Would you like to run a marathon in Japan but don’t qualify for Tokyo and are not keen to join the crowds in Osaka? Well, come to Nagano. Framed by the snow-capped Japanese Alps and with on-course entertainment that puts many majors to shame, the Nagano Marathon makes for a very unique race experience. Sounds great? Lace up your running shoes, and let’s get you on your way.
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Key Facts about the Nagano Marathon
How did the Nagano Marathon come about?
The first marathon in Nagano was held in 1958. Back then it was called the Shinmai Marathon, named after the local media outlet Shinano Mainichi Shimbun (shortened to Shinmai in Nagano Prefecture). Only attended by Japanese athletes, the Shinmai Marathon was held until 1998, the year in which Nagano prefecture hosted the XVIII. Olympic Winter Games.
In 1999, the marathon was renamed the Nagano Olympic Commemorative Marathon, a more suitable name as the course takes athletes past all the major Olympic venues in the city of Nagano.
The marathon is sanctioned by the national governing body, the Japan Association of Athletics Federation, and is a member of the Association of International Marathons and Distance Races. It was a World Athletics Bronze Label Road Race competition but doesn’t appear to have retained its World Athletics label post-COVID.
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When is the Marathon being held (and what is the weather like during that time)?
The Nagano Marathon takes place in April – most commonly on the third Sunday of the month. However, in 2023, the marathon was on the fourth Sunday (23 April 2023). Being held during that time, there is a high chance to see cherry trees blooming during the race, while the surrounding mountains are still covered in snow, adding to the special atmosphere of the race.
The weather (at least in 2023) was (almost) perfect marathon weather, with blue skies and temperatures of 11 degrees Celsius (as well as 39 per cent humidity) at 0830h, rising to a pleasant 16 degrees Celsius by 1230h. The only less-than-perfect aspect was the increasing northeasterly wind, which reached around 39 kilometres per hour by 1230h.
How many (foreign) athletes attend the Nagano Marathon each year?
While there is a cap of 10,000 participants, only 9,083 started in 2023 (and 7,942 finished). It is relatively easy for foreign athletes to attend (more on that below) but only 169 registered and 138 picked up their race numbers in 2023. Check out the full statistics here.
It is worth noting that the Nagano Marathon has a strict five-hour time limit. Participants who don’t reach certain checkpoints on the course by a specific time are deemed as unlikely to finish the race within five hours. Those participants will be collected when the cut-off times are reached and taken to the finish area by bus.
This happened to one of the athletes who stayed at the same accommodation as us. She had travelled from Singapore to run her first-ever marathon, completely unaware of the cut-off. And due to language barriers, she didn’t even understand what was going on when she was suddenly directed to a waiting bus.
When and how to enter (and how much is the entry fee)?
Athletes can register for the Nagano Marathon (only) during a 15-day period, which is usually between late November and mid-December, and only via the official website. In 2023, the entry fee (for foreign entrants) was JPY14,300.
Upon entry, each athlete is required to provide their estimated finish time, as the race number and start area are based on that time (for example, an estimated finish time of 3 hours and 15 minutes gives you a 2000+ race number and gets you into start area D).
It is also important to note that (unlike other marathons) no costumes or disguises are allowed. That said, on race day, several participants wore funny hats, wigs or lightweight costumes that didn’t interfere with their running ability or other participants.
What is pre-race communication like?
What do marathon finishers receive?
In 2023, all finishers received a medal and a commemorative towel. There are also awards for those placed first to sixth in each age group.
When and where are the race results published?
Compared to other marathons, the race data management for the 2023 Nagano Marathon felt incredibly archaic:
- No live results data was published during the race. And at the end of race day, only gross finish results were provided to each participant individually (as a PDF file) – data any athlete running with a sports watch would have anyway.
- Race result summaries of the top finishers were eventually published on RunNet – the largest running portal in Japan – and on the World Athletics website. However, at no point did the race management publish the results of all athletes online (a common feature in other marathons).
- Athletes were able to download their certificates with official net times, event photos and a list with the net times of all finishers only five days after the event. Interestingly, even non-finishers received a certificate showing their 5km splits.
The 2023 men’s race was broadcast live on YouTube and is still available for viewing (at 37m13s, you can see Sandra on the right in her orange jacket filming).
