I can’t believe that the 2016 Tokyo Marathon is now over, and I am sitting on my couch writing my race report. I found out on September 15th that I was selected to participate. I entered the lottery in August, not knowing what would happen. The odds were not in my favor. I remember reading an article months before that said the Tokyo Marathon was one of the hardest marathons to get into. I was shocked when the email came. I screamed when I read it. I prayed that I would get in, and I did! But of course actually pulling the trigger wasn’t an easy decision after that. There were multiple discussions like “Can we afford this?” or “Is this wise to do when we’re trying to save for other stuff, or pay other bills?” and "Do we have the time to take off from work?"
I naturally began to wonder if my goals of traveling all over the world to run marathons were selfish, and not in the best interest of my family. I made a goal after running the Chicago Marathon in 2011 that I wanted to run all of the World Marathon Majors. Getting into Tokyo would get me one step closer to my goal. So it seemed serendipitous that I got in. But still, I didn’t know if it was the “smart” thing to do. After many discussions and my personal consultation with my “crew”, we decided to go. My friend Susan told me that the timing will never be perfect, and to go now if we can. My husband is incredibly supportive. He loves that I have all these goals, and he wants me to achieve them. And he wants to be there with me every step of the way.
So there you have it! We booked our flights and headed off to Japan. I wrote a separate post on our travels to Japan (click here), along with pictures of where we went and what we did. I also give restaurant suggestions. I think that post will be beneficial for anyone traveling to Japan. It provides some travel tips, but this post is all about the race itself and my experience running the Tokyo Marathon.
PLEASE NOTE: There are MANY useful scanned documents located in the TOKYO MARATHON icon on my main home page. After you finish reading this report, please refer to those documents for more helpful information. These are the race documents for the 2016 race. The 2017 race documents will be different, as the course has slightly changed. But you will find important rules, and aid station information there.
The Tokyo Marathon Expo and Packet-Pickup took place at the Tokyo Big Sight (where the race finished. ***NOTE: FOR THE 2017 RACE THE FINISH WILL BE IN A DIFFERENT LOCATION). Before we went inside, the Tokyo Food Festival was taking place outside. This was the best thing that could have happened to us that day. We went Friday afternoon to avoid the crowds, but we forgot to eat breakfast so we were cranky. Seeing the little vendors and smelling the perfectly balanced merge of Japanese cuisine was divine; it was a mini paradise. After we ate, we entered the expo in a better mood. We were now ready to enter a marathoners version of heaven. Runners were only allowed in the packet pickup area. I was asked to show my ID a couple times. Everything was very organized and secure. There were several volunteers who spoke English, so I never felt confused. There was also an “overseas runner” booth. It was a seamless process. After I got my packet I met my husband and we worked our way through the maze. I took pictures and grabbed a bunch of free products. I sampled stuff and played a couple games for coveted prizes that I didn’t win. The Tokyo Marathon official merchandise store was small, and a little crowded. I was surprised at how small it actually was. But little did I know there was more stuff on a different level. I bought Tokyo Marathon brand chopsticks and arm warmers. Other levels at the expo had more merchandise from Asics to New Balance and other top brands. My clear plastic bag for bag check was filled with my purchases and free items. It was a great expo to say the least. Tip: If you are running the Tokyo Marathon, go on Thursday or Friday and avoid Saturday if you can.
Starting Gate, Security Check, Bag Check – Check!
Another fellow Abbott WMM Ambassador was running Tokyo as well. We met the night before the race and I decided I wanted to run with him (Brian) and have a “fun” race. I knew I wanted to take pictures along the course, so my plan was to run this race slower than my normal pace. I am in training for a 50 mile race, so this was a “training run” for me. I also didn’t want to race a big city marathon. I traveled across continents to Japan in order to run this marathon; I wasn’t about to run a race in a beautiful city and not enjoy the sights. When I ran the London and Berlin Marathons I raced them for a specific time. I don’t really remember a lot about the sights I passed during those races. I vowed not to do that again with Tokyo. I made the right decision. Thinking back, I remember every mile and I soaked it all in. No regrets.
