Bill and I flew out of Seattle to Japan on January 20th, Inauguration Day. Our flight didn’t leave until early afternoon, so we had the opportunity to watch some of the pomp and circumstance of D.C. on television before we had to head down to the airport. We listened to President Obama’s speech on NPR as we drove. Sorry as we were to miss the coverage of the entire day, we were also excited to have our trip finally under way. It had been a long time in the planning stage.

This would be my second trip to Japan. The first was for our honeymoon, when we climbed Mt. Fuji and fell in love with her, that magic giant whose elevation is 12,388 feet at the highest point.

We had a different challenge on our agenda this time. It would be our fourth continent on which we would run a marathon.

When we arrived in Tokyo and debarked the plane, there were two men waiting for us with our names on a sign. We were on our way to Tateyama, Bellingham’s Japanese Sister City. The folks in Tateyama had been incredibly attentive to us as we made our plans. They paid for our entry to the marathon, arranged a homestay for us with a local family, scheduled a meeting with their mayor and insisted on picking us up at the airport. We had wanted to find our way to Tateyama on our own by train, but Michael, the liaison with the Tateyama mayor’s office, called us at least four times asking and re-asking whether or not it wouldn’t be better to have someone fetch us by car and drive us in. Eventually, he wore me down and I acquiesced. I like to take trains when I travel, but we would have to do it on another trip. And anyhow, I decided it might be a relief after a long plane ride to let someone else do the thinking at that point.

If you’ve never experienced Japanese hospitality, you’ve only lived half a life. When we arrived at the hotel Michael had booked for us, a team of six people (eight including us) gathered around a table in the lobby and commenced a meeting about our itinerary. We had contacted Tateyama through the Sister City Organization originally because there was very little information in English about the marathon online, and we’d realized we would need help to register. We never expected Tateyama to take us into the fold and treat us like honored dignitaries, but this is what happened. As Bill and I sat, exhausted and confused as to whether it was night or day, Michael translated for us what the representatives of the mayor’s office, the homestay family, the hotel and the Sister City Organization were planning for us. I tried to follow all the details, but when I realized I was having trouble even remembering people’s names, I finally dug out my pen and paper and took notes so I’d have something to refer to the next morning.

Here’s the itinerary:

Thursday: 10:00am – Our host (Kinuyo) would pick us up with the wife (Mrs. Kitami) of the man (Mr. Kitami) who had driven us from the airport. First they would drive us the full length of the marathon course. Then we would spend the day seeing sights of interest in Tateyama (the sports center and an interesting shrine cut into a mountainside). At 6:00pm we would convene at the Kitami’s for a potluck dinner with other Sister City Organization members who had visited Bellingham in past years. We would meet Kenji, Kinuyo’s husband, and sleep at their house.

Friday: A 9:30am meeting with the mayor who would present us with a gift and an International Friendship Certificate, more sight-seeing (a temple, local flower-growers and a Daibutsu) and then a lovely dinner at the home of our hosts.

Saturday: More sight-seeing in the morning, registration for the race in the afternoon and a formal presentation of plaques commemorating our participation in the marathon during a pre-race celebration in the evening. Sleep at the hotel and get ready for the race.

Sunday: Run the marathon at 10 am. Recover in the hotel room while watching the Sumo championship matches on TV.

Monday: We would leave Tateyama. The son of the hotel owner would drive us all the way (2 hours) to the next city we intended to visit before Bill had to fly home.

The morning after we arrived was foggy. Word was that Tateyama had one of the best views of Mt. Fuji in Japan, but we couldn’t find it. In fact, sight-seeing on our second day, the fog was so bad, we couldn’t even see the top of Buddha’s head as we stood at his feet. But once Saturday rolled around, rain cleared the air, wind blew the clouds and fog away, and Mt. Fuji made an appearance. Sure enough, there she was, across the water, huge and white and powerful.

When we awoke on Sunday morning and looked out the hotel room window, Fuji-san was still there. We were going to get to look at the mountain while we ran. Excited, we dressed and walked a few hundred meters from our hotel to the starting area.

