Countdown To Tokyo: The day we unite

Inspiring us all at the start of the Tokyo Marathon just a few days away will be this year’s tagline for the event - “the day we unite”.

Tuesday, 14th February 2012, 2:00 pm

And for me, it’s a line which sums up perfectly the huge attraction of big-city racing.

For the select few likely to pick up the honours on the day, it will be all about beating everyone else round the 26.2 miles of Tokyo which lie before us.

But for the rest of us, there is going to be huge pleasure in simply being there. Marathons are one of the few occasions when being an also-ran is a delight in itself.

Uniting is what a marathon is all about; it is about sharing an experience - an aspect I explore in my new book, Keep On Running, published by Summersdale of Chichester on April 2

My first marathon was the London Marathon of 1998, and as I approach my 26th marathon in Tokyo on Sunday, February 26, I am still head over heels in love with the unique atmosphere a marathon will always throw up.

In Tokyo, there will be 36,000 runners - 36,000 people who have never been in the same place at the same time before, 36,000 people who have set their hearts on the Tokyo Marathon and have come together in the most uplifting of shared adventures.

I love the statistics that the London Marathon - and doubtless others - always release: that there are X number of different countries represented, that there are X number of thousand people from France, Y number of people from Germany, Z number of people from the States, right down to one single person from some country you have never heard of.

And yet we have all, throughout the five months beforehand, headed out on long, lonely training runs; we’ve all tested out new shoes, checked our hydration, and ticked off the days.

And that morning, we will have all lain awake for hours staring at the alarm clock, just waiting for the moment when we can get up, check our kit for the 3,000th time, nibble the lightest of breakfasts and get ourselves in the zone.

For me, there’s one moment that always does it. That moment of fumbling with the four safety pins that will attach your number to your chest, that moment you know it’s going to happen.

And then, as the thousands gather at the start, pouring in from all directions, you get the nervous chatter, the endless smiles, the intoxicating chumminess of it all. Suddenly, everyone is your great mate.

Suddenly you realise - with the most heart-warming of tingles - that we’re all in it together.

For me, that’s the great marathon magic. So just think how much greater that magic is going to be on Sunday, February 26, a day when “the day we unite”

will take on a very special and very particular resonance.

The fact that I will have travelled 6,000 miles to be there - along with six other journalists from around the world - underlines just how important this year’s Tokyo Marathon is, not just to Tokyo, but to the whole of Japan.

The context for this year’s race is that just a couple of weeks later, Tokyo will mark the first anniversary of the devastating earthquake which struck the country on March 11 2011 - or 3/11 as it has become known.

And it’s with that anniversary very much to the fore that the Tokyo Marathon will be sending out the most powerful of messages: Japan is back on its feet and back in business.

Ability to change

The biggest event Japan will have seen since the quake, the Tokyo Marathon 2012 is already being fashioned as a crucial tool for a country intent on showing the world not just its spirit, but also its ability to change.

Everyone agrees: the worldwide response to Japan’s suffering has made Japan a very different place, one in which the concept of charity has gained a new currency.

Now in its sixth year, the Tokyo Marathon is a race which already receives ten applicants for every single one of its 36,000 places. In their new post-quake world, the organisers are keen to change the make-up of those 36,000 runners.

More than ever, the organisers want to go global; just as importantly, they want to increase the amount the race raises for charity. This year’s Tokyo Marathon will be the most significant running of the race yet - an international showcase for a new, more caring Japan.

Akira Shirai, the Marathon’s marketing division chief director, speaks with understandable emotion of the journey both country and marathon have gone on since 3/11.

Mr Shirai was on the 27th floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building when the earthquake struck: “The building shook for 15 minutes. It was difficult to stand. I had to hold on, and I could see the other buildings moving. Fortunately Tokyo did not really have any damage to people or buildings, but it was scary.”

Since then, so much has changed: “Our Japanese culture didn’t have the idea of donation of charity. Donation and charity are not really Japanese things.

The recognition of charity was much lower compared to western countries.

“The government is quite large so people thought things should be given by government. But after the earthquake, we got great support from other countries. It was the first time probably in Japanese history that we had support like that. When we started to see foreign countries giving support to Japan, the Japanese felt they needed to contribute to the area as well.

The mentality of the Japanese regarding charity changed drastically. The Tokyo Marathon is somewhere we can start to see the change.”

The day we unite

And it’s in that spirit that the organisers are labelling Marathon day 2012 “the day we unite”. Hence the invitation to foreign journalists; hence the keenness to increase the number of foreign runners.

Non-Japanese runners numbered 2,878 in 2011; the target is more than 3,500 for 2012, and there are similar ambitions for the charity element. The 2011 Tokyo Marathon - just two weeks before the earthquake - had its first-ever charity runners, 707 of them. The hope is to increase that number to 3,000 in 2012. 50 per cent of the money they raise will go to the worst-hit earthquake areas.

Again, it is all about Japan showing its ability to overcome and move on.

Tad Hayano, secretary general of the Tokyo Marathon Foundation, underlines the point: “We want all the people to share the same joy and pride. We hope that the Tokyo Marathon will be as well known and respected as the New York, the London, the Boston, the Berlin and so on.

“With this marathon race, we are hoping we can show the world that we have got the spirit and that we have got the strength to come back to normal.”

It’s certainly remarkable the extent to which Japan has already shown its vigour and character since those dark days of March 2011.

8.6 million people visited Japan in 2010, and for the first couple of months of 2011, visitor numbers were up ten per cent, year on year.

But then 3/11 struck with all its devastation. Figures from 3/11 until the end of March were 73 per cent down. April figures were 62 per cent down, May was 50 per cent down, June and July were 36 per cent down and August was 32 per cent down. Overall, January to August was 30 per cent down on 2010.

Mizohata Horoshi, the head of tourism in Japan, is spearheading the Japanese fight back, touring to other countries with his message that Japan is safe.

But crucially he knows that just telling isn’t enough. He has to show - and one of the key ways of spreading the word has been to invite foreign journalists to take part in this year’s Tokyo Marathon.

It will be humbling to stand at that start line. It will also be the most immense privilege imaginable.

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