Miyajima Marathon 15k
3rd April 2016
1 hour 34 minutes 3 seconds
Category placing: 16th of 53 Female Under 40
Gender: 23rd of 76 Females
In August 2015, with a little help from a tax rebate, I booked a two week long trip to Japan for myself and Kynon. It took a lot of planning in the intervening months to get the trip exactly right, but one of the first things which helped shape our tour was finding out that the Miyajima Marathon was going to be taking place whilst we were in the country. As usual I had searched on various websites to find running events to take part in, but it was a chance Google search which saw me stumble upon the website for this race, which is only in its second year. Whilst it bills itself as a marathon, it is actually only 15k – I believe this is because the word Marathon translates roughly as ‘running event’ in Japanese. Anyway, it was small and cheap, and the route looked stunning! We quickly signed up to secure our places, and continued planning the rest of our trip.
I am planning on writing another post on our Japan travels, so for now we’ll fast forward to the weekend of the 2nd and 3rd of April which we spent in Hiroshima, which is only a 30 minute train ride from the Miyajima Island ferry. Accommodation during the time of year which we visited was both expensive and hard to come by, so we found that staying in Hiroshima rather than on the island itself was our best option.
We stayed at the enormous Mitsui Garden Hotel, where we enjoyed this amazing view of the city of Hiroshima from our room on the 18th floor. Hiroshima is a port city and from our room we could see out to sea and the mountainous islands which rose up from the water.
On the morning of the race we woke up very early and were on the move by 7am. First we had to take a tram to a train station, then a local train to Miyajimaguchi, where we could then catch the ferry across to the island. Having already spent four days in Tokyo and successfully navigated our way South to Hiroshima on the Shinkansen, by now we were pros at using the Japanese transport system, which is just as clean and efficient as you would expect.
image source: visit-miyajima-japan.com
We were using JR Rail passes to travel around Japan, and these passes included the Miyajima Ferry crossing which took around 30 minutes. The ferry lands near the famous Itsukushima Shrine ‘floating’ Tori Gate which stands out in the water and passengers get a stunning view as they approach. Miyajima Island is highly regarded as one of the most scenic and historical sights in Japan, and is an incredibly popular tourist destination. You can stay on the island but most people come for a day trip, and like many other places in Cherry Blossom season it is absolutely mobbed from dawn til dusk.
On the day we visited it was cloudy but very warm and humid. Even early in the morning it was clear that it was going to be a hot race when we started at 10:30am, but thankfully the sun stayed behind the clouds for most of the day. I had been hopeful for a fast run; examining the previous years’ results showed that the female field seemed quite soft and the women’s winner had completed the 9.3 miles in around 1 hour and 12 minutes. Prizes were awarded for the first 5 runners in each category, so I genuinely thought I had a good chance of placing, as I would normally run 9 miles in around 1hr 15m. There was a route map and course profile on the website, which other than a hill at the start, showed a reasonably flat course… It looked like the road followed the contour lines around the hills rather than go over them…
However, it’s fair to say that this route map, like many things in Japan; was not what it seemed!
Registration was at Miyajima Jr High School and we picked up out race packets and numbers easily. After sorting ourselves out we returned to the ferry terminal to store our belongings in a baggage locker as we had some things which were just a bit too valuable to be left in the baggage drop, such as passports, JR passes, etc.
We took a walkabout and warmed up on the first mile of the course. There was definitely a hill at the start but it wasn’t too scary and I was ready to start at the front with the fast girls and go out strong and compete. After returning to the start area we took some pictures, chatted to a couple from Glasgow (!!) and spoke to one or two of the other International runners – there were about 15 in total.
There was a mass choreographed warm-up which was hilarious, and then some J-Pop was performed live before the start which was all very enthusiastically received. At 10:25 we were summoned to the road for the start, and at 10:30 we were on our way.