I met Brian at his hotel the morning of the race and we walked to the start. Word of advice: the security check and gate entrance process is confusing and time consuming. Give yourself plenty of time before the race! Gates open at 7 am; race start is 9 am (Gate entrance is open from 7-8:15 am). You will end up walking around in circles trying to find where you should go, so go early. Brian and I wanted to stay together, so we needed to enter the same gate. That was a difficult process. We managed to weasel our way in together. So here’s how it works: You are assigned a gate entrance number 1, 2, 4 or 5. Gate 3 is for runners who don’t have ANYTHING on their body at all. So no bag, no water bottle, no phone, no fuel belt, no costume, nothing! If you even have an armband on with a phone, you can’t go through Gate 3. We thought since we didn’t have a bag to check we could go through Gate 3. Wrong. We still had our phones on us, and fuel belts so we couldn’t enter Gate 3. The security is very tight. You need to go through a metal detector and also have your bag contents examined thoroughly. There weren’t garbage cans nearby to throw trash outside the gates. I wanted to throw away my banana peel and that was a chore. Volunteers hold large clear plastic bags for you to throw trash near the gate entrance. Again, this is a safety measure so there are no repeat bombs in a garbage can. Everything was examined and a "Security Check" sticker was placed on it. Even those individuals who ran in costumes got a sticker on them. The funniest one we saw was a tomato head. The sticker was on the back of the tomato: “security check”. A security cleared tomato head! I would suggest you make it easy on yourself, and enter the gate you are assigned. If you want to meet up with someone, enter your own gate (security check) and meet him or her in your corral. The entrance gates lead you to a bag check area. Check your bags there and use the bathroom. If you want a “sit down” style toilet, make sure to get in the “Western Style” toilet line. All the other toilets have a hole in the floor, and you will need to squat. After we used the bathroom, we walked to Brian’s corral. Your bib # is alpha-numeric; whatever the letter is before your bib # is your corral. So mine was E, and Brian’s was G. I went to his corral. We had a little time in our corral to prepare. There is not much room to stretch out or warm up. So if you need to warm up or stretch, I suggest you do that after going through security, and before bag check. There is more room in that area.
***For details on security check, restricted items, baggage check, gate information/maps, etc., please click on the 'Tokyo Marathon' icon on my homepage. I scanned important information from the runner's handbook, and any maps/guides that were given to me at the Expo. This will be helpful for start times, cut off times, course/route info., etc. for those running the Tokyo Marathon. I did not want to include all that info here.
There were some words that were spoken in Japanese over the loudspeaker (I have no clue what they announced) followed by the introduction of the Elite runners and wheelchair participants. A song was sung in Japanese, possibly the national anthem? Then the starting gun went off. I believe it was 10-15 min before we were able to actually start.
Some key things along the course:
The portable toilets are very frequent, and there is a volunteer holding a sign that announces the bathroom coming up and how far away the next one is. So the sign will say: “Exit here for the bathroom now, or next one is 1.2 miles away”, for example. Cool right? Every toilet area has a couple volunteers who will guide and place you in line. They manage the line and flow. Again, you will have to squat when using most toilets. There were “western style” toilets, but not as frequent. No hand sanitizer or soap/water to wash your hands is available. Near major sights like the Imperial Palace there were “real” bathrooms. So you can always divert from the course and use them if that makes a difference. The one thing that stood out to me was that every toilet line was always long. Some races you will find shorter lines eventually, but not at this race. We stopped twice to use the bathroom, and the lines both times were long. Expect a bathroom stop to add 10-15 minutes on to your time. I do commend this race on having volunteers stationed at each toilet area.
Course Fuel and Food
Pocari Sweat and water are the beverages offered along the course. Pocari Sweat I learned has MSG in it (I had no clue. I should have done my research ahead of time!) Read about it. Know what is offered before running just in case you need something else. Unfortunately you cannot carry your own water bottles in. I believe you can take in unopened commercial products, like bottled water that has a seal on it. Please check the official rules. I scanned the 'course restrictions' document and it is located in the Tokyo Marathon icon on my home page. We did see runners with Camelbak hydration packs on. I am guessing they put their empty hydration packs in their checked bags, went through security (metal detectors), and then filled them up later? I mentioned a product in an earlier post, the Salomon S-lab Sense Hydro Set (a handheld collapsible hydration flask). You can add your electrolyte tablet or powder to water and mix in this flask after the race starts. There also were bananas and tomatoes along the course. The bananas were full sized which was nice. You peel them yourself. Volunteers did wear gloves when handling food, for those health conscious individuals. I carried my own gels and chews in my SPI belt, so the only thing I needed was water and Pocari sweat.
