Thursday, March 3, 2016

Tokyo Marathon Fail (My Undeserved DNF)

3/4/16 Update: I shared my blog in two running club Facebook groups hoping that other back-of-the-pack runners could learn from my experience. In one forum I was shown a lot of support by many members. But a few chose to attack me for not doing my homework, for whining, and even for being a marathoner who takes walk breaks. Others were helpful at pointing out that, indeed, there was a Runner Handbook that detailed the intermediate cut-off times. It's good to know it exists, but it's buried on the website in an odd location. I did not see it prior to the race, for which I take full responsibility. But I stand by my assertion that the race could have been better at communicating all of this information in all locations where they mention the time limit. Like I indicated previously, this is a lesson I have learned and will apply in the future. I'm not whining about it, and I never did whine. However, I was angry, and I am sad, and I'm not going to apologize for expressing legitimate human emotions in my personal blog. But, I'll never agree that I whined and solicited pity in the Facebook groups. That's not my style.

Original Blog Post from 3/3/16:

I ran 30 kilometers of the Tokyo Marathon on Sunday. That’s almost 19 miles. I was swept from the course. This was completely unexpected based on the information I had about the course time limit. I could have and should have finished this marathon, had I been better informed. And if I’d been better informed, all it would have taken was being one second faster. That’s right. I missed a cut-off time I didn’t know existed by one second. That’s one photo op, one walk break, one brief stretching break. I was and am heartbroken, having traveled all that way to run one of the six World Marathon Majors, on what would have been my 3rd marathon continent. I am ashamed of myself, knowing that this was completely preventable. I am also angry at the Tokyo Marathon for their inconsistent information about pacing and timing (and possibly an outright lie). What follows is the chronological account of the marathon, up until my fateful end.

Scot and I left Washington DC on Thursday, traveling through Toronto and landing in Tokyo on Friday evening. I went straight to the hotel while Scot met up with a friend and joined me later. I wanted to get checked in and go out, but I was exhausted and ate a quick convenience meal from 7-11: inari (sticky rice wrapped in a tofu pocket), cheese bread, beer. Then I slept while I was waiting for Scot.

Our neighborhood, Shinjuku, by night

On Saturday morning Scot and I ran the untimed Friendship Run 5K that was associated with the marathon (more on that in a following blog post). After the 5K, we went to the race expo at Tokyo Big Sight, where we spent a good part of the day. On the way back to our hotel we checked out the marathon starting area that was being set up for the next morning around the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. By the time we got back to the hotel it was evening, and I hadn’t eaten much. But I couldn’t stay awake to go eat dinner. I passed out at 8:00 PM. Scot made a midnight snack run to 7-11, so I had a middle-of-the-night inari (again). I kept waking up during the night; my sleep was really strange. In short, I was neither well-rested nor well-fueled for the marathon that would come in a few short hours.

Here I am before the start, still expecting good things

On Sunday morning the weather was a little chilly, but it would be perfect marathon weather a little later on. I was going on Day 3 of a headache, and suffering from not eating well the previous day. I ate an apple and a granola bar for breakfast, but the lack of adequate calories the previous day was going to be a problem. My plan was to take in every fluid and every bit of food offered to me on the marathon course, and I also had some of my own gels and energy chews. Runners were banned from carrying their own fluids, so I’d need to rely on the aid stations for water and the Japanese energy drink Pocari Sweat (side note: I was enamored with Pocari Sweat during my first trip to Japan in 2001, so I was excited that this was the on-course energy drink and a major race sponsor).

Pocari Sweat - my favorite!

We could have walked from our hotel to the start, but it was a little quicker to take the subway one stop.  Surprisingly, the trains were not full. We got to the starting area with ease, but then had the challenge of finding our assigned gates. Scot and I were in different corrals and also entered through different gates. This information was printed on our bibs and there was strict enforcement. There was a common gate for any runners who were not checking a bag, so we tried to enter there, but Scot was denied because he was carrying a water bottle belt with a pouch. Even with no bottles, the pouch counted as a bag. So, we separated and went to our own gates. Later, Scot found me before we had to split off into separate corrals. I was in Corral K, the very last one. That meant I would have less time to complete the marathon by the posted 7 hour limit from gun time. I hoped it wouldn’t take too long to get to the starting line.

Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, at the start

I think I stood in my corral for close to an hour waiting for the opening ceremony, which I could not see, but could hear on a speaker. And then we heard the boom of a cannon and the elite runners were off. I expected to have a much longer wait, but my corral actually started moving shortly after the gun. I crossed the start 20 minutes after gun time. That meant I would have 6:40 to complete the marathon, which was more than enough even with my lack of training, my headache, and my low blood sugar. I would simply listen to my body, hydrate and fuel consistently, and take in the sights and sounds. I had a positive attitude even though my body didn’t feel well.

The starting line, seen 20 minutes after gun time

The first mile or so of the marathon went through the Shinjuku area, where we were staying. We didn’t go past our hotel, but we got close, running by familiar landmarks. There were lots of spectators and they were very friendly and energetic, even though I didn’t know what most of them were cheering. I was immediately impressed with the logistics of the race. The course was well-marked, there were more than enough volunteers, and everything from aid station (frequent and well-stocked) to trash bin (it was almost impossible to litter) to course marshal (easily identifiable and most gave high-fives to runners) was well done.

Many runners wore costumes. Some of the most common ones were Minions and Mt. Fuji (Fuji San hats or entire costumes that looked like the beloved Japanese mountain). Others wore dress from their native countries, superhero outfits, and more. I even saw at least one bride and groom; I think they are from Taiwan. I regret that I didn’t get photos of the Mt. Fuji runners, because that was a theme unique to Japan.

Yes, runners dressed like this; for some, just a hat

The course was nice, running with views of distinctive Tokyo architecture, both old and new. We ran a nice segment across from the Imperial Palace wall and moat. We saw the Tokyo Tower from several different angles, the Tokyo Skytree, and took in the everyday Tokyo landscape. There was also lots of great entertainment such as drum troupes, dancers and other musicians. I slowed to watch the acts and take photos.

Some of many performances on the course

Wedding party

I was in great spirits and having a good time in spite of my physical discomfort. A couple times I did slow down for extra walk breaks because I felt a little shaky from lack of calories. Still, I knew I would be fine because I had a very generous amount of time to finish the race. No sense in pushing too hard and passing out. For the first half I was pretty consistent with my planned walk breaks (intervals of 3 minutes running, 1 minute walking) and walked a little extra during aid stations and to take photos. At the halfway mark I was at 3:00 hours, which was perfect. I expected to slow down a little in the second half, but I had a cushion of 40 minutes, or so I thought.

Imperial Palace wall and moat

On one of the out & back sections

Tokyo Tower and...another performance
I loved this view

I saw some folks I knew on the course, a few fellow Marathon Maniacs and Marathon Globetrotters. I also had a spectator! Scot and I had met Jennifer, who lives in Tokyo, at the 5K the previous day. She came out to cheer and called me out by name, which was a bit of a surprise. It took a couple seconds to register what was happening, and I circled back on the sidewalk to say hi to Jennifer and capture a quick selfie with her. I also saw Maniac Mary, who came up behind me. She said something about a time checkpoint at one of the 5K marks, but I didn’t quite understand what she meant. I had not heard of any checkpoints. I simply knew the stated time limit for the marathon was 7 hours from gun time, and I was always on pace to beat that. Mary was faster and more energetic than I, so after running with her for a brief time, I dropped back.

With my new friend Jennifer

Later in the race I saw Scot on the second out & back section. I had seen him on the first out & back, but he was far away and couldn’t hear me call to him. This time I saw him and got a hug. I also saw Anders for a quick photo op. My pace slowed in the second half as I expected it would, but I was always moving forward, eating and drinking as needed, and I felt fairly well overall. I continued to enjoy all the sights and sounds of the city and my fellow marathoners. I was having a good day.

