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Staying up late at night to watch the Tokyo Marathon

Running and Fitness
Saturday, March 9, 2019

I enjoy watching sports on television like any sports minded person. There is one exception to most sports enthusiasts that I enjoy watching that they probably pass on. I watched the Tokyo Marathon last week. Two things make this difficult to watch for the majority of sports viewers. One is that watching a marathon has been likened to watching grass grow, or watching paint dry, as for over two hours all you see are legs moving back and forth. The second problem is that it was in Japan and the time difference made viewing between the hours of 11:00 p.m. and 2:00 a.m. Not many people will watch a marathon race at those hours.

One other problem is that it is hard to describe just what running a marathon is like to the average person. Most have no concept of how far 26.21876 miles is in length. For most, that is like saying the moon is a long way off. When you tell them that it is like running from San Marcos to Austin they seem to get a better idea of what running a marathon is like. Trying to explain how fast the runners are moving is another sticking point. Instead of miles per hour the description of a runner’s pace is miles per minute – he is running a 9: minute mile. This is a difficult concept for many to understand if they are not in the running community.

For even those individuals that are runners it is often hard for them to imagine what it is like to run at a fast pace. Way back when Roger Bannister broke the first four-minute mile, it was considered an almost impossible task. Roger Landry broke that record a few weeks later. When the big showdown race between the two record breakers was held they both broke the four-minute mile with Roger Landry being the winner. Since then, there have been track races where as many as eight of the top finishers all broke four minutes. There have been several high school runners that have either broke that four-minute barrier, or at least have come very close to it.  For the normal runner the four-minute mile is something only the elite  runner can accomplish and trying to even comprehend what it is like to run that fast is hard to imagine. The best example is running around a track for a quarter mile. A four-minute mile has you running around the quarter-mile track in one minute (60 seconds).  That can be done for good runners. The hard part is doing it four times in a row without stopping. I ran a five-minute mile (75 seconds per lap) one day and I had many doubts on that last lap about even surviving.  

When you take a combination of running a marathon distance and the pace that these elite runners are holding it is an almost impossible concept – like running that first four-minute mile.  As I watched the Tokyo Marathon it was hard to imagine how runners could run that pace. The first 5K distance (3.1 miles) was in 14:36, and that is running a 4:35 minute-per-mile pace. There was about 12 runners in the group. At the 10K mark (6.2 miles) the time was 29:09 for a 4:40 pace per mile. There was still a group of a dozen runners. At the 15K mark (9.3 miles) the pace slowed slightly to 4:43 minutes per mile and the group of runners was down to half the original group. At the 20K mark (12.4 miles) the pace was still at 4:43 per mile.  

For me it was hard to imagine these runners moving at a sub-five-minute mile for that distance. The group was spread out over a distance and only a few runners were in the lead group. At the 40K mark (24.8 miles) the lone runner was running at a 1:58:00 time and only had 2.195 kilometers to reach the finish line. Birhanu Legese crossed the finish line in 2:04:15 for a sub-five-minute pace for over 26 miles. He had a personal record of 2:04:15 under his belt, but the weather conditions of the Tokyo Marathon were chilly and raining. The one thing that really caught my attention was the expression on his face. It looked like he was out for a slow training run with no grimace or stress showing on his face.  

I read the book ‘The Sports Gene,’ by David Epstein, about what it takes to be one of those elite runners and it comes down to not everyone is created equal when it comes to running fast. Genes play an important part in being able to run that fast for that distance, but even runners with good genes cannot do that unless they train very hard to take advantage of their ability. While the Tokyo Marathon was probably not watched by a big audience, being a repetitive sort of action and at a late hour, for me it was just amazing to watch a runner have a pace under a five-minute mile and make it look so easy.  

I imagine sports viewers all have their favorite sports that might not be as exciting as football or basketball. For others, the sports of watching someone hit a little white ball into a small hole several hundred yards away, or hitting a yellow ball back and forth over a low net, is what sports fans do.  Mine, on that long, late night, was watching the Tokyo Marathon.