Japanese runners are almost all organized into clubs. These clubs don’t much resemble the “running club” I belong to in Bellingham. They do meet for and support one another on training runs like we do, but they are more of a highly organized troop or team than we. For example, they tend to have about sixty members, all active, who register for races based on their identity as a club. They meet before races and stake out a spot near the starting line, situating themselves as a unit on a tarp or in a tent where they will store their post-race changes of clothes and where they will meet after the race to celebrate and eat. And they often have matching sweat suits. Actually, we’ve found that one of the questions on many applications for marathons around the world is, “Which running club do you belong to?” We always answer with, “Greater Bellingham Running Club,” but we know we aren’t answering the same question we’re being asked.

Because we didn’t have a recognized club to congregate with, we were introduced to a couple who invited us to join them on their tarp and to warm up with and start with them. There was a soccer field where runners warmed up near the race center. There was a big time-clock to the north side of the field that counted down the minutes to the start of the race. A few hundred people, wearing their various club colors, jogged around in circles, stopping from time to time to stretch. We jumped right into the circle and warmed up.

One of the women from the club took me under her wing. She was an avid marathoner with a slight injury, so she assured me she would be running this race at a slow pace. I know from experience that when most runners say “slow,” it never means slow like MY slow, so I didn’t count on running with her, but we did start together. Just minutes before the gun, we headed to the starting line, and I was surprised to see everyone lined up by number. There were signs telling us where we should stand (Bib #s 1100-1700, for example). I lined up behind the sign that indicated my bib number and stood next to my new friend as we waited for the signal that we should begin. We were also divided by sex. The men were on the right side of the line and the women on the left. (This, by the way, surprised Bill and me. We lost each other in the crowd as we were swept into our categories with only time for a half-hearted wave at one another.)

The gun went off and 5000 runners crossed the starting line, one chirping chip at a time. The first few kilometers wound along the bay as Mt. Fuji supervised our progress. I settled into my pace toward the back of the pack and waved goodbye to my injured companion as she soared ahead of me.

Bill and I were the only foreigners in the race, as far as we could figure (we’d asked the mayor about this, who seemed to think so), and most certainly the only Caucasians. Before and behind me, dark-haired runners bobbed along while I, even at only five feet six inches, towered above most. This made me conspicuous to bystanders and fans, of which there were many thousands along the race course. The Kitami’s were among them near the beginning of my run, and I heard them shout my name. I waved.

Just as we turned away from the water on the first bend of the route, I picked out of the crowd some of our new Sister City friends from the potluck dinner on Thursday night. I yelled, “Hello! Arigato. Thank you. Thank you for coming.” At just about the same time a woman runner settled in at my pace next to me and said hello. She struggled in English to ask me where I was from and if this was my first time in Japan. I answered her slowly, simplifying my language, as I had learned to do when I taught English as a second language years ago. Then she asked me a perplexing question. “Are you high school?” she said.

“High school?” I repeated.

She ran quietly beside me for a moment. I figured she was trying to piece together a way to rephrase her question (while I wished for the millionth time in my life I’d taken Japanese in college when I had the chance). Perhaps she thought I was a high school teacher, an exchange teacher, maybe. “Or do you go to University?” she finally asked.

I laughed. “Me?” I smiled at her. “I am forty-one years old.” I said. I held up four fingers on one hand and one on the other.

“OH!” She laughed now, too. “Me too. I born 1968.”

“1967 for me,” I said.

We continued our simple conversation for a few minutes before she said, “Do your best,” and jogged on ahead of me.

Do your best is a common motto in sporting activities in Japan. I noted, in fact, that everyone on the sidelines was shouting it as runners passed by. “Gambate”(pronounced gom-baa-tey) is the Japanese phrase. As we ran through tangled, twisting narrow neighborhoods and alongside dozens of small family businesses, the streets were packed with families, children and the elderly, all repeatedly shouting, “Gambate.” I felt exhilarated by the attention. This was the first time I’d experienced people lining the streets every inch of a race to cheer for all the runners, and I studied the faces of the fans. I especially enjoyed meeting the gazes of some of the small children and the very elderly people who seemed to be eyeing me as if I were an oddity of some kind (which no doubt I was). Most would look away quickly when they noticed I was looking back.

Some of the fans had set up their own unofficial aid stations. I’d never seen such a thing. One crew of women even served their treats on ceramic dishes. Onigiri triangles wrapped in seaweed, miso soup, hot green tea, hard candies, and salty treats were all offered along the way in between the official aid stations with their ample supply of water and fruit.

