Running

It was the end of September. I had been at Kansai Gaidai University in Hirakata, Osaka, Japn for one month, and just like back at Ateneo during freshman year the school was highly encouraging all the foreign students to join some sort of club or ‘circle’ (like a club but with less commitment. School clubs in Japan are long-term marriages.)

I had tried to join the Chinese language club, until I realized I didn’t want to be studying two foreign languages at the same time. Then I looked at clubs like koto, which turned out to be de facto females-only, and judo, which had a killer training schedule. So I kind of just gave up on clubs.

Then an email came in announcing a Kansai Gaidai Running Club that had apparently existed for some time and, although anyone could join, catered especially to foreign students. I attended the orientation meeting, and was immediately charmed. The moderator, Prof. Mark Tracy, talked about a book he had read – The Marathon Method by Tom Holland – that was based off a course Holland had taught that taught its students, within 16 weeks, how to be able to run a marathon, even with no prior running experience. Marathons are 42.2 kilometers long, and 42.2 kilometers is long.

Prof. Tracy then said that the book’s training method had worked for him like no other, and had made him love running. He started the club some years ago in order to spread the gospel, or so to speak. We only had 10 weeks or so until the end of the semester, but by then, he promised, even total newbies would be able to comfortably run 10 km. Our goal was 10 km.

The longest I had ever run was 3 km, during my high school annual fun run, and I’d end up walking half the time. I’d always make the mistake of sprinting at the beginning, tiring myself out, then watching as the world coolly passed me by.

What endeared me to the idea of the club the most was that it was set up especially for people who couldn’t run 300 meters without coming apart at the seams. The 10 km promise appealed to a lot of people too, because despite the difficult schedule, around 30 people showed up in the first two weeks or so.

The schedule was that we would do varying distance runs 4 days a week. Monday and Thursday would be “short” runs, Tuesday would be a “medium” run, and Saturday would be a “long” run. Just how short, medium or long depended on prior experience. The largest group, which included myself, was in the beginning group, which meant that the first short run was 3 minutes around a park at our own pace, followed by a 3 minute walk, then another 3 minutes. We assembled at this park at 7 AM in the morning. The problem for me and for several other people was that this park happened to be right in front of the foreign student dormitories, which meant that for those staying in the dorms they could just walk right out their front door.

Unfortunately, I was living with a host family that was at least an hour’s walk away, which meant that every morning I had to get up at 5:30, eat breakfast, wash up, change, and dash to catch the 6:18 train and then the 6:30 bus to the park. And then on Tuesdays and Thursdays I had classes that began at 9 AM, so immediately after running I would have to haul ass to the university showers and then to class. Tuesday was especially difficult, as when the runs got longer it’d take me an hour to finish (compared to others’ 45-50 minutes), so I had one hour to make myself look presentable for the rest of the day.

I immediately saw how slow I was in the first weeks. Prof. Tracy had told us not to compete against each other, but to run at a comfortable speed. “Light jog” was – and still is, actually – a charitable way to describe my pace.

As the weeks went by, the distances increased. The second “long” run we had to do was 2 km long. By mid-November, however, the “short” runs were 5 km. This applied to everybody, as after the first two weeks attendance unsurprisingly started dropping off, until by November it had stabilized at around 8-10 regulars, which no longer justified separation into “beginner”, “medium” and “advanced” groups. Prof. Tracy had talked about something he called “runners’ high”, wherein after the first moments of difficulty during a run everything suddenly becomes a breeze – the heart rate stabilizes, your body stops aching, and you gain a second wind. It’s at this point, Tracy said, that running really becomes enjoyable, but it only occurs after a certain distance. Some people never found the enjoyment. Others never reached that distance. And most commonly, something I struggled with, people just didn’t want to get up early in the morning.

