Birthdays and bum knees

Some of you know that last Friday was my birthday. Thanks for all the e-cards, well wishes, and suggestive videos that many of you sent me.

Given my location and living situation, it would’ve been very easy for me to celebrate with a can of Chef Lonely Heart’s Soup for One and a good, hearty cry, but even in Japan, my friends are too good for that. My supervisor stopped by with some cookies, and later, two friends drove down and we went out for Chinese at the only non-Japanese restaurant in Kazusa. (It is, of course, still owned, operated, and staffed entirely by Japanese people.)

We had a good time, but I was saving my big fun for the next day: a nice, early morning bus ride to the orthopedic hospital in Aino to have an MRI taken of my knee. You may remember that I struggled through a marathon last November, and well, unfortunately the struggle didn’t end at the finish line. My left knee, which swelled after the race, has remained inflamed for the last three months, despite my efforts to rest more and run less. It doesn’t stop me from running–I was able to run in the Hanto Ekiden last month–but it slows me down and makes training difficult and uncomfortable.

Finally, two weeks ago, I caved and went to see a doctor at the hospital in neighboring Kuchinotsu. Amazingly, he spoke English relatively well, but unfortunately, he wasn’t able to take an MRI because they don’t have a large enough machine on-site (“For brain only,” he said). Instead, he referred to me the bigger and far less convenient hospital in Aino, a town in Unzen City about 90 minutes away.

I don’t really understand how hospitals work in Japan. Specifically, none of them seem to operate in the evenings or on holidays, and on weekends they’ve only got hours during the morning on Saturday. Now, this can’t be the whole picture, since sometimes people do need emergency medical care at off-peak hours. But at least around here, if you want non-emergency service and you’re a working person, the options are pretty limited.

This explains both my 90 minute bus ride on Saturday morning and the large crowd I found upon arrival. Despite this, I didn’t have to wait long to be seen, though my good fortune ended there. Only one of the nurses spoke English, but she seemed busy with other matters, so I was left to play word association games with the other nurses and doctors.

What I figured out immediately was that, despite the fact that I had come specifically to use their MRI machine, there would be no MRI that day. This was frustrating, since I had asked the doctor in Kuchinotsu whether I needed an appointment at Aino, and he had said no, instead giving me a letter in Japanese to present on my behalf. If this was meant to be some kind of all-access, orthopedic backstage pass, our man in Kuchinotsu may not have quite the pull he thinks he does.

Rather than taking an MRI, they set me up to take some ordinary pictures of the knee, perhaps hoping that I wouldn’t know the difference. Then, I made an appointment to have the actual MRI, though not for another two weeks. Then, I was told I would have to make a third trip back the following week in order to have the physical examination. So my Saturdays for the next month are just about booked solid.

However, it wasn’t all bad. On the bus, there were no copperhead snakes underneath my seat, nor any other venomous animals. Also, because my stay was relatively brief (the hospital closes at noon on Saturdays), I didn’t contract a staph infection. So there’s some upside for you.

As I was waiting to pay for my visit–which was pretty cheap, thanks to Japan’s universal¬† health care, another plus–I thought about all the friends I have who work or are studying to work in hospitals. There are a lot of them, and for good reason. The health care industry in America and worldwide just keeps growing, and in an economy where good jobs are scarce, you’d have to be mental to overlook it entirely.

No surprise then that my friends in health care are among the shrewdest and most practical people I know. And not only are they working in a profitable, interesting field, they’re doing work that helps people, the kind of work that a person can feel good about. And yet.

How do they do it? Who among us has ever wanted to go to a hospital? I’m not one of those people who gets queasy around old people, or sick people, or at the sight of blood. It’s got nothing to do with that. I’m talking about the endless waiting and worrying and nightmarish bureaucratic maneuvering that every trip to a hospital seems to entail. Just an hour or two in a hospital is enough to fill me with rage, frustration, fear and disappointment, all floating around and waiting to be misdirected at someone. Usually, I’m civil enough to keep these feelings at bay, but then I try to spend as little time in hospitals as possible.

