Running and the Happiest Days of My Life

“What? I thought that the marathon started at 3 p.m.!” I said. “April, it started at 9 a.m.. You missed it.” a hazy, familiar, yet unfamiliar figure said. “OLWEJFLAIFJAISJN NOOOOOOOOOOOO...”

I wake up. Darkness. ‘Whew, just a nightmare. Wait. The marathon is today. OMG DID I OVERSLEEP?!’

Check clock. 2:31 a.m. No, I haven't overslept.


“OK, here I am, bright and early, ready to run the other half of this marathon!” I said. “What are you doing here? The marathon was yesterday.” said familiar, unfamiliar person. “Yeah, I ran the first ten miles yesterday, now I’m here to run the other half of the marathon,” I said. “You can’t do that, you have to run it all in one day. Plus, you overslept, the second half of the marathon was at 9 a.m. today. But you can’t run the second half of the marathon because you have to run it all in one day.” “What?!” I said. “THAT MAKES NO SENSE! OMG I OVERSLEPT.”

I wake up. Darkness. Check clock. 3:05 a.m.

“Alright, I’m here! 9 a.m., let’s do this marathon!” I run the marathon. I cross the finish line. “I did it!” “April, you are disqualified, you forgot your race number at home.” I look down. And so I did. “NOOOOOOO...!”

I wake up. Darkness. 3:35 a.m.

Alarm ringing. 5:45 a.m. Real life. ‘Did I finish the race? How did I do? Did I oversleep? What day is it today?’

Sunday. Race day.


Today is real, waking life, race day. The weather is gorgeous—the nicest it has ever been all winter. Last week, it snowed twice, rained three times, and hailed once. Every morning, the wind blew until my knuckles were chapped and every night the wind howled and rattled my bedroom window. Every day after work, I hid away from the world in the shelter of my home. Every day for two solid weeks, I hid away from marathon training. Today, I am nervous that I won’t finish the race. ‘Well, that’s what the medics are here for,’ were my encouraging thoughts to myself.

I mosey about the starting area with Brian. I debate whether I want to keep on all of my layers of clothing—my long-‐sleeved compression shirt, my long-‐sleeved jersey, my windbreaker, running gloves, fleece tights, cotton sweat pants, running hat, and running socks. Men around me are wearing flimsy running shorts that show off their tanned, toned legs and, well... everything else in the below-‐the-‐waist area.

I give Brian my down parka and I decide to keep all my running clothes. It’s how I trained, it’s how I’ll run.

I run into and greet a foreigner friend of mine. We chat. I run into a coworker Japanese English teacher. We greet each other “ganbatte kudasai” (“please do your best”). I run into a coworker from another school. I run into four Japanese friends whom I met at previous races. I run into another coworker.

I start to loosen up. I feel excited. I think about all the teachers who, in the past couple of weeks, approached me at school to wish me luck on this day. My principal actually made an announcement at the whole-‐staff meeting when I wasn’t there about my participation in this race. One teacher even gave me a gift (“April-‐sensei. This is a Japanese energy snack. You tear it open here with your teeth and then eat it while you’re running to get more energy.” At least, that’s what I imagined he was trying to say to me, based on my shallow understanding of Japanese and his gestures).

It’s time to get in position at the starting line. I look for my time bracket. 3 hours and below... 3 to 3.5 hours... 3.5 to 4 hours... 4 to 4.5 hours... and then nothing. ‘Huh? Did they not bother splitting up those of us who expect to finish in longer than 4.5 hours?

I turn the corner and am greeted by a herd of thousands of nervous runners. Here it is. 4.5 to 5 hours... and 5 hours (‘and more’, it silently, politely implied). Unlike our counterparts in the faster time brackets, these runners were warmly clothed, standing around idle and nervous rather than stretching or jogging in place, and were strapped with water, energy gels, nuts, and sports drink pouches. My people.

Canons or guns of some sort fire six times. Go time!

