Category: Fitness

Report: OSJ Ontake Ultra Trail 100K

Last weekend I took part in my first 100km race, the OSJ Ontake Ultra Trail.

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It came a bit too soon after the Utsukushigahara 80K, and I wasn’t particularly up for it, especially as it started on the stroke of midnight when I’d usually be fast asleep in bed!

I opted to start at the very back of the 1,000 runners, intending to follow a very conservative race plan that totally lacked ambition, but would see me cross the finish line inside 20 hours and qualify for Japan’s premier trail race, the UTMF (Ultra-Trail Mount Fuji).

I quickly passed people at the start, but within five minutes realized I was well overdressed in my Goretex jacket so stepped aside to take it off and strap it to my little backpack. When I rejoined the race, I suddenly found myself at the very back with the sweeper car right behind me!

I was surprised at the quick, early pace, but got back among the runners when the road got so steep that everyone started walking.

Truth be told, I run very little. Most of my “trail running” practice is really fast hiking. I think I’m quite a fast walker, at least compared to the people at the backend of a race like this, but I’m sure the guys at the front are actually running up the hills!

So I started power hiking up the first of many long hills. The forest roads were steep and rocky, but they were still roads after all, nothing like the trails I hiked over in my last two ultras. If anything, the hardest sections were the runnable parts because of the risk of tripping.

I was surprised by just how much running we were doing, but was pleased to reach the first aid station (24km) well ahead of time. I was also surprised by how crowded it was. There must have been 150 runners lined up waiting to either refill their water bottles or use one of the few toilets. I had already stopped for a couple of leaks along the way and still had plenty of water so decided to just run right past the aid station. It was a great feeling moving 150 places up the field in a matter of seconds!

Three things stand out in my mind from this stage of the race: a majority of runners using hiking poles; one guy running in sandals; and some gorgeous female runners, the kind you’d see on the cover of a fitness magazine!

After four and a half hours of running in the dark, I was able to put my headlamp away and listen to the birds sing. There wasn’t much of a view as the trail was a corridor with a wall of trees on each side, but eventually we rose above the trees and to the first cut-off gate (33km). It was 5am and I was a whole hour ahead of the time limit. This aid station was also crowded so I just grabbed a slice of banana, stretched a bit and got moving again.

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Even though it was a 100km race, the only number in my head was 66. That is how many kilometers I had to cover to reach my drop bag at Aid 4 and I was already halfway there! My drop bag was filled with goodies that I was more excited about than the finish line itself, but you’ll have to read on a bit to find out what I’d packed. ;-)

Since kilometer 25, the blister on my little right toe that hadn’t fully healed after Utsukushigahara was stinging. This time I had taped it up, but that obviously wasn’t enough. Not wanting to be a big baby about it, I just ran on.

Well, I walked a lot. To ease the pressure on the blister I had to lean on other parts of my foot, and doing that never ends well. I walked into Aid 3 (47km), filled up my bottles for the first time, and walked out of Aid 3.

The next section was alongside a beautiful river through the valley. I continued to walk, feeling very heavy-legged and sore from the waist down, but I’ve had low points like this before and know that when the going gets tough it’s time to put on the iPod and do run-walk intervals with my stopwatch.

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It was a long way to the second cut-off gate (65km), but I finally got there a full two hours ahead of the time limit! That meant that I had five hours to reach the final cut-off gate just 17km away. And even better than that, I was just handed my drop bag!

In my drop bag I had packed my hiking poles (hooray!), pain killers (hooray!), a Snickers chocolate bar and Monster energy drink (double-hooray!), clean socks, a fresh t-shirt and a new supply of Clif bars and Trail Mix for my bag.

My priority was to sort out my toe. I’ll spare the grizzly details and just say that it was really, really bad. I had my first aid kit so did the best job I could of treating it, and got on with the race.

Checking my watch, I spent a whopping 36 minutes in Aid 4. Fortunately, time was no longer a concern and I certainly felt recharged.

It wasn’t long, though, before I had a terrible need for some bowel movement! I would never make the next aid station and wasn’t going to go back to the last one. I tried to hold it, but no, I had to find a bush. Again, I’ll skip the details other than to say that there aren’t many bushes to hide behind when you’re running on a cliff face. I smiled at the other runners as they went by, my upper body clearly visible over the small bush I found.

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I soon met up with Aoyama-san, who I ran the KA50K with in February. He had hurt his knee and was walking. We chatted for a good hour about various races and November’s OMM Japan which we’re both doing, then when his friend caught up I left them together and started to run again.

It occurred to me that I could break 16 hours if I ran. So that’s what I did. The pain killers were working and most of the day’s climbing was behind me. I raced down the hills until I caught another guy running, Matsuda-san, who just so happens to live in Kakamigahara like me. We ran together, chatting about our local courses and whatnot.

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82km into the race and we reached the last cut-off gate. We had a tiny cup of Coca-Cola supplied by one kind individual who had set up her own private aid station with a mouthful of Coke for each of the 1,000+ runners. Many thanks to her. It was disappointing that OSJ, the race organizers, couldn’t provide such tantalizing refreshments themselves. They did give us a small bowl of rather tasteless noodles, which I was very grateful for under the circumstances.

18km to go with three hours to do it if I was to finish by 4pm, breaking the 16hr barrier. I asked Matsuda-san if he was up for it. He had some knee pain and now both my little toes were blistered, but we decided to give it a shot.

We ran, and walked, and ran again. Most of the conversation was now focused on how much farther we had to go and whether we’d make it in time. It had been a hot afternoon, but suddenly there was a very nice breeze. I joked that this might be followed by a storm, and we both laughed nervously.

Sure enough, within minutes the sky turned dark and it started to rain, absolutely bucketing it down. There was nowhere to shelter so we, and the few runners around us, rushed to get our rainwear out of our packs. I smiled, knowing that my Goretex jacket that I started the race with would finally get used… until I remembered I had put in my drop bag at Aid 4 because I didn’t think I’d need it anymore! Fortunately I had swapped it for a light windbreaker (with water resistant properties!) so I put that on instead. Matsuda-san had made a similar mistake, swapping his hat for a visor, and now his head was soaked.

The rain was relentless and the trails quickly turned into rivers. Our feet were drenched as we waded through the water. Then, as quickly as it started, it stopped. The sun came out again and we refocused our energies on getting to the finish. I learned later that there had been no rain at all at the event ground where my friend, Yoshio, had already finished. That’s mountain weather for you.

We had been slowed considerably by the rain, more hill-climbing and aching limbs. By the time we reached the last aid station at 94km, it was 3:10pm. We took off our jackets and I told Matsuda-san I was going to run for it. The poor guy was clearly tired, in pain, and 6km in 50 minutes was asking too much. I promised I’d wait for him at the finish line and then ran ahead.

What a tortuous 6km that was. Had I been half an hour earlier or later, I could have gently strolled it, but no. I had this 16hr target embedded firmly in my mind, and the only way to achieve it was to run as hard as I could for 50 minutes. The road felt long and I thought every roof I saw in the distance was the sports ground at the finish, but I was wrong every time. I kept looking at my watch. Was it fast? Was it slow? Was the distance really 6km or 6.9km? I kept pushing.

Finally, I could hear the loudspeaker and then saw the finish gate up the hill! 12 minutes to go, but wait, the road turned away from the finish and made us climb the hill the long way around. Four minutes to go!

I was so close now. I turned into the home straight and people cheered for me! The music was blaring and the guy on the loudspeaker was egging me on. I reached for the sky and let out a huge “woohoo!” as I crossed the line in 15 hours and 54 minutes. (Turns out my watch was a bit fast after all!)

Matsuda-san came in about 20 minutes later and we congratulated and thanked each other. We had both completed our first 100Ks and had qualified for the UTMF, or at least earned enough points to enter. Entry is a lottery so there’s no guarantee either of us can do it.

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Aoyama-san also finished and earned his points. In fact, everyone I know that took part finished. Yoshio, who I had driven up with, finished in under 14 hours, qualifying him for the 100 mile version of the day’s race should he want to do that next year.

My next race is OMM Japan in late November.

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Most photos kindly borrowed from Aoyama-san. Others are from various Facebook acquaintances. :-)

Report: Utsukushigahara 80K, 2014

This weekend I went up to Nagano prefecture to take part in the Utsukushigahara 80K trail race. This is the same race I DNF’d last year, except this time they increased the distance by 10K and added only one hour to the course time limit! (Course map and elevation chart)

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The top runners on the final climb – photo from Utsukushigahara Trail Run’s official Facebook page.

Before the race

I drove up on Friday in my little Suzuki Wagon, in which I’d be sleeping the next two nights, and picked up my race pack at the event hall. Unfortunately there weren’t any nice polo shirts for entrants this year, only a little foot massage roller which anyone can get on Rakuten.

I met up with Takashi and we parked our cars back to back so that when we opened the trunks they formed a nice canopy. He made us a lovely cup of coffee before we headed down to the event hall for the pre-race meeting.

It had been a wet week already, but as we left the meeting it was bucketing down with rain. The forecast for race day was rain and cloud, and up in the mountains the weather is rarely favorable.

By 7pm, I had set up my bed. My goal was to get more shut-eye than the two hours I got last year… but it wasn’t to be. Pre-race nerves, concerns over what to wear in the rain, and the discomfort of sleeping in such a cramped space kept me up for most of the night. I wasn’t the only one, though. Takashi was also awake by midnight, so we sat down for a Cup Noodle and rice balls, and desperately tried to find the Brazil vs Columbia game on his little TV. Alas, we had to settle for some Wimbledon while applying tape, Gourney Goo, and making multiple trips to the toilet.