And so, without making this too much like an end-of-the-episode voice-over, kudos to those people who can spend 80 or 90 hours a week there. Why you do it–and I know for certain some reasons are nobler than others–matters less than that you do it, because I know I couldn’t.

  • After leaving Aino (woo-hoo!), I went over to Mt. Unzen, where I walked around the jigoku (literally translates as “Hell”), where underground hot-springs bubble up to the surface and spew massive amounts of sulfurous smoke into the air. The sight is pretty wild, although without the smell, you don’t get the full experience. I didn’t have my camera, but I’ll be making a return trip soon, so pictures to come.
  • Post-jigoku, I met some friends at an onsen, where I soaked the hospital stress away. Unzen boasts some of the most famous onsens in Japan, and while I don’t fully understand the salubrious geological cocktail brewing in the bathwater, it felt mighty good. The evening culminated afterward at dinner, where we celebrated my birthday with a Reese’s toast, the PB cups procured for me by a friend at considerable difficulty from the Little America Town at Sasebo Navel Base.
  • Next weekend is the birthday present I’m giving to myself: a trip with some friends up to Tokyo to see men bloody each other at UFC 144. I won’t say anything more about that here because it’s sure to be a post of its own.

Once again, thanks to everyone who made me feel like America wasn’t so far away on my birthday. And remember to always, always make an appointment, even when the doctor says you don’t need one.

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Photogrifters

Look, alright. I wasn’t born yesterday, you feel me? I’ve been around the block, not just once but a few times, real slow-like, cause I take my time with it. Ain’t in no hurry, ya heard? I seen some shit in my day, some real shit with these here baby blues, the kind of shit you can’t never unsee.

Act like I’m some doe-eyed babe-in-the-woods, you gonna be sorry you did. Don’t bring that greenhorn stuff around here–baby, this the Matterhorn, and that’s 14,692 feet of pain about to rain down on ya, I’m sayin like some Biblical shit. Don’t be buildin no ark, cause Noah, baby, this ain’t gonna be no flood. Apocalypstrophe, chimerageddon–they’re gonna have to invent words to describe the hurt you got comin.

See, chief, doormats don’t come in my size. They don’t make wool thick enough to blind these eagle eyes, not from this bullshit, not in ten lifetimes. You try and twist my arm, I’m a break yours off and sleep like a baby to boot. Mess with this bull and you’re gonna taste a lot worse than horns.

For real, though, I’ve seen scams and tried to hatch a few myself. But there are scams, like three-card monte or loaded dice, and then there’s straight-up, out ‘n’ out, bald-faced, make-no-bones-about-it, old school, snatch-and-grab robbery.

Introducing the thieves at Photo-RIX. Today, I got a mailer from them, alerting me to the fact that pictures of the Huis Ten Bosch Marathon had been posted online. Fantastic, I thought, and cruised on over to the site. Normally, big races that hire photographers to document the event will have a website where you can scope out the pics and order copies if you so desire. In this respect, Photo-RIX is no different. Except that ordinarily, these sites will allow you to download low-res copies of the shots, often with the name of the company digitally embossed across the photo as an incentive to buy a pristine copy.

And that’s all well and good. I understand, these companies have to make money, and they can’t just give their product away for free. But here’s where the snake oil merchants at Photo-RIX have one-upped the competition. Their site allows you to view the low-res images for free but has a bunch of devilishly clever restrictions in place to keep you from so much as copying an image. This is despite the fact that they advertise that you can distribute pictures for free via email.

As it turns out, what that means is that once you buy a digital copy of the image, then you are allowed to email it to people without incurring additional charges. Oh, you’ll let me email my own pictures to people? Well, fuck you very much. The digital image–not even an actual, physical photograph on overpriced glossy paper, but the image file itself–costs about $20. Twenty. Dollars. For a fucking jpeg. Not to mention they probably tack an “e-shipping and handling” delivery surcharge on at the end.

