Over the last few months I’ve been planning a 50K trail run course, clearing trails and posting photos and course updates for the Kakamigahara Alps Trail Run Project on Facebook. All of it, along with a lot of training, was for yesterday’s first full course run.
What I didn’t expect when I started this project was that I’d be joined by thirteen other enthusiastic runners, all of which turned up despite a gloomy weather forecast: rain, snow, strong winds and cold temperatures.
I think every one of us was either a sub-4 hour marathoner or had trail race experience. Three members of the group were UTMF qualifiers, and one of those (who came all the way up from Kyoto to take part) has entered the draw for the UTMB in France next summer.
However, this wasn’t a race. The plan was to run together as a group with the goal of completing the course within 12 hours. It was my job to lead the group. I had divided the course into sections, with checkpoints and “aid stations” along the way, each with a target time.
To cut a long story short, only three of us (me, Souichirou and Yuki) completed the whole course, along with “Randy” who joined us from the 2nd aid station at the 17km point.
What went wrong?
While it was undoubtedly an incredible day, the fact is that only 3 of 13 starters finished the course and no-one did it within the time limit. Had this been a race, we all would have had a “DNF” by our names. For the rest of this blog post, I want to look at the factors that kept us from finishing and forced so many to retire early.
1. The weather
Rain, snow and very cold conditions all contributed to slowing the group down. Wet leaves and slippery mud made us extra cautious. Snow weighed down on branches, causing them to partly block the trails. For one early part of the run, we were constantly ducking to avoid them. The wet, snow covered bushes along narrow trails brushed up against us, making us even wetter, and this led to problems with clothing.
Not everyone was kitted out in Goretex rain wear, and even those that were, weren’t immune to cold hands and feet as water soaked through gloves and shoes. Within three hours of the start, we had our first retirement. Poor Akinori was soaked through, freezing to death and in no shape to continue. Hiroyuki, who was planning to leave early for work anyway, took him down an escape route.
The course consists of a dozen or so mountains around 300m high, and it’s a relentless up and down journey. At the top of each little peak, we waited for the guys at the back to rejoin us, and while that was expected, more time was lost as people changed jackets and gloves. No-one could really decide if they had warmed up enough to take layers off, but every time we did stop, we’d start to get cold again.
2. Aid stations
Far too much time was lost at aid stations. I didn’t plan for long breaks, but a full 20 minutes passed at the first aid station as people went inside the restaurant to warm up by the heater and drink what looked like bowls of warm milk. Time at the second aid station was just as long, and five-minute breaks here and there, either on mountain tops or waiting for others to catch up really started to add up. By 17K, any thoughts of finishing within 12 hours were forgotten.
3. The rules
I posted some rules in advance on the Facebook group. They probably seemed trivial at the time, but they would have made things much smoother had I enforced them a bit. Two rules in particular:
We’ll take a quick break after each of the 15 stages. Use this time to play with your backpack, etc. Or at aid stations, of course.
As mentioned above, people were in and out of their backpacks too frequently (myself included!). Since we stopped so often, it’s completely understandable, but still, I didn’t want to move the group forward until everyone was suited up and ready to go.
If you can’t see the person behind you, please stop. One by one, everyone will stop.
This rule simply wasn’t followed, which led to Alex getting left behind and completely lost. He took off in the wrong direction, adding nearly 3km to his own run while the rest of us (when we realized over 10 minutes later) were blowing whistles and considering splitting into two groups, one as a rescue party. We did send out a scout, Kero, who thankfully found him, but Alex never really recovered from his detour up a different mountain!
We had already lost Teruhiro at 22km when he bowed out with sore knees, and by 28km another three were suffering and chose to take a short cut to the aid station for lunch. The rest of us joined them soon after, by which time it was 2:30pm, a full hour and a half later than scheduled. Needless to say, the delay in getting proper food took its toll on a lot of people, and a total of seven guys called it a day at that point. That left just four of us!
It is clear now that we should have had two “lunch” breaks: one when we first got to the aid station at around 9:45am, and the second as originally planned. Of course, this would have added to the course time.
The last 20km
After lunch, there was one more big climb up Mt. Yagi before another stop to refuel at a convenience store.
I filled up on chicken, KitKats and Monster Energy, and then we set off on roads and forest trails back towards the start. The sun set and soon we were heading back up the mountain we first climbed over 12 hours earlier. The night views were beautiful and we reveled in our success when we finally reached the end, 13 and a half hours and 52.4km after the start.
If you’ve read this far, thank you! My next challenge is a full marathon on January 19th. On a pancake flat course, I’m hopeful I can trim a few minutes off my best time, but I’ve said that before!