“Ei-‐pu-‐ri-‐ru! Gan-‐ba-‐re!” (‘April! Do your best!’) I hear someone cheer for me from the sidelines. A student? A coworker? I’m getting fired up. I smile. I run.

After the first three kilometers, I had already run past four coworkers, students, or friends who came out that morning just to cheer for me and the 5,000 other participants that day. “This is one of the happiest moments of my life,” I think to myself. This is the second marathon I’ve run, and the tenth (or so) race I’ve run overall, but this is the first time that I’ve had so many people cheer for me.

I high-‐five a line of little old Japanese grannies who stand side by side on the sidewalk with their hands out, gauntlet-‐style. I high-‐five the preschool and elementary school children who are screaming their lungs out. I wave at the spectators holding handmade signs encouraging us to “ganbappe!” or “do your best!” in Iwaki dialect.

I run and run and run. I am amazed by the food set up at the aid stations—besides the usual water, sports drinks, and banana slices, the volunteers have set up balls of sticky rice, cherry tomatoes, strawberries, individually wrapped pieces of chocolate, hot miso soup, and a Japanese snack called oden, which runners actually stop to eat with chopsticks.

My leg of the race feels like a Halloween celebration: I am running just fast enough that I am alongside people who are experienced enough to run a marathon for fun, but slow enough that all these people were running elaborately-‐themed costumes. I see Doraemon and Pikachu. I see a fleet of Power Rangers. One man is running with a guitar and singing the whole way. Neighbors come out of their houses and stand at the sidelines to distribute hard plum candy to runners.

The race route takes me through businesses of Iwaki, then forestry, our beautiful the beach, our ports, and finally, our seaside aquarium. The waves are gently crashing. The breeze is gentle. The sunshine is friendly. My eyes well up with tears at the sight of storefront banners displayed on the vacant seaside shops—reminders of the tsunami which, less than two years ago, devastated this very area during the Great Tohoku Earthquake. Today, the seafront stores are rebuilt and restored, appearing hopeful for a bright future.

At 20 kilometers, I run to the beat of taiko drums. At 30 kilometers, I hear the bluesy wailing of a high school big band jazz band. Every few kilometers, I run past another spectator who calls out my name. Finally, at 40 kilometers, I hear the frantic screaming of my name and see a camera in my face—it’s my neighbor, the girl who has become one of my new best friends in Japan. “Two kilometers to go, April! You can do it!”

My legs are stiff, but moving. During my first race, I slowed to a near-‐stop at the 20-‐ mile mark and suffered for an hour and a half as I crept to the finish line. This year, I’m going strong at the halfway mark and not even slowing down at the 21-‐, 22-‐, 23-‐, 24-‐, and 25-‐mile marks. Pain shoots up my lower back with every step, but I keep going. When my pace seems to falter, I imagine myself engaging one more thruster for an extra energy boost and I get myself back on pace. “Five more miles... Five more miles... Five more miles... Four more miles. Four more miles. Four more miles.” I chant to myself to keep some rhythm in my strides. The less miles I have left, the more frequent my chants become: “Three more miles, three more miles, three more miles. Two more miles two more miles two more miles. Onemoremile! Onemoremile! Onemoremile!”

“Five hours, six minutes, and twenty-‐four seconds. Twenty-‐five point zero miles. Pace: 11 minutes and 35 seconds per mile.” The robotic woman’s voice on my phone app reports. My stats are a bit off because I started the app a full 5 minutes before the gun start time. I had told Brian to meet me at the finish line after about six hours. I had very low hopes for finishing the marathon at all, let alone before the hard set six hour time limit, but here I was with one mile to go at just over five hours. Brian surely wouldn’t be at the finish line by the time I finished.

