Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Sakuranbo Half Marathon


Like most Japanese road races, the Sakuranbo Marathon is not actually a full Marathon, but a 5K for old people, a 10K for the slightly less adventurous, and a half marathon for everyone else. This particular race was in Higashine, high in the mountains of Yamagata prefecture Northwest of Koriyama. This race is quite well known and popular for “Sakuranbo,” or cherries. The entire region’s economy and reputation revolve around exporting exceptionally delicious (and exceptionally expensive) cherries.

Despite weather concerns, the race itself proved quite pleasant. Cherry orchards and rice fields cover the lush green valley system as it carves a path through rugged Japanese Mountains. The course meandered through the heart of Yamagata cherry country and the biggest cherry and apple orchards with commanding views across the valley. The orchards and valley might have been the most beautiful in Japan, were it not for the fact that translucent plastic tent structures covered every single cherry tree. Forgetting my camera proved no great loss, as all the orchards across the countryside lay beneath a blanket of rusty scaffolding and white plastic sheeting.

Having previously spent the night with Yohei and family, I didn't have very far to go.

The tiny little hamlet of Higashine hosts the race at the local Jeitai (Japanese Self Defense Force) military base in the area, being the only place large enough to handle parking, thousands of racers, and all the spectators. I was shocked that such a remote race was is also one of the most popular races in the region.

A minor snafu almost turned into a complete tragedy when I FORGOT MY NUMBER TAGS AND TIMING CHIP! Fortunately I explained what happened to the race coordinators and they had an extra tag for me to use. No problems there. The rain from the previous night and the morning also had me worried, and I almost decided to forget the whole thing. 30 minutes before the race started, the rain cleared up. 10 minutes before the race, blue skies were peaking out from the west. By the time the race was finished, I knew I was getting sunburned.

The race proved to be easier than the Towa Half Marathon, as the area was relatively flat. About half way through the race though, I found that my target pace was simply not sustainable, and I was going to be lucky to finish in 1 hour and 35 minutes. I ultimately finished in 1 hour and 41 minutes, almost exactly my time for the half marathon in Towa. My knees and left ankle certainly weren’t happy with me.

I also ran into (literally) a guy I had met on a couple of occasions before named Nathaniel. He drove us to an onsen hot spring after the race to soothe our muscles. All the racers got a t-shirt and a small package of cherries and onigiri at the finish line. I suspect the entire race is one big conspiracy between cherry growers and the local chamber of commerce. Regardless of their sinister purposes, the cherries they gave away were undeniably delicious.

Note to Readers: This post is two weeks behind schedule but I will try to be caught up tomorrow.

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