On Saturday, August 3rd, I headed north again to Shirotori. Last week I hiked over the mountains, this week the plan was to run around them.
Four weeks from now I’ll be taking part in the Utsukushigahara 70km trail race in Nagano prefecture. I’ve been wondering how best to prepare for that given that my longest run was 46km, and the heat of the summer makes any serious attempt at running long-distance very hard indeed.
Only 35% of participants last year completed the Utsukushigahara course within the 14-hour time limit. This year it’s been extended to 15 hours, but could I even run 70km on the roads in 15 hours, let alone on mountain trails? There was only one way to find out.
By running in the Shirotori highlands, I was 500~1,000m above sea level. That took care of the heat somewhat. Also, since I have 15 hours to complete the race, I figured for this training exercise I could alternate running and walking every five minutes, and do the running bits slowly. I’d lower the risk of injury and get the experience of training for 10+ hours.
Stage 1 – Shirotori to Kuzuryu
On Google, the whole route was about 60km and the half way point was the small town of Kuzuryu, named after the legend of the “nine-headed dragon”. To get there, I would have to run up mountain roads, cross the border from Gifu into Fukui prefecture, run along the nine-headed dragon river and past the nine-headed dragon dam.
I set off just before 6am and soon encountered my first problem. The huge loop that carried the Mino Highway over the mountains was for vehicles only and I would have to find a different way across. I lost some time asking for help and finding my way, but was soon running up a mountain road which overlooked Shirotori city. This one hill climb took me 400m higher than the start and the air felt lovely. A temperature gauge told me that it was just 19C at 8am, far cooler than back in Kakamigahara where the forecast was 34C.
I got a fright from the loud snorting of a wild boar in the bushes beside me. I hadn’t seen one before and didn’t hang around to get a look this time, either. What I do know is that they are big, fast, dangerous and short-tempered! I sprinted away as fast as I could.
I have mixed feelings about the rest of the journey to Kuzuryu. On one hand, the scenery was a joy to look at. The mountains are always impressive, the narrow river snaked its way between large rocks and tall trees while an eagle circled ahead and the noise of wildlife filled the air. It would have been perfect if not for the Mino Highway which I was running along. Having rejoined this main road, I was regularly passed by dump trucks, concrete mixers, sightseeing buses and motorcyclists. I had also picked a day when the roads were being resurfaced and work was being done on the huge number of landslide barriers. There were no sidewalks. Crossing bridges was frightening because while one lane was closed, traffic signals gave me about 90 seconds to sprint across each bridge before oncoming traffic would bear down on me. Tunnels were just as bad. I carried a light and wore a reflective safety belt, but I was walking through the gutter which was wet, muddy and slippery. Seriously, I would never do this again.
However! It wasn’t long before I was run-walking alongside Lake Kuzuryu, and I just couldn’t resist getting my phone out to take photos and video.
It really was such a treat, and the campsites along its shores gave me brief, but very welcome opportunities to get off the main road and right down to the shoreline.
After four hours I had made it to Kuzuryu Dam, one of the highlights of the day, and after that it was a mere 5km downhill to Kuzuryu town.
Stage 2 – Kuzuryu to Itoshiro
It took about five hours to cover the first 32km of the trip, but I had made it to the “Road Station” where tourists gathered for lunch around a display of mechanical dinosaurs! I got myself some chicken sandwiches, a bottle of Japanese tea, rested and refueled.
This was only my second workout with my new running backpack from Ultimate Direction. It’s arguably the best of its kind, and for the most part I’m very happy with it. It fits well and you really forget you’re wearing it at all. I had it stuffed with biscuits, energy sweets, sun lotion, electronics and drinks. Before I embarked on the next leg of the journey, I filled up my two water bottles, and since I had passed a few vending machines during the morning, I figured I wouldn’t need to carry a third bottle… a decision I regretted later.
