Tokyo Marathon. Be prepared for cultural differences.
It took me a while to encourage myself to write this review because I have mixed feelings about the Tokyo Marathon.
The simple fact of having been chosen in the first attempt when only 10% of those who apply gets selected is a super experience per se.
- After London, it’s without a doubt, the most difficult marathon to get selected to, because it receives over 300,000 applications and only 30,000 runners remain.
Since the beginning, I felt the most fortunate person.
Add to the excitement the fact that it’s in Tokyo, one of the most cosmopolitan and glamorous cities in the world, and it all points to a wonderful experience. And it was.
Tokyo Marathon First Impressions–The city.
The 16 hours of direct flight from the American continent are heavy and worth it.
Tokyo is a chaotic city like no other, cosmopolitan, with traffic, smog, noise, millions of people in only 8,300 square kilometers of island, with wonderful buildings, and a unique cultural and architectural heritage.
The food, both street food and the more sophisticated restaurants, will leave you with an incredible visual experience, and delicious flavors and smells.
There is no photo to prepare you for what you will see. It meets the expectations of the most demanding traveler.
Whether you’re traveling on a tight budget or a broad one, you won’t be disappointed.
Let’s talk about The Tokyo Marathon.
Tokyo is my fourth major, having lived the experience in Boston, Chicago and New York, and it was my 16th marathon.
I am used to racing in BIG races, both half and marathon that has over 30,000 participants in the USA and Mexico, so I am used to great logistics and organization.
Add to that the experience more than 100th half marathons and I have several stories of all kinds to tell about. This experience makes me have broader criteria but also greater standards for what to expect from a marathon or race. Comparisons are inevitable.
I have had to experience the worst and best logistics, routes, weather, and extreme experiences both bad and good.
Having run in November, the one that to this day I consider the best marathon I’ve lived, New York, my expectations were high regarding Tokyo. And I have several friends who have already run it and came back amazed, so I was very excited.
Tokyo has only 13 years since first organized and was added to the “Marathon Majors” in 2013. You notice the difference in the experience.
TOKYO MARAHTON EXPO.
In America, the chaos that the Disney Princesses expo causes is legendary, the lengthy lines to buy a souvenir, the fights over the merchandise. Also, New York has the fame of having a huge, chaotic expo in which you can spend hours in line buying, waiting for a long time to pick up your BIB if you arrive on Saturday at a rush hour.
Nothing of what I had lived prepared me for the immensity of people and lines of Tokyo.
Being the marathon on Sunday and not wanting to be tire since the first days, I arrived on Friday; with little days to adjust, I went to the expo on Saturday…… big mistake. You just couldn’t walk, let alone see something.
- TIP 1: Arrive on Thursday, go to the expo on Friday.
The Bib Pick up was very efficient. The expo experience not much.
The “official” merchandise of the marathon was disappointing. And it’s not just because on Saturday there was almost nothing left, it’s because of the quality of what was there was little less than very low.
They only focused on making shirts, key chains and caps and just one rain jacket designed for the marathon.
Nothing, if you compare it with the assortment of its other brother marathons. All “Majors” are defined by having a wide assortment of designs and you can find either the technical jacket of more than $200 or the $30 shirt. And each one is worth its price if you will pay it. If you will run a “Major” you want a souvenir that lasts.
Not this time. Polyester of the lowest quality and more “massive” were your options to buy. The kind you know that when you run, you will sweat more, and the sweat will stay on the shirt, making it heavier. Apart from that, all the clothes were from the current season, with no allusion to the marathon. The only remarkable thing was that the special edition shoes were really cool.
THE PREVIOUS DAY.
Just like NYC, that has a parade on Friday night with all taking part countries. That’s where you see the great cultural differences between Asia and America. Massive, but cold. The sheering ambient of the majors transform here in a solemn ceremony. On Saturday, as traditional in most “Majors”, a 5k friendship race is held, and Tokyo is no exception.
TOKYO MARATHON LOGISTICS.
As soon as you get to the city of a Major, the whole downtown and almost the entire city dresses for a marathon.
Welcoming signs and banners are everywhere where the route passes.
NOT in Tokyo.
If you add that my hotel was only 1 mile from the start walking at 5 am, as it would be logical in any major or race more or less large, you expect to find many runners walking to the start.
NOT in Tokyo.
You would also expect to find closed streets, patrols, enormous start structures and security controls to pass to the starting zone.
NOT in Tokyo.
So that was very confusing for me. And you don’t have anyone to ask, since nobody speaks English. No signs at all on the streets.
Just one hour before the start, they put security controls, but it only took them five minutes and they were ready. That was impressive.
If you add that you can’t find a single soul that speaks English before entering the runner’s zone, it’s surrealistic. You don’t feel in one of the biggest marathons in the world.
Here I am at 6:30 a.m. the day of the marathon thinking if I got the day or the starting line wrong or if I was running the smaller local race of the town.
