This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while. In fact the first 700 words are from a draft I started back in October. Those of you reading from the beginning will remember the time I drove eight hours just to see my track team run 12 miles in December. I thought about trying to tackle the subject then. That was an inspirational peak to the dedication I put towards the often least fun and uninteresting (especially in this country) hobby I have: running.
From the spring of 2015 I really got back in the mood for running. Post graduation had left me confused, and I really only used running while living in New York to keep a routine in my otherwise work filled life. As usually is the case, come winter I was back to a sporadic schedule of fitting in the time to run. I had to figure out how to get to where I was going — because after work was always dark it was only safe to run inside — or force myself to wake up and shiver my bones as I paced a slow jog through the neighborhood. When the snow finally melted and I was surrounded by my former college teammates starting their track season, I knew I had to get back into the condition I once had. My closest friends from college had decided to meet up from across the country and run a race in the beginning of April, and I certainly wasn’t ready to be shown up by them.
From there I only improved, even beating the times I’d barely been motivated to reach previously. There are plenty of things I loved about my college town, but the thing that comes to mind most when talking about running are the endless dirt roads. You could run undeterred; you would seldom worry about impact; you had no need for direction because counting miles was as easy as counting cornfields. Of course, there was the occasional rabid dog, but everyone needs a little pick up now and then. I was in a great environment. Only one day during April, in a foolish attempt to drop time off my steeplechase, my foot caught while jumping the barrier, and I staggered, and twisted, and tumbled. I hopped right back up at the same pace, but there was an immediate difference. I made it a fifty meters before I decided it wasn’t my vision, but indeed my body which wobbled unnaturally.
I’d always been cynically unfair about running injuries until then. Actually, to a point I still am. I totally blame my mental lack of focus for slipping up on that barrier. I definitely think I could have prevented it with a smarter race strategy. Regardless of the preparation, though, the outcome was the same. I rested, iced, stretched, and didn’t do what I wanted for two weeks before I slowly got back on my feet. Of course, I had a race to run. My mom had already signed me up for the TC One-Mile on a corporate team with her work, and heck, why not, it was just one mile, I’d been jogging pretty well until that point. The race was set in drizzling race down Hennepin Ave. I got out well, in the at the front of my heat, and pushed my way through the finish line to second (something like 17th overall). The race was a relief. I sprang where I needed to, burned through what hurt. It was when I finished that I started limping again.
So I was out for most of the summer. I had my first MRI to show that all I needed was some more rest, and as I prepared to head to Japan it really was better for me to focus some of that time elsewhere. I ran in San Francisco, Fargo, Seattle, working my way up from a couple minutes to half an hour. Of course, then I landed in Japan. A humid and rambling Tokyo. I had no time, let alone energy to run. It wasn’t until the lull that I actually made it out early on a grey and foggy morning for an ethereal run along the river. I was back. I was fine: free of injury and ready to become the fastest man in Japan.
Of course, that was before I met Carmelo and was convinced to join him at beach for a foam party in Kanazawa. The next morning of seven stitches on the bottom of my foot put me out for another two weeks, just in time to start the school year with a new job and no clue what I was doing.
I joined up with the junior high’s track team in October, as soon as the speech contest ended. It felt great running with a team again, even if they were teenagers running kilos a minute slower than my normal pace. I truly admire the person who can run on their own at will with complete determination. Most times I’m with them. I love the feeling of fatique, the aching highs, and glorious views from the middle of nowhere. They can easily get me out of the door on spring days. It’s the summer mornings, the winter winds, the storms in fall that need motivation. Seeing these kids (although compulsory) get out and run everyday including weekends was more than enough proof that I could do it too.
