Running Takes You Places

Zunaid Ismael representing in Japan.

Zunaid Ismael representing in Japan.

Disclaimer: This is a long story. You should probably make a cup of tea first and get some biscuits before starting on this. You need to make some notes too as there will be a test on this. I’m not kidding. OK, I am. Let’s do this.

Running takes you places.

I don’t mean just from point A to B or the mere physicality of being in a different location. No, running takes your body and mind to places that they otherwise would not go or prefer to go.

Running gives you the chance to see things and places you’d ordinarily not experience. It gives you the chance to make new acquaintances, good friends, fall in love, fall out of love, fall in love again, makes you feel frustration, pain and every other emotion in between (and that’s just with relationships, never mind the actual running).

The running itself can take you to that superb high of running a personal best time or drop you to the low and bitter disappointment of not finishing. Ask anyone who has put in the training and then DNF’d how that feels and they’ll certainly let you know just how low they’ve felt.

I’ve been there a couple of times and that made me change the way that I approached my subsequent training. The 2015 Two Oceans Ultra marathon was my nadir and I’ve been lucky enough not to hit that low again.

I take my running seriously, not because I’m fast or because I win money – far from it. I’m neither fast nor capable of running fast enough to win money – that is a category of fast a number of levels above where I am. I just want to see how far I can push myself and just how fast I can go and running a marathon, for me, is the ultimate test of speed and endurance.

So towards mid-2016, I decided that I was going to do the Tokyo Marathon. It is one of the World Marathon majors and is devilishly hard to secure an entry for. I did so a few years ago but did not run it. As fate would have it, I did not get an entry but after trawling the interwebs, I found a couple of races in Japan that were a lot easier to enter. So I took the plunge and entered the Shizuoka Marathon in late October.

Serious training also started at the same time with Sharief Jeffries, the club’s track and field coach but then as luck would have it, life chucked a spanner in the works as work required that I change up my working hours for the next three months. This meant that I had to train in the morning and could not do the workouts that the other T&F athletes were doing to supplement my training runs. But we made do with what we were given.

The turn of the year saw me attempt the Bay to Bay 30km and that went alright but I wasn’t anywhere near where I wanted to be.

Bay to Bay 2017.

Bay to Bay 2017.

The next couple of races I missed as those were not on the training schedule. My next race was the LoA 10km and I had to race that one hard. The goal – a sub-40.

Going into the race, I was a little worried as I was feeling a bit heavy from the training sessions. I usually like going into a race loose and limber as I feel most comfortable like that, so this was a new experience for me. Race day though went well, except for the part where I missed the sub-40 by 15 seconds. I felt better though as I knew I was getting closer to where I wanted to be.

Then my training fell apart. I started feeling fatigued and work and other life pressures started to play their part too. Rest days didn’t help either.

Next up for me was the TopForm 10km and here I was determined to go under 40 minutes. For whatever reason, it didn’t happen there either and I ended up having a bad run.

By this time, I pretty much had nearly all my travel plans finalised and was starting to count down the days to my departure. It had been one hell of a year and I was looking forward to getting away for a while.

Before the holiday there was the little matter of qualifying for the Two Oceans Ultra Marathon. I hadn’t planned on doing it but managed to get an entry and needed to qualify. The race I’d be qualifying on was the Peninsula marathon, a race that I am not fond of. It has done me in twice before and I was hoping that it would not kick me in the nethers this time round again.

Going into the race, I felt a little under prepared, so the plan was to jump on the sub-3.30 bus and stay with them for as far as I could. Race day comes and the weather gods brewed up the nastiest wind that they could for the race. On Peninsula, if the heat doesn’t get you, the wind will.

Long story short, I was good for 32km before the wheels came off my run. Coming out of Fish Hoek, I ran into the teeth of a vicious gale and my skinny ass just couldn’t power through that. There went my sub-3.30 run. I qualified for the Ultra but was really disappointed with my effort.

