World Marathon Majors BEST list

Since March 3rd, I’ve relaxed and limited my mileage as well as celebrated my Six Star Medal after running the Tokyo Marathon. I took three-and-a-half weeks off before starting up again. It was a nice break because marathon training can be grueling and both physically and emotionally draining. It’s good to give your body a chance to recharge. In fact, after my first day back on the road running. I was very sore the next day as if I had never run before.

Soreness and other nagging muscle issues aside, I’ve had a chance to reflect on running the six World Marathon Majors since starting my journey in 2014 at the Boston Marathon. Each major marathon was special. Each has its charms and each experience was very different from the others. It’s what makes the World Marathon Majors so special. No race is the same as the other.

For those of you who are also looking complete, start or restart your Six Star journey, or for those of you who have finished the adventure and still love to read about it, here’s my BEST list for the World Marathon Majors. There are many topics I could list but I’m going to limit it. Some of you will agree. Some won’t. But one thing is certain–all six races are amazing.

BEST EXPO

London Marathon— I’m not necessarily a fan of expos, however, I don’t dislike them either. The London Marathon expo, I felt, was the best by far of the six. Yes, the location isn’t near the start or finish but ExCeL is a fine place to have the event. As far as expo logistics, it was easy to find, easy to get your bib and anything else you needed. The people there were friendly and helpful. I felt the layout was the best. It wasn’t tight or cramp like Boston or Tokyo. It wasn’t cavernous and didn’t feel half empty like Chicago. You really couldn’t get lost in different sections like Berlin. The apparel selection was good. They had nice areas to take pictures and provided an upbeat, lively vibe which got me excited about the race.

BEST PRE-RACE WARM UP AREA

Berlin Marathon–While I did like Greenwich Park in London, I think Berlin wins here. The area was easy to get into and close to a subway station. There was plenty of room to stake out a small area to sit and relax before warming up. Plus, how cool is it to prep for one of the world’s best races in front of an iconic building like the Reichstag?! You also had the Tiergarten too which provided a scenic area for a quick warm-up jog.

BEST START

New York City Marathon–There’s a serenity amidst the high energy of 50,000-plus runners when you look out from the Verrazano-Narrows bridge and see the blue waters around you and the magnificent Manhattan skyline in the distance. You realize your’re in the right place at the right time. It’s by far the most scenic start of the majors and maybe any marathon.

FASTEST COURSE

Berlin Marathon–This should be obvious given that the last several world records, including Eliud Kiphoge’s amazing 2:01:39, were run on this course. It’s also the course where I ran my PR of 2:48:48. So, what makes it so fast? It’s a very flat course. Chicago is also quite flat but there are far more turns in Chicago which can slow you down. Berlin doesn’t have all that many turns. Also, the weather is usually cool. With temperatures in the low to mid-50s, the conditions are there to run a PR.

HARDEST COURSE

Boston Marathon–I did consider putting New York here but I think Boston presents the most challenges. The first half is mostly downhill but then you have the Newton Hills in the second half and other small inclines toward the end that can make things tough. If you’re not careful, it’s easy to start too fast then blow up in the second half. For me, the crowded streets the first several miles kept my pace in check which helped me toward the end. I train in southern California in a somewhat hilly area so the Newton Hills weren’t anything I wasn’t already used to but they have broken many people. While I do think it’s the hardest of the majors, I managed to run my second-fastest time of 2:49:21.

BEST WATER

London Marathon–I understand plastic bottles, especially if they’re still half-full, can present a hazard. However, it was so convenient to squeeze the water and drink it without concern it’ll spill everywhere. This was important in 2018 when it was sunny and hot. I needed all that water when I crashed and burned.

BEST VOLUNTEERS

Tokyo Marathon–First, all the volunteers are great. They give up their time to make sure us runners can have a great experience. But since I have to choose one, I choose Tokyo. The volunteers kept thing organized before the race. They kept the course exceptionally clean at the water stations and they guided exhausted runners like myself after the race to the places we needed to be. They did it all with smiles, even in the rain and cold.

best crowd

London Marathon— Again, this was a tough one because all the crowds were great. I think London wins out here. I don’t recall any spot along the course that there weren’t loud cheers. This crowd was the loudest and most excited of six that were loud and excited. I could feel their energy and their support pushed me along when I was crashing and burning at mile 20. I heard nothing but encouragement. As a runner, it really felt like I was on the field at the Super Bowl or the World Series with the home crowd roars pulling me through.

