Monthly Archives: February 2012

Wish me luck in Tokyo this Sunday!

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Possibly my favourite marathon moment came in my second London Marathon, a mile from a finish which seemed never to get any closer.

I was at my lowest ebb; every step was agony; confusion had long since squeezed out whatever common sense I had left.

Maybe I had got the hydration wrong; maybe it just wasn’t my day. But something was seriously up, and I knew I had to get help from somewhere. Or someone.

And that’s the glory of the London Marathon. There are plenty of people to choose from, hundreds of thousands of them lining the route that takes you to the finish.

My good fortune is that I chose exactly the right person, a little angel of a lad, resplendent in his St John Ambulance uniform, standing on the corner as you turn into Parliament Square.

By now I was in last-resort territory. That resort was to thrust my chest towards randomly-selected bystanders in the hope that they would shout out the name emblazoned across my chest.

And, boy, did I pick the right boy in that ghastly moment.

“Come on, Phil”, he shouted, right in my face, and who knows, that might just have been enough. But the little sweetheart instantly added: “Phil! Phil! You can still win this!”

OK, a little tear still comes to my eye when I think about it ten years later. It was the most absurd thing to say. Completely bonkers. But it was also absolutely the right thing to say. I smiled, I laughed and I floated. New energy in my aching limbs, I made it through that final mile and was still grinning as I crossed the line.

I was sickly blue in the lips, deathly pale in the face, but grinning from ear to ear.

The actual winner had won an hour and a half earlier, but the little boy had been right. In my own terms, I could still win it and I did.

Whenever (not often!) my love of marathons wobbles, I think back to that glorious moment – one which sums up not just the insanity of marathon running, but also its humanity; not just its horrible lows, but also its off-the-top-of-the-scale highs.

That little boy will never know what he did for me that day, but ten years on, this Sunday morning as I stand on the start line at the Tokyo Marathon, I will be thinking of him, cherishing the memory of a moment right up there in the annals of my running history.

Tokyo will be my 26th marathon – and will come at the end of an important week for me. Last Friday, my book Keep On Running was sent off to the printers by the superb team at Summersdale publishing in Chichester (http://www.summersdale.com/book/2/569/keep-on-running/)

Summersdale picked out exactly the right passage from the book for the blurb on the back:

“Marathons make you miserable, but they also give you the most unlikely and the most indescribable pleasures. It’s a world that I love – a world unlocked when you dress up in lycra, put plasters on your nipples and run 26.2 miles in the company of upwards of 30,000 complete strangers.”

And it’s that that makes Tokyo on Sunday so mouth-watering a prospect. It’s a place I fell in love with last October when I joined a group of journalists for a look at the course, courtesy of the Tokyo Marathon Foundation.

Japan is a country which hits you right between the eyes with the most vibrant, the most intoxicating mix of sights and sounds and smells.

Tokyo is a place which grabs you and gets inside you, fast, fascinating and above all friendly – a city built on respect and on the warmest of welcomes.

As guests of the Tokyo Marathon organisation, we were treated with every courtesy by hosts ever eager to please and confident in the knowledge that they have got a rare treasure to reveal: a city which makes you walk taller, lifts the spirits and leaves you drunk on its atmosphere.

Everyone was intent on telling us that Tokyo was safe. I took them at their word, plunging down dark alleys and side streets camera in hand, exploring the bright glitzy neon streets and enjoying unmolested the beautiful tranquillity of an early-morning run.

A self-confessed marathon bore and a veteran of 25 marathons in ten different countries, I like to think I know a good marathon course when I see one: Tokyo’s is a cracker, kicking off outside the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building before heading off through the dazzling night club district.

Then it reaches the perimeter of the Imperial Palace Gardens before heading for Ginza, Japan’s number-one high-end shopping district.  After that you plunge into the old town before wending your way to the finish at Tokyo Big Sight – a challenging course, but an excellent one, very much created with the sights in mind but also one geared towards the runners themselves, as its impressive 97 per cent finishing rate suggests.

So, I beg of you, dear reader: be my little boy this weekend.

The marathon starts at 9.10 on Sunday morning, which is ten past midnight UK time.

If any of you happen to be awake at that time and at any time in the next few hours, shout out (or even mutter into your pillow): ““Phil! Phil! You can still win this!”

