Konnichiwa. Welcome. Japan is a truly wonderful country. There is no way around it. It is an example of how civilisation should and can work. I have been fortunate enough to visit a wide range of countries throughout this world and I can safely say that nowhere has even come close to matching Japan. From the moment that I stepped off the plane in Fukuoka airport, the friendliness and pride of the Japanese people was apparent. Everything was immaculate. There was no litter anywhere, no chewing gum stuck to the pavement. Every car looked like it had just been rolled out of a car wash. I had always wanted to visit Japan and after one week in the country, I would return in an instant.
Distance running in Japan is becoming a national sport, almost a religion in itself. The country grinds to a halt so everyone can watch the races. Each marathon is televised live on several channels and the general population have a vast knowledge of every runner competing. As soon as I stepped off the plane, there were television cameras and journalists keen to do interviews. While it was not what I had envisaged at the end of a thirty hour journey, it was great to see so much interest being taken in the sport. As one of only a few international athletes, we were treated like kings, and I cannot be more grateful to the race organisers and their friendliness.
To be honest, I had never heard of the Beppu-Oita marathon before. When anyone ever mentions that they are doing a marathon in Japan, Tokyo and Fukuoka are the two that spring out in mind. But Beppu? My agent first mentioned it to me after the Delhi half marathon in mid-November. We had been deliberating about doing an early Springtime marathon and Japan seemed the best option. With Beppu, being one of the Japanese trial races for the World Championships, the best runners in the country would be toeing the startline. With a cut-off qualifying time of 3.30, around five and a half thousand runners were scheduled to start.
Training was improving week on week and momentum was building. As I flew out to the Far East last week, I had done everything that my coach had asked of me in the past sixteen weeks. There had not been a single hiccup or day missed through injury or illness. Everything, quite simply, had been perfect. Three weeks before raceday, at the end of another one hundred and thirty mile week, I had a fifteen mile run scheduled. Finishing the fifteen miles comfortably in 74.45, having gone through the half marathon in 65.05, I knew that I was in great shape. If I can do that solo, on a windy day, at the end of a hard training week, what might happen in the marathon? I was going to Japan fitter and healthier than I had ever started a marathon. Indeed, I would say that I have never been fitter in my life.
But marathons are funny old things. They are not like anything else in the real world. Study hard for an exam and most likely you will pass. Not so with running. I do not know what happened on race day but I knew from very early on, that things were not going smoothly. It was around the eight mile mark when it felt like someone turned the energy dial down to zero. When you are struggling from that early on, believe me, it is a long, long grind to the finish line. Passing through halfway in a distant 66.07, breathing out of my arse, it was all that I could do to simply make the finish line. Slowing to 5.30 miles for the majority of the last six miles, I crossed the finish line in 2.15.30, several minutes away from my original goal.
However, every cloud has a silver lining. I still ran a personal best, something which can never be taken for granted. It was the second time I had run a qualification time for the World Championships later this year, and it was also a qualification standard for the Commonwealth Games in March 2018. I guess I cannot complain too much. I arrived in Japan full of hope and expectation. Yes, the race went nowhere to plan. The reason why, perhaps I will never know. Maybe it was the change of diet to the Japanese cuisine of fish and rice in the lead up. Maybe the journey and changing of time zones did not agree with me. Or quite simply, maybe I just had a bad race. However, I have arrived home with another unique experience to remember. The body is still in one piece, and all that fitness is still stored up inside. I have to believe that one of these days, it will show itself in a race. Until then, it is back to the grind.