It continued to rain.

I had brought my full Goretex suit, gaiters and Inov-8 Roclite GTX shoes as emergency wear should the weather be as bad as it was. But, something inside was telling me to forget the waterproofs and go light. This was a decision that would make or break my race. With 20 minutes left before the start, I opted for my new, ridiculously thin Montbell ultra-light parker and my almost stud-less Altra Olympus shoes.

Just before the race, we met up with some Facebook friends for a pre-race photo:

Before the race!

And they’re off!

We were still inside the building at the start line when the race got underway. We filed out into the rain slowly with the sweeper behind us. I was adamant that I start at the back and if I passed people by walking up the ski slopes then fine, I’d be placed with people of my ability. Sure enough that happened, and by the time we got up the first big climb it was daylight already.

Despite the slower-than-last-year start, I still had to step aside to let people pass me once we hit the first stretch of mud. Most of the next 6km downhill was slippery, deep, wet mud and I fell over time and time again.

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The mud in the above photo is from the River ‘n Rapids 10K, but it looks just like what we had here.

Just like last year, I was amazed by how fast people bombed downhill. Totally fearless. People skidded, tumbled, crashed into trees, picked themselves up and kept on going. I cautiously tiptoed my way through until I took my first major fall. My legs skidded out from under me and I fell flat on my back, caked in mud.

What made matters worse was that everything you touched with muddy hands got covered in mud, too. Even my water bottle nozzles were filthy, but I had no choice but to suck on them anyway. It was a really messy affair. In some parts, the mud was so deep you’d sink into it up to your calves, and then had to be extra careful to pull your foot out without losing a shoe!

I got to the first aid station at the 14km mark 40 minutes later than last year, but fortunately only 5 minutes behind my planned race schedule. Not bad considering the state of the trail!

Aid 1 to Aid 2 (21km)

I didn’t stop at A1 at all. I had already had a cheeky wee behind a tree and still had enough water to get me to the next stop. Buoyed by my good progress and a big climb ahead of me (much better than a slippery downhill!) I set off up the next mountain in good spirits.

I had caught up with Takashi at the aid station so we attacked the climb together for the first part. The higher we got, the harder it became for him because he has trouble breathing at high altitudes (we were above 1,500m and climbing) so he told me to go ahead which I did. I employed the rest-step technique on the steeper sections and it helped me enormously. I didn’t feel the fatigue that wiped me out last year.

I stopped at the top to tighten my shoe lace (not so easy because I had to get a muddy gaiter unclipped first and that damn thing was so stubborn!) and then I ran down to the next aid station, slipping only a couple of times as I figured out that my Olympus shoes actually get very good traction on stone and grass.

Aid 2 to Aid 3 (26km)

I refilled my water bottles at Aid 3 and started up one of the steepest climbs which would take us to the highest point on the course, the Utsukushigahara Highlands, peaking at 2034m. There was a one or two kilometer segment that was a designated “no running” zone, but I was grateful for an excuse to walk anyway. Over the course of the day, I started to despise runnable sections. In a race like this, with so much hiking, you really had to run on every bit of flat or downhill otherwise you’d not make the next cut-off gate. I’ve not been running much in training, only about 150km a month, so runnable sections really wore me out!

Coca-cola and bananas at Aid 4 were awesome, and the volunteer staff were really encouraging, too.

Aid 3 to Aid 4 (39km)

I was 30 minutes behind last year’s pace, but feeling a lot better. In fact, it was at this point one year ago that I decided to give up. The thought of retiring this time never even crossed my mind, but the long, 12km descent down to Aid 4 did take its toll on my body and I had to stop to shake my knees out.

“What happened!?” shouted a familiar voice as a I let people pass me. It was Takashi. He had found a second wind coming down the mountain and a bit closer to sea level. I told him I was fine and we went off together again. Suddenly, I saw him stumble in front of me, twisting his ankle. Gah! It was the same ankle that had sidelined him earlier this year and this happened literally moments after we were discussing how great our progress was!

He gave it a wiggle, put on a brave face and we kept going down the hill. By the time we hit the road, his ankle forced him to walk so I pushed ahead to the aid station.

I devoured a bowl of noodles, drank more Coke, gobbled up some banana chunks and refilled my bottles. Yoshikazu (back pain) and Takashi (twisted ankle) were sat on the curb contemplating retirment. I wished them well and set off… in the wrong direction! Fortunately I realized my mistake quickly and embarrassingly ran back to the aid station and wished everybody well for a second time.

Aid 4 to Aid 5 (53km)

After a short stretch of road, I headed up a small, but steep mountain. I wasn’t moving quite as quickly as before, but still kept a steady pace. Coming down I took my worst fall of the day, cutting my arm on a tree branch, but it was really just a scratch. I also lost control near the bottom and skidded across the mud like a figure skater on one leg. It was remarkable that I kept my balance!

I passed through the cut-off gate right on schedule and even with an hour to spare, and then faced a 10km hill climb up a rocky, forest road. At this point I decided to run for 30 seconds and walk for 90 seconds repeatedly all the way to the top. On the way I passed a friend of a friend who was surprised as I ran passed him on a steep bend.  I explained that I was only running for thirty seconds, which he thought was manageable so he joined me. Two other guys he was chatting with joined us as well, so for the next 50 minutes we marched together as a group, with me calling out the intervals for each short run.

Aid 5 to Aid 6 (69km)

I reached the fifth aid station 10 minutes ahead of my planned schedule and debated whether to change my socks. The little toe on my right foot was hurting with each step, but I really wanted to keep pressing forward so I had a glass of milk and left the aid station.

10 minutes later I gave up and sat on the grass to change just one sock (I compromised!). Eugh! What a mess! Over 10 hours of running in water-logged shoes had left my feet horribly soggy and muddy as well. All the tape I had put on had just washed off in my sock and my toe was getting pinched with each step in such a way that the skin had cracked. I put on some more tape around the toe, a fresh sock, and continued my journey.

This particular part of the course was 16km and mostly runnable, which put unwanted pressure on me to actually run. I ran a few short bursts, stopping to catch my breath or to tiptoe around the mud, but I was struggling now. I had lost sight of the runner in front of me and couldn’t see anyone behind me, either. It was reminiscent of a position I found myself in three weeks earlier in the Asama~Sugadaira Trail Mountain Race. In that race, I conceded defeat and walked to the next aid station where I DNF’d.

Time was still on my side, but I knew I couldn’t dawdle. The sun finally came out and it got very hot, very quickly. I took off my jacket, opened a fresh packet of trail mix and turned on my iPod. The music got me going again and I started to make some headway.

As the trail descended, the conditions got worse again. Earlier in the day, there had been a 40km race on this very stretch of trail. The hundreds of runners doing that shorter course had churned up the trail really badly. It got so bad that it was totally waterlogged. I guess you could call it a swamp. I was really, really sick of all the mud by now, but I waded through, being very careful to keep my shoes on my feet.

At the bottom of the mountain were four or five water crossings. They were great in that they would wash the mud off your shoes and the cold water was a blessing on my sore and tired feet, but crikey, the water doubled the weight of my shoes!

Speaking of shoes, it was at about this time that I was very grateful I didn’t wear my Goretex Inov8 Roclites. Not only would they have crushed my toes far worse than my Olympus did, but all the mud and water would have surely gotten into the shoes and then not have been able to escape because of the Goretex!

One more climb to the next aid station at Daimon Touge.

Without a doubt, this was the steepest mountain of the race. It was maybe only 200m high, but lacked any kind of steps. Remember walking up a slide when you were a kid? This was a very big, slippery slide with no handrails. Actually, the organizers did provide a rope, but to use it meant leaning back, pulling yourself up with your arms and walking your legs up the “wall”. That proved to be even harder than scrambling up on all fours, which is what I ended up doing.

Aid 6 to the Finish (80km)

I eventually got to Aid 6 at about 5 o’clock, half an hour before the cut-off time. There was a quick headlamp check, a bit of refueling and then I was off.

I just had one more cut-off gate to get through before the finish, and according to my plan it was only 3km away and I had 90 minutes to get there.

The trail was up and down, but quite runnable. However, my toe was hurting again and I could only manage short bursts of running on the downhills. Most of the time I walked at a pace fast enough to get me to the finish before nightfall.

That 3km felt like more like 5km, but I got to the final cut-off gate in just half an hour, putting me right back on schedule with two and a half hours to do just 8km. I gave a little shout of glee and thanked the staff at the gate. I knew that no matter what, I would make it to the end, even if I was outside the course time of 16 hours.

I stopped again to treat my toe. This time I rolled up a wet wipe and taped that to it.

While I was sitting beside the trail, a lot of familiar faces walked past. It was interesting that even though I had been overtaken by so many people, it was always the same people! I had somehow managed time and time again to catch them on the uphills and pass them at the aid stations. But I wasn’t competing with them and they weren’t with me. All of us had just one goal and that was to finish the race. And there was a great sense of comradery among us as we encouraged each other along.

Another steep climb tested our legs and willpower to their max. I had to take rest breaks before reaching the top of the last climb. From here to the finish, there was just a gentle run across the mountain top and then a long run down the ski slopes to the finish line. I emptied a whole bottle of water to lighten the load and enjoyed the scenery for the first time all day.

However, to my surprise and those around me, there was another mountain to climb… and then another, and another. None of these were very big, but having already climbed over 4,000m and with the finish line so close, these really were an unwelcoming sight.