I promise you that it will make the world of difference to me half a world away…

 

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The day we unite in Tokyo

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Inspiring us all at the start of the Tokyo Marathon just a few days away will be this year’s tagline for the event – “the day we unite”.

And for me, it’s a line which sums up perfectly the huge attraction of big-city racing.

For the select few likely to pick up the honours on the day, it will be all about beating everyone else round the 26.2 miles of Tokyo which lie before us.

But for the rest of us, there is going to be huge pleasure in simply being there. Marathons are one of the few occasions when being an also-ran is a delight in itself.

Uniting is what a marathon is all about; it is about sharing an experience – an aspect I explore in my new book, Keep On Running, published by Summersdale of Chichester on April 2 (www.summersdale.com/book/2/569/keep-on-running).

My first marathon was the London Marathon of 1998, and as I approach my 26th marathon in Tokyo on Sunday, February 26, I am still head over heels in love with the unique atmosphere a marathon will always throw up.

In Tokyo, there will be 36,000 runners – 36,000 people who have never been in the same place at the same time before, 36,000 people who have set their hearts on the Tokyo Marathon and have come together in the most uplifting of shared adventures.

I love the statistics that the London Marathon – and doubtless others – always release: that there are X number of different countries represented, that there are X number of thousand people from France, Y number of people from Germany, Z number of people from the States, right down to one single person from some country you have never heard of.

And yet we have all, throughout the five months beforehand, headed out on long, lonely training runs; we’ve all tested out new shoes, checked our hydration, and ticked off the days.

And that morning, we will have all lain awake for hours staring at the alarm clock, just waiting for the moment when we can get up, check our kit for the 3,000th time, nibble the lightest of breakfasts and get ourselves in the zone.

For me, there’s one moment that always does it. That moment of fumbling with the four safety pins that will attach your number to your chest, that moment you know it’s going to happen.

And then, as the thousands gather at the start, pouring in from all directions, you get the nervous chatter, the endless smiles, the intoxicating chumminess of it all. Suddenly, everyone is your great mate. Suddenly you realise – with the most heart-warming of tingles – that we’re all in it together.

For me, that’s the great marathon magic. So just think how much greater that magic is going to be on Sunday, February 26, a day when “the day we unite” will take on a very special and very particular resonance.

The fact that I will have travelled 6,000 miles to be there – along with six other journalists from around the world – underlines just how important this year’s Tokyo Marathon is, not just to Tokyo, but to the whole of Japan.

The context for this year’s race is that just a couple of weeks later, Tokyo will mark the first anniversary of the devastating earthquake which struck the country on March 11 2011 – or 3/11 as it has become known.

And it’s with that anniversary very much to the fore that the Tokyo Marathon will be sending out the most powerful of messages: Japan is back on its feet and back in business.

The biggest event Japan will have seen since the quake, the Tokyo Marathon 2012 is already being fashioned as a crucial tool for a country intent on showing the world not just its spirit, but also its ability to change.

 

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Everyone agrees: the worldwide response to Japan’s suffering has made Japan a very different place, one in which the concept of charity has gained a new currency.

Now in its sixth year, the Tokyo Marathon is a race which already receives ten applicants for every single one of its 36,000 places. In their new post-quake world, the organisers are keen to change the make-up of those 36,000 runners.

More than ever, the organisers want to go global; just as importantly, they want to increase the amount the race raises for charity. This year’s Tokyo Marathon will be the most significant running of the race yet – an international showcase for a new, more caring Japan.

Akira Shirai, the Marathon’s marketing division chief director, speaks with understandable emotion of the journey both country and marathon have gone on since 3/11.

Mr Shirai was on the 27th floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building when the earthquake struck: “The building shook for 15 minutes. It was difficult to stand. I had to hold on, and I could see the other buildings moving. Fortunately Tokyo did not really have any damage to people or buildings, but it was scary.”

Since then, so much has changed: “Our Japanese culture didn’t have the idea of donation of charity. Donation and charity are not really Japanese things. The recognition of charity was much lower compared to western countries.

“The government is quite large so people thought things should be given by government. But after the earthquake, we got great support from other countries. It was the first time probably in Japanese history that we had support like that. When we started to see foreign countries giving support to Japan, the Japanese felt they needed to contribute to the area as well. The mentality of the Japanese regarding charity changed drastically. The Tokyo Marathon is somewhere we can start to see the change.”