I was finally able to leave the main road and head back up into the mountains towards the Itoshiro district where I started my hike last week. By now it was the middle of the day and the sun was beating down. A temperature gauge at the roadside told me it was 27C, still cooler than at home, but not cool enough! I started to drink more and more. My right foot, which has been giving me problems over the last few months was sore, but nothing too concerning. The roads were almost deserted and I enjoyed run-walking along a gorgeous river, and the beautiful forests that covered the surrounding mountains.
Just as I passed the full-marathon mark at 42km I ran into a “ROAD CLOSED” sign. There had been a landslide and the road was blocked to traffic both ways. It took me a moment to comprehend what I was looking at. Would I really have to turn around and go back the 42km that I had come? Travel back along that horrible Mino Highway with its dump trucks and tunnels? There certainly weren’t any other roads through these mountains that would get me back to my car. What would you have done?
I took my chances and kept going. I walked and ran, and ran and walked, for what seemed like ages. I must have been the only person for miles around, and that doesn’t happen often in Japan. The road became narrow and winded its way between the river and towering cliffs held back by gigantic wire mesh fences. Eventually, two guys on motocross bikes came from the other direction so I flagged them down to ask just how bad this landslide was. It came as a huge relief when they told me I would be able to pass.
Somewhere between 5 and 10 kilometers after first seeing that “road closed” sign I finally reached the landslide. Sure enough, the road was covered with mud, but most of the slide had been caught by the barriers above and there was nothing stopping me walking right past. Thank goodness I didn’t turn around and go back the way I had come. What a waste of time that would have been!
By this point I was running low on water. I knew Itoshiro was close, but I filled up a bottle with water from the river just in case.
Stage 3 – Itoshiro to Shirotori
Itoshiro is a small town in the heart of the mountains. It attracts tourists for its hiking, “catch and release” fishing, and the ski resorts in the area. Because of its location, it remains quite cool throughout the summer, though on this particular day I was getting quite hot and thirsty and spent half an hour hunting for a vending machine.
I drained a bottle of Sprite, a bottle of Coke, ate some biscuits, filled up my water bottles and changed my socks. Then I started the climb up to the highest point of my journey (983m) passing ski resorts and hot springs.
Changing socks seemed like a good idea at the time, but now my right heel was rubbing like crazy and I could feel it blistering. Running instead of walking relieved the pain so I ran up the hill. Ever since the Norikura Marathon I did in June, I’ve found a new love for running uphill!
At 60km into my journey, with a sore right foot, a blistering heel and a bruised left rib from a bouncing water bottle, I was looking forward to getting back to the car.
The view over the switchbacks on the road coming down from the mountains was reminiscent of the run up Mt. Norikura. Right up there on the roadside I passed a towering waterfall, but it was just a taster of the treat waiting for me ahead.
I had to sit down and put my dirty socks back on since the new ones were making a right mess of my heel, and then I wandered into the woods to witness Amida Waterfall, one of Japan’s top 100 waterfalls and the subject of Hokusai’s woodblock print of the same name. Yes, that’s me in the picture. My phone balanced on a rock made for one wonky picture so I had to rotate it a bit.
After that, my right knee decided it had had enough of running and I was forced to walk down the rest of the hill. I managed to run again when I got to the flat and ran continuously for the last three kilometers back to the car. When I got there, I checked my running app – 69.6km. I felt obligated to run another 400m around the park.
It took me 11 hours and 45 minutes to cover 70km. I took a ridiculous 177 photos and videos which no doubt contributed to the slow time. I have rashes in my underpants, blisters on my feet and have probably lost even more weight, but otherwise I think I got through this without injuring myself. I can now go to Utsukushigahara knowing that I’ve previously run 70 kilometers and have the mental strength to keep going for more than 12 hours. I probably won’t do anymore of these big workouts before the race on August 31st, but I still hope to do a lot of trail running in my local mountains.If you like, you can find me on Twitter at @nick_ramsay. I'd love to hear from you!