6 Things I’ve Learnt Since I Started Running Marathons

On the fourth of April, I started to reclaim an integral part of my identity.

My running route for the Ugly Sweater Day Half Marathon

This was the day I completed the Ugly Sweater Day Virtual Half Marathon; the eighth half marathon I have finished since 2017. Since the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic, and the associated closure of gyms and cancellation of races, my motivation for running had decreased. My increasing penchant for snacking on sugary and salty foods during my three months of working from home also gave me a physique and energy level not suitable for running either. Even though I was a slow as treacle, for someone who was (and is) passionate about running, being able to run 21 kilometers once again gave me a sense of satisfaction and confidence that is inseparable from this sport.

I am a late comer to running half and full marathons. I only took it up in my late 30’s. Despite that, I can barely imagine what it would be like if I couldn’t get up and pound the pavement every morning. How did I find myself taking up a new sport at an age when many in the developed world are content with binging on Netflix? The catalyst ca be found in two eras of my life.

You Need A Hobby

I started running seriously at a transition point.

It was 2017, and I had just resigned from my previous job. After applying for some office jobs and getting rejected, I found a position in the type of work that I thought I never would do again: teaching English as an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher). This was an occupation that I was in for about five years previously, and one I was thoroughly jaded with when I resigned from it.

What I am about to write should be firmly filed under the category of ‘first world problems’, but if you have worked as either an English Conversation School teacher or ALT in Japan, you will know that both jobs can come with a glut of free time in terms of hours worked and vacation time (though usually only in the case of the latter). While working in the ESL industry in Japan can be rewarding for so many people in terms of what they can get and give back, there can also be a low bar to entry as well as very little chance for career advancement. I had come back to Japan after having just completed a Masters Degree in Translation and Interpretation in Australia, and I was returning to an industry where I wasn’t expected to speak any Japanese at all. In fact, I was fervently encouraged not to, so that the kids would be more likely to practice their conversational English with me. Thus, I initially felt that this position was a regression. Ironically enough, when I received the e-mail confirming that I was hired, this song concurrently started playing on I-tunes on my I-phone.

While I only intended to stay for one year for personal and vocational reasons, the job was incredibly rewarding in hindsight. This was largely because I was working for the local board of education as opposed to one of the more dodgy labor hire companies that dot the landscape of ESL education in Japan. While I wasn’t earning ostentatious wages, my wife and I were able to live comfortably. I received full holiday pay, pension and national health insurance; something that the less scrupulous employers in this industry often do not supply. It gave me an insight into the community that I live in to this day. It helped me pass the Level 1 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test thanks to the copious amount of spare time allowed to me between classes which I used to study. I was able to meet some fantastic and very generous teachers and students. I was also able to forge some terrific relationships with people in the Gamagori City Hall in both the Department of Education and International Relations Division. Above all else, if I was able to motivate any of my students to improve their English, then it was worth it. Thus, I don’t regret anything about that year and treasure it greatly.

That being said, I was originally (and quite immaturely) crestfallen because I felt I was yet again in a job where I couldn’t use my Japanese language abilities, would be mostly sitting quietly at my desk in a staffroom, and figuratively treading water. I spent the first few months looking to use the surfeit of downtime that I now had since I was no longer working 10 hour days (as I regularly did in my old job).

I used social media to fill this gap to start off with. The ever increasing frequency, and ever increasing banality, of what I was posting at the time probably had my friends regularly rolling their eyes. After yet another superfluous Facebook post, a friend sent me a Facebook message that would send me on a 4 year journey:

You need a hobby.

The truth was that I did. While I was incorrectly resentful that I was in a job that I believed I had outgrown, I resolved myself to making that year as productive as I could if I couldn’t advance career wise for the moment.

So what hobby should I pursue? Clearly, being a social media influencer was not one that fit my skill set.

Reaping a Harvest First Sewn 25 Years Earlier

My grade 6 teacher could best be described as being from the old school (pun maybe intended?). He was in his fifties, and some of his disciplinary methods apparently came from that decade as well. When one of us whined or complained about something, we were made to wear an oversized pacifier/dummy, that was attached to a silk ribbon, around our necks. If we said or did anything judged as ‘stupid’, we were tapped on the head with a chalk duster; leaving a Pepe Le Pew style white streak on our heads. While I thought it was hilarious at the time (so long as it wasn’t happening to me), I don’t feel that this is an effective classroom management technique, nor would it help in building the confidence or nurturing any 12 year-old worldwide.