So, I ran in the warm winter which left Christmas Day with a high of 50°, and then the school’s season slowed down, and the snow came in. No one believes me when I say I put on weight. They always think it’s a good thing. It’s never a good thing. For me at least, the only reason I know I’m putting on weight is because I can see I’m putting on weight. My legs start to even out, my stomach loses definition. My butt certainly looks better, but sacrifices must be made to stay fit. One of the biggest things I’m afraid of is getting old. It’s not quite a fear of death, but it’s the fear of not being able to do what I want to do (and partial vanity). Sure, there’ll be a point where I won’t be able to break records while running, where I won’t have the energy to travel to new countries, and one night at an izakaya will put me out for a week, but that time is not yet. It’s bad enough my hair is falling out, but I can’t do anything about that. My strength, my fitness, and health, however, I can maintain. It’s a necessity for me now. I would be uncomfortable otherwise.
Last year, in a post I never got around to publishing, Ole track star and former teammate Joe Coffey came and visited me before gallivanting off to China. We went for an hour long run in the middle of July noon, and I was pretty happy I could keep up with his jet-lagged pace. It’s hard to think that I’ve maintained any bit of fitness, but coming off a National Championship team my senior year of high school probably helps. Running is as much about the spirit as the actual training. It’s never about how far or long you run, but the quality of those miles and minutes. Even between long hiatuses there’s no laziness to getting back into it. Even when I run alone, I’m always running for the team. That was early July, and it refreshed my running routine.
By the end of the month I ran my first race since my failed steeplechase a year before. It was a 10k, my first, in the early morning of a sunny day. Carmelo and I had stayed the night before at the house of one of his student’s. They’d fed us plenty of food, but I think we were prepared enough for the task. However, it would be my first time running over 5k since the end of my cross country season back in 2014 (which now seems scarily too far away). Due to last minute bathroom breaks and a false crowd at the starting line (there was literally a queued line for the next race one hundred meters back from the actual start line) we were running to the race before the gun went off. I made it to the front and took the lead by 2k clipping along at a 3:15 pace. After all, this type of running isn’t really a sport in Japan (I thought) so winning it shouldn’t be too far out. The actual winner to the lead by the third kilometer, and I dropped to fourth right after the halfway turnaround. Fourth wasn’t too bad for beginning the season, at least until the last kilometer when I got passed again to take fifth. I still got a medal and nice certificate proclaiming my place. I took it as many lessons learned, determined to improve.
The next month I went to Tsuruga, a beach town an hour south. This time I had no expectations, and no one knew I was there, so I decided to just run how I wanted. Not many people consider a 10k race as a leisure activity. Maybe I should’ve taken it a bit more seriously. From the gun it took twelve seconds for me to even cross the line, and after that getting into any position to move took plenty of dodging between older raisins chucking along in tube socks and nylon jerseys. By the end of 2k I was running alone with just a few others stretched out in front and back of me. I tortured myself through the seventh kilometer, just waiting for the point when we’d start to circle back towards the finish line. It wasn’t until another three minutes that I found the next gear on a narrow path under the shade of trees. I wound up 11th, which isn’t too bad considering I ran it alone and had no one to impress. (A side note, after the race I ran into another ALT who’d just arrived from England and wound up eating lunch at the beach. It was pretty cool not to rely on the regular events or social media and meet someone the old fashion way. As a foreigner, I think it’s hit or miss in this area to strike up a random conversation with someone friendly. Usually they only think I’m asking for directions.)
After that race in September I had my final 10k of the season in late October. The weather here is much nicer that what I was used to in final season championships back in Minnesota, so it wasn’t too bad. The race was sandwiched perfectly between two bouts of rain. I wound up second to the guy who beat me in the first race. Could that all really have happened over eight months ago?
I lost my fitness again, a bit, over the winter. From the beginning of the year I signed up for four races all within five weeks to keep me motivated. As far as I know races in Japan don’t let you sign up the day of, and the deadline for even local races can be months before the actual event. I came in prepared and spent over $100 on entrance fees by the end of February. The snow this winter was pretty mild, too, so it didn’t inhibit my will to run. I made a task out of running everyday by April. Thanks to tests at school, club practices were cancelled, so I had to run at my own pace with no excuse to slow down.
The first race was local, just in the neighboring city. I got there by train in the early morning, and after wondering around to check in and find a place to put my stuff I ran into another English teacher.