Nagano Marathon Route Map with Transport Hubs and Points of Interest
Below is the map of the route, points of interest, transport hubs and recommended accommodations mentioned in this article.
Key locations on the course
The course of the Nagano Marathon is one of the nicest we’ve experienced to date. It leads athletes past key venues of the 1998 Winter Olympics as well as major historic sights of the city of Nagano:
|Point of Interest||Course location||Description|
|Nagano Sports Park||Start||Key venue for 1998 Olympic Games ice hockey events|
|Zenkō-ji Temple||6km||Founded in 642, Zenko-ji Temple is one of the first Buddhist temples in Japan and a key pilgrimage sight|
|Big Hat||10km||Main venue for 1998 Olympic Games ice hockey events and venue for the Nagano Marathon race pack collection and sports expo|
|M-Wave||17km||Speed Skating venue during the 1998 Olympic Games and current location of the Olympic Museum|
|White Ring Arena||23km||1998 Olympic Games figure skating and short track speed skating venue|
|Nagano Olympic Stadium (also known as Minami Nagano Sports Park)||Finish||Venue for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1998 Olympic Games|
What is the marathon course like?
The Nagano Marathon has a point-to-point course, with a distance of about 10 kilometres between the start and finish (as the crow flies). With an elevation gain/loss of 133 metres (caused by a few road bridges and river banks), the Nagano Marathon must be one of the world’s flattest marathons. There are a few out and back sections, but those are relatively short. And with the everchanging scenery and great spectator support (including musical entertainment like drums and alphorns), the course is never boring.
The course is fully closed to traffic, and a large part is smooth asphalt. From 32km to 39km, athletes primarily run on river banks, which still have a sealed surface but are narrower and more exposed (Nagano is located in a long river valley surrounded by mountains and therefore almost always (a bit) windy). As runners approach the Olympic Stadium, the route changes to loose gravel for the final 400 metres, before athletes enter the stadium and run on grass for the final 195 metres until the finish line.
What is supplied on the course?
Route/distance marking and timing equipment
The marathon course is very well marked, with distance markers at every kilometre. Timing mats are located every five kilometres, as well as at the start, halfway mark and finish (a total of 11). Each 5-kilometre timing point also had a large Seiko clock. The timing transponder is attached to the race number (and removed by volunteers after the finish).
To help runners achieve specific time goals, the race was supported by ten pacers who ran the course with goal times of 2h50m, 3h00m, 3h15m, 3h30m, 3h45m, 4h00m, 4h15m, 4h30m, 4h45m, 5h00m. The pace guides were all seasoned athletes in their own right.
The fifteen aid stations along the route were well placed apart. The sports drinks were always first, and the water was always last. The following food and snacks are available:
- Energy Jelly
- Sports Yokan
- Chestnut steamed buns
- Salt candy
- Sports Caramel
- Rice balls
were provided from the 19-kilometre aid station onwards. The aid station signage was in English.
At checkpoints along the route, cooling spray was also provided (a unique feature we hadn’t encountered at previous marathons).
What is it like to run the Nagano Marathon?
Course Difficulty (1 = Difficult, 5 = Easy)
Value for Money
My personal race experience
Getting injured in mid-December, just weeks after entering the Nagano Marathon, I hadn’t fully recovered until mid-February and thus, my build-up was suboptimal. I averaged only 42 kilometres per week in the 10 weeks leading up to the marathon and only managed to do two 30-kilometre training runs during that time.
After entering the marathon with a 3 hours 15-minute expectation and catering for my lack of preparation, I adjusted my goal time down to 3 hours and 45 minutes (5 minutes 21 seconds per kilometre pace), setting my Garmin Connect workout for the marathon to alert me if my pace was faster than 5 minutes 10 seconds per kilometre. What I couldn’t change however was my start area.
Running the first 5 kilometres in 26 minutes and 1 second (5 minutes 12 seconds per kilometre pace), the route was crowded, and it felt like everyone was passing me. We reached the highest point of the course (383 metres above sea level) soon afterwards, at 6.5km. With a straight downhill from Zenkō-ji Temple, the number of spectators grew considerably, and I ran my fastest kilometre (4 minutes 59 seconds).
