Thinking back to 2009 – the first year I ran the Tokyo Marathon – I would have found it hard to believe that 6 years later I wouldn’t have missed a single race. Through a combination of good luck, determination and a charity donation, I’d been able to take part every year.
Thanks to my love of windmills (and a big sign on my head reading ‘Joseph’) I had become a fixed feature of the race, alongside Jesus (the singer who carries a cross whilst running barefoot every year) and the salary man. My participation was expected.
For the 2014 Tokyo Marathon my luck was in – I won a place through the first-round members club lottery, with odds of about 1 in 9. That was in July 2013, giving me 7 months to train.
7 months later, I had barely had a chance to run more than the distance to my local railway station. A new baby, and a new full-time project left me with little time to get out of the house. This wasn’t an entirely new situation: I’ve rarely trained properly for the marathon, yet somehow always managed to make it to finish.
For 2014 there was something else in my favour: my equipment would be lighter. I decided to ditch the full upper body camera-suit and instead develop a revolutionary lightweight 360 degree helmet cam, as inspired by a fantastic GoPro video I’d watched on repeat play.
This year was also the first year in which I really didn’t need to worry about batteries for my iPhone or for LEDs – Energizer very generously stepped up to the challenge and provided me with 3 of their 18,000mAh batteries that would see me through to the end no problem.
In the weeks leading up the marathon I built a series of prototypes, the third of which had the perfect balance of flexibility, functionality and ludicrousness.
As is the case every year, time was not on my side, and I was unable to do any long distance tests of the equipment. In a repeat of previous night-before-the-marathons, I found myself still working on my costume at 5am, facing a race on just an hour of sleep and no substantial training. It was then that the late night test revealed for the first time that the Live Shell became unstable when powered by external batteries (regardless of who stable they were) – a problem I had never experienced before. This necessitated adding three AA batteries, which then of course upset the balance of the helmet, something which could only be rectified by adding a further battery to the tail-fin. The lightweight helmet was suddenly a lot heavier and unwieldy.
By 8am I was running on adrenaline. Suited up in about 1,000 LEDs and my 360 degree swivel cam, I felt excited as I arrived at Shinjuku and made my way to my starting block (J – an improvement of one block compared to 2013!)
For me, being a part of the Tokyo Marathon crowd makes me feel like I’m surrounded by over 35,000+ friends. Aside from the natural bonding that occurs between any crowd of people who are about to take on a big personal and communal challenge, after 6 years I now experience such widespread recognition that it creates a surreal reality in which many strangers around me warmly greet me as they would a good friend. And the feeling of friendship is genuine, and mutual. It’s quite an extraordinary situation that you could never normally experience.
… And this is before the race has even started!
But it wasn’t long after the starting gun had fired that I knew this was going to be a tough one. My helmet was proving to be hard to balance, with the slightest tilt of the head throwing it off center due to the weight. Coupled with that, the internal batteries on the Live Shell were going flat much quicker than anticipated. In the rush to get ready I had forgotten to buy spares, and when I asked my support team to get some for me I accidentally told them to buy the wrong size. When they finally did get the right size they missed me twice as I ran past them just as they were emerging from the subway… It seemed everything was going a little pear-shaped.
