Pushing the Limits
at the Niigata City Marathon
written by Rich D., contributor
BLAME IT ON THE RAIN
With Japan still in recovery mode, typhoon number 25 loomed large in the southwest, threatening more rain, wind, potential damage and back-to-back ruined weekends.
To the nation’s relief, the storm changed course, opting for the ocean route between Japan and Korea. Athletes preparing for events across the country rejoiced, and (most of) Japan (sorry Hokkaido) relished a reprieve from another battering.
Thus, I headed to Niigata Marathon as planned, savoring the opportunity to unleash a week’s worth of bottled energy and frustration over 42.195 kilometers of racecourse.
Located about 300km north of Tokyo, Niigata is a quaint port city nestled on the coast of the Sea of Japan. Although off the beaten path, Niigata is easy to access via it’s trains, shinkansen and airport.
I flew in via Osaka’s Itami Airport and hopped on a bus to the station. The ride takes a mere 25 minutes and buses are surprisingly frequent.
Since race packets were available via pickup at Niigata Station, there was no marathon expo to waste time (or money) at.
With hours to kill before my guesthouse check-in, I wandered around Niigta’s shopping arcade enjoying the lively atmosphere while slurping some udon and snapping photos of the Dokaben (a classic baseball manga and anime) character statues that dotted the walkway.
Next, I wandered along the grassy riverside en route to Hakusan Park, a recommended sight located northwest of Niigata Station. With the typhoon weakening in the north, it was all blue skies and cool autumn breezes.
As I strolled to the park I basked in rare, consummate autumn weather. Hakusan Park did not disappoint, with its beautiful greenery, neat pathways through wooded areas, a small pond and the majestic Hakusan Shrine.
THE GUEST HOUSE EXPERIENCE
Whenever I travel in Japan, I jump at the chance to stay at guesthouses, ryokan or hostels because they’re (usually) safe, clean, friendly and, best of all, unique in character.
That night I stayed at Guesthouse Angoso, the old residence turned bunkhouse was comfortable and homey, albeit a little noisy at night.
As always, after dropping my bags, I headed to the common area and chatted it up with the eclectic group of travelers, bonding over snacks and a volleyball tournament on tv.
Of course a few other runners were also spending the night and we talked about our experiences and raceday habits before calling it a night.
Boasting 9,000 marathon participants, Niigata’s marathon field is large enough to create a festive buzz, but small enough that it’s easy to warm-up and find your way around.
Early the next morning I headed to Niigata station to catch the free shuttle bus to the start. With an 8:30 gun time, I caught a 6:30 shuttle. The ride took 20 minutes, leaving ample time to change, check my baggage, warm-up and head to the start-line.
When I entered the corral I thought about how great everything went to that moment, but wondered about the course.
After running several mind-numbing riverside races, whose courses cover river embankments and therefore guarantee repetitive scenery, relentless sun and strong winds, I savor races with charismatic courses.
Forget the t-shirts, medals and the complementary finisher’s banana – the raceday memories are paramount.
A GREAT RACE COURSE
Thankfully, Niigata’s course was a blast. At the start, runners head out of a giant stadium and dash through the city streets. Although the course then heads to the (gasp!) river, Niigata’s riverside is gorgeous and participants get a chance to take in scenic views while they’re still fresh enough to enjoy it.
After running along river, the course dips through a long, dark tunnel whose breezes and shade cooled me and the flock of runners I trotted underground with. After a kilometer or two we emerged, back into the sunshine, gliding around a loop before slipping into the tunnel’s serenity once again for the return leg.
Next the course rolls out to coastal roads, hugging the Sea of Japan. By this point the sun hung high and the temperature started rising. Instead of the heat, I focused on the beautiful waves crashing on the rocky shores and continued on.
Along the course, frequent aid stations made the heat bearable, offering water and sports drinks, with occasional bananas, Japanese nashi pears and various other yummy snacks.
Yet, my favorite aid came in the form of chilled sponges that, when squeezed against my head and chest offered a fleeting moment of chilling ecstasy.
STAY CALM AND SUB-THREE?
Before running a full marathon, I usually prepare by grinding out a few weekend long runs of 35km. But this time around, I skipped those runs to see how I’d perform without them. And I paid the price.
Be it a Boston qualifier, a sub-six or getting to the finish line, I think all repeat marathon runners have a personal benchmark, one that separates immense satisfaction from mere contentment. At this moment in time, for me, it’s the three hour mark and I savor each and every sub-three I can reach.
On this gorgeous day, on Niigata’s exciting course, I got off to a good start, holding the necessary pace beyond the halfway point. All I needed to to was maintain it.
Come the 30km mark, despite feeling springy and lacking soreness, my pace suffered. With eight kilometers to go, my pace continued to slow and I watched my hopes for a sub three hour marathon slip away.
Then, as abruptly as my pace nosedived, a subconscious switch flipped and my body found a phantom gear. Only three kilometers remained and my pace rose from 4:50 to 4:15 (per kilometer), sparking a glimmer of hope.
If I could maintain that pace, I still had a chance, but GPS measurements have a margin of error, especially when long tunnels are involved, so nothing was certain. I ran on.
Spectators chants of “Ganba!”, a variant on ganbatte or do your best, fueled me and I doused myself with cups of water at the final aid station. At each distance marker I recalculated the pace I’d need to slip in under three hours. Every second counted. The race against the clock was on.
Awash in a daunting mix of hope and futility, I crept up on the entrance to the stadium and the finish line therein. Only a minute and changed remained. “One more minute to sub-three! GANBA!” a volunteer screamed, his fist pump pumping energy into my tiring soul.
Even at 41.5km it’d be close. I clenched my teeth and quickened my cadence, smirking at how ridiculous the everything was: running 42.195km, aiming for an arbitrary finish time, dousing myself with water, sprinting to the finish line to end it all- what a weird hobby.
My fate would come down to the location of the finish line.
If an entire loop around the track separated me from the goal, my chance of a sub-three was doomed. But if less than a lap separated me from the goal, I still had a shot.
At last, I turned the corner. Only 100 meters (as I remember) separated me from that glorious finish-time.
And so I sprinted (at least it felt like a sprint), pouring every last bit of energy into a hokey, bear-like gallop, finishing at 2:59:37.
A SATISFYING RACE
Volunteers draped a finisher’s towel over my shoulders and offered bottles of water as I walked to the baggage trucks. I gobbled the finisher’s other reward, a giant onigiri made from Niigata’s famous homegrown rice crop, while reveling in my achievement.
Although it wasn’t my fastest marathon, taking it down to the wire was thrilling and terrifically satisfying, as was the entire Niigata Marathon experience.
Run it for the the scenery, the tunnel, the energetic local support, a giant onigiri and those heavenly sponges. For all these reasons and more it’s a race I won’t soon forget.
The Niigata Marathon takes place in early October and runners can register via the runnet or jtbsports station websites.
About the Author
Although Rich started as a “casual” runner back in the USA, a move to Japan that coincided with Japan’s marathon-boom awakened the true runner within.
Now, the self-proclaimed running otaku’s passion for motivational manga is only surpassed by his quest for interesting and challenging events around Japan; a quest that takes more travel, time and money than he’d like to think about.