The way massive races work is that they place you in corrals according to your time, have different starts times as in the NYC for example- And the faster you are, the lower number you get.
With some difficulty I found my corral and my start letter.
TOKYO MARATHON START.
I’m Latin, and we are known for being noisy and passionate, I lean towards the less noisy and shy side, but I have spent much of my time in races in the USA and Mexico, for me all the emotion that entails an event of that magnitude is normal, and it keeps happy and excited, as if it was my first race almost 24 years ago. Whether it’s a race of 3,000 people or one of 30,000, you feel the excitement.
The talking, shouting, selfies, hearing USA’s or Mexico’s Hymns and feeling how you get goosebumps with the excitement of everyone else emotions, wanting to run as fast as you can when you start and give the best of you.
And I’m surrounded by 33 thousand people…. In total Silent….
I think it’s difficult to size the feeling that gives you being surrounded by people silent, quiet, watching their phones or just standing in silence. It was very surreal for a Big Race.
While waiting the start, I notice that the surrounding people with different letters and bibs numbers that didn’t belong to my corral, then I wonder if I entered the wrong corral,
Not in Tokyo.
Although it came printed in your BIB number the start letter and number, nobody was in control of any corral, so everybody changed corrals and you could see in the same place someone who was going for less than 3 hours, and someone who would finish the marathon in 6 hours or someone who would run the 10k race. All mixed.
The fame of order and respect that the Japanese have was not seen in this specific rule of the marathon.
CAOS AT THE START
Tokyo is the only major that has a 10k race at the same time as the marathon. This can turn into a nightmare if you go for a PR or a BQ.
The start ceremony is in Japanese, so you understand nothing, and it’s very difficult to identify the moments and instructions.
Being only 4 corrals behind the elite, I didn’t know when they sang the anthem and when they fired the starting gun.
When I started running, I didn’t feel that jump you feel in the heart every time you start a marathon and you know that you will do something epic.
And then trouble started… starting out among people who will run only 10k, mixing competitive runners with 10K recreational runners on the same route is not the best experience for anyone who is going after a PR, nerveless a BQ.
MY TOKYO MARATHON GOAL VS REALLITY
I had changed my mind on my goals for Tokyo marathon a couple of months before, saving my legs for Boston in April.
I decide that I would enjoy the rest of the “Major” left for me and not RACING, just immerse myself in the experience, the streets, the city, the route, people, without worrying about times, since it’s difficult to qualify or be selected for most of them.
For me was about the experience, not the time.
I was aiming to be below 4 hours, which is a rhythm that I can maintain for a long time, and it doesn’t take a lot of effort for me as it’s well below my Lactate or “Threshold” pace nowadays.
Not this time.
The Tokyo Marathon Route.
TIP 2 Get used to think in KM, Not miles, if you will get very confuse.
In 2017 they designed a new route, the 2020 one is the same that I ran.
Tokyo has the fame of being a quick route, and it is for the elite. But for regular people, it can become a nightmare with the changes they made.
I try to make negative splits and run my first 2 miles of the marathon ridiculously slow, allowing my body to warm up and get in rhythm. And I speed up the pace until I’m in my desired rhythm.
- In Tokyo I couldn’t. The amount of people walking didn’t allow me to go faster than the surrounding people.
After the 4th km (2.5 mile) the route opened more and I could get into rhythm and go faster.
For someone who has trained for months, it’s not fair for a “Major” to mix people who only go for 10km in the same start, schedule and corrals. I can’t find any sense in this.
For 2020 they allow entry for Marathon 26,370 runners and for the 10km 400 runners. Those 400 people goes AFTER the elites, mixed on the corrals. A total traffic blocker.
After the 9th km (5 miles), the route widens and the runners from the 10k divert. You see thousands of people, but you can go at a desired pace.
- But 10k have already passed, it’s a lot. You won’t have time to compensate the time lost.
The route is simple, but it’s not flat, like Chicago. It has rolling hills, they’re not demanding, but you can feel them and there are bridges.
What surprised me the most, and it can be very complicated, is that even though the route it’s point to point, for more than 23km (14 miles) there are runners going both ways of the street, so you see an endless line of people in front of you, and you never get to see where it ends.
This can be very heavy for your mind. It can get you out of your pace in a certain way, because you get desperate and you feel that you are NOT moving. It gives you a slow-motion effect.
MENTAL AND LOGISTIC CHALLENGES
TIP 3 Prepare for the following
You we have
- The first 10k that you run along with the runners that only run 10k plus,
- add the two-way 23km or 15 miles, that was a slow-motion effect.
For my taste, it’s not the best combination. But it’s just my opinion.
Being in Tokyo, I would expect to see a beautiful route, taking advantage of the thousands of impressive temples they have. Well, not . You would see only a few.
I imagine it must be a logistical nightmare to create the route and maintain the city movement, so you run most of the race in the downtown, which is like any downtown of any city, big buildings and lots of asphalt will surround you.
