The Convenient and Bountiful
written by Rich D., contributor
People run marathons for all sorts of reasons.
Sometimes we use a race as motivation to improve our health. Once we get over the first event, some people continue marathon-ing for “fun.”
Other times we want to check a specific race, that elusive Tokyo Marathon comes to mind, off our personal bucket lists. Yet other times we, or at least I, run 42.195 kilometers for a t-shirt.
For years, friends would show up to group runs in November sporting cool new t-shirts with “Yokohama Marathon” scribed across the chest.
These weren’t your run-of-the-mile souvenir tees. Taking inspiration from its port city culture, Yokohama’s participant shirts incorporate a navy blue and white motif, usually in eye-catching striped designs.
Stricken with t-shirt envy, I marked Yokohama’s entry deadline on my calendar and made sure to enter. Finally, I’d get to visit Tokyo’s grand neighbor.
The city famous worldwide, at least among hip-hop and race car fans, for tires and rims. For its shopping scene and jutting skyline. A romantic destination for couples. And, for me, a marathon with a coveted t-shirt.
And so I headed to Yokohama this past weekend, ready to run 42.195km through the beautiful city and finally lay claim to said t-shirt.
28 october, 2018
a convenient city
Just a short train ride from Haneda airport, getting to Yokohama could not be more convenient. Although some cities make bib pick-up a chore by holding marathon expos in event centers located on the outskirts of the city, Yokohama gets the process right by holding the expo smack in the middle of the city’s main attractions, at the trendy Brick Warehouse shopping area.
a convenient expo
With Saturday at my disposal, I picked up my bib and bag and then wandered around the expo. As usual, brands hawked their running wares and participants had their choice of running packs, tracksuits, massage equipment and even special Yokohama Marathon cookies.
killing time in yokohama
Aside from the actual race, crowds aren’t my thing, so with my bib and goodie bag in hand I fled the area.
The weather was great and the parks were popping with activity. Quaint, open-air shops in the spacious brick buildings, made for fun, windowless window shopping.
When lunchtime arrived the area houses so many restaurants, finding food wasn’t the problem – choosing what to eat was.
After pondering for what felt like hours, but in reality was a few minutes, I decided on a big beef hash-omelette.
The rice-filled, sauce-drizzled meal fueled afternoon roamings among the city’s lush parks, boardwalks and gardens.
There is a lot to see and do within a few miles radius, so if the weather’s right, and it was immaculate, Yokohama makes for a great day of strolling.
Unlike more rustic locations, Yokohama’s proximity to Tokyo means hotels can be found both near and far. Frequent trains make even far-flung hotels practical and marathoners can get away with spending the night outside of the city limits.
I stayed in a business hotel in Totsuka, a convenient area about 20 minutes southwest of Yokohama. In the evening I arrived to a crowded Totsuka station. The area’s surprising number of restaurants and shops made settling in for the night easy.
big city convenience
The Yokohama Marathon starts at 8:30, so I left the hotel at 6:15 to catch the 6:35 train. I arrived at the main station around 7:00 and hopped another train to the start area. The entire commute took less than 40 minutes.
Like a marathon-running Blanche DuBois, “I have always depended on the kindness (and sense of direction) of strangers.” Once off the streetcar – I mean train, I tailed a pack of track-suited, official “Yokohama Marathon” bag carrying runners to the baggage area and start line.
a big event
When registering, I didn’t realize Yokohama Marathon’s magnitude. On race day 28,000 athletes take to the streets for the day’s events that include two wheelchair races and a “1/7 Full Marathon.” Add in the volunteers and you have a human katamari (cluster/lump).
Consequently, while everything, from the baggage checks to the toilets and corrals, was well marked, navigating the sea of humanity proved time-consuming. After dropping off my bag, I skipped warming up due to lack of space and headed straight to the corrals.
a difficult start
Due to the number of participants, there are 7 corrals labeled from A to J. The huge corrals wound around the block. Despite lining up in the A-Block, it took me two minutes to cross the startline. Rumor had it, the final corral took 30 minutes to reach the start, so runners shooting for a PR best look elsewhere.
Out of all the marathons I’ve run, big and small, in the US and Japan, Yokohama’s starting block organization was the worst. A vast mixture of abilities and paces within a single block meant a congested, precarious start. It took three kilometers before I could find any running room, and five before I established a comfortable pace and fell into any kind of rhythm.
an enjoyable run
Luckily, the remaining 37.195 kilometers made up for the disappointing start. I decided to ignore my time and make a fun-run of it, focusing on enjoying the scenery, aid and crowd support.
During the race, I never felt thirsty thanks to frequent aid stations that offered both sports drinks and water. Occasional food stations featured yummy options, like cookies and chocolate. But the unique offerings were the most enticing.
For example, at one station swanky suited bartenders prepared antifreeze-blue sports drinks. In Chinatown, volunteers held out mini nikuman, or steamed meat buns. The savory, salty meat was a welcomed change from the usual sugary aid. Yokohama’s unique aid stations made choosing to slow down and enjoy the race a serendipitous decision.
Yet the cheering impressed me above all else. Yokohama takes supporting participants seriously and has several featured cheering stations, each symbolized with a specific logo and with signs alerting runners to upcoming groups 300 meters in advance.
Hawaiian and Brazilian dance groups shaked and shimmied with smiling faces. A karate school demonstrated their moves while cheering on racers. A fervent cheerleading squad crashed pom-poms and chanted “Let’s go! Nice run!” (or at least that’s what it sounded like). An all male ouen-dan or cheer squad decked out in all black gakuran offered manly support with hard, deliberate arm gestures, husky voices and proud taiko drumming.
sky high highway blues
The course heads out of the city center shrouded in the cool shadows of a raised highway. With the sun overhead runners crowded under the shaded parts of the road.
Around the halfway mark, the course loops, climbs a slope, passes through an inactive tollbooth and merges onto the raised highway. Ten kilometers of unshaded, crowdless course follow.
Volunteers do their best to egg on runners, but without crowd support, I couldn’t help but feel a little lonesome up there. At least the beautiful skyline offered some distraction.
the final stretch
Finally, around the 30 kilometer mark we exited the highway and plunged back into thick, passionate crowds. When the going got tough, the cheering got tougher and finding a final surge to the finish was never easier.
The reward? Volunteers handed out cool black finisher towels and sparkling medals. Overall, it’s a fine haul especially when considering the astounding amount of aid on the course; in other words Yokohama gives you bang for your entry buck.
As for the t-shirt, a switch in sponsors led to a change in design. While friends lauded the new “sensible” or fashionable style, the stripe-less navy blue shirt shattered my expectations and left me feeling sour. But I like sour things and regardless of the lack of stripes, this year’s shirt is pretty cool, too.
a foreign-friendly experience
Overall, Yokohama is a fun, accessible experience, especially for foreigners. Overseas runners have their own check-in booth and Yokohama is an international, English-friendly city.
Anywhere I went around the marathon, helpful volunteers were eager to help, in English. Even morning announcements were made in Japanese and English.
the tokyo alternative?
If you live abroad and dream of Tokyo Marathon but fail to gain entry, Yokohama might be the next best choice. It’s convenient and foreign friendly.
Sure, it’s not Tokyo, but it’s pretty close (pun intended).