Tagged: Utsukushigahara

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! :-)

I’m Doing the Utsukushigahara 70K!

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For a long while I’ve been intrigued by a 70 kilometer trail run in the Utsukushigahara highlands in Nagano prefecture. The whole race is run at over 1,500m above sea level. That not only makes for some spectacular views (I may be running above the clouds!), but it also means it will be much cooler up there on August 31st than down here in Kakamigahara.

Only 400 people get to do the full 70K loop around the mountains so I was quick to sign up immediately when registration opened this week. I learned a harsh lesson last year when the Ibigawa Marathon filled up in just 8 hours and I missed out.

One of the attractions of Utsukushigahara, besides the beautiful location, was that only 30% of last year’s competitors finished within the 12-hour time limit. What a challenge! This year, though, the cutoff has been extended to 15 hours after the other 70% understandably complained. I’ll probably be grateful for the additional time when I’m struggling along the course myself this summer.

70K is a long, long way, but I’d rather not think of it in terms of distance. It’s better, and not so daunting (for me anyway) to think in terms of time. While my longest run to date is only 46km (on the roads), I have done some pretty long challenges. Last year’s homemade 113km triathlon in Shizuoka took 12 hours, my 37km run over the Kakamigahara Alps took 10 and a half hours, my first (failed) attempt at the same Alps took 7 hours and a 110km bike ride I did last summer also took 7 hours. By the time this race comes around, I should have another handful of all-day challenges under my belt.

Utsukushigahara will be the first step towards a goal even greater than doing an Ironman. You need to have completed two 70K+ trail races in order to qualify for the UTMF, that’s the Ultra Trail Mount Fuji, a mind-blowing 160km run around Japan’s most magnificent mountain. It seems odd planning so far in advance, but at my age, the years are passing quicker and quicker. It doesn’t seem too far fetched to aim for Ironman Hokkaido in 2014 and the UTMF in 2015. After that, maybe I’ll hang up my running shoes and return to a life of beer and computer games!