Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Ultra Trail Mount Fuji: STY

Shizuoka to Yamanashi.

So a brief explanation may be in order...

This race was scheduled to held last year but was cancelled due to the earthquake.

The main race, the Ultra Trail Mount Fuji, would have been the first 100 mile race in Japan, though there is now another race of that length. It is also the first and so far only race granted sister status to the Ultra Trail Mount Blanc, which outside of the USA is recognised as the premier event in ultra distance mountain racing. It certainly, even in this it's first year, commanded the biggest international elite field ever assembled in Japan. There were top racers from USA, France, Canada, Hong Kong, China, Spain and of course the very best that Japan could muster. It also had a few other names, if any of you have read 'Born to Run' - Barefoot Ted was racing and Scott Jurek was slated to start, but for whatever reason didn't.

The UTMF promo video

As it says in the video the idea was to run around Mt Fuji starting and finishing in Kawaguchiko on the edge of the lake - for the people doing the full distance of 156km that would mean 8500m of ascent (for those of you preferring imperial measurement that's 100 miles and just short of 28,000 feet) be completed within 48hrs.

There was also a 'fun run' version, called STY, starting in Shizuoka and finishing Yamanashi, in the same place, Kawaguchiko. A mere 82km and 4200m of ascent to be completed in 26 hours, or 50+miles and nearly 14,000ft of ascent (slightly more than climbing Kiliminjaro from base camp to summit). It was this that Linda and I had signed up to do.

We undoubtedly had a great time but it was without question physically the hardest thing I've had to do and I came close to not making it.

But back to the beginning.

We left Kobe on Thursday night and travelled up by trains - lots of trains, getting to Kawaguchiko about 11:00pm. The morning saw us up for registration, compulsory bag check, shopping, and cheering as the 100 mile runners went off.
Start line of UTMF 

Gear check and final preparation for the 100 mile runners

Now to get all that gear back in that little bag

Got to love that Taiko and these kids were good

Hal Koerner 

And they are off

100 miles to get back to where you started

Just run right round that then.

An attempt to find a convenience store with any kind of food left in it was a bit of a wash out as 2000 hungry runners and their supporters had been through town like a bunch of locusts. Shelves, entire shops were cleared of anything looking edible.

Another attempt to find a noodle restaurant for dinner failed and we headed for the station. There are always restaurants at the station, and so we discovered a tiny Italian, serving terrific sausage pizza and huge plates of spaghetti. Brilliant just what we needed and Linda does like sausage!

We were up nice and early to get the 6:10 bus from Kawaguchiko to the start in Kodomo no kuni. Everything was going according to plan. We were so pleased we had the opportunity to register, ask questions, do the gear checks on Friday. The queues were huge at the start, and the stresses were obvious, even having got off the second bus to arrive, the lines of people were long and registration was due to close just 20 minutes after that. It didn't - it couldn't, there were still people in line. It did all get sorted out, and everyone was ready in time for the 10:00am start.

We met up with Makoto, a friend of Linda's at the start of the STY and then killed time just chatting and making many trips to the bathroom. During one such visit I managed to trip and fall into the road at the feet of a group of Japanese people who helped me up and made sure I was ok. It was not the last time I would see one of them.

The wait for the start was accompanied by some professional Taiko drummers, always a big improvement to "Eye of the Tiger" the usual soundtrack to these things in other parts of the world. And then we were off.

The race breaks down into 3 very individual sections, unsurprisingly, from the start to A8, A8-A9 and A9 to the finish. Each section around 28km, and that middle section definitely the hardest, slowest 28k I've ever covered.

The first section was relatively flat there were some lovely sections on wide 'fire road' type trail, a bit of tarmac and then the single track, which ran pretty much under the powerlines, lots of little ups and downs with plastic steps hammered into the mud bank. They were damned slippery and more than one person took a tumble. There was no real opportunity to move faster, or slower than the people in front and behind as there were few passing places.  It was fun but hot. Linda and I ran pretty much in sight of each other the whole way to A8, in a little over 3.5 hours, where I met Taku sitting at the side of the road just outside the aid station (he'd been forced to drop from the UTMF with stomach problems). Sarah was waiting for us just inside the timing mats, with encouragement, tape, food, a big smile, and what ever else we needed. We were so pleased to see her.
Single track - lots of single track

but few opportunities for overtaking

Entering A8

Queuing  for the compulsory kit check
Waterproof Jacket? Check. Long pants? Check. Survival blanket? Check. Portable toilet? Check. Go!

