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A Flatter Course for the Post-Truth Era - Running the New Tokyo Marathon Course

by Brett Larner

For its first ten years as a mass participation event the Tokyo Marathon had a good course, downhill through the first 10 km, mostly flat for the next 25 km, its unique cross shape minimizing the effect of wind from any direction but the east.  But its last 6 km were unpopular with everyone, elite and amateur alike, drab, with sparse crowds, a series of bridges and hills almost exactly once every kilometer from 36 km to the end, and a finish line hidden away like an embarrassment on the docks behind an isolated convention center on an island in the bay.  Every year the elite race took a hit over the hills in the last 6 km, and it wasn't much fun for the masses either.

Last March the Tokyo Marathon organizers announced with fanfare a new course aimed at eliminating these problems and making it faster.  Billed as a flat speed course, the new configuration reshuffled much of the old course but cut the depressing last 6 km and replaced it with a new mid-race foray into uncharted land east of the Sumida River.  A week and a day out from Tokyo's eleventh running, JRN set out to find the new lay of the land.


The new course keeps the start in front of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building and follows the old course through the downhills to 7 km.


At 7 km, just before the old course reached its most scenic segment along the outer perimeter of the Imperial Palace, the new course turns left and heads toward Kanda Station for 1.5 km.


At 8.5 km a righthand turn leads to Nihonbashi, a once-historic bridge and neighborhood now buried under the shadows of highway overpasses built for the 1964 Olympics.


The bridge itself is still there, and while surfaced with cobblestones and representing the first real addition of up-and-down to the course it's a privilege to run across it, something until now reserved only for the twenty-odd men on the anchor stage of the legendary Hakone Ekiden.


At 10 km the course rejoins its former self.  Where the old course headed through Ginza just after halfway before turning right to head to the Asakusa turnaround, the new course meets it from the opposite direction to turn left before following the same route to Asakusa.  In years past the Ginza/Nihonbashi section of the course, roughly halfway through 25 km, often saw the first action in the race up front.  That section will now come much earlier, just past 10 km.


The old course made an out-and-back up to Asakusa, breaching 30 km en route before making it back to Ginza.  The new course makes the pilgrimage to Asakusa but on the way back just after 16 km diverts to cross the Sumida and head out through territory previously reserved only for sumo wrestlers to a 180' turnaround at 20.5 km.  The Monzen-Nakacho neighborhood surrounding the turnaround point is a highlight of the new course.


Just over 8 km out and back from the Kuramaebashi bridge on the River Sumida, this is the section that is supposed to be a flattened improvement over the time-and-soul-destroying last 6 km of the old course.  The problem is, it's not flatter.  Just like the old course's series of bridges and bumps every kilometer over its terminal 6, the new course has six bridges and bumps on the way to the turnaround.  Then you have to run them again.  With the exception of the return trip up Kuramaebashi near 24 km none of them is especially demanding, but there are twelve of them, not six, packed into 8 km versus the old 6 km format.  According to a nonscientific look at GPS data, their combined climb is around 15 m greater than for the hilly part of the former course.  It's not much, but it's enough to call any claim of this course being flatter a misrepresentation.

The question is, will it be faster?  The hills on the old course weren't terrible but came at the worst possible time.  From the Nihonbashi intersection just before 29 km on the return trip all the way to the finish, the new course is almost totally flat.  Describing this section as flatter and faster would be accurate, as would saying that overall the course has shifted its hills from the end of the race to the middle.  Will that make it faster?  Maybe.  With few corners and only a 180' turnaround at Shinagawa Station just after 35 km there's nothing to stop someone who handles the mid-race hills well from getting into a rhythm that carries them to a very fast time.  Nothing except wind, which could be more of an issue on this course than the old one if it blows from the north or south.


Right after 41 km the course makes a right and then, with 1 km to go, a quick left.  For almost a kilometer runners will go straight ahead down a fashionable, tree-lined boulevard, worlds away from the old finish in quality and appropriateness for the event's stature.  The entire last kilometer is surfaced with brick and cobblestone, a rarity in Tokyo, but as a relatively new installation they are smooth and flat and shouldn't present any problems. More of a potential problem are the tall buildings lining both sides of the road. If there's any wind at all they will turn the last kilometer into a wind tunnel.


At the end of the last kilometer straightway runners explode into wide open space between the Imperial Palace and the Marunouchi red brick side of Tokyo Station.  It's very nice and scenic, but to maximize the effect the Tokyo Marathon organizers have opted to make runners take a sharp left with 100 m or less to go to the finish line.  That may make for prettier pictures at the finish line, but as an elite event it's dropping the ball.  Runners won't be visible from the finish until almost literally the very last moment, and if there's any kind of exciting head-to-head race at the end it will be interrupted by the last-second turn.  It's not a perfect course yet, but on net the changes look to be a good step in the right direction.  How it plays out in action and whether the changes are going to result in the outcomes the organizers are hoping for remains to be seen next Sunday.

© 2017 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

Comments

Rich said…
Looking forward to the finish.
The old finish line wasn't just boring, it was a pain in the butt to get back from. Hopefully there'll be better crowds cheering everyone on.

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