Every year in October is the Suwako-Half Marathon in Suwa City, Nagano. 2015 was the 27th year that this 21km (or 13.1 miles) race was held, and over seven thousand people joined to try to complete it in under three hours.
We arrived at the starting point in Suwa City at around half past eight in the morning. We had to give in our ticket – which had been sent to us after purchasing – to claim our number. My number was 7334, and we got a Suwako Half-Marathon 2015 t-shirt, a runner’s tag and a magazine. We attached the number to the front of our shirts and attached the tag to our shoes. The tag measures your finishing time, which is sent to you afterwards. The cut-off time was three hours, and if we made it under that, we’d get mentioned in the newspaper. My goal for that day was two hours, fifty-nine minutes and fifty-nine seconds, as I’d never so much as run a 5k before, and more than anything I just wanted to finish in time.
The weather was pretty much perfect – cloudless, warm sun and a strong breeze that felt cold for the spectators, but would be perfect when we started running. We joined the other ‘7’s – everyone grouped together depending on the first number on their tag – and waited for 10am. I was with my co-workers – the ones who were numbered ‘7’, anyway. A few of the men who had trained more were sporting number ‘2’, and we lost sight of them even before the race begun.
The guns went off, and we were moving. I was thankful that everyone around me moved at a slow, steady pace, and the first few kilometres were pleasant, watching others, old and young, bobbing along happily whilst spectators yelled “GANBARE!” meaning ‘good luck!’ or ‘don’t give up!’ The race circled round a road for five kilometres before coming to the lake, which we had to run around before reaching the finishing line.
I was separated from my co-workers around the 4 or 5k mark and ended up going it mostly alone, something which I had been worried about but turned out to be quite peaceful. I watched the other people around me, some dressed up, some running with friends, some alone like me. The first time I needed to stop and walk, an old man ran past me and thrust a sweet into my hands. “Eat that,” he panted, before jogging off.
It was sweet and a little salty, and delicious. It made me smile and I got running again. That was one of my favourite things about the marathon – everyone was there for each other.
There were numerous drink stops; volunteers stood at tables with hundreds of cups of either water or sports drinks. Another co-worker of mine who had run it a few years previously recommended that I stop at every single one, so I did. The volunteers smiled, wished us luck, and I ran off again, refreshed and determined not to stop.
I’m not a great runner, and the most I ran before the Suwako Half-Marathon was six kilometres. At every kilometre there was a sign saying how far we’d gone. I felt elated at 7k – it was the farthest I’d ever gone!
Every now and then I’d see people I knew, and they’d cheer and whoop, helping me go faster. I’ve always been a bit of a lazy runner but this was an entirely new experience.
Nearly two hours in I came to a road I recognised – it was the north-western part of the lake, near where I used to live, and coming up soon was the ‘suimon’, or the water gate, where the river joined the lake. It wasn’t quite twelve o’clock yet, because Okaya, Suwa and the surrounding areas always has a chime that plays at exactly midday. It took me a while to realise that the man yelling “seven minutes to go” meant that we had to reach the suimon before twelve o’clock – or we’d be disqualified. At the line was a clock – I raced across the line at 11:55.
The same happened later at another deadline – we had to get there by half past twelve, and I crossed it at twenty-seven minutes past. It was just in time – or girigiri, as the Japanese call it.
All around the lake were people watching the race, always yelling encouragement, sometimes waving flags or holding signs. If it wasn’t for them, I’d have stopped a lot more and not made it in time. The people who gave out drinks and those who stood and yelled encouragement were just as much a part of the half-marathon as the staff and the runners. They did an excellent job cheering for three hours – it mustn’t have been easy. It didn’t feel like a race, but like a group effort where everyone encouraged each other to reach their personal goal.
I made it over the finish line in 2 hours 58 minutes and a couple of seconds, almost crying with happiness as I – and many other people – didn’t expect me to finish in time. We took off our runners’ tags, grabbed an apple and a drink, and joined the others before examining a very big blister on my foot. One piece of advice I can give is to make sure your running shoes aren’t falling apart before you go!
It was an excellent experience that I would recommend to anyone. Six months ago I never ran – I started training right after we all signed up, which was around May. Even if you can’t run and hate running like I did, at least give it a go. You might surprise yourself – I did!
The Suwako Half-Marathon takes place every year, and those of any level and age are allowed to join. I saw a man ahead of me with a note attached to his back saying it was his 73rd birthday that day! If you’re interested in joining, check out their website (in Japanese only) early next year.