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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!If you have a comment, find me on Twitter at @longcountdown. I'd love to hear from you!