With the clock ticking, we again took careful steps down steep, slippery trails and back up over the rocks. “5km to go”, read a sign. Everybody around me, myself included, sighed in disbelief. We thought it would be over by now, but on we trudged.

At last, a volunteer greeted us and announced that the last 4km would be down the ski slopes. Hooray! Hooray! What a feeling of relief!

I walked down, giving high-fives and congratulating the guys who ran past me. Even if I walked I would make it in time. Phew!

“Ohhhh! Nick-san!”, it was Takashi and Yoshikazu. They had convinced each other to battle on despite their injuries and caught me on the final stretch. Yoshikazu ran ahead, leaving me and Takashi to walk down to the finish.

It was an incredible feeling as we crossed the finish line together, 20 minutes before the time limit. People cheered and gave us high-fives. Music was blaring and the guy on the microphone was shouting out congratulations. Takashi broke down in tears. It was his longest run ever and he didn’t think he’d make it. I was overjoyed to finish what I failed to do a year before.

A fire roared, fireworks lit up the sky and we drank around a barbecue to celebrate an unforgettable day.

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My toe hurts, my back is sore and my lungs and heart feel somewhat overused, but I think I came through this relatively unscathed. And just as well, really, because I’m doing the OSJ Ontake 100K Ultra in less than two weeks!

Update: According to the race director, the future of the Utsukushigahara Trail Run is uncertain. The impact on the trail was devastating, and one runner suffered a serious injury.

Preview: Utsukushigahara, My Revenge!

This week I’ll head back up to Nagano prefecture for a second crack at the Utsukushigahara trail race.

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There are a couple of differences this year. Firstly, the race has been moved from the end of August to early July, which should make things a touch cooler. Secondly, for the sake of calling it a “50-miler”, they’ve extended the course by 10K, but with only an hour tacked on to the allowed time limit. That means we have 16 hours to run 80km.

I’ve only done two races since I retired exhausted at Utsukushigahara last year, and I’ve not had much success in those, either. I pulled out after just 10K of the Kisogawa Marathon in January with a sore Achilles tendon, and I  missed the cut-off time at the first gate in last month’s Asama~Sugadaira Trail Mountain.

So what makes me think I can finish Utsukushigahara this time?

Well, actually, I’m not terribly confident! Saying that, I’ve completed four 50K training runs in the Kakamigahara Alps and I’ve hiked up some big mountains in recent months, too.

And then there was the Asama~Sugadaira Trail Mountain race I attempted. I went the same distance in that race as I did in Utsukushigahara last year, but on even steeper, higher terrain, with a much heavier pack.

Finally, I have the experience of running the first half of this race before so with that knowledge, I’ll make these changes:

  1. Even if I can’t sleep before the 4am start, I must rest well;
  2. Tape up my toes and knees since they often cause me trouble;
  3. Start near the back, removing unwanted pressure from behind;
  4. Walk up the ski slope at the start of the race;
  5. Go light. My pack will weigh just 2kgs;
  6. Adopt a slow, but maintainable pace;
  7. Use the “rest-step” technique for steep climbs;
  8. Adjust pace according to my time through each aid station;
  9. Eat at regular intervals;
  10. Remember that bad times will pass. Endure.

Footwear

Perhaps my greatest fear right now is falling to my death. Last year I ran the race in Montrail Mountain Masochist 2s and by golly did my feet hurt after 30K. I then discovered Inov-8 and have worn Trailrocs and Roclites, both of which tend to crush my toes on steep descents, and neither of which I’ve found comfortable over long distances.

A few of my friends wear Hokas, but I opted to get Altra Olympus instead, because of the wider toe box. Unfortunately, as much as I love the comfort these shoes offer, the grip is absolutely terrible! They advertise them as trail running shoes, but after just 300km the grip has worn down tremendously and has very little traction on mountain trails here.

Just this morning I found myself unable to control a descent and ended up running off the trail into the trees that stood between me and a painful death. I was unhurt as I simply grabbed a tree to stop myself, but the prospect of falling in Utsukushigahara is very real.

Still, I will use the Altras because I know I would never make it 80km in my other shoes, and it’s too late to buy anything new. I just have to be very careful and avoid pressure from other runners to go faster downhill than these shoes will allow.

Final thoughts before I hit the expressway

Having DNF’d my last three races, I’m very keen to finish this one. I’ll be extremely disappointed with myself, and no doubt very grumpy, if I come back from Nagano without a finisher’s medal/towel/certificate or whatever a finisher gets! On the other hand, if I do make it to the end inside 16 hours, I’ll be full of confidence for the OSJ Ontake 100km, which is just two weeks later!

Thanks in advance for all your support.

 

 

First Solo KA50K

The only time prior to yesterday that I attempted the Kakamigahara Alps 50K trail run course by myself was in October. On that occasion I DNF’d at 44km after 11 and a half hours.

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Since then I’ve done it twice with a group, finishing both times in about 13 hours, but failing to meet the course time limit of 12 hours.

And so yesterday I set off by myself with a 12hr target to beat. Here I’ll summarize the good and bad points about the run:

The good

Instead of running faster than in previous attempts, I stuck to my “walk uphill, run downhill” rule, conserving energy and saving my climbing legs for later. This worked very well as I found I had enough in the tank to push the last 20K and finish inside 10 hours! 9:48 to be exact, smashing my best time by over three hours!

I shaved those three hours off the run time by skipping all breaks. I walked through all the observation spots without pause, and I ate lunch on the move instead of spending half an hour eating ramen at a small restaurant in the mountains. I also saved precious minutes by refilling my water bottle from fountains and springs instead of messing around with money and vending machines.

My new Altra Olympus shoes were awesome. The extra cushioning protected my feet from 50km of rocks and I didn’t suffer from any foot problems at all… quite unlike in previous attempts.

I finished with an average pace of 11:20/km, well inside the 12:00 pace I will need to maintain to finish the three big races I’m doing this summer.

The bad

Course conditions were just too good! I didn’t need my lights, rain gear or any extra layers besides a windbreaker. I carried only 500ml of water up front, with an emergency 300ml in my pack. All this meant that I could leave my 20L Ultrabag at home and go with my smaller and lighter Ultimate Direction SJ pack instead. While this lack of weight was great, it’s not ideal training for Nagano where my pack will be twice as heavy.

My new shoes didn’t have the traction on loose rocks that I’m used to with my Inov8 Roclites and Trailrocs. I slipped a lot and lost confidence on the steep descents. I feel like I should get a skateboard or something to practice free-sliding down hills!

Two months to go…

With just eight more weeks before the first (and hardest) of my three races, I’ll take my full pack to some 1~3,000m mountains to get used to long, sustained hikes. I might still do one more very long run over some gentler terrain as well.

Open Letter to Keith: Your First Trail Race

Hey Keith, so great to hear you’ve signed up for your first trail race. I thought I’d share some experiences from my first race so that you can avoid the mistakes I made.

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Last August, I took part in the “Utsukushigahara Trail Run & Walk”, a 70km trail race in Nagano. A few months earlier, I ran the Kakegawa Marathon and unnecessarily injured myself to the point where I only managed two hikes and two runs over 15km in the four months prior to the race. I did keep running, but I seemed to think that regular 10Ks on my local trails would prepare me for a 70K. I was so wrong!

In addition to a lack of race-specific training, I suffered from a lack of experience. I started the race too high up the field, which meant that when we reached the single-track trail, I felt pressured from behind to keep running at the same pace as everyone else. As it was early in the race, I still felt quite fresh and thought I could go with them, but I paid heavily for that later.

You may say, “Well, my race is only 32km, 1500m elevation gain, with a 9 hour time limit”, but let me remind you that I retired from Utsukushigahara at the 37km mark after 1900m in about 7 hours with one hour left before the cut-off, so it’s not so different from yours. I ran a bad race, but fortunately I have the chance to do it right this year and this is how I’m approaching it:

1. Moving time

Trail racing for guys like us is all about “moving”, whether it be walking, hiking or running. Nine hours, or longer in my case, is a long time to keep moving so it’s important to train for it. I’m trying to do a long-duration activity every other week.

2. Walk uphill

This year I’ll stick to the “walk uphill” rule. Races like these are far too long to risk wearing out your climbing legs by running uphill. With that in mind, hiking is something to practice, preferably on mountains that match the elevation of those in the race.

3. Practice walking

Walking uses different muscles to running, so it’s a good idea to practice that for long durations, too.

4. Master downhill running

Running downhill is another skill which I have yet to master. There are ways to run downhill to minimize damage to your body, and also to increase your resistance to muscle fatigue.

5. Train with your race gear

It’s important to get used to the gear you’re going to race with. For example, no backpack is perfect. It can take a while to become proficient at reaching into back pockets and managing water on the move.

If you’re taking poles, practice using them in advance.

Have confidence in your footwear. My feet were all blistered and sore in Utsukushigahara. If you’re moving for twice as long as you do in a marathon, you’ll want to be sure your shoes and socks are up to the job.

Train with a full pack. Extra weight on your back places extra stress on your body so you need to get used to it in advance. You’ll almost certainly need to carry rain gear and a first aid kit, so check you’ve got everything you need and practice using it.

6. Know the course

You don’t have to run the course in advance, but study the maps and elevation carefully. You need to move at a pace you can handle for the whole race, so knowing what big climbs are ahead of you is vital.

I hope you find these tips useful. I’m sure I’ll see you, and even run with you, before your race in June, but I wish you all the best for it anyway!