As we chafed against some of his more authoritarian discipline, he started to struggle a bit with classroom management (though we were never ever completely out of control). At one point, he must have decided that we had become restless, and needed to burn off excess energy. So everyday, like soldiers in a military boot camp and with him as our drill sergeant, we were instructed to run a 3 kilometer course traversing the neighborhood around our school after lunch time.

I have never been blessed with any natural athleticism of any kind. I played basketball, badminton and cricket growing up and, despite trying hard, I was pretty bad at all of them. When we started running in the afternoons, it wasn’t something that I thought I would have any affinity with. Most initial runs saw me finish in the bottom four or five of the twenty odd students in our class. However, the more runs we took, the further up in the pack I advanced. By the end of my primary school graduation, I was regularly finishing in the top three or four. For a kid who was picked on for being lanky, uncoordinated, nerdy and weird, that did wonders for my self-esteem at the time.

Armed with this memory, the fact that I always liked the idea of completing a full marathon, as well as the discovery that Bernie Sanders, one of the people that I most admire, was a long distance runner in his youth, I decided that if I was going to use my spare time effectively, one way I could do so is by devoting myself to the requisite fitness work to complete a full marathon. Thus, I started my first marathon training program in June, 2017.

Armed with a training plan that I found on the internet, I set out for my first run of three kilometers at 1:00 PM on a day boasting a 31 degree temperature and a humidity level of 70%. At the best of times, just walking around during the Japanese summer will guarantee that your shirt will be drenched in sweat, so me venturing out on a run on this type of day was obtuse at best as well as a severe threat to my physical wellbeing at worst. At the time, I contended that if I was to conquer a full marathon, I needed to be able to push through all and any kind of adversity. My logic was that if I couldn’t complete push through minor (albeit sweltering) training sessions, what hope did I have of completing the 42 kilometers required to complete a full marathon?

I had also recently watched a documentary on the Richmond Tigers Australian football team’s premiership season of 1980, and recounted an anecdote from it about how many of them regularly trained for four hours at a time in 30 degree temperatures during that year. Players were sent to the hospital from heat stroke, but it allegedly mentally steeled and physically primed them for their upcoming season. If it worked for them, surely it would for me too, right?

I am silently chuckling to myself as I write this as I realize how ridiculous this all sounds. Just for the record, I was 36 years old at the time. Incredibly responsible and mature behavior on my behalf if I do say so myself.

The aftermath of this run was not aesthetically pleasing nor physically healthy. Years of a sedentary lifestyle teamed up with the stifling heat, and the fact that I was relying on Google Maps instead of a decent running app, saw me put myself in real danger of suffering heat stroke. Not to mention that I spent a decent plurality of my time looking at my phone to see if I had covered the requisite 3 kilometer distance that I’d set myself. I took what was the first of many cold showers (that icy water never felt so good), drank a two liter bottle of sports drink, and spent the next hour desperately trying to stave off passing out by lying on the floor naked with the air conditioner and fan blasting and the curtains closed. Thank goodness my wife was at work that day!

Me finishing the 2019 Matumosto Marathon in 4 hours, 12 minutes and 23 seconds

Since then thankfully, I have become much wiser, and have finished three full marathons and eight half marathons. I have made friends, been able to travel to different parts of Japan, explore many different parts of the town I live in, and been able to prove to myself that I am capable of so much more than I originally thought I was. I have also learned a bit about what to do and not to do when training for a long distance race, the positive and negative effects of running in general, and what it can teach us about ourselves. While this list isn’t exhaustive, and I hold no official qualifications as a personal trainer or professional runner, here are six things I have learnt since I started running marathons. I will try to be honest, but I will also try to avoid any insufferable humble bragging in the process. Though I may not succeed in this, please note that I am not doing this intentionally.

