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Tokyo Legacy Half Marathon 2023 review
A new world-class race. Plus: Thoughts on running in the rain.
Tokyo is famous for its full marathon, one of the most prestigious in the world. But, until recently, it did not have a world-class half marathon. That changed in 2022 with the launch of the Tokyo Legacy Half Marathon, which took place for the second time in 2023 and is now slated to be an annual event in mid-October.
What instantly propels this new race to world-class status is that — like the flagship half marathons in Berlin, Boston, and New York — it is the progeny of the city’s full marathon. So it has instant pedigree and organizational street cred.
The “Legacy” name was chosen because its mission is to extend the legacy and momentum of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The Tokyo Marathon Foundation explains: “It is… our aim to create an inclusive society and consider, together with all the participants, a legacy that contributes to resolving social issues through charitable works via sports, support for sports for people with disabilities, and continuous training of volunteers and support for their activities.”
There are actually three events on the day. One is the regular half marathon. Another is a wheelchair half marathon. And the third is actually a full marathon, but not one open to ordinary runners. Instead, that event — called the Marathon Grand Championship — is limited to an elite field in which participants compete to get on the Japanese national team. I believe there were only 74 participants in 2023. That race went out ahead of the half, so that the marathon athletes were on their inbound home stretch passing by the outbound half runners in their first few miles.
Japan was among the last countries to lift COVID travel restrictions. So the first running of this race in 2022 was limited to residents of Japan. Thus, 2023 was the first time runners from other countries could take part. I felt privileged to be among the pioneers!
Registration starts in late April for charity runners and — for other categories — in May. The field is capped to 15,000 and general entry takes place via a ballot. So you need to register in the window allowed for ballot entries. This isn’t a race that has open, first-come registration until places are all filled.
Details of registration and the ballot arrangements can change from one year to the next, so I won’t try to summarize it all here, except to say that in 2023 there were different deadlines for different categories of runner — so you should check the website carefully. Fortunately, the site — and the event generally — caters well to English speakers. I would rate the quality of pre-race communications from the organizers as excellent.
But be prepared for possible disappointment. I’m not sure how many people entered the ballot in 2023, but I do know that not everyone got a place. There were, however, 2,000 charity places — I believe included in the 15,000 maximum — which may be worth keeping in mind if you are determined to secure a spot.
The entry fee in 2023 for those lucky to get a place in the regular ballot was 13,200 Yen, which was about $88 at the time of writing. As discussed shortly, that did not include a shirt, but it’s still pretty fair for a race of this sort.
In 2023, 11,488 runners actually crossed the finish line. That indicates quite a high proportion of no-shows. Wet weather — of which more shortly — may have contributed to this.
Expo and packet pick-up
The Expo and packet pick-up took place over the two days before the race at the Japan National Stadium, where the race itself begins and ends. The stadium was the flagship venue for the Tokyo Olympics.
Packet pick-up was pretty efficient. But it is one of those events where you absolutely need the QR code on your phone. In fact, you also need it on race day to enter the stadium as you make your way to the start. Paper copies don’t suffice apparently.
As noted earlier, the race entry doesn’t include a shirt (except for charity runners). But it does include a towel. In the weeks leading up to the event, the organizers sent out an email with details of how to order a limited number of ASICS race shirts available for mailing out ahead of the event. Unfortunately, shipping outside the U.S. was not available. And the alternative of arranging to order a shirt to be picked up at an ASICS store in Tokyo seemed a bit complicated.
So I was resigned to missing out on the shirt. But I was then pleased to find they did have a fairly small supply still available at the Expo when I got there on the Saturday morning. The main race shirt was orange and quite stylish in terms of its typography and overall design. It memorialized both the Legacy Half and the Marathon Grand Championship and bore an outline of the stadium. The shirt runs small (at least by U.S. standards), so you should probably go up at least a size compared with your default. The shirt for charity runners was also orange, but different — and looked even nicer.
