Just ten weeks after minor knee surgery I sat on a 12 hour flight bound for Tokyo and the start line of the 3rd Ultra Trail Mount Fuji. With an overall distance of 169km and a height gain of 9,500m I don’t think this is the kind of thing the physios, doctors and consultants had in mind when they told me to “build up gradually”.
I had managed to get myself back to running pretty quickly but it had only been in the three weeks prior to the race that I’d made it back to running for three hours and started to feel that maybe I might stand a chance of getting around. So, this was going to be as much a mental challenge as a physical one for me with a less than perfect lead in to the event. Luckily I had company, Bruce Duncan also representing Haglöfs, was entered into the STY…. a long enough race in its own right at 92Km and 4,700m climb. Given my recent form, I was somewhat envious of him (and I may have mentioned that just a couple of times during the course of the flight).
Tokyo and beyond
Landing in Tokyo Narito Airport we quickly realised that the race wasn’t going to be the only challenge of the next week. Making sense of, and negotiating the complex Tokyo transport system was something else. Luckily we only had one day to flail around on our own before we were met by our wonderful hosts from Haglöfs in Japan. These guys were incredible hosts – nothing was too much bother and they were so proud to show off their amazing country to us. That said, even they needed to use GPS to find their way around the various underground systems of Tokyo which made our own attempts with Japanese-only tube maps look pretty impressive.
There was little time to get over any jet-lag as we soon made our way towards the Mount Fuji region – a little over 2.5 hrs from Tokyo. As we made our way out of the city we had an opportunity to see a rapidly changing landscape as steep-sided wooded mountainsides quickly became the norm.
Our hosts didn’t miss an opportunity to show us the “real” Japan – quick visits to Temples virtually hidden from view or sounding out places to eat that reflected the amazing diversity of Japanese cuisine.
The course around Mt Fuji mapped out
Our accommodation close to race HQ couldn’t have been better. A lodge above Lake Kawaguchiko was a perfect retreat just 15 minutes from the frenetic activity of the race HQ. On a good day you’d see Mt Fuji rising high above the lake – an amazing sight as it towered close to 4,000m in elevation. The lodge complex had its own Onsen (hot spring) which faced the mountain and made a relaxing spot to soak weary limbs (and that was just before the race!).
The history of this race lies very clearly with the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB). The organisers have, unashamedly, modelled their races (and all of the race material) on the massively popular UTMB series of races held in August each year. Just three years into the organisation of the race and it’s clear that it’s here to stay and likely to become as popular as its European counterpart in the future.
Part of the event is definitely the pre-race buzz of the stalls with cutting edge trail running gear. Needless to say, the Haglöfs booth was easily picked out as “those colours”, which have defined the Intense Range in recent years, leapt out at passers-by. The formalities of registration and kit checking were soon dispatched with in less than five minutes compared to nearly three hours at the Mont Blanc race!
Trekking poles are banned on this 169km ultra
Race day seemed to creep up pretty quickly. I was soon on the start line and just keen to get going, full of trepidation as there were many question marks in my head. Most pressing was whether my knee would actually hold up to this kind of abuse.
I kept telling myself that there was no reason why it shouldn’t be okay and that actually I could tell myself that it was only like having a screwdriver stuck in your knee three times. It was bound to be sore but it should be ok, right? Still, the nagging doubts didn’t go away until I was climbing that first hill after a flat out dash through the streets – always stressful but not a patch on other mass starts.
Starting at 3pm, there’s only a couple of hours until dark and it’s a long night in this part of the world. Mentally, this is great as it knocks off much of the route through the hours of darkness.
All was well until about the 100km mark. I was super confident that the knee would hold and I was making good headway toward the top 30 so on track for a good finish. 50 miles done in just over 10 hours and feeling strong….. Until I managed to get lost (on a way marked route) which cost me dearly in time and energy.
I raced hard to regain my place in the race. Probably trying a bit too hard. At the next feed station, before the infamous Tenshi Mountains, I arrived stressed and a bit flustered and I failed to eat properly or to take enough food to see me through the next tough stage.
Wading through treacle
30 hours later…
This was the start of a really bad patch in the race. 10 minutes after the feed station I hit the 1200m climb and set about it with some purpose, trying desperately to make up lost time. At the top of the climb I was out of water and seriously low on food, feeling sick and still 1 ½ hours from the next feed station.
Wading through treacle, my body simply ground to a halt and I was violently sick. I should have recognised the signs and was furious with myself for getting into this state. I lurched into the aid station at 123kms and, after some fruit and water … was violently sick again.
This was the moment that the race (for me) changed. I felt so rough that I could honestly have walked off the route right then but jacking-in is not my style. But, it was going to be case of “getting around” the course from now on and just aiming to finish was probably all I could hope for. I went through some pretty bad patches between here and the finish – the longest marathon of my life! But, I crossed the line in 83rd position in a shade under 30 hours.
The race route was tough, seriously technical and tight in places and totally different to running in big European races on well-stomped trails. Some real steep ups and downs and if the surface had have been wet then it would have been a totally different game (it was hard enough in the dry). Unlike many of the European races, in the UTMF you are not allowed Trekking poles (on environmental grounds) which was a major cause of discussion amongst racers prior to the race – it emphasised how common place the practice is in Ultras these days.
We were blessed with perfect weather and yes, we got that much sought-after view of Mt Fuji – a sight that will forever be etched on my mind.
Words: Chris Near