1) Meditating On Your Feet

Some of the best ideas I have had have been when I have been out running. While I am not a neuroscientist, exercising has been shown to reduce stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, while also releasing endorphins. However, unlike other sports, my experience of running has been solitary. While I have gone running with friends, most mornings when I am hitting my trails, I am alone with my own thoughts. Team this up with the positive cocktail of neurotransmitters being flushed into your brain, it’s like kinesthetically meditating

Some runners believe that when you are out running long distances, you should also be pitting yourself against the little voice in your head telling you that finishing is just too difficult. The theory is that by doing this, you fortify yourself mentally, and will be able to better overcome future mental obstacles when out running. I don’t subscribe to this view. I try to use the time I am on the road to learn, take in and dissect new information. Hence, I often listen to podcasts when I run with regulars in my podcast rotations being Late Night Live with Phillip Adams, Chapo Trap House, The Take, The Demonland Podcast, Conversations, Newshour and The Climate Question from the BBC World Service, and The Joe Rogan Experience. Listening to most of these podcasts often gives me a perspective I hadn’t previously considered, which in turn helps to either a) better organize my thoughts if I have been ruminating excessively on something or b) give me a practical approach to tackle a problem in my life; whether it be family, work or activism related.

That being said, listening to current affairs and political podcasts isn’t the kind of thing many would associate with revving one up to crack into vigorous exercise. There are also mornings when I choose to listen to my running playlist on I-Tunes (which includes stuff from Peking Duk, The Killers, Queens of the Stone Age, Tool, Florence and the Machine and Major Lazer), or to the Australian radio station, Double J. I believe that should you have the right song playing, a decent pace going and be surrounded by natural beauty (which thankfully Gamagori has an abundance of), the mental and physical seamlessly coalesce, and you can experience what the humanistic psychologist, Abraham Maslow called ‘a peak experience’: a heightened state of emotional and mental activity triggered by what seem like mundane activities, and which has been described as being euphoric, rapturous and mystical.

2) Habit Magnetism

One of the beauties of running is that, in theory, there are very few barriers to entry. All you need is a pair of shoes, running shorts, a t-shirt and some willpower, don’t you?

As much as I would love to say this is true, it’s not. But because of the very fact it’s not that simple, you are opening up an avenue to becoming an improved you.

Training for either a half or full marathon is usually a solid 12 to 16 week commitment. Furthermore, it has been said that running a full marathon puts as much stress on your internal organs as it would if you were in a car accident in terms of how much they bounce around in your body with each stride completed. You will be required to be on your feet for at least three to four hours, so your core will need to be strong. A regime of strength training will be required to get through all this (see point 4).

Some of these nuts can contain excess fat, but the energy they release is beneficial for running.
Photo by Marta Branco on Pexels.com

In addition to strengthening your body, your diet will need to change. While perfectionism is the enemy of progress in marathon training (see point 3), one should try, within reason, to avoid foods loaded with trans fats, preservatives, excess sugar, salt or corn syrup. These foods are high on the glycemic index, and any energy you might get from them will be burned off pretty quickly. Load up on nuts (I am a huge fan of almonds and walnuts), porridge, and traces (such as lentils, chickpeas and mungbeans) as part of your dietary routine before you need to carb load before a big race.

Waking up at a decent time to complete training sessions means that the latest I have slept in since I started running seriously is about 9:30 AM. I am up by 5:00 AM most mornings in the summer, and 6:30 AM during every other season. The reasons for this are that I start work at 10:00 AM and have a one hour commute to work. The earlier start time in summer is because that this is before the sun comes up, and consequently becomes dangerously hot. I also find that running in the morning is also a fantastic way to clear ones head before a day’s work (see point 1).

If one is to wake up early and tackle a 14 kilometer run, it’s also wise not to have any impediments to one actually getting out of bed and onto one’s feet. One of the things that I mentioned in my blog post about 6 things I have learnt in 2 years of sobriety was how running was integral for finding the ‘how’ for me to quit drinking. The trigger for me to stop was a bout of tendonitis I suffered after completing the Nagoya Adventure Marathon in 2018. Also waking up feeling dehydrated with my head feeling like it was stuffed with cotton wool and sawdust saw me permanently abstain from having a tipple of an evening.

By signing up to complete a full or half marathon, you are also improving how you live in general.

3) The Yardsticks We Set For Ourselves

Running for me as a kid was a boon to my self confidence as I could see myself improving with every run. This is still the case to this day. Every time I finish any type of run, I have pitted myself against the person I see in the mirror, and have come out on top. When I complete a full or half marathon, that feeling is multiplied as that is the culmination of months of training, fluctuating motivation, shitty weather and negotiating family, work and personal schedules. As finishing times become faster and faster, progress becomes palpable and you just want more.