ASICS is one of the main event sponsors. While the orange shirt I bought seemed closest to an “official” one for non-charity runners, they did have some other race-themed shirts and there was also a Legacy Half booth selling other swag. In addition, there was some free swag given out by various vendors. I picked up a really nice Thermos cup.
Most of the Expo took place in an elevated level of the stadium overlooking the interior — the area from which spectators enter the stands to take their seats — but you could walk down to an ASICS tent on the field level where you could borrow a pair of the company’s latest running shoes to take for a spin on the track.
Race morning and the start
The weather when I got to Tokyo a couple of days before the race was dry and mild. They had not, someone told me, had rain in a month. But about 10 days before, the forecast for race day had begun to predict rain on the day. I find forecasts that far out tend to change, but this one stuck to its original plan with alarming resilience. And radar on the eve of the race indicated there was no chance that forecast conditions would change. Sure enough, it was raining heavily when I woke on race morning.
The Tokyo Legacy Half does not have an early start. Runners start to cross the line at 9:50 AM. This is in part to allow the Marathon Grand and wheelchair events to go out first. But, as I’ve written in other race reviews, I always prefer earlier starts. That said, this one was not as late as some.
In 2002, when this event first took place, half marathon runners started inside the stadium. That was the case in 2023 for wheelchair participants. But this year, the main race started just outside the stadium. However, runners still entered the stadium in order to check in and pass through gear drop-off on the fourth level before descending again on their way to the starting gates. And, fortunately, runners could, for the most part, remain sheltered from the rain until very close to the actual start time.
I think I only saw a couple of porta-potties in the stadium area. But the regular stadium toilets seemed plentiful enough. They were also incredibly clean and very private. They put to shame what you’d expect in a stadium in the U.S. The only issue is that there didn’t seem to be more toilets once runners descended from the fourth level and advanced though the stadium periphery toward where they exited to the final starting line-up. So plan accordingly.
It’s always interesting to compare the details when racing in different countries. One difference I noticed while lining up to start compared with U.S. races is how few runners were wearing headphones. As it turned out, my headphones failed some miles into the race, maybe because of the rain. It didn’t particularly bother me. I get the arguments for not listening to music during races.
Another thing I noticed is that the field of runners lining up seemed predominantly male. And the official results bore that out. They showed less than 25 percent were women. That contrasts with races in the U.S., which tend to be more gender-equal or with more women than men.
The race stated on time. I was in corral E — they went from A to L. Corrals A though E lined up quite close to one another before the start, with the others initially positioned on the other side of the stadium The organizers moved runners through the start pretty quickly. I crossed the finish line just seven to eight minutes after the first runners crossed the line. That’s pretty quick given that I seemed to be starting around the middle of the pack.
But the flip side of the speedy start was that the course initially seemed quite crowded, which might bother runners trying to get ahead of those around them. Still, it’s never a bad idea to start off a bit slower than your planned average race pace. So crowding at the start can have its advantages.
Running in the rain
Leaving the shelter of the stadium, the rain was still coming down hard. Most runners were wearing ponchos, usually the disposable variety. Mindful of the forecast, I had brought one from the U.S.
I’ve never run a race where it was raining hard at the start. But I do remember one some years ago where I got drenched shortly before the start by an unexpected and unseasonal heavy rainstorm in Orange County, California. And I remember how hard it was to recover after getting wet and cold at that point.
So I was glad to have my poncho. I didn’t see keeping it on for the entire race, but decided not to shed it right away but to wait a bit until I was fully warmed up. In the end, I ended up shedding it about three miles in. And I felt completely ready when I did. The rain continued through the whole race, but lightened up a fair bit toward the end. I noticed quite a few runners kept their ponchos on all the way to the end. Personally, I’d find that a bit stifling, but your mileage may vary.
One thing this race taught me is not to be spooked by heavy rain, at least when temperatures aren’t frigid. Once you are fully warmed up, it is really not a big deal. And it helps prevent you from getting too warm.