Sandra had planned to see me at the 7-kilometre mark, and I was excited to see her. As the Strava Beacon tracker was late, she hadn’t expected me (yet) and scrambled to take a photo as I suddenly appeared in front of her.
I reached the 10 kilometres in 51 minutes 57 seconds (at a steady 5 minutes 12 seconds per kilometre pace). Still faster than what I wanted, but I was struggling to go much slower. I knew that would come eventually.
I was taking water at every aid station – something I don’t do on my regular training runs. It was good, and it helped me feel relaxed and in control.
At 15 kilometres (1h17m45s – 5m11s/km pace), I saw giant caterpillars trying to cross the road hoping that they wouldn’t get squashed under all the runners’ feet. I was enjoying the run and the views of the snow-capped mountains around us. Up ahead was an out-and-back section. It was busy with lots of spectators, some even holding signs and cheering in English.
The 20km mark (1h43m41s – 5m10s/km pace) was by a long bridge. There were no spectators on the bridge – except Sandra. She was easy to spot in her orange-coloured Marmot Eclipse rain jacket.
At the half-marathon point, I decided to stop – for a photo (which I don’t do normally, but after all, I was running a marathon in Japan). My finish time was important but not that important.
I got to 25km – just past another out-and-back section – in a net time of 2h09m38s (5m11s/km pace). The support stations now offered bananas, so I took a piece at every station all the way to the finish. Digesting bananas during a marathon is easy (and I know them, unlike the artificial sports nutrition that was also handed out).
The 30km had been my longest training run, but when I got there on race day (2h36m17s – 5m13s/km pace), I didn’t have the same aches and pains I’d had in training. It just goes to show: marathon adrenaline helps a lot. Or maybe the two Ibuprofen tablets I took at the 20km mark had worked their magic. Either way, my hips and groin weren’t hurting. But my toes and Morton’s Neuroma were starting to impact me (again).
While there were a few undulations over the final 12 kilometres (in the form of bridge crossings and river banks), the views took my mind off my pain. By now, there were a few people walking, and I felt as though I was passing as many people as were passing me earlier in the race.
From 30 to 35km, I could feel a nice tailwind gently pushing me along, but I also knew we would be turning back into the wind at 35km. I tried to take advantage of it and kept my pace steady, reaching the 35km mark and the headwind at 3h02m57s (5m14s/km pace).
The bear was on my back for the next 4 kilometres. My toes hurt – a lot. I wondered how many would become black. I tried to stay focused, but I also knew with every kilometre that I was slowing. Eventually, the 3h45m pace group flew past me as if I was standing still. With positive self-talk and meditation, thinking of those who wish they could but can’t, I fought the pain and slowly counted down the kilometres to the finish line.
I knew I could break 4 hours, even if I walked. But I also knew the faster I got to the finish line, the sooner I could stop. 40km (at 3h32m39s – 5m19s/km pace) didn’t come soon enough. At that point, I had walked between a couple of lamp posts. But walking didn’t change the level of pain, so I reasoned (with myself) to just continue running to the finish line.
As I turned from the road onto the gravel path leading to the Stadium, the balls of my feet were screaming at me. At least, I was now less than 800 metres from the finish. On through the tunnel (wondering what it would have been like to win the Olympic Marathon), we finally reached the grassy area inside the Stadium – what a relief. The finish was 200 metres away, and I slowed right down to take in the spectacle and savour the moment. My net finish time was 3h46m14s (5m22skm average pace). I was happy.
After the finish line
Ten metres after the finish, I looked up and spotted Sandra waving excitedly in the Grandstand. A brief hand signal and smile signalled I had seen her and would meet her at the exit.
The finish area was big enough to have a few photos taken of me by a volunteer. Next, I received my medal, finisher’s towel and a disposable mask. As I left the stadium (through yet another tunnel), a sports drink was thrust into my hand. I was pretty thirsty by that time as the temperature had risen sharply, but a sports drink would have been my end. Where was the water? Fortunately, Sandra met me on the other side of the tunnel, and she had our water bottle.
She led me to a shady area near the exit where I laid on the grass for a while, resting and drinking water. Once I felt strong enough, we slowly walked to the departure point for the shuttle buses (about 100 metres away). Very un-Japanese, the volunteer at the bus stop barked at me as soon as I arrived, as I didn’t have my shuttle voucher ready to hand it to him. After I managed to find the voucher and hand it to him with shaky hands, I was finally allowed on the bus. I even found a seat.
