By Rebecca Paskiet
I ran the first and personally dubbed Ehime ALT Half Marathon on June 29th of this year with two other ALTs in Ozu, Ehime. This was to be my fifth official half marathon. It was to be their first.
We were three total. Women. English teachers. Independent. Strong. Sore. Thirsty. Determined. We finished.
Not only did we finish on a day with a thirty-three degree temperature and 75% humidity, we finished together in under two and half hours, a feat any first-time marathoner has full permission from the marathon gods to brag about for life. We finished healthy, energized, relieved, thirsty as hell, and discussing plans to run longer distances together in the near future. Perhaps exhaustedly triumphant describes us best in that moment.
The idea started when Lydia and I, Uwajima-based ALTs, were meant to run a half marathon together in the nearby inaka town of Matsuno, Ehime. We’d been training for months, running miles in the pinching chill of winter’s air, attitudes sour, juggling flash lights and iPods against slippery cottoned fingers and the searing early-morning or late-night darkness. I remember the numb pain in the fragile tips of my red ears, three layers deep in sweaty, cold fleece, shaking the drench of sleep from my feet as I counted clomping steps with my breath and blasted Aviici into my brain. I remember wondering if getting up this early was really worth it. I remember remembering the wonder of this same exact thought every day I’ve ever gotten up to train for half marathon. I remember Lydia and I joking in mutual misery about our training runs and musing if we would even finish the 13.1 miles come race day.
By the time February arrived, and with it, the anticipation of the Matsuno marathon, our wintery despair had given way to something warmer, albeit rainier. Our moods lightened, along with the rest of Uwajima, as the promise of Spring began poking its muddy fingers cautiously up out of the ground. Funny how much influence weather exerts over our internal mood gauge. Conversations about running between Lydia and I felt more positive and sarcastic. We were well on our way to a successful run!
Yet in the weeks following Winter break, Lydia fought the inevitable illnesses that come from mingling with our snotty, lovable elementary and junior high school students who don’t wash their hands often enough, if at all. Following her just-shy-of-full-recovery-from-her-student-caused-illness with a lovely bout of food poisoning a week before the marathon, it was clear she wouldn’t be running.
So I ran the Matsuno marathon by myself, with Lydia gallantly standing by my side (well, at the finish line), cheering on all the marathon runners and still determined to finish a half marathon before she left Japan. And so emerged the idea: we would plan our own 13.1 mile race.
We began training with little idea in mind about where we would run or what logistics were involved in planning such an event, and amidst the preliminaries all of the training, coughing, laughing, sore muscles, achy knees and hundreds of training miles, Cassie became our third Ehime ALT Marathon runner.
I don’t remember exactly when or how Cassie and I met for the first time, who friended who on Facebook, or even how we officially began messaging each other. Like many moments in life that lead to something important, that one has dribbled to the edges of my brain, gently squashed and blurred under the weight of the other conversations I’ve had and memories I’ve made with her since.
Though skeptical about their abilities to run a half marathon at first, both Lydia and Cassie jumped fully on board after many discussions regarding strength training, the necessity for lots of coffee and the understanding that running involves building mental stamina even more than physical. I think I might’ve convinced them after sharing stories of running even after putting a nail through my foot, needing crutches during a bout of hip bursitis, hobbling runs with several thrown out backs and many, many knee aches and pains. Or perhaps I simply shocked them. Mental stamina? I knew I had it in spades: now they just needed to know they did too. I can only hope I was a somewhat positive (if not painful) influence in shaking them of their doubts. And so went training.
When we came upon the time (Two? Three weeks beforehand? I never said we were proactive planners) to decide on our racing route, Lydia offered up three options. One: we could run part of the Shimanto Triathalon in Ainan, along the Shimanto River. Two: we could run in Ozu, from Iyo-Hirano Station to Iyo-Nagahama, along the Hijikawa River until it met the ocean. Three: we could run in Kochi, 13.1 miles from the ocean until we reached a beautiful surfing beach at the very tip of Shikoku.
