Fall 2001
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The face of grace

Nice gaijins finish last

Teaching English in Japan is one thing. Running a marathon is another.

By Carlo Capua '00

"Hey Steve . . . getting pumped for the marathon Sunday?"

My friend, Ironman Steve, had been training liked a lunatic for the past three months.

"Carlo," he said, "My doctor told me I have a stress fracture in my leg, and I shouldn't run the marathon.

"Bummer. What are you going to do?"

"You want to take my place?"

There are 47 prefectures in Japan, and the Niigata Marathon was the big race in mine, Niigata. I had missed the sign-up date, so I was going to watch Steve, Bethany, and Ann Marie run their marathon, half-marathon, and 10K races, respectively.

It had been nice to take a yasumi (vacation) from serious running. I had run a little, but nothing more than eight miles. However, I had been faithful to my kickboxing class and gym, so I wasn't in too bad shape.

Of course, 26.2 miles is a long way to run. I had done it five times, each with the Leukemia Society, running for someone afflicted with leukemia.When training for a marathon, it is important to "taper" 2 weeks before the actual marathon, to cut back on running to save all your energy for the big race. Well, I was about 7 weeks tapered.

And with that, I told Steve I would run in his place. Lance, the other English teacher in my office from Fort Worth, and I ventured down to Niigata Saturday afternoon and met up with the gang.

Richard, our resident Englishman, cooked a great batch of chili that night and we feasted with a $20 box of taco shells from the foreign foods market. A possible plan was brewing: consume 5 bowls of chili and start the race in front. No one would dare run behind me.

After a good night of sleep, I awoke full of nervous energy. As I put on my race singlet and number, I felt confidence swelling deep inside me; no, it was Richard's chili. I hit the bathroom once more before we left.

After a short taxi ride to the stadium, we stretched out on the grass and began our pre-race preparations -- light jogging, Band-Aids over my nipples and Vaseline under my arms.

"These people look serious," I mused to myself. Everyone seemed to be in fantastic shape; in America people of all shapes and sizes run each race, even marathons. Rules usually give an 8-hour time limit, giving both runners and walkers a chance to conquer the 42 kilometers.

The jazz band began a jumpy number and we realized it was time to line up. The marathon and half-marathon both started together. Bethany and I found our spots toward the end of the crowd; we were the only non-Asian people there.

The gun sounded. After a lap around the track we headed to the street. It was an out-and-back course, so I would be able to see the leaders as they circled back to the stadium. Bethany took off, and I stayed toward the back of the pack. My plan was to take it easy the first half, and then pick it up at about mile 18.

The spectators were fantastic. Ganbare!, they cheered, meaning "Keep going" or "Fight!" I replied with an Arigato gozaimasu! and they laughed and waved their pompoms.

After I passed the half-marathon turnaround, I felt at one with nature. A crisp fall breeze smelled like my front yard in Fort Worth. Birds chirped in a vast sea of flora as I trucked by them with my 11-minute per mile pace. I heard my own breathing; it was really, really quiet.

Too quiet. I glanced back and peeked at the chap who was behind me. There was no one behind me. Interesting. Either my running acuity had forced a tremendous gap between myself and the next slowest runner, or I was the last person in the race.

At the next water stop I asked (in my broken Japanese) Watashi wa saigo no hito? (Am I the last person?) Hai, said the nice volunteer as he handed me a cup of water. Or was that cyanide? Since I was last, either one would have been effective at that point. I could 1) laugh at the present situation, keep running, and try to catch the next person, or I could 2) stop, wait for the lead runner to circle back, kick him in the knee, take his number and continue the race as "Takuya Yoshikawa."

I went with the first option. Being the only one around, I felt like an Olympic marathoner in first place, running the race of his life, yearning for the glory of becoming the first gold medallist of -- uh oh.

Just then, I heard it. A sweeper van. I had read about them in books, but here it was in real life. A sweeper van is the vehicle that follows the last-place runner in races that have a time limit. Time limit? I hadn't read anything about a time limit in the race brochure!

Wait, I couldn't read the race brochure. It was in Japanese. As a matter of fact, I didn't even see the race brochure because I didn't even register for this race. Okay, things were not seeming daijobu, and I was not feeling too genki.

I looked back ever so nonchalantly. It crept closer. Paranoia itched its way up through my legs. Creeping. Closer. Zoom! The van passed by, blowing dust and fumes about like the back draft of leaves on an autumn morning. "Where the hell is the van going?" I thought.

