Official time 4:03:29 and 4 minutes 39 seconds PR compared to my last race at the Chicago Marathon (4:08:08) two months earlier. I was super thrilled and surprised that I ran a negative split of 2:04/ 1:59 on my third marathon. Total elevation was more than 1200 feet with more hills in the second half. I think the last six months' training in hilly Hong Kong has paid off. This race also reconfirmed my love for cold weather running.
Winding back to ten days before the race, I had caught a cold and lost my voice. I didn't run a single mile in the final week for fear of making my cold worse. In lieu of my last long run of 12 miles, I took a nice long walk to The Peak, enjoyed some green space and lovely views of Hong Kong. I felt a whole lot better just being outside with some fresh air. In retrospect I was really glad that I skipped running for a whole week, I knew all the training was done weeks ago and no amount of running in the last week could add to my race performance.
Packing for the Race
The fun started a few days prior to the race, I spent an evening trying different running outfits and deciding on what to wear at the start line. I needed something to keep me warm before the race and unloved so I could toss it into the donation bin. I found an old ski jacket which I hadn't worn for over a decade but I wasn’t quite ready to let it go. After searching through my wardrobe and everywhere else, I failed to find another sensible option since I had already given everything else up at various running races. That old ski jacket was the answer for Nara. I learned that running did not only help to lose flab, it also helped to lose wardrobe clutter.
What to Wear on Race Day
It was warm in Hong Kong when I packed for the race, which made it difficult to imagine how to dress for running in freezing temperatures. My two years of living and running in New York gave me a bit of experience. Coming to think about it, I had never nailed my running dress code. I was usually too cold at the beginning and too sweaty at the end of a run. For the Nara Marathon, I decided to pack several options of running tops, zip ups, pants, gloves, hats and neck warmers. Hopefully I would feel well enough to do a test run on Saturday, at least to figure out exactly what to wear on race day.
Getting to Nara
The journey from Kansai International Airport to Nara was pretty straight forward. The three main options were a direct coach service, the Japan Railways (JR) or the Kintetsu Railways. Each transport option costed less than US$20 one way. I opted for JR because they had frequent services, it was relatively new and I wanted to experience the metro/ rail network. The whole journey from airport to hotel took less than two hours.
By the time I got to Nara, it was dark and cold. The temperature was a little shock to the system and the weather forecast was expecting 0C/ 32F on race day. I used to love cold weather running, but I started to wonder if the last few months of living in Hong Kong had made me soft. Also, I hadn’t run a single mile for more than a week. Would I still remember how to run? I was a little scared but excited at the same time because I was really looking forward to running in the cold.
An Easy Test Run in Nara Park
The next day, I went for a test run, which was exactly what I needed. It was my last chance to try out my winter gear, to check on my breathing after my cold and to explore beautiful Nara.
The run turned out to be a blast. The weather was sunny and crispy, which was perfect for running and sightseeing. I ran an easy 5 miles through town and a loop inside Nara Park. What a gorgeous place to explore in Japan and to meet some super cute deer! My breathing was fine and my gear was too warm. I wore a long sleeved running top, lightweight jacket, long running pants, compression socks, a woollen hat and gloves. I had to take off my jacket about a mile into the run. I decided to swap the jacket for a half zip-up top on race day tomorrow.
A Short Walk to the Expo
After my test run, I headed over to the Expo at the Naraden Stadium. It was really easy to get there as there were volunteers all the way from the train station through the 15 minutes walk to the Expo. The stadium was also the start and the finish for the race. It was a great opportunity to familiarise with the area and work out race day logistics. There was even a dedicated desk for international runners to collect their race bibs and T-shirts. There was no queue and the collection took less than a minute.
Marathon or Food Expo?
The highlight of the expo was the food. There was an amazing selection of yakis, okonomiyaki, takoyaki, yakitori, burgers, sausages, soups, stews, sweet treats and local delicacies. For a moment I forgot I was at a marathon expo, it might as well be a food festival!
I headed back to town late afternoon and went to the pre-race dinner close to the Kintetsu-Nara station. Dinner was a delicious hot pot udon bowl, which was perfect for a cold evening and fuelling for race day tomorrow.
