Thursday, February 28, 2013

Japan - Awesome and Awful

It's been a week since I returned from my trip to Japan, so it's about time to get my blog on... 

I titled the post "Awesome and Awful," because the trip was truly an amazing experience.  Huge shout out to the Bloomington Sister City Organization and its counterpart in Japan (the IIEA) for sponsoring the marathon runner exchange program.  Three other Bloomington runners along with myself and our travel companions were given the royal treatment.  Meeting new people, seeing the sights, doing some arts & crafts, learning about the Japanese culture, and trying the was a trip I will never forget.
The Bloomington Marathon Runners with the Mayor of Izumi (Bloomington's Sister City).
Maneki Neko - the Japanese kitty that brings good luck...too bad I met him AFTER the marathon. :)

Enjoying the view from the Osaka Castle - an impressive structure loaded with history.
A zen moment in one of the gorgeous Japanese parks/gardens.  ;)

But this isn't a travel blog, let's get to the awful part of the trip, which unfortunately was my running performance.  I took part in the 20th anniversary running of the Senshu International Marathon.  It will be impossible to describe everything about this experience, but I'll give it my best shot.

Weather - 30-40 and mostly cloudy, couldn't have asked for better weather especially considering the days before and after the race it either rained pretty heavily or snowed!

Field of runners - 5,500 people for the special anniversary year of the race. Mostly Japanese runners, but a decent field of international competition including some quick Aussies.

Course - mostly flat and straight line until the last 10k where you start twisting and turning, and then do an out and back across two very steep-hilled bridges. (Note: turns out the course was probably long on distance. My Garmin, which usually ends up being short when I run the tangents, came in at 26.34 when I crossed the finish line.)

Fans - different from US races. There were a lot of people out for the anniversary race, but instead of cheering very loudly, they wave little flags and clap relatively reservedly. Although I must say, I was smiling and waving (I couldn't help myself, I was running in JAPAN!) and it seemed to earn me some extra cheers and delight from the spectators! :)

Special notes - I have never seen so many runners smoking cigarettes and/or pounding energy drinks before a race as I saw here.  Crazy!  The bathroom situation on course was...unique. They don't put portable toilets along course. Instead, they had signs on course indicating a bathroom is nearby, but you are supposed to raise your hand and be escorted by a race marshall to the facilities. Most were not within eyesight of the course; breakdown! AND only 6 drink stations on course. I felt thirsty! And anyone who knows me, knows I am a camel and rarely drink so this was a challenge.

My Race Plan - run in control, think of the race as training for Boston. Try to run even pace throughout and finish around 3:00.

What Actually Happened - well, I knew I would have a hard time running 7:00/mile at the beginning with the excitement and adrenaline flowing, but I was really trying to focus on not tearing myself up for Boston. I'm waaaay behind on training because of my flu/pneumonia episode, and the month following the Japan marathon is going to be critical for getting as ready as possible. So I went out at about 6:15/mile, and it felt easy. I gradually slowed but to a pace that still had me on target for a 2:50-2:55 finish. I felt the urge to use the facilities about 6k into the race, but due to toilets being so far from course, I just kept holding it. I also had a bit of a funny stomach. The race didn't start until 10:30am, and although I ate a larger breakfast than normal to accommodate for the late start, I think I was low on fuel from the gun from not eating much leading up to the race (due to the unique Japanese food I was experiencing). To make matters worse, due to my funny stomach, I only ate about 1/4 GU throughout the entire race. So...not unsurprisingly, I was the 4th female and on pace for 2:50-2:55 at 30k, but then the wheels fell off. I eventually had to stop to use the bathroom, a few women starting passing me by, and the hills on the bridge were killer. Fortunately I was smart enough to let go of my competitive nature, focus on Boston, and slow down and just enjoy the experience. Have I mentioned...I was running in Japan?! :) I finally limped home around 3:04. What was kind of funny was that although this was my slowest race in the last 3 years, 2nd slowest ever, I still placed well among the female field of competitors. 7th overall and 3rd for non-registered runners ("registered" runners are those enlisted with the Japanese running association). I won a sweet trophy and was recognized in a cool awards ceremony. So overall, an unforgettable experience and I am extremely grateful for the opportunity. Big props to the Bloomington Sister City Organization!

I went with the ponytail for the first time ever; much less aerodynamic.  I'm going back to the bun for Boston.  And speaking of a bun, despite the cool weather, my capri-tights were way too long.  I didn't know if the Japanese public was ready for my other buns, but those will be back for Boston too.  ;)
3rd Non-Registered Female.

