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.

Photo 2013-08-03 16 00 58-mini

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.

Photo 2013-08-03 7 25 44

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.

Photo 2013-08-03 7 10 21-mini

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.

Photo 2013-08-03 9 47 17-mini

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.

Photo 2013-08-03 8 44 06-mini

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.

Photo 2013-08-03 10 31 46-mini

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.

Photo 2013-08-04 22 55 36

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.

Photo 2013-08-03 12 37 04-mini

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?

Photo 2013-08-04 22 45 16

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!

Photo 2013-08-04 22 46 19

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.

Photo 2013-08-03 16 01 07-mini

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.

Photo 2013-08-03 16 09 19-mini

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.

Photo 2013-08-03 19 55 09-mini

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.

Photo 2013-07-27 10 57 11-mini

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).

Photo 2013-07-27 12 50 48-mini

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:

Photo 2013-07-27 11 25 38-mini

Photo 2013-07-27 11 25 01-mini

Photo 2013-07-27 11 24 56-mini

Photo 2013-07-27 11 38 27-mini

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.

Imizu Triathlon finish

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!