There are volunteers everywhere! They have volunteers organizing the bathroom stops, and ones holding garbage bags along the course. The water stops have plenty of volunteers handing out water and cheering you on. They were simply amazing. They always had a smile on their face, and they were extremely polite. The volunteers make this race wonderful. Even at the family meet up/baggage pick-up area the volunteers would congratulate runners. I saw someone post a video of them clapping in sync as runners picked up their bags. I can’t thank the volunteers enough for all their help in making this an amazing and successful race. Volunteers wear different color jackets which mean certain things. I can't remember what each color represents, but I do know the green jackets meant the volunteer could speak English. At the Expo you will see a display of what each color jacket means.
The course is very flat. There were a few bridges (near the end) with slight elevation. It wasn’t bad though. I think if you were racing, they would be slightly annoying since they are located near the end. But for Brian and myself, they were a change of pace.
The course includes a couple "out and backs" which have the potential to mess with you if you’re racing. Running out when people are returning can get frustrating and play tricks on you. The turn-around seemed far away, but know in advance at what mile you will turn around and you’ll be fine. I personally didn't find them to be terrible.
The course is point to point. The race starts at the Tokyo Government Building and ends at the Tokyo Big Sight, which is nowhere near the start. You will have to take a shuttle, taxi or the train/subway back to your hotel depending on where you are staying. We stayed in Shinjuku, which made for an easy start since I basically just walked to the start line. Plan your return trip ahead of time. The metro can be confusing. Luckily my husband loves navigating the metro lines, so he knew where to go. I was useless after the race. The Tokyo Marathon does give you a free subway/metro card to use on race day, but there are a couple places it won’t work. I suggest using this, or get a Pasmo card (tip: get one of these for your trip to Tokyo if you plan on using the subway or metro for transportation. You can also use it to pay for things in Tokyo, like food! Check out the details) . Or carry money or a credit card to purchase a ticket if you don’t have someone else to hold your stuff. But be warned, the finish area is far away from other major areas or sights in Tokyo. You will have to walk a little. Look at the course map ahead of time when making your decision on which area of Tokyo to stay in. Shinjuku is a busy area with business hotels. Some reviews advised against staying there because it is so busy, but I thought it was great. There was a metro station right outside our hotel (Hotel Sunroute). I will go over the details of our hotel in another post. There were plenty of options for hotels in Shinjuku.
The course goes past the major sights of Tokyo including the Imperial Palace, Tsukiji Fish Market, Sensoji Temple, Tokyo Sky Tree, Tokyo Tower, Ginza Ave, Tokyo Museum, etc. (in no particular order). It really is the best way to see all of Tokyo by foot! I was surprised at how close the course was to Sensoji Temple (see picture above). We went to that temple the day before, but we didn’t even need to because it was right there on the course!
Course limit: The course limit is 7 hours and there are checkpoints along the way. Make sure to know ahead of time what they are. Here were the checkpoints used for 2016. This is subject to change for future races.
Medical Aid: Medical aid was offered at various locations along the course. Please consult the runner handbook for where they will be located and what they offer, if you will be running the Tokyo Marathon. I did see medical runners (doctors wearing vests) along the course as well! I am a medical runner for a couple different local races, and it was nice to see this service being offered elsewhere!
The crowds also were my favorite. There were people everywhere! I believe the runner handbook says 1.5 million spectators. And they cheered their hearts out. They even knew one or two phrases in English to cheer us on. And they LOVED high-fiving everyone. I ended up high fiving everyone because it was just fun and they got so excited. There were many forms of entertainment along the course as well. There were groups of dancers with music. I am sure there is a formal name for them, but I don’t know what it is. There were dancers with flags, children dancing, people banging on drums, everything! I’ve never seen anything like it. They took it so seriously and it seemed like they were so honored to entertain the runners. I practically stopped at every group to take a picture. It was beautiful. Simply beautiful. One reason I don’t listen to music while running a marathon is to soak it all in. Complete strangers come out on their day off to cheer me on. The entertainers are there to entertain. Why would I block all that out by listening to music? I love hearing the crowds and being aware of what’s going on, especially when I’m in a different country. You don’t need music on this course. Soak up the experience. Be present. Enjoy the gift of running. Tune-in to the music the crowds are making.
Many runners wore fun costumes, and that is entertaining as well. My favorite was a guy playing a Ukulele while singing to his “Bride”. We saw Super Mario, Waldo, Tomatoes, Pokémon, Winnie the Pooh, monkeys, and more!
