Report: Utsukushigahara 70K Trail Run

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.

Restless nights

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…

Incredible sights

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.

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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.

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(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.

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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.

Lessons learned

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!

11 comments

  1. Scott Brown

    Excellent report Nick. These kind of races are brutal and need some experience to tackle successfully. I hope you don’t give up on them cause I think this is your sport you just need more time to toughen up. I hope Kevin is reading as our mate should know that it will be impossible and dangerous to attempt his dessert race until he has experienced something like this race you just ran. Glad you came out of it unscathed.

    • Nick Ramsay

      Cheers Scott. Not just more time to toughen up, but a clearer understanding that trail running in Japan doesn’t equal pretty forest trails; it equals hiking up one or more mountains and running down the other side!

      I agree that Kevin needs to do this kind of “running” before taking on the Gobi!

  2. Jonathan Warner

    This was a great report. It sounds quite rough, but you came out learning some really valuable things! I agree with Scott, the trail running seems like it’s your sport, and I have confidence in your ability to conquer it.

  3. Christine Ramsay

    I think you did amazingly well to achieve 38 km uphill. I agree with the others, this is your sport and you have learned a lot from this race for future races. I think you did the sensible thing to stop before you damaged yourself. I’ll print this report off for Dad as I know he will enjoy reading it as much as I did. Well done, Nick.

  4. Ewen

    Thanks Nick. Sensible decision to pull the plug when you did. Live to fight another day. And you were lucid enough to learn from your experience! Sounds like a hell of a tough event to attempt for your first trail race. Six Foot Track is the big daddy down here and it’s ‘only’ 45k with 10k of uphill. Hope the recovery goes well. All the best for the next one!

    • Nick Ramsay

      Thanks Ewen. Having had a full day to dwell on the race, I feel I could have kept going and maybe even finished within the time limit… but another 32km would have torn me up! How these guys do 100-milers is beyond me! Now I’m looking forward to training over the cooler months with a better understanding of what this kind of race involves.

  5. Joseph Tame

    Big respect to you Nick for taking on that challenge. I find it hard enough getting up the hills of Tokyo’s Minato ward, let alone real mountains! Looking forward to seeing your trail running career blossom over time.

    • Nick Ramsay

      Thanks Joseph. Attempting something like this, something that’s bigger than I’ve experienced before, has opened my eyes to a whole new level of adventure! Can’t wait to get going again.

  6. Mark Watson

    Super effort.That 38k is equivalent to any 70k trail run here in NZ. You should have a look at the trailer for Anton KrupickaIts new film “In the High Country”. This is your sport for sure Nick.

    • Nick Ramsay

      Cheers Mark, maybe I should move to New Zealand! Hopefully I’ll get a chance to see In the High Country, but if not I’ll settle for YouTube videos like that trailer. :-)