But I do know from past experience that being wet and cold at the end of a race can be pretty tough. I recall once being almost hypothermic at the end of the Boston Half Marathon after it began to rain in cold weather during the final few miles. So when that seems likely, you’ll want to have dry and warmer clothes waiting for you at the finish. Fortunately, end-of-race temperatures weren’t a problem in Tokyo and — as detailed shortly — I had only a very short walk to my hotel.
I always apply plenty of anti-chafing stuff before a race. But it’s especially important if you expect to get wet. And don’t even think of wearing a cotton running shirt in the rain, not that I wear cotton running in any weather.
Tokyo is a huge city with a population of 14 million. It has a somewhat dispersed center. But however you define the center, the Legacy Half Marathon is, by any standard, a city-center race.
The course is, overall, out-and-back. But not in a simple linear way, as there are two prongs before the return stretch. As noted earlier, it starts at — or just outside — the National Stadium, which is in the Shibuya district, close to Shinjuku, and then moves to the Chiyoda area, where it skirts the moats of the Imperial Palace, before heading back.
The first roughly three miles are mostly downhill, which is great to get you off to a brisk start while conserving energy reserves. But — with out-and-back courses — the law of physics is that what goes down must go up. So the last three or so miles are mostly uphill. But the inclines are not very steep. Overall, I wouldn’t describe this as an easy course, but nor is it super hard.
Unlike some urban courses that dip in and out of parks, all of this one is on closed city streets. Until, that is, the end, when runners enter the stadium and run around the track toward the finish line on the other side. That makes for a spectacular finish, very similar to that in the Munich Half Marathon, which I ran almost exactly a year earlier and which also ended in an Olympic stadium.
My own time in Tokyo — 2 hours 11 minutes — was about 11 minutes slower than in Munich. That did not surprise me. I had run a disappointing race in Copenhagen three weeks earlier and had been sick in the period in between. My modest goal in the circumstances was simply to finish faster than 2:15, and I was glad I pulled that off! The official results did not include age-based divisions.
If you don’t know Tokyo well, you may not appreciate all of the places to which you pass close, as there are no real major, in-your-face major landmarks, in the way of some major city-center races such as, say, London Landmarks or the NYC Half. A lot of the race is, to the unfamiliar visitor, simply Tokyo city center streets with no obvious defining features for those who do not know them.
But this didn’t matter to me. Everything was new. For me, running through the center of Tokyo on closed streets more than sufficed to make it a great course without recognizable iconic “sights” as a bonus.
Crowd support was pretty good, especially given the rain. At first I thought the crowds were only out to cheer on the elite full marathon runners heading back to the stadium, but they continued through portions of the race long after I passed the inbound elites. Course support was good too, with plenty of stations offering water and energy drinks.
Soon after crossing the finish line, runners entered the inside of the stadium, where there was the usually procession to pick up hydration, nutrition, and, of course, medals. And then runners were herded up to the fourth level — to pick up bags if you’d left them — before finally descending again and exiting the stadium.
There wasn’t really any sort of finish line festival. But with the weather, I think most runners were content to head back to dry warmth elsewhere.
Mitsui Garden Hotel review: I stayed at the Mitsui Garden Hotel, which is right next to the National Stadium. I believe there is more than one Mitsui Garden Hotel in Tokyo, but the one by the stadium has the suffix “Jingugaien Tokyo Premier.”
I’m not sure I’d stay at the Mitsui Garden if I was going to Tokyo for any other reason. Neither the location nor the property itself make it an obvious choice. But it’s a good pick if your main reason for visiting Tokyo is to run the Legacy Half Marathon, as it’s the only hotel a short walk from the stadium. And, with the race-day rain, I was especially happy to be staying close by.
Although the hotel is not remarkable, it does have some good qualities. One is that all the rooms have balconies. I am a fan of balconies in hotels, and tend to make good use of them — especially when they give good views of a city going about its business. But they aren’t very common in major cities, including Tokyo. Another plus about the Mitsui Garden is that there are laundry machines, not that I took advantage. And there is also — as befits the name — a small outdoor garden with seating. There’s a roof terrace as well, but it’s a somewhat wasted space as there isn’t much seating up there and there’s no rooftop bar or eatery.
