Monday, 10 November 2014

Deo Osaka Marathon Race Report

Say what you want Deo, we still think you are crazy - in many good (races) way ;-) Now, shall we make this the team's race next year? Deo's Osaka Marathon Race Report.

Crossing the finish line for my 28th full marathon.

My 2ndSkin team mates think I am crazy for racing on back-to-back weekends and I think so, too! but I know there are crazier people out there who have been doing two (sometimes three) races on a same weekend. I just can't help not to do this as there are so many good races in the final quarter of this year! And Osaka Marathon was my third race in three consecutive weekends after KL Marathon and Climbathon Adventure Race. Anyway, Osaka Marathon was something that I have been really looking forward to since early this year. As there will be Awal Muharram and Deepavali holidays, I just need to take three days of my annual leave to spend my time away in Japan for a good one week and to run is Osaka Marathon, the world's 7th largest marathon. It was also my first ever trip to Japan, not counting my transit in Haneda Airport en route to USA to further my study back in 1996. 

While I was the one who mooted the idea for the trip early this year, the other two friends - Azhar and Sabri were the masterminds behind the planning of the itinerary. Actually, we bought the flight ticket during the Air Asia promotion period (I got the return flight ticket for RM896 inclusive of 20kg luggage allowance) even before the ballot for Osaka Marathon opened. We thought if we don't get the ballot, we'll just fly there for vacation. Luckily when the ballot result was announced, all three of us got in and the anticipation for the trip started. Hotel booking was made and we chose Mikado Hotel, for its rate, location and convenience (close to rail network, grocery store). It is a hostel concept with shared shower (very clean and spacious) and sauna, air-conditioned room, common dining area and kitchen with complete facilities and utilities (and free tea/coffee, sugar, salt, oil for cooking), daily change of towel and bath robe, very fast internet/wifi connection that I uploaded my daily trip photos to facebook in a blink of my eyes, friendly staff, private tv in the room. The three-bed room was very good enough for us as we can have the room all to ourselves.

As it was my first time in Japan (as well as Sabri's first time, too) we made full use of the trip by maximizing our time there visiting interesting places in Osaka and nearby cities. Although the rail network was confusing for visitors as there are so many lines with many operators and connecting trains (a lot more complicated than in Singapore and Berlin), we still managed to visit Kobe, Kyoto and Nara, apart from Universal Studios in Osaka itself and other interesting places within Osaka. Among places that we visited:
Kobe: Mt. RokkoTetsujin Statue and Port of Kobe
Kyoto: Arashiyama Bamboo GroveFushimi Inari TaishaKiyozumi-dera and Gion (home to many Geisha houses);
Nara: Nara ParkKasuga Taisha ShrineWakasukayamaTodaiji temple and Kofuku-ji temple.
Among those places we visited:
Top row (from left to right) - Fushimi Inari Taisha, Kyoto; Tetsujin Statue, Kobe; Kofuku-ji Temple, Nara.
Middle row - Kiyozumi-dera, Kyoto; Mt. Rokko (932m), Kobe; Todai-ji Temple, Nara;
Bottom row - Todai-ji Temple, Nara; on top of Wakasukayama (342m), Nara; Glico Marathon Man in Dotonbori, Osaka; Universal Studios Japan, Osaka

Those were on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, respectively. Saturday was about doing a short morning run around the neighborhood before we spent like half a day at the race pack collection and expo site. Sunday was the day, the day we ran Osaka Marathon. Monday was when we spent all day long doing recovery walking and standing (in queues) at the fantastic Universal Studios Japan. And on Tuesday, we visited Kuromon Ichiba Market, the fresh market where you can have great foods like fresh sushi, sashimi and other Japanese delicacies. We also visited some interesting places in Osaka like the happening Dotonbori, as well as had the best tokayaki, inari and moji! I can say that Osaka is a nice big city to spend a laidback time. It is not too crowded, developed but not too modern, communication with the locals can be tricky but you can still get messages across, and best of all... Osaka is dubbed by the locals as 'Kuidaore' - which literally means "to eat oneself bankrupt" as it is a place well known for foods where people eat non-stop! And not surprisingly, there was even a large hall at the end of the Race Expo just for food vendors and it becomes like a very large food court.