I had the chance to get some confidence back the next weekend at the Cango Marathon in Oudtshoorn, where I’d be doing my favourite event, the 21km, while the rest of my friends from the Magic Bus crew were doing the marathon. The Magic Bus crew know how to organise an awesome road trip and are always good fun to be with.

The Magic Bus crew.

The Magic Bus crew.

Race day though, it was going to be me against the world or so I thought. I hooked up with Mujeeb Kajee from the start and we ran together for about 15km before I ran out of steam. Then it really was me against the world. I managed to finish under 90 minutes, just, but the fact that I floundered at 15km had me seriously doubting my abilities.

Then the marathoners started coming in and they were all doing so well. I’m not going to lie. We’re secretly really competitive and we do keep tabs on who does what and seeing the guys running sub-3.30s added some more pressure. In just over a week, I’d have to match these guys’ times step for step. No pressure then. The game was on. Thankfully though, there was plenty of inspiration from the race to get me going.

Hang in there, the preamble is done. We get to the actual race now. This is a story about a marathon after all. Did you think this was going to be a short story?

So I finally get to Shizuoka, which is about 150km from Tokyo. It is a port city and is not too far from the majestic Mount Fuji. I got there in 80 minutes with one of the slower bullet trains.

Shizuoka City, Japan.

Shizuoka City, Japan.

The next day it was time to register, get my number and then prepare for the race. Registration was inside the local prefectural building while the rest of the expo stands were outside in the square. While it was nippy outside it wasn’t unlike a fresh spring day in Cape Town. I also saw a really nice conversion of a 2-stroke motocross bike to a road-going supermotard that got my heart racing. Don’t get me started on some of the sweet rides I saw on my trip – the Skyline GTRs, Subaru Imprezas, the odd Corvette or two – but I digress. This is a running story.

Registration and the expo for the 2017 Shizuoka Marathon.

Registration and the expo for the 2017 Shizuoka Marathon.

Going into the race, I knew that the biggest problem would not be the language barrier, as I’d picked up a smattering of Japanese on my previous stay in Japan. The biggest problem would be the food. I didn’t know what was going to upset my stomach so I went with the noodles, lots and lots of noodles.

Hmmm... yummy.

Hmmm… yummy.

Usually I have trouble sleeping the night before a race and this time was no different. Even though Shizuoka is a quiet city and I had an apartment all to myself, I still couldn’t drop off to sleep easily. (On a side note, Japanese television is amazing. There are some oddball shows that are broadcast but they’re very entertaining.)

With the race starting at 8.20am, I was up at 5.30am. Had to do breakfast, activate my glutes (it’s a T&F thing) and then walk down to the start about 15 minutes away. I like getting to races early as I get paranoid about missing the start of races.

It was while walking to the start that I came up with and discarded a number of race strategies. Stop every 7km and walk for 30 seconds became stop every 10km and walk for 30 seconds became make it to 30km under 2.30 and see how you feel.

So I get to the start and realise that there are some pretty fast runners around. While I know that looks can be deceiving, that first impression you get of a runner on race day is usually an accurate one and these runners certainly looked fast. It’s the shorts. The length of the shorts is directly proportional to the speed. So short shorts = very fast.

Fast runner.

Fast runner.

The bag drop-off area was in the Sunpu Castle grounds and it is a beautiful park with the castle in the background. It had the classic Japanese architecture, complete with the winter pine trees, moats and shrines. On any other day it would be a perfect place for a day out with the family, significant other or with friends.

I dropped off my bag at the baggage collection area and decide to do a slow run around the castle grounds and there are people everywhere, about 12 000 getting ready for the marathon. I then decide that it’s time to head to the B pen and again I am surprised by how many people are in the pen with me. I had read somewhere that marathon running is big in Japan and standing in the pen, it really hit home that it was the case. I then overhear someone explain the seedings to his friend and it sounds like the runners around me are sub-4 runners, between 3 hours and 3.59. It looks like I might be in good company.