To add a touch of black comedy, Prof. Tracy stopped running with us after the first three weeks. He started showing up but staying in the park, to watch our bags. After some weeks he would just walk out of his house (which was next to the dorms), tell us the route, and then walk back home. The ridiculous part was that he would show up in full running gear, complete with toed shoes and everything, just to talk to us and then go home afterwards. As long as I myself could keep running, however, it didn’t matter whether Tracy ran with us or not. And to Tracy’s credit, he did show up almost every morning, even when hung over.

As people started dropping out of the group, it didn’t take long until I was essentially running alone every morning. There would always be 6 or so people who started out, but my “light jog” would leave me so far behind that after the first kilometer there’d be no one in sight, except when everyone else would be coming back the other way. If I was lucky, there’d still be someone waiting, maybe still stretching, by the time I got back to the park. At first I ran without carrying anything, preferring to take in the sights and the smells of the places we went. Then we started running the same route over and over, at which point I started bringing an iPod along. This was a hit-or-miss strategy, however. I had never had the time to make any sort of “running playlist”, which meant that I could be potentially be running with a beat-tastic dance tune one second and then a slow waltz the other. It’s hard to keep pace with songs meant for quiet rainy evenings.

Weekends were interesting. The running club occasionally had special events, such as this one Saturday where we ran all the way to another park where Tracy had set up a barbecue grill and tons of food. But my Saturday mornings were usually filled with excursions to other places, so I had to muster the discipline to run by myself on Sundays. Sometimes I didn’t, which hurt down the line. When I did, however, I’d always forget to map out a specific route for myself, which meant that when I started running I just ran wherever, and got lost. A lot. But I would set goals for myself. One memorable Sunday run was when I decided to run from one train station to another. I had no idea where to go except to follow the train line, except that there was no road running directly alongside the line. So I snaked my way around it, and at one point almost climbed a mountain trail before realizing I probably needed to turn back. I did eventually succeed, but only after a lot of circling around.

Getting lost on purpose was how I kept running interesting for myself after the novelty started to wear off. Then I had to look for other answers to the question, Why am I running? Or, phrased differently, Why am I wasting my time beating my legs to a pulp when I could be in bed for three more hours? But running is special for me, because it’s the first time in my life that I’ve devoted myself assiduously to some sort of skill. I never really learned to play the electric organ, just how to manipulate the thing’s preset beats and put chords in them. I never really took my math competitions seriously, scraping by with the occasional bronze medal. I still can’t cook (which is why I’m not a dormer), swim, or do computer programming or Photoshop or whatever. And I have yet to professionalize the one thing I have a modicum of skill at, which is writing.

Prof. Tracy dropped a bomb at the start of November. That 10 km run we were slated to do? Gone. Now it was going to be a 20 km run, the reason being that all the organized 10 km runs in the area were full. I had been working more and more towards being able to do 10 km, and then suddenly the target distance just up and doubled. I couldn’t believe it. But I’d gotten far in the club, and I wasn’t about to back down. Especially since I could have never forgiven myself.

But the critical flaw in my training was that I had never really done a long run. During the long runs I did with the group, I would walk some part of it. Eventually I did long runs by myself running the whole way, but what I thought was “long” was actually just medium. The only long run I did was in the week right before the anticipated 20 km run, when we did 14 km. I gave up after around 10 km, at which point I told myself, “If I can just do 10 km next Sunday, even though I paid for the 20 km run, I’ll feel satisfied.”

Marathon day was today, at Osaka Castle Park. The event was called the Osaka Sweets Marathon, the idea being that the rest stop would include free sweets such as cookies, cake, and chocolates. The course itself was a 2km circuit around the park, which we would then have to do 10 and a half times. A half? Yeah – it was a half marathon, so as it turns out, it wasn’t 20 km, but 21.1. My stomach began sinking. It then totally collapsed after another shocking revelation – we only had two and a half hours to complete the run, after which the event staff would start herding stragglers back. My average pace was 7.5 km/hour. I did some quick calculations: not enough. Damn.

