Fukuchiyama Marathon ranks pretty high up the list for bizarre things I’ve done. It formed part of the three marathons in eight days I completed in Japan and it was really just pure luck that I was able to string together Kobe – Fukuchiyama – Fujisan simply because Fukuchiyama was run on a Wednesday! A Wednesday! Who does that? 10000 Japanese people it seems. Where in Australia would you ever get 10000 people running a marathon on a Wednesday, let alone in the middle of nowhere?
Nothing about Fukuchiyama was very easy for us. The event had a static website with no English translation and hence I had to rely on Google Translate to work out how to enter and all things that came after that. The entry procedure was common to most Japanese races, being through Runnet, but unlike Kobe and Fujisan where there was an English version, Fukuchiyama was only available on the Japanese language site. It wouldn’t accept my name and hence I had to enter Japanese characters gleaned from Translate, which is how my name came up as Apricot Sakaeri when it translated back again! I contacted the race organisers several times asking for a little more information on a couple of points and to ask them to change my name and received no response. On the day of the event I found my name was changed so evidently they were able to work out what I was after.
I had looked for accommodation in Fukuchiyama for the night before the marathon and quickly realised there was nothing. This town was really small! We had planned on spending the day either side of the marathon in Kyoto which was two hours by train from Fukuchiyama, and with bib collection open 7-9am and the event at 10:30am, timing to get the 6:30am train and arrive before bib collection closed was going to be really tight.
Two days before we left for Japan an email arrived with a 16 page pdf document giving a substantial amount of detail about the event – all in Japanese. I spent ages cutting and pasting the information into Translate and was glad I did as one of the tips was that a special train was being run from Kyoto to Fukuchiyama on the day of the event. I could see from the detail that it was arriving around 8:20am and buses would take runners from the station to the start line and figured this had to be fine in terms of timing. Getting that train was the big sticking point of the day.
The night before the event we found an Italian restaurant right near our hotel and had a lovely pasta meal. One review of the restaurant had urged diners to ask for tomato beer however we had trouble conveying this to the staff and instead settled for sparkling white wine! I guess pasta is not unlike noodles, but eating pasta with chopsticks was quite a hoot.
I realised too I’d left my spi belt in Hiroshima after having washed it and left it to dry on a lamp in the hotel. A wonderful lady I’d met in Uluru who lives in Japan – Masako, had been messaging me and I asked her for the names of some Japanese sport stores where I could buy another. We located one in Kyoto and walked there. As we walked in the door the staff took one look at us and scattered! Nonetheless I found what I was after and all was good.
We had asked our hotel whether we could have our included breakfast to take on the train the next morning, given we’d be leaving for the station around 6am. With the response being a firm “No take out” we ordered a taxi and arrived at the station with plenty of time to buy a coffee and something to eat. Unfortunately the food vendors didn’t open until 6:30am and we had to settle for canned coffee out of a vending machine as the train departed right on 6:30am.
I was getting a bit worried by now about nutrition. We sat on the train for the next two hours watching the Japanese runners munching their way through countless sushi rolls while we had nothing. On arrival we bolted with the crowd from the train station about two blocks to the waiting buses. It was freezing! I was shaking so much just standing in the line and I was wearing multiple layers and gloves. By now I’d noted Craig and I were the only Caucasians in the vicinity, and at 195cm, Craig stood out, towering above the lines of people. We were relatively quickly onto a bus, followed on by more runners who flipped out little seats in the aisle of the bus, allowing it to carry another whole column of people.
On arrival at the sport centre it was apparent this was a basketball stadium in a large sport centre on the top of a big hill. It was just so cold. Everything was in Japanese. We had no idea what was going on. I knew my bib number from the Runnet site and approached the table where collecting the bib went smoothly. The quadrangle area outside the stadium was ringed with food stalls and we saw the choices were miso soup or sushi. Craig bought a box of sushi and being super hungry, I accepted this wasn’t my usual pre race meal, and almost inhaled three pieces of sushi.
There was a tiny line for a massive number of female toilets down an incline, although the line for the men’s toilets was reasonably long. Still shaking from the cold we decided rather than use these toilets, to go inside the stadium to escape the weather. The noise was extraordinary, with a running commentary from a very loud and excited Japanese lady, whom Craig later told me screamed happily into the microphone for three hours! Every available space was packed with runners. I found a queue to a female toilet and stood in it. A few minutes later a female runner approached me and beckoned for me to follow her. I did so and about 30 metres away were more toilets, with no queue! What a darling! I don’t really know why she approached me – perhaps the first queue had only the dreaded squat toilets available or maybe she chose me because I stood out a bit. Either way, she was amazing for doing so.
Getting closer to 10:30am we decided to venture back outside. I knew my start gate was around “G” from “I” gates. We followed the crowd and I entered the start area. Craig was able to walk right up to the tape separating runners from spectators, and we stood together for another 15 minutes or so before the start. I knew it was going to be pretty lonely for us both – at that point it seemed 9999 Japanese runners, and me! And heaps of Japanese spectators, and Craig!
Turns out there were two other Caucasian ladies there but they were behind me and I have no idea whether they spoke English either. Craig spent hours sitting inside the basketball stadium, surrounded by people, and completely alone!
