The trip did take a little bit of plotting and planning. The Okinawa Marathon has a user-friendly website with English translation; I was able to register for the race by credit card for ¥4,800, approximately $48.00. Then it was a matter of updating passports and finding just the right flights since my husband, a private pilot, is very particular about aircraft.
We flew from Portland to Vancouver, B.C. to Tokyo to Okinawa, arriving four days prior to the race to provide plenty of time to recover from the 21-hour journey and 18-hour time difference. A shake-out run two days before the race helped introduce me to the area, adjust to the warm and humid weather, and practice bowing to everyone I met.
Packet pickup at Okinawa Comprehensive Park on Saturday provided the first hint of a highly organized and well-attended event. Vendors were selling all kinds of food and beverages outdoors while bib numbers, T-shirts and race bags were distributed inside the Comprehensive Park gymnasium. You had to remove your shoes before entering the gym; you could either stash your shoes in wooden cubbies in the lobby or carry them in plastic bags provided by an attendant.
Because I came from outside Japan, I had not received a race confirmation by regular mail. I was able to find an information table in the Comprehensive Park gymnasium, and after much bowing and pointing and more bowing I soon received the needed documents to obtain my bib and T-shirt.
Once we had retrieved our shoes, we checked out the adjacent state-of-the-art stadium, where the finish line and awards podium were being set up and a high school band was practicing the Japanese national anthem.
Rain showers were frequent and heavy, adding to the already sweltering humidity.
The cardinal rule of racing, of course, is you never change your diet prior to an event. Fortunately we were staying with our son, so I was able to forgo sushi and other local delicacies for a homemade pasta dinner the night before the marathon. It’s a good thing I taught my boy to cook!
Race day was very humid and quite breezy. Unlike races in the States, which tend to start at the crack of dawn, the Okinawa Marathon didn’t start until 9 a.m. That gave me plenty of time to mill around in the starting corral with 13,000 fellow runners, while drinking warm, canned coffee from a vending machine (surprisingly good!).
Speeches commenced at 8:50 a.m. followed by heart-jumping fireworks at 9 o’clock sharp. From the very start, the course was lined with hundreds of locals who clapped, cheered, banged drums and handed out food. The spectators included entire school groups, drum and dance troupes, and large blocks of school children and senior citizens. And so it continued … for the entire 26.2 miles!
The runners themselves were quiet. In stateside races you usually hear fellow runners engaged in loud conversations (do I really want to know about your tyrant boss and recent divorce, at this moment?), but not so in Japan. Aside from the street-side crowds you could only hear feet hitting the ground. Slippity slap, slippity slap.
Yet, the Japanese LOVE costumes. There were more super heroes, stuffed animals and fruit than at a Halloween party, and the wackier the costume, the louder the cheers and the bigger the high fives from roadside spectators. I almost bit the dust when a kangaroo darted in front of me to get his share of skin from a group of giggling, uniform-clad school girls.
Water, wet sponges and food – lots and lots of food – were available throughout the race. I avoided the food, mostly because I wasn’t quite sure what it was. The plethora of water stops threw off the timing of my usual walk breaks and led to another, um, problem. At one point I needed a restroom and, not realizing there was a difference, I wound up in a male-only port-a-potty. There were some interesting looks as I exited and went on my way!
Between miles 17-19 the course wound through Kadena Air Base. The airmen were welcoming and especially loud and supportive when they saw a Caucasian woman in the midst of the Japanese runners; just 2 percent of the marathon participants were from the United States. (Some great photos of the run through Kadena can be found here).
At the halfway mark I was on track to finish in less than five hours, but several long hills, and the heat and humidity, took its toll in the final few miles and I crossed the finish line inside the Okinawa Comprehensive stadium at 5:22.12. I was just grateful to finish well before the official cut-off time of 6 hours and 15 minutes, as nearly 30 percent of participants missed this mark. I was 21st out of 69 runners in my “new” age group.
With no official photographers on the course or at the finish line, runners were offered an opportunity to take a do-it-yourself finish photo. The photo stand came complete with removable numbers on j-hooks that could be swapped out for each runner’s finish time.
Finishing late in the day, I missed most of the post-race festivities although there were still plenty of local delicacies to enjoy including soba noodles and the local Orion beer. Afterwards, I satisfied my salt craving with fries from one of the (sigh) many McDonalds on the island.
Instead of resting for the next several days, as one typically does following a race, we went into hyper tourist mode with our son and daughter-in-law. Wonderful hosts, they drove us the length and width of the 70-mile long, seven-mile wide island so we could visit historic castles, temples, battle sites and memorials. Of course, this involved lots of hiking and what seemed like thousands and thousands of steps … ouch!
But my fondest memories of the trip will always be the 26.2 miles on foot with a community of fellow runners half way around the word – absolutely, positively the best way ever to experience a new land.