Often, validation from strangers on an inherently impersonal platform can be the driver of our behavior. This applies doubly to the fitness community.
Photo by Oladimeji Ajegbile on Pexels.com

However, perfectionism is the enemy of progress, and this mindset should be approached with caution. Within running culture there is a toxic belief that states we should be constantly beating our personal bests for a certain distance, completing a certain amount of races in a year and a certain amount of mileage per week, maintaining a certain average weekly pace, and be always aiming for ‘better’ results. Add this on to a self promoting social media culture, and we can find ourselves wanting to keep up with professional marathoners, or the type of runner who constantly posts photos online of them in a midriff top with an exposed six pack.

While I don’t habitually practice what I preach (on all of the points), we shouldn’t do this. There is no ideal running pace, body type or training regime. We all do what we are capable of doing. Sure, there are some things that we should commit ourselves to if we are to give ourselves the best possible shot of completing the race we have signed up to (see point 2). That being said, comparing ourselves with what others are doing is not a healthy foundation for life, let alone running marathons.

I’ve always found the best criteria for measuring success when completing any type of race is whether you finished it or not, and whether you have tried your best in your preparation. If you have looked after both of those things, the result will take care of itself. By just turning up, you have done more than what most people, who have chosen to stay on the sofa that day, have done.

4) Transactionality and Prioritization

If you really want to complete a marathon of any description, there some things you will need to sacrifice, and other things you will need to prioritize over your runs. Do you like eating donuts and drinking chocolate milk for breakfast every morning? Great, but that will likely bog you down on training runs. Do you often stay up until midnight watching Game of Thrones and shitposting on Twitter? If you enjoy that, more power to you, but it might be hard to find time to fit training sessions in.

I will now using training in the gym as an example of what I am referring to in this point.

As mentioned earlier, while it’s comforting to think that there are few prerequisites to complete a marathon besides appropriate clothing and footwear, in addition to a go get ’em attitude, this isn’t the case. Combining your running (cardio) with strength training is crucial. So where should you start? While you will need to swing your arms when running and having muscular arms isn’t a bad thing, too much time spent on your biceps and on the bench press will be a misplaced use of your time and energy. It’s not going to strengthen the areas you need to be powerful when you hit the bitumen.

So what areas should you focus on? As previously stated, a full marathon will see you on your feet for potentially four hours (and for two hours if you are doing a half). You will need a strong core; meaning planking, burpees, squats, and all types of yoga should be on the menu. It goes without saying that you will need strong legs, so lunges, leg bridges and leg presses are also recommended. While these two areas might seem unrelated to the uninitiated, your core, legs and lower back compose an interconnected network of muscles that keep your legs moving. As you run and your legs get naturally stronger, you hamstrings and quadriceps, which are connected to your hips and lower back, will also lengthen. If you don’t reinforce both your legs and lower back, the resultant strain can lead not only to hamstring pain, but also lower back and calf niggles.

While I said in point three that there is no one perfect body type to run a marathon, there isn’t really much point trying to look like Mark Wahlberg in his Calvin Klein commercials, Lou Ferringo in the Incredible Hulk or a model from the cover of the swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated if you want to commit yourself to running. While you want to be strong, you want to be ‘lithe strong’, not ‘beefcake strong’ or ‘skinny’. Carrying around too much weight, or having not enough muscle to support yourself, can lead to injury. Please don’t misunderstand what I am saying in this case. If you are on the heavier side, this doesn’t disqualify you from running full stop. I have seen runners weighing well over the 100 kilogram mark totally kick ass. I just personally believe trying to add more weight for whatever reason can make for a more uncomfortable run and increase the likelihood of injury from the extra weight. That’s the calculation you will need to make.

Organizing certain parts of your life to maximize your running performance is something I strongly advocate for. However, we should also remember many of us aren’t professional marathon runners. We have jobs, we have families, we have hobbies, and we have responsibilities. Moreover, things often get in the way like inclement weather, injuries, alarms not going off, increased responsibilities at work, favors being asked by friends, and restrictions on freedom of movement caused by global pandemics. We should not and must not compromise what is truly important like our health, familial relations, friendships, or personal values.