This year, I carried:
- 1 x iPhone 5s connected to Softbank LTE (used for the main camera for the second half)
- 1 x iPhone 5 (Runkeeper & Glympse GPS apps)
- 1 x iPhone 4S (Backup)
- 1 x iPad Mini (strapped to my wrist to check Twitter etc)
- 2 x Emobile LTE pocket wifi
- 1 x Samsung Galaxy S5
- 4 x 5 meters of RGB LED strips for my legs and arms
- 6 x 18,000mAh Energizer batteries
- 4 x assorted USB / GoPro batteries
- 1 x GoPro Hero 3 Black
- 1 x Sony Action Cam
- 2 x Cerevo Liveshell
- 1 x bGeigie Nano Geiger Counter provided by Safecast
By the time I reached Ginza, the halfway point, I was completely and utterly exhausted. The mental exhaustion from trying to cope with the technical difficulties coupled with the physical exhaustion from not having trained, or slept, hit me hard. I was also running out of time, with only minutes to spare before checkpoints closed behind me. The only thing that was keeping me going was frequent check-ins with my amazing support team: Darren, Ian, Alvin, Erin, Ricky, Satoko, Sashiki-san, Mario &co, my in-laws and Yoji,
Heading north towards Asakasa I started to doubt whether I’d be able to make it. Rounding the corner I was boosted by the big crowds waiting there, but once I turned back to return towards Ginza I found myself running on empty. The weight of my gear was now becoming a serious problem. I just didn’t have the energy to continue.
As I approached the 30km checkpoint the crowds were going wild: “Hurry up! You’ve got to run faster or you’ll miss the deadline, the checkpoint’s going to close!” With no energy to run any faster I realised that this could be my first marathon that I didn’t complete – unless I took drastic action.
I crossed the checkpoint with seconds to spare, and then almost collapsed into the arms of two of my support team who were waiting there. “I can’t continue like this” I told them. “I can’t carry on. I have to get rid of stuff”.
So that’s what I did. I pulled a pair of pliers out of my bag and detached the swinging arm, camera, live shell and battery from my helmet. I removed my upper-body LED suit, and rid myself of all but one of my spare batteries. These I all gave to Alvin and Erin (who would then have to carry them back to base, sorry guys!).
Almost 14kg lighter I restarted my race. Having been one of the last ones to pass through the checkpoint and then spent about 8 mins dissembling my gear, I was now the very last person in the entire race – out of 35,000 runners! Never before had I had this privilege.
Running free of all that gear (aside from a single iPhone on a shoulder mount) felt incredible – I was so ….light! Pounding down the road I called out at the top of my lungs, ‘ganbarou’! surprising all the volunteers who were now spread out across the course cleaning it up after what they thought had been the last runners had passed through. “JOSEFU!!! Ganbatte!!!!” they shouted out as I waved back.
Live stream archive: the final stretch
That last 8km is one of my favourite sections. The thing is, by then you kind of know that you’re probably going to make it. Also, the crowds know that you’ve already run a long way, and are even more encouraging. Typically i am always near the back of the pack by this stage, and most participants are now walking. I won’t walk though, I always run (aside form two minor inclines which running up would just take too much energy!). Most participants are quiet in their suffering, and there’s a distinct lack of energy in the air. That’s when I come into my own, cheering everyone on, singing, making conversation, joking, and loving it.
And so it was this year. Except this year I had a further reason to keep going: Darren and Ian, two of my support team, seeing that I was in a desperate state, took it upon themselves to run the final 10km alongside me on the pavement. Despite not being prepared to run, they stuck with me all the way to the end, feeding me energy and positive vibes. An incredible boost.
About 6 hours and 30 mins after the starting gun went off, I finally entered the final 250 meter stretch. This year more than any other I was so happy to see the finish line. This had been an epic challenge, and the first marathon which saw me struggle so hard – but I’d done it.
I hadn’t done it alone though – alongside Darren, Ian (the two of whom are pictured above helping me change my batteries) and the rest of the team, were thousands of viewers on my live stream who had sent me messages of encouragement all along the way. That support had been transformed into energy and a determination to complete the race, and it was that support that moved me to tears as I crossed the finish line. This had been a marathon like no other.
Whilst I’ve said this every year, I mean it this time: next year I’m making my gear a lot lighter and a lot simpler! I’m also going to make sure I have time to train – running a marathon without having run properly in the months leading up to it is tough!
Many thanks to all of those who were involved in making this possible, from my team there on the ground, to the live viewers online, to Energizer for providing the batteries that powered my iPhones and LEDs.