April 8, 2016
Taking Tokyo at 50
Story and Photos by Beth Whitman
Photo at right: On an early morning run, Beth discovered this torii gate in Kyoto, Japan.
“You’re not a runner, Beth. You might be in OK shape, but you’re not a runner.”
Those weren’t the words spoken to me from a young ultramarathoner. This was the mantra that replayed in my own head for years. Forty-five years to be exact.
I told myself I didn’t have the right body type. I thought my legs were too short and I wasn’t lithe like a long-distance runner should be.
These thoughts changed in my mid-40s. I traveled so much that I decided I needed a way to stay fit while on the road. I couldn’t always rely on a hotel having a gym or one that opened early enough for pre-dawn workouts. Running seemed an obvious solution. With just a little extra gear to pack I could run virtually anywhere.
I started running a few miles at a time around my West Seattle neighborhood. The problem however, was I would easily become bored. Even with runs as “long” as five miles, boredom forced me to return home, not sore legs or feet.
Regardless, I ran my way through pretty much every city I visited. While I got exercise and experienced destinations in ways that would have been impossible by car or public transportation, I was not in love with running. I simply found it to be a necessary evil on a path to better health.
The irony is that I had built a career on encouraging women to do things they thought they couldn’t do, and here I was with my own self-talk about what I could and could not accomplish.
I decided I needed a challenge. I needed something tough. I needed to do something I thought I could never do. I decided to do a marathon. And what better occasion to run a marathon than in my 50th birthday year?
Once I made the commitment to run an actual race, something magical happened. I changed my mantra to “How can I become a runner?” and, before I knew it, I became one. I actually believed I could run 26.2 miles.
By creating the conditions that would allow me to enjoy the sport, I also stopped becoming bored and instead became committed. I treated myself to the proper running gear, I loaded up my iPod with upbeat music and interesting podcasts, and I hired a coach who planned out my weekly runs.
My significant other, Jon, and I had talked for a long time about going to Japan. It was his dream since college and I’m always up for a new destination, however, we would put that trip off when other destinations took precedence.
I figured the best way for us to commit to visiting Japan was to sign up for a marathon. That way, we’d have a definitive date to go and I’d have a training goal.
Luckily the Tokyo Marathon was scheduled for Feb. 28, 2016 and landed during a window of time that was not only convenient for travel, but also to train in the months before the race.
Landing in Japan nearly two weeks ahead of the marathon, we spent time exploring the culture, landscape and food.
While Jon slept in, I explored Tokyo, Hakone and Kyoto on training runs. I ran through parks and manicured gardens in Tokyo, and past ancient temples, massive torii gates, and along the Kamo River in Kyoto. Along the way, I passed many Japanese runners who nodded, smiled, and gave me a thumbs-up in solidarity.
While not running, Jon and I successfully sought out foods that would accommodate our vegan diets while also feeding my nutritional needs for the race. In short, I felt well-prepared for the event.
The Tokyo Marathon is one of six Abbott World Marathon Majors—a series of marathons that are the largest and most renowned in the world. The full list includes marathons in Boston, London, Chicago, Berlin, and New York City.
Given its status as a Major, there were 37,000 other runners and I’d heard the course would be crowded and the first few miles slow.
Bringing liquids into the race was banned, so I’d need to rely on water stations and these, too, would be crowded. With so many participants and 10,000 volunteers—many of them English speakers—I imagined my goal time of 4 hours, 30 minutes as unattainable because I’d be fighting my way through other runners.
Although I fretted about the crowded course in the days leading up to the marathon, I told myself this was “just” a race. But deep down that 4:30 goal was important to me.
It was the pace at which I had trained during my long runs at home, but I had not run a slower pace consistently for 26.2 miles.
Prior to the race my doubts were eased by a Japanese friend who posted words of inspiration on my Facebook page, “Ganbatte! Have fun!” Ganbatte translates to “Do your best” in English.
While doing my best was all I could hope for, having fun had been the farthest thought from my mind. Both were good reminders.
I also started to understand that despite the country’s stoic and serious exterior the Japanese just want to have fun and do their best. I observed a lot of laughter and giggling from young and old alike. Kindness and smiles prevailed in the city as Jon and I explored, and also on the race course.
The Japanese are known for their amazing ability to organize and handle large crowds. Runners were corralled into appropriate starting times so that once past the start line, we were all moving at a similar pace.
While there were bottlenecks in a few spots, my fear of having to slowly jog for the first three miles or wait in line for water were mostly unfounded.
In the end I accomplished my goal and finished at 4:28:07. Even while focused, I was able to enjoy Tokyo’s skyscrapers, small shops, impeccably clean streets, and the experience of running a well-organized marathon.
This might be my first World Marathon Major, but it won’t be my last.
Beth Whitman’s many adventures have taken her around the world using many modes of transportation. She has now fallen in love with running and looks forward to many international marathons to come. Follow her at www.WanderlustAndLipstick.com and on Instagram @Wandergal