The Marathon

Osaka Marathon is just 4 years old. Yet, they have established themselves to be the 7th largest marathon in the world with a total of 27,674 participants. It falls just behind New York City, Chicago, Paris, Berlin, London, Tokyo while ahead of Marine Corps in Virgina, Honolulu Hawaii, and Walt Disney World in Florida. I was told that the organizer of Osaka Marathon was the same as Tokyo's and it's not surprised that it was so well organized (with detailed planning and execution) comparable to other Marathon Majors. I am not surprised, too, from what I experienced (with the organization, the volunteers and support, the spectators) Osaka would be promoted as the 7th race in the Marathon Majors series. To facilitate the race, there were 10,000 volunteers taking up various roles involved. Malaysia was represented by 51 runners (which I only met less than 10 of them) and became the eighth largest contingent other than the host country. Besides just chasing the numbers of participants (and the world ranking), Osaka Marathon has positioned itself as a 'charity marathon'. With the theme of 'making a rainbow together', each runner registered for the marathon is compulsory to contribute to a minimum two charity themes (out of seven) with minimum donation of ¥500 for each theme. For me, I have chosen "To help conserve clean water" and "To help conserve a natural environment" for my contributions. 
Our photos during the race pack collection and marathon expo where we spent almost four hours there.

The race expo was held at INTEX, Osaka, a very large expo site. The were four sections of the race pack collection and expo. The first one is where you collect your race pack that includes race number, a nice timing chip worth keeping as souvenir, Mizuno event t-shirt, and your charity t-shirt. There were also a big nicely designed plastic bag to be used as bag drop on the day of the marathon. Then, you proceed to the 2nd section which was the expo that exhibited the sponsors. There were booths from the likes of Seiko, Mizuno selling its gears and merchandise as well as the official Osaka Marathon merchandise, and others. They have many designs of Osaka Marathon t-shirts on sale but by Saturday, the small sizes were all gone :( there were also many photograph booths set-up around the expo hall to commemorate your participation in the marathon. As I thought that was the end of the expo (and a little disappointed as it was not as big as in Berlin), I got shocked when we arrived at the 3rd section - the expo hall for non-sponsors. You can get a lot more of merchandise, gears, sports drinks and nutrition, equipment, and so many other things. I ended buying some compression socks and some t-shirts. And the final section of the expo was like what I said earlier, the food expo and the food court! 

It was almost dark when we settled everything at the expo. We had to slowly march to the train station as there were lots of people making their way home from the expo at the same time. After dinner and preparing the essentials including those to put in the drop bag for the marathon, we settled down early that night to wake up early the next morning. Although the race will only start at 9am, we wanted to head out earlier as we were not sure what to expect when we have to deal with 27,000 people (excluding the spectators) going into one direction - the Osaka Castle Park, the start venue of the marathon. After breakfast at the Hotel, we headed to Osaka Castle Park by train. It was two trains away from our place and we arrived at the park quite early. I was prepared for the cold weather - with my gloves, my cap and buff to cover the ears but it was not as cold as what I experienced in Berlin. I was informed that the temperature on the marathon day hovered between 20- to 25-degree Celcius with the sun right up in the sky. The weather was in contrast to what I experienced since arriving in Osaka. And strangely, it got colder again on Monday after the marathon. So, I abandoned my gloves and buff in the drop bag and just ran the way I ran KL Marathon, except that I had my cap on to shield my head from the sun and I had my Spyder sunglass on all the way throughout the 42km+, something that I have never done before. It was still fortunate that the humidity was low that I started to sweat only after 5km or so into the marathon.
Depositing my luggage at the designated truck. The organizer only allowed luggage placed in the big plastic bag provided to each participant during the race pack collection (this is a common practice in big city marathons.

The bag drop was planned in a very systematic and careful manner as we deposited our bags to the pre-assigned (according to our bib number) trucks which would later transport our bags to the finish location. As we arrived at the bag collection venue after the race, our bags have been properly arranged according to our race numbers and the volunteers took a split second (yes, I am exaggerating but the process was really fast, really!) to locate our bags. 
Japanese runners came in many shapes (of fancy dress) and here we have Power Rangers, one of the famous characters during the marathon. People kept stopping them to take picture with them.