Since Photo-RIX has implemented maximum security measures, I can’t show you any of the pictures, which are pretty painful to look at anyway. Still, it’s a damn shame. But before you say, “Oh, come on, it’s not that much money,” no. Just no. This isn’t about photographs, it’s about principles. I’m talking about drawing a line in this sand. Across this line, you DO NOT, and I’ll turn down a free Dunkin’ Donuts Blueberry Waffle Breakfast Sandwich (with maple-flavored sausage) before I pay $20 for a bunch of pixels that sit idly on my screen like tweens loitering in a mall food court.

Photo-RIX can go to hell.

A weekend in Sasebo (unlike any other)

Friday, November 18th. Resol Hotel, Sasebo City.

Huis Ten Bosch (pronounced HOUSE-TEN-BOSH) is, by all accounts, a strange and wonderful place. Named after one of the official residences of the Dutch Royal Family, and reputedly modeled brick for brick after actual places in Holland, Huis Ten Bosch bills itself as a resort, amusement park, and multicultural destination all rolled into one.

The Japanese, and especially those in Nagasaki, have a curious relationship with the Dutch. They were among the first Europeans to visit Japan and establish trade relations with the Japanese. As such, they were also partly responsible for introducing Christianity to Japan, where it gained enough of a following that during the 1630s, the Tokugawa shogunate implemented the policy of sakoku, or “locked country,” closing Japan’s borders to foreigners for some 200 years. Not only were foreigners forbidden to enter, but Japanese were forbidden to leave, under penalty of death. Though there were a multitude of reasons for this decision, it was at least partly a response to the spread of Christianity, which was interpreted as a possible threat to the shogun’s hegemony. The one exception to this policy was in Nagasaki City, where the port remained open to Dutch ships.

Of course, this limited trade was strictly regulated, and it wasn’t as if Dutch sailors could drunkenly wander ashore as they pleased. In 1634, an artificial island was built in Nagasaki Bay specifically for use by Dutch traders. Throughout sakoku, this island–known as “Dejima” (exit island)–was the only place in all of Japan that foreigners were allowed to live. Today, “Dejima Wharf” is a rather trendy waterfront district in downtown Nagasaki City, where cafes, bars and restaurants sit beside notices commemorating the city’s cosmopolitan history. The irony in this is, I believe, lost on many of the city’s residents.

But, sufficed to say, there is a rather considerable Dutch influence in Nagasaki, much more so than any other European culture. And nowhere is that plainer than Huis Ten Bosch, the pinnacle of Japanese interest in Dutch culture. Like the present-day Dejima, this is sort of ironic, in that it is a carefully constructed replica of a Dutch town wanting only for realism a Dutch inhabitant or two. As far as I could tell, there are no Dutch people in the employ of Huis Ten Bosch Co., Ltd. And it is somehow very Japanese to honor a foreign culture through mimicry and imitation. Huis Ten Bosch is quite a popular attraction within Japan, drawing visitors from around the country, but it’s funny to think that, for many Japanese, a fascination with Dutch culture takes inquisitive travelers to Sasebo instead of Amsterdam. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see enough of the place today to decide whether it comes off as silly and counterfeit or as a genuine homage to the Netherlands. My guess is that it’s probably somewhere in between.

But no matter how you feel about the authenticity of Huis Ten Bosch, everyone seems to agree that it is absolutely beautiful–ordinarily. I wouldn’t know, though, because every time I tried to look at a castle or windmill today, the image was distorted by light being refracted through the sheets of water that fell continuously from the sky. The forecast for tomorrow’s race is, unfortunately, more of the same. During a typical trip to Huis Ten Bosch, this would be disappointing, and kind of a buzzkill. During this particular trip to Huis Ten Bosch, the weather is of slightly greater concern, since–you know–I have to run 26.2 miles in it tomorrow.

The majesty of Huis Ten Bosch Hotel, diminished somewhat by the rain.

As far as the running goes, I’m a little worried about the weather, but otherwise I think my head is in the right place. I’m a team-sports guy at heart, so running still feels a little odd to me as a competitive endeavor. I expect to be nervous, but I’m not–there are no teammates to be let down, no family watching in the stands. This race feels especially weird because it is in every way the biggest I’ve run–and yet nobody (literally, nobody) I know is here to see it. On the one hand, that’s a shame, but at the same time, it’s kind of exhilarating to do something totally on your own as an individual. It’s somewhat liberating to know that, no matter what happens tomorrow, I’m the only one who will remember it.