BEST FINISH

Boston Marathon–I think cases can be made for London and Berlin but the Boston Marathon finish on Boylston Street is legendary. Turning from “Mount Hereford” onto Boylston for the last 600 meters is something runners of all abilities dream of accomplishing. Making that left turn and seeing the finish line gives you instant goosebumps amid the exhaustion. The cheers and roar of the crowd get louder as you get closer and you realize you’re about to make into reality something that was just a dream at one time in the past.

BEST POST-race gathering AREA

Chicago Marathon–Berlin was similar but I think Chicago was the easiest to navigate. I was offered beer before water after finishing–LOL! Seriously! That’s what makes Chicago fun. The volunteers lead you to a nice open area in Grant Park where you don’t have to fight crowds or sit on concrete or asphalt after a grueling race. There’s also more beer too–and it’s free as well if you remembered to bring your ticket from your goodie bag.

Me and my parents in Chicago 2015

BEST MEDAL

The Six Star–Why? The Six Star Medal represents all the hard work, planning and money spent to earn the other medals. It signifies that dedication, planning, fundraising and money well-spent for incredible experiences that will last a lifetime and more.

Agree or disagree with my list? Did I forget something? Write a comment below.

Tokyo Marathon Recap: The Six Star Journey is Officially Over

My quest for the coveted Six Star medal from the Abbott World Marathon Majors started in 2014 when I entered Corral 3 at the start of the Boston Marathon in Hopkinton. As I stood at the start and stared into the distance ahead of the world’s oldest, and arguably most-esteemed marathon, my only concern was crossing the finish line on Boylston Street to celebrate the pinnacle of my running accomplishments. I didn’t envision and couldn’t imagine traveling outside the west coast again to run a marathon unless it was Boston again. I thought this was it–my once in a lifetime opportunity. I don’t even think I was aware of the Six Star Medal or achievement at the time.

But a funny thing happened after Boston. I decided to run another major marathon. I saw I qualified for the 2015 Chicago Marathon. Since I have family in the city, I thought it’d be a great time to visit and run the race. It was after Chicago, I became aware of the Six Star medal and set out to run all the major marathons. Because why not? I made it a mission and something I wanted to do before it’d be too late to run them all. The New York Marathon followed in 2016 then the Berlin Marathon in 2017 where I set my personal best time of 2:48:48. That was followed by the London Marathon in 2018 where it was hot and I ran my worst race.

Flash forward to this year and the Tokyo Marathon. I registered through the charity route and donated money to the Ronald McDonald House Charities Japan.

I had some concerns as I had mentioned on my last posting about whether I could run under three hours again given my truncated training due to nagging injuries throughout much of last year. But I was also optimistic since my training, however shortened, had been going well.

My wife and I left Los Angeles on Wednesday and arrived in Tokyo Thursday night. For the Berlin and London Marathons, I arrived on Friday for the Sunday race but with an even larger time difference, I thought arriving Thursday would help me adjust a bit more.

We’re on the plane ready to go!

We headed to the marathon expo on Friday rather than Saturday to avoid large crowds. Much like everything in Japan, the process was smooth and orderly. Also, like Japan, there were parts of the expo that were overly crowded and small. While the process to pick up everything I needed was easy, the expo itself wasn’t great. I felt the expos at the other majors were better. They seemed larger and had more items for sale and more to look at. However, I’m not fairly big on walking around expos anyway so it really wasn’t a big deal.

Outside the expo

There’s me

Well, you don’t see Pac Man at marathon expos very often

The wife and I walked around part of the outside of the Imperial Palace on Saturday and also cruised by the finish line of the race which is right outside the palace area. I thought it was good to check out the finish line and see some of the route just to get an idea of what to expect. We had an early Saturday and headed back to the hotel so I could rest and make sure I had everything in order before the race. I made sure to hydrate myself properly.

Here’s the finish line area

The race was scheduled for 9:10am and all runners were required to be in their assigned corrals by 8:45am otherwise they’d have to start in the very back. These are hard and strict times. No grace period which means you need to be there. I woke up around 5am with plans to eat downstairs at the breakfast buffet at 6:30am and then leave for the race at 7am. I saw in the forecast that it was probably going to rain so I planned accordingly. In my race bag, I packed a beanie I could wear after the race, two hand warmers to keep my hands warm before and during the race and my trusty rain cap to keep my head dry and glasses clear during a run. It’s so important to look at the weather forecast ahead of a race and plan properly.