Many of the guys from the club were just happy to have made it to the event, period, but I wanted to finish. I thought I’d have all the time I needed – or at least around three hours or so, which would have been doable. But two and a half? It wasn’t surprising that running the half-marathon along with us were people who were decked out in running gear and shirts with stuff like “TOKYO MARATHON 2007” on them. The event also attracted a lot of runners who were just there for fun, as evidenced by their costumes – sharks, maids, bunnies, Power Rangers, Santa Clauses, a freaking butler complete with tray balanced on one hand, etc. But they were mostly all doing the 10 km run. The more serious runners who nevertheless, for whatever reason, weren’t doing the full marathon, were instead surrounding us foreigners at the starting line.

At 12:15, we were off. I remembered this time to run at a slow-ish pace so as not to tire myself out too early, though I calculated that I needed to run each 2km lap in under 15 minutes in order to have enough time to run the last 1.1 km to the goal. For the first half of the race I would occasionally pick up the pace for a kilometer or so, but eventually I got too tired and instead reverted to “light jog” mode. When I saw I was just barely scraping under 15 minutes each lap, I decided to totally neglect the selling point of the Osaka Sweets Marathon, and ignore the sweets, just going straight for the water. Unlike the other runners, I simply didn’t have time to stop and eat cake.

As I hit the 10 km mark, I thought that because I had already gotten through half of it, it would only get easier. I was totally wrong. At 13 km, my back began to raise the flag of rebellion. At 15 km, it made an alliance with my left shoulder, but the rebellion was put down at 16 km. By 18 km, however, the insurrection flared up again, forcing me to do what I said I would never do – begin walking. I walked for about 10 seconds, and then pushed hard to run again. At this point I was just thinking of how good it would feel to be able to post to everyone on Facebook about having completed a half-marathon, as pretty much only a handful of people back home knew I was even running. But several people made me grin and bear the self-inflicted torture as well. Two people, to be exact.

The first was someone whom I’ll call “ganbare grandma”. Ganbare means more or less to try hard or to exert effort, and is something Japanese generally say in place of “Good luck!” In front of me while running was an old-ish lady (50’s?) wearing a t-shirt from a previous marathon. I saw that she was more or less running at a steady pace, and decided to see if I could keep up with her. We overtook each other several times, before her stamina finally defeated me. At one point we talked to each other for a bit, though. Focusing on keeping up with her while running allowed me to forget about my own body for a while.

The second was an unbelievably cute “ganbare kid”. This was a kid who couldn’t have been 5, sitting on the side of the road pumping his fist at the runners, clapping, and screaming minna (everyone) ganbare! He was just so impossibly cute that his voice got stuck in my head and, I swear, contributed to a burst of speed for at least 2 km. Everytime I passed him he was still at it, though towards the end of the race his voice was clearly giving out, until on the last lap he was being carried by his dad and was content with a fistbump.

I hit 20 km and panicked. I only had 15 minutes left, and I still needed to do another 1.1 km. My arms had already seceded – if I didn’t keep them clenched tight they would actually start wiggling by themselves. As I neared the finish line, a Japanese student, Hiroki, and a Swedish student, Andreas, caught up to me. They were much faster than me but were also stopping to eat sweets. We crossed the finish line together, and the moment I stopped moving my legs turned to jelly and I sat down on the sand just past the finish line. I then scarfed down whatever sweets were still around – all the cake was gone – and gulped down five cups of water. Up to now my kneecaps still hurt and I’m pretty sure it’ll be even worse when I wake up tomorrow.

But damn it, I did it! And not everyone in the club did it. This may sound mean, but that made my run feel even more special. And it was the best feeling ever. I wasn’t supposed to finish, and I did! 2 hours, 26 minutes and 37 seconds, just a hair’s length under the time limit.

I should say that this half-marathon was the culmination of everything I’ve been doing up until then – but it isn’t. I’ll keep running. (Tall order, given that I’m returning to Manila in three weeks and it’s either forever hot or forever raining there.) Funny how the activity that will sum my Japan experience up the most for me isn’t something “Japanese”. But then again, Japanese are particularly crazy about running. Marathons are in the news all the time (serious marathons, though, not fun ones like this one.) So I guess running is Japanese too.

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