Without reaching the magnificence of NYC.
Being in Tokyo, an island with 33,000,000 inhabitants only in the Tokyo area and with 8,300 km of surface in the urban area, you can’t expect more.
It’s easier to run only in Downton and close fewer streets than offer a running tourist tour, like the other “Majors” do.
While you pass by the Imperial Palace, don’t imagine that you will see a palace, you will see a huge stone wall, of maybe over 8 meters high, that’s the Imperial Palace and yes, you pass by one of the most important temples, but it’s ONE temple in 42Km / 26 miles.
So, the photos of the race you once saw advertised are not what you will live.
TIP 4: It’s not a pretty marathon. Be prepare for that.
The city is impressive and beautiful, the Tokyo Marathon route is not.
You must separate the beauty of the city as a tourist, and the chosen route, the significant advantage is that the avenues are very wide, so you will run among 33,000 people very comfortably.
But be prepared for what I just told you. It’s important, so it won’t become an exasperating experience.
Although, you feel that there are almost 1.6 million people watching the race, don’t expect screams, cheers, bands, people shouting your name or “high 5” for everybody when you pass by.
The oriental culture marks a modesty and a seriousness that is impressive, and you can feel that difference. There is no warming feeling.
Tokyo does NOT allow you to bring your own hydration bottles filled with liquid, so you have to settle with what they give you. There’s no problem with the water, and the equivalent of Gatorade you get is tasty and less sweet, but if you’re delicate or obsessive in that aspect, it’s something you have to take into consideration. I didn’t try the equivalent of GU, because I don’t use it, but you can take your own gel, so there’s no problem in that section.
TIP 5: If you are picky with your drink- Get used to drink only water, as you cannot bring your own hydration.
It was winter in Tokyo, but the day of the marathon, the temperature was around 20C so I felt it warmer than expected. I could have run in shorts and would have been much more comfortable. TIP 6 BE PREPARE FOR ANY TIME OF WEATHER- Bring to sets for both warm and cold
TOKYO MARATHON FINISH LINE
It’s in a park, and it’s very similar to the finish line of NYCM. They give you a thermal blanket, and the food is abundant, bread, pretzel, banana, oranges, etc. Volunteers, as in all races, are friendly, and do a wonderful job helping to make the ultimate experience very good.
TIP 6 If you want professional pictures SAVE YOUR MONEY
I want to talk about this subject, because I think it was a real abuse. There are professional photographers throughout the route, and also at the end of the race, but you have no option to buy one, buy them all; the package is digital, and it costs $200 dollars.
Taking part in the race without a goal of time in mind allowed me not to be nervous, and to be a much more active observer and with a more critical perspective of the entire experience, always thinking about sharing it.
I want to share relevant issues, and my experience, which is that, the way I experienced the race, it may be different in how other runners experience it.
You experience the cultural differences of an oriental culture, and lack of expertise in organization, they’re real. It’s something that must be taken into account, just so they don’t take you by surprise when you get there.
If you’re looking to race all the Major Marathons, Tokyo’s is worth running.
I wouldn’t recommend it to achieve PR, unless you’re a runner who does less than 3 hours and you can start in corral 1 or 2. Fast since the beginning.
If you’re a passionate traveler, and also a runner, it’s an experience that you have to live by what it means and by how the Orientals live and experience the sport.
All the differences and details that I point out are enriching if you go with the best attitude.
I could love these experiences and inconveniences without worrying me or bothering me, because I had no time pressure or performance expectations, and throughout the race I felt strong, with no pain or discomfort, made running a pleasant experience.
I started and finished super strong. If I had gone for a BQ or PR, it would have been VERY frustrating because due to the experience I have running marathons and half marathons, I knew that for that poor logistics I would NOT have achieved my goal.
WORLD MARATHON MAJORS STANDARS
As a marathon, there is an abyss of difference in my criteria, between NYCM organizations, Boston or Chicago organizations, (which are the ones I have run).
You feel the inexperience, or maybe just the cultural differences. There are so few of us Westerns who run it, that there’s no great need for bilingual follow-up, the virtual experience in social networks, in communication via mail, etc. Is nonexistent.
Don’t expect emails that say that there are 20 weeks, or 10 weeks left, emails with tips, etc. As in the other marathons. Although I haven’t taken part in London, I have entered the lottery, and they have a follow up of their runners and a constant communication, like the rest. Tokyo doesn’t.
I would expect all of them to have a very similar standard, since it’s an association and organization that brings together the best and biggest marathons in the world.
They should have a standard and a similar criterion in planning and organization. In 2017 I found an abyss from the other Majors in that area.
I have some friends that have run on 2018-2019, with very similar experience, so By 2021, I do not expect major changes, but if your experience in organization was different that mine on 18, 19, please share it so we can actualize this article.
The city and the tours are simply amazing and definitely worth the trip.
Hope you enjoy this review, if you have a difference experience after mine on 2017, please share it with us