After months of training and preparing to conquer my first hundred mile race, Mother Nature had other plans. Race day, take 1 and take 2, started off promising, but it didn't take long to realize I still have many lessons to learn out there on the trails.
Ultra Trail Mount Fuji is a 103 mile race with over 24,000 feet of elevation gain that connects public trails, private land, and forest roads for the ultimate endurance challenge circumnavigating Mount Fuji. STY, the shorter race, covering 45 miles and 12,000 feet of elevation gain, starts the day after the UTMF, and runs from Shizuoka to Kawaguchiko. Endurance athletes from around the globe descend on Kawaguchiko in September to take on this challenge while enjoying the beauty of the surrounding forests and the majesty of Fuji-San, along with some serious sleep deprivation. The cut-off time for UTMF is 46 hours and the STY is 20 hours.
The UTMF allows for additional support through a supplemental tour package with Avid Adventures for foreigners who do not know Japanese. Avid Adventures will translate race information, book hotels, provide food, and help with any race logistics for English speaking visitors. Harry Ohara, the enthusiastic CEO and team leader for Avid, takes care of the race logistics so that you may focus all your energy on your race. I first had the opportunity to use Avid Adventures at the 2015 Shinetsu Five Mountain 110km Trail race. Harry and the rest of the Avid team provided phenomenal support before, during, and after the SFMT. I looked forward to using their services again for the UTMF. I'm usually a wasted mess after these distance races and need all the help I can get!
Thursday morning, I arrived at Haneda Airport to rain. Lots of rain. Buckets and buckets of water falling from the sky. Airplane to train to bus to Kawaguchiko Station. At the Station, my guide, provided by Avid Adventures, got me out of the rain and shuttled me off to my hotel. The hotel was a traditional Japanese guest house. Tatami mat rooms with communal bathrooms. At check in, Avid provided me with an itinerary for the weekend, extra drop bags for race day, and a town map for sightseeing. To make race day go smoother, I walked 5 minutes from the hotel to the UTMF race start line for the race expo, required items check, and race check-in. There is a very long list of items required for this race and at check in it was made very clear not to lose a single item or disqualification was assured. With my tendency to unknowingly donate offerings to the trail spirits I brought backups and backups to the backups for most of my supplies. Luckily Avid provided several drop bag pickup locations along the race course so I didn't have to carry all my backup supplies with me. After my cold day of traveling and check in, I really appreciated my long soak in the hot, hot, hot bath in the hotel's mini onsen to calm all my pre-race anxieties!
Friday, race day, take 1! The UTMF race start was not scheduled until 1pm, which gave me a chance to sleep-in and enjoy a full breakfast. At breakfast I met some of the other racers who came in from overseas. I loved getting the chance to swap race stories and trail experiences with other crazy, likeminded runners! From Singapore, France, Nepal, Australia, Hong Kong, and other places. Then I joined up with my WOOT peeps: Mary, Thomas, Jessie, and Anna. Around 11am, the race organizers sent out a notice that the race would be postponed by two hours, 3pm, while trails were being checked for rain damage. At ten minutes to 3, all racers lined up at beautiful Lake Kawaguchiko for the UTMF race start only to find out that the race was shortened from 165km to 50km! The buckets and buckets of rain made some portions of the trail much too dangerous for tired runners to transverse through the night. As disappointment swept through the crowd I quickly altered my race strategy, leading to a string of mistakes and lessons learned:
Practice tempo and interval training even while preparing for a long endurance run. The gun went off and it was a quick dash. A fast start was necessary to get to the trail before the slim trail entrance began to crowd and bottleneck. Since the race was to be so much shorter, I had to run faster than I had trained to remain competitive. So, I started out too fast.
Run your own race. At the first aid station I was so focused on keeping up with the woman in front of me, and in-front of the woman behind me, that I rushed through too fast. I quickly checked my water supplies by giving it a squeeze. With all the gear in there it felt full, it was not.