Missing out on a morning training session can be frustrating, but always remember that it can always be rescheduled. Focus on what’s important now, and take care of your training later.

5) Serendipitous Benefits

There are unexpected and welcome side effects that come about when taking up a new hobby that requires a readjustment of one’s lifestyle. I’m sure that a lot of what I am about to say in the next paragraph could equally apply to something like taking up ballet, or learning a new instrument or a foreign language. But one thing I have noticed is that running has bestowed me with opportunities to do things that I would never have imagined. There have been unexpected benefits that have come from my training: However, for the sake of brevity, I will highlight just one thing I would have never expect to have been involved in when I first headed out on that incandescently hot afternoon 4 years ago.

After completing my first half marathon in 2018, the Inuyama Half Marathon, I had moved closer to my ultimate goal of completing a full marathon. I initially had signed up for a full marathon earlier in 2017, the aforementioned Nagoya Adventure Marathon, but had badly injured my ankle in the lead up. Rather than rehabbing and getting back on course, I ultimately ended up crawling into a ball of self pity and frustration, and gave up on completing that marathon (ironically enough, the event was cancelled due to a typhoon hitting Nagoya on race day). I stopped training, and hit the beers and salty snacks, until my wife made the eminently sensible suggestion that perhaps I might want to run a half first, then tackle a full.

With that objective cleared, and remembering my last experience training for a full marathon, I wanted to put something in place that would FORCE me to complete a full marathon. My contention was that if I was not only responsible to myself, but to others, then it would be more likely that I wouldn’t spit the dummy half way through should I encounter rough sailing. But how?

Around that time, I heard a discussion on an episode of the Joe Rogan Experience which briefly touched upon the life of African American comedian, presidential candidate, civil rights activist and marathon runner, Dick Gregory. I can’t remember what was said exactly, but both Joe and his guest John Joseph, who is the lead singer of the Cro Mags straight edge punk band, mentioned that he used his running to raise awareness of causes he was committed to. Doing a little further research, I have since found out that he once ran from New York City to Los Angeles at a clip of 50 miles a day to raise awareness of world hunger. It then dawned on me. What if I could link my running in with the philanthropic and humanitarian causes I am passionate about?

The photo I used on my GoFundMe page when I was fundraising for Door to Asylum. This was taken on Mount Koubou in Gamagori.

Therefore, I decided to start a fundraiser along the lines of the Melbourne based Asylum Seeker Resource Center’s run for refugees fundraising campaign for Door to Asylum, a local NGO that supports refugees and asylum seeker in Nagoya. I was able to raise roughly 700 Australian dollars during my campaign, and was also able to raise around 300 dollars for the same organization the following year. If any of the money that we were able to raise was able to help someone who is struggling, then the objective of this project was complete. 

This was definitely not something that I planned to do when I set out on this journey.

6) You Are Stronger Than You Thought

While I facetiously laugh at my first attempt at running, and I would never advocate anyone trying this, running has taught me that we as people are capable of so much more than we think we are capable of. The ex-Navy SEAL, David Goggins, wrote in his book that most of us only ever use 40% of our potential effort before giving up. While I don’t know the exact breaking point for most people when broken down into a percentage form, and what we can achieve is constrained by where we live, our financial situation and other factors, I do know that when pushed, many of us are able to do a lot more than we think we can given the blessings we have received.

A good example of this is when, prior to me completing the Nagoya Adventure Marathon in 2018, I ran 32 kilometers as my last long distance pracitice session. Being my first marathon and still making mistakes (which I continue to do, though I just make less of them these days), I headed out around 6:00 PM and decided to run along the road running parallel Toboneyama, a mountain that separates Gamagori and Kota. At it’s absolute peak, Toboneyama has an elevation of about 443 meters, so I was putting myself up against it. I also had a crappy meal of microwavable TV dinner style pasta, which surely wouldn’t be advisable for a long run like this. With that being how it was, and contending with a balmy evening of about 27 degrees, I set out on my run.