Sandra took off on her bike, and once our bus was full, it left for Shinonoi Station. From there, I had to (pay to) take the (by then packed) train to Nagano Station, which (due to delays on the line) meant I ended up standing for more than 40 minutes – not much fun after running a marathon. In hindsight, I should have (not listened to the advice in the participant’s guide and) taken the other shuttle bus option straight to Nagano Station.
- Entry fee good value for money
- Separate race pack pick-up area for foreign entrants
- Ideal weather conditions
- Good spectator support around the course
- Kilometre markers were prominent
- Good supply of food at aid stations
- No sponges at aid stations.
- Lack of accommodation (and significantly increased accommodation rates)
- Caters primarily to Japanese runners (for example event program was only supplied in Japanese)
- Event t-shirts were not high quality
- Start area is a little chaotic
- Impossible for spectators to follow runners at regular intervals on public transport
- Archaic timing data communication
- Sports drinks at aid stations are very strong
- No water was provided at the finish line.
Organising the logistics
How to get to Nagano?
Nagano is located northwest of Tokyo and can be reached from there (on the Hokuriku Shinkansen) in just under 1 hour and 30 minutes. From Nagoya, the Shinano Limited Express (the same one you might take if you hike the Nakasendo Trail) will take 3 hours to Nagano.
If you’re coming from Kyoto/Osaka (or even further west), you can travel (a) via Tokyo, (b) via Nagoya or (c) via Kanazawa (using the Thunderbird and Hokuriku Shinkansen). All options take approximately 4 hours and 15 minutes to 4 hours and 30 minutes, though, for those without JR Pass, the route via Tokyo is the most expensive.
The closest airport to Nagano is Shinshu-Matsumoto (IATA Code: MMJ) near the town of Matsumoto, which has regular regional services (except during winter) from Sapporo, Fukuoka, Osaka and Kobe. From there, it takes 2 – 2.5 hours by bus and train to Nagano city centre.
Where to stay and how/when to book accommodation?
Accommodation in and around Nagano during the marathon weekend book out many months in advance – even before the marathon date is officially announced – and prices multiply for the one night before the marathon. If you do have the luxury of choice, we recommend booking accommodation near Nagano Station – which has good public transport connections to both the start and finish (more on that below).
While we booked our accommodation through familiar booking websites such as Agoda, Booking.com and Rakuten Travel, the Japan Tourist Bureau is the official accommodation coordinator for (foreign) entrants. Accommodation reservations through the JTB website open about a week after race registration closed in December. However, all options provided through the official website were (way) out of our budget. We recommend the following hotel accommodation that is near the Nagano JR Station: Sotetsu Fresa Inn Nagano, Dormy Inn, or Mash Cafe and Bed. Below are some more options.
What we did
We arrived in Nagano on the Monday before the marathon and stayed at the Sotetsu Fresa Inn (a block away from Nagano Train Station) for the first five nights, at the very affordable rate of JPY6,250 per night for a small double room. The hotel would have been a great choice for the marathon – albeit a twin room would have been more comfortable (the double bed was only 120cm wide).
When we booked, however, the Sotetsu Fresa Inn in Nagano was already booked out on Saturday night. The only other (non-smoking) room we could find at the time was in Ueda, a small town south of Nagano (and only a 12-minute ride on the Hokuriku Shinkansen from Nagano Station). Two weeks before the marathon (we kept looking daily in case rooms were cancelled), a backpacker hostel near the start line suddenly offered rooms on Booking.com, and we managed to secure a twin room with a private bathroom and a shared kitchen/lounge (cancelling our original booking in Ueda).
The room cost JPY10,530 per night and turned out to be a great choice. While basic (as to be expected with a backpacker hostel), it was clean and quiet, and the host was super nice, providing food and drinks on the marathon morning and even driving the three runners staying at his hostel to the start line.
When and where to pick up your race pack?
