The Village Velodrome Appreciation Society

A blog about jitensha and jogging

Monday, December 08, 2008

Okutama Ekiden 2008

This year's Okutama marked its 70th running. And maybe there's a feeling of faded glory attached to the event now. It's still a big event, but the top professional and university teams chose to run elsewhere on the day, leaving the event to the weaker Hakone teams and second-string pros. So, this is still no fun-run.

Perfect conditions greeted us in the mountains west of Tokyo. The weather was cool and crisp, but the sun made running in shorts, singlet and gloves possible.

Okutama is a proper ekiden in that it runs from eki (train station) to eki. I was third runner on our team, so I had to catch a train out to my start point. It seemed my whole day was about catching trains - I caught my first one at 6am from near my house, and at 10am, I was still riding a train to the start.

My start point was a very low-key affair. A small laneway became a makeshift changing area. Blue coated officials set about marking the main road through the town of Kori with tape and setting up tables. Three portaloos serve the needs of 120 nervous runners. The area transforms into a sea of university tracksuits - mainly the distinctive green of Asia University, which fielded five teams, and the dark blue of Tokyo Metropolitan, which had three teams.

My nerves are jangling I line up at the start to wait for my second-leg runner to appear. All of the runners crush toward the road, each hoping the next runner to appear will be from their team. A few are caught unware and have to burst through the pack of waiting bodies and out onto the road to collect their sash. Numbers are called out in Japanese of course, so I was concentrating hard to make sure I heard mine. But I spotted my teammate heading toward me before my number was called and was on the line in good position with plenty of time.

I grabbed the sash and ran. Two runners were ahead, so I began almost sprinting to get them, then realised that I had 6.5km of uphill to come. Heading out at 3.15 pace was not advisable. I caught my two runners early, then got a third, and then saw a group of three more runners starting the first big climb. I couldn't work out how fast I was running, but I caught my three runners and only one could go with me.

The climbs really dragged, but hills are great for your form - they make runners run a little better. I could hear one guy right behind me so I decided to see if I could shake him off. I accelerated but it didn't work, so I settled into a groove and focused on the runners ahead, and oddly, the runner behind lost contact at that point. I ran alone for a while. The crowds on the road were thin, but very encouraging for the foreign guy.

Soldiering on, I picked off a few more runners who looked like they'd overcooked it earlier, and I was wondering where the finish for my stage was. I'd been told that "a tunnel" marked the end of the course, but what I hadn't been told was there are four or five tunnels on the course. I picked up the pace after the first tunnel, but then saw a second and realised I couldn't be near the end. The tunnels made everything sound very strange. All I could hear was my feet slapping on the ground and my laboured breathing. I was like a Kraftwerk song - all synthetic breathing sounds and Teutonic beats.

A couple of kilometers came and went, then I saw police lights and realised that this meant the fast guys were on the return leg. Amazing. So far ahead. An Asia University runner came flying past. I listened to the tap, tap, tap of his shoes as they skimmed the ground. He was not only turning over his legs twice as fast as me he was also travelling much further with every step.

A few more of the top guys raced passed, then a big bunch of runners - everyone of them straining. They all looked like they were actually running a bit beyond their limits and were hoping the others would crack first. They were battling for about fifth place, so I guess I was looking at a group of 15.20 5km runners running outside their comfort level - I'd love to be able to experience running in a group like that.

When I did reach the final tunnel I recognised it - it's a very long tunnel lit with orange lights. Three runners were ahead of me and I was determined to hand over my tasuki (sash) ahead of them.

I picked up speed, but I soon realised I was being a bit ambitious. I had over 50m to close on the closest runner in red shorts and he was chasing the runners ahead of him. The tunnel came and went without any of the runners coming back to me. I closed to about 20 meters at the end of the tunnel and despite a tired sprint I handed over the sash a few meters behind the red-shorted runner.

I was pretty stuffed at the end. At Hakone Ekiden (Jan 2) you see runners spectacularly collapse into the arms of waiting helpers, and I had always thought that this was partly for show, but on crossing the line I felt just like them. I was coughing and felt awful. But instead of being wrapped in a team coat and assisted like a wounded soldier away from the course, I just staggered to my bag, put on my stuff and made my way to the train station to get back to the start/finish line.

The event is great, and it makes you feel special to be running in such exalted company, surrounded by pros, timekeepers, team cars and the like. But it's a lonely event. I ran pretty much by myself for 6.5km. I had no idea how fast I was going as there are no kilometer markers, so it's an odd event in terms of judging how you went. I think I ran well - no one caught me and I chased down quite a few runners. And 24 hours later I still feel some leg soreness and tiredness, so I guess I pushed hard enough - although I didn't feel like I had one of those 'special' days.

This event is special though and well worth the number of train journeys involved.

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At 1:05 pm, Blogger Christian said...

you mean okutama?

At 2:59 pm, Blogger GKK said...

Thanks Christian. Too many race names to remember. I've fixed it now.


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