As stated before the finish is at the Tokyo Big Sight. After you cross the finish, you are given a towel (better than a foil blanket!) and a finisher’s medal. You are given a bag of food, water, and a Salonpas pain spray that was valuable! You have to walk a bit after collecting your freebees to get to the family meet-up and bag collection area, which always is exhausting after running 26.2 miles. But with over 35,000 finishers I don’t think they could do it any other way. I maybe walked a half mile back to the family meet-up spot, but it felt like 2 miles since I had a blister that popped and I was in pain. Everything is very organized as expected. Because the end is at the Tokyo Big Sight (like a convention center), there are normal bathrooms and showers inside. There is also a Starbucks inside for the coffee lovers. I saw people getting massages and I’ve heard rumors of acupuncture. My little toe had a blister and ingrown toenail, so I had a bloody shoe and needed to go to medical after I finished. I missed out on the massage. I also felt bad keeping my husband waiting. I quickly went through that area and met up with him. Ending at the Big Sight was nice because if the weather was bad (which it wasn’t), being indoors would be helpful. Luckily the weather was warm; it was in the 60’s. You may want to change your clothes, eat a little something and rest before walking to the metro. Or even get a massage. Enjoy the after party!
I intended on making this an easy race. I wanted to have fun and I did. I can’t imagine missing all the sights and not feeling like I got to enjoy this run. It was truly magical. I ran the NYC Marathon in 2014. It was the “cold and windy” year. I also was coming off a bad knee injury. While running in NYC was fun, I didn’t enjoy it because it was cold, I was in pain and I was trying to race it. Looking back, I wish I would have just slowed down and enjoyed the journey. So for Tokyo, I wanted to do that. Anyone planning on running Tokyo, my advice is this: enjoy it! If this is going to be your only chance to run Tokyo, then maybe don’t race it. It’s a great way to see the sights and learn about Japan. It is a great course to PR on however. It is flat and the weather usually is decent. But the crowds also make it tough to pull ahead. It can be run fast, but my personal recommendation is to just have fun. If you live in Japan, or close by and want a big city marathon and set a PR, then go for it. I just feel that since I’m traveling far for a race, I want to remember it, and not have the whole thing be a blur.
I could describe mile by mile of my marathon, but there’s no need to. A marathon is a marathon. You feel great the first 13 miles, and then things start feeling a little sore or achy after 16. Miles 22-26 you start thinking “When will this be over?! I am in pain!” So my experience wasn’t any different than other marathons, except I had a little less pain and less anguish because I was going slower than I normally do. But towards the end, I still wanted it to be over. I still had the same marathon thoughts like “I wish we hadn’t done all that walking before the race” or “Ahh I didn’t apply a Band-Aid to my little toe and now I have a blister” or “Oh I missed a spot when I applied Body Glide this morning!” It wasn’t all pretty, but the experience of running in Japan was priceless.
Negatives: I don’t have any. Some may complain about the water bottle rules or security, but they are rules for a reason and they are there for our safety. It is slightly annoying, but that’s life. If you don’t like the rules, don’t run that race. The fuel and hydration options aren't what I am used to, but it wasn't terrible. I adjusted. I wore my SPI belt that contained energy gels and chews. I did eat the bananas and drank the pocari sweat and water. Running the Tokyo Marathon is a once in a lifetime experience. It is one of the “major ones” everyone will talk about. It is also a big city race, and it is crowded. But be aware of this, and don’t get frustrated when you can’t surge ahead. Just know what you’re getting into.
Positives: Everything! The crowds, course, runners, scenery, elevation (or lack thereof), weather, organization, and overall experience were spectacular. This is one of my favorites. I will only speak highly of this race. It is an Abbott World Marathon Majors, and is an excellent addition to the other ones.
I have scanned in many maps, instructions, guides etc. for anyone running the Tokyo Marathon going forward. These are things I didn’t have ahead of time when going to Tokyo. I received them at the Expo. So hopefully they will be of help to you. Also, there is a pocket guide that is valuable; you will be able to pick it up at the Expo. It has a metro map, course map, important instructions, etc., all in a fold out pocket guide. Be sure to pick this up! And give one to your family or friends if they are spectating. All these documents are available in the TOKYO MARATHON icon on the main page.
Lastly, I don't think any of the race directors, organizers or volunteers will read this, but if they do I want to say THANK YOU from the bottom of my heart. Japan is a beautiful country. I had a wonderful time touring the magnificent city of Tokyo by foot. This race was very organized and overall quite impressive. Thank you for giving us runners the experience of a lifetime!
Dōmo arigatōgozaimashita, どうもありがとうございました
Disclaimer: I am an Abbott World Marathon Majors Ambassador. My opinions do not reflect their opinions. This report is my personal experience. Please consult the Tokyo Marathon website for updated and accurate information. This post was written March, 2016.