Before we left Bellingham, I had told Bill that I thought this would be the race in which I would be able to beat five hours. The course was relatively flat, the weather expected to be mild and I was feeling healthier than ever. To support my goal, Bill had calculated what my splits would need to be for each and every kilometer. I am used to figuring my pace in minutes per mile, and I didn’t want to have to do the calculations from miles to kilometers in my head while I was running. Now, on a sheet of paper tucked into the front of my running belt, I had these calculations. I was paying careful attention to them.

Every 2 kilometers were marked on the course. At 10 kilometers, I was running a few minutes faster than Bill’s splits. At 16k, I was nine minutes faster. One old woman watched me pull my paper out of my belt and study it. When I saw she was looking at me, I waved at her. Immediately she smiled, waved back and shouted in English, “YES YOU CAN,” a la Obama. I could see that, yes, I could do it. I just might run a sub-five hour marathon. Only a few weeks earlier I had run a 30 kilometer race in Arizona in 3:13. Why couldn’t I do it now? When I hit 30k this time, I was at 3:18. Not bad. At 35 kilometers, even after a few challenging hills, I’d been running for 3 hours and 53 minutes. I was slowing down, but I could almost walk the last 7 kilometers (4.35 miles) and still come in under my five hour goal. This gave me a sense of relief, so I relaxed a little and stopped looking at my spits, but I kept running.

The route was like a lollipop. We traveled the road along the waterfront with the view of Mt. Fuji both at the start and the end and circled through Tateyama in the middle. As I came down the final small decline and saw the water, pain finally registered in my quads and hamstrings. But when the mountain came into my line of vision and winked at me (I’m quite sure I saw her do this), I remembered that only three years ago, I had climbed to her summit and I took courage, knowing I didn’t fail her then and I wouldn’t fail her now. As the mountain moved further behind me to the left, I strained my aching neck to look at the snowcap now covering the point at the top of Fuji and a flash of triumph flooded through me. I shouted, “WooooHoooo! Yes!” Some runners behind me tittered and whispered something to one another. There wasn’t much talking or shouting among the athletes here; all was serious concentration, but I figured I was already out of place, so a little hoot wouldn’t hurt anyone.

Finally, I saw a man standing near the course holding a large sign reading, “2 kilometers remaining.” At least I assume that’s what it said. I was so close! A few minutes later, I saw Bill up ahead, camera in hand. He had finished his race more than an hour before (3:41, he told me later) and had had time to recover while waiting for me.

I waved with both hands to catch Bill’s attention (though surely he wouldn’t have missed me with my blond hair coming loose from my pony tail and flying wild in the wind). Bill waited for me to come up parallel with him and jogged beside me.

“Hey friend, look at your time!” he said.

“I know. I did it. I’m coming in under five!” Adrenaline was pumping into my tired muscles. “Am I close?”

“It’s around the bend. Go for it.” He dropped back and let me move into the finishing shoot before swerving a bit to the left and running ahead behind the spectators to get a photo of me finishing.

I saw the finish line, fans defining it on either side. Incomprehensible shouts of encouragement washed over me. This was such a welcome difference from the way I usually came over a finish line after everyone had gone home and the recovery food had already been eaten!

There it was. FINISH was written in English. There was no mistaking it. And the clock below it read 4:52! I raised my hands in the air as I heard my microchip beep and screamed, “I DID IT. I DID IT!”

Bill was snapping pictures like crazy of my every motion. I slowed to a walk. Snap. I felt nausea settle into my stomach. Snap. A cramp was threatening to seize up my left leg. Snap. There was no way to collapse, no time to indulge my physical discomfort; everything was being recorded and people were fussing over me, congratulating me. Plus, our host family was there on the spot ready to host us to the recovery food. There was green tea and miso soup awaiting us. And crab-leg bisque. I hobbled along behind everyone the best I could. They whisked through the crowd to a table and, finally, to a chair. Here I sat and stretched, unwilling to move another step until my muscles relaxed and gave me the go-ahead.

This may be the only time I ever finish a sub-five hour marathon, but what a place to do it: Our sister city with Fuji-san looking over my shoulder.

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