At the marathon expo, two days before the Tokyo Marathon, one of the booths showed a fast forwarded video of the race course. It was long. As I watched, I felt my knees gradually weaken. The last part of the course had several uphill climbs – as if the distance itself was not grueling enough. I don’t think I can do it. I started experiencing phantom knee and thigh pains and wondered whether it was even a good idea to push through.
My journey began last summer (June 2014) when I started running. In August, my husband and I both applied for the Tokyo Marathon. At that time, the longest I’ve run is about 8 kilometers. I didn’t think much of the application – it is a lottery after all. More than 300,000 people registered and the marathon organizers only pick about 30,000 people. In mid-September, I “won the lottery” but I was still not fully aware of what I signed up for. Until December, I was pretty much running 5-8 kilometers, 2-3 times a week only. After all, I am a full-time mother, which without a doubt, is the busiest job in the world. By the end of the year with only two months to go, I had to increase my distance.
The last weekend of the year, my husband who also happens to be my running coach (and a multi-time finisher of marathons and Ironman triathlons) coaxed me into running an 18 kilometer course. For the next five days after that long run, I suffered fever and chills. How could I even conceive of 42.195 kilometers if I can’t even manage an 18 kilometer run? I was completely disheartened.
But come January after recovering, I tried the 18 kilometer route again and finished it strong. That was a huge boost to my confidence. Throughout the month of January, I ran 12-18 kilometers 2-3 times a week and was feeling more positive that I can run the marathon. An opportunity came up on January 24 to run a half-marathon. Before this, I said to myself that I will only do the full marathon. I will not sign up for any 5K, 10K or half marathon races. However, this was an exception. I did not have to pay to register for this half-marathon race and more importantly, the organizers pledged to donate money to Second Harvest Japan if I ran – I could not refuse an opportunity to make my running socially worthwhile. I finished the half-marathon in 2 hours and 6 minutes but with nagging knee pains the next days. The upside though is that I learned to manage my knee pain by shortening my stride.
One of the major sponsors of the Tokyo Marathon had a “social marathon” application on Facebook which will post my running time every 10 kilometers. It asked me to indicate my target finish time. I selected 4:30 (4 hours and 30 minutes). I figured I was able to do a half marathon in 2:06 a month before so I thought 4:30 for a full marathon was pretty reasonable. “Hmm…” said my husband, with that unmistakeable breath intake of skepticism. “Hon, I don’t think you can finish the marathon in 4:30. This is your first marathon. You are not 100% well (I have been suffering from a month-long bout of coughing). You had a tough time with your last practice run (18 kilometers). I just don’t think so.” My face fell. My husband rushed to emphasize that he definitely believes that I can finish the marathon, just not near 4:30. He said his first marathon was more than 5 hours. I also corresponded with my brother-in-law who shared with me that he finished his first marathon in 5 hours and 50 minutes. And so I went back to the social marathon site and changed my target finish time to 5:00, not even sure I can manage that.
The day before the marathon, I was terrified. I did some last minute Googling of what I should and shouldn’t do before a race – which I totally do not recommend to anyone. One website says, go for a quick run and another website says, do not run at all. One website says to carbo-load and another website says carbo-loading only works if you have been doing it the entire week before the marathon. I had to force myself to shut my laptop and do other things. I did not expect to get a good night’s sleep but what I didn’t expect was to not get any sleep at all. I tossed and turned the entire night. It didn’t help that my daughter threw up at around 2 a.m. (no thanks to her carbo-loading with me!) and we had to clean up and wash and dry her hair. By 4:30 a.m., I had to get up.
The weather report says 60% chance of rain. I have never practiced running in the rain. I was at a loss whether to wear my eyeglasses (which I always did during practice runs because contact lenses tend to dry and fall out) or to switch to contact lenses (which might fare better in the rain). At the last moment, I decided on contact lenses but discovered that the last pair of contact lenses I had were of the wrong grade! So it was back to glasses. I had no appetite due to the unfortunate combination of lack of sleep, exhaustion and queasiness but I managed to force down a small bowl of oatmeal. By the time we got to the starting line, I was hungry, cold, and needing to pee every 15 minutes.
I felt a bit better seeing the throng of runners of all ages, shapes and sizes. My husband said that no one comes to race day feeling 100%. I don’t know about the other runners but I was feeling like being there was a big mistake. Still, I can’t help being infected with the collective energy of the crowd. I settled myself inside my running block and waited for 30 minutes in the cold for the race to start. Thankfully, the marathon gods were holding off the rain.