I took the subway to the race at 7am. The ride was smooth and I arrived in Shinjuku in the start area at the huge Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building a little before 8am. It was raining which I wasn’t expecting so soon. It was a steady rain that was on the lighter side. Arriving at the time I did was probably a mistake as I should’ve shown up earlier to give myself more time to warm up and stretch. Anytime you run a big marathon for the first time, I recommend arriving 90 minutes to two hours before the start to give yourself enough time to find where you need to go, where to check in your gear and to find and use the porta potties.

It took me several minutes to find my gate to enter as I headed in the wrong direction before asking a volunteer for help. I passed through Gate 3 which was smooth. The security checkpoint wasn’t crowded and easy to pass through. I then decided to use a porta potty. The lines around 8:10am were long. I found the shortest line but that turned out to be about a 10-15 minute wait. When I finally got out of the porta potty, it was roughly 8:25am and I needed to drop my bag off before the 8:30am deadline. I weaved through crowds to get to the truck to drop my bag off. I pulled out my rain cap, an old sweatshirt to wear inside the corral that I would throw away and hand warmers. I then rushed to the start line and my corral. I made my way inside with five minutes to spare. Inside the corral, I did some light stretching just to loosen up. Had I arrived earlier, I would’ve had much more time. However, I don’t think my performance was really impacted. I wore my singlet, sweatshirt, shorts and my rain cap in the cold and wet weather. It really wasn’t terribly cold though in the corral which I think was because the collective body heat made things a little warmer.

I met a fellow American in the corral. He’s from New York and was running in his third World Major. We chatted a bit before the start. The hand warmers started to heat up which was nice and the sweatshirt and cap kept the rain from bothering me. I estimate the temperature at the start was anywhere from 48 to 52 degrees. If it wasn’t raining, that would be ideal for a marathon.

The clock started ticking closer to the start of the race. People made their way toward the start line. The energy was amped up. I wasn’t in a big hurry though to rush to the start line since the race is chip timed, meaning everyone wears a chip to record their time. It doesn’t start until you cross the start line even if it’s several minutes after the leaders.

I tossed my sweatshirt aside next to some bushes and moved toward the start line with a minute to go before the gun. Then BAM! The race started. There was a roar among the 30,000-plus runners at the start. The 2019 Tokyo Marathon was off.

It was a crowded start and I found myself bunched among all the runners. The pace with the initial crowd was much slower than I would’ve liked. I was aiming to start the first mile or two no slower than 6:50 pace. I didn’t want to expend too much energy weaving through crowds so I was content with the first mile being slower. It was 7:17. I decided to pick up the pace and pass runners until the crowds thinned out a bit and I could find packs that could push me along between a 6:20 and 6:45 pace.

I picked up my pace in the second mile which was done at 6:31. I ran the next six miles between 6:18 and 6:35. The Tokyo Marathon’s first 10k is mostly a slight downhill so I made sure not to push it too much and burn much-needed energy.

The rain wasn’t bothering me. Again, it was steady but on the lighter side. My cap kept the water from hitting my head and the bill kept the water away from my glasses. The cold bothered me a bit for the first couple miles as my hands were cold but then the hand warmers heated up even more as did the rest of my body.

The water/Pocari Sweat stations were much cleaner than you’ll see at any other race. Usually, there are cups/plastic bottles on the road. But Japan hates litter. It’s immensely frowned upon to toss things on the ground. Trash cans were set up near the stations on the road which made tossing the cups away easy so I did that. Also, there were volunteers with bags picking up cups and offering to collect them. It was really something to see.

I felt good through the first 10k, I was cruising along at under 3-hour pace. I really wasn’t thinking about much either. It was just making sure I was maintaining a rhythm. I crossed the half marathon mark at just over 1:27. This was good and well under 3-hour pace, especially since I didn’t think I could keep the same split in the back half due to the course not having another long stretch of gradual downhill.

Crossing the half mark at 1:27 gave me a lot of confidence especially since I felt good. This was the complete opposite of what happened in London. I crossed the half mark at 1:28 but I was fading quickly and knew a sub-3 was probably out-of-reach in the unusual heat.

