On Feb. 23, 46 Coca-Cola Japan employees -- about 10 percent of the company’s local business unit -- ran the 2014 Tokyo Marathon. We invited one runner, Vanessa Oshima, to write about her experiences before, during and after the 26.2-mile race.

Even if you’re not an avid sports fan, most of you probably have a vague knowledge of the pinnacle events for various sports. From Wimbledon (tennis), to The Masters (golf), to Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai (Formula One racing), winning a “major” constitutes a milestone.

For most of us, competing in a “major” is a bit of a pipe dream. But for all you runners out there, it’s actually possible! The “World Marathon Majors” are held in London, New York, Chicago, Boston, Berlin and, since 2012, Tokyo. Some of the fastest men and women in the world compete in these races… but “regular” joggers can run, too. 

Coca-Cola employees group picture
Carb-loading the night before the big race.

Luck of the Draw

In August 2013, when the application process for the Toyko Marathon officially opened, more than 40 Coca-Cola Japan employees took the plunge and signed up.

Then, we waited. The Tokyo Marathon has 35,000 spots for runners… and more than 300,000 applicants. Around the office, there was a bit of nervous anxiety as we waited for the email to come. “Congratulations – you have been successful!” was what we were all hoping for. Unfortunately, my version of the email read, “We are sorry to say you did not make it this year – good luck with your running and we hope to see you next year.”

It was like finishing runner-up in a beauty contest; you have to smile and be happy for the “winners,” but you are secretly so disappointed. On that day in October, there were three happy winners and more than 40 “secretly disappointed” runners who were ready to run… but without a race to compete in. 

Like all of the World Marathon Majors, Tokyo sets aside a number of spots for runners that raise money for charity. This is when we began to see the true “walk the talk” commitment of the Coca-Cola system. The company decided to support all employee runners and, at the same time, help rebuild northern Japan by making a donation on our behalf.

The atmosphere in the office was unbelievable. From a gloomy email to realizing, “I’m going to run!” It was a catalyst for so much activity and community. All 40-plus runners started scheduling “training” runs around Tokyo – including previewing the actual marathon course. We also had a “carbo load” party on the Friday night before the race to fuel up.

Tokyo Marathon and Coca-Cola T-Shirt

Coca-Cola Japan employees sported ambassador t-shirts.

Race Day

After four long months of training, the big day had arrived. Running a marathon is not easy and it can be very lonely at times... but not this day! I’ve never been surrounded by so many colleagues and smiles as we lined up. We were about to run one of the world major marathons, I remember thinking.

As I stood next to two of my colleagues at the start line, we discussed our running strategy and decided where to meet up after crossing the finishing line. Then, after the national anthem played, the gun fired and we were off!

I was wearing my Coca-Cola Ambassador t-shirt. I have never experienced such support from both the crowd and my fellow runners. At the 3 km mark, a guy ran up to me and said “Hey, Coca-Cola! I think I know one of your friends… You’re Vanessa, right? You mentored him in an MBA program once!”

Then, at the 10km mark, a guy in a McDonald’s hat tapped my shoulder. “Coke and fries!” he said. “Let’s run!” And so we did, making the perfect pair! As I continued on, I kept hearing again and again: “Go Coca-Cola!” or “Keep it up, Coca-Cola!”

I got through the first 15 km and, just as I was starting to feel the energy sap out of me, I spotted a few “Coke bottles” up ahead. As I met up with Nakamura-san, we both felt a great burst of energy. We started chatting and jogging. The Tokyo Marathon has a lot of “turnaround points,” which means you run up and then back down on the other side of the road. This was a great way to hunt down my fellow Coke Ambassadors. As I ran past my team member, Satomi, who only took up running less than a year ago, my heart swelled as I saw her enjoying the challenge and smiling. In fact, she has run three marathons after starting to jog 2 miles a day back in March 2013!

Nakamura-san was checking his watch diligently as he was “running for time,” so I got caught up in the chase. He was checking his watch at every kilometer and announcing, “We are on track!”

At the 33 km mark, we started to get off track. But I decided that we’d come so far to let the chance slip. So I dug deep and tried to make up the lost seconds. My legs were hurting and I was no longer smiling… until the 36 km mark when we were met by our supporters again. They had icy-cold small bottles of Coke to give us a final boost of energy for the last push.

And push I did. As I was lagging again at the 40 km mark, another Coke employee zoomed past me on his last spurt and said, “Vanessa, you will break 3 hours and 40 minutes… keep up the pace!” With him in front of me, I set out to chase again.

Coke employees at the Tokyo Marathon finish line

'All of us were so proud to be finishers,' runner Vanessa Oshima said.

I crossed the finished line with a personal-best time. My legs were in pain, but pleasure was rushing through my body. It is weird to feel “dead on my feet” but “totally alive with life” at the same time.

There are so many life lessons from running, and the Tokyo Marathon brought me some new ones. I learned that reaching your goals is much easier with support and cheers. Also, reminding yourself when you are on track and off track helps you to reach the finish line. And, finally, having someone faster than you to chase can be such a powerful inspiration.

All told, 46 runners from Coca-Cola Japan started -- and finished -- the Tokyo Marathon. We hugged, smiled and even cried with sheer emotion of the fact that we challenged ourselves and won. All of us were so proud to be “finishers.”

And the Finishers Are…

The following Coca-Cola Japan employees completed the 2014 Tokyo Marathon: Tim Brett, Atsushi Sekino, Koichi Saito, Satoshi Ogawa, Tomoaki Jin, Tsutomu Hiramoto, Sean Cunial, Gensaku Inoue, Jun Kato, Kana Ikushima, Kenichi Shirota, Naofumi Nishina, Tomoya Otani, Toyoshi Fujita, Yoichi Nakamura, Satoshi Hashimoto, Masayuki Ohashi, Junichi Higuchi, Masayuki Muranaka, Shigeki Okutani, Hidetaka Matsunaga, Hiroshi Furumichi, Chihiro Matsumiya, Makiko Minemura, Mitsutaka Shiota, Shinji Ohmura, Yasushi Ishikawa, Kazufumi Watanabe, Manabu Tanaka, Ryo Munakata, Yosuke Toyoura, Tomoya Sekiguchi, Asumi Hamada, Naoto Mikajiri, Vanessa Oshima, Akira Zenidaka, Tadahiro Sato, Hiroyuki Hirai, Kanako Fukuda, Satomi Minamikawa, David Wakiwaka, Peter Mills, Hakobu Fukura, Miyuki Takahashi, Takaya Kojima and Tomonori Eto.

Vanessa Oshima

Vanessa Oshima is vice president of knowledge and insights for Coca-Cola Japan.