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.

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!

 

 

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!