2014 Training Progress Update #1

I’ve been trying hard this year to avoid posting boasting about my training on social media, instead leaving my workouts where they belong, on RunKeeper and Strava. But please let me indulge myself a little on my blog. :-)

Three big races

I have some big goals this year and am doing some big runs to prepare for them. The three big races I’ve set my sights on are:

1. June 14th: “Mt. Asama to Sugadaira Trail Mountain”, a 90km race in Nagano with over 5,500m of elevation.

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2. July 5th: “Utsukushigahara Trail Run & Walk”, the same 70km race I did last year. Hopefully I won’t drop out half way through this time!

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3. July 20th: “OSJ Ontake Ultra Trail 100K”, a long one on rocky, mountain roads around Mt. Ontake.

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I wasn’t expecting Utsukushigahara to be sandwiched between the other two, but it’s been moved from the end of August to the start of July this year, and I had already signed up for the others.

Training so far

I’ve put “running” aside for the most part and instead am concentrating on “moving”. That means running, hiking or walking, it doesn’t matter just as long as I’m moving for as long as possible. I’m not an elite athlete and can’t be expected to run for 20 hours straight! With that in mind, the big “runs” I’ve done since the KA50K in December are:

1. Jan 2nd: a 10hr, 76km run beside the Nagara River railway.

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2. Feb 1st: the 2nd KA50K – 13hrs and 52km of trail running in the Kakamigahara Alps.

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3. Feb 28th: a 15hr, 52km overnight run in the Kakamigahara Alps.

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4. Mar. 15th: a 12hr, 86km road run from home to Tarumi station and back.

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I’ll try to do something big every other week, and as the snow melts I’ll head a bit farther north in Gifu to get my legs used to hiking up mountains bigger than the 300 meter ones here in Kakamigahara.

WAA MDS Ultrabag Review

I recently got a 20L WAA MDS Ultrabag. This is the official backpack for the Marathon de Sables, a 6-day, 250km foot race through the Sahara desert.

WAA MDS 20L Ultrabag

I have no plans to do that race, but do intend to go on some multi-day adventures here in Japan. So far, I have used the bag for a 52km trail run and an 86km road run.

I’ll assume that you’ve already researched the Ultrabag and know what it is and what accessories it comes with. If not, read up the feature list from the store I bought mine at.

Don’t like reading? Here’s a 20-minute video I made about the Ultrabag.

First impressions

The bag arrived in one piece, and by that I mean that all the accessories were pre-attached, and since there weren’t any instructions, I carefully remembered what connected to what before taking it to bits.

Once everything was off, I weighed the main pack at 576g, a touch less than the advertised 590g, and there are still a lot of small shock cords that could probably come off, too.

Bottles

I then unwrapped the bottles and spent a good while figuring out how the straws went through the caps… turns out you need to push them through with brute force and pull them out the other side with your jaws. Well, at least there shouldn’t be any leaking! Actually, I haven’t used the bottles yet. It’s still early in the year as I write this and have no need for massive 750ml bottles. Plus, each straw is too long when the bottle is on the shoulder strap, and too short when the bottle is on the side of the main backpack. I’ll probably cut the straw for use on my shoulder, but am using my old Ultimate Direction bottle for now.

Trekking poles

I really wanted to know how my Berghaus trekking poles would attach to the pack. The advertising says you can put “walking sticks” in the long, cylindrical pocket on the back of the pack, the one that’s supposed to be for the MDS flare. My poles are of the telescopic variety, and I could quite easily get one in that pocket, but just one. I’d have to take the pole baskets off to squeeze them both in.

A better solution was to attach them outside that pocket with the existing shock cord and elastic loop. Excellent, except you have to take the pack off to get to them, which is not so easy to do with a technical pack like this – there are four buckles to unclip to take the pack off with the front pouch still attached to one side.

Pouches

I haven’t used the side pouches or the shoulder one yet. The 4L front pouch is amazingly convenient so I just threw everything in there. The contents shake around a bit because the compression straps don’t really compress the whole pouch down, but it’s manageable and very comfortable when used with the main pack. I did try using it by itself on a short trail run, but the bottle I attached to the side swung around terribly, and it bounced a lot when strapped on top of the pouch, too. I really do like the front pouch for convenience, though, so I will definitely be using it for my long runs.

Straps

This pack is loaded with straps. You can adjust almost everything to get the perfect fit, and it’s really comfortable to run with. If you’re skinny like me, you’ll probably have unnecessary straps hanging all over the place. There are elastic loops to tuck these into, but I couldn’t be bothered to keep folding up and tucking the straps away every time I took the pack off and put it back on again, instead opting to stuff them behind the front pouch. Much easier. Of course, you could probably cut the straps shorter and save some weight in the process.

Bottle holders

My biggest disappointment with the MDS Ultrabag is the bottle holders. They look great, but are useless for anything except their intended purpose, that is holding a bottle in place. If you’ve ever used an Ultimate Direction Ultra Vest (I have an SJ one), you’ll love how the bottle holders are a bit baggy, but with shock cord elastic around the top so you can easily stretch them open to put your bottle in and tightly secure them in place. Indeed, you can even use them for other stuff like sweets or a camera. They are very easy to use on the go, even while running, without having to look at the pocket.

The WAA bottle holders, on the other hand, are not stretchy at all. They fit the WAA bottles perfectly, but that means they are a pain to get the bottles into because you can’t even squeeze a finger between the bottle and the mouth of the holder. There are two straps you can use to tighten the holder around the bottle, but these are a bit short and hard to use on the run. I can imagine time lost at aid stations messing about with these holders, even if you choose to use the straws… though I suppose in the MDS you could just leave the bottle in the holder, unscrew the cap and refill the bottle while it’s still on your shoulder strap. Actually, writing this has helped me figure out what to do: I’ll cut the straws of the WAA bottles to a comfortable length, and unscrew the tops off for refilling. Why didn’t I think of that before?!

Size

The main backpack is rectangular and somewhat shallow. It doesn’t use any stretchy material so I was worried how easily I could pack everything. So far, I’ve been able to put in a small tent, sleeping bag, emergency bivvy, full rain wear and a change of clothes. My sleeping mat is strapped under the pack so I just need room for a camping stove, which I’m hopeful I can squeeze in.

Conclusion

This is a great pack. It fits well, is comfortable to wear and I love having a spacious front pouch to throw stuff in. I don’t think it’s perfect, but it’s the kind of pack you can customize to make work for you, and I like that a lot.

KA50K – Kakamigahara Alps 50K Trail Run Event

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.

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The team

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.

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The goal

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

4. Food

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!

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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.

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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.

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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! ;-)

Mino Fukube Hill Climb: Report

This morning I took part in my first cycling race. I’ve done a couple of triathlons before, but was apprehensive about a cycling-only race. After all, I’m not a cyclist, I’m a runner with a bike!

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The forecast wasn’t good and, sure enough, it was pouring with rain when I arrived at the foot of Mt. Fukube in Mino City, Gifu prefecture. I expected the race to be called off, but was surprised to see people already kitted out in flashy cycling gear and warming up on turbos and rollers under what little shelter there was at the event site.

Mt. Fukube is 1,162m high, and this race would have us climb from 220m to 870m over 7.6km on a winding road through the forests that cover Mt. Fukube and it’s neighboring peaks. Apparently it’s the joint-third steepest hill climb in Japan.

I signed up for the race a few months ago when I was cycling regularly and a little more enthusiastic than I have been feeling lately. In fact, today was only my third time on a bike since my last triathlon in July! Fortunately, those two other rides were practice runs on this very course so I knew what to expect and what I was capable of.

I checked in yesterday and had my bike looked over by a mechanic. He tightened a few screws and gave me the all clear to take part. Had the race been cancelled due to bad whether and had my entry fee not been returned, I was grateful for the bike check anyway. I am useless when it comes to bike (and car) maintenance.

The event hall looked like it might have once been a school, and farther down the road are colorful gates to an empty lot where once there was a kindergarten. Real examples of Japan’s dwindling population, especially in remote areas such as this. The small village where these schools once were are looking old and run down, but people still came out in the cold, wet conditions to cheer us on. I made a point of thanking everybody who encouraged me up that mountain.

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The car park was a muddy mess and simply getting my bike and gear out of the car to somewhere dry was quite an effort in itself. Then there was the customary, pre-race trip to the toilet. There was probably only one woman in the whole race so I stepped out of the long line for the men’s loo and hopped into the women’s lavatory. Just as I was stepping into a cubicle there was a gasp by the only woman in the race who had come into the loo moments after me! I embarrassingly excused myself and rejoined the long line for the men’s.

At 8 o’clock we were asked to move to the start line, some three or four kilometers up the road. This short ride was enough to get me soaked through, and then we waited, shivering at the start line for twenty minutes. It’s amazing how just two weeks ago we were basked in sunshine and temperatures over 30°C, and now this. Had it been a running race, we’d all be bouncing up and down, jogging on the spot to keep warm. For cyclists holding bikes and wearing clip-on shoes, we just stood there, anxiously waiting for the starting gun.

“Pssssssssssss!” went one guy’s front tire minutes before the start. The poor chap got a puncture simply standing next to his bike! Hats off to the staff that sprinted off to find and bring a replacement wheel for him.

I was in Class D, a group of 18 men from 35 to 39 years of age, all, no doubt, given permission by our wives to be here. Judging by their bikes and kit, it was clear they took their cycling quite seriously. I was the only one without Lycra, and the only one with my number stuck to my front and back, marathon-style, instead of my sides, cycling-style. What a newbie!

When the gun went off for my group at 8:36, I was the slowest clipping my feet into the pedals and within one minute, my whole group had disappeared out of sight. One minute later and the gun sounded again for Class E. Another minute later and I was passed by a dozen riders. This was not the start I was hoping for, but it wasn’t completely unexpected.

