Yesterday I completed the first ever Kobe Marathon and it was a very enjoyable experience. Kobe is a wonderful city, very fashionable, international, lively and cosmopolitan (see earlier blog post here). I live in Yokohama and it reminded me a lot of my fine city – foreign settlements, Chinatown, Motomachi and beautiful bayfront. The one thing Kobe has that Yokohama doesn’t is a beautiful green mountain backdrop.
I arrived on Saturday morning around 8:30 am by the Shinkansen bullet train from Yokohama to Shin-Kobe Station. The train took about two and a half hours and was on schedule to the minute. When I arrived at Shin-Kobe it was raining pretty hard and windy. I was staying at the ANA Crowne Plaza Hotel, but I couldn’t check-in until 2 pm. So not wanting to get soak and wet, I amused myself by walking around the shopping plazas and grabbing a soy latte at Starbucks at Sannomiya until 10 am. Then I proceeded to the convention center on Port Island, pick-up my bib number, goody bag and t-shirt.
The building you picked up your bib number was different from where the expo was being held and you had to go to the expo if you wanted your t-shirt. On a nice day this wouldn’t have been a problem. But it was really windy and rainy, so having to trek a couple hundred meters in the rain wasn’t a pleasant experience. The did have a separate bib number pick-up table for “overseas” runners, which is always nice. The expo itself was rather small, they maybe had two dozen booths. ASICS had a large booth area, but beyond that, the rest were small vendors hawking things such as real estate, cell phone service, photos, other marathons, and who knows what else. For a marathon with 20,000 runners, I was expecting a little more, but no big deal, I wasn’t looking for anything in particular. However, it always amazes me that many of the Japanese marathons seem to miss out on this business opportunity – tons of foot traffic, niche market, and runners, in general, are usually a pretty affluent bunch.
Other than the t-shirt, marathon program, and emergency candles (?) the goody bag contained mostly flyers. I thought the t-shirt was well designed, nothing too outlandish.
After gathering all my stuff, I did some sightseeing, stopping by the ASICS and UCC Coffee museum – both free. The ASICS museum was actually very interesting and they had autographed shoes on display from many of their sponsored athletes, including Ryan Hall and Deena Kastor. It was interesting to see Ryan Hall’s autograph, he added John 10:10 at the bottom of his autograph.
Then it was back to the hotel, dinner, little more sightseeing, stopping by the convenience store to grab something for breakfast, then to bed. Not sure if it was because there weren’t many people in the hotel or the hotel just has good soundproofing, but it was one of the most quiet hotels I’ve ever stayed at. I went to bed around 8:30 pm and woke up at 5:30 am. As a result, I slept very well that night, getting a solid nine hours of sleep, which rarely happens for me, especially before a marathon.
The next morning was rather leisurely and relaxing. I had a couple cups of coffee, two rice balls with salmon, and a bagel. I was a little concerned about the weather before getting to Kobe, but the rain stopped Saturday evening and it was shaping up to be a bright and clear morning. I had my clothing all prepared from the day before, so I just lubed up the sensitive areas and put on my running gear. Around 7:30 am I went downstairs to check-out from the hotel and stroll down to the starting line, which was about a mile from the hotel. The starting line was close to Sannomiya Station next to the Sogo Department Store on Flower Road.
They give you a large clear plastic bag that you can check-in. I was easily able to fit my entire backpack, warm-up clothing and jacket into the bag. Once you check-in your bag at your designated truck, you can then line up in your corral – total of 10, Blocks A – K. I was fortunate to get into the A block toward the front of the start area. So far, so good. It was around 8:15 am and I wanted to go to the port-a-potty one last time before the 9 am start. This was a rather confusing process and lines were backed up 100 people deep waiting to use the facilities and it was hard to determine where lines started or stopped. This is definitely an area where they need to improve in the future. After waiting in two lines, the first line was disbanded for some reason, I was able to slip in and take care of business after waiting over 20 minutes. At this point in time, it is around 8:40 am and I needed to get into my corral or risk losing my spot. Then they went through with the ceremony and moment of silence for the earthquake tsunami victims. Then we were off at promptly 9:00 am.