Getting ready for action.

Getting ready for action.

Since there are no pace setters, I’ve already marked out the people that I plan on staying with during the run. I have no idea what pace they’ll be doing or what their strategy is but I’ve decided I’m going to shadow them. Maybe it’s because they come from my old stomping grounds in Chiba.

The start is about 200m up the road and we finally get moving. It seems like no matter where in the world you run, the officials and special guests are always getting in the last word. Yackety yack yack yack. They don’t understand that we’re in the zone and not listening. Let’s get started already.

One thing that is quite different is that the constant buzz and conversation we have at the start of our races is not there. While it isn’t total silence, it is quiet, the sort of quiet that you do eventually accept is part of Japanese culture. You learn that there is no need to fill the silence with chatter, that all you really need to do is be in the moment. Or shut up and do your work.

With just a few minutes to go before the start, I decided that I’m not doing a strategy. The equation is simple: Stay under 5 minutes/km for a sub-3.30. I also decide that I’m going to do 4.45/km and see how that goes. Just before we start, I say a little prayer and before you know it, we’re off.

Right from the start, there are people lining the road shouting “gambatte” or “gambarimasu” (it roughly translates as ‘good luck’ or ‘keep trying’) or in some cases squeaking it. And the support was like that right throughout the race. Every street, every corner had someone cheering the runners on. One of the more memorable highlights was the band jamming out a Michael Jackson song. The other was the old guy trying to play “Chariots of fire” on his trumpet. To be fair, that I recognised the tune probably means that he was doing pretty well.

The first water point came 5km into the race and I found out that they don’t do water sachets in Japan. No, it was cups of water and I had some trouble figuring out how to get the water down without choking. Eventually, I figured it out and it was plain sailing from there.

At this point I was beginning to settle into a rhythm or at least to keep my pace steady at around 4.45/km. I started looking for familiar faces or at least the runners I had marked out at the start but they had disappeared ahead of me. I was on my own now.

There is not much to tell about the city of Shizuoka other than it is really clean and the houses are densely packed in the city centre. The further you go from the city centre, the bigger the houses get and you see more character to the architecture such as the more typical Japanese roof tiles, sculptures, stone gardens, flower gardens and the stuff that home owners do to their homes.


So at 10km I do a time check (47.47) and I’ve got a few minutes in the bag but I then decide that I’m going to need a little more, so I crank up the pace a notch. I then notice this one guy running with a GoPro camera ahead of me and he seems to be having a great time, high-fiving supporters and taking pics of people he knows. I wish I could be that genki.

At 15km I get a bit of a surprise, as my host for the weekend has made a banner for me reading “Mr Zunaid, run!” That really spurred me on. It is always great when you’ve got some support on the road and it’s even better when someone knows your name. It gives you that extra boost that you won’t get from a self-administered pep talk.

Go Zunaido, go!

Go Zunaido, go!

So now we start heading out of the city and start making our way towards Shimizu, which is the home of the local J-League club, the Shimizu S-Pulse. At the 20km mark, I do another time check (1.33.02) and I seem to still be well under where I need to be. I also pick up a companion and the two of us run together for the next for kilometres in companionable silence. My Japanese is probably better than his English but I don’t really feel like thinking my way through Japanese while I run, so I hold my silence and just plod on.

The route.

The route.

At some point I do lose the bloke, but I’ve spotted one of the people I’d marked at the start. But then I get distracted by one of the food points. They’re actually serving udon, which is a noodle soup, and I’m like “wow this is amazing.” There may also have been curry being served but my reading skills in Japanese are a bit dodgy, so I wasn’t too sure about that.