From my last practice run up Mt. Fukube, I knew the hardest part was the first, long climb up to the first switchback. Just as I did in practice, I stayed in the lowest gear up to that point. It wasn’t long before I spotted a couple of people in the distance that had underestimated just how steep this hill is. I chuckled an evil chuckle under my breath and passed them, still in the lowest gear.

Some of these cyclists are phenomenal. I’m not usually one to eye up other men, but these guys have legs like horses! Huge calves and quads, turning the crank like they were stirring a cup of tea. I was overtaken by dozens of these cycling powerhouses.

Once past that first switchback, I shifted up a gear and pushed on. Now moving at a whopping 10km/hr, I was able to hold off the two gents I’d overtaken and pass a couple more from other classes. I actually felt good, like I was getting stronger while everyone else was fading. This is a feeling I’ve always wanted in my running races, but never achieved. Today, having set off so slowly at the start, I was positively flying at the end.

The highlight of my race came when I chased down and overtook one more cyclist right at the finish, beating him by a nose! He must have been gutted. I bet he never saw me coming. He slowed up just before the finish line and I zipped past him, snatching 15th place in my group by a single second!

The next half an hour or more was spent freezing in the rain and wind at the top of the mountain. Fortunately I had my new Goretex rain gear sent up so was able to dry off and put that on, still cold, but at least I was dry. Others stood around, physically shaking in their Lycra shorts.

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Eventually we were allowed to cycle back down the hill, a grueling journey that tested one’s forearm and grip strength to its limit as I squeezed and held the brakes tight on the steep 10km descent back to the event hall. To be honest, that was harder than the ride up!

I was pleased with the effort I put in today, and I think the staff and event organizers did a fantastic job in terrible conditions. I have to admit, though, that the race hasn’t inspired me to enter other cycling events. In fact, now I don’t have any races, of any kind, on my calendar for the first time in three years. I have come to the realization over my last few races that I am average at best in these sports and as such, don’t really need to take part in official, timed events that cost money and may well take place in the rain or when I’m injured, months after registering for them. I like having the freedom to run, or cycle, wherever I want, whenever I want.

This doesn’t mean I won’t take part in events. I’ve made friends and joined groups on Facebook that host small, local events, which are free from the rigid rules and regulations of official events. For example, I’m joining a dozen others in a 30km run/walk from Nagoya to Kakamigahara, a trail run during the colorful “autumn leaves” season with the Risu Trail Running club, and may even dress up as Santa for a 10K “Santa Run” in the streets of central Nagoya this Christmas.

There’s still a lot of fun to be had, and I haven’t completely ruled out doing another big trail running race next year, possibly a re-run of Utsukushigahara… to see if I can finish it this time! ;-)

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(That’s me in 15th.)

Update: I was 88th out of 108 overall.

Coming Soon: Kakamigahara Alps Trail Run Project

Update: This project is now live. Join the Facebook group here: 各務原アルプストレイルランプロジェクト.

After the eye-opening experience of the Utsukushigahara 70K trail run that I didn’t finish last week, my thoughts have been filled with ways to best train for future races. There are plenty of mountains over 1,000m north of where I live in Gifu prefecture, but as we head towards winter, most of them will be covered with snow and not particularly easy to run on.

There is, however, one place that is runnable almost all year and it just happens to be within five minutes of my doorstep: the Kakamigahara Alps. While the highest peak is only 387m, the dozen or so mountains that make up this mountain range combine together for some serious elevation gain. This has got me thinking about a new pet project…

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The marathon boom has spawned a mini boom in trail running, and Kakamigahara is in an excellent location to attract new and experienced trail runners from Nagoya. According to the popular Japanese hiking site “Yamareco”, people already come up from the big city to hike and run in the Kakamigahara Alps. A few of the reasons for this might be:

  • It’s easily accessible by car and train
  • The low-level mountains are appealing to beginners
  • The main hiking trails are well signposted and in good condition
  • There are panorama views of neighboring cities, as well as Nagoya
  • The mountains can be hiked in winter
  • There are no bears

A few problems that might keep people away:

  • Unlike the north of Gifu, Kakamigahara is very hot in the summer. One of the most popular hiking routes from Ibuki no Taki to Kakamigahara Mt. Gongen offers very little shade.
  • Hiking trails that don’t get much use are quickly overgrown with weeds and branches, deterring even more people from using them.
  • Mosquitoes and spiderwebs are very common in the summer because of the hot, humid conditions.

So what can I do to open up the 42km of trail in the map above to encourage more people, both trail runners and hikers to use and maintain them?

Well…

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  • I can clear trails myself
  • I can make signposts for the course
  • I can promote the course via the web
  • I could leave course info in the huts at observation points

However, it would be much more enjoyable to work with other people. I would hope to meet other runners or hikers who maintain the trails (I know they exist!) and I’d like to find or make a group of trail runners to run this course with.

While it looks like a big job, it could be quite fun, and I do enjoy hacking away at those bushes!

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Update: This project is now live. Join the Facebook group here: 各務原アルプストレイルランプロジェクト.

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!

Preview: Utsukushigahara 70K

In a little over a week I’ll be on my way to Nagano prefecture for the biggest race of my life, a 70 kilometer trail run across the Utsukushigahara highlands.

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Since my disappointing performance in April’s Kakegawa Marathon, I’ve been nursing myself back to running health. The Norikura Marathon in June came too soon, but by running slowly and enjoying the experience I was able to finish it without any further injuries. By July, I was gaining confidence and ran a satisfying 45-minute 10K in the last leg of the Imizu Triathlon.

Speed is not something I need for Utsukushigahara. Instead, I’ve been concentrating on hiking and trail running in anticipation of an extremely up and down course. From what I gather, we’ll be running up and down ski-slopes, roads and hiking trails between 800 and 2000 meters above sea level.

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Even if I feel good, pushing the pace would be madness on such a long, hilly course under a hot sun. Instead, I’ll adopt a “slowly slowly” approach starting with a walk up the 400m ski slope which immediately follows the start line.

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Last year, only 35% of starters finished the course within the time limit. This year, we’ve been given an extra hour, so assuming that 60% of the 400 competitors cross the line in under 15-hours, I’ll need to be among the first 240 runners.

In order for me to go slowly yet still make the cutoffs at each aid station, I need to keep moving. With this in mind, I bought some new equipment: an Ultimate Direction SJ Ultra Vest. The biggest time-saver with this pack is that the bottles are up front. When I approach each of the six aid stations, I can pull out the two bottles for refilling without taking off my pack and messing around with a hydration bladder. I can be refilled and gone before the next guy has even got his pack off.

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Also, I won’t be taking photos! It’s a bad habit that would only slow me down. I estimate that the 177 photos and video I took on my 70km training run a few weeks ago cost me a good hour!

Besides my photo addiction, another problem I face is inevitable sore knees later in the race. Obviously I’ll tape them up, but I got myself a pair of trekking poles to use. They’re “ultra-light” carbon sticks and I’ve fashioned a way to attach and remove them from my running pack while on the move, without taking the pack off.

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I still have time to familiarize myself with the elevation map so I know which climbs and descents are coming up and plan my hiking/running strategy around them. With a bit of luck, the course, although long, will not be as technical as the mountains I’ve been training on and I’ll be able to cruise to a good finish and qualification for next April’s STY race at Mt. Fuji.

The Nine-Headed Dragon Long Run

On Saturday, August 3rd, I headed north again to Shirotori. Last week I hiked over the mountains, this week the plan was to run around them.

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Why?!

Four weeks from now I’ll be taking part in the Utsukushigahara 70km trail race in Nagano prefecture. I’ve been wondering how best to prepare for that given that my longest run was 46km, and the heat of the summer makes any serious attempt at running long-distance very hard indeed.

Only 35% of participants last year completed the Utsukushigahara course within the 14-hour time limit. This year it’s been extended to 15 hours, but could I even run 70km on the roads in 15 hours, let alone on mountain trails? There was only one way to find out.

By running in the Shirotori highlands, I was 500~1,000m above sea level. That took care of the heat somewhat. Also, since I have 15 hours to complete the race, I figured for this training exercise I could alternate running and walking every five minutes, and do the running bits slowly. I’d lower the risk of injury and get the experience of training for 10+ hours.

Stage 1 – Shirotori to Kuzuryu

On Google, the whole route was about 60km and the half way point was the small town of Kuzuryu, named after the legend of the “nine-headed dragon”. To get there, I would have to run up mountain roads, cross the border from Gifu into Fukui prefecture, run along the nine-headed dragon river and past the nine-headed dragon dam.

I set off just before 6am and soon encountered my first problem. The huge loop that carried the Mino Highway over the mountains was for vehicles only and I would have to find a different way across. I lost some time asking for help and finding my way, but was soon running up a mountain road which overlooked Shirotori city. This one hill climb took me 400m higher than the start and the air felt lovely. A temperature gauge told me that it was just 19C at 8am, far cooler than back in Kakamigahara where the forecast was 34C.

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I got a fright from the loud snorting of a wild boar in the bushes beside me. I hadn’t seen one before and didn’t hang around to get a look this time, either. What I do know is that they are big, fast, dangerous and short-tempered! I sprinted away as fast as I could.

