IWAKUNI, Japan - “Running is a freeing feeling, you get to let your inner self out,” said Master Gunnery Sgt. Kevin W. Layne, the maintenance chief of Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 12. “There’s no wrong or right, there’s no fast or slow. It doesn’t matter who is first or last, running is against yourself. You set goals for yourself and then you go out and attain them, that’s what running is about. Everybody is a runner, they just don’t know it yet.”
Layne told me this after completing this year’s Hagi Castle Race in Hagi. It was the second half marathon I’ve ran with Layne and the second half marathon I’ve ever ran. If you had asked me what I thought about running after the first one, I would have laughed and limped away.
However, something clicked around the seventh kilometer into my recent competition. Running double-digit miles at one time did not seem crazy anymore, now it sounded fun.
The race day started like my previous one: waking up before the rest of the world on a Sunday, packing my gear for the trip and then heading to IronWorks Gym.
Both of my races took place in Hagi, so I knew to expect about a three-hour bus ride. It was well worth the time though; the western side of Japan has beautiful scenery for a long run.
Check-in for the race was outside a baseball stadium, where if you looked through the right corridors, an inflatable arch with the word “goal” could be seen at its crest.
The actual race started at the bottom of a hill just a short walk from the stadium. The hill was something I knew I would have to scale on the return route, but it was far from being a concern then.
A loud crack resonated from the starting gun, followed by the steady flow of participants beginning their run.
The track twisted and turned throughout the town. It took me down back roads, up the main road, which passed by the waterfront, and right in the middle of a shopping district. Onlookers covered every turn and long straight away, waving and cheering at all the racers.
It was that admiration, that applause and occasional high-five that boosted my adrenaline. Knowing people were watching me, one of the few Americans in sea of Japanese runners, kept me pushing myself.
It is chances like this that make my experience in Japan even more important. The other station residents and I could have been the first ever interaction some Japanese there had with an American or a Marine.
I’ve lived aboard station for more than two years now and if there’s one thing I’ve picked up on in my time in Japan, it’s that as long as Mai Tajima, SemperFit recreation specialist, has her say in it, there will always be chances like this.
I spared Tajima an interview for this race, seeing how I’ve found myself talking to her for every single event I’ve covered where she has holds the reins.
“I’m here to bring Americans and Japanese together,” she would say. And she has.
Tajima has bridged the communication gap between the two cultures every excursion she makes out in Japan. From bringing Japanese on base, to multi-hour drives to places like Hagi and Tokusagamine, a mountain race, she has successfully melded two nations together with the simple joy of running.
Like I said, it was a little after I passed the 7-kilometer marker that the thought crossed my mind, all I wanted to do was keep running. The pain had just started in my lungs and I could feel the muscles in my legs starting to build up lactic acid.
There was something miraculous about that moment though. Through all the pain slowly building up in my body, I knew it would hurt more to give up and stop trying than it would to draw every ounce of effort I could and finish the race.
It was with this conviction in my mind that kept me chugging along with every new pang and throb in my knees and ankles.
It was around the 15-kilometer mark where I started to feel a blood blister forming on the inside of my right foot.
It was hard to take my mind off of it. Why just my left foot? Do I run funny? Every thought about the pain slowed me down though, so it wasn’t something I could afford.
And then the pain disappeared. It was right before the 18-kilometer marker that my foot stopped hurting. From the way it faded, I assumed whatever blister existed had popped itself.
No more than three kilometers left, I tried to pick up speed, but I couldn’t lift my feet any faster or farther.
I ran two more kilometers and then I recognized exactly where I was. I looked off to the right and saw the baseball stadium. I was right near the start of this arduous trek. But, with the excitement of being so close, also came the challenge of what I knew was next.
The last kilometer of the race ushered us up that hill, the one I tried to forget. I charged through the baseball field parking lot and across the outskirts of the stadium. More onlookers covered the sides of the running path, almost as if they were funneling me to the stadium entrance.
I broke the plane into the stadium and found myself starting on the right side of the outfield. Dead grass covered the last stretch of the racing trail, which circled across the outfield and ended at the start of the infield.
No more than a few meters separated me from my goal. My eyes glanced over to the clock next to the finish line for a split second before I realized that it didn’t even matter to me, I was about to finish my second big race, that’s all that mattered.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that running the half marathon was comfortable, and it definitely wasn’t easy, but I think that was the allure of it. It’s more or less like signing up for the Marine Corps, who ever said they joined because it was the easiest?