While I was all for running along the Shimanto River, with full intention of jumping IN the river at the end, logical thought decided the Ozu route for us: it was right between our home cities of Imabari and Uwajima, and a beautifully planned (thank you Lydia!) art of sight-seeing.
It was 6:00am on a Saturday morning when we parked at the Iyo-Hirano station, the last tidbits of dawn clinging to the night, humidity a punch in the face as we stepped out of the air-conditioned car, clouds low and heavy, greying the sky. We organized, hydrated, and established our meeting plans at Iyo-Nagahama. Our GPS watches beeped out of sync as they connected to their satellites, the 0:00 screen an impatient reminder for us to start running.
Starting a run is always the hardest part: even with just three of us there was a discomfort: bodies were too close, shuffling gaits, awkward, like a new kiss you’re thinking of, but unsure the other person desires. Out of sync, moving slowly, glancing at each other as you wait for someone to make the first move. After a minute or two, I decided to take the plunge and propelled myself forward, glancing behind to see that the others had followed. And so we ran.
Lydia had walked part of the route before and so was more familiar with what we could expect while running. I, however, had no idea what I was in for, and I think I gaped at the inescapable beauty surrounding me throughout the entire time. If you’ve never gone for a run, bike, walk, etc. in Ozu, you owe it to yourself to, even if it’s just a mile. I’ve never run such an inspiring path, where everything is lush and envy green with life, the stones and earth damp with Mother Nature’s perspiration, soil turning itself over as seeds sprout and life spawns. Colors explode in your peripherals, petals and scents and soft sounds of pink and yellow and green and purple. Even running on the interstate was its own vision of bucolic serenity: the sturdy, sparkling pavement with its bright white lines, a rock-hard river of shimmer in the heated haze, and juxtaposed in its surroundings, dozens of greenhouses emerging vaguely around us as we ran and the morning mist cleared, Ozu Castle in a half-silhouette, staring us down over the black of the Hijikawa River.
Cassie and I ran those first few miles together, slow and steady, warming up to the humidity, evening our breaths, finding our rhythms. Stopping only to take photos or check Google Maps to make sure I was indeed still headed in the right direction (being a natural at getting lost), I kept up the first seven miles with a stamina that surprised me in the heat. Having lost Cassie somewhere during the first few miles when we inadvertently turned down different sides of the river, I was alone. That wasn’t new; I’ve always been a solo runner, and the peace of the river and nature around me was awesome. I inhaled the sights, the sounds, the loveliness, the feeling of my feet pounding on the road and the way my vision tunneled towards the most vibrant of details: a bright yellow, bumblebee-disguised spider; a snail sinking into the wet sewer, suctioning on for its life as it fought its inevitable slide through the grates; the deep green-black water of the river lapping the sides of the muddy bank, the feeling of my elbows pumping next to my ribs, and… the dryness in my mouth. With that last sensation, I became extremely distracted. Seven miles in and the run was shaping up wonderfully, except that I realized I hadn’t seen anywhere to purchase or drink water since I’d left the car.
I’ll admit it right now: we did not plan for water breaks. How, in June, in the deep south of Japan during a 13.1 mile run, we could have forgotten to check for konbinis or vending machines along the route, I’ll never be able to answer. Nor could I venture as to why we didn’t think to carry water bottles with us, except to suggest that we probably assumed we wouldn’t go more than few miles without coming upon a konbini. I guess what they say happens when you assume is correct. I was dying of thirst.
When the joke to myself of jumping off the road and straight into the river for a long gulp of water became a serious consideration in my head, I decided to run until I found a house. I planned to knock on that person’s door and explain, in my very limited Japanese, that I desperately needed water. I didn’t realize how bizarre this request might be until I came upon a restaurant with two people sitting at it. I darted across the road and stared at the two people, one a kind-faced gentleman enjoying an ice cream cone (oh to have had ice cream in that moment!) and the other a slender woman, staring straight back at me, looks of utter bewilderment on both their faces.