Then came the "Mountains of Truth" I had hoped for a 7-8hr crossing but it was not to be. There were a few km of road to lead into the mountains, then a couple of km of steady away climbing before it went vertical for a very long time, by the time I had reached the top of Chojadake just 5 or 6km from A8 (it had taken over 2 hours) I was very tired and concerned about the water. I'd filled my camelback giving me about 2 litres and also filled a bottle adding another 650ml but it was going fast. The 500ml bottle they gave us sometime later was a real bonus, but for some who went on to the mountain with less I'm certain they had a very thirsty last few kilometres off that mountain and into the aid station.

The climbing just went on and on. It was a procession of people all moving at a snail's pace up very steep, narrow trail. Every now and then I'd be forced to step off the trail and take a breather. At first it was just a breather and maybe something to eat, then it was a breather and a sit down. But shortly after it became dark several of  the breaks became power naps and I'd 'wake' cold but ready for the next onslaught up that damned mountain. Demoralising as the progress up the mountain was it was no where near as demoralising as the progress down the other side. The trail was again narrow, and was steep and slippery. Again there were huge sections of very, very slow progress. The way down probably took as long if not longer than the way up. There were large sections of very little movement. There was lots of time spent staring at the eerie light of a 100 headtorches shining intently at the ground and the odd shapes the reflective strips made when they caught in someone's light. It was slow, tiring, frustrating and difficult. My mood was not helped by the fact that when there were runnable sections my indigestion made running very uncomfortable. It was about that time I decided I did not need to do a big race ever again, I would find good trail, pack a slightly bigger bag and just run a very long way by myself. I was well over standing in line for 11+hours.

I reached Aid Station 9 Motosu-ko at 10 past midnight some 10.5 hours after leaving A8, I don't think I have ever done anything as hard. If the busses had been running allowing me to drop and make it back to a hot shower, a warm bed and a beer I would have run straight on. But they weren't, so I went into the aid station changed my shirt cleaned myself up, dug all the detritus out of my shoes and went in search of deer curry and rice. The place felt a little like a scene from MASH and I half expected to hear the shout of "Incoming!" and hear helicopters.

I found a spare seat and sat down to eat my curry. It was good, and when the man opposite pointed to the curry and said "Hot!" I had to agree. It was just then the young man who had been dozing at the end of the table with his head in his hands looked up, and pointed at me. It was Makoto. He asked where Linda was but I honestly had no idea. She had been behind me when we hit the first big climb, but could easily have moved ahead while I was dozing at the side of the trail. As it turns out at almost exactly the same time as I was having that conversation with Makoto, Linda was stood outside of the warm cafe room, drinking and refilling bottles, just 10m away. I was, in fact probably looking straight at her, but we didn't see each other.

I finished my curry, sorted my kit, filled my bottle with coke said my goodbyes to Makoto, who was planning on staying a little longer. He aimed on making it to the finish just in time to head straight for the onsen which opened at 6:00am. He'd been there since 10:30 and reckoned to leave around 2:00am. So sometime after 1:00am I headed back out into the night, and hit the pavement! Time for the music. I'd just sorted the earphones and was about to cross into the ancient forest park when I caught up with a Japanese lady, who knew who I was, or at least recognised me from the start. I think she was one the people I had thrown myself at the feet of in the carpark earlier. She chatted away about working in fashion accessories, and having recently been in Kobe to see a client, and how the forest was scary, and how all her friends were sleeping back in A9. I stayed with her for a while. I didn't like the idea of leaving her in the woods, because while you were never far from someone else, for the first time on that journey you could actually believe you were alone in the dark, and clearly she was a little spooked. Eventually we caught up with a pair of 100 milers who were making good time and I took the opportunity to 'jog on'.

Running through the forest was lovely. I was seemingly alone for the first time, moving at my own pace for the first time and just enjoying the night. Then I spotted him! In the distance, occasionally caught in my headlight. For a brief second, before my mind began to twist it into something more tangible, I saw a man in glowing spats and a glowing fedora dancing down the trail. Now the mind plays some wonderful tricks on you but I knew this wasn't an hallucination. I had no idea what it was however. There was definitely a man in front of me - and his feet were glowing and his hat was glowing, and his feet were 'dancing', not quite moonwalking, more high stepping. I had a quick giggle as I imagined I was jogging through a Japanese primeval forest at 2 in the morning behind a dancing Michael Jackson impersonator. Turns out it wasn't Michael, or spats or even a fedora. The runner in front had huge reflective strips on the heels of his shoes, and every time he took a stride the heels seemed to lift really high. He also had a huge reflective band on his cap making it look way bigger than a cap as his head jogged as he ran. It was a truly entertaining distraction for quite some time, and I actually felt a little disappointed when I caught him, made sense of the glowing, and moved passed back into my own isolated little pocket of light.

