I was thrilled to find out I’d been chosen to run in the Senshu International City Marathon in Japan as a guest of Wellington’s sister city, Sakai City. I studied Japanese at high school and university, had been there on a school trip when I was 1987 (as Sasaki san, our Sakai City Council representative, told me, he wasn’t even born then) and always had a keen interest in the culture. Travelling and running are my two favourite things and I am always looking opportunities to combine the two. And the chance to fuel up pre and post race on delicious Japanese food was an added bonus!
My training was going well until I tripped over a tree root and sliced my knee open exactly one month before the marathon. It caused some anxiety, both for me and the selection panel, but I wasn’t about to let eight stitches stop me. I was back running again the day the stitches came out and confident I was race ready by departure day on 16 February 2012 – ready to run my 19th marathon in the 19th running of the Senshu International City Marathon.
My first full day in Japan was all about race preparation. I’d met my fellow Sakai City runner Steve Rego, from Berkeley, and his wife Cheryl, the night before and that day we toured the marathon course with the sister city runners from the other eight cities along the race course. It snowed while we were out and I started getting nervous about the weather for race day. The nerves increased when we got a look at the two “coathanger” bridges at the end of the course. As one of the officials put it, Senshu is the easiest marathon in Japan for the first 35km and the most difficult for the last 7km. I had already spent a good few months worrying about the bus that would pick up the runners that didn’t make the cut-off times along the course. Our interpreter for the bus ride was making her third attempt to finish – last year, she had to get on the bus at 36km. (I heard later that she was successful in her fourth attempt!) Luckily, the cut off times were not as tight this year as the race was being run as a charity race to raise money for tsunami victims and the race time had been extended from 4.5 hours to 5 hours to encourage more people to enter.
That evening we attended the official marathon reception at our hotel. I met Mayor Takeyama, the mayor of Sakai City and then all invited runners went on stage to introduce ourselves. There were runners from Korea, California and the Gold and Sunshine Coasts, including the male and female winners of the Gold Coast Marathon. Pre-race, I couldn’t enjoy the beer and wine on offer but I did load up my plate with delicious sushi and noodles –carbo loading Japanese-style!
Race day dawned clear and chilly. We arrived at the start at Hamadera Park two hours before the 10am start. There were already hundreds of runners waiting about in the cold but the invited runners had warm changing rooms to wait in. This race was the first and only time I would start at the front of the field with the elites. Some of the other invited runners were well used to it (the Aussie girls took out 1st, 2nd and 3rd place in the race) but Steve and I were a little worried about being trampled. Luckily that didn’t happen. The temptation was to sprint to keep up with the runners streaming past me but I made a conscious effort to slow down and let them go and settled into my usual pace. Crowd support was fantastic all along the route, with lots of school kids and even some taiko drummers out to support us. I was glad I had decided to run without jacket or gloves as it soon warmed up – in fact, I ended up with sunburnt shoulders.
The bridges were tough - the worst bit was running out the few kilometres after the second bridge to the turnaround point, knowing that I had to cross back over both bridges again.
In the end, I finished in 3.53, around about my usual time and well ahead of the bus! I got my towel, a bowl of miso soup (a nice change from bananas) and congratulations from Mayor Takeyama.
That night, we enjoyed a well earned feast of okonomiyaki, a traditional Japanese pancake.
We had a full schedule the next day. It started out with one of the highlights of the trip for me, a visit to Mikunigaoka Kindergarten. Steve and Cheryl’s host mother gave a presentation on Berkeley and Wellington. The children sang us some traditional songs, we played a few games outside and did a spot of folk dancing. The children then served us tea and sweets in the staff room – historically, Sakai was one of the main centres of the tea ceremony in Japan and the children were already learning about it. We spent the afternoon sightseeing around Sakai before a formal meeting with Mayor Takeyama and his staff at City Hall. We exchanged gifts and the Mayor talked about Sakai City and the importance of the sister city relationship. He congratulated us on finishing the race and showed us his pedometer – he was trying to do 10,000 steps a day but had only got to 4,000 so far that day.
We then went to the Sakai Sister and Friendship Cities Council Reception. Post-race, I could have a glass of beer and was accordingly a little less nervous about speaking! It was lovely to meet so many people who were so enthusiastic and eager to talk to me. A lot of them had visited Wellington in the past and some hoped to be able to visit again this year as part of the sister city relationship.
The reception was also the first time I’d met my host family, the Koshiba family, though I had been in email contact with them before I left New Zealand. I went home with them after the reception – they lived quite a way from Sakai City, in the New Towns.
The next day we visited Hamedera Isizu elementary school. We introduced ourselves to the assembly, the children sang some traditional songs from the region and the orchestra played a rousing version of the Pirates of the Caribbean theme. We then spent some time with each grade, practicing calligraphy (my translator was very impressed with the boy who was demonstrating for me, he took private lessons and was a budding master), origami and Japanese games with the first graders. We finished with a marathon training session with the fifth graders. Steve and I stuck to dispensing verbal advice as we were both still a little sore. Luckily Cheryl was a marathon runner too so she was able to demonstrate an efficient running style.
We then had lunch with a class each. According to my translator, the standard of the lunch had improved since she was at school and I certainly enjoyed it. It was good for us too – the nutritional value of the meal had been broadcast over the loudspeaker before we ate.
That afternoon we visited the peace and Human Rights Museum and Bicycle Museum.
On Thursday we visited Kyoto and spent a lovely day visiting some of the city’s many shrines and temples, including Kinkakuji (the Golden Pavilion), a World Heritage site and one of the most popular buildings in Japan, Ryoanji with its famous rock and sand garden, and Kiyomizu Temple, an independent Buddhist Temple and also a World Heritage site. There were many shops and restaurants lining the steep lane on the approach to Kiyomizu Temple and we had the opportunity to try some green tea icecream and buy souvenirs and green tea KitKats for workmates back home.
My time in Japan was wonderful. I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to run a great marathon, meet so many lovely people and eat so much fantastic food! Everyone I met was incredibly welcoming and hospitable, especially my host family, the Koshibas, and Sasaki san from the Sakai City Government. Thank you to the Wellington Sakai Association and the Wellington City Council for giving me this fantastic opportunity and to Wellington Sakai Association members Christine and Bev for their invaluable pre-trip advice. I would encourage all Wellington marathon runners to apply to represent Wellington in Sakai next year – your hours of training will never be so worthwhile!