The heat was immediately an issue for me, even though the sun was behind the clouds. The air was humid and close, and the humidity rating was nearly 90% to complement the 23C temperature. I pushed through the first mile in 7:59 and the second in 8:46 which was pleasing, and felt that I was able to maintain that pace…until the route took a hard left and commenced a steep and nasty climb. The race was all on road, but suddenly we found ourselves navigating a set of relentless switchbacks which I’m not sure I would even enjoy driving up in a car. I chugged away hoping that it would be over quickly, but soon I found myself having to power walk with my hands on my knees. The climb was about half a mile long through thick forest, until we could finally tumble down the other side on another series of steep switchbacks. It took me a moment or two to realise that we would be returning on the same route, so this hill would have to be navigated for a second time…
Into the fourth mile I began to revise my plan. I had clearly underestimated the course and it was extremely tough, made tougher by the heat. I knew it was highly unlikely that I would still be in contention for a top 5 spot, and I was concerned that continuing to push relentlessly would result in heatstroke. I switched to self-preservation mode and took the pressure off so I could soak in my surroundings and really enjoy the experience. There were monkeys shrieking in the trees, eagles flying overhead and birds singing unfamiliar songs. The views from the top of each hill were heavenly; islands floating in the haze above the flat, azure sea. Running has taken me to some pretty amazing places and this was quite special.
A sweaty phone camera just doesn’t do it justice; the scenery was stunning.
The lead runner passed me at 3.6 miles on his return and went on to win the race in an eye-watering 58:56. With the runners on their way back in I was able to count the number of women ahead of me, but I lost count at around 10. I got a big high 5 from Kynon who was toiling away and doing excellently, and I said hello to the people who I had spoken to before the start as they approached half way.
There was a water point here but unfortunately they had run out. Thankfully I’d been able to get a cup of water at around 3 miles, but I was still very thirsty! The return journey was just as stunning and up until mile 7 I was mostly leap-frogging with the same group of guys. Once I had crested the final monster hill I knew I had two and a bit miles to go on mostly flat road, so I decided to focus on clawing back as many places as possible. A girl had motored past me which spurred me on and I chased her all the way to the finish as we both passed about a dozen men.
In the last 500 meters before the finish there was a gradual decline and I realised I was gaining on the girl. I realised if I timed my sprint finish attack right I could probably pass her, and claw back one female place. At the end of the slope I used the momentum to launch into an aggressive pace for the last moments of the race and passed her assertively to cross the finish line one spot higher, as 16th female and second international female.
I collected a bottle of water and my post-race food – an onigiri (sushi rice wrapped in seaweed) and a ‘Momiji Mangu’ which is a cake shaped like a maple leaf filled with flavoured bean paste and a local Miyajima specialty. Kynon greeted me with a sweaty hug and told me that he finished in 1hr 21m. We were both wiped out and needing a lot of water; not surprising as the the total elevation of the 15k course was 1640 feet!
We were given a finisher’s certificate and commemorative towel each, which alongside our bib numbers make for some fantastic international running souvenirs. Whilst the race was extremely challenging I enjoyed it so much, and it is one of my most treasured memories of our two weeks in Japan.
We spent the rest of the day wandering around the enchanting island, wishing that we were staying longer. You can climb all the way to the top of Mount Misen and explore the various shrines and temples on the way, but sadly we just didn’t have time to do everything. The cherry blossoms made already stunning views utterly breathtaking, and whenever we return to Japan, I will definitely hope to spend a couple of nights on Miyajima so I can explore all the sights in full.
Here are some of my favourite snaps from Miyajima; I will write up our Japan trip in a different post with more pictures and stories next week. Until then you can see more on my Instagram account if you’re not already following! This weekend sees us head to London for the Marathon (Kynon running, myself supporting) and I will also be attending The Running Awards as a guest of Strava, who have invited their top 100 running bloggers along to a special event.
Have you ever been to Japan? Did you visit Miyajima?
Where is the most exotic place you have raced?
Are you running the London Marathon this weekend? Good luck!