And it’s in that spirit that the organisers are labelling Marathon day 2012 “the day we unite”. Hence the invitation to foreign journalists; hence the keenness to increase the number of foreign runners.

Non-Japanese runners numbered 2,878 in 2011; the target is more than 3,500 for 2012, and there are similar ambitions for the charity element. The 2011 Tokyo Marathon – just two weeks before the earthquake – had its first-ever charity runners, 707 of them. The hope is to increase that number to 3,000 in 2012. 50 per cent of the money they raise will go to the worst-hit earthquake areas.

Again, it is all about Japan showing its ability to overcome and move on.

Tad Hayano, secretary general of the Tokyo Marathon Foundation, underlines the point: “We want all the people to share the same joy and pride. We hope that the Tokyo Marathon will be as well known and respected as the New York, the London, the Boston, the Berlin and so on.

“With this marathon race, we are hoping we can show the world that we have got the spirit and that we have got the strength to come back to normal.”

It’s certainly remarkable the extent to which Japan has already shown its vigour and character since those dark days of March 2011.

8.6 million people visited Japan in 2010, and for the first couple of months of 2011, visitor numbers were up ten per cent, year on year.

But then 3/11 struck with all its devastation. Figures from 3/11 until the end of March were 73 per cent down. April figures were 62 per cent down, May was 50 per cent down, June and July were 36 per cent down and August was 32 per cent down. Overall, January to August was 30 per cent down on 2010.

Mizohata Horoshi, the head of tourism in Japan, is spearheading the Japanese fight back, touring to other countries with his message that Japan is safe.

But crucially he knows that just telling isn’t enough. He has to show – and one of the key ways of spreading the word has been to invite foreign journalists to take part in this year’s Tokyo Marathon.

It will be humbling to stand at that start line. It will also be the most immense privilege imaginable.

Follow me @marathon_addict on Twitter and on marathonaddictuk.wordpress.com.

Destination Tokyo for the most inviting of courses!

ImageThe most important thing about a marathon? Why, it’s the course, of course.

The distance will never differ. A marathon will always be 26.2 miles or 26 miles 385 yards or 42 kilometres 195 metres.

However you want to express it, it amounts to the same.

But the one great variable (well, aside from your present state of fitness) is the route that it takes you on, and here you get the great gulf.

Some marathons are absolute stinkers, some are somewhere in between, some are 26.2 miles of bliss.

My 26th marathon will be the Tokyo Marathon on February 26, and I confidently expect it to be very firmly in that last, much cherished category.

My marathon low points have included Amsterdam and Dublin, both races which get you off to a reasonably enjoyable start and get you over the line with a tolerable sense of occasion.

But in between – and much more so in Dublin than Amsterdam – you get 24 miles of tedium. Berlin wasn’t that much better in that respect.

Dublin was a day of torrential rain, which didn’t help. The cascading torrents reduced everything to an eye-stinging blur as you passed through endless nondescript suburbia.

In Amsterdam, they showed us a few canals and allowed us five or six miles of riverside running. Otherwise, it was deeply-dull industrial estates, dual carriageways and roundabouts.

Berlin was simply big city, vast, sprawling and successive boulevards indistinguishable from the last.

Against that, you have the spine-tingling highs – New York and Paris.

A November marathon, the New York City finishes with three miles in the gloriously-autumnal colours of Central Park after a race which takes you through all five boroughs – as I describe in my new book, Keep On Running (published by Summersdale of Chichester on April 2, http://www.summersdale.com/book/2/569/keep-on-running/)

Paris is similarly generous with its sights – a start and an end at the Arc de Triomphe, an opening stretch along the Rue de Rivoli, a gorgeous five or six miles of forest-running in the Bois de Vincennes and a second half which keeps you close to the Seine for much of it.

The value of a decent course simply cannot be overstated:  you need something to lift your soul when the body starts to flag. Stimulate the senses and you push further and further back the moment that tiredness truly starts to kick in.

And that’s why I can hardly wait to get on that start line in Tokyo.

Last October, as part of a group of international journalists, I visited the course on a trip organised by the Tokyo Marathon Foundation with the aim of promoting the event worldwide.

My huge good fortune, just before Christmas, was to be invited back to run it.