Without warning it stopped, and this important-looking, elderly Japanese man stepped out. "Stop," he demanded in English. Great, this is it. What sort of torture awaited me? Handcuffs? A caning? A full-day trip to Tokyo Disneyland? With a tight grip on my razor-sharp plastic bottle of the cheap Japanese Gatorade substance Aquarius, I was ready to strike.

And then he reached forward -- unpinning my race number and handing it to me. Apparently there was a time limit. I had been running for 1 hour and 50 minutes, and had gone about 9 miles. I guess I needed to be at the 13.1-mile mark by then.

Oh well. It was going to take more than a time limit to stop me. I stuffed the number into my Fort Worth Running Company race shorts. The race volunteers became fewer and the water stops more infrequent than I had remembered. The only tangible shred of motivation I found were the busloads of runners who were being driven back to the starting line. Some of them were probably injured. Others just gave up.

I saw four busloads of them pass me during the next three miles, and they all looked at me like I was crazy. Each time the bus would slow down next to me as if I had signaled for a ride, and I would just run past the open doors.

At about 2:37 I knew I must be at least halfway. I knew that the winner had finished the marathon 15 minutes ago.

I turned around. The roadblocks were now gone, so cars, bikes and motorcycles whizzed by me. The bus drove by again, turned around, and slowed down as it crept toward me.

I guess this guy hadn't seen me before, because he was making this weird hand gesture to me. I think he was trying to tell me, "You stupid American. Please stop running on my clean street. Good God! What did you eat last night?! You smell like chili. Please just come to the bus and we will take you to a safe place. How does Papua New Guinea sound?"

I told him I was going to continue to run. He gave me a blank stare and two cans of "Pocari Sweat" and told me Ganbare. Pocari Sweat is a makeshift sports drink that tastes literally like canned sweat. It does contain sugar, though, and I downed both in about 6 seconds. I must have been on the verge of dehydration, because I almost enjoyed the taste.

At mile 17, I was getting really, really hungry. Just as I was pondering how I could mooch some tofu off an old street vendor, I saw the next runner in front of me.
-- I am going the right way.
-- Here is someone as stupid as I am for still being out here.
-- Maybe he has some food. He was limping a little, and as I approached I noticed he had the face of a beaten man.

He was pretty surprised to see me, and I shouted Ganbatte! We both started running together. His name was Takahashi. (Actually, his name was NOT Takahashi. I cannot remember his name. I was tired. Work with me, people.) Apparently, Takahashi had hurt his leg and was forced to stop running. Dejected, he was carrying his marathon number.

I guess the sweeper van got him, too. The van drove by again and tossed us a few more cans of Pocari Sweat, and just as I guzzled the last of my fifth can of Sweat, I lost feeling in my legs; my body was starting to "hit the wall" and I was running out of fuel.

At that moment, I saw my trusty friend, Ironman Steve, the man responsible for my misery. "Hey Steve," I said. "Got anything to eat?" Steve darted to 7-11 and brought back Oreos, crackers and (ugh) more Pocari Sweat. They were the best eight Oreos I had ever eaten in 10 seconds.

Even Takahashi warmed up. "Sank you," he said with his mouth full. I once read that if you dedicate each mile of a marathon to someone, the race seems easier to digest. I saw the 3K to go sign and dedicated the next .6 miles to my friends who seen me at my best, and at my worst, and still stick by my side.

2K to go. This was dedicated to my family, people who love me unconditionally, the most important people in my life. 1K to go. This last stretch of pavement was dedicated to my Leukemia Society Honored Patients. LaRonda, Brandon, Melissa (who passed away) and Sarah.

We were almost there. Just a lap around the stadium track and our glorious, triumphant -- what?! -- another meet had already been scheduled on the track? It's closed? Steve raced ahead and apparently paid off the stadium security. Both guards looked at us like we were insane and waved us through.

As we entered the stadium, high school kids were now practicing sprints on my track. Some woman shouted something at us, probably in Japanese. I doubt she was saying, "Good God! The white guy smells like chili!"

As we rounded our final turn, Bethany -- who had finished her half-marathon -- arranged for eight junior high schoolgirls to cheer for us as we approached our sixth hour of running and crossed the "finish line," Bethany's outstretched arm.

After 5 hours and 57 minutes of running, what an awesome finish -- one of a kind, I'd say. The next weekend I cheered for Steve as he competed in a triathlon. I owed him that.

But just as important, I also cheered for the person in last place.

Carlo Capua, left, is an English teacher living in Japan. When not running, Capua and fellow teachers have the Waria Valley Children's Project http://communities.msn.com/WVCP with the mission of helping villages in Papua New Guinea become self-sufficient.