Kyoto Marathon 2016 – Spectator report


It’s a bit tricky to watch a marathon; 42.195 km around a closed track would be good for spectators, but would be hell for the 16,000 participants.  By the way, 16,000 starters took up 3/4 of two regulation running tracks shoulder to shoulder, so a track event is out of the question.  Incredibly, all 16,000 passed the start line in less than 15 minutes.

Why does Kyoto have a marathon?

As we’ve seen, Japan has an obsessive love of running that might not be as obvious as its love of karaoke, extraordinary food or pop idols, but it is every bit as powerful.  Of the top 100 male marathon runners, about 94 are African and 6 are Japanese.  Of the top 100 female marathon runners, about 85 are African and about 12 are Japanese. [The Way of the Runner]

Don’t take this the wrong way, but the Kyoto Marathon is mostly about giving runners a beautiful view of a beautiful city.  The narrow roads and dirt riverside paths don’t lend themselves to a serious race.  However, the sights, the extensive menu of of energy snacks and the regular and enthusiastic cheer squads give it a special character.

And as with most things, there are important concepts that must also be combined.

Great Eastern Earthquake commemoration

The first Kyoto Marathon was held on 11 March 2012. A number of runners from the affected areas can run for free, and they wore purple ribbons to signify their presence. The starting ceremony included a moment’s silence.

Do you Kyoto?

Environmental issues are also emphasised. The Kyoto Protocol took effect on 16 February 2005.  Tap water was supplied, not 20000 2L bottles, 21 February was declared “Car free day”, the event was carbon-neutral and printing was minimised. Nice.

Following the action – my secret weapon

My secret weapon was a Micro Suspension scooter.  It’s big 200mm wheels and suspension would run over cobbles and coarse asphalt, I hoped.  The test in Tokyo showed that it worked well.

The course headed West after exiting the stadium.  I hoped to go North to intercept at about the 10km mark and at the top of a hill.  The maps provided were vague and only showed a selection of major roads.  I headed North… I reckoned.

Guide No. 1

Fortunately I found a guide; a woman running North at about 4:00/km!  She was looking at an annotated map of the course that seemed to show where to meet someone who was running.  I asked if the road was the best road to the marathon course.  She said that she was going there too, so we ran and rolled together.

She told me that her boyfriend was in group G (from A to K, not including I).  I asked why she wasn’t running as she seemed very fast.

I reached the top of Ichijō-dōri and Route 162 to find the B to D runners running past.  Despite waiting until the support vehicles, I didn’t see Chikako in the crowd of runners.  But I could see that she had passed the 10km mark some time before, and at a good steady pace, so I moved to the next rendezvous.

Following the course was not an option; the roads would not reopen for a while and the narrow footpaths would be clogged with spectators.  I had to go back down the hill (testing the limits of the brake) and ride east.

Guide No.2

I managed to get to a main road Nishijō-dōri with my inadequate map.  I stumbled across some Australians staying in Kyoto for 2 months but who live in Norway; they helped confirm my path.  I can’t believe I couldn’t remember “Mange takk, tusan takk” to thank them.

I reached Imadegawa-dōri and turned East.  I found a new guide.

Guide No.3

My third guide was easy to spot.  Just like the first guide, she was in running shoes, compression socks, carrying a small backpack and was fast. Unlike my first guide, she was wearing a cow-print onesie!

Again, she agreed to help me find the course.  She ran even faster; slowing down at bus stops, but not much else.  At one point she hurdled the front wheel of a motorbike who didn’t stop in time.

Guide Nos. 4 & 5

My third guide turned off to visit a shrine, but I quickly found a couple on their 50’s running in the same direction.  We ran and rolled past the Kyoto Imperial Palace gardens; me ringing my bell to get clear path and them running behind, and not much slower than the previous two.

I reached the river; again about 30 minutes ahead of ETA.

The waiting, the weather, the wind

My original plan had included scoping the course beforehand so I could estimate the time it would take to get around.  I’d hoped to stop along the way to warm up and recharge at a cafe with Wi-Fi.  Unfortunately any rehearsal was spoiled by the atrocious weather.  I couldn’t quite work out where the 30km mark was.  However, I discovered an official photographer further up the river and I could stand on the bridge and get a good view.  A few minutes later guides 4 & 5 sat nearby. After they cheered their friend they ran over the bridge; the woman gave me two energy sweets.  How nice!

Chikako had just passed the 25km mark, so I knew that she would be here soon.  Except… both my compact camera and my iPhone decided that it was too cold to operate.  The camera refused to open, the iPhone displayed 1% battery.  I put them in my vest pockets to warm them up in the hope that they would return to life.

I saw Chikako and shouted to her from the bridge.  It will be a great photo.  She looked to be in good condition, given that this was the furthest she had run in one go!

Next rendezvous – 37km

Warm up the iPhone and find 65% of battery.  Enough for 7 seconds of bliss.

Finish line

Let’s leave that until the athlete interview.

Kyoto Marathon features a World Champion, of sorts

The race included the Nobel-Prize-winning stem-cell scientist Shinya Yamanaka who ran 3:44:42.

IMG_2827 (2)
Shinya Yamanaka: Nobel Prize, runs a sub-4 Hour marathon, one of Beat Takeshi’s heroes.

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