Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Rosemary Wanjiru tops among women, Deso Gelmisa among men. Around 38,000 runners participate. Record 3033 runners get their six star medal.

The full-fledged version of the Tokyo Marathon, one of the six World Marathon Majors, was held on March 5, 2023, after a gap of three years.

Rosemary Wanjiru of Kenya and Deso Gelmisa of Ethiopia won the women’s and men’s race respectively, at the World Athletics Platinum Label race.

In the men’s race it was an Ethiopian sweep with Gelmisa crossing the finish line in two hours, five minutes and 21 minutes. His compatriot Mohamed Esa finished alongside in the same timing to place second by the narrowest of margins. Tsegaye Getachew, also of Ethiopia, finished in third position, a mere three seconds behind the lead pair.

In the women’s race Rosemary Wanjiru won with timing of 2:16:28. Tsehay Gemechu of Ethiopia (2:16:56) finished second and her compatriot Ashete Bekere (2:19:11) finished third. According to Runner’s World, this was Rosemary Wanjiru’s second career marathon and her first major victory.

Japan is among countries where running is a very popular sport. About 38,000 runners from around the world participated in the 2023 Tokyo Marathon. Included in these numbers were those running to complete their six World Marathon Majors. Runners completing the circuit of these marathon majors are awarded a six-star medal at the end of their individual sixth marathon.

The 2023 Tokyo Marathon secured place in the Guinness World Records for having the highest number of runners finishing for a six-star medal at a single marathon. According to Abbott World Marathon Majors website, 3033 runners earned the six-star medal at Tokyo Marathon. This was a massive rise from the previous high of 732 runners at the 2019 edition of the Tokyo Marathon.

Runners who had finished five of the six World Marathon Majors in 2019 had to wait for three years until 2023 because of the COVID-19 pandemic and travel restrictions, to complete their sixth marathon.

Returning after three years, Tokyo Marathon had mandated that runners download a health app and upload temperature details daily for a few days in the run-up to the marathon. Also, they were required to do a couple of rapid antigen tests. They were also mandated to carry their smart phones to the start line of the marathon. This rule was tough for many runners as they do not normally train carrying their mobile phones. Runners were also disallowed from carrying their own water bottles during the run. The rule impacted the hydration plan of some runners.

Another rule that did not sit well with some runners was the requirement to avoid discarding layers along the marathon route. This is possible in many international marathons. Later, the rule was partially relaxed but runners were allowed to discard layers only at the start of the run.

We spoke to a few of the runners from India about their experience running the marathon and completing the six-star World Marathon Majors.

Kavitha Reddy / 2023 Tokyo Marathon (photo: courtesy Kavitha)

Pune-based marathon runner Kavitha Reddy was to participate in the 2020 edition of the Tokyo Marathon but the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent travel restrictions put a pause on her plan of completing the six-marathon cycle.

“A major challenge was to keep up the fitness level for at least one more year,” Kavitha said. At that point in time, the pandemic was an unknown entity and the world was clueless when it would end.

Overall, the lockdown and the absence of races helped runners to focus on their strength training. “I was able to keep up my fitness level throughout the three years. The lockdown period did help,” Kavitha said.

In October 2022, Kavitha ran the Melbourne Marathon finishing in 3:07:13 and also securing a second position in her age category.

“At Tokyo, my target was to maintain the same pace as Melbourne – 4:21 per kilometre. Instead of focussing on the finish time, I decided to focus on pace,” she said.

Although there were anxieties about the various rules that Tokyo Marathon had mandated there were no hitches on the day of the marathon. “From the point of entry to the race and the finish, everything was well-organised. It is an extremely disciplined country,” Kavitha said.

As it was quite cold, Kavitha approached the start line with layers, which she discarded at the start line. “Normally, I would have discarded the layers once I am two kilometres into the race. It was cold but during the race I was zoned out about the weather difficulties. Only after I finished the race, I realised that my shoulders had frozen. I could not lift my arms,” she said.

She finished strong with a new personal best of 3:05:08.

Going forward, her focus will continue to be on the marathon. She is confident about chopping some more minutes from her time to finish but at the same time is aware of limitations to potential improvements in timing.

Ambuj Kumar / 2023 Tokyo Marathon (Photo: courtesy Ambuj)

Bengaluru-based Ambuj Kumar started recreational running as recent as 2018. A year later, he commenced attempting the six Marathon Majors with the aim of completing all six within 365 days.

For him, the year 2019 entailed a schedule that packed in many marathons. The year started with Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon in January. This was followed by London Marathon in April, Berlin Marathon in September, Chicago Marathon in October and New York City Marathon in November.

“I wanted to be the first Indian to do all six Marathon Majors in a one-year period,” he said. The plan was to do Tokyo Marathon and Boston Marathon in 2020. But that was not to be because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Eventually, he completed Boston Marathon in 2022. “Two months before Boston, I contracted COVID-19. Nevertheless, Boston Marathon for me was a good race,” he said.