The start seemed a bit subdued, not a lot of lively music to get everyone jazzed up. It was a pretty tight start for the first few miles as we ran through downtown. Going into this race, I didn’t know what to expect. I ran the New York City Marathon two weeks ago and was also fighting a chest cold all week. Also, earlier in the week I had a business trip to Singapore and travel always takes something out of you. I went into this marathon with really no strategy other than to run at a comfortable conservative pace and just enjoy the run. The crowded start was probably good for me because it kept me from going out like a jack rabbit. Early on I settled into a 8:00 minute per mile pace. Then as I started to get a little elbow room, I was consistently clicking off about 7:50 miles, which felt about right. I pretty much kept the pace in the 7:40 to 8:00 per mile zone until about 22 miles. Normally, at this point, the marathon becomes a struggle, but I was still feeling really good and decided to push the pace a little and try to get under 3:30. So for about the last 4 miles, my pace ranged from 7:15 to 7:45 per mile pace, the fastest portion of the my run. In fact, I ran a negative split, about 2 minutes faster the second half than the first half and one of the few marathons where I didn’t feel totally spent at the end. My final net time was 3:29:15, which I was satisfied with.
As far as weather, it was in the mid-60s, sunny, low humidity, but fairly windy (about 20 mph, with gusts up to 30 mph). We had a headwind the first half of the marathon, but had a nice tailwind on the way back. Although a bit warm for me personally, it was decent marathon running weather.
The course was pretty scenic, but very narrow for much of the run. Trying to squeeze 20,000 runners on one lane of road at times just doesn’t work well. There were times when I had to slow down due to congestion. Not sure this is something they could fix in the future, but it definitely takes away from the quality of the experience. But the scenery was great, starting off in downtown Kobe, taking you along the bayfront, and finishing at Port Island. The one thing I remember are the boats in the harbor with colorful banners encouraging the runners. As far as difficulty, I would say it is moderate. There are a few bridges and overpasses for the first 19 miles, none which are overly challenging. However, at around mile 19, there is one significant overpass/elevated highway/bridge that was pretty challenging and could really derail runners from their goals if they went out too fast. As a reward, once you do reach the top of the bridge, it has a beautiful view of the Kobe bayfront. But other than that, not much else to speak of.
The crowd support was great, people lined the entire course shouting encouragement and giving high fives. The volunteers were also awesome, no complaints at all in this area.
But let me go back to the port-a-potties. Along the course there were very few. Around the halfway point I decided I needed to go. I stopped at one and they probably had 10 people waiting in line to use 4 port-a-potties. After waiting for about a minute and seeing the line was moving slow, I decided to try my luck at the next one. Fortunately, I saw a couple guys make their way to the Family Mart convenience store and there was a short line two guys deep, so I was able to take care of business rather quickly. However, again, I think they skimped out on the port-a-potties and really need to improve in this area in the future. I think if I would have had to use the “official” port-a-potties, I would have easily lost 3 to 5 minutes, which is extremely hard, if not impossible, to make up if you are trying to run a fast time.
After crossing the finish line, I sat down for a few minutes before making my way to the finish area. First they wrap you in a very nice finisher’s towel, then give you a nice looking medal, then you gather your sports drink, banana, and Kobe water. After collecting the goodies, you go and pick up your bag, change clothes and head back home.
They have a rail system called the Port Liner that will take you back downtown and was close to the finish area. After the race I went to the Kobe Sauna & Spa located in Sannomiya to take a shower and soak in the bath. A lot of guys had the same idea, I saw a lot of marathoners hobbling in there after the race. What a heavenly experience, would highly recommend doing this after a marathon. They also had a cold bath to soak in to reduce inflammation after a long run, but after dipping my toe in, I decided to stick to the warm baths. After the bath, they have a restaurant and relaxation room that you can hang out in and watch television (they were showing the end of the Kobe Marathon when I was there). After hanging out there for a couple hours (only cost 2,000 yen), I was totally refreshed and actually had very little pain from the run.
Overall, great effort by the city of Kobe on their inaugural marathon. Other than the port-a-potty situation and the course being too narrow during certain portions, they did an excellent job organizing and hosting the event. Not sure I’ll run this marathon again anytime soon, but I would recommend it.