We set off running in freezing condition and light rain. The first kilometre was down the hill to the road that led into the town. I was wearing a plastic poncho supplied by the race organisers and it was wonderful for both the rain and keeping a bit warm in those conditions. Around 5km I was warm enough to take it off and I folded it carefully and put it in a pocket because the forecast was for rain from 1pm.
I knew the second sticking point of the day was the 11km mark when the course finished the loop of Fukuchiyama and came back across to the bottom of the hill, just down from the start and where I knew Craig was sitting in the stadium. I had been having problems with my knee and had almost resolved to just finish Kobe (which I had) and abandon Fukuchiyama and Fujisan. I thought 20 marathons could be a good number on which to retire. I’d spoken about this with my running friends who had encouraged me to try all three marathons but had also supported the notion of stopping at Kobe. I also knew that the marathon had a six hour cut off and I had no hope of making that cut off if I walked. I had to run at least 14km at my usual race pace, and then I could walk if my knee was no good.
And so as I came around at 11km, still doing a fairly good time, the thoughts of “Stop; Stop now; Give up; You’ve done enough” and worse – “You can’t do this” were yelling very loudly in my head. I did a quick check of my body – everything felt surprisingly normal. My knee was good. I told myself I’d run another kilometre and didn’t get any support from the “Stop” thoughts. I searched for a solution and remembered Craig saying he had found singing a particular song helpful in the days of running when he had struggled, and thus launched into the many many verses and variations of that parenting classic “The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round”. I must have sung that song for the next 5km. Anytime I stopped the negative thoughts cut back in but as I got closer to 16km I knew I was going to be fine. And I knew I’d make the cut off. I was running well.
The turnaround was at 24km and I had been thinking gratefully of the shorter leg back as there was no repeat of the loop. The road was wet from rain earlier that morning and as my shoes let sweat out (and water in!), my socks had been getting progressively wetter. I had wrapped my little toe in the dressing I’d been using very successfully to mitigate blisters. however the dressing became quite waterlogged and my toe suddenly became extremely painful, just 500 metres before the turnaround. So frustrating! I stopped when I saw a medic and using miming, indicated I’d like a new dressing. He gave me three plastic bandaids and made a sympathetic noise when he saw my toe, and off I went again.
My toe came good with the new coverings and next stop was the portaloos. None of them were Western style toilets! I’d Googled how to use a squat toilet, as our guide in Hiroshima had suggested all toilets in a little place like Fukuchiyama would be squats. I knew to ensure there was toilet paper within reach before attempting to use, and the first toilet had none! Phew – glad I’d read that! The second toilet had paper, and also had urine and faeces all around the area on which you stand. I toughened up and did what I needed to do quite successfully! Except, as I stood up the plastic poncho fell out of my pocket and onto the floor, resting on top of the human waste. Bummer! I was going to get wet as the rain was starting.
At 32km in Kobe I was wrecked. Stomach cramps. Walking. At 32km at Fukuchiyama I was feeling pretty good. I’d had the time out with the medic and then with the toilet adventure, so I threw caution to the wind and at the next aid station picked up an hot drink. It tasted pretty good although I have no idea what it was. Nonetheless the next 2km were two of the best I ran in the whole event. I zoomed along, passing maybe 800 people! Who knows what that little cup of brown liquid actually held, but it was rocket fuel for me.
And the zooming didn’t really wear off. Those next 10km flew by. I passed so many people. It was crazy. When I looked back at the results, 35-40km were as fast as 0-5km and 5-10km.
About 3km to go a man ran up behind me and then overtook. I must have been feeling good as I decided to tail him to the finish. I knew we had the final kilometre back up the hill, but for the next 2km I tried to stay right on his heels. We hit the hill and everyone started to fade. I was determined to run that hill and about halfway up I overtook the man I’d been tailing. But really, who finishes a marathon on a hill like that? Nuts!
I ran over the finish, calling out to Craig who had been there waiting for me. There was no medal for this event, but instead a shirt and a certificate they printed on the spot. I found Craig and we went back inside the stadium where I found the same toilets again in order to get changed. I popped into the first one available – squat toilet! I came to see design issues with squat toilets – sure, there’d been a lot of people using the facilities in the day; maybe the cleaning staff were a bit light on; but really, there seems to be urine everywhere in those cubicles and getting changed in one required meticulous care, especially when it came to shoes and socks.
We grabbed some more food in the quadrangle, and headed back to the buses. It was still freezing – about three degrees, with rain. Craig was chilled through from sitting and standing in the weather all day. The Japanese out did themselves again with post race food, facilities and people management. We were quickly on a bus and back to the train station. Downside of the two hour trip back to Kyoto was we could not get a seat on the train and stood up for perhaps 90 minutes of this trip. It wasn’t too bad as it forced me to do some stretches and in truth these were probably a good idea!
After the disaster that was Kobe and then finishing Fukuchiyama with a smile, Craig said to me “how do you think you’ll go at Mt Fuji?” to which I responded “I’ll be fine”. Even though I’d done 112km that week in Chile and Antarctica, I’d had some very significant doubts about Japan. It was a massive relief to have done Fukuchiyama well under the six hour cut off, and a real boost to confidence that I could do it without being wrecked. My knee was all good. Bring on Fujisan!
Fukuchiyama Marathon was number 21.