We’re so happy to cross a third World Marathon Major off our running bucket list! We completed the 2018 Tokyo Marathon as charity runners supporting the Special Olympics and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. A 40-degree, mostly sunny day was perfect for running 26.2 miles through the city of Tokyo! We had a solid run, coming in right around our goal pace, which included almost a full 10 miles of Kenny running with pretty bad IT band issues (never fun). In this post, we’ll cover a full Tokyo Marathon race review, from registration to finisher lounge. If you’re thinking about running the Tokyo Marathon or are curious about the experience, I hope you find this content helpful!
If you’re registering for the Tokyo Marathon, you can enter the general entry lottery or you can register as a charity athlete for guaranteed entry. If you’re entering the lottery, be sure to check the website for the period of time in which lottery entries are open. The time you register does not matter as long as it’s during the open period. The lottery is per person, not per group like the Berlin Marathon.
Since there would be a chance that only one (or neither) of us got in with the lottery, we chose to register as charity athletes. If you choose this option, you’ll have to set an alarm (keeping in mind the time difference!) and log in at the exact moment registration opens.
We set an alarm for 7 PM local Chicago time on the day charity registration opened. We then got to a bar at 4 PM and quickly proceeded to drink several happy hour beers before realizing that we’d missed the registration time by 20 full minutes. We logged in: Registration Closed. We were devastated. Just ask our favorite bartended who was joking around with us one minute, and then came back from serving a round of drinks and found us basically crying at our barstools.
In some weird twist of fate though, more slots were opened. When we checked back 15 minutes or so later, registration had reopened and we rushed to complete our registration forms from our phones. So the moral of this story is: don’t drink the night of registration and don’t give up.
The other important thing to note here is that running for charity at the Tokyo Marathon is not like running for charity at the Chicago Marathon. For the Tokyo Marathon, you will be charged the full amount of the required donation to your credit at the time of registration. This means that any fundraising you do basically goes to you to pay yourself back for the donation you made to the charity. For us, this meant creating a GoFundMe account to raise $2,000, which was the amount we donated in total to our charities ($1,000 to Special Olympics and $1,000 to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees).
Packet Pickup & Expo
NOTE: When we ran this race in 2018, the expo was at Tokyo Big Sight exhibition center. In 2019, the location was changed to the Odaiba-Aomi Event Area, just down the street. Your 2019 experience will likely be different than ours, and hopefully for the better!
I won’t belabor the point here, but packet pickup was a hot freaking mess. We stood in the packet pickup line for over an hour, and we were there 15 minutes after the expo opened. They love lines in Tokyo, so I’m not sure anyone else cared, but we certainly didn’t love it. The root of the bottle neck came down to the fact that there were 36,000 athletes who needed to check in and only four people taking the required face photo. (For context, that means that if athletes were perfectly distributed across the open packet pickup hours, each volunteer would need to take 1 photo every 6.25 seconds. In reality, the athletes weren’t perfectly distributed and photos took at least 30 seconds to 1 minute.)
Once we had our packets in hand, we entered the expo. If you were running for charity, each charity group had a booth where you could pick up your charity shirt and packet, which included a $5 McDonalds gift card. There was no line at any of the charity booths. The expo seemed to have a lot of activities, giveaways, and photo ops, but we were so frustrated at this point that we couldn’t wait to get out of there. There was no easy exit though, so we had to wind through the entire path of the expo, spread across two floors, before finally getting out of there.
Long story sort, packet pickup sunk about three hours of our day, considering we had to take an hour train from our Airbnb to the expo and then another 40 minute train to Shibuya afterward (and it actually took us about 90 minutes to get to Shibuya because we took the wrong train twice. It was a hard day.).
On the Course
2018 was the first year for a new Tokyo Marathon course. It was my first time running, so I can’t say how it compares to the old course. I can say that the new course still averages as a downhill course and is overall a very flat course. It feels wavy for the first half as you go over a few overpasses, but I would say it feels flatter than even the Chicago Marathon.
The course is very urban. Unlike Berlin or Chicago, which make their way through many very different neighborhoods and sights, Tokyo was primarily running through the concrete jungle of Tokyo. You run through many high-rise-lined streets, store fronts and sky scrapers, but there’s little diversity in the sights. You do run through Asakusa and past the iconic Kaminarimon Sensouji, before turning toward the view of the Sky Tree and Asahi headquarters, which was my favorite part of the course.
The course has many out and backs, which means you often cross paths with runners at different parts of their race than you. This was somewhat frustrating at the end (a 5k out and back segment) when you saw people at their 40k while you were approaching your 31k . The flip side to that though was that we got to see the elites run by, which was one of the cooler marathon experiences that I’ve ever had. I’ve never seen the elite field before, because I’m usually only at marathons I’m running in, but DAAAANG are they fast! We crossed paths with them somewhere between our 10-12k point when they were at 27-28k (yeah, they crushed us).
What sets the Tokyo Marathon apart from every other race I’ve run is the energy of the crowds. The entire course is packed with fans cheering enthusiastically for the runners. They wave, offer high fives, and shout well wishes; they carry sparkly signs and bang noise makers. While this is true of all races, the quantity and consistency of the spectators was unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
There were also so many people, including many small children, handing out goodies along the course. I took cups of coke, tissues, cookies, chocolates, caramels and many fruit candies, but there were more options than I could even consume.