Refill water as often as possible. My water ran out on a long climb around mile 15. Dehydration hit me while descending a steep mountain in the dark. By the time I made it to the second aid station, my head was pounding. Refueled. Resupplied. Ran off. While holding in the vomit and recovering from my dehydration error, several women passed me; I was in such a dark place that I didn't even try to pick up the pace.
Test gear out in all weather conditions. Night time came, I had my headlamp and a small handheld to help light the way. Too bad it was so foggy out that my lights just reflected off the fog making it difficult to see. I chased after a runner to share his light. He had a yellow light that cut through the fog, illuminating the trail. Seeing the trail helped out so much! Must get my own fog piercing light for mountain running!
Distance running gives you many chances to make mistakes and recover. By the time I recovered from my mistakes and began to feel really good again, the race was about over. At mile 23, I was back to loving life and loving the trails. At mile 28, the race was over.
Saturday, race day, take 2! Since the previous day's race was cut short, all the UTMF racers were invited to run the STY race scheduled for noon. The night before I swore that I would not race a second day in a row, but I'm certainly glad for crazy friends. Mary messaged me Saturday morning to let me know that Avid would have a bus leaving to the STY start in an hour and to get ready to go race again. So, for the second day in a row, I was lined up to race again. But, this time we were lined up to run... in the rain... during a thunderstorm. The gun went off and we all splashed off to the trails, aka, massive mud puddles. This race was even more fun than the previous day's and it had everything to do with my attitude going into it! I knew it would be a tough day so I would take it at a comfortable pace and relish each challenge ahead! The mud was so thick and slick! At one point, I slid in up to my waist in mud and two guys helped me out! And all that rain had the mud rinsed away in no time at all! After climbing up a mountain for a while, I got to the first aid station. This time taking full advantage of the wonderful udon provided, I emptied rocks from shoes and refilled water. The next part of the course had me flying down a mountain on some extremely runable hard pressed trails and forest roads. I came into the second aid station loving life and loving the trails only to find out the the race had been suspended and then canceled. The continued rains made it too dangerous to continue. Waiting for buses to come pick up all the runners stopped at the aid station gave me time to chit-chat with others and pig out on a variety of great food! The aid station I was stopped at had massage therapists, a warm building, beer, and a hot foot bath. I found out later that Anna, Mary, and Jessie were not so lucky. They were stopped at the aid station higher up on the mountain where it was very cold, had no buildings, and it took longer for the buses to get to. The race was over before it even got dark. Later, we all met over at the finish line to celebrate two crazies-in-love swap marriage vows. 'Cause what could be more romantic than spending the day caked in mud and sweat, surviving a couple of thunderstorms, and shivering in your plastic rain gear up on a mountain for hours waiting to be rescued!?
Sunday, fun run with friends! Still excited to experience these trails, Anna, Jessie, Mary, Thomas, and I headed out for more miles. Starting near the UTMF finish line, we took the reverse route of the race course. Jessie knew the directions and lead the way. Without the pressure of racing the trails, we were able to take our time and savor the magnificent views of Mount Fuji and the surrounding valleys. Over three days of running different sections of the course, we got to cover about half of the total UTMF trails. We got back from our run with just enough time to get cleaned up and go to the post-race Avid BBQ. The BBQ turned out to be a blast! The Avid Adventure crew provided a drum performance, a tuna slicing demonstration, and so much really good food. Teppanyaki, yakitori, yakisoba, and sashimi. Even with the race cancellation, all the foreigners at the Avid BBQ were understanding of the race director's tough decision and excited to sample the local flavors.
My quest to conquer the UTMF has been postponed. Next year, I will be better prepared to take on the punishing climbs and many sleep deprived hours the trail has waiting for me. One of the reasons I fell in love with trail running is the unpredictability and challenges presented each time I lace up my shoes. This year's race could have been a bust, but it was a blast! The UTMF race organization, volunteers, and Avid Adventures put so much time and energy into putting on this special event. Even the rainout and dangerous conditions couldn't diminish the passion held for the privilege to journey along these sacred trails.