Getting to the Start Line
The race started at a civilised 9am. I arrived with an hour to spare, but after some faffing around the baggage drop and a long bathroom queue I almost missed my corral. Once I was through security, there was an announcement in Japanese and suddenly everyone rushed to the corrals. Thousands of runners were already lined up tidily all over the stadium field and a running track on the outside. I realised I was one of the last people who made the 8:45am cut off.
There was no way to accurately describe how the corrals worked but a picture speaks a thousand words. I have cropped the elaborate corral formation from the participant guide (see picture on the right). Corral A was next to Corral B; Corral C was ahead of Corral D; Corrals C and D were in front of A and B. It made total sense, right? There were more than 10,000 marathon runners and yet such an intricate corral arrangement was no obstacle to the Japanese. The corral plan was beautifully executed. It was something to behold.
The start line was so inconspicuous that I just about managed to start my Garmin and completely missed checking the big clock as I crossed. I didn't remember much of the first mile as I was concentrating on my breathing, pacing and clothing. Then I realised that I had forgotten to remove my foot warmers. It wasn't even that cold to worth putting on foot warmers in the first place. How stupid! I was such an idiot. They were made for skiing, not for running, and definitely not for a marathon. It felt awkward running with them in my shoes, and even more awkward to stop so early in the race.
I stopped before the 5k mark to remove the foot warmers. I was too flustered to time my stop but I guessed it took less than two minutes. I told myself it was ok. There were 23 miles left to recover those 100 seconds, only 4-5 seconds faster at every mile would make up for the lost time.
My feet felt so much better now. I settled into a comfortable rhythm and started paying attention what was around me. There were hundreds of funny and inspiring costumes on and along the race course, Pokémon, Minions, Dragon Ball, Ironman, Spiderman, Super Mario and many more. Even some of the crowds by the road side and housewives at the food stations were dressed up as fluffy animals or something insane. It was quite an eye opener.
Like the Nara Marathon Expo, the food stations along the race course was the highlight. Days before I was laughing at the food stations plan in the participant guide. I didn’t think many runners would stop to eat somen or zenzai during a marathon. I was plain wrong. I must have seen around 20-30 runners stopping by the road to eat noodles. And they weren’t shoving noodles into their mouths, they were eating noodles with cutlery in a perfectly calm and civilised way (as far as I could tell as I was running and watching them).
Tenri Brass Band
Another very cute part of the race were a couple of turn-offs at the City of Tenri after the 25km mark. There was a massive tent with a brass band playing music in the open air. I saw a lot of runners going into the big tent but I couldn't quite make out what was exactly in there. I assumed there must be some food expo and massage therapists helping out. I would love to know, only if someone could tell me what exactly was happening there.
A Hilly Course
I couldn't find any detailed information about the elevation before the race. However, as I was writing this blog, I found a really detailed and colourful elevation chart across six pages of the Nara Marathon DETAILED guide. Why didn't I see this earlier? Oh. Never mind
If you cared to know about the elevation, here it is. The first 5km was pretty flat with some gentle slopes at 5-10km,. There were steeper climbs around 16-19 km (65 meters) and 29 - 31km (63 meters), a moderate climb (30 meters) between 35 -37km. The steepest climb was at 29km, but there was a noodle stand with some super friendly volunteers at the top of that climb. I sure it was great motivation for all the noodle eating runners! One final note, there was one nasty little climb at 41km, which felt like Mount Everest after the previous 40km. By then I was so fed up that I just wanted to get to the stadium and be done with it.
Just as I thought I couldn't see the end of the tunnel, I made it to the Naraden Stadium. The race was over and I got a PR! I took a lot of celebratory selfies, collected my medal, finisher towel, water and hot tea at the end of the race. The best part was being able to collect my finisher's certificate right away. Their efficiency was amazing.
Post -Race Thoughts
Nara was brilliant. If you are considering a race in Japan, I would highly recommend Nara. The event was well-organized, the city was beautiful and very easy to get to from Osaka or Kyoto or Tokyo. I could feel the warmth and hospitality from the organisers, volunteers and the crowds. The runners and everyone else was so well-behaved.
If I Were to Do It Again
I also realised that I did the race all wrong. I have missed out on the best part of Nara Marathon. It was actually a food trail and a fancy dress party with bits of hilly running between food stations. I wished I had practiced eating somen and zenzai during my long runs. I will have to come back to Japan for another race.