Saturday, November 19th. Resol Hotel, Sasebo City.

First impression: I don’t care who you are–it is harder than you think it will be. Now, admittedly, I came into this race a little overconfident, cocky even. I’d run well in my previous races and assumed this wouldn’t be that different. This was a bad assumption. Running a marathon, I can now attest, is a different species of race. I’d had this notion, coming in, that running a marathon would be twice as hard as running a half-marathon. Twice as long, twice as hard. A year ago, I finished a half-marathon in 1:37 with plenty left in the tank, so I had a vision of a marathon as an extended version of that. Who knows, I might even have some fun with it? (HA!) I was wrong.

The weather, which had been forecast as awful, turned out to be excellent for running, cloudy but only the occasional drizzle of rain. Instead, it was the organization of the race that proved challenging. The Japanese are famous for their efficiency, but you wouldn’t have thought so being at the first ever Nagasaki International Marathon at Huis Ten Bosch. One basic necessity of any race site is a designated area for participants to put their things while they are running. And, foreseeing this need, the race organizers had set one up–a room on the third floor of a building, away from the starting line. This is already a puzzling choice from an efficiency standpoint, but it gets so much worse. Rather than having, say, separate rooms for men and women, or separate rooms for 10K and marathon participants, the race organizers had decided that everyone’s bags would go in the same room, three floors up. This, too, is baffling, but wait–there’s more! For an event of this size, you would expect there to be a dozen or more people checking in bags, so that multiple people can be processed at once. Shockingly–and, truly, if you’ve ever been present at a road race, this is shocking–the organizers decided to have everyone stand in a single-file line en route to the bag-check room. When I arrived, fully half-an-hour before the start of the race, the line snaked all the way around the floor, with some three-to-four-hundred people already waiting and dozens more showing up every minute. Now, single-file lines appeal to the Japanese because they are orderly, but remember: this race had over 5,000 entrants, and every single one of them had a bag.

So, dutifully, I did what everyone else did and got in line. And five minutes passed. And ten minutes passed. And twenty-five minutes passed. And here I am, still standing behind at least 50 to 60 people, with untold others standing calmly in line behind me, with the starting gun only minutes away. Finally, in my best Japanese, I raise this issue to the man in front of me. He, too, is running the marathon, and like me, is concerned that we will miss the starting gun. But despite sharing my concerns, he stands placidly in front of me, knowing full well that waiting to check his bag properly will mean missing the start of the race. I asked him if it was okay to just drop my bag in the corner of the hallway, as I had seen a few others do. “Maybe,” was his measured reply. Such is the power of the Japanese commitment to order and following directions. Although acknowledging that the single-file line was poorly planned, and realizing that it will be detrimental to his very purpose for being here (running the race), and conceding that there is “maybe” another, unsanctioned alternative that will not prove detrimental, still my Japanese associate continued to stand in line, alongside at least a hundred or more of his countrymen.

But I’m not Japanese. With four minutes to the gun, I excused myself, stuck my bag behind a trash can, and sprinted down three flights of stairs. I had to ask directions to the starting line, because, you know, it’s obviously not near the bag-check building. I arrive with barely a minute to spare, stuck behind thousands of racers and without any time to stretch properly or warm up. (I had done some stretching in line, but it isn’t the same). Luckily, the IcyHot had been amply applied, and I felt loose enough not to worry. I believe, however, that the absence of a real warm-up contributed to what happened later on in the day.

The gun blew, but I didn’t hear it with my earbuds in. Didn’t matter–it had only taken me a minute to get in the zone. I shot out of the gate confident, feeling good, and running well. As in my previous races, I made a beeline to the edge of the road, since that is the only way to cut through the throngs early on. I took the first mile fast by design to establish some forward position, and my plan had been to taper off to my target pace after that. But I was feeling strong–too strong–and the adrenaline was pumping, so I made the decision to keep cooking along ahead of my projected splits. I say “decision,” but really, it was the absence of a decision. I was running fast and just kept running fast–only slowing down would’ve constituted a (smart) decision.

