It’s Tokyo Marathon weekend: “marathon mania” Japanese-style.February 25, 2011
By Alan Brookes
February 25th. This weekend it’s “Tokyo Marathon time” [not Suntory time!] I was there last year, but very sadly I will only be watching it from afar this time. My trip last February was ABSOLUTELY amazing! It was a definite marathon “life experience”, unlike anything I’d seen before in almost 30 years on the marathon scene. It was the marathon Asian style. On steroids! Finally, one year later, I’ve processed some of my pics and posted my Tokyo Marathon & Expo 2010 Facebook album.The numbers, the animation, the energy, the organization, the crowds, all made it patently obvious as to why so many Japanese consider Japan the “home of the marathon” and not Greece, Boston, New York, or London. Japan has the great tradition of the Fukuoka Marathon — a men’s only invitation only, where Jerome Drayton set the existing Canadian marathon record of 2:10:09 WAY back in 1975. It’s been around since 1947. It’s where Tsegaye Kebede ran 2:05:18 for the fastest marathon on Japanese soil in 2009. But it is a made-for-TV, championship-style race with only a 100 or so participants annually, drawn from the world’s best, pitted against Japan’s best. When the World Marathon Majors were formed in January 2006, and there was no Japanese member, one suspects the Japanese were mortified. One suspects they were politely told that to be one of the World Marathon MAJORS, you had to have “a mass participatory field completing the same course as the elites, [and] take place in a major international market.” WMM was about big-city marathons, with HUGE numbers of participants, spectators, and all the fun of the fair, to glamorize the sport — and Fukuoka just didn’t cut it!
Then the Tokyo Marathon was born, February 18th, 2007. It became the first mass-marathon, open to the public/recreational runners in Japan. Now the Honolulu Marathon was no longer the only option for regular Japanese runners, and “marathon mania” caught fire in Japan.
Tokyo has showed the world. With a budget reported to be in the US$20 million range, with the Tokyo City Government and Asics corporation as a major partners, they took flight. And the organization is phenomenal. Last year, I rode in one of the lead vehicles with Mike Nishi General Manager in Chicago and John & Stacey Conley the RDs from Austin. The organization was astounding. We’d never seen so MANY cones. We reckon their must have been 50,000 on the course. And the Course Marshalls. Kowabunga! Literally, they were every 10m or 15m, on both sides of the road, for the whole 42km. Do the math. At 15m separation, that’s 5,600, all beautifully decked out in their yellow and grey Asics rain coats. The pictures in my Photo Albumn tell the story best. Marshalls, cones, and fabulous crowds along the whole route in the POURING rain. With Tokyo Marathon’s lead, the marathon wave in Japan has become a tsunami. This year — only the 5th edition — they had 335,000 applications for 30,000 places. That’s 1/3 of a million applications!
The BIG news leading to this year’s Tokyo Marathon was the on-again, off-again story of World Record holder Haile Gebreselassie. Confirmed last Fall, he then dramatically announced his retirement after dropping out of last year’s New York City Marathon [something I was able to tweet on, "live" from the NYCM press conference]. Then Haile “unretired,” only to withdraw from Tokyo again yesterday with “bruised knees” following a fall in training.
But never mind, we have a special Canadian connection to follow and cheer for on Sunday. Arata Fujiwara, the current Ottawa Marathon Champion and 2nd place finisher in Tokyo last February, will be in this year’s race. He’ll be in tough, against a strong international cast: Kenyans Felix Limo (2:06:14 PR), Paul Biwott (2:07:03), and Salim Kipsang (2:07:29); Ethiopians Yemane Tsegay (2:06:30) and Hailu Mekonnen (2:07:37). But with the withdrawal of the World Record holder, Haile Gebrselassie yesterday, owing to injury, plus the the guy who beat him last year — Honda Team’s Masakazu Fujiwara [no relation] — things maybe got a LITTLE easier…
On the women’s side, Japan’s Yoko Shibui is the leading woman entered (2:19:41 PR).
Brett Larner, a Winnipeger living in Tokyo, who brought Arata to Ottawa, and Team Japan to Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon last Fall has a full preview of men’s and women’s races on his excellent blog, Japan Running News [in English!]. [Scroll down under Preview of Men's Race for Women's story].
Better than my words, I think the pictures tell the story! So… I’ve FINALLY managed to edit and post a Gallery of my Tokyo Marathon photos from my trip last year. It was an unforgettable experience. From the Expo to the race, it took me to another place where I’d never been before. “The Marathon” Japanese style. From landing at Narita on the Wednesday evening, to my departure Monday afternoon, it was a blast! I was met at Narita by Miho from our Japanese Tour Operator partner, Maple Fun Tours, and whisked directly to Big Sight Convention Centre to complete the “build” of our Expo booth for STWM. You can see me at the booth, plus Aragane-san, Miho, Kazu and all the Maple Fun team. And no prizes for picking out the comedian, Neco-san who appeared in a whirlwind at our booth on the Saturday at 11am. He did dozens of photos with fans [with his signature cat-pose, as "neco" is Japanese for "cat"], and sold 50 of his jokes books in an hour, and then was gone… to pop up again the next day running a sub-3 hour marathon!
That’s how the weekend was, A whirlwind. The Expo photos show us — “Tokyo in the rush hour”, and “New York on steroids”. It made the Expos in New York or London or Boston look like library reading rooms! Every booth was BIG, loud, each with their own giant screens, speaker systems, speakers, dancers, “hawkers” holding signs high above the heads of the crowds for visibility and yelling invitations. Zany interactive contests: shoelace-tying contests; pick your magic number. And everything built up high with neon, just like the streetscapes in Shinjuku near our hotel and the Start — and everywhere for that matter.
You can get the idea when you see non-rush-hour at Shinjuku station – our local station to get from the hotel to Big Site on the green and blue JR lines. Shinjuku is the busiest station on the Tokyo subway system. Daily traffic? Estimated in 2007 as an average of 3.64 MILLION passengers a day moving through the station!
The crowds will be pouring through Shinjuki from Race HQ Keio Plaza Hotel to Big Sight today and tomorrow. Running and lining the streets with more spectators than London, New York or Chicago on Sunday.
And everywhere — contrary to my pre-conceptions — folks were friendly and had a real sense of humour, like Neco-san. Different, for sure, but NOT “Lost in Translation”.
So, let’s turn our eyes and thoughts to Tokyo this weekend, to a marathon tsunami Asian-style, wish them no rain, and raise a glass with them Sunday night… KAMPAI!
If any of you have Tokyo Marathon stories, please share them with us!
Just In… a nice piece in today’s New York Times on Tokyo Marathon and it’s transforming impact.