The race started quite a walk away from the bag drop location but it was a tireless walk as you see lots of people with lots of antics and we were entertained by the fancy costumes they were wearing. The start pen was organized to blocks according to the timing you submitted during the registration. I was in Block C but by the time I got to the start pen, I was already almost at the end of the block C with the front runners in Block D was just about 10 meters behind me. And the organizer was very strict with the timing, as those arrived at the start pen less than 15 minutes from the start of the race, they were held at the side (which I believe they had to start after everyone else did, not sure...). Although I was in Block C, I could only see a glimpse of the start gantry, and I took about four minutes to cross the start line after the race was flagged off. After some ceremonial speeches (in Japanese) followed by applause from the runners, the race was flagged off at 9am. Due to the large crowds, it was a slow walk towards the start line before I could finally run in small steps as soon as I crossed the start line. 
The race route took us through the city of Osaka (this is what I called a city marathon! not running on highways with nothing to see like in KL Marathon), running along the famous and normally busy area like Namba and Midosuji Blvd (the shopping strip similar to Bukit Bintang) and passing landmarks like Tsutenkaku Tower, Osaka City Hall, Kyocera Dome and Cosmosquare, to name a few. They closed all the roads involved in the marathon from the traffic but strictly enforced the cut-off timing for runners to arrive at certain checkpoints, in order to open back those roads to the public and vehicles. And along the way, there was no silent moment (at all, I swear!) as the spectators came in full force, lining up along the street, all 42.195km and more! They never stopped cheering and giving encouragement to the runners although all I could understand were "Gambate!" (or was it "Gamba-re!"?) and "fighto!" as in fighting! Not just the spectators were cheering, they came in costumes too like those many runners; there were also entertainment along the route with full band, single-, two-, three-piece musicians, cheerleader groups with their stunts and tumbling, and all sorts of entertainment that could make you forget that you were running (or struggling) in a marathon. The cheers and support got more electrified as the runners entered the last 10km of the race. But I had to be cautious because when I got too distracted from my run (by watching those spectators at the sideline), I lost a little bit of focus on my run and my pace dropped *sigh*. Anyway, the sight and amount of support that I (and many other runners) witnessed was a view to behold and a talk for a long time for the runners, I believe. 
With the backdrop of Osaka City Central Public Hall, Japanese spectators came in full force cheering for the runners all along the 42.195km course.

In addition to the supporters, the water station were awesome. Located about 2.5km apart, each station was at least 30m long, enough for a walk break from end-to-end of the station. They served cold and iced isotonic and water at every station (some have bananas) except for the one at KM32.5 when they served not just drinks but candies, carrots, cucumbers, pineapple cocktail, and all the Japanese delicacies that include sushi, inari, moji, takoyaki, etc etc... Did I eat them? NO! as I was in a state of shock looking at what were being served and I was spoilt with choices. As I was also chasing for my time, all I had was the sweet pineapple cocktail served in cup. I have to also give my hats off to the volunteers manning the water station. They were not just busy serving those drinks but they also never stopped giving us encouragement by cheering and clapping for the runners. The official photographers were also aplenty, littered all over the place, sometimes on the left side and sometimes on the right side of the road. I missed a lot of them (I think) but still ended up having a lot of photos taken (worth the price I pay!)

How did my marathon go?

It was a mix - some things did not go as planned but some things were better than what I expected. First of all, I did not get a PB timing of 3hr 40mins or better, due to so many reasons like the course being over distance (of 42.8km), it was crowded in the first 10km, it was a relatively hot weather for an 'ideal' marathon weather, and on top of all, I am not good enough to run sub 3:40 hours yet. Things that went well - obviously the experience, a more consistent pace than in KL Marathon previously, no cramps at all! and best of all the recovery was quick and a lot less sore to the muscles unlike in KL. 
It was really crowded at the start. If you look at the guy in blue at the bottom left of this photo (C13872), I was there partially hidden on his right...

