Coming Soon: Kakamigahara Alps Trail Run Project

Update: This project is now live. Join the Facebook group here: 各務原アルプストレイルランプロジェクト.

After the eye-opening experience of the Utsukushigahara 70K trail run that I didn’t finish last week, my thoughts have been filled with ways to best train for future races. There are plenty of mountains over 1,000m north of where I live in Gifu prefecture, but as we head towards winter, most of them will be covered with snow and not particularly easy to run on.

There is, however, one place that is runnable almost all year and it just happens to be within five minutes of my doorstep: the Kakamigahara Alps. While the highest peak is only 387m, the dozen or so mountains that make up this mountain range combine together for some serious elevation gain. This has got me thinking about a new pet project…

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The marathon boom has spawned a mini boom in trail running, and Kakamigahara is in an excellent location to attract new and experienced trail runners from Nagoya. According to the popular Japanese hiking site “Yamareco”, people already come up from the big city to hike and run in the Kakamigahara Alps. A few of the reasons for this might be:

  • It’s easily accessible by car and train
  • The low-level mountains are appealing to beginners
  • The main hiking trails are well signposted and in good condition
  • There are panorama views of neighboring cities, as well as Nagoya
  • The mountains can be hiked in winter
  • There are no bears

A few problems that might keep people away:

  • Unlike the north of Gifu, Kakamigahara is very hot in the summer. One of the most popular hiking routes from Ibuki no Taki to Kakamigahara Mt. Gongen offers very little shade.
  • Hiking trails that don’t get much use are quickly overgrown with weeds and branches, deterring even more people from using them.
  • Mosquitoes and spiderwebs are very common in the summer because of the hot, humid conditions.

So what can I do to open up the 42km of trail in the map above to encourage more people, both trail runners and hikers to use and maintain them?

Well…

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  • I can clear trails myself
  • I can make signposts for the course
  • I can promote the course via the web
  • I could leave course info in the huts at observation points

However, it would be much more enjoyable to work with other people. I would hope to meet other runners or hikers who maintain the trails (I know they exist!) and I’d like to find or make a group of trail runners to run this course with.

While it looks like a big job, it could be quite fun, and I do enjoy hacking away at those bushes!

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Update: This project is now live. Join the Facebook group here: 各務原アルプストレイルランプロジェクト.

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.