At the time, even as I was not-making-a-decision, this seemed a little ballsy, a gamble that my conditioning was good enough to push the pace early without cutting my legs out from under me during the home stretch. In retrospect, for a first-time marathoner with exactly zero training runs of over 20 miles, this was unbelievably stupid. And, while overestimating my fitness was my own damn fault, I do believe that the location of the race played a role in stoking my zeal. See, I’m used to running in miles, and pacing myself accordingly. In Japan, though, you don’t have mile markers–you have kilo markers. This may seem a semantic difference, but the fact is, if you aren’t used to running kilos, it alters your perception of the distance. Not only does it fuck with your splits–“Let’s see, I just ran a 5K in 25:09, which translates to a mile split of…”–but just from a visual standpoint, the markers come too quickly, and you think you’ve gone farther than you actually have.

At first, my gutsy strategy seemed to be working just fine. I cruised through the first 10K, taking it down in 48 minutes and change. (That’s about 7:50 per mile. And, see, isn’t that a much more useful way to think about it? Harder to do the math and make adjustments mid-run, though). I got to the half-way point in 1:45, just eight minutes off my half-marathon time from the year before (mile split about 8:02). This, finally, sent up some warning signs, and I slowed my pace a bit, but I still felt good. Halfway done in 1:45! I was on a 3:30 pace, which was beyond my wildest aspirations. And, even if I slowed down, I’d bought myself an extra half-hour to play with for the back end. I could run 2:15 on the second trip and still make it in under four hours.

Except, although I didn’t know it yet, the damage was already done. I slowed down, first to my target pace, then lagging a bit behind. My legs got heavy, my hamstrings tightened, my neck–who knew your neck hurt so much during a marathon?–began to spasm. Still, I was peeling off the mileage, though less effortlessly than before. I crossed the 32 kilometer mark (20 miles) at almost exactly 3:00, putting me right on the nine-minute mile split I’d targeted in advance. I was still on pace for a sub-4:00 race.

But I wasn’t, not really. That nine-minute pace was an illusion. I hadn’t run a sub-nine mile in over an hour. In fact, I’d spent the last hour giving back the extra time I’d fought for during my opening gamble, and now I’d exhausted it entirely. With 6.2 miles left to go.

And then, right on cue, I hit the wall. My longest training run had been 20 miles, and I’d felt pretty shitty at the end, but had rationalized that on race day, I’d be better fueled, and have extra adrenaline to keep me going. My body did not buy into this rationalization. I struggled up to the aid station at 32.5 kilometers, slowing to basically a walk as I got badly needed water. I drank the water standing still, and when I finished it, found that my legs didn’t want to start again.

You hear about “hitting the wall” a lot in reference to endurance sports, but in team sports, it’s pretty rare. I can remember hitting the wall once at a frisbee tournament, a grueling Sunday at Southerns junior year. It was brutally hot, and early in the day, one of our best players suffered a serious injury, leaving the rest of us to pick up the slack. By the final game of the tournament–the championship, against a strong Dartmouth team–I felt nauseous and disoriented going in. I could only play one point at a time, and when I did, I got absolutely run through by the guy I was covering. I clanged a wide-open score, reaching for a throw over my head with one hand because it seemed too difficult to lift both. Afterwards, at the team dinner, I was too nauseous to eat, and sat staring at my food for 15 minutes before taking a bite.

But even then, during that Dartmouth game, I could take a break after each point, or rely on my teammates to pick me up on the field. In a race, when you hit the wall, nobody picks you up. It happened with breathtaking swiftness. I’d been plugging along, slowly but surely, and then my body shutdown. Every muscle in both legs locked simultaneously, everything not-working suddenly and at once with watch-like precision. It was as if every muscle in my body had been plotting clandestinely against me.

“Hey, calves?”

“Yeah, thighs?”

“What would you guess, just for shits, was his longest training run?”