I paid around $275 per night, which didn’t feel like a fantastic deal. But the hotel was full, and I imagine the race pushed up prices. Many of the the hotel guests appeared to be runners.
I ended up having my eve-of-race pasta dinner in the hotel. I don’t normally eat in hotels when traveling to races, but the restaurant at the Mitsui Garden has an Italian theme and it suited me as I was resisting jet lag and there didn’t seem to be other pasta options nearby. The pasta on the menu was somewhat fancier than I wanted, but they cooked me something simpler after I inquired. The service in the hotel was helpful, friendly, and unfussy.
One negative about the hotel is that they may have a plumbing issue. I’d read a couple reviews on TripAdvisor mentioning strange smells in the bathroom. And, sure enough, there was such an odor in the shower in the room I had for the first night. There was no sign of mold, but it seemed to be coming up from the plumbing. Anyway, when I told this to the reception the next morning, they readily switched me to another room on the same high floor without asking any questions or showing any sign of surprise. It was as though they had heard this before. The next room did not have the problem, except I think I detected some twinges on the morning I checked out.
Getting around: For those not staying at the Mitsui Garden, there are two metro stations close to the stadium. (I use the word “metro” in its generic sense, as there are actually two different subway systems in Tokyo, only one of which is called the “Metro,” as well as some Japan Rail services within the city.) It had been over 10 years since I was last in Tokyo, but I found navigating public transport as an English speaker to be easier than in the past. Whether it has objectively got easier, or I have just got better at it, is unclear.
I recall from my previous trip to Tokyo that weekday metro rides were mighty squashed, with white-gloved station officials literally pushing people onto the trains to make everyone fit. But — arriving in Tokyo late on the Friday afternoon and leaving on the Monday morning — the trains seemed somewhat less crowded. Maybe it’s a post-pandemic thing.
Sushi: Aside from going to Tokyo to run the half marathon, my other mission during my short, less-than-72-hour visit was to eat sushi. And I did that in three places. One was in the old Tsukiji fish market area. When I was last there, this is where the wholesale fish market was located. If you arrived early enough in the morning, you could see huge chunks of tuna being auctioned off in a frenzied atmosphere. And surrounding the market were a number of small sushi restaurants — frequented as much by people working in the market as by anyone else — serving fish as fresh as any you can find in the world at times of the day when many people would be thinking about a more conventional breakfast.
That market has since relocated to a more modern location at Toyosu, somewhat further out on the Tokyo Bay. But there is still an area — the Tsukiji outer market — where there are numerous small sushi restaurants, and retail fish shops in close proximity, ranging from hole-in-the wall places where customers stand while eating to ones where you can sit at counters or small tables. And, like with the old fish market, people start eating sushi there pretty early in the morning, although it is still lively toward lunchtime.
Next time I go to Tokyo, I’ll check out the new Toyosu wholesale market, to which some of the old, close-in Tsukiji eateries re-located. The new one may lack some of the charm of Tsukiji, but apparently some of the restaurants there are on a gallery level allowing you to eat your early morning sushi while looking down through windows at the live market below. So I’m sure it is well worth a visit.
Japan Airlines: Lastly, a few words about Japan Airlines, or JAL. I flew them in both directions, going from Los Angeles into Narita and back from the closer-in Haneda airport. I have posed a separate JAL review, but, for now, this was my first time flying JAL and I really think it may be the best long-haul economy class of any major airline I’ve flown. There is one fewer seat in each row on both the B787 and the 777 than on pretty well all other carriers flying those aircraft plus more legroom than average. Service was excellent. And food was decent and distinctive. Stay tuned more more about JAL.
The Tokyo Legacy Half Marathon is an epic, new world-class event. Well worth putting on your bucket list if you want a well-organized race in a great city — but the ballot means you can’t count on getting a place. While I personally would prefer an earlier start, it’s hard to find fault with this race. ✈️ 🏃
Next race: Addis Ababa 10K
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