Late in 2015, we booked a trip to Japan – and little did I know that I would be running my first ‘international’ race at the Kumagaya Sakura Marathon! It was, in fact, a half marathon – and we coordinated our travels to end up in the Tokyo area in time for the race. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
Let me tell about the Japan race experience – a bit about what’s the same as other half marathons I have run, and what is completely different. Introducing, the Kumagaya Sakura Marathon!
Kumagaya Sakura Marathon – The Details
What? The term ‘marathon’ seems to be used quite loosely in Japanese – and apparently it can refer to almost any distance (although I have been unable to confirm this). As such, there was no 42.2km portion of the Kumagaya Sakura Marathon. There was a half marathon, a 10k, a 5k, a 2.5k and a 1.5k kids’ run. I ran the half. The race has been around since about 1990 – this year being the 27th Annual Kumagaya Sakura Marathon.
When? March 19, 2017
Where? Kumagaya, Saitama, Japan
And where is that? you might ask. I had never heard of Kumagaya before I registered for this race. As it turns out, we have a good friend who lives there! Kumagaya is a city of about 200,000 – which is relatively small by Japanese standards. Saitama Prefecture is part of the Greater Tokyo Area, and is considered a suburb of Tokyo – however, Kumagaya itself is about 60km from Central Tokyo.
Oh, and incidentally, Kumagaya has the dubious distinction of being the hottest place in Japan in the summer!
How much? Well, aside from the cost of actually getting there…pretty cheap! Only 3,500 yen (about $40 Canadian)!
Why? The timing of this race worked out well, and we had the chance to visit our friend. Also – in case you weren’t already aware – ‘sakura‘ is Japanese for ‘cherry blossom’. What better way to run a race than among the cherry blossoms?!
The Race – The Same
I’m fairly certain that races worldwide have many things in common. Of course, some are large and some are small, some better organized than others. That variety is found in Canada as well. But when travel to a foreign land to race – especially somewhere as unique Japan – there are bound to be significant differences. First, however, I want to focus on what was the same.
Although the text was in Japanese, the bib – a staple in any race – was pretty much what you’d expect. I brought along my ‘race dots’ and was good to go. The only thing I discovered when I got home was that the bib is ever so slightly wider than my other bibs, and doesn’t fit properly onto my bib and medal board!
We also got our standard issue race t-shirts, this year’s a vivid pink-on-black. Interesting, there is no Japanese lettering on the shirt, just regular English script.
The Kumagaya Sakura Marathon (i.e. half marathon) started at Kumagaya Sports Park – a track and sports field at the edge of the city. As the shuttle buses from the station ferried us to the start line / expo, I marvelled at how rural the setting was, among the fields…
In the course map above, the blue line represents the half – which ran along the river (see all the pink cherry blossoms?), wound through the centre of town, followed the railway tracks back out of town into more industrial areas, and then ended up among the fields before ending up where we started, at the Sports Park.
One disappointment – although we ran along the river, we couldn’t actually see the river. We were on the road – and there was a steep embankment leading up to the river’s edge.
Another disappointment – we were too early for the cherry blossoms! Japan – like Vancouver – had a colder-than-usual winter, so the sakura were late in blooming! All of these cherry trees along the river? Bare branches!
This is what it should have looked like.
There were several aid stations along the route – water in race-branded cups, and Japanese sports drink Pocari Sweat!
Finally, we entered the open air ‘stadium’, and completed a half lap of the track before reaching the finish line. That was an energizing moment!
Overall, a pretty good course – and incredibly flat!
Despite being halfway around the world, I was absolutely thrilled to have a friend come and join me on the course! Jun – who I met while he was living in Vancouver, and returned home a few months ago – learned that I was racing in Kumagaya, and decided to sign up for the race himself! He was living in Tokyo at the time, so he had to get up at some ungodly hour to take the train to Kumagaya – but having him there was so amazing. We ran together for almost the entire race – spent the first 5k or so chatting, and then just kept each other in sight.
Thank you, Jun, for being there!
Also, Motomi – who lives in Kumagaya – and her friend Jun (different Jun!) – who lives in a neighbouring town – came out to cheer me on, along with my guy. Seeing them as I approached the finish line was so inspiring! Thanks, everyone!
The Race – The Different
In case you didn’t already know, I lived in Japan for about 5 years. I can carry on a pretty easy conversation in Japanese. I know how to get around, and essentially know what to expect.
Despite that, there were things about this race that were so different – so Japanese – that I have to tell you about them!
First of all, everything is in Japanese. This is not a big international race – it’s a local one, essentially sponsored by Kumagaya City. Check out the website – not a lick of English. So if you want to register, well…you get the idea.
Also, you need to have a Japanese address. Fortunately, we have a number of friends in Japan, so it was easy enough to ask to use the address of our friends in Kyoto. Why is this so important? Because…
About a week before the race, you receive your bib in the mail, along with a timing chip (for your shoe) and information about the race. And don’t worry about your package getting lost or delayed. The Japanese mail system is remarkably efficient, and our friends received my bib well in advance.
