Monday, 7 November 2011

Hands down the best race I've ever done anywhere

It was a long drive, google maps said it would take over 8 hours, and we wanted to make sure that we were there in time to find the ryokan in daylight and complete registration. We left Kobe at 5:00am, and quickly settled into a pattern of road trip banter, eating rubbish and drinking caffeinated drinks. Well, Bob and I did, Linda settled into a pattern of no caffeine, healthy snacks and occasional naps, interspersed with road trip banter.

We made it to Kanna with plenty of time to spare and were met at the 'packet pick up' by very helpful greeters who quickly located an English speaker to assist. All done we were in the ryokan by 3:00pm. It was perched on top of the hill overlooking the valley. After a short walk I took to the onsen and sat in the steaming water, gazing out over the valley as the sun began to set. Absolutely beautiful.

The ryokan onsen

The welcome dinner was all prepared by the locals and was tasty, filling and plentiful. As was the free beer and sake. Sake served in bamboo cups from a bamboo 'carafe'. We were made very, very welcome, people regularly came over to check we were ok, had everything we needed, and see if we would like anymore to drink.

Morning of the race leaving the ryokan

"Around 7 hours...I'll be happy with anything around 7 hours" was my answer to the how long do you think it will take question.

The race started on time and ran away from the village on the other side of the river before crossing the river and running back through the town. I was not quite ready for what waited for me in the centre of the town as it seemed that the entire town had turned out to cheer us on. It was as close as I will ever get to a Tour de France climb with the crowds closing in around you, (a small exaggeration perhaps) very, very moving. As was the the local hospital, all the people able to be out of bed, but not dressed and on the street, were on a balcony waving as we turned off the main road and up the hill.

The first climb was tough but I was feeling ok and soon found my rhythm, I was making good time and surprisingly soon found myself at the tori gate at the top of Mount Kirinojo. From there it was back onto the tarmac for a bit and on to the next aid station which I simply ran straight through without stopping. Shortly afterwards we started another steep climb this time above the trees. I had my head down and refused to look up - relentless forward progress is easier to maintain without the distractions of the gradient or how far away the summit might be. But the noise from the the other runners was a surprise.

Every few minutes there was an exclamation, and excited chatter. I kept my head down and trudged on, nearly walking into someone who had slowed to step off the trail. She was facing the wrong way and reaching for a camera. I glanced over my shoulder at the scene in front of her and uttered my own exclamation at the beauty of it. A few steps later I too was off the trail facing the wrong way and reaching for my phone to take a picture.

The running was hard, steep sections of often relatively new trail, mixed with maintained trail and sections of tarmac. Unusually I did not mind the tarmac as it gave me a chance to lift my head and look at the view. Also unusually I found myself doing better on the climbs than the decents.  Some were a joy to run but many were too steep for  me to let the brakes off fully and with some of the longer ones after the 20km mark going on for over 3km my quads were soon burning. One of the steeper decents zig zagged down the side of a the mountain and was a pleasure for the relatively gentle first 2 km of trail, then it was a bit painful for the next couple of km, and then it went nearly vertical straight down a muddy slope with out even a tree to use as a break and anchor. By this time it had been raining for a while and while that wasn't a problem in itself it made the nylon rope almost impossible to hold, the surface became muddy, and staying upright became a real challenge.

The run back down the hill and into the village was stunning, not only were the volunteers out but again most of the town were still there cheering you back into the finish and the last 200 meters was run slapping high 5's all the way back to line where I finished with a time of 7:00 hours.

What made it the best racing experience I've ever had? The people! The welcome dinner was home cooked by the local women,  the streets were lined with people cheering you out, the streets were lined with people cheering you back in, the helpfulness, the joy at seeing us there, the old couple in the middle of nowhere sat on their front porch with their own little aid station for the runners, the number of people who thanked me for coming after I'd finished and was walking back to the car. The scenery was absolutely beautiful, the trail was good and the people were without comparison. I cannot recommend this race enough.

TNF 100 (well 40 actually but whose counting?)