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I have mixed feelings about the rest of the journey to Kuzuryu. On one hand, the scenery was a joy to look at. The mountains are always impressive, the narrow river snaked its way between large rocks and tall trees while an eagle circled ahead and the noise of wildlife filled the air. It would have been perfect if not for the Mino Highway which I was running along. Having rejoined this main road, I was regularly passed by dump trucks, concrete mixers, sightseeing buses and motorcyclists. I had also picked a day when the roads were being resurfaced and work was being done on the huge number of landslide barriers. There were no sidewalks. Crossing bridges was frightening because while one lane was closed, traffic signals gave me about 90 seconds to sprint across each bridge before oncoming traffic would bear down on me. Tunnels were just as bad. I carried a light and wore a reflective safety belt, but I was walking through the gutter which was wet, muddy and slippery. Seriously, I would never do this again.

However! It wasn’t long before I was run-walking alongside Lake Kuzuryu, and I just couldn’t resist getting my phone out to take photos and video.

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It really was such a treat, and the campsites along its shores gave me brief, but very welcome opportunities to get off the main road and right down to the shoreline.

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After four hours I had made it to Kuzuryu Dam, one of the highlights of the day, and after that it was a mere 5km downhill to Kuzuryu town.

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Stage 2 – Kuzuryu to Itoshiro

It took about five hours to cover the first 32km of the trip, but I had made it to the “Road Station” where tourists gathered for lunch around a display of mechanical dinosaurs! I got myself some chicken sandwiches, a bottle of Japanese tea, rested and refueled.

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This was only my second workout with my new running backpack from Ultimate Direction. It’s arguably the best of its kind, and for the most part I’m very happy with it. It fits well and you really forget you’re wearing it at all. I had it stuffed with biscuits, energy sweets, sun lotion, electronics and drinks. Before I embarked on the next leg of the journey, I filled up my two water bottles, and since I had passed a few vending machines during the morning, I figured I wouldn’t need to carry a third bottle… a decision I regretted later.

I was finally able to leave the main road and head back up into the mountains towards the Itoshiro district where I started my hike last week. By now it was the middle of the day and the sun was beating down. A temperature gauge at the roadside told me it was 27C, still cooler than at home, but not cool enough! I started to drink more and more. My right foot, which has been giving me problems over the last few months was sore, but nothing too concerning. The roads were almost deserted and I enjoyed run-walking along a gorgeous river, and the beautiful forests that covered the surrounding mountains.

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Just as I passed the full-marathon mark at 42km I ran into a “ROAD CLOSED” sign. There had been a landslide and the road was blocked to traffic both ways. It took me a moment to comprehend what I was looking at. Would I really have to turn around and go back the 42km that I had come? Travel back along that horrible Mino Highway with its dump trucks and tunnels? There certainly weren’t any other roads through these mountains that would get me back to my car. What would you have done?

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I took my chances and kept going. I walked and ran, and ran and walked, for what seemed like ages. I must have been the only person for miles around, and that doesn’t happen often in Japan. The road became narrow and winded its way between the river and towering cliffs held back by gigantic wire mesh fences. Eventually, two guys on motocross bikes came from the other direction so I flagged them down to ask just how bad this landslide was. It came as a huge relief when they told me I would be able to pass.

Somewhere between 5 and 10 kilometers after first seeing that “road closed” sign I finally reached the landslide. Sure enough, the road was covered with mud, but most of the slide had been caught by the barriers above and there was nothing stopping me walking right past. Thank goodness I didn’t turn around and go back the way I had come. What a waste of time that would have been!

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By this point I was running low on water. I knew Itoshiro was close, but I filled up a bottle with water from the river just in case.

Stage 3 – Itoshiro to Shirotori

Itoshiro is a small town in the heart of the mountains. It attracts tourists for its hiking, “catch and release” fishing, and the ski resorts in the area. Because of its location, it remains quite cool throughout the summer, though on this particular day I was getting quite hot and thirsty and spent half an hour hunting for a vending machine.

I drained a bottle of Sprite, a bottle of Coke, ate some biscuits, filled up my water bottles and changed my socks. Then I started the climb up to the highest point of my journey (983m) passing ski resorts and hot springs.

Changing socks seemed like a good idea at the time, but now my right heel was rubbing like crazy and I could feel it blistering. Running instead of walking relieved the pain so I ran up the hill. Ever since the Norikura Marathon I did in June, I’ve found a new love for running uphill!

At 60km into my journey, with a sore right foot, a blistering heel and a bruised left rib from a bouncing water bottle, I was looking forward to getting back to the car.

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The view over the switchbacks on the road coming down from the mountains was reminiscent of the run up Mt. Norikura. Right up there on the roadside I passed a towering waterfall, but it was just a taster of the treat waiting for me ahead.

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I had to sit down and put my dirty socks back on since the new ones were making a right mess of my heel, and then I wandered into the woods to witness Amida Waterfall, one of Japan’s top 100 waterfalls and the subject of Hokusai’s woodblock print of the same name. Yes, that’s me in the picture. My phone balanced on a rock made for one wonky picture so I had to rotate it a bit.

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After that, my right knee decided it had had enough of running and I was forced to walk down the rest of the hill. I managed to run again when I got to the flat and ran continuously for the last three kilometers back to the car. When I got there, I checked my running app – 69.6km. I felt obligated to run another 400m around the park.

Conclusion

It took me 11 hours and 45 minutes to cover 70km. I took a ridiculous 177 photos and videos which no doubt contributed to the slow time. I have rashes in my underpants, blisters on my feet and have probably lost even more weight, but otherwise I think I got through this without injuring myself. I can now go to Utsukushigahara knowing that I’ve previously run 70 kilometers and have the mental strength to keep going for more than 12 hours. I probably won’t do anymore of these big workouts before the race on August 31st, but I still hope to do a lot of trail running in my local mountains.

Training for Utsukushigahara: Hakusan National Park

With five weeks to go before I take part in my first trail running race – a 70K run across the Utsukushigahara Highlands – I headed north on the expressway to Hakusan National Park.

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Mt. Haku is one of Japan’s three “holy mountains”, along with Mt. Tate and of course, Mt. Fuji. To get there from Gifu, there’s a long range of mountains to conquer first. My mission was to climb up Mt. Choushigamine (1810m) and head over three more mountains before hiking up Mt. Bessan (2399m, pictured above).

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From the pictures of those mountains I had seen online, it looked very much like Utsukushigahara and I hoped I would be able to run a lot of the course. However, it quickly became apparent that this would be a considerable hike, not a run at all. There were a few stretches good for running on, and I readily took the opportunity to run… into a tree. I smacked my head against a branch and was knocked to the ground, nursing a deep cut along my hairline.

Mopping my wounds with a tissue, I stumbled up the first peak and then pulled myself together and got on with the day. And what a day! I was treated to some breathtaking views and deliciously cool temperatures which made a huge change from the stifling humidity of Kakamigahara. Also, because of the altitude, I didn’t see a single spider’s web or hear a single mosquito all day. I did see a frog the size of a football, I did get to chase a rabbit for a second or two, and I was able to run alongside dozens of harmless dragonflies.

Rocks lined the trail, much of it very steep so I was glad I took along one of my fancy new hiking poles. The most difficult sections, though, were covered in either long grass that made it difficult to see where you were stepping, or worse, the same grass trodden down so that it was slippery underfoot, especially on the downhills.

I averaged over 20 minutes per kilometer and only covered 23km in 8 hours of hiking. I shouldn’t get too down on myself, though. I climbed a total of 2,330m, most of that in the first 11K. Utsukushigahara is supposed to have a combined ascent of around 4,500m. Much bigger, but spread out over 70K.

Hardships aside, the hike was well worth it for the beautiful views from the top of Mt. Bessan:

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Like the pictures? Watch the video! :-)

Imizu Triathlon 2013: Report

This was my second trip to Imizu City in Toyama prefecture to take part in the annual triathlon there. Last year I wrote an entertaining story about my first visit there, titled “The Road To Ebie“, which you might like to read if you’re considering your first triathlon. Instead of a story this time, I’m going to step through each stage of the event, comparing this year with last.

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The event

Last year I entered the “Challenger” event which was aimed at beginners. It consisted of a 750m swim, a 24km bike ride and a 6km run. This year I registered for the “Standard” Olympic-distance event. It was restricted to members of the JTU (Japan Triathlon Union) so I had to pay $50 to become a member of that first, then the entry fee. I figured, rightly so, that the level of competition would be much higher because JTU members must be quite serious about their hobby. The event consisted of a 1.5km swim, 40km on the bike and a 10km run.

Unlike last year, everyone had to check-in the day beforehand. I went up to Toyama with my family and we watched the children’s triathlon events before check-in opened. I was hoping my 5-year-old son would be interested in the event for 6-7 year-olds and maybe want to try it next year, but their course was so short it was over in a flash and Riku didn’t get to see much of it among the screaming parents. Besides, he just wanted to play on the beach anyway.

The swim

Last year was the first time I swam “properly” in the sea. Sure, I had messed about with beach balls and whatnot with friends at the beach, but never donned a wetsuit and actually raced. I remember being disgusted by the murky, sickly saltwater that I breast-stroked my way around the diamond with my head above water. It took me 22 minutes to cover the 750m, but I still finished 64th out of 110, which was great!

This year, having trained quite hard in my local pool, I was confident of doing much better. I dived into the middle of the pack and was instantly sucked up in what is known as the “washing machine”. 128 people doing front crawl in the same space. I was slapping the legs of the person in front of me. The people behind me were trying to swim over me, and I was squashed between bodies. You know how clothes in a washing machine spin over to the top, then gravity pulls them back down with a splash into the water. That was exactly what it was like. My head would come out of the water, then splash back in, again and again. Noise above water, muffled sound below, slosh, splosh, slosh, splosh. My heart was racing amongst the flailing of arms and the weight from other swimmers pushing down on my on my thighs. I took a slight kick to the head and that was enough for me. I pushed my way across to the rope and took hold for a moment to regain my composure.