Sure, lots of races have shuttle buses. But the efficiency with which the Japanese organize…there were probably a dozen buses shuttling folks from the train station to the start line, one after the other. The drive itself was about 10 minutes, wending through the fields – but we barely had to wait for the bus. Check!
As usual, I had to make sure I used the porta-potty before the race, just in case. And wouldn’t you know it, my first Japanese style (i.e. squat) porta-potty! No photos, I’m afraid – though I was tempted. They had a few ‘Western style’ ones as well…they were actually labelled as such! For the men, they also had individual urinal-style porta-potties. Something for everyone!
Because our bibs were delivered, there was no ‘bib pickup’ – just the outdoor expo before the race. There were several vendors with sports gear, as per normal. A few food vendors as well.
This is also where you picked up your shirt (which was not delivered with the bib), and collected your prize…
One of my local Japanese friends told me to make sure to ask about a prize for coming from far away – so I did! As it turned out, they actually had prizes from everyone who came from somewhere beyond the Greater Tokyo area. I went up to the table to claim my prize – told them I was from Canada, but had registered in Kyoto – and they happily handed me my prize…
A bag of Japanese taro. Imo. A vegetable. Yep – the prize was local produce!
Clearly, I couldn’t import raw vegetables, so our Kumagaya friend (or, more likely, her mom!) benefitted.
Quite possibly the weirdest part of the whole race event was the opening speeches. Everyone gathered in the middle of the track, and waited patiently as three or four different men got up on a podium, and welcomed us. This included the Mayor, the Race Director, and one or two minor dignitaries. Groups of folks in matching jackets waved as they were thanked.
I asked my friend, Jun, if this was typical of a Japanese race. He said, “And with this, you can understand how bureaucratic Japan really is.” How true.
We also had a ‘Guest Runner’ – Yuko Kawakami, a retired Japanese Olympic runner. She welcomed us and provided some encouraging words.
During one of the speeches, I slipped off to the toilets again – and when I got back, the warmup was in full swing. I honestly should have taken a video. It wasn’t just your typical ‘stretch left, stretch right’ – it was a fully choreographed dance, matching the music perfectly. I couldn’t keep up.
We were then directed to our corrals – and the race started precisely at the scheduled time of 9:12am.
En Route Support
For at least the first half of the race, the streets were lined with local folks cheering us on. And everyone was waving a flag – you know, those cheap paper flags you get at festivals? Well, I guess volunteers had gone around ahead of time handing them out to everyone (or, who knows, maybe they put them in their mailboxes!). So we were encouraged by cries of Ganbatte! or Ganbare!, the Japanese equivalent of Good job! or Keep it up! However, the translation often used is Fight! – and this is what some folks shouted when they saw this white guy run past!
At one point, I smiled and waved at a middle-aged lady who was cheering us on – and she grinned and said, “Kawaii-wa!”, which was essentially exclaiming how cute the foreigner was!
And then this guy (please click on the photo and read his shirt)…
We also had Japanese drummers – although I struggled to get a good photo…
My absolute favourite, however, was the moment we ran past an old folks’ home. There were about 20 ancient Japanese people – lined up in their wheelchairs, bundled in blankets and quilts – waving their flags madly. It was the cutest thing I have ever seen on a race!
Upon completing the race, we exited the track in an orderly fashion, as directly by volunteers. We were met at a table by a couple of folks with computers and printers, who would check our bib number, confirm our name – and then print out a finisher certificate with both your gun time and chip time.
There was a bit of post-race food – corn chowder (which they had run out of), pork soup (which, as a vegetarian, I couldn’t eat) and green tea. But I was hankering for something more. I found a real washroom, did a quick change, and joined my friends – who had come out to cheer – who then took us out for an amazing Japanese lunch!
What a unique and rewarding experience – the Kumagaya Sakura Marathon 2017!!
Chip Time: 1:52:01
Average Pace: 5:19 min/km*
Overall Place: 1041/2510
Place in Age Category: 351/701
*I would like to point out that I did a pretty significant negative split on this race – the second half was about 2 minutes faster than the first half!
Quick Recap – Kumagaya Sakura Marathon
Social Media: If there was one thing I truly missed in this race, it was social media. The Kumagaya Sakura Marathon has no Facebook page, no Twitter, no Instagram…just a website. So although I hashtagged furiously in both Japanese and English, the race organizers will never know…
Packet Delivery: That’s right – as long as you have a Japanese address (and this is your only option), your bib gets delivered to your door!
T-Shirt/Swag: The t-shirt is a fun hot pink-on-black deal – but that was the only item we received. That, of course, and our finisher certificate!
Course: Winding through city streets, by the river, along the railway tracks, and among the fields – this is a fast, flat course. The winds buffeting us in the final 5k, however, made things a bit challenging…
Post-Race: The food options were a bit limited, especially for a vegetarian like me. We went out for lunch!
Would I Run It Again? If I lived in the Tokyo area, I might give this race another try. It was run and well-organized, and I imagine if the cherry blossoms had been blooming, it would have been absolutely beautiful. However, if I travelled all the way back to Japan for a race, I’d probably try a different one next time!