Thursday and Friday (and Wednesday)
My trip to Japan started very late on Wednesday night. After our annual Secret Santa and Team Christmas Dinner at Bistro Roca (a big thanks to Chris for an awesome Streetlight Manifesto T-shirt), I headed down to spend the night at a hotel near the Charlotte Airport. I got to my room around 11:15 and went right to bed, but unfortunately my alarm was set for 3:15 the next morning. After my short sleep, I hit the streets for a short, early morning run. An hour later I was in my truck on the way to the airport.
At the airport I met up with one of my teammates, Christo Landry (Yeah the same guy that outkicked me at Peachtree). Getting through security was a breeze, as it usually is at 4:30 in the morning. So we had a bit of time before a comparatively short flight to Minneapolis. In Minneapolis Team Coach, Katie McGregor, joined our growing posse. Last summer, Katie spent a couple of months training at ZAP, so I was excited to hang out with her for the weekend.
From there we boarded the long 12 hour flight to Tokyo. With so much time to expend, I did a variety of activities. I read, played games, slept, and watched a couple of movies. I thought Boyhood was particularly good, while Divergent, I would recommend to wait until it comes to DVD. Around 9 hours into the flight, I was ready to land, but unfortunately there were still another few hours.
Once we landed in Japan, we went through customs and met up with the folks from the International Chiba Ekiden. They led us to a bus, which we boarded and began another hour more of travel until we reached our final destination, the Seimei No Mori Resort. The place we were based was once a training center for the 1988 Seoul Olympics, but is now a retreat center. It is located in the mountains east of Tokyo. While we waited for Coach Katie to get us checked in and keys to our rooms, we walked around the main building. But we were all so tired. The nearly 20 hours of travel had taken it toll on us, and not to forget that our bodies thought it was well past midnight.
Eventually Christo and I made it to our room, only to head out for a run. By this time it was dark and we had no idea where to run, so we followed the main entrance road. The terrain was very hilly and gave us an idea of what the running would be like around the resort. After the run, we headed to dinner where most of the team had arrived. At this point I was utterly exhausted, but I knew that the later I could stay up, the easier I could adjust to the time difference. So it was around 8 o’clock before I was out.
I slept well despite waking up a couple of times during the night. After Christo and Jake, the other guy on the team, woke up, we went for our run. Since it was daytime, we were able to explore some of the surroundings are a bit more. We discovered that we were in a pretty rural and isolated area, only coming onto a few towns separated by tiered rice patties and farmland. But the land around the resort was very beautiful. It reminded me of the Appalachian Mountains, with the rolling hills and big valleys. We got back to the resort and I had a few more miles to run, which included 8 x 45 second pickups.
After the our run we headed to lunch then played table tennis and shot some hoops with the Australian team. We were all jet lagged so the rest of the day was spent recovering from the day(s) of travel before.
Jake, Christo, and I woke up early to get our run done, because the people organizing the Ekiden had planned a trip to Narita-san Shinshō-ji Temple. Naritasan is one of the largest Buddhist temple grounds in Japan. I was surprised to learn that Buddhism is the largest religion in Japan. Since the temple grounds were big and we only had around 45 minutes, I did not get to spend much time in one specific place. There was just too much to see! One thing that we did see was a traditional Buddhist wedding, which our guide said was very uncommon in Japan.
After we were corralled back to the buses, we were taken to a mall in Narita. There was nothing really special about this mall, it looked just like an American one, but was someplace for us to pick up some gifts and souvenirs for home.
Upon returning to the resort, we ate lunch, played some more table tennis and basketball (with the Aussies again), and relaxed. We had a big race to get ready for the next day!
I woke up early, as I had done all week due to the time change, and went for a short 15 minute shakeout at sunrise. I ate a good size breakfast since the race was not until 1, and spent the rest of the morning relaxing.
If there is one thing that can be said about the Japanese, it is that they are very organized and punctual. They very much abided by Coach Vandenbusche’s saying, “If you are early you are on-time, on-time you are late, and to be late is to never happen.” Our chaperone was always trying to make sure that we were on-time for everything. The organizers had a set schedule for departing to the race, so I, along with all of the first leg, loaded up at 10:30. During the ride, I began to get my focus tuned for the race. I knew that my training was not in ideal to run a super fast 5km, but that with a good honest pace, I could place well. I was hoping that some one would be willing to take it out honestly, if not I would do that duty.