Ambuj ended up training for Tokyo Marathon three times – once in 2020, then in 2021 and finally in 2023.

Japan, according to Ambuj, is an amazing country. On race day, weather in Tokyo was quite cold prompting runners to wear layers ahead of the run.

“For me, it was a wonderful race. Though, my best experience was at the Boston Marathon,” Ambuj said. He finished Tokyo Marathon in 3:29:57.

Having completed his six-star World Marathon Majors, he may consider looking at distances beyond 42.2 km. In the meanwhile, he is due to run the 2023 edition of Berlin Marathon, his second time there.

Ramanjit Singh Oberoi / 2023 Tokyo Marathon (Photo: courtesy Ramanjit)

Ramanjit Singh Oberoi started casual running in 2009 when he found he had the time for it. In 2011, he heard about the Delhi Half Marathon and enrolled for his first half marathon in 2013 at the same event.

During the 2017 Mumbai Marathon, Ramanjit, 64, heard about the Boston Marathon and its stringent qualification norms. In 2018, he ran the New Delhi Marathon and qualified for Boston Marathon in his age category. This, set in motion the process to start the six-star World Marathon Majors journey.

In 2019, Ramanjit ran many races including Boston Marathon, Berlin Marathon, New York City Marathon and the Comrades Ultramarathon. After a two-year gap due to the pandemic, he did the London Marathon and Chicago Marathon in October 2022.

For Ramanjit, Tokyo Marathon went off quite well until the 34th kilometre. “After about 34 km I got a back ache and I had to take walk breaks to keep going,” he said. He finished the Tokyo Marathon in 3:40:24.

During the pandemic months, he also got into long-distance cycling, including one trip from India Gate in Delhi to Gateway of India in Mumbai and another from Delhi to Manali.

Ashoke Sharma (Photo: courtesy Ashoke)

Having lived in Japan for eight years, Ashoke Sharma, now a resident of London, was not unduly perturbed by the rules mandated by the Tokyo Marathon.

“Japan is a rule-based society but I know the psyche of the people of the country,” he said.

In 2018, Ashoke ran Berlin Marathon and in the process qualified for the Boston Marathon but he ended up doing the latter only in 2022. He followed it up with the New York City Marathon in the same year. In 2019, he completed the London Marathon and the Chicago Marathon.

In January this year, Ashoke shifted to London on work and took up residence near Kensington Park. “My training went off quite well. It was fantastic, running in the park and very safe,” he said referring to a recent incident in Mumbai when a runner was fatally knocked down by a speeding car.

In Tokyo, Ashoke suffered an ankle-twist around the 10th km mark. “Thereafter, it was tough, running. I had to walk the last 16 km. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it as it was my last one among the World Marathon Majors,” he said. He finished the marathon in 4:02:48.

Going forward, he may look at attempting a triathlon. “I am divided between focussing on the marathon and the triathlon. Now that I am based in London, I may opt to run some of the marathons in this part of the world,” he said.

Sunil Chainani (Photo: courtesy Sunil)

“In Tokyo, rules were strange but eventually everything worked out fine,” said Sunil Chainani, a Bengaluru-based runner.

He was one among the many runners waiting to finish his six-star World Marathon Majors. Some of the rules mandated by the Tokyo Marathon gave anxious moments to runners.

“We were asked to carry our mobile phones to the start line of the Tokyo Marathon. I don’t run with my phone normally,” he said adding that there were many issues such as crowded expo, cold weather and the requirement to fill out details in a health app.

Also, the course, though largely flat, had many U-turns and was constantly crowded with runners. Overall, the run went off quite well. “Japanese people are extremely helpful. There were many aid stations,” he said.

Sunil said his training for the Tokyo Marathon was inadequate. He finished the marathon in 4:22. “This was my fifth marathon in 10 and a half months,” he said. He plans to take a break from running marathons now.

He had run Berlin Marathon for the first time way back in 2008. He went back and ran the same marathon in 2018 to start his six-star World Marathon Major journey.

Pervin Batliwala / 2023 Tokyo Marathon (Photo: courtesy Pervin)

Waiting to complete the six-star World Marathon Major circuit, Pervin Batliwala, runner from Mumbai, trained quite well for the Tokyo Marathon.

Despite good training ahead of the race, some of the stringent rules mandated by the organisers of Tokyo Marathon did perturb Pervin. “The rule not allowing us to carry water bottles during the run was tough. I am used to taking gels during the run and I usually drink water after consuming gels. At Tokyo Marathon, I could not take as many gels as I had planned,” she said. Nevertheless, the overall experience of finishing the pursuit of the six World Marathon Majors and running a very well organised race in Tokyo was quite satisfying. She finished the race in 4:33:09.

Pervin had commenced her World Marathon Majors journey with her 2017 Boston Marathon race. In 2015, she ran the Comrades Ultramarathon and the next year she did the 72 km Khardung La Challenge in Ladakh.

Pervin now wants to attempt doing a triathlon and also focus on swimming events.

(The author, Latha Venkatraman, is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.)

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