Miles 14 through 20 were between 6:28 and 6:43. I was pleased as I was still on pace for a sub-3. My mind was in a good place which is so important when running. I knew I could make this happen. As usual in every marathon for just about everyone, my legs did start to wear down. This is where having a positive mindset and mental toughness come into play most. It sounds corny but you really do have to tell yourself you can do this. You have to convince yourself to trust yourself. You have to believe you’re in good enough shape to handle the rigors of the back half of a marathon. You almost have to be borderline cocky knowing you can handle it and believing any doubt is crazy. I should add though that drinking water and taking energy gels are just as essential as the mindset. The body obviously needs the water to prevent dehydration and the energy gels provide glucose which the muscles need for fuel. FYI…I tossed my hand warmers at around mile 16 as I didn’t feel like carrying them anymore since I was no longer cold.

The back half of the race is harder than the first but is still almost entirely flat. The only inclines are slight when running across street bridges.

I slowed down the final 10k. My pace ranged from 6:36 to 6:58. I felt a little something in my left calf too. It’s a bit hard to explain but it felt like there was a potential to cramp. This would’ve been a disaster for my sub-3 quest. I felt it wasn’t going to cramp but I didn’t want to take any chances so I didn’t push myself when I realized I was slowing down. Fortunately, I was handed two packs of what was billed as anti-cramping gel at the expo. I stuffed those into my shorts pocket before the race. I took one a little before mile 19 and then again around mile 24. I figured it wouldn’t hurt to take them and could only help. Maybe they worked. Maybe they didn’t but I didn’t cramp.

I made the second-to-last turn of the race onto a narrow brick-type road. I had about 600 meters left and knew sub-3 was in the bag. I felt excitement that my Six Star journey was going to end. I could feel the rain come down a bit harder. I picked up the pace as much as I could since I was so close to the finish. I turned left and could see the finish line about 150 to 200 meters away near the Imperial Palace grounds. I kept my pace steady and raised my hands into the air as I crossed the finish line. 2:56:39 is my official time. 1,367th place. I was done! All six World Majors completed! Five of them done under three hours.

The Tokyo Marathon is a great experience overall. The crowds toughed the cold and rain and covered the entire course with loud cheers. I would recommend fellow marathoners run it at least once.

The cold weather started to hit me after I finished but I was given a solar blanket which helped. I was directed to the Abbot Six Star tent to receive my Six Star medal. I was given high fives by the volunteers as they guided me inside. I was handed the Tokyo Marathon medal and the Six Star Medal. I took a couple photos and went to collect my gear. It was a long, slow walk but the physical pain was made more tolerable by wearing those two medals around my neck.

Exhausted and in pain but so excited! Note the trusty rain cap. I can’t credit that beat up old thing enough for keeping my head dry in wet weather

Fortunately, charity runners were allowed to change and warm up inside a building near gear pick up. I was all too happy to get inside, warm up and put on my warm up clothes and beanie.

I met up with my wife and told her “We did it!” as I showed her the bling.

Me warming up inside after the race

We did do it. She was there with me the whole way, always supportive and always listening to me talk about running or venting about training. She always massages my legs before races to make sure I’m as fresh as possible. That kind of support is beneficial beyond words.

I can’t believe I ran all six World Marathon Majors but here I am. What began as a chance to run the Boston Marathon ended with me traveling across oceans for experiences I’ll never forget. All the hard work and slogging through training in the heat, rain and cold paid off. Much of it was difficult. Marathons are hard, usually very hard. But if they were easy then I probably wouldn’t have done them. The challenge is what drove me. I wanted to push myself to see what I was capable of. Now I know. I want to apply this to other aspects of my life because if I can make my running goals happen, surely I can make other goals happen too.

Such a great experience

So what’s next? I’m certainly not finished running or running marathons. I’d like to do all the majors at least once more. As it pertains to my own running, I’m going to concentrate the next couple months on getting some speed back that I lost. I’m possibly going to attempt to run the Twin Cities Marathon in Minneapolis in October. I wanted to run it last year but was derailed by nagging little injuries. I’m eyeing the Paris Marathon in April, 2020 then Chicago in the fall of 2020 with a return to Boston or London in 2021. However, plans could change. Right now, I’m just going to enjoy my new prize.

Running With You,

Donald