It was still crowded after sometimes but eased up after KM10

After the start of the race, I could not run as fast as I wanted due to the crowd. But that kept my pace checked and I wasn't trapped into running too fast too early into the race (and bonked later). Most of the times I had to zig-zag to get myself ahead of other runners. I had the urgency to pee even before the flag off (although I peed thrice just before going into the start pen). However, peeing on the roadside or in the bushes at the roadside was not as simple in Osaka. The organizer set-up a barricade along the route (maybe to ensure the spectators did not get into runners' path) and there were volunteers manning the route who ensured runners did not go off the route. But they set-up portable toilets within reasonable distance. The only problem was that, you had to detour for some 20 to 50 meters to get to the toilet and in the beginning of the race, there were queues to use the toilet. But I managed to get to a portable toilet at around KM9 with no queue but lost a little time there. One less thing to worry, it was now about maintaining the pace. I covered the first 10km in 52 minutes - not good but acceptable due to the crowded runners. The runners were spaced out after 10km as we exited Midosuji Blvd where the route got a little hilly (just a little). 

It was also along the Midosuji Blvd that we could see the front runners making their ways towards the half marathon distance. Unfortunately, I did not know any of the front runners. It got livelier here as we approached the u-turn in Kitamachi as we can see other runners (in front or behind us) on the opposite direction. I tried to look for any other Malaysian but could not spot any as they were too many people to see. My pace in the next 10km was great, doing mostly under 5:00-minute each kilometer. Maybe the sight of other runners had kept me going strongly. I arrived at KM20 in 1hr 43mins and completed my half marathon in 1hr 48mins. 
Even when you're struggling in your race, don't forget to strike a pose when you see a photographer lol!
But when the going gets really tough, I couldn't even bothered by the photographer's presence.

From there onwards, I could not maintain sub 5:00-minute pace, the route started to get a little rolling and I had my first walk break at the water stations. I walked from one end of the water station to another end before start running again. I drank more this time as it got hotter by that time. Although I had so much urgency to walk more, I make it a point to just walk at the water stations, which I did. There were no signs of cramps coming, which is good, and 30km was done in 2hr 42mins. By the time, I knew sub 4-hr is attainable but a PB dream has all ended. I just continued to run to finish in the best time I could, whatever it is. From KM30 to KM40, I saw many runners have slowed down, some were seen stretching due to cramps and many walked. This was unlike in Berlin when the runners there were still running strongly until the end. Some people told me later that this maybe due to the hotter weather this year. I wonder how would they be if they run in KL? Looking at them struggling, I was worried that I would face the same fate. So, my strategy was to not overdo myself unnecessarily and just cruise at 6:00-minute pace. I think I did great maintaining the pace below 6:00-minute at this point of the race if I want to compare it to my pace in KL Marathon where it gone haywire, going as slow as 7:20-minute pace. 40km was done in 3hr 35mins, which means I have about 15 minutes to cover the final 2km+ to finish the race under 3hr 50mins.
With just some of the many, many great volunteers who made the runners feel like kings and queens throughout the marathon. Thanks Osaka!

The spectators in the final stretch was the reason that kept me going in the final 2.8km and their cheers got louder as I inched closer to the finish line. It was a relief to see the finish gantry with some 100m to go and I ensure that I soaked in all the atmosphere along the final stretch and raised my arms wide as I crossed the finish line, completing not my best marathon but the best marathon experience I ever had. I had no regret at all for not able to achieve a PB timing especially as I walked towards the runners' amenity hall, I was greeted and congratulated by the volunteers who toed in line to welcome back the runners. It really made all runners feel appreciated and treated like a winner (at least I felt that way), regardless of our timings. 3 hours 47 minutes and 46 seconds was the timing for my 28th full marathon race and all I could say is Thanks Osaka! for this great marathon and the great experience. I wish them the best and really hoping that Osaka Marathon will be the next Marathon Major.

My 10km splits: 51:59; 50:57 (1:42:56); 55:28 (2:38:24) and 56:58 (3:35:22); before finishing off the last 2.8km in 12:24. 

For my race details at Garmin Connect, click here.

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