Final note - I wouldn't be myself if I wasn't extremely worried about Boston coming up. I'm in great shape for training. I wasn't sore at all after the race and have been able put in a couple of decent workouts since I returned, but I don't know if I have enough time. I missed the bulk of winter training. My speed seems to be there, but my endurance just isn't. One month might not be enough to build that up, but you can bet all of my energies will be focused laser-like on April 15.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Tuning up for Toyko...or rather, Osaka

Okay, this is it...don't get scared now.  In just about 48 hours I will be making my way half way around the world to meet and run with the good people of Izumi, Japan!  Huge thanks to the Bloomington Sister City Organization who hosts the exchange.  I am so appreciative for this opportunity, one that is sure to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Since taking about one month off due to illness, I've been anxious about how ready I am for the Senshu International Marathon (Feb 17).  I've only had one hard training session since the beginning of January, and my mileage has been relatively non-existent by marathon training standards.  So to shake off the cobwebs, my MN RED coach (and teammates) opted to race a small, local 10k this morning in Mahtomedi, MN.

There were only about 80 participants, it was only a 10k, and the weather and course weren't anywhere near ideal, but it was a competition; something I was in dire need of before jumping into the Japan race.  My training partners Brian Davenport (Slim) and Rob Economy (Poppa Rob) were on hand to help set the pace of the race.  Both outstanding marathoners, and with better leg speed than me, I knew the goal for the day was just to keep them in sight.  I had been planning on working together with another one of my training buddies, Melissa Gacek (2008 Olympic Trials participant), but her kid was blowing chunks on race morning, so she was benched for mom duty.

Slim, Poppa Rob, and I warmed up around 8:15am on course for the 9:00am start.  The streets were a little icy on the edges and corners, but we found some good lines to follow.  We were set.  9:00am, we queued up at the start line and off we went.  The course was an out-back that started off straight up hill...brutal at the beginning, but good for the finish.  Slim, Poppa Rob, and I made our way about a mile and were already separated from the pack.  Approaching the first intersection, we were guided by a couple of high school kids to take a right turn...not unusual except for the fact that when we warmed up on course, we had gone straight through that same intersection.  There was no lead vehicle.  This was interesting...

           Poppa Rob in the lead, Slim in his neon kicks (viewable from space),
                          and me bringing up the rear

We quickly found ourselves off of residential streets and on "gravel" roads.  I say "gravel" because it was really more of a slippery, slushy, packed snow/ice surface instead of gravel.  What the heck?  Our crew was still holding together, and confused about the turn of events.  Come to find out later, we warmed up on the 5k course.  This was in fact, the correct 10k course.  The next 4 miles would be on this garbage surface with all racers fighting to keep their feet under them.  Poppa Rob almost went down once, another MN RED runner actually did take a tumble; it was tough going.

Around mile 2, Slim started breaking away from Poppa Rob and I.  This dude is a gazelle.  6 feet, some inches of graceful power.  It's fun to watch...from behind...which is where I usually find myself.  It's great though, I love having something to aspire to!  We made it to the halfway point, carefully whipped a U-turn on the slippery roads, and started back.  I wasn't feeling great so I backed off a bit and Poppa Rob gapped me.  I caught a little breather and then refocused.  His gap was about 5-10 seconds and I was going to do my best to keep him there (or close the gap).  Slim, Poppa Rob, and I maintained our spacing for the last two miles, all finishing pretty strong, considering we had spent the entire race fighting to keep our balance and gain traction on the ruthless MN back roads.

We crossed the line 1, 2, 3 - Slim in 35:05, Poppa Rob in 35:47, and me in 35:50.  A PR!  Well, that is until I realized the course was a little short.  Add about 60 seconds and you have our true 10k times.  I was still pretty pumped with my splits, which were all right around 6:00/mile.  Considering the course conditions, I'll take it. 

                                                                My sweet prize

After the race, my coach and I hatched a plan for Japan.  Boston has always been the ultimate goal for spring and nothing has changed.  The trip to, and race in, Japan are going to be for fun.  Because of the training time that I lost while sick, it's going to be a battle to get sharp for Boston.  The race in Japan needs to be an "easy" training run so that when I get back, Coach Ron can beat the crap out of me (so to speak) for 4 weeks to make up for lost time and get me primed for Bean Town.  Hopefully I can behave and stick to the 3:00-3:10 marathon we have in mind for Japan.  I know the competitor in me will hate not to leave everything on course, but I have to keep my eyes on the prize!