All the way around

What it's like when you enter the Kyoto Marathon loop

Phairat, Nampetch, Napassaporn and Sarawut at the finish line in front of the Heian Shrine.

It is hardly a surprise that despite being among the 10 most expensive marathons in the world, the Kyoto Marathon is the eighth-most-registered. Perhaps the picturesque mountains, free strawberries from spectators and smiling monks lend a hand. With 16,000 runners from around the world landing in this old capital and another 15,000 volunteers all along the 42km route, it's an event of a grand scale that sees the whole city on shutdown with people coming together to revitalise Kyoto through sport, especially since the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011. After its devastating impact, the annual running competition has been the city's global promotion strategy to present the wonders and green environment of Kyoto to the world -- all in a most organised and orderly manner.

Last month, CW-X, the sportswear arm of underwear authority Wacoal -- one of the main co-sponsors of the Kyoto Marathon this year -- flew in a squad of four Thai runners to participate in the event. A week of hanging out with these iron champions in Kyoto, pre- and post-marathon, provided insight into how the world of running fanatics functions.

"They aren't the best runners with the best times, but they are chosen because they're the most fitting personalities," explains Kanchit Srivicha, Thailand's CW-X brand manager. "Fu was picked because he gives to society by donating through sporting events, Ratchie because he is good rep for the younger demographic, Nam because she is an athletic role model who also teaches yoga, and Dr Eem for being the first Thai woman to conquer Mount Everest."

CW-X definitely picked the right people as brand ambassadors. This is an extremely energetic crew that genuinely insists they'd rather jog up the four flights of stairs while the rest wait for the grilled-wagyu restaurant's lift to arrive. They're also the ones who have introduced the Thai entourage to back-massaging machines during that one free hour of shopping -- a not-to-be-missed buy for a great price, one often overlooked among the clutter of frivolous fashion and Hello Kitty key chains. Heck, at around 7,000 yen (2,200 baht) a pop, they're actually cheaper than the marathon entry fee itself, which is 12,000 yen for locals and 15,000 for foreigners.

President of Thai Wacoal Thamarat Chokwatana and marketing manager Intira Narksakul cheering on the sidelines.

Although extremely seasoned in marathons, trails, triathlons and mountain-climbing, this is the first Kyoto Marathon for all four runners: Sarawut "Fu" Thuarob, Phairat "Ratchie" Varasin, Nampetch "Nam" Porntharukcharoen and the dentist Dr Napassaporn "Eem" Chumnarnsit. Every sporting event has its own regimen for preparation, but for the youngest of the team, Phairat, the Kyoto track is obviously not as imposing as longer routes he has run in the past, such as France's Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc.

"I actually like those 100km runs more because they require more calculating and planning on how to manage your energy," the 34-year-old explains. "There, you run up and down hills, but with Kyoto it's all flat land, so it's about being able to maintain your speed the whole time. It's just a breath away!"

Sarawut Thuarob.

The playful native of Chanthaburi dismisses a 42km run as a walk in the park. For the unfit (like yours truly), it was also slightly horrifying to see him and the others merely wearing CW-X's muscle-support leggings, a long-sleeve top and those lightweight, paper-thin windbreakers in almost zero-degree weather in the countryside hills of Omihachiman. Yet it's all part of the preparation, as getting the body used to the cold weather for a few days before the actual competition is a necessary reset according to the dentist of the gang.

The cold weather is no small factor to deal with. Napassaporn says: "You need to know what weather you'll be facing and need to be prepared. For here, I'm going to wear long sleeves, long pants, gloves and a windbreaker. It's extremely cold when you have to stand and wait before the marathon starts, but when you start running, your body heats up, and if it gets hot, you just need to unzip or zip up your jacket. The cold weather is good, though, because it's easier to run longer."

If you don't freeze and flop out first, the benefit of running in the cold is it takes longer for one to get tired. But too-cold can be uncomfortable, for Nampetch, the guru and yoga expert who readily dishes out advice for those without the know-how. On the night before the big day, the hallway in between rooms at the Westin Miyako had turned into a mini yoga studio with Nampetch leading her fellow brand ambassadors in stretches to relax the muscles before competition. For someone who has been running for 15 years, and competed in triathlons, Nampetch believes the perks of also swimming and biking are the recovery they offer from running.

"You need to be able to not die the next day," she says, regarding the training for any sporting event. "If it's a 100km you're running, you would need to be able to run 50 or 60km every day. You need to manage your training so you're peaking when it's event day. Don't load and go to every single marathon. Just do a few each year, because that's all your body can take."

The team is off to bed at 8pm, since the race starts at 9am sharp. For professional runners, their eyes may only be on the finish line and trying to make a good time, but for runners who can afford the seconds and minutes to take in the grand sights throughout the route, it is a complete string of historical landmarks and natural wonders that make up the trail -- making the Kyoto course among the prettiest in Japan. Astonishingly, a large chunk of the participants consists of senior runners, the oldest being an 83-year-old Japanese man. Participants ran past seven Unesco-approved temples, one of which features waving monks standing around all day to cheer the runners. Other beauties to behold along the route include palaces, serene mountains, forests, riverbanks and the old charm of the actual city, giving itchy feet even to this sluggish writer, before ending at Heian Shrine, with its grand, bright-orange gates.

Another Thai runner Adisak Tangyingyong.

Most exhilarating for Sarawut was seeing flowering blossoms on the trees while running past Kyoto Botanical Garden, as well as actually running into Japanese comedian Kenji Moriwaki. Our crew obviously did not realise the magnitude of this man who stopped by to chitchat, until more onlookers started to crowd around. With his heart filled, his belly was also filled throughout his running time of 3hr 53min, as Sarawut was more than happy to enjoy everything onlookers offered to the runners -- from bananas to strawberries to chocolate to bread to moji. But that's not even the best part. For him, it's the co-operative spirit the whole city emits.

"I love the atmosphere -- what you see here are kids, old people, the handicapped and even teens all coming out to cheer. There was hardly any distance throughout the whole route without anyone cheering. People who weren't even official volunteers gave out water and spray for muscle relief. They've pooled everything for this to happen, and it's, like, their culture. Instead of complaining that this is causing such hassle and traffic, they think, 'Hey, might as well come out and cheer the runners and have some fun'. They're all in front of their houses to wave and cheer 'Fighto!' and all this stuff you don't understand, but you can see it in their eyes and body language. "

16,000 runners at the starting line at Nishikyogoku Athletic Stadium.

Ninnaji Temple, home of the cheering monks.

Monks' sign spreading the idea of the circle of reconstruction and peace of mind.

The finish line at Heian Shrine.

Runners along the Kamo River.


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