From there I started again, swimming as close to the rope all the way around. This meant I often swam head first into the buoys at each corner of the diamond, but at least I knew I was on course. Things started to settle on the second half of the first lap, but I really wanted to get back to the beach where we would leave the water for a few brief seconds before diving back in for a second lap. I checked my watch: 16 minutes. Six minutes faster than last year because I had done front crawl the whole way at what felt like considerable effort. I assumed I was in the front half of the pack and went back into the water.

The second lap was much smoother. We were far more spread out and I actually felt very comfortable and even held back by swimmers in front of me. I wanted to go around them, but was afraid to leave the rope which I kept a close eye on every time I lifted my head out of the water. Speaking of water, it was much calmer and clearer than last year, but all you could see was a jungle of seaweed and rocks, no fish. My final swim time was 34:47 and I finished 74th out of 128 starters. I actually thought I was doing really well and was surprised to see afterwards that I was so far back in the pack. Clearly the level of these JTU athletes was much higher than the beginners I swam with last year.

The bike

By the time I got out of the water, it was raining pretty heavily. I got out of my wetsuit and ready for the bike, leaving the transition area at around the 40 minute mark, which suggested I took too long in there. My wife and son were there to cheer me on at the start of the ride and I sped off on my new road bike, almost going the wrong way when the guy in front of me did just that!

Shin Minato Bridge in Imizu

Now let me digress a little to talk about the Shin-Minato bridge. This is a huge bridge, almost 4km in length that opened late last year. It has become the pride of the city and the triathlon organizers were very keen to have us cycle over it. However, to maintain the safety of each rider, they made up some rules… rules that turned the bridge portion of the race into an unnecessary distraction. Get this: 1) Keep your speed below 20km/hr; 2) No overtaking; 3) Maintain at least 5m between yourself and the rider in front; 4) Stop completely and put your feet down at two designated points on the bridge; 5) the time spent on the bridge will be deducted from your overall time, so please just enjoy the view!

The first lap got off to an exciting start as I battled head-to-head with a guy on a Trek bike. He would overtake me on the straights, and I would pass him again, accelerating fast out of each turnaround. Eventually, I let him go as I just couldn’t keep surging at every turn. Still, I was flying along, much faster than last year where I struggled on my mountain bike, finishing a lowly 91st out of 110. This year, I felt like I was competing with the front half of the pack since that’s where I thought I finished the swim!

The ride up the bridge would only happen once, as part of the first lap. It was teeming down with rain and the heavy cloud surrounding the bridge made this little sightseeing excursion completely pointless. (I should note that we later drove over the bridge when the sun came out and the view was magnificent – think mountains, ocean and massive cargo ships). We actually turned around at the middle of the bridge and came back down to do another five bridge-less laps. Mami and Rikuto were crouched under an umbrella to watch me whiz past and I thought I was doing great. I was passed by a few riders, but passed others myself and kept my speed over 30km/hr until the final lap where my lower back was screaming for a rest and I had to slow down a bit. I eventually finished the bike stage in 1:17:49 and 76th place out of 128. A considerable improvement on last year, especially considering the longer distance and higher level of competition.

The run

Just like last year, rain turned to sunshine when I started the run. In the transition area I took off my cycling shoes then put them back on again instead of my running shoes! I quickly realized my mistake and changed them, noting that my socks were heavily waterlogged, which would likely lead to blisters on the run. Since I had no choice but to wear them, I donned my running cap and set off down the beach on the first of two out-and-back laps.

Just as last year, I found myself going quite quickly. Back then I finished the 6km run in 22nd place and hoped to do as well over the 10K today. I had no way of knowing just how fast I was going, but I started to pass a lot of people and really enjoyed the aid stations at every kilometer! One of these stations even had a shower to run under!

The metatarsal issues I’ve been having with my right foot didn’t really trouble me, and although I was feeling tired, I was motivated to keep going by the number of people I was reeling in. On the second lap, I could see the tall figure of Francesco, an Italian who had come up from Nara. He was going pretty quickly, but I seemed to be getting closer and closer. I finally caught him, exchanged greetings and went on to finish the run in 45:31, the 30th fastest out of the 128 runners.

My son was gutted that I didn’t run across the finish line with him. I didn’t know he wanted to, and the thought never crossed my mind. I just waved and smiled at him when he called my name. Rikuto was crying and my wife immediately announced that she had dropped and broken the video camera!

Wrap-up

I’m satisfied with my performance today and don’t think I could have bettered it. I finished in 2:38:07, which was a bit better than I expected.

I think the organizers need to reconsider the bridge section as not only did it distract from the race, it actually caused some confusion with the final results. It turns out that despite me beating Francesco to the finish line, his overall time was better than mine. He finished 51st while I was 54th. How could that be you might ask? Well, it turns out that he spent a few extra minutes on the bridge than I did. Since that time wasn’t counted, he actually completed the triathlon faster than I did. While that’s fine, it makes a bit of a mockery of the race, because instead of a race, it’s more like a time-trial. There shouldn’t be a situation where you try hard to catch someone, overtake them, finish in front of them, yet still lose on paper.

My other criticism is the “gift”. Last year we got a great “Ebie Triathlon 2012″ stuff bag. This year we got a plain pair of socks. Socks are always useful, for sure, but it’s always nice to get something branded with the event name. Isn’t that why people collect race T-shirts?

I probably won’t do another sprint or Olympic-distance triathlon. I’d rather go slower for longer than to push my body to its limits like I did today. I still stand by my assertion that triathlon is more exciting than just running, and I can’t wait to go for either half or full Ironman distance as a solo, DIY effort in September.

My next challenge, though, is a 70K trail run in Nagano on August 31st. That is going to be an incredible event and one I’m really looking forward to, probably the highlight of this year. Stay tuned!

 

 

Great Mount Norikura Marathon: Report

I’ve just got back from a weekend away in Japan’s Nagano prefecture, where one of the country’s highest and most magnificent mountains, Mount Norikura (3,026m) played host to two races: a 12km trail run through the forests and a 30km road race up the mountain.

Day One – The 12K Trail Run

Yoshio and I left Gifu early on Saturday morning and with only a brief stop at a hot spring, we arrived well in time for the afternoon’s 12K trail race. It’s rainy season at the moment in Japan and we had another downpour just moments before we set off, running in muddy conditions through the forests around Mt. Norikura.

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I’ve been struggling with metatarsalgia, an uncomfortable injury which makes every step feel like you’re stepping on a stone, so I started back in the pack and let Yoshio start up front. He did really well, finishing 19th out of about 300. As for me, I found myself walking the first three kilometers single-file up a 500m climb. With the back-packers saving their energy for the next day, there was very little urgency and we happily hiked much of the course, chatting and sharing the experience of sliding down muddy banks, running through rivers, clambering across little wooden bridges and marveling at incredible waterfalls, the best I have ever, and probably will ever, see in my lifetime. Having had days of rain, the sight was something else!

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The second half of the course was downhill and I was able to run on some long stretches of soft, smooth trail, which was quite different to the rocky trails in my part of Gifu and was hugely enjoyable to run on, especially given my injured foot.

The volunteer staff that lined the course ringing cow bells and squeezing horns, shouting encouragement and giving high-fives were fantastic. They made the race such fun and I had a huge smile on my face the whole time.

With all the walking and stops I made to take video I finished well back in the field in a rather embarrassing two and half hours or so. I didn’t mind at all, though, as I would have happily done it again right there!

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The Magical Healing Foot

After dinner at the youth hostel, I had only my third beer of the year and chatted with some other runners. As the evening wore on it became apparent that my foot was feeling very sore again and I was limping just to go to the toilet. I swallowed my pride and made the uncharacteristic decision not to start the next day’s race. I was gutted, but didn’t have much choice! I took a bath and went to bed.

I woke up just before 5am, and went to the toilet again. As if by magic, my foot was feeling much better! That never happens! I put my luck down to the supposedly rare, white water in the hostel’s hot spring, which according to the mama-san has muscle-healing properties.

Day Two – The 30K Marathon

The youth hostel master warned us over breakfast that it would be very cold at the top of the mountain and we should wear a second top and some kind of leggings, but soon after we were bathed in glorious warm sunshine so I ran in just a t-shirt and shorts, which I didn’t regret for a minute.

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The course started at 1,500m above sea level and rose to 2,700m over 18 kilometers of relentless uphill, at which point we would turn around and run another 12km back down the mountain.

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Trees lined the roads for much of the early climb as we weaved left and right up switchbacks, occasionally getting a glance of the snow-capped mountain we were running up. People were walking within 3km of the start so I knew I could take it easy and just enjoy the scenery and crisp, fresh air. Rivers flowed and birds sang all around us. I was able to go for a good while myself before I, too, succumbed to taking walk breaks as my legs grew weary and the air became thinner.

Taiko drums played and the music echoed around the mountains. As we got higher and higher we were treated to some wonderful views of the surrounding landscape, and further up, the roadside snow got deeper and deeper until we were running through corridors of snow that towered over us. People stopped to take photos and scrawl their names in the snowy walls. It was a truly amazing experience.

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I don’t want to take anything away from the unbelievable performance of the race winner, who crossed the finish line in a jaw-dropping 1:59:55, but the real winner this weekend was Mother Nature, for putting on a show which deserves to be recognized as one of the world’s most incredible races.