We then hit the coastal road to Shimizu and it is a flat road with the ocean on the right. It has turned out to be a fairly nice day, perfect for running. There is not a breath of wind and it is nippy enough to keep the body from overheating. Pretty soon we hit the 30km mark and I decide to take a walk. As I stop, I see the next water table a few hundred metres ahead and instantly regret stopping. “Screw it,” I think to myself, “I’ll walk to the water point and right through it.”

Someone asks if I’m alright and I give him the thumbs up. It’s time to get going again. The time check (2.20.38) says that I still have time in the bag. I’m looking good for a 3.19 but I know I’m going to have to push through some pain to make that time.

A few kilometres down the road suddenly I see one of the most majestic sights I’ve ever seen on a run – Mount Fuji in all its snow-capped glory. I think the word “wow” went through my mind but “holy fuck” may have come out of my mouth. It’s a good thing no one was close enough to hear or I’d have given South Africa a bad name with my foul language.

With the last 10km to go, I was still feeling good but I knew that at some point my legs were going to go. My next goal was to make it to the 37km mark and then take a time check and see if I could push it a little more.

As it was, this was where I really started to feel the run. My legs began feeling fatigued and I really just wanted to finish the race. As I hit the 38km mark, the time also hit the 3-hour mark. I had 20 minutes in which to do 4km. On any other day, that would be a walk in the park. At this point in the race, I was like “fuck it, I’ve got my 3.30 in the bag, just finish the race now.”

Now it was a case of run a few poles and then walk a few poles.

With 2km to go my left calf spasmed, sending a jolt of pain up my leg. In that brief moment, I did wonder why I was doing this but then I quickly shut the door on that thought, gritted my teeth and pushed on. All I really remember is looking for the turn to the station where we would be finishing and then I passed the 41km mark and I heard a train go by. I was nearly done. We hit a right and then a left but I then decided to do a walk first before running the last few hundred metres to the finish.

As I hit the finish straight, I see the first group of cosplayers – there was a Star Wars stormtrooper giving me the thumbs up, some cheerleaders (though I wasn’t sure if they were legit or cosplayers too) and lots of other people cheering us on.

Ahead of me is this lady who seems to have hit the wall. She’s running bent over to the right and she’s grimacing in pain. I drop in beside her and tell to keep going as we’re almost done. We cross the line together and I give her a fist bump. I know I was knackered, so she must have been finished but she had the biggest smile on her face.

Finally, it’s done. A personal best in the bag on what was a pretty good run.

Marathon done!

Marathon done!

The medal is pretty amazing and I was able to get confirmation of my time on a certificate of participation within two minutes of finishing.

All I wanted to do though was change into fresh clothes, sit down and get some food into my body. First I had to find the baggage section, which meant walking another 150m before I could sit down. Dammit!

The aftermath of the marathon.

The aftermath of the marathon.

Fast forward 20 minutes and I’ve managed to put on some pants and a top and then I went missioning for food.

Crepes, hot chips and a Coke worked wonders and the local high school jazz band were pretty good entertainment too.

You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t mentioned any climbs. That’s because there weren’t any worth mentioning. The difference in elevation was about 20m from start to finish as the race was fairly flat and that certainly helped me to maintain a good, consistent pace throughout the race. Come to think of it, just about anyone would have run a PB on this flat course.

Proof of achievement.

Proof of achievement.

Was it worth trekking halfway round the world, stuck in a flying tin can for a whole day, freezing my ass off, getting lost, not being able to have a proper conversation for a week and being lonely? For those few minutes after crossing the line, the euphoria and joy at finishing with a PB, getting the medal and the certificate, it certainly was. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat.

Fuji San makes an appearance.

Fuji San makes an appearance.

The winning time was 2.11.40, run by Michael Githae of Kenya who was running for the Suzuki Hamamatsu Athletic Club. Githae also ran a personal best time and set a course record. His Japanese teammate Tadashi Suzuki was second in 2.19.09, also a personal best time. Shunpei Oda of the Aoyama Gakuin University was third in a time of 2.17.01.

By Zunaid Ismael.