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.