The first 5 kilometers were probably the easiest for everyone as it was a downhill course, but not for me. I hacked away with intermittent coughing spells and wondered what I was doing, attempting a marathon without any sleep at all. I began experiencing some pain on my left ankle. Just as soon as I thought of quitting somewhere in Shinjuku, I saw my name held up by someone in the cheering crowd. “Sherilyn Siy 頑張って”. Do your best. I don’t know who she was but I shouted a thank you and felt tears welling up. My phantom ankle pain disappeared and I felt that I should at least give it a good try.
I knew that at the very least, I could run till kilometer 21. I have done it before. Beyond 21 kilometers is completely new territory and I had no idea what to expect in terms of how my body would take the extra challenge.
There were some fun moments. I forgot at what point but we had to pass under a bridge and someone in the sidewalk had a boombox playing the song “YMCA”. Everyone, myself included, did the signature YMCA dance movements while running. It was impossible not to smile. It was interesting to see Tokyo City from the middle of the street and discovering how one street connects with another – something I would never have learned ordinarily simply taking the trains to get to my destination. It was also amusing to see everyone’s running attire. Some of my favorites in my running block include a salaryman complete with a leather briefcase and leather shoes (I can only imagine the state of his leather shoes if he did finish), a group dressed as tomatoes, a man inside a cardboard vending machine, and a pair dressed as Elsa and Anna (the cheering crowd sang the theme from Frozen when they ran by).
I began to worry as I passed the halfway mark. Somewhere around 25 kilometers, running was definitely more of a mental challenge. I realized how powerful my mind was. Here were some of the mantras I kept repeating.
Strong. Strong. You are strong.
You’re a machine.
One foot in front of the other will get you to the finish.
The quicker you get to the finish, the sooner you can stop running. The sooner you rest.
This is way easier than giving birth to Chuckie without painkillers.
I can opt out anytime but not right now.
It helped that I just aimed to run to the next kilometer mark, or to the next aid station (in which I allowed myself to walk or even stop to take my gels). So some of the phrases I repeated along those lines were:
Just get your butt over to 28K. 28K is almost 30K.
30K, that’s where the chip readers are. Your Facebook friends can see where you are at 30K.
The next aid station is at 32K. Just get your butt over there.
If you get to 35K, you’ll be left with about 7K and you can easily do 7K.
Sometimes though, even with all my internal talk, I still wanted to give up. My body felt extremely achy in places I didn’t expect such as my neck, shoulders, and lower back where probably, all the tension and worry collected. There were times when I stopped at a aid station and felt like my knees were going to give way. But the volunteers giving out water and bananas would squeeze my hand and it seemed they passed on a little more energy for a couple more kilometers. I drew energy from complete strangers. I also drew energy from familiar faces and hearing my name shouted out by my husband who tracked my running and appeared at various points along the course. Mostly, I drew energy from my fellow runners. It’s difficult to explain but I felt like I was part of a river that was just flowing to the finish line.
The most difficult part of the course were the last 5 kilometers, not only because they’re mostly uphill, but also because at the tail end of a marathon, 5 kilometers never felt harder. I realized though that walking used different muscles than running and I actually felt weaker walking than I did running.
The easiest part of the course? At the 42 kilometer mark, we had to turn a sharp corner for the last 195 meters and only after turning that corner do we see the finish line. I could not stop crying at the last 195 meters and I was probably the noisiest person to cross the finish line. I could not believe that I actually did it. I actually ran all 42.195 kilometers of the full marathon, something I could not even imagine myself doing a year ago when I cannot even run a kilometer without breathing hard and feeling like parts of my body were going to fall apart.
I looked at the official timer and could not believe my eyes. I finished in 4 hours and 37 minutes and 11 seconds, closer to my original target time and faster than what my husband thought I could do.
I am extremely grateful to many people who have made this feat possible. I’m most grateful to my husband who accompanied me on long practice runs pushing our two kids in a double running stroller up and down hills while encouraging me “You’re looking good! You’re gold!” When we met up after the race, he said that he was happy to be proven wrong. Running has brought us closer together. I’m next most grateful to my neighbors who helped look after my kids when I went for long runs and my husband wasn’t there. I’m especially grateful to the wonderful Kami family who not only cared for our kids every Wednesday but also took them in on race day. I’m grateful to friends who encouraged and supported me, inspired me, who shared a practice run or two with me, and who gave helpful tips to overcome various running pains (Roberto, I ate bananas every day for a week before the race – that must have been the magic!).
I love what Eleanor Roosevelt said which sums up my experience nicely, “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face… You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
p.s. Today is Day 2 post marathon and am amazed that I’m able to do 90% of my normal movements. Going down the stairs and squatting are still a bit challenging but I thought my recovery has been pretty good considering my expectation that I’d be out for an entire week.