The only English translations we saw or heard were “Nice Run” and “Fight”, which we assume is a direct translation for the consistent cheers in Japanese we heard. Kenny wore his Chicago Marathon T, so we got a lot Chicago cheers, which is always fun. Whenever I needed a boost, I could just run along the side of the course and wave and would be treated to high fives for as long as I wanted to give them. It was the best.
The on-course entertainment was good, but not at the level of Berlin or Chicago. There were many groups performing, including a military band, choir, traditional dance groups, cheerleaders and musicians. These performances were intermittent and a little further from the course than I’d expect. Often times, it felt more like they were performing for the spectators. The entertainment we saw was good, it just didn’t stand out that much to us.
Aid Stations & Restrooms
We were overall happy with the aid station placement and availability. There were 15 aid stations placed pretty evenly throughout the course. Most offered water and Pocari Sweat, which is a sports drink like Gatorade. It had a bit of a citrus flavor, but wasn’t overly sweet or flavorful. It tasted good and got the job done.
Around 17k, we started to hit food stations (my favorite!). The food stations had good options, but there were too few tables, and they were always really crowded and thus hard to get to. The food stations included: clementine oranges (good), cherry tomatoes (good), bananas (good), chocolate (good), salt tabs (bad), custard filled donut things (very good), salted dates (didn’t try), jelly (didn’t try), glucose (didn’t try), and sweet jellied bean paste (didn’t try). But again, there was so much candy and goodies handed out on the course from spectators, plus the candies I had brought with me, that I never felt short on nutrients.
The aid stations were sufficiently manned by many volunteers and were always fully stocked and ready for runners. Volunteers who weren’t handing out snacks or water were enthusiastically cheering on runners, which was really great. Not only were there volunteers at each aid station, but there were volunteers at least every 100 meters along the entire course. It was insane! Each volunteer had a garbage bag where you could throw out wrappers from snacks you picked up along the course or any remaining aid station materials. Even at aid stations, there were hardly any cups on the ground and athletes all seemed to use the provided trash receptacles. This made for the cleanest marathon course I’ve ever seen.
There seemed to be a lot of restrooms (I counted at least 50), but the lines at each seemed very long, especially at the beginning of the course. Kenny went to the bathroom around 12k, and waited about seven minutes. He also said this was the first time that the men’s line was longer than the women’s. At each restroom stop, there was a sign that said how many meters to the actual toilets (if they weren’t visible from the course) and how many meters until the next available restroom (this usually ranged 100m – 1.4k). There also were different styles, including western and non-western (toilet seats or squat style).
Pro Tip: The runners handbook states that runners can also use toilets at metro stations, subway stations and at Seven-Eleven convenience stores. If you flagged these locations in advance, this would be a great place to stop for the bathroom because we never saw lines at these locations (probably because lots of people like us didn’t read the handbook cover to cover before the race).
There is no better feeling than crossing the finishing line of a marathon and then promptly collapsing on the ground and not moving for the next half hour. Ideally, this perfect moment happens in a grassy area less than 100m away from the finish line and I can stuff my face with as much post-race snacks as I can get my hands on it. It’s my favorite running-related moment. We did not have that moment after the Tokyo Marathon, and for that reason, I just can’t rate this race as high as I would like. Here’s what happened.
When we finished the race, there were signs directing runners through the finish corral based on bib color. Partly in a post-marathon stupor, and partly not having any reason to question things, we continued to follow the signs for pink bibs (designated for charity runners like us). We followed the signs, receiving water, medal, mylar blanket and snack bag (comprising a peanut butter sandwich, electrolyte drink, and granola bar) along the way. About 500m after the finish line (with still no end in sight to whatever path we were on), we needed to sit down. We paused a minute to regroup and were quickly approached by medical volunteers asking if we were okay. Since we technically were, we sensed this was not a place to stop so we kept walking.
About 150m later, we found ourselves in line for a shuttle bus. We knew this bus was going to take us to the Charity Lounge, which we didn’t actually want to go to, but at this point we didn’t really have any other option or plan. After about thirty minutes on this bus, we arrived in a parking lot where runners could pick up their checked bags, which we didn’t have.
We then had to follow signs for a good three blocks weaving around city buildings in the freezing cold with barely functional legs, before finally arriving at our destination. We were offered a towel (not even a warm one), a free massage (which we didn’t take, we were over it at this point), and then entered the lounge area.
The Charity Lounge had food and drinks available (non-vegetarian rice curry packets, non-vegetarian sandwiches, and hot and cold drinks, but I didn’t catch the details), as well as a big screen projecting a live stream of the race finish line. If you had family with you, I’m sure having them meet you at the lounge was great. But for us, it was much ado about nothing. We grabbed a seat, ate our peanut butter sandwich from our snack bag (something we wanted to do over an hour ago), and were gone as quickly as we came. The only redeeming thing about this experience was that the lounge location had direct access to the metro, which was great for us to get home ASAP.
We can’t vouch for the process of non-charity runners after the race, but I can only imagine that it had to be better than our experience.
The Tokyo Marathon had a few frustrating moments (specifically pre- and post-race), but the race itself was so incredible that I can absolutely recommend it to anyone looking to run an international marathon. If you’re looking to run with a loved one and can commit to fundraising (or paying for it), running the Tokyo Marathon for charity is one of the easier Majors to enter without a lottery or time qualification. It’s a great course, the energy is off the charts, and it’s a great reason to come to Tokyo.
Have you run Tokyo? I’d love to hear your experience and how mine compares.