After running to the peak of the particular segment I was travelling along, and getting to the bottom again, I was feeling pretty good. I ran another 8 or so kilometers into Okazaki, and then turned to head for home. It wasn’t until I hit the 22 kilometer mark that I realized something was going wrong. My legs were cramping badly. I wanted to run, but something within me was telling me if I tried, I would collapse. Bursts of 300 or 400 meters were followed by extended periods of rest that saw me sitting down and trying to summon up whatever energy I had to progress

So thirsty was I by this stage, I felt like an explorer in the desert scrounging for water. I usually take about 500 yen with me on most runs to buy drinks from the many vending machines that are scattered along the Japanese urban landscape, and was down to my last 90 yen. Knowing that most vending machines don’t sell any drinks for less than 100 yen, I staggered into the local 24 hour Trial supermarket to get the cheapest bottle of water I could find. In my runner’s delirium, I got the bright idea to buy the biggest bottle of water I could afford; a two liter offering. I thought I needed as much water as I could drink, so I wouldn’t dehydrate before I got home. It goes without saying that it put sufficient lead in my legs. It was as though I had two needy and crying toddlers clinging onto my legs for dear life.

At this point, I decided to film what I was going through in case I got dehydrated and had to go to the hospital. I no longer have the video alas, but I was sure that I wouldn’t finish this run on my feet. However, by willing myself beyond the next horizon, beyond the next intersection, beyond the next railway crossing, I finished my 32 kilometers. Despite losing my house key in the process (and going out with my wife until 11 :00 PM looking for it in the wilds of Toboneyama), you couldn’t convince me I was NOT going to finish my marathon. I had run further than I ever had up until that point, taken on the highest elevation I ever had, handicapped myself by taking in excessive fluids, fought through my doubts and anxieties about getting home in one piece, and still finished. Nothing was going to stop me from that point.

While I have written about a couple of example where I was quite irresponsible, and I could give you many more, you tend to get a sixth sense as to what type of discomfort is just your brain wanting to give into fatigue, and what could genuinely injure you or put your health at risk. If I start seeing spots in front of my eyes during a run these days caused by extreme heat, I know it’s time to pack it in and reschedule. If I feel a slight stiffness in my calves and legs as I take off on a run, I know that it’s just me getting warmed up, and the sensation will be gone one kilometer into my training session. I don’t need to prove my macho to anyone or anything these days, and this is never been what running has meant to me anyway.

Many lay people, when pondering the sheer distance of completing a full, half or ultra marathon (100 kilometers), get intimidated. I guarantee that when you put your mind to what seems like a Herculean test of willpower, you will get over the line if you have fulfilled the prerequisite of having said willpower. If you can live up to the metric that you have set yourself, should it be realistic, I guarantee that it will provide a profound sense of satisfaction, happiness and serenity!

Some Excellent Running Related Sites:

Has this blog post resonated with you? Thinking of starting to run yourself? Then check out the following webpages!

Runner’s World: An international magazine devoted to what you think it does: write about running. There are also plenty of human interest stories, training tips and workout plans.

Virtual Run Events: With COVID shutting down races around the world, it has been hard to scratch my itch to race. While I personally find that running in an organized competition surrounded by other human beings provides a better feeling of camaraderie and motivation, in many cases this just isn’t possible. In the meantime, I have been running virtual marathons. If you are wanting to run your first five or ten kilometer, or half or full marathon, but are in an area where in person gatherings are banned, this is a good substitute.

RunKeeper: This is the application I use to track my runs. Some people prefer Strava or Garmin, but I have always been loyal to this.

RunNet: A Japanese site, so you will need to be able to speak said language. However, if you are a foreigner who can comfortably converse in Nihongo, this is a national database of all running, cycling, rogaining and other miscellaneous events in Japan. You can sign up for races through their portal as well.

TrackClubBabe: The Instagram page of Kim Clark. She is a former human rights lawyer (big thumb up there) turned commercial real estate agent, who regularly posts about running, training tips and running mindset. Her take on running expectations is one I agree with, and one that is sustainable.

Black Girls Run: There is a bullshit idea out there that one has to be some comfortable, self improvement obsessed suburbanite with too much leisure time to run on a regular basis. This organization was set up in 2009 to tackle obesity in the African-American community and to provide resources to both newby and veteran runners.

Spartan Race Japan: This is my next goal. I wanted to get this done last year, before COVID got in the way! This is not just running, but a test of physical strength that makes sure you get down and dirty!!!

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