Tokyo offered both in abundance last Sunday – a day which saw Tokyo take every single runner to its incredibly-generous heart.
Tokyo was my 26th time running a 26.2-mile race, and I did it on February 26. The Japanese love number games like that, and it certainly felt like the stars were aligning in my favour.
Within moments of arriving in the city, I knew that it was going to be right up there among the very best experiences a marathon can give you, rivalling Paris and New York for the sheer thrill of it all.
But, as the dust settles, my abiding memory is going to be the sheer kindness of the people who lined the route and welcomed us home at the end of it all.
As we collected our bags in the huge conference centre which serves as the race base and the race finish, every single one of the volunteers in the luggage retrieval area was standing there applauding us- when they weren’t scurrying off to find our bags with the maximum efficiency.
Consider the fact that the finishers were finishing across a four-hour time span. That’s four hours that the volunteers stood there clapping.
Their smiles never wavered. But nor were those smiles fixed. Those volunteers – and how lovely to see their faces – were enjoying our moment of triumph every bit as much as we were.
And the great thing was that it was a moment typical of the entire day. The Japanese people really are extraordinarily giving. They smile all the time, and a smile counts for so much when you feel you are on your last legs. I lapped up that generosity over a last three miles in which I happily admit I seriously struggled.
A 12-hour flight and a nine-hour time zone shift weren’t exactly the best preparation two days before. As I stood at that start line, my body was telling me that it was ten past midnight.
And I stood there shivering. Just three days later, Tokyo was blanketed in snow. On marathon morning, it was already perishingly cold.
Thank heavens for all the warmth that was to follow. Warmth from the crowd, that is. They applauded, they shouted, they willed you on and they got you there.
Everything about the day was superb, most particularly the organisation – absolutely crucial if a marathon is going to be remotely enjoyable.
In any endurance sport, you push yourself to the limit. You can do so only when you have total confidence in the organisation underpinning it all. It takes a special skill and a huge amount of planning to get 36,000 runners underway without mishap; Tokyo, a young marathon in only its sixth year, rose to that challenge admirably.
I didn’t do a great time, but I had a great time. 3 hours 46 minutes is 26 minutes off my best, but as a marathon experience, Tokyo was right up there with the very best, comfortably rivalling New York. The Tokyo Marathon Foundation’s dearest wish is that the race one day might nestle alongside the world marathon majors (New York, London, Berlin etc), and there is every reason to believe that it will do so before too much longer.
Any marathon runners out there should seriously consider Tokyo next year for the complete marathon experience. It is exotic, constantly exhilarating and a total thrill. But it is also brilliantly organised. Marathon-runners need to be able to trust in the event they are running in, and from the moment you register for this one, you sense that you are in the very best hands.
Tokyo is a newish marathon, but for organisation, it is streets ahead of some of its vastly more established European counterparts. Marathons really do give you the most incredible highs, as I explain in my new book Keep On Running, which will be published by Summersdale on April 2. Tokyo takes those highs to levels I’ve never experienced before.
The fascination of the very best marathons is the way that they reflect their city. Tokyo’s is at the top of the tree in that respect. You start off amid Tokyo’s skyscrapers and then run through the wonderfully-colourful, neon-lit night club district before skirting the Imperial Palace, so rich in history. You then pass by a gorgeous shrine and Tokyo’s very own version of the Eiffel Tower before heading off into the high-end shopping district where all the world’s major labels sit side by side for my very favourite kind of shopping – the kind where you zoom past without stopping.
After that it is into the ancient heart of the city for a glimpse of the Gate Of Thunder which leads on into the city’s most historic areas. After that you cross a succession of thigh-busting bridges before approaching the finish.
But alongside all those great permanent features, you’ve also got the sheer spirit of the day, traditional Japanese dancers, Japanese choirs, Japanese drummers, Japanese brass bands, Japanese children’s bands, all lining the route. It’s like running through a culture and history lesson unfurling before your eyes to give you a glorious insight into this vibrant, confident and above all likeable country.
It’s nearly a year now since the tsunami and earthquake hit Japan. I was running as part of a select band of journalists from around the world, invited to Tokyo to experience at first hand that Tokyo is up and running again and back on its feet – as indeed were we. But whereas my feet now ache like hell, Tokyo’s are ready to run forever.
Marathon-running is one of life’s great privileges and pleasures. But today I feel humbled and honoured to have been part of the Tokyo Marathon, a wonderful event in a truly-wonderful country.
The great thing is that it is a marathon on the up, one which is confident and strong, but one which is clearly going to be even more so as the years go by. There is huge enthusiasm for running in Japan, and that enthusiasm is the driving force behind the marathon itself, ensuring that we all had not just a great day, but also a safe day.
The organisers are desperate to see the marathon’s profile soar, and there is every reason to believe that it will do. The marathon is increasing its number of charity runners, adding an important new element to the day. It is also increasing its number of international runners, a factor which will increasingly put it on the world marathon map.
I’ve now run marathons in nine different countries and in five different capitals; Tokyo is one to cherish. There are plenty of marathons that get lots of things right; very, very few that get absolutely everything right. Take a bow, Tokyo.
I am sitting here going gooey-eyed at the thought of all those thousands of sweet little kiddies holding out all sorts of delicacies along the way, and towards the end I ate my fill as tiredness and the cold took their toll on me.
But the strange thing was that those gorgeously-smiling children reacted as if you were doing them a favour by choosing their delicacy to grab. Quite the contrary. It was Tokyo which did its runners a great favour last Sunday – and I will relive forever the moment that my Tokyo Marathon medal was placed around my neck. Moments don’t come sweeter than that.