Yesterday was race day, an unexpected event in my life to say the least. Up until six months ago I had never run more than about eight-hundred metres in one go, and that had been back in the days of high school German teachers-slash-basketball coaches yelling from the edge of the rugby field that you all run like a bunch of girls as we plodded along in the rain, grassy mud filling my black Nike high-tops and splattering the backs of my legs, trying to keep up with Kelsey Jones who – as rumour had it – had lost her virginity three years earlier with one of the seniors and was way too muscular to be fifteen.
Having opted from a fairly young age in favour of lofty, intellectually superior pursuits of the mind – such as reading Kafka, writing poetry to the tune of being deeply misunderstood, partaking in the occasional psychedelic and philosophizing with a peer or two about important metaphysical questions like what if what I see as green, you see as red? (eventually declaring all to be ‘trippy’ and making our way to the Seven Eleven on a Pixie Stix mission), and lying on my bedroom floor staring up at a poster of Denis Rodman while listening to Hole and feeling eased by my decision that Courtney Love was also, in her way, misunderstood – I had little respect for pursuits of the body and therefore put in little effort or dedication when I joined the school track team. Despite the fact that I was a member of the team for three years, and that due to my long legs all coaches and teammates had high hopes for me, I consistently finished in the bottom half and eventually stopped being invited to the out-of-town meets.
In short, my self concept as a runner has been, historically, low.
So, besides several brief bouts of gym-going during my university years and a fairly solid two-year stint of biweekly Hatha Yoga classes at the Stanley Street Y, there has been nothing in my life over the past decade of reading and concert-going and open-mic-attending and lying-on-the-floor-music-listening that has prepared me for a day when, at 28 years old, I would voluntarily pay ¥1000 to race against others for a distance of ten-thousand metres.
My strict mind-over-matter mentality began to shift once I began to live with a completely different type individual than I was used to consorting with; the type of individual who views it as an acceptable challenge to sign up for an Ironman triathlon, thereby committing to months of training for a thirteen hour day of swimming, biking, and marathon running; the type of individual who, quite reasonably, does not view it as an acceptable challenge to battle the texts of Faulkner and Joyce and Chaucer. How, I ignorantly wondered as I searched the house for his nonexistent collection of novels, can this man be happy? And what, as I searched through his iPod for his nonexistent collection of indie post-rock, does he do? My curiosity got the better of me, and before I knew it I was not only jogging first two, then five, then ten kilometres each morning, but I was timing myself doing it. I even learned to use the lap function on my gaudy new digital Indiglo rubber-strapped Ironman Timex. (It was on sale, that’s all…) Suddenly I had an hour each morning to myself; a time to meditate, exorcise blocks, and work away gradually at that little belly roll that I’d sworn in the past – in an act of morally-superior bodily-transcendence – never really bothered me.
The race was to be held at the older side of the newly renovated Tokushima airport in Matsushige, at the base of the Japanese Self Defense Force. We rolled up, a van full of expats representing Canada, Australia, and the US, at eight-thirty in the morning and were stopped at the entrance by military officials. We showed our race cards to an austere looking woman in fatigues and I felt less like I was arriving to do a Fun Run than to be enlisted for some sort of covert aviation mission. Our cards were checked and our faces briefly read before we were granted entry, and were ushered down a narrow road flanked by far too many smiling JSDF men in white rain ponchos wielding neon orange batons like Lightsabers and coaxing us toward the parking area which could clearly be seen to be two-hundred metres ahead. There was some brief speculation about what the world would be like if Japan had won the war.
The next check point was the bag check, at which point I approached a man sitting behind a table under a tent and had a little pang of anxiety when I realized that the setup was remarkably similar to the immigration tents at the border between North and South Korea; a border where one definitely does not want to be accused of identity fraud because one’s Canadian passport bears the words British Columbia, but the required ID card for entry to the north had cut the long province name short, leaving it simply at British and thus creating a somewhat severe disparity. This man however just looked at the exterior of the bag I placed before him, smiled warmly and wished me good luck.
We checked in and got our numbers in a hangar, of course, and this is where it became clear that the race would consist of two laps of one of the runways. It wasn’t clear until just before the race began, however, that the new airport still employed the old runways and that airport traffic would continue as usual, passenger and cargo planes alike taking off and landing on the adjacent runway. There was some shock expressed amongst the foreigners at the low level of security, and some discussion as to what it would take to get this close to an operating commercial passenger jet at any other airport we had respectively visited.
I pinned on number 3099 and changed into my short shorts and got looked at by the other women and tried not to feel self conscious about the fact that I would not be running in a cute matching leggings-skirt set but with my great white thighs exposed, or that I’d be running make-up-less, and at ten o’clock the recorded sound of a pistol quietly sounded through the air and we were off. And it went alright. Despite a bout of cramps, an untied shoelace, the stench of burning rubber from the activity on the other runway, and a deluge which formed great puddles and turned my shoes into sponges – bringing back memories of Herr Hoch hollering from the sidelines – I finished twentieth in fifty-six minutes; neither fast nor slow. I’m told this is a respectable time for a first timer, but all that really matters to me is that I finished. Really.
I’d completed my first 10km race at a Self Defense Forces base in Japan, been awarded with a sports drink and finisher’s certificate before I’d even begun, learned to see the merit in challenges physical as I cheered on all the runners who finished after me, and run beside aircraft on a runway, just like in the movies.