You never want to run a marathon without knowing just a little bit about the course. As I stand at the start in Tokyo, I will have it fresh in mind – a mouth-watering route which kicks off outside the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building before snaking through the hugely-colourful night club district (and no, at nine in the morning, I won’t be stopping off).

Along the way, it also skirts the Imperial Palace and passes through Tokyo’s high-end shopping district before going deep into the heart of ancient Tokyo before a lovely-looking finish at the massive exhibition centre.

Usually, I run to thudding rock rhythms on my MP3 player. There won’t be any need to in Japan. All along the route there will bands and musicians and dancers adding terrific colour and occasion to the proceedings, precisely the kind of boost tired runners need more and more of as they head towards the finish.

Nearly a year after the devastating tsunami, Tokyo is going to be pulling out all the stops to show us just what a vibrant, exciting, indeed thrilling place it is. Few things make me emotional. Marathons most certainly do.

I’ve just completed an eight-mile training run at -8 degrees C through the country lanes of rural Hampshire. I didn’t feel the cold at all. The thought of Tokyo is already warming me up nicely…

 

Follow me on @marathon_addict on Twitter and on https://marathonaddictuk.wordpress.com/. And have a look at my book Keep On Running (http://www.summersdale.com/book/2/569/keep-on-running/)

 

Learning the two Rs – running and writing

This pretending to be an author business is fascinating. Absolutely fascinating – and also remarkably hassle-free, thanks to superb support from my publishers Summersdale every step of the way.

These past few days have been the nerve-racking process of the final read-through, after which it will be officially too late. After this week my words will be… well, if not set in stone, then definitely past the point of no return.

All of which is terrifically exciting, especially as I feel 100 per certain that Summersdale have done and are doing everything they possibly can to make the book a success, the final stages in a long, long journey.

My book is Keep On Running, and it comes with the telling subtitle The Highs And Lows Of A Marathon Addict, the tale of my adventures on the road across 25 marathons, including New York, London, Paris, Amsterdam, Dublin, Mallorca and Berlin (http://www.summersdale.com/book/2/569/keep-on-running/)

 Publication on April 2 will be the culmination of a journey almost as long as the marathons I have described. It was several years ago, while I was vainly trying to write a grim and gruesome murder mystery set in Chichester, that Peter Lovesey, a hugely likeable chap as well as an immensely gifted crime writer, said to me that I really ought to try writing about marathons.

Poor Peter had listened to me wittering on about them enough over cups of coffee in our favourite Chichester cafe.

I dismissed the idea. It wasn’t remotely what I wanted to write. But somewhere subliminally the idea lodged and started to develop. Everything commended it, I started to realise. It would be a question of writing about something about which I professed to know something (in truth, I am not terribly well versed in murder); and more importantly, from a selfish point of view, it would give me a chance, whatever happened, of recording something I very much wanted to record.

It was just a question of finding the right (or write) moment. That moment came after the Mallorca Marathon in October 2010, an important marathon for me as it came after a couple of grim marathons in which I was starting to wonder whether I wasn’t falling out of love with running.

Mallorca was to be my marathon farewell, I told myself and actually believed it. How wrong could I be. I crossed the line, tried to say goodbye to sweaty lycra and nipple plasters and realised – with a huge sigh of relief – that it was still my world and there was no way I wanted to leave it.

Even so, I wasn’t quite ready to run again when I got home. Instead, I started to write. And write and write the full story of my own personal marathon journey. I approached Summersdale and was delighted when they fired the start gun, immediately expressing interest and offering every encouragement.

Their greatest gift, however, was that they told me very sweetly but firmly that no, it wasn’t ready when I handed it over in January 2011.

I had the huge good fortune – for which I will always be grateful – of being teamed up with Jennifer Barclay at Summersdale. Jennifer quickly pointed out the failings in the book I had thought I had finished.

My original idea was a book of two halves – the first five chapters describing five different ways to muff up a marathon (and believe me, I am skilled in this), followed by five chapters extolling the marathons I have actually got right.

Jennifer was kindness itself as she pointed out that the first half was grim going, repeatedly begging the question why on earth did I keep at it. Readers, she suggested, might not make it to the endless joys of the second half, chapters in which I waxed lyrical about the sheer intoxication that marathons bring.

She was clear: a chronological approach was the best one. It would show the troughs in the context of the peaks which kept me hooked.

Jennifer, take a bow. For me it was the defining moment in this book’s preparation.