Miserable & Merry

at the Kyoto Marathon

written by Rich D. (contributing writer)

Kyoto Marathon logo
Credit: Wikipedia

When I signed up for the Kyoto Marathon, I envisioned racing while reveling in Kyoto’s hallowed sights, taking advantage of the pristine winter marathon weather and enjoying Kyoto’s unique splendor.

Instead, on race day, I emerged from the comfort of my cocoon in the sheltered hostel dormitory to face an ominous downpour.

Race-Day Anxieties Amplified

Before every race there’s a moment, albeit a short one, where I toy with throwing in the towel. No matter the conditions, race-time anxiety builds until the starting gun fires. Of course, bad weather only amplifies this instinct to quit. After all, with many-a-marathon finishes under my belt and my personal-best just a fading, intangible memory, my focus has began to narrow in on the pure enjoyment and satisfaction of running.  Unfortunately, the prospect of getting soaked and chilled to the bone before a race starts is neither enjoyable nor satisfying. 

Kyoto Marathon venue
2020 Kyoto Marathon expo

But experience has taught me that running, and marathon running in particular, thrives on illogic. I lost count of how many times I predicted being miserable but finished happy and satisfied. Besides, I had never run the Kyoto Marathon and I couldn’t let countless hours of training or months of early bedtimes and early mornings go to waste.

I couldn’t quit.

Thus, with every once of pro-running logic collected, I skulked back into the dormitory to grab my luggage, narrowly escaping the temptations of the warm, cozy bed.

The recent rescheduling of the Tokyo Marathon to early March makes it possible to join both the Tokyo Marathon and Kyoto Marathon with a few weeks apart.

How to Race In the Rain

Luckily, I prepared. Forecasts predicted race-day rain for over a week. I stole peeks at that dreadful “100%” mark everyday, hoping for even a minute change.

But with an exceptional air of certainty, the forecast refused to waver. Not since forecasts of the impending nor’easter leading up to the 2018 Boston Marathon had a weather prediction oozed with similar confidence.

As such, I packed my travel bag full of anti-rain paraphernalia, with various armaments to defend against and conquer the forecast’s wicked prophecy.

Kyoto Marathon finisher entitlements

First, I journeyed to a “hyakkin“, one of Japan’s fabled 100 yen shops. Here I procured a disposable “kappa” raincoat and rain pants. 200 yen has never been so well spent. Next, I visited the local pharmacy to buy “kairo” hand-warmers, shelling out a few extra yen for those with convenient adhesive backs.

With my shopping completed, I headed home to prepare other rainy-day provisions. I grabbed my tried and trusted cap to shield my face and glasses from whatever precipitation that might fall.

Then, I sliced an old and therefore disposable neck sleeve in half, creating a mini neck warmer and headband. That done, I dug out a seldom used compression top, one that stays warm, even when soaked.

Finally, I packed my warmest arm-warmers and thickest gloves. An umbrella seemed lavish and likely prohibited, so I left it behind.

A Little Preparation Goes a Long Way

Despite meticulous preparations, I still held out hope for blue skies.  Past forecasts had missed often enough to instill hope. But alas, the prophecy had proved true and my preparations were not in vain. 

Therewith, I ignored every comfort-coveting neuron in my body and suited up. First my usual marathon gear, a singlet, shorts and tall compression socks. I gambled on skipping the compression shirt, figuring it wasn’t cold enough to warrant it.

Next I donned my arm sleeves, gloves and hat – favored gear that I planned on sporting all the way to the finish. I affixed the hand-warmer to the inside, lower back area of my running shorts. There it’d keep my tricky lower-back loose while heating my entire body.

2020 Kyoto Marathon medal

Lastly, I covered up with the disposables; ear and neck sleeves, an old sweatshirt and pajama pants and finally the waterproof kappa. Then I ventured forth.

Luckily, Kyoto converted a spacious gymnasium into a dry changing room for race participants. There, runners could claim a spot on the floor (or in the stands) to change into race gear and bide time before heading back outdoors and into the elements to find the starting corrals. Relieved I didn’t have to brave the bad weather, I arranged the contents of my check-bag while snacking on breakfast bars and listening to music. With an hour left before the start I headed out, handed over my baggage and sought the nearest bathroom.

The Power of Routine

Once I entered my corral, a few revelations struck. First, the downpour had been curtailed to a relaxing drizzle. Second, despite balmy temperatures, the cool drizzle and lack of wind made for almost ideal racing conditions. Most important of all, with my pre-race routine out of the way, I was physically and mentally prepared – it was go time!

Kyoto Marathon runners
Credit: Run Robbin Bird

About the Author: Rich D.

Although Rich started as a “casual” runner back in the USA, a move to Japan that coincided with Japan’s marathon-boom awakened the true runner within. Now, the self-proclaimed running otaku’s passion for motivational manga is only surpassed by his quest for interesting and challenging events around Japan; a quest that takes more travel, time and money than he’d like to think about.

Photo of writer Osaka Marathon runner

What a Race Course!

And go we did.

With the starting gun, runners poured through the starting gate and onto the streets of Kyoto. As anticipated, Kyoto’s course impressed.

The event starts at Takebishi Stadium in southwestern Kyoto and heads west towards Mastunoo Taisha Shrine. It then turns north, heading past the ever-popular Arashiyama area before passing Tenryuji and Seiryoji temples. The route veers east at Daikakuji temple and follows a scenic northern route while passing two of my personal Kyoto favorites, the famous Ryoanji rock garden and Kinkakuji golden pavilion. Before hitting the halfway point, participants cross the Nishigamo Bridge and head southbound. 

2020 Kyoto Marathon course map

Although most landmarks, like Kinkakuji, are too far from the course to catch a glimpse of, the race does enter the gorgeous Kyoto Botanical Gardens, a large park where Kyoto’s iconic maiko, or apprentice geisha, cheer runners on. At 30km, we hit my favorite portion of the race, a long stretch on an off-road path that parallels the Kamo Riverside. The day’s steady rain degraded the earthy path into slippery mud, yet I found delight slish-sloshing through it. 

With less than 10 kilometers remaining, the course veered from the river, past the Imperial Palace grounds, then up a long hill towards Ginkakuji, before twisting back towards the finish at Miyako Messe International Exhibition Hall.

The Ingredients for Something Special

Wow! I have never experienced an event with so many notable landmarks jammed in. Best of all, for anyone unfamiliar with the points of interest, volunteers brandishing signs (only in Japanese) point them out. Add in spirited crowds (that even includes rowdy, fully robed, shaved-headed monks), passionate volunteers, and mouth-watering aid station treats, and Kyoto transcends the average marathon.

So where does Kyoto Marathon rank on my list of marathons?

Whereas Tokyo delivers a fast course and favors a modern chic style, and Osaka offers charismatic spirit and traditional delicacies, Kyoto achieves a unique aesthetic thanks to its storied history and copious landmarks. Sure, the hilly course is tough, and unsuitable for lofty time goals, but the Kyoto Marathon is a charming and amusing romp through the city of Kyoto.

Thanks to its charms, and despite bad weather, Kyoto stole a place among the most enjoyable marathons I’ve completed. In fact, I enjoyed it so much, I forgot all about the dreary skies and spats of rain that worried me all morning.

So with no reservation, I declare the Kyoto Marathon as Japan’s most underrated marathon. Though maybe I should have expected as much, after all, this isn’t just another city in Japan, it’s Kyoto!