Another thing that the Japanese love is distance running. They will routinely have hundreds of runners run fast in races. Compare that to the US, who will only have dozens. But in defense of the US, we have a much more lively track scene, where a good portion of our talent goes. For an example of how running is different in Japan is watching the race from one of their national heroes, Yuki Kawauchi. He is considered the “blue collar” runner of Japan, as he does not belong to any of the corporate teams (similar to Hansons-Brooks or ZAP). Watch this video of him passing another runner, but that is not what makes this broadcast so great. What I love is the INSTANT REPLAY (at 7:20) the broadcast does of him surging past. For me it is funny, and out of the ordinary is that they show an instant replay in a running race. But for the Japanese, this deserves a replay, as it is the most important part of the race. Also if you watch to the end, it is inspiring to see how far he was willing to push himself.
Since running is such a big sport in Japan, everything seems so much bigger and extravagant compared to races in the US. For the opening ceremonies, there were a dozen mascots, a military band, and a parade featuring each country. Coach Steve Slattery was the lone representative of the US. As the race drew nearer, the stands began to fill up, and the energy in the stadium grew.
The gun went off and I found myself in the middle of the pack. The race starts with 900m on the track before it heads towards the ocean. Our first 800m on the track was around 2:13-4, so the pace was not really fast, but a good way to start. From the stadium, most of the first half downhill, so my goal was to stay relaxed and sit behind the leaders. We headed out to the streets and hit our first big downhill. I stayed behind the leaders, who were four abreast, until around half way. Then the member of the Chiba Team made a big surge. I choose to follow him and continued pushing for the next mile.
With a kilometer to go, I was passed by the New Zealand, Australian, and Canadian teams, who began to pull away. From there I could feel that I was topped out and was not going to go any faster, but I did not think that I would slow down any. I feel that this has been the way many of my shorter races have gone the last year. With nothing that I could do, I just tried to stay as close as possible to the leaders. A few hundred meters later, a group went around me, and near the end, the German team passed me. I crossed the line in 13:42 and passed the sash (tasuki) off to Katie.
From there we were quickly herded on to the bus and back to the stadium. I cooled down and began watching the race unfold with the other Team USA members. This part was really cool as each team was invested into how their teammates were doing. When the Kenyan team passed the Russian and Japanese teams, the Kenyan’s were cheering and celebrating, and the same when the Japanese team caught back up to the Kenyans. In the end the Japanese lady on the anchor leg ran fantastic, and they won overall.
As a team, we were 6th overall. It was a good showing, and right around where many US teams had placed in previous years. For the guys on the team, including myself, the race came at a time in our training when we were not looking to running really fast. Both Christo and Jake had run the Chicago Marathon six weeks prior, and I only had one more week of training since Twin Cities. The performance of the day had to go to Liz who ran 16:17 to run the fastest on her leg.
Post race we loaded in to the bus, but not after being hounded by our adoring fans. Actually there were only about a dozen kids that wanted all of our autographs and a few selfies, but it was pretty cool to feel a little bit like a celebrity.
Even though the race was finished, the day was not done yet. The organizers had a dinner and awards ceremony planned for all of the teams. After that we got together with a few of the other teams and had
Overall, it was a great experience, as it always is to be on a USA Team. Getting to experience a different country and culture is always interesting, even though we were tucked away in the mountains. The Japanese people were extremely friendly and attentive to making our experience the best possible. With that said I would like to thank the folks at the International Chiba Ekiden. They put on a fantastic event. The race was extremely fun, the crowd support phenomenal, and we were treated like royalty.
I would also extend thanks to USATF for sending my teammates and me to Japan. They work hard to increase the popularity and support of track and field in the USA, and trips like these are a great way for them to help the up and coming American runners.
My last thanks goes to Katie, Steve, and Dan. They were a great support staff. They made sure that we did not have to worry about anything besides the race. They were also fun to get to know and make some new friends.
Alternate Race, a 5000m on the track
Sarah Pagano 16:21 4th