“Oh, I dunno… I’d have to say around 20 miles, for shits.”

“Yeah, that sounds about right, doesn’t it? Yo, hamstrings–how far you think he’s gone right now?”

“I would, ah, have to say, you know, in the neighborhood of somewheres around 20.3 miles.”

“Whaddaya say, boys? Wanna teach him we’re not to be fucked with?”

Apparently, the consensus was yes, because I stood on the side of road for about three minutes stretching and trying to gather myself. Though no one was watching, and plenty of people were walking or worse by this point in the race, this was embarrassing for me. I had subscribed to the idea that I could make my body subordinate to my will if I absolutely had to. If my training could get me close, I would be able to will myself not to stop. I was less than 6 miles from the tape! The hard part, I thought–the tedious, endless middle mileage–was behind me. This was the glory part, the push for the finish line.

I was wrong. The hardest part of a marathon is the last few miles because–and this seems intuitive, doesn’t it?–to get to those, you have to have finished all the tedious, endless middle mileage. And I was wrong in believing that I could will myself not to stop. I had, however, put myself in the unenviable position of having to prove that I could will myself to keep going.

If you think about it, this all makes sense, but during a marathon, you don’t think. At least I didn’t. This came as a surprise to me. I expected my mind to wander, to note little aspects of the course or scenery or my state of mind, and to be able to transcribe them afterwards. No. By the 17th mile or so, all I could think about was the pain, and how much my body wanted this to be over, and how I had to focus on putting one foot in front of the other. That is all I thought about–these thoughts crushed any other incipient notions about scenery or state of mind. During a marathon, if you are in the state I was in, there is nothing to divert your attention from the pain, and the pain of knowing it isn’t over yet.

At the end of the my three meditative minutes, I resolved myself to start running again, and I did, albeit slowly. I’m proud to say I ran just about every one of the 42,195 meters, minus a few pulling in and out of aid stations down the stretch. The last three miles were an absolute war, my body demanding with each step that I stop, my mind telling me that stopping would only make things worse. At this point, I was technically still running, although at a pace barely faster than a normal person’s walk. I passed some people who were actually walking and people who were kneeling on the side of the road. I was passed by savvier runners who had something left in the tank. At the start of a marathon, every other runner feels like an adversary, an opponent who doesn’t actually oppose you but somehow stands between you and your goal. That changes mid-race and by the end you empathize with everyone on the course.

In the last three miles, when you know the end is coming but are too ravaged to take pleasure in it, you mount these little, feeble charges, where you resolve to finish strong, dammit, but they only last 50 meters or so before your body intervenes. At the aid stations, you drink the water because your body demands it to function, even though it will slosh about your stomach as you run and make you nauseous. The music in your headphones, carefully chosen to pump you up and rally your strength, feels obnoxious and mocking, because there is no strength left and nothing to rally. You are driven only by the desire to finish and have it all come crashingly to an end.

At the 40 kilometer marker, with just over a mile to go and already on the wrong side of 4:00, I muster whatever reserves I had hidden in the remote and recessed parts of my body and redirect it all to my legs. For the first time in almost 10 miles, I manage to increase my pace, though dropping from a 12:30 mile to a 10:45 mile hardly feels like a victory. Inside of 1,000 meters, I try to sprint and nearly collapse. Finally, mercifully, after 4:18:37, I crossed the finish line. (My gun time is listed as 4:20:36, although that’s less accurate, since it includes the time it takes you to reach the starting line. Which, for those of us stuck in single-file, third-floor lines, was considerable).

Ultimately, I’m glad to have done it, although I’m a little disappointed with my time because I know I ran an ugly and ill-conceived race. But I learned some valuable lessons to apply next time, and in spite of the account you’ve just read, there will be a next time, if only to prove to myself that I can run a sub-4:00 with adequate training (ie. more than 7 weeks of it), and a smarter approach to the race.

PS. Thanks to everyone who wrote-in with suggestions on how to avoid nipple-chafing! Although vaseline is apparently hard to acquire in Japan, athletic turned tape out to be sufficient by itself.

Make ready the nips, Admiral.