We’ve just got back from a trip to Japan. It’s not somewhere I would have thought to go on holiday, but when you’re a running household and there are medals at stake there is a tendency to end up going to some interesting places. In fact after last year’s trip to Rome, the jaunt to Tokyo and planned excursions later this year to Berlin and New York on the calendar my coach has felt it necessary to remind me that it is possible to go on holiday somewhere without running a marathon when you get there. But where’s the fun in that?
Anyway, one of the nicest things about the Tokyo Marathon ‘festa’ weekend was the ‘Friendship Run’. This was billed as a 4k fun run around the area of the expo on the Saturday morning, the day before the race. The organisers were keen to get as many international runners involved in this as possible, in the spirit of unity that seemed to embody the whole tone of the marathon.
Mr. Duff and another runner from our club, Tom, were running the marathon so me and Tom’s better half Ellen decided we should treat ourselves to the Friendship Run. We arrived at Tokyo Big Sight, the exhibition centre where the expo was being held, and found Tom, Ellen and their little girl Skye in the coffee shop at the station where we’d arranged to meet. We’d been asked to get there nice and early because they wanted everyone to be in place and ready in time for our very own Opening Ceremony – how exciting!
This was our second taste of how brilliant the volunteers are at the Tokyo marathon, after the expo a couple of days before. The Friendship Run crew really did themselves proud; all of the volunteers were happy, joyful, smiley people who were almost embarrassingly friendly to us. Those who could speak English had this written on their jackets to save any confusion, and they were all very well informed.
We picked up our race packs, and were delighted to find that our numbers had our countries on them – Great Britain & N. I for me and The Netherlands for Ellen! How amazing! I’m pretty certain this would be my one and only chance to represent my country in any sort of run, so even if it was a gentle little fun run full of mad people in fancy dress, I’ll take that.
We wrapped our race-issue hackimaki bandanas around our heads, and felt like we should have made more of an effort with our attire when we saw a group of ladies dressed as Rainbow Unicorns (seriously).
It’s always good fun at the start of a race with everyone milling about on tenterhooks waiting to go, but the start of this race was really special.
There were a lot of people in very silly fancy dress. As well as the Rainbow Unicorn ladies, there were people with pineapples on their heads (and possibly also lychees, we weren’t sure). There was a Masai warrior, a bunch of Dutch people with orange balloon crowns on, and a bloke dressed as Mount Fuji. There were some lovely Japanese ladies handing out brightly coloured origami stars with ‘thank you’, ‘good luck’ and ‘do your best’ on them. Skye was a big hit, sitting happily on Tom’s shoulders peering at people magnanimously over her sunglasses.
The Opening Ceremony was quite something – a group of dancers performed a special routine which seemed to mix modern street dance, ninja sword moves, and traditional Japanese dance together into something really rather special. At different stages of the dance they altered how they wore their costumes so they changed from looking like geisha in kimono to samurai warriors, and bits of their clothing became fans and streamers. It was seriously cool and very beautiful. I loved it.
After the dancers had finished, all the race directors from the six world major marathons suddenly appeared on the stage and gave short speeches wishing everyone good luck for the run and for the marathon the day after. The hosts from Tokyo were gracious to a fault and had such infectious enthusiasm that everyone was laughing and smiling together by this point.
Just before we were ready for the off we were asked to perform some ‘Japanese Radio Gymnastics’, a sort of warm up exercise set to music which was honestly just hilarious. A very healthy, lithe looking young lady (who may have been an actual Japanese gymnast, not sure) led us through a series of arm waving/knee bending type exercises for which there wasn’t really enough space – it was very funny trying to get it right, whacking people with flailing hands, and wondering quite how much good this was actually going to do you in a running context. Not much judging by how it felt, but it did make us laugh.
The actual run was surprisingly hilly for an area around an exhibition centre. Ellen ran with me, although I’m fairly sure she would have won the race if she’d had a proper crack at it – she’s pretty speedy. Racing wouldn’t really have been in the spirit of things though. It showed up how much short distance fitness I’ve lost recently because I was getting embarrassingly out of breath at a pace that was probably agonisingly slow for Ellen. We soon regretted not bringing a camera onto the course with us as we ran past volunteers with massive Mickey Mouse gloved hands on, a bloke wearing what we think was supposed to be a raspberry on his head, and a huge 20 metre high Transformer-style robot. There were also about 5 ‘volunteer tunnels’ all holding their hands out for high fives.
We were treated to a drinks station halfway through our 4k (because taking on fluids is essential after 1.2 miles of running, obvs) and had our first experience of the revoltingly named Japanese sports drink ‘Pocari Sweat’. The bottle states that it is specially designed to have ‘the appropriate density and electrolytes, close to human body fluid’. So actual artificial human sweat then? Just what you want to drink! Not gross at all!
It was an out and back course and we were soon back at the finish, where this band were playing – note the chap with the rather dubious looking ‘thingy’ on his head.
We were handed more ‘bottles of sweat’ and in a rather lovely touch, a group of school kids gave us tiny little origami cranes instead of medals – what an original and thoughtful thing. One guy just in front of us for some reason tried to take half a dozen in different colours but was firmly told ‘no, one’ by one of these diminutive race officials, in his little blue tabard. What a little star.
I’m really glad I signed up for this event. The organisers couldn’t have made it more clear how very welcome we were and they really made a big deal out of the whole thing, it was fantastic. This warm and welcoming attitude continued the next day with the marathon; Mr. Duff was really struck with how thrilled the volunteers seemed to be to see every runner and give them genuine encouragement and congratulations.
The set up for the Friendship Run was all extremely impressive and made us feel really special – just to stress again, we were there to do a short 4k fun run for which the majority of participants were in fancy dress…and we were wearing numbers which allowed us to represent our countries, with our very own Opening Ceremony.
Running gives you some amazing opportunities to go to new and interesting places and to take part in truly memorable events. And I’ve got to say, the Japanese do hospitality very, very well.
Well done Tokyo. Arigato gozaimashita.