Then came the road. Lot's of yomping up hill on the sidewalk. It didn't bother me as much as it clearly bothered others. I like a good forced march and I caught lots of people. However it was supposed to be 13km from A9 to the water station at the ice caves, and while my head was undoubtedly fuzzy I think it was more like 15km. Eventually I got there though, and went off in search of more coke. They did have some, but only super caffeinated small tins of stuff and after my stomach problems I wasn't prepared to risk it.

The climbing started just after that and my watch died almost immediately. 17 hours - not bad but if I am going to do these things again I need to find someway of keeping it charged - or buy a shiny new Suunto Ambit. Anyway the climb was much more to my taste, the trail was wide enough that people could pass me without me stepping off the course, and consequently wide enough that I could pass them. It was also far more doable, the incline, while occasionally steep, was never the nigh on vertical that climbing in the big mountains had been. I hit the top just as the sun came up and Fuji came into view. A very special moment, but not one I lingered to savour as the down hill began almost immediately. I loved it. My legs were alive again and I began to run, really run, for probably the first time in the whole race. Not jogging anymore I was actually moving across the ground well, the music was loud, the sun was coming up, I was feeling strong and... hello...what do you know? There was Linda. We had changed position at A9 and she was making good progress. I slowed to check she was ok and plunged on to Alabama 3 "I ain't seen the sunshine since the 6th of June but I tell you this, don't call a Dr, I'm going to get better yeah" which seemed very appropriate and brought a smile to my face. Funny how smiling as you run makes you feel so much better. The music just got better and better, the smile bigger and bigger. I was having a blast and moving quickly though the trees in the brightening dawn. Amazing sometimes how some music just hits the right spot at exactly the right time. Then all of a sudden there were steps, 100's of bloody steps, non of which were even, all of which were too small for me to jog down, and my pace slowed to a pained snail's pace again. No music could help with that, but the sight of Lake Kawaguchiko getting closer certainly made it bearable.

Not me, just some random runner making it off the trail
Eventually the steps spat me back out onto the road beside the lake and I reached for my phone to call Sarah, waking her up at about 5:00am. and so began the slow jog round the lake to the finish. I was very, very pleased to see Fuji again as I came round the final corner, and there was Sarah, smiling and cheering. One last effort and I was in, 19hrs 34 minutes after I'd set out from Kodomo No Kuni I was back in Kawaguchiko and looking for my first beer in a week.

The view as you round the last corner was pretty special
At last

Never mind the protein bar where's the recovery beer!

Happy to be finished
She had room for a fleece - where?

Not the first time Linda had shaken Mr Kubaraki-san's hand, you may get to see her chatting away in Japanese on the NHK TV coverage.

Mutual congratulations

I had a blast, the further away I get from this event the more fun it was, but it took a lot of people to make it work out. Obviously I could not have made it without Sarah, Linda and Kaho (who did all the entering, translating, phoning, and general Japanese language assistance) but I was also really, really pleased with all the staff and volunteers who were out there pointing the way, cheering, encouraging and just being visible. My biggest thanks must go to the people at the aid stations, particularly A9, which really did have the air of a field hospital when I got inside there. They were astonishingly patient and attentive and provided, good cheer, and good food to a bunch of very weary, sleepy and just plain beaten runners. Deer curry and rice, what an inspired decision that was, just the right thing for me then and so, so good, oh and Coke - A9 had lots and lots of Coke.

My splits - Transit time is the time of day I entered those stations

STY (or at least the first 17 hours of it) I manually added the remainder but it doesn't show on the map just the times, it also seems to have completely missed a not so small hill just before A9, maybe I will save up for the Suunto.

We headed back to the hotel for a shower and a few hours sleep before returning to the cafe near the finish line to cheer in the remaining competitors, and they kept coming. Right up to the cut off times people were jogging down the road and into the finish with huge smiles and an air of pride and satisfaction that you could feel from where we were.
Clean rested and fed 

UTMF award ceremony

Definitely the hardest thing I've had to do and definitely something I am very proud of. Would I do it again if I was staying in Japan? As the winner said when asked that question. "Ask me again in a couple of months".

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