“Hey are you running! I hurt my leg, but a couple other ALTs are here doing it to. Do you want me to watch your stuff?”
It’s always better to have someone at a race. Even if the chills and anxiety are fleeting, a familiar face does a lot to cheer up an over serious mood. Plus, I didn’t have to worry about where I’d put my stuff. (Being this is a small town in Japan, I wouldn’t worry anyway, but just saying.)
The race was quite like jumping into a pool for the first time in the summer. While you’ve leapt into the air you get the sudden sense that you’re body isn’t quite ready for this because although it’s hot out, that water is freezing cold. Then the plunge excited you and sure your body reacts badly, but once you stretch out and bob you realize the feeling is kind of nice. I started in the middle of the pack again behind guys twice my age. This was like waiting in line for the diving board. The start was actually on half a track so I wove between the legs, as the real leaders took off. I had a pace in mind and came through the first kilo in 3:30. Was this too fast or too slow? I tried to do the math. Ten kilometers, 3:30 a clip, would put me at 33 minutes, right? That’s not too bad. I ran through the second k thinking this way. Wait, that’s wrong, though, that’s not how minutes work. I readjusted and figured I was going ten seconds too slow in the start which would put me right on time for this split. I think.
Running is a sport to focus on the ahead. It’s a sport to ignore all thoughts in your brain. It is not a sport to be thinking about math outside of a base ten system.
By the halfway point I thought I was right on time, and I’d been holding back to make sure I had enough energy for the finish. I picked up the pace, taking a couple of guys drafting with me. By the time we were less than a mile I was running alone with death sucking the air from my lungs. I couldn’t pull out any more energy like that, but managed to stave off any chasers. I wound up third. Alright, but admittedly unprepared.
I rented a car for the next race. It was in Ono, a mountainous town over an hour away. I was in much better shape two weeks after the first race, and even came with energy gels for before the race and muffins for after. I wrote the pace on my arm this time: 3:18, 6:36, 9:54… I’m genuinely surprised at how many people come out for these events. They fill all kinds of races from family 2ks to high school 5s. The biggest contrast being, I never see a lot of people running around. Like, does anyone practice to race, or do they just live healthy enough lifestyles to wing it. In the US I think it’s the opposite. Everyone is keen on getting out and showing off their bodies by the lake or bike path, but when it comes to actually competing the races are left to more serious runners. I guess there are pluses and minuses to each.
I tried to restrain myself from the start as the leaders didn’t go out too far ahead of me, but still seemed a bit over my pace. I didn’t want to run alone, but we also caught up to the previous half marathon that went off five minutes before, so it wasn’t like I didn’t get a gust of enthusiasm every time I passed someone. There was a point during the third kilo when we finally broke into flat land, surrounded by green rice fields and the encircling mountains. It was about that time my brain was complaining to my body for working too hard. I took the moment to look around and soak in everything. It was beautiful, the best sort of distraction, and refreshed every part of the race. I was behind my pace, and behind the leaders, but I had the mindset to keep driving.
Reaching the halfway point, I started to panic. Picking up the pace wasn’t pulling me any closer to the leading two runners, and as much as running is physical it’s also mental. I knew I had to act. I had to get at least right behind them before we turned around. If they saw how far behind I was they’d only get a boost to keep it that way. I myself would also suffer a perspective of futility. I pushed toward them, glancing at my watch, calculating the possibility of making it. And then they reached the cone, and turned around, and still fifteen meters behind in a crowd of upbeat half-marathoners, I turned around after them. And then I did something stupid. I surged.
It was a ridiculous and bold move that I’ve certainly never tried before. It wasn’t a surge, but a full on sprint, like watching the final kick of a two mile, but just halfway through the race. I didn’t actually mean to go so fast. I whipped past the guy in second already dropping behind, and then met the guy in first and kept going. With a couple of strides more I thought I was done for. The pace was unsustainable and I just waited for the moment that my legs stopped moving. I did slow down, but my watch was not far off from the pace I wanted. More importantly, I’m pretty sure I passed that crushing mentality I was trying to avoid onto the runner I’d passed. With no one ahead of me this time, I had nothing but the bike ahead of me to try and catch up to. It was a fun notion, like track dogs chasing a rabbit, an irrational motivation that I somehow believed was attainable. If only I could get closer to him, and draft away from this horrible wind, for just a little while.
