Iwaki Sunshine Marathon 2023 – Pedro Abreu Experience

I didn’t know about Iwaki, Japan until Robin Jumper called me to invite me to race the Iwaki Sunshine Marathon. As Robin described how incredible the experience would be, it was hard to believe that I was being invited to race like an elite athlete in Japan. I thought to myself that I wasn’t a real runner – I had only been running for four years and had completed just a few marathons. So the whole thing just seemed unbelievable.

Robin’s phone call came a few hours after the end of The Kauai Marathon. A race I decided to run almost at the last minute as we were planning our third Kauai trip and stumbled upon the marathon happening two days after our arrival – the third most challenging marathon in the US seemed like a fun enough adventure for the start of our vacation, so yes, I decided to run it. Looking back now, it was a great choice!

The beginning of the adventure – winning the Kauai Marathon 

Despite not knowing much about Iwaki, the idea of going back to Japan after almost seven years put my wife (Mariana) and me over the moon. However, making such a trip seemed unrealistic with two little ones. And it got more complex soon after, when I received an email from the Tokyo Marathon inviting me to run there on March 5th, 2023. I had applied to the Tokyo Marathon lottery before running in Kauai, and unexpectedly and somewhat frighteningly, I now had two marathons scheduled in Japan only one week apart. Logistics weren’t easy but my parents agreed to stay with the kids. I was going to go and run Iwaki by myself, and Mariana would join me for the second part of the trip.

From San Jose (CA) to Tokyo it’s >12h flight and +17h difference, but I felt good once I got there. I got to get first-hand experience of the Japanese organization as I was directed and helped by dozens of airport employees going through the emigration and covid screening. Soon after, just like in the movies, I was being received by two representatives of the Iwaki Marathon, Ms. Mayuko and Ms. Marika holding a paper with my name on it.

For that first night, priority was resting. I was taken to the hotel, had an early meal and got to sleep. I woke up jet lagged at 2am local time but managed to get in a solid six hours of sleep so wasn’t feeling that tired. It was in fact convenient as I had some work to do, and we were leaving around 10h30am. Before 9am I was ready to go for a quick jog. When I was leaving my room, I crossed paths with Bridget and Richmond from Australia – Iwaki is a sister city to Kauai and Townsville, Australia and so winners from both marathons are invited to race Iwaki the following year. They were really nice and welcoming and the three of us got to run together while learning about each other. After a quick shower and breakfast, we got into the bus to Iwaki.

It was 2h30m to Iwaki with a brief stop for lunch. The rest of the day was packed with activities – we got to visit a temple, the “3.11 Memorial and Revitalization Museum”, and finish with a nice kaiseki dinner. The temple was small, but it was a calming experience; away from the noises of the city, the peacefulness of the moment was a great way to reset. The museum however was the biggest surprise. Although simple it is heavy in its message. Created to honor and remember the events of March 2011 where a triple disaster (earthquake, followed by a tsunami, and nuclear accident) hit that area killing thousands of people. It is packed with glaring photos, artifacts and explanations of that tragic day. We were guided by the museum director who, despite the communication barriers, was so informative and passionate about the museum that his energy transpired to all of us. After the museum, we headed back to the hotel and prepared for dinner. The kaiseki dinner is a special multi-course Japanese type of dinner. Luckily, I love raw fish so for me, it was a delight.

The Shiramizu Amidado Temple, the Iwaki 3.11 Memorial and Revitalisation Museum, and the beginning of the Kaiseki dinner

The next day was again packed. In the morning, we drove the marathon course. I had never done it in my previous marathons, and it surely felt like a really long drive. After that, we got to have a nice tempura (fried fish) lunch and visit the aquamarine afterwards – a huge aquarium and exposition with so much to see and learn that I felt I was back on a school day trip. In the afternoon, we got some supplies (fuel food) for the marathon and drove to the Marathon Welcome Party. It was a huge celebration with athletes, politicians, media, local people, and many more. We tried to listen to the speeches, got on stage and bowed per tradition, and met many of the folks that helped organize the marathon, including the mayor. It was an electrifying and unique experience.

The Tempura Lunch, Aquamarine Fukushima, and the Marathon Welcoming Party

The remainder of the night and morning went by fast, and by the time I noticed it, we were already on our way to the stadium (the starting spot). Cold was a big worry. Iwaki wasn’t freezing cold, but it was cold enough to be cautious and it was also windy, which made it much worse. Luckily, because we were getting the VIP treatment, we were able to wait in a warm room until we were ready to go out for the warmup. The marathon itself was not huge (~5,000 people) but the environment was energizing. You can tell people were eager to run. It was the first marathon in the city since 2018 (weather and COVID canceled the previous years). And with that bolt of energy, we made our way to the starting line.

Knowing the course helps to anticipate what comes ahead, but it doesn’t make it any easier. Iwaki’s course isn’t as hard as Kauai’s, but it is not an easy one. According to my Garmin watch, it has ~1,200ft of total ascent (vs. ~2,000ft Kauai Marathon); but the hills stretch by miles, so the effort does take a toll. Knowing I had a second marathon to run in a week, I decided not to risk it and lowered my pace accordingly. This allowed me to enjoy the race a little more. I was more aware of the environment, the crowds, and the overall festivities along the course. We got to see the ocean, while experiencing many different parts of the city such as the local suburban part of town, the fishing port, the industrial side, passing through the aquamarine, and many other memorable worthy sightseeing places. Crowds of people cheered us, but what I remember the most are the musical groups that had traditional songs to keep us moving. Very similar to Kauai’s marathon, but in its own Japanese tradition.

Finishing time wasn’t the most important for neither me, Bridget, nor Richmond. Even if we didn’t shoot for a personal best, we were all tired and hungry. Conveniently, the remainder of the day was meant to be relaxing. We got some bento boxes to eat at the hotel and enjoyed the Onsen (hot springs) for a while. I even got a massage hoping it would fast track my recovery for Tokyo.

 The Marathon!

At night, we had the goodbye dinner. Contrary to what I expected, this was not a huge dinner like the welcoming party. It was a small, intimate dinner with some of the folks that helped organize the marathon. We were split amongst the tables and so I ended up in a table full of strangers. I felt a little constrained at first. We all did. But through the many courses of the dinner (it was Kaiseki type) and with the help of Google Translator, it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable dinners I had in a long time. We connected through the marathon, my admiration of Japanese culture, their admiration for my ability to use chopsticks, and even by chatting about history – how Portugal (my home country) has been connected to Japan for hundreds of years. At the end we were all in good spirits and took some funny pictures.

The Farewell Party Dinner with some of the locals

The next day was the departure day. I was sad to leave so many great relationships behind, and for how fast time seemed to have passed by. I was also grateful for the experience and excited to continue my trip in Japan for another week and half, especially now that my wife would be joining me. I said goodbye to Bridget and Richmond, and to Ms. Mayuko and Ms. Marika and made my way to a smaller van that was going to take me to the train station. I was expecting to do the train ride by myself, but I was once again pleasantly surprised by the Japanese cordiality. They had arranged for two folks to accompany me on that ride – all the way to my hotel lobby they made sure I was always taken care of. I was lost for words. I thanked them as much as I could and said my goodbyes. What an incredible experience the whole thing was!

PS: I did manage to finish the Tokyo Marathon within my target time the following Sunday