Update: Here’s the video!

The 145km Giant Salamander Ride

I’ve said before that I have a tendency to overdo things, and despite being so restrained over the last few weeks I got carried away and made a sudden decision to cycle farther than I ever have before. With little planning, I left home just before 5am and headed north into the mountains on my Giant Defy road bike.

Top Of the Otoge Pass

The idea was to head towards Gujo, cross the Otoge pass over the mountains and cycle through “Giant Salamander Land”, an area where the huge, 1.5m long giant Japanese salamander is protected.

I’ll skip the details since you can just watch the video, but I finished the ride in eight and a half hours, covering 145km and climbing anywhere between 2,500 and 3,500m, depending on which app you go by.

Elevation chart

Later this year I hope to tackle a solo, full Ironman-distance triathlon which will see me swim 3.8km, cycle 180km and then run a full 42.2km marathon. The most daunting part of that trio was the bike stage. Until today, my longest ride was 113km and I remember suffering from a very sore bum and back for the second half of that ride.

Today’s ride was quite a confidence booster. I did have a sore bum, back, neck, knees and my ever-present Achilles tendonitis and 2nd metatarsal injuries hurt a fair bit, but not until very late in the ride. I was also very pleased with how long it took me. I didn’t go too hard, and took quite a few rest breaks including breakfast and lunch at convenience stores, but still completed the distance in a reasonable time – probably because my new road bike is a lot quicker than my mountain bike!

In September, I will need to do 180km over even bigger mountains. After today, I’m pretty confident I can do it… but running a full marathon afterwards is another matter altogether. Today, running even 5km was totally out of the question.

Training Update – May 19th, 2013

It’s been five weeks since I wrecked my body at the Kakegawa Marathon. The first couple of weeks after that were quite painful and I wasn’t able to do very much at all in terms of exercise. Since the beginning of May, I’ve managed to start running again and am making steady progress towards my next big event, the Mount Norikura Heavenly Marathon on the weekend of June 22/23.

Running Smarter

I do have a tendency to overdo things and I’m sure that’s why I’ve been struggling with injuries for the better part of a year. Right now, I’m still dealing with Achilles tendonitis and 2nd metatarsal syndrome. Neither injury is keeping me from working out, but they are taking an awful long time to go away. That’s why I’ve started to train more sensibly:

  • I’m running three times a week and not on consecutive days;
  • I’m warming up with Radio Taiso and a 5 minute walk before I start running;
  • I’m running by time, not distance, increasing by 10% each week;
  • I’m wearing a heart rate monitor and running at around 140 beats per minute;
  • That means I’m running really slowly, around 6:30/km pace;
  • I’m only running hills once a week;
  • I’ve been doing 10 minutes of daily workouts, targeting legs, glutes and abs;

But that’s not all!

On the four days a week that I’m not running, I’m cycling and swimming. With an Olympic-distance triathlon in July, I need to train for those as well. I’m swimming at least 1,000m twice a week and cycling around 50km a week. If I follow my homemade schedule, I’ll be doing more than what the triathlon requires by the time it comes around.

Looking ahead

To be honest, neither Mt. Norikura nor the Imizu Triathlon phase me very much. I don’t need to take either of them very seriously and can just enjoy each occasion. I am, however, a little anxious about two other events in August and September.

On August 30th, I’ve registered to run the 70K Utsukushigahara Trail Run in Nagano prefecture. I’m not altogether sure I’ll be ready for that, even if I approach it with a “go slow, have fun” attitude.

And then, just two weeks later, I’m heading back to the Izu peninsula to attempt a solo, do-it-yourself, full Ironman-distance triathlon. It will mark exactly one year since I last saw my best friend, Keith, before he passed away, and since he organized the half-Ironman I did there last year, I want to do this to honor his name. I’ll have the support of Shun, who I did last year’s half with, and maybe some other people down there will come out to cheer me on.

It will be a huge challenge to complete both those events, two weeks apart, without injuring myself. Still, that which does not kill us only makes us stronger.

21K Kakamigahara Alps Hike

The forecast was cloud with light rain, ideal for taking on the Kakamigahara Alps full hiking course.

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Last year I did it twice, but both times tried to run it. The first time, also in the rain, I bailed out with two mountains to go. I got lost, was freezing cold in t-shirt and shorts, and didn’t have the will to continue.

Two months later, on a hot day in June, I tried again, and again I got lost. In fact, I wasted so much time running on roads around mountains to get back on course that it became a mammoth 37km effort, and I was exhausted and dehydrated when I finished.

This time, I decided not to run, and started a little closer to my house. I also started at 5am, an hour earlier than last year, so made quick progress over the first two mountains – the two Gongens – and was on my way east across the alps long before breakfast.

I learned well from last year’s mistakes: I knew the course much better, I was dressed in rain wear, I had more than enough water for the whole trip, gloves to prevent blisters from holding my hiking stick and grabbing tree branches, and a better sense of where to conserve energy.

My biggest mistake this time around, not that I had a choice, was wearing shoes that weren’t waterproof. I got soaked in the rain and the water flowed into my shoes.

Nevertheless, I surprised myself at just how quickly I was moving across the mountain range. I was at Sarubamijou, the most eastern point, by 9:10am, about three hours ahead of last year! And whereas last June I collapsed on a bench and rested for half-an-hour, this year I devoured a Danish pastry and headed off again quickly.

The rain was light, but relentless, and cloud covered all the surrounding mountains leaving very little to look at. It was hardly surprisingly that over 21km and seven hours I didn’t see another person!

The long climb up Mt. Yagi was hard, especially as my waterlogged socks were causing blisters on my toes and heels. Still, with only Mt. Atago left to go, I pushed on.

Incredibly I was out of the mountains before midday and made my way to Ogase Ike car park in the hope my wife would come and pick me up.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t get hold of her and after changing my socks and putting some band aids on my feet, I plodded another wet 5K home on the roads.

In the end I covered 27.4km in 7 hours and 30 minutes, climbing around 1,500 meters in the process.

I felt a lot more confident today and feel I can extend the course by doubling back part-way, but not until I get some waterproof shoes! :-)

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Open Proposal for a Gifu Runners Marathon

This post is directed at members of the Gifu Runners Facebook Group, a group of runners living in or around the Gifu region of Japan.

There is a clear lack of full marathon options for us in Gifu. In fact, there are only two marathons that I know of: the hugely popular Ibigawa Marathon and the almost unheard of Kisogawa Marathon. Both events have their merits, but wouldn’t it be nice to have a third option? One that we can organize and run whenever we feel like it?

Here are some requirements I think are necessary if we were to set up our own marathon.

A Gifu Runners Marathon should…

  1. be in Gifu (duh!)
  2. have parking
  3. have toilets
  4. be on roads or paths with little traffic
  5. have no roads that require waiting to cross
  6. have a route that is easy to memorize without signs or map-checking
  7. have opportunities to get aid
  8. be flat enough to make personal records achievable
  9. be accessible for all participants
  10. be flexible in case of bad weather, road works, etc.

Gifu prefecture is a big place, and I can’t pretend to know of the perfect place to hold this kind of event, but I’d like to propose one route that I’ve traveled a few times. Here’s a map of the course with proposed start, finish, turnaround and aid markers:


View Gifu Runners Marathon in a larger map

Let me address the 10 points above.

1. The proposed Gifu Runners Marathon is in the heart of the prefecture, just north of Mino City. The Nagara River is well-known for its white-water rafting, and the mountains it runs through are simply beautiful.

View from the proposed marathon course.
View from the proposed marathon course.

2/3. The proposed course starts at the Shinbu Kominkan (新部公民館) bus stop. I assume there is parking and toilets there at the community center or at the shrine next to it. The course I’ve plotted is along the rather quiet Route 324. It’s 10.5km in length (for reasons explained later) and finishes at Minamikodakara Onsen, which I know for sure has parking and toilets.

4. The road is on the opposite side of the river to the main road (Route 156) and is only really used by cyclists, farmers and local residents. Obviously we would have to keep to the side of the road, but traffic shouldn’t be a problem.

5. Because there is nothing but mountains on one side of the road, the only roads that need crossing are narrow, country roads, like those you see between rice fields. I’d be surprised if you had to stop running.

6. The route is easy to memorize because it’s one road. If you stick to that road you can’t go wrong. Turn right or left and you’ll either run into the mountains or the river! The end of the 10.5km stretch is easy to recognize because it’s a hot spring with a big car park and even a train station.

7. Because we don’t have enough people to set up multiple aid stations, the course is kept short. A full marathon would be “there and back” twice. Ideally, three volunteers would be needed. One at the start, one in the middle and one at the end. That would enable aid and encouragement to be given every 5km. A rolling aid station in a support car or on a bike would be possible if we have only one or two volunteers. Also, because the course is divided into 10.5km sections, we can offer a 10K and half-marathon, too, if there’s interest.

8. The route is reasonably flat. Running upstream is a slight incline, approximately 30m over 10.5K, but the next 10.5K would obviously be running back downstream. There may be one noticeable hill, but it’s quite tame, perhaps only elevated an additional 30m itself.

9. The course is about 45 minutes drive from both Gifu City and Kani City. There is also a train from Minokamo and Seki, but it doesn’t run very frequently. By car, you can simply drive up Route 156 and turn off before the first tunnel. That turn off is our starting point.

10. I wouldn’t expect many of us to take part so changing the weekend because of bad weather, sickness, injury, or whatever shouldn’t be too much of a problem.

Let me know your thoughts. If you would like to push ahead with this idea we can organize a time to go and check the course out.