You’ve probably already heard that I pulled out of the Utsukushigahara 70K trail race at the 38km point, but a lot happened before that.
The day we were to drive up to Nagano coincided with my once-a-year duty to set up the crates for our neighborhood “unburnable rubbish” day. With the race on my mind, and knowing I had to get up at 5am to set up those crates, I rolled around in bed and got very little sleep.
The next night, after checking in at the race venue and having dinner, it was 10pm by the time I was prepped and ready for bed. Mami and Rikuto didn’t make it easy for me to sleep, and I had to get up at 2am for a 4am race start! I went to the race with just one hour’s sleep…
We stayed at a Japanese B&B, and at 2:45am the owner kindly drove me to the ski resort where the race would start. Driving on roads through forests, I saw a deer, a real, bigger-than-Bambi deer, in the full, on the roadside. I had never seen one before.
With so little light in the mountains, together with clear skies, stars shone and a crescent moon was brighter than I’ve ever seen.
Running up the ski slopes from the start line presented another incredible scene. Six hundred headlamps dancing to bear bells. It reminded me of when I hiked Mt. Fuji at night and could see the lights and hear the bells of hikers below, only this was on a much larger scale.
(Picture via @myaha7 on Twitter)
Then, with the sun rising, a wonderful red and orange filled the horizon behind the silhouette of mountains. Stunning.
At one point we ran between farms filled with cows. That was very cool, but most of the mountain top running was spoiled by thick cloud that blocked the supposedly spectacular views. Light rain and gale-force winds didn’t help much, either.
Acts of kindness
Running in the dark, on mud, wet grass and rocky surfaces, climbing wind-battered mountains and stumbling down steep, slippery descents, inevitably leads to falls and injuries. It was reassuring to see runners stop to check on their fallen comrades. I witnessed one man being lifted out of a deep ditch after falling through a fence, and even a simple thing like when I stepped aside to catch my breath, people would ask if I was okay.
I was also moved by the grandmother who came out to support us, offering a plate of mini tomatoes to runners as they passed her house.
My performance and failures
The start of Utsukushigahara felt a little bit like the swim leg of the triathlon I did in July. I was swept up by surrounding runners and found myself going at their pace, not mine. It was my mistake starting among the first hundred of the 600 people taking part.
I felt good and capable of keeping up for the first 10K, but the pressure started to build as we ran on single track trails. I had to keep up with the person in front of me, while the people behind me snapped at my heels. Stepping to one side to let people pass would have been sensible, but I was enjoying the challenge of skipping over rocks and power hiking up the steep climbs at a pace that would see me finish the race in around 12 hours – a time I thought I was capable of, because…
A lack of experience
I greatly underestimated how steep and relentless the uphill would be. I always assumed that since it was a “race”, the course would be runnable. Even though I’d seen the elevation chart, I thought each ascent would be a bit gentler than it was. How wrong. Most of the first 30km was hard hiking up long, but steep trails. Now that I realized how tough the course was, I knew I had spent too much energy in that first 10K, and it wasn’t long before my climbing legs lost their ability to propel me upward.
The downhills were, in many places, just as steep. Yet I was surprised by how fast the other runners were going down them. It became obvious that they were deliberately going very slowly uphill to save their climbing legs for later, and bombing downhill to keep their average pace up. Very smart. For a while I was overtaking loads of people by power hiking past them, which gave me a false sense of superiority, and by the time I realized my tactic was severely flawed, I was already spent.
Knowing when to give up
By 28km, I knew I’d never make it to 70km. Time was still on my side, but my body and mind were tiring quickly. I knew that from aid station 4 (at 38K) to the finish, there was another 25km of endless uphill, and by now the sun was out and it was hot! My toes were starting to blister and my choices became clear: I could either push on, probably miss the 15-hour time limit as I was slowing so much, and almost certainly wreck myself again like I did in the Kakegawa Marathon; or call it quits before I hurt myself, and spend the rest of the day with my family.
This was my first trail race and I learned a lot. I now know I need to train on mountains that are similar to those in the race; go really easy on the uphill; get trail shoes that fit me properly; practice downhills more; sleep before the race and start nearer the back!