Selfie with Anders

Here comes Magenta the Road Trip Flamingo with Scot

And then, all of a sudden, I wasn’t having a good day. I was passed on the course by the official “balloon people”. Many races have a sweeper pace group at the back of the pack to encourage runners to stick with them in order to finish the race. These pacers typically run or walk a pace that is equivalent to the time limit of the race. But these runners were much faster than a 7 hour gun time pace. They wore bright yellow shirts and had gold balloons. On their shirts were printed the English words “Runner Finish Support,” a term I thought was ambiguous.  These couldn’t be the sweepers, as they had just passed me, and I knew I was well on pace to beat the time limit. But something told me I shouldn’t let them get too far ahead, so I picked up my pace. As I got closer to the balloon people, they started an animated campaign to motivate the runners around them. Spectators on the sidelines were also frantically cheering, and these were different, more serious cheers than earlier. All of this was in Japanese, of course, so I didn’t exactly know what was going on. And then I saw the 30K marker and timing mat coming up. The balloon people got even more emphatic and were waving us runners forward. I decided I better catch up, so I did. I was running in a big pack of runners just paces behind the balloons. We approached the 30K mark, and even though I didn’t know why we had to go so fast, I kept up the pace. The balloon people crossed the 30K timing mat. I was two meters behind them. And then, before I could really process what was going on, a rope was swiftly pulled across the road and all of us who were not in front of the balloon people were stopped. We were now out of the race. We were not allowed to continue. A few tried to wiggle around or under the rope, and race officials pushed them back. That was it. We runners, with our hearts beating rapidly, our lungs breathing deeply, our suddenly stopped bodies quivering, stood looking at each other and shrugging the universal “what just happened?” One woman remarked to me in English: “I don’t understand…we had more time…why can’t we continue?” It was what we were all thinking, as race officials tore a tag off our bibs to track who was swept at the 30K mark, and then shepherded us to buses to be returned to the finish area.

I was in shock and it took me a while to process this information. On the sweeper bus I had time to put the pieces together. Mary had been trying to tell me that there were specific times of day that runners had to cross each 5K timing mat. Apparently, there were signs posted with this information. Somehow I didn’t notice them until 25K, the last one I crossed, and by then it was too late. I also knew without doing the math that the time limits for these intermediate cut-offs were more strict than the advertised 7 hour time limit from the gun. This was not fair, but it’s what happened. After the half, at approximately 21K, had I slowed down enough for the balloon people to pass me, but I was confused; in my mind, I was still on pace to more than make the 7 hour limit. After I figured out what had just happened to me, I sent a text to Scot. I didn’t know if his phone would be on to receive it. I told him that I had been swept, not 2 meters after the balloon people. I told him I hadn’t known about the 5K cut-offs until it was too late. I told him that I could have beat that cut-off if I’d only known about it in advance. Just one fewer photo, just one fewer walk break…

The bus dropped us off outside the bag check. We were each given a bag of food and drink and shuffled into the room to claim our bags. I hadn’t checked one, but I had to walk the long corridors winding through the bag check and the changing areas, herded along with marathon finishers proudly wearing their medals, with their finisher towels draped across their shoulders. I should have been one of them. I had been stopped for being one second too slow. And I know that on that day I could have been at least 15 minutes faster, if I’d known I had to be.

My consolation prize (BTW - CalorieMate sucks)

I waited for at least an hour for Scot to finish his race, walk through the finish chute and back to the family reunion area. He didn’t check his phone until he was inside and on his way to meet me. While I waited, I did all I could to hold back my tears. I was heartbroken. I traveled all that way, at great expense, only to receive a DNF for being a second behind the balloon people. I was also very angry. The inconsistency between the publicized 7 hour time limit and the actual incremental cut-offs was unfair. Yet, there was nothing I could do. Complaining wouldn’t put me back on the course, wouldn’t earn me a medal.