Race packs are to be picked up in person from the Nagano Wakasato Tamokuteki Sports Arena / Big Hat [Google Maps location]. The pick-up is only open on the day before the marathon from 1000h to 1900h. The Nagano Wakasato Tamokuteki Sports Arena / Big Hat can be reached by bus from Nagano Station in about 15 to 20 minutes. We would not recommend driving as there is only one big parking lot nearby (with very long queues at the entrance).
Upon pick-up – look for the designated pick-up counter for foreign athletes – you are required to hand in any physical documentation that you get sent when you enter online. In 2023, this included a physical condition check sheet (related to COVID-19) and a signed affidavit stating that you will obey all race rules. Due to the designated pick-up counter, we didn’t have to wait at all.
The 2023 race pack comprised a printed shirt, two race numbers (front and back), an official program booklet (in Japanese), a participants guide (in English) and an A4-sized calendar (with images from the previous year’s marathon for each month).
Once you picked up your race pack, you can proceed to the Sports Expo. The Sports Expo is held in Big Hat’s main hall and features the type of stalls you would typically expect to find at most major marathons. In 2023, there were 26 branded stalls selling sports nutrition and running gear. There were also photo opportunities and the ability to sign large boards wishing good luck to the participant.
How to get to the start line/travel from the finish line?
To the start line
The Nagano Marathon starts at Nagano Sports Park [Google Maps location]. The closest train stations are Kita-Nagano [Google Maps location] (on the Shinano line, covered by the JR Pass) and Asahi [Google Maps location] (on the Nagano-Dentetsu line, not covered by the JR Pass). From either of those stations, it’s a flat 15 to 20-minute walk to the start line.
At Nagano Sports Park, you will find the usual start line facilities, including trucks to drop your gear and plenty of toilets (including porta potties). Signage (at least in 2023) was only in Japanese (use Google Translate on your smartphone if needed). That said, the starting areas had Roman letter signs (A, B, C, etc).
From the finish line
In 2023, the event organisers provided free shuttle buses for athletes from the finish line to either Nagano JR Station [Google Maps location] or Shinonoi JR Station [Google Maps location]. The advice was for athletes to use the buses to Shinonoi over those to Nagano as the latter might be stuck in traffic for some time.
I followed the advice and took the shuttle bus to Shinonoi. Not only did I have to pay for the train ride from there to Nagano Station. I also had to wait (standing) for 45 minutes until a train arrived (and then another 15 minutes on the train, standing squeezed between other passengers). Not something you’d want to go through after running a marathon. Based on that experience, we recommend to take the shuttle bus to Nagano Station.
How to go about supporting a participant?
Due to the course layout and lack of public transportation options on Sundays, it is not possible to follow and cheer on a participant using public transport. That said, event organisers do provide a paid bus shuttle for spectators to the Olympic Stadium from Nagano JR Station (JPY600) and Shinonoi JR Station (JPY250), so that spectators can at least cheer their athlete/s across the finish line.
What we did
As Sandra wanted to support me as often as possible along the course and still be at the finish before I arrived, she opted to rent a bicycle. The lovely older couple running Miyamoto Shōkai [Google Maps location] (near Nagano JR Station) rented one to her at a cost of JPY1,500 for the day (their son also ran the race). She didn’t go to the start line (as I received a lift from our accommodation host) but managed to cheer me on at the 7-kilometre mark, at 20 kilometres, at 34 kilometres and at the finish, cycling about 35 kilometres that day.
Since we both had Japanese (data-only) SIM cards, Sandra was able to track me using the Strava Beacon feature (although the tracker was always a bit delayed). As Strava Beacon requires cellular data, I carried my Smartphone (as I normally do for every run) in my Original SPIbelt.
While she had made a rough plan as to where she might be able to support me, being able to (virtually) follow me during the race allowed her to make adjustments as needed (unexpected road closures meant that she had to deviate from her intended route a few times). After the race, she cycled back to return the bike to Miyamoto Shōkai, while I caught the free shuttle bus to Shinonoi Station and then (paid for) the train back to Nagano JR Station to meet her.
What to do in/around Nagano besides the marathon?
Nagano Prefecture is not all about the marathon, so make sure you add a few days before/after your marathon.
Here are our favourite day trips from Nagano:
Have you run the Nagano Marathon?
If you have run the Nagano Marathon recently, what was your experience like? What other tips can you share?
If you want to run the Nagano Marathon, what additional questions do you have about it?