Within 30 seconds of Brian telling me he booked tickets to Japan for no other reason than to just go, I started to research races in the area. It’s what I do…when an opportunity presents itself to put in more mountain miles, I have to take advantage. The best option appeared to be this 32k trail race 3 train rides and a shuttle bus away. We arrived Friday afternoon and on roughly 10 hours of sleep between then and Sunday morning, we set out on an adventure through the forested mountains in Japan. It was nothing I ever imagined.
Friday night we met up with Bob Poulson, the New York native who has been living in Japan for 40 years and runs the local running club (yes, Brian and I get around when it comes to networking). I asked him how many people run on Wednesday nights and to my absolute surprise he said there are around 280 people in the group; 80 or so come each week and 30-50 will go out to dinner after training runs. Whhhhhat?! I realize Tokyo is 12 million people but that’s a lot in a single running group…especially in comparison to WI groups! He continued to tell us how foot races in Japan are incredibly competitive with marathon time limits at 4 hours for all entrants. He said majority of the population runs; it’s part of the culture. I probably spend too much time with athletes to be so naive that in comparison to the Japanese, Americans do nothing.
Regardless, how bad could 20 miles on the trails be in Japan even with a single 5000 ft climb? Bad. We finished in 4:29. Wow. There were no words at the finish.
The race started at 8am in the misty rain and wind with a temperature of ~60 humid degrees. Given its a training race to reach a greater goal later in the year, it’s still vital to sleep, eat, and hydrate like it’s an A race morning. I was maybe 1 for 3. There were 1500 runners; 1400 men and 100 women. We started about 5 rows back from the start line and as the countdown began, I watched every single person (except Brian and I) lean forward in set running stance with finger on watch glaring straight at the road ahead. I looked at Brian and asked, “are there ribbons to follow? Where are we even going?” Oh my. And it got worse. The gun went off and every single racer went into a full blown sprint…it was as if a volcano erupted and they were running for their lives. Ah no, just a trail race. I looked at Brian wide-eyed in disbelief thinking maybe this is normal for them to go all out; do they bomb at the end then? Within 100 yards we were going up hill…they were all still sprinting…for 6 miles on winding uphill road, they kept sprinting…no hiking…no heavy breathing…it seemed natural for them. We passed a couple people but don’t get excited, they passed us again…in fact, about 100 people passed us after the first 10k. We took a left turn and there it was…a vertical line of runners starting a 5000 ft climb, the first of many hands and knees hills.
It was a never ending climb to the top peak. The terrain was muddy roots and rocks which is great but not after a solid rain that morning. There was rope in many areas to ensure you didn’t fall backwards and many small bamboo trees to grab onto to while hiking. Brian was leading and I’ve never seen him hike so well ever. He rocked it. I was the fallen runner in this race and learned so much about myself as I was trying desperately to reach the top. It reinforced how much mountain training I still need to do, that’s for sure!
How are people passing us? Do we really stink that much? I was using my hands and knees at times to keep moving forward, and with many slips and falls, I had to take 3 short breaks to get it together. My left calf was on fire and my quads kept getting heavier. Was I in my head? Probably. Making excuses? Sure. There was rope involved, how could I not?! My head started to spin within 2 miles of this climb but it wasn’t dehydration, it was the elevation change. Short lived and a great example of what to expect at Leadville. Same with the fear of falling off a mountain…there was maybe 50 ft of mountain that made me nervous if a wrong step or slip occurred.
Finally. The top. I thought we were cruising down the backside of the peak but people kept passing us. We both took a couple diggers on the way down which was frustrating because we couldn’t get in our cruising run. It took a few miles for me to find it, and it was when the mud wasn’t past my ankles anymore!
At mile 14 there was the best invention ever…banana with salt on it. Not only does it support good fueling but it tastes AMAZING. I was through about 60 oz of water and refilled. The last 10k. Let’s do this.
I have a problem during races…I really mentally struggle until the last 1/3 of any race. Its not a good thing when I can turn on the wheels when many have already finished; another thing to work on (add it to the list!). Brian and I talked about it as we continued our descent…I reach that point of “being done” …for this race it was only a 10k left and that’s less than 40 min. I gotta keep remembering to turn my road brain off because I assumed we’d never have to see another mountain again. Boy was I completely wrong.
And so it began. Another peak. It was at this point Brian had reached his own level of “done.” I was all in to the finish. We passed roughly 20-30 people in the last 10k. Wheels went on and I pushed Brian beyond his limits in his first trail race…a little vomiting at the end of a race is normal, right? 😬 Running up and down back to the paved road to trail to road to trail to the finish. It seemed never-ending. One foot in front of the other with the classic sprint to the finish. A really cool thing about Japanese races…everyone gets to break the finishing tape. Yes!
This was the hardest race I’ve ever completed. All 20 miles of it. There were personal limits to overcome and challenges faced. And in the end, there seems to be a common denominator in trail racing…you can’t have any fear. None. Its highly damaging to a successful race. I learned that about myself. I can road race very well when it’s my focus, but morphing to trail racing is a different beast. You must enjoy discomfort…a lot, steep ledges, and falling into rocks. You have to blast down a mountain at full speed with no reservation. And keep going and going and going. Some of that I absolutely love and some of it I need to continue to practice. If I could be a nomad running mountains all over the world, I would!…but for a short while longer, mountain training will continue in the flatlands. Japan is beautiful and for those of you that run, run there at least once in your lifetime. Cheers.