The slogan for next month’s Tokyo Marathon is — unlike the 26.2-mile race — short and sweet. “Ready?” it asks.
Libby Williams is. She has bundled up for 4 a.m. training runs in which the mileage exceeded the temperature outside. She has experimented with her nutrient-replenishing routine, trying gels, salt tablets, even mini-Snickers bars to keep her glycogen levels from getting depleted. She’s drafted a travel schedule to quickly recover from a 15-hour time difference.
In Japan’s largest city, Williams will run with more than 36,000 others — culled from 330,000 applicants — through streets bracketed by 1.3 million sign-waving, drum-beating spectators. The Imperial Palace will be beckoning from the finish line.
The race March 3 is the final component of an achievement that is still less common than an Everest summit. In Tokyo, Williams will complete the Abbott World Marathon Majors, claiming her Six Star Finisher status and making her one of just 4,260 athletes worldwide who have done so. About a quarter of those athletes are women.
The Marathon Majors were initially established in 2006 as a way to promote elite distance running. Race directors from New York, Boston, Chicago, London and Berlin collaborated to create a point system for competitive runners who pursued a $500,000 purse. Tokyo was added to the majors in 2013.
“The overall goal of the organization is to elevate the profile of marathon running and all the people who take on the challenge,” said Tim Hadzima, the executive director of the majors, which has its headquarters in Chicago.
The Six Star program was a way to “celebrate what the amateur athlete was doing,” he said. No points, no purse. But upon crossing the final finish line, Six Star athletes are awarded a special medal. Each city’s skyline is imprinted on a medallion, linked together like a pewter wreath and dangling from a cobalt-blue ribbon.
So far, 757 people from the United States have earned their Six Star hardware; seven of those are from the St. Louis area.
THE ROAD TO SIX STARS
Williams, of Richmond Heights, has always been an athlete, playing softball and soccer as a kid growing up in south St. Louis County. She took up running as a way to relieve stress during college and ran her way through medical school and residencies.
“Running for me is the most bang for your buck,” she said. “You don’t need a lot of equipment. You can do it any time.”
That flexibility is crucial for Williams, 40, a urologist in private practice and mother to two girls, 9 and 11. She squeezes in her runs around surgeries and on-call weekends, her daughters’ swimming competitions and her husband’s class schedule.
Her road to Six Stars started five years ago with a comparatively modest goal. Williams decided to train for the Chicago marathon, with the aim of qualifying for Boston.
“(My husband) thought I would be done after Boston. But then, he had never been to New York,” she said with a laugh. She convinced him it would be a worthwhile trip. And after the New York race, she was halfway there.
“Her marathons were a foreign thing to me,” said Ben Williams. “I’m not a runner. I didn’t realize there was such a culture for running. It wasn’t anything I was familiar with until she started to do the big races. That’s been the biggest revelation.
“But it’s part of the routine now,” he said. “I get to run around and take pictures. It’s a family event.”
Libby Williams uses her training schedule as a way to stay connected with friends, who keep her company on long runs. Her companions sometimes switch out midway as she loops through Clayton and around Forest Park. She joined a niche Facebook group, Mama Docs Run This, whose members are scattered across the U.S. but meet up in race cities.
“It’s a really neat group of women who are supporting each other,” Williams said. The camaraderie is especially helpful when she needs to commiserate about injuries. Her most debilitating happened in November 2016 in Central Park, near the end of the New York marathon.
“At mile 22, I felt an acute pop. I ruptured my plantar fascia, so I walked-ran for the last four miles,” she said. She managed to finish but came in about 18 minutes off her personal best of 3:23:52.
‘NOT JUST THE END PRODUCT’
Williams took most of 2017 “off” to regroup, sticking to half marathons and 10Ks. “Then I got serious about it,” she said.
She started working with Sara Cogan, an exercise physiologist with the Sports Medicine and Training Center in Crestwood.
“She is very self-motivated,” Cogan said. “I don’t have to do a lot to push her. Most of the time, I try to pull her back.”
Some of that drive is endemic to Williams’ disposition: She knew before starting high school she would become a surgeon. But it also stems from life circumstances.
“I have a terrible medical gene pool,” she said. Her father died at age 62 of kidney disease, after spending years on dialysis. Her mother has multiple sclerosis. “I think, ‘What if I won’t be able to do this one day?’ So, I try to do it all now.”
Cogan provides specific workout plans for six days of the week — distance runs, speed work and cross training. “I prefer her to have a rest day, but sometimes she fills in with a run on the seventh day,” Cogan said. “She’s just an extremely goal-oriented individual. The mental toughness to run a marathon, No. 1, and then to run six around the world, is pretty incredible.”
But after sweating through the hottest London marathon on record last April and navigating distance markers in kilometers rather than miles in Berlin in September, Williams was feeling somewhat defeated. “I had gotten frustrated that I didn’t drop time. I learned that I have to adjust my expectations,” she said.
Cogan and Williams decided to devise three scenarios for Tokyo, depending on how rested Williams feels, how her sensitive stomach handles the food there and what the weather is like.
Make no mistake, her finishing time matters to her. But that’s just one aspect.
“I like for my girls to see the process of setting a goal and working toward it,” Williams said. “It’s not just the end product.”
And when she puts the Six Stars around her neck? “I don’t think it will be much of an ending, to be honest,” said her husband. “She’s not going to stop running.”
Boston is on her calendar for April.