“One kilometer to go!” I hear a stranger yell in Japanese. I put every last effort into picking up my feet higher, stretching my stride longer, and picking off runners who are just ahead of me. I pass one guy. I pass another guy. I pass a girl. And another guy. I see the finish line. I run and run and run. “Go April!” I hear a woman’s voice call from the side. It’s my friend who I estimate crossed the finish line an hour and a half earlier. I turn to her and she snaps a picture of me. I was smiling. I hadn’t stopped smiling for the past 5 hours (it’s what keeps me going in long runs), so I was camera-‐ready for that finish line photo. I cross the finish line.

I bow my head for a congratulatory lei, and smile and bow many more times for all of the “o-‐tsu-‐ka-‐re-‐sa-‐ma”s coming my way (“thank you for your hard work!”). I see another coworker teacher, and he congratulates me. A group of my students are working at the certificate-‐printing booth; they all excitedly greet me. It feels so good to be personally greeted by my friends and students at the finish line. I feel supported and welcome—like Iwaki is my true home and the people here all want to help me and see me succeed.

Afterwards, I meet up with Brian and show him my certificate with my race time printed on it. 5 hours, 13 minutes, 18 seconds. “I’m so proud of you,” he says, “you beat your previous time by a half hour! Imagine if you actually stuck to your training schedule, how fast you might have gone.” This comment reminds me of my friend’s comment just an moments earlier: “That’s not a bad time, April! And that’s without training all that hard!” Her personal best for a full marathon is 3 hours and 15 minutes.
The next day, I’m in the worst pain I’ve ever been after a race.

“Imagine if you had trained harder.” Their words echo in my head. The pain in my lower back and knees remind me of the same sentiment: ‘You should have worked harder.’ I wonder if, from here on out, I should take a break from running or train harder. Regret. Pain. Disappointment.

Back to work. Countless teachers whom I’ve never met approach me to congratulate me on finishing the race. One teacher leaves a gift of sweets on my desk. I wonder at how all these teachers at this school know about my participation in the race (this is not the school where the principal made the announcement). Later, I find out that my name was printed in the Fukushima-‐ken newspaper with my place in my division and my race time. I start to feel proud again.

Physical training is never easy. It was made even more difficult for me this past training season because it was interrupted by a two-‐week trip to the Philippines, a one-‐week visit by family, Brian’s arrival to Japan, and his and moving in. Oh, and need I mention having to run by flashlight in the cold dark after work, bundled up to protect myself against the wind, or skipping running altogether because of snow?

During this training season, I would sometimes sacrifice fun social times with friends in to train, rest from training, or rest for training the next morning. Other times, I sacrificed training to go on road trips, go bouldering, go ice skating, or other activities with friends.

I have no regrets from this past training season. True, my pace during the marathon is unchanged from when I ran my first half marathon two years ago. I could have/should have improved my pace by now. I could have/should have trained harder this past training season. But isn’t that always the case about running? Isn’t that what’s great about running—that you can always run faster, always run longer, and always run harder?

Since I’ve started running, I’ve made friends with people who run faster than I can ever dream of running. They invite me to races. They share running tips with me. They help me shop for winter running gear. I’m still slow by their standards, and I don’t yet train as hard as they do. But they push me. While others cheer for me and tell me “great job!” they tell me, “not bad, but you can do better.”

Ultimately, did I have a good race or did I destroy my body after pushing my body past what it is used to? Am I happy that I beat my previous time—happy that I finished at all—or am I disappointed in myself and regret not training harder?

Screw it. I’m just going to have fun with running. “Fun” means enjoying these races that bring the city together; “fun” means reveling in the satisfaction of improving my own mile time; “fun” means socializing with old and new friends who share in my interest in running; “fun” means running enough to remember how good it feels, but not so much that I miss out on other fun activities with other friends; “fun” means taking time to remember the important people in my life who got me started with running and who continue to inspire me; “fun” means remembering the time that I got close with my then-‐friend, now-‐boyfriend while training for our first marathon and remembering him asking me to be his girlfriend when I crossed the finish line. As long as I'm still having the “this is one of the happiest days of my life” feelings, I’ll keep running.

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