Our trip to Japan was so different than any other vacation we have taken. We were deeply immersed in the culture because we met a lot of people and made new friends. This was all thanks to Mr. George Nakajima, Secretary General of the Japan Multiple Sclerosis Society (JMSS).
Planning for Japan started a year in advance. I contacted JMSS in April 2016 because I needed help getting into the Tokyo Marathon. The race is highly impacted like London and New York City. You can enter via lottery, join a tour group, or fundraise for a charity. George contacted the marathon organizers and pled my case to pay for a guaranteed spot, but they would not budge. So I went with a charity and ran for the Japanese Para-Sports Association. I am glad we decided to run for a charity because it turns out that 321,459 people entered the lottery and there were only 26,370 spots available! The chances for Brian and me to both get into the marathon were slim to none.
During the year, George and I exchanged over 200 emails. He helped me immensely with the logistics of travelling in Japan, and he also orchestrated several meetings for me to present my story. I do get nervous when I speak in public, but I was a lot more anxious about Japan because I have zero knowledge of the language. My sweet coworker, Kinuko Kanda, coached me a bit before leaving for my trip: good morning, hello, thank you very much, and where is the bathroom. I was even more worried because my speeches started and ended with some Japanese pleasantries because I wanted to show respect, “Konnichiwa! Minasan ni oai dekite ureshii desu. Minasan ogenki desuka? Cheryl to moushimasu. Douka Yoroshiku onegaishimasu. Arigatou gozaimasu. Kyou wa ganbarimasu.” Kinuko spoke the phrases into my iPhone and I listen to it over and over on the 13 hour flight from LA to Tokyo.
Upon arriving at Narita International Airport, we were greeted by George and a huge welcome sign! At first I was not sure if I should bow to George, shake his hand or give him a hug. I did all three and so did Brian. George did not seem to mind. After all, we were already like old friends!
We checked into our hotel in the Shinjuku prefecture at 4:00PM and by 6:00PM, Mr. Hideki Saito from Nippon TV was there to interview me! We filmed inside our tiny 194 square foot hotel room. It was cramped with 5 adults, but we had fun. “Tokyo Marathon. Ganbarimasu!” My interview aired on Saturday afternoon, the day before the marathon.
In the days leading up to the marathon, we tried to acclimate and fight jetlag by keeping busy and touring as much as we could. We visited many shrines, temples, museums, shops, prefectures and Starbucks. Yes, Starbucks. Our friend Richard Brook collects Starbucks gift cards and he has really turned us on to collecting them, too. In Japan, you cannot just take the cards for free. You have to put 1,000 yen (about $10) on the card and you can only spend the money in Japan. So, we were highly caffeinated for the trip, which may or may not have helped with jetlag. It truly was a cultural experience. The stores have different designs and artwork; they have Japanese-specific specialty drinks; and the Japanese flock to the stores, from students to business men to women clad in kimonos!
We were lost a lot of the time. Our launch pad for sightseeing was the Shinjuku Train Station. It is the busiest train station in the world and serves 3 million people per day, and there are over 200 exits. Even though we managed to get back to our home station after a day of touring, we would walk several hundred meters trying to figure out how the heck to get out of the train station!
The city layout is also confusing. Streets intersect at many angles and I think even the Google Maps App was confused. For instance, our friend David Tay, a race director from Singapore, was staying at a hotel only 1.5 kilometers from us. Brian and I walked for 45 minutes, in what seemed like circles, to find it. At one point we stopped at a Starbucks for directions. What we did not realize we had to climb stairs and walk an upper street to get to the hotel. Oh geeze! David found a shortcut and walked us back to our hotel in less than 10 minutes!
We met with George a couple of times before the marathon. One day we went out to lunch for our first real sushi experience. We went to a little place where the chef puts the sushi on a conveyor belt and you pick up the dishes you want to eat. George is a very lively character and talked it up with the chef. Suddenly many plates of different sushi came rolling our way. I am not sure about half of the food I ate. Some was squishy (giant tuna eggs?), some was rubbery (octopus?), some was mushy (fatty tuna?) and my soup was filled with shells (baby clams?). It did not matter that I am vegetarian and did not know what I was eating, having an authentic meal with George was great!
Marathon day was filled with excitement and nerves, just like any other marathon, but there was added pressure. Nippon TV asked me to meet them at the host hotel before the race. I thought it was for a follow-up interview, but no. They assigned two men, Mr. Takashi Yamaba and Mr. Kazukata Yamashita to run with Brian and me for the entire 26.2 miles! They did not carry cameras. It was their job to follow us and alert the news crew along the course for possible interviews. I felt bad because Takashi and Kazukata are 4 hour marathoners and they had to run really slowly with me. I know it is hard when you cannot run your own pace because it changes your natural gait.
Tokyo Marathon was a very emotional for me. Ten years ago I ran the New York City Marathon. It is every runner’s dream to be in that race, but it was a nightmare for me. I was newly diagnosed and I fell almost a dozen times. I had to run with my head hanging down, looking at the ground, ready to catch myself in case I fell. That was the day I realized I had a serious disease and I ran with a heavy heart because I felt defeated.
Tokyo Marathon is similar to New York City. It is one of the “Big Six” and everyone wants to run it. The course takes you through diverse neighborhoods with temples and cheering crowds along the way. Brian and I felt like we were part of something big. I was able to run with my head held high and enjoy the marathon without that nagging fear of falling. It was redemption!
My running norm now includes a heavy leg, a numb foot and a weak hand. However, at this marathon, I did not experience any MS pain like electric shocks or burning feet. Brian had to help me open my Gu packets and Takashi had to flag down a medic on a bicycle for Vaseline. My right knee was screaming at me the last 10 kilometers, but I managed to push through and be happy!
One thing I wish I could improve about my marathons is to shut off my bladder! I always have to pee in the middle of the race. In the case of Tokyo, my one break added 25 minutes to our finishing time. We had to run 300 meters off the course, stand in line behind 33 people for two port-a-potties, then run 300 meters back to the marathon! Normally, I would pee behind a bush, but I did have Nippon TV watching me and public urination (even during a marathon) is not tolerated. The toilet facilities were grossly lacking and the complaints were made known in the newspapers the next day.
Brian and I also had our own cheering squad! George; the President of JMSS Mr. Hiroyuki Mizutani; and representatives from Sanyei Corporation: Mr. Yoshirhiro Yoneda, Mr. Akira Ishikawa, Mrs. Emiko Saito and Mrs. Fuzuki Yuge cheered for us at three spots along the course and met us at the end. We had our own entourage! One concern, though, was that I was stinky and sweaty and hugging everyone at the end. Phew!
Speaking of being stinky, our hotel room, although small, had the most amazing bathing room. There was a huge shower next to the bathtub for washing your body clean. The bathtub was reserved for soaking after showering. It is brilliant! I have always wondered why people take baths. It is gross to wallow in dirty water! It was nice to have a calming soak after the marathon!