I ended up winning that race. The first win for me in Japan, actually. It felt good, and when I crossed the finish line I became revitalized. Out of all the races I’ve done, this certainly was the one to win, too. When we lined up for the award ceremony I bowed and received my certificate. Then I got an even bigger certificate, and a trophy. They put a medal around my neck and handed me a keychain. To top it all off, my full hands were given a final paper bag with a container of locally made miso.
The next week I traveled south, to go to a race that some of my former students were participating it. They’re a few that went to this high school specifically for running, so I was excited to see if they improved. The course was entirely on a highway, without so much of the good views as the previous. I knew before I ran I had to be careful because there was a long straightaway and the wind was absolutely brutal. My first kilometer was 3:05 versus my last which was about 3:33. I got a bit swept into excitement at having some people there who’d be watching my race, but I also paid attention to something I hadn’t before: the record. Now that I’d won a race it wouldn’t be much of a goal to just keep winning. I needed to go for the next step: be the most winningest of them all. Some of these race records have held up over decades, so they wouldn’t fall easily. But they also weren’t to far off my current time, or my best. Unfortunately, without preparation and the right mindset, I fell short of getting this one by half a minute. The wind on the final stretch slaughtered any hopes. Even if I thought to push forward a bit, it walloped me back tenfold. I still won, with minutes between me and second place, and got a few rewards for the effort (although, they were pickled vegetables which I don’t quite have a taste for). I stuck around to enjoy the weather and talk to my students, two who’d just started school in April and one who’d graduated last year, and was very thankful they’re English hasn’t degenerated to just “I have a pen” quite yet.
The last of my races until end of July was on June 11. It was at the Dinosaur Museum in Katsuyama. I drove up with my neighbor, Yukie, because she’s from the nearby area. We met her family, an aunt who’s 87, and went to the race a bit early. I’d just come off of a rotten week where I had full on flu and even took a sick day for the first time in my life. Put that together with a runner from out of state who held the current 10k record from the previous year’s race and I was maybe doomed from the start. On my warm up I ran into the guy who’d gotten third place from the race I ran in Ono. I suppose I’m easy to recognize, but I noticed him because his hair is relatively curly and height above average for Japan. He told me he was also a teacher in the nearby area, where he grew up, and mostly he ran races to stay fit for skiing in the winter.
“Do you know cross country skiing?” He asked in Japanese.
“You can do that here?!”
For all my time in Japan — especially living near a nationally renowned ski resort — I’ve had to explain to people that I in fact do ski, but it’s not the downhill kind, and thus the kind that they maybe even didn’t know existed. He told me about the areas that were OK for nordic skiing, and that his older brother was a world competitor on the Japan team. Being that I’ve never gone downhill skiing here, I doubt I’ll ever have the means to go cross country, but since he’s almost the same size as me, it’s nice to know there’s an option.
From the beginning I took the race a bit fast in the lead. Most of the first half was entirely downhill, though, so with my long legs I tried to use that as an advantage. Almost immediately I could feel the effects of the flu dragging on my muscles. The entire thing was a drag, and I when we finally left the wooded area in the sun, I was passed. It wasn’t until halfway that I found the spirit to actually try and catch up. For a while I was, too, but the leader also had the energy to split the distance between us. The final 2k seemed an impossibly long distance to cover in seven minutes, and it actually took me a bit longer. I had no clue who was behind me, but when I crossed the finish line it wasn’t too long before my warm-up partner finished in third. Well, I guess I get to focus on winning again.
Five weeks of four races isn’t really the smartest thing to do, but with the heat of the summer rolling in, I didn’t want to miss out on the opportunities. I’m taking a week off (with plans to go to Tokyo), and then will have another month until my next race. That one is local so I’ll have to try even harder to guarantee I win.