one minute behind, and then I settled in at 5:00 pace behind another “pacer”.
All this time I had been so focused on time and pacers that I had missed the first couple of fruit stations that lined the course, and I hadn’t taken in much of the scenery, either. Not that there was much to look at though. Trees, rice fields, the usual Japanese countryside. Before the half-way mark, there was one long stretch along a big river and then we ran right under a massive, and I really mean monstrously massive, wind turbine. That was extremely cool. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
As soon as we crossed the half-way point, my pacer suddenly sped up. I wasn’t too keen, but since I was still behind schedule and the hills were getting closer, I tried to go with him. I kept up for about three kilometers, running around 4:50 pace, but decided to back off at 24km. It was becoming very clear to me that even though I was close to a 3:30 marathon pace, I wouldn’t be able to maintain it over the hills that were to come. In fact, knowing that there was a very up and down stretch for 10K at the end of the race was really depressing. The official pacers had told us before it all began that we should consider the marathon as two races. One up to 30km, and then a second one after that. They described the hill section as very, very hard, and although the elevation chart didn’t show it to be as bad as Nara, it was still a daunting prospect.
The first big hill started at the 27K mark and continued for three very long kilometers. My pace slowed to 5:18, 5:24 and 5:44 as I ran past the first batch of walkers. I was pretty happy to have made it to the top of the hill without stopping, but I was starting to physically suffer and for the next two kilometers downhill I could only manage 5:24 and 5:36. By the 33km point, I had to resort to walk breaks. From that point on, I moved between 6:00 and 7:00 pace.
There were a lot of walkers. As the day went on, the sun rose higher and it got warmer and warmer, up to around 20C, and I was getting very thirsty. Even though there was a water station every 3 or 4km, I was run/walking up and down hills for around 20 minutes between drinks. That’s a long time when your body is gradually shutting down.
The tea farms that covered the hills around the latter part of the course were indeed beautiful, but I, along with dozens of other 3:30 marathon hopefuls were walking wounded, literally hobbling along together, disappointed that we couldn’t fulfill our ambitions.
As much as I wanted to lay down, close my eyes and sleep, I knew that my wife and son would be waiting for me and would be frustrated if I took too long! As another incentive, I was still well on schedule to beat my Nara Marathon time of 3:57. In fact, from the 36km mark, I was calculating in my head whether I could just walk to the finish and still set a new PR!
The last fruit station at 39km was very welcome. I had oranges, kiwi fruit and a banana, washed down with a delicious cup of cold water. From that point, I knew that I’d beat my PR even if I just walked so I was able to relax and enjoy the finish. I felt really lazy walking up the final hill towards the finish line. People lined the road cheering and I started to look out for my family. I didn’t expect them to come as they had spent the day at the exotic bird zoo, and parking the car at the marathon ground would be difficult… but then I heard that familiar call, “Daddy! Daddy!” and sure enough Mami and Riku were waiting for me just before the finish line! I ran over to them, stopped and gave them both a big kiss, then trotted off to the finish.
I finished in 3:47:42 and was 758th out of 5,723 runners. Riku came under the fence to join me at the finish line where the runners were treated to one last fruit station. I gave Riku a strawberry. There was no medal or finisher’s towel, but a few minutes to lay down and then eat a snow cone was enough for me.
I got a lot of encouragement and congratulations on Facebook and Twitter before and after the race, which was really nice. There are a lot of lovely people out there! Thanks everyone!
I will need a long time to recover and get over my laundry list of injuries before my next race, which is the Mount Norikura Marathon in June. Since that includes an 18km uphill stretch, I won’t be going for any records that day so can just take it easy and enjoy it.
If you like, you can find me on Twitter at @nick_ramsay. I'd love to hear from you!