I’m sure some people will tell me I had no business running Tokyo as undertrained as I was. But here’s the thing: I was adequately trained and ready for the 6:40 marathon that I thought I had to run. Theoretically, I still had plenty of time to take it easy and listen to my body, which was not well that day. In order to run a 6:40 marathon I needed to run/walk an average per mile pace of 15:16. Not a problem. My Garmin statistics tell me that my average pace was 13:55 over the 30K that I ran. So…why was I cut off? I haven’t decided if I’m going to email the race organizers or not. Doing so won’t change my result, but it could improve the pace and time limit communications for future runners. I will make sure anyone interested in this race knows that the time limit is a lie. Do not run Tokyo if you’re a back-of-the-pack runner and you have any doubts about finishing in 6 hours or under. Be aware of this if you are an injured or ill runner on race day. The Japanese efficiency got a little too efficient with sweeping runners for this race, and many of us who could have finished were not allowed to finish. Will I go back to Tokyo Marathon? Yes, I want to. If it was any race other than one of the Majors, I could move on, but I can’t accept this defeat. It probably won’t be for a few years, but I’ll be back, I’ll be educated, and I’ll kick that marathon’s ass. 


  1. Before I did this race in 2014, I heard a lot of buzz about how strict the intermediate cut-offs were. If I had any idea you didn't know about them, I would have warned you. I'm sure you could easily have stayed ahead of them if you had known.

    1. Yes, I could have. I was moving more slowly than I needed to because I didn't feel well. All I needed was another minute per mile faster, and I could have easily mustered that. This is a lesson that I'll certainly learn from.

  2. Replies
    1. That is correct. I based my pacing on a 6:40 marathon, which was 20 minutes behind the 7 hour gun time.

  3. I'm sorry this happened to you, and I totally get your anger at them.....and I'm sure you will have retribution on that race in the future!!

    1. Thanks! It was a learning experience, for sure. Many people are saying that all Japanese marathons have these kind of intermediate cut-offs. I eventually found the information about the cut-off times last night. It was buried in a strange place on the website.

  4. Not only was the information in an obscure place, the 30K cutoff was much tighter than "7 hrs gun time." If you do the math, the limit there was 4:46 gun time, which is on pace for a 6:40 GUN TIME finish. If it took 20 min to cross the start, she was easily on pace for a 6:15 marathon and well within the time limit.

    I saw people bring up Big Sur's 5 hr cut at the 22 mile mark, BUT...
    1. The finish time limit is 6 hrs, this cut requires splits for 5:58.
    2. It's clearly communicated in the FAQ, right along with the course time limit!

    1. The 6:15-6:30 window is exactly where I expected to finish. I certainly learned my lesson about being complacent, and next time I think I'll be close to the time limit, I'll do better research about the race.

  5. Hi Sandy, I enjoyed reading your blog. Sorry to hear what happened. I ran the race too, met Scot and spoke to him for a while during the race. I was actually in Corral L. They added L this year because they had more people running... so it took me 22 minutes to cross the start line, which was faster than I expected. I was aware of all the cutoffs so I didn't stop for a potty even once! Haha... I hope you will be able to go back and complete the race someday! Happy running!

    1. Thank you. I plan to go back and I'll do much better now that I'm better informed. I will also allow more time to adjust to jet lag.

  6. Hi Sandy, I started in Corral L and was also in that group with the gold balloon people at the 30k mark. Fortunately, I was able to cross a couple of seconds before the cutoff. I witnessed the roping off. But unfortunately, I didn't make it to the 35k cutoff. I also did some computations in the bus, and like you, I would have finished well within the 7 hour cutoff time even with my slowed down pace. I still don't understand the logic behind their stricter intermediate cutoff times but it's their rules. I'll try again in 2017 and I hope to do much better (and hope for a better corral assignment).

    1. I'm not happy that you were stopped at the 35K, but in a way it's comforting to know that I wasn't the only one affected by this. I'm hoping I get in for 2017. We find out soon!