Only then did it occur to me that I was a blue-eyed woman who had appeared out of the blue, who could barely communicate in their language, dressed in shorts and a tank top, sweating buckets, alone, and running down the road in the middle of Nowhere, Ozu, Japan. Apart from stretching the lines of appropriate cultural dress norms, I gathered that the man might’ve simply considered me insane to be running on such a sweltering day. I giggled a little in that moment, realizing that actually, he had a point. Asking where I might find a konbini, I bowed to him with thanks when he told me that just five hundred meters up the road lay a piece of Heaven on earth: a Lawson.
I sprinted down the road and stumbled into that Lawson like I was escaping Armageddon, gasping at the blast of air conditioning and praying the cashier would take my sweaty ichimon for two bottles of water. Thankfully she did. I hesitated only long enough to text Lydia and Cassie that water was up just ahead of them, drink half a bottle of water and stuff the handful of change the cashier had given me, where else when I had no pockets? Yep, down my bra. Then I took off jingling out the door, leaving behind me a spray of sweat and yet more slightly bewildered faces.
When I’m running, I never stop to consider what others might think of me. When I run, I’m me, at peace, meditative. But on that day, I was distracted. I kept noticing the expressions of others as I ran by them, asked them questions, purchased from them. I’d gotten used to the stares in Uwajima, to the questions regarding the reality of my eyes and the men who refused to look right at them, built up my exchange of smiles during my early morning runs with other exercisers, and ignored the eyebrow raises at my bare thighs. However during this run, I couldn’t help feel a slight unease that I might be making people uncomfortable in all my sweaty glory, and for once I felt the true meaning of the over-utilized phrase “gaiijin smash.” (I’d later laugh about this when Lydia and Cassie shared similar stories of facial expressions gone awry and hopes that sweat-soaked yen would be an acceptable form of payment and that, was a reassuring sense of solidarity).
I arrived at Iyo-Nagahama Station, 13.1 miles from our parked car, promptly bought myself 3 bottles more of various liquids and sat down to wait for Cassie and Lydia. They arrived soon after and I shamelessly filmed their first 13.1 mile finishes and cheered them on, deftly ignoring the adorable elderly couple staring at me as I whooped. That was the end, and it was rather anticlimactic. Taking the time only to gulp water, take photos by the extremely foggy port and check the train schedule, we quickly decided to take the lone taxi serendipitously idling at the station. After I momentarily overexcited myself over the automatic doors (I’d never seen anything like that before, and if you don’t think that’s exciting, well I can’t help you) I clambered in and we all enjoyed the air conditioning and made idle conversation with the taxi driver as we drove back to our rental car.
The taxi took us back via our running route in reverse, and I took immense pleasure in appreciating the views from the inside of the window and remembering the delicious effort of pushing myself, feeling my feet sink into the pavement, an ignorant rhythm, and was glad I’d run, even with the heat, lack of water and exhaustion that followed. I hoped Lydia and Cassie were feeling this same strange mix of contentment, exhaustion and perhaps even a little frustration at the challenge we’d since accomplished. I hoped they’d want to run another half marathon, or even full, with me again one day. Voicing this, I listened to their responses with a huge grin, motivated and energized as they talked about wanting to run again. I knew they were both leaving the following month, back to their homes to continue their lives as I would continue mine here in Japan, so it was with a little trepidation that I agreed to run with them again. Would it happen? I’d enjoyed our training, our planning, our chats, our running. It’s not often you find such companionship and understanding in a race. I sincerely hoped we would run again together.
Three months down the line, and we still haven’t made any concrete plans. However, we have discussed planning a virtual marathon with each other and when I do hear from Cassie and Lydia, they’re both still running strong, the passion gripping them as it gripped me so many years ago. Long may it last and here’s to our future runs!
Rebecca Paskiet is a 2 nd year ALT from Vermont, USA and currently lives in Uwajima,
Ehime. When she’s not trying to remember the names of all the teachers at her 8 schools,
she can be found baking, running, reading or traveling, usually for the purpose of eating.
She will run the Ehime Marathon in February.