This weekend I went up to Nagano prefecture to take part in the Utsukushigahara 80K trail race. This is the same race I DNF’d last year, except this time they increased the distance by 10K and added only one hour to the course time limit! (Course map and elevation chart)
The top runners on the final climb – photo from Utsukushigahara Trail Run’s official Facebook page.
Before the race
I drove up on Friday in my little Suzuki Wagon, in which I’d be sleeping the next two nights, and picked up my race pack at the event hall. Unfortunately there weren’t any nice polo shirts for entrants this year, only a little foot massage roller which anyone can get on Rakuten.
I met up with Takashi and we parked our cars back to back so that when we opened the trunks they formed a nice canopy. He made us a lovely cup of coffee before we headed down to the event hall for the pre-race meeting.
It had been a wet week already, but as we left the meeting it was bucketing down with rain. The forecast for race day was rain and cloud, and up in the mountains the weather is rarely favorable.
By 7pm, I had set up my bed. My goal was to get more shut-eye than the two hours I got last year… but it wasn’t to be. Pre-race nerves, concerns over what to wear in the rain, and the discomfort of sleeping in such a cramped space kept me up for most of the night. I wasn’t the only one, though. Takashi was also awake by midnight, so we sat down for a Cup Noodle and rice balls, and desperately tried to find the Brazil vs Columbia game on his little TV. Alas, we had to settle for some Wimbledon while applying tape, Gourney Goo, and making multiple trips to the toilet.
It continued to rain.
I had brought my full Goretex suit, gaiters and Inov-8 Roclite GTX shoes as emergency wear should the weather be as bad as it was. But, something inside was telling me to forget the waterproofs and go light. This was a decision that would make or break my race. With 20 minutes left before the start, I opted for my new, ridiculously thin Montbell ultra-light parker and my almost stud-less Altra Olympus shoes.
Just before the race, we met up with some Facebook friends for a pre-race photo:
And they’re off!
We were still inside the building at the start line when the race got underway. We filed out into the rain slowly with the sweeper behind us. I was adamant that I start at the back and if I passed people by walking up the ski slopes then fine, I’d be placed with people of my ability. Sure enough that happened, and by the time we got up the first big climb it was daylight already.
Despite the slower-than-last-year start, I still had to step aside to let people pass me once we hit the first stretch of mud. Most of the next 6km downhill was slippery, deep, wet mud and I fell over time and time again.
The mud in the above photo is from the River ‘n Rapids 10K, but it looks just like what we had here.
Just like last year, I was amazed by how fast people bombed downhill. Totally fearless. People skidded, tumbled, crashed into trees, picked themselves up and kept on going. I cautiously tiptoed my way through until I took my first major fall. My legs skidded out from under me and I fell flat on my back, caked in mud.
What made matters worse was that everything you touched with muddy hands got covered in mud, too. Even my water bottle nozzles were filthy, but I had no choice but to suck on them anyway. It was a really messy affair. In some parts, the mud was so deep you’d sink into it up to your calves, and then had to be extra careful to pull your foot out without losing a shoe!
I got to the first aid station at the 14km mark 40 minutes later than last year, but fortunately only 5 minutes behind my planned race schedule. Not bad considering the state of the trail!
Aid 1 to Aid 2 (21km)
I didn’t stop at A1 at all. I had already had a cheeky wee behind a tree and still had enough water to get me to the next stop. Buoyed by my good progress and a big climb ahead of me (much better than a slippery downhill!) I set off up the next mountain in good spirits.
I had caught up with Takashi at the aid station so we attacked the climb together for the first part. The higher we got, the harder it became for him because he has trouble breathing at high altitudes (we were above 1,500m and climbing) so he told me to go ahead which I did. I employed the rest-step technique on the steeper sections and it helped me enormously. I didn’t feel the fatigue that wiped me out last year.
I stopped at the top to tighten my shoe lace (not so easy because I had to get a muddy gaiter unclipped first and that damn thing was so stubborn!) and then I ran down to the next aid station, slipping only a couple of times as I figured out that my Olympus shoes actually get very good traction on stone and grass.
Aid 2 to Aid 3 (26km)
I refilled my water bottles at Aid 3 and started up one of the steepest climbs which would take us to the highest point on the course, the Utsukushigahara Highlands, peaking at 2034m. There was a one or two kilometer segment that was a designated “no running” zone, but I was grateful for an excuse to walk anyway. Over the course of the day, I started to despise runnable sections. In a race like this, with so much hiking, you really had to run on every bit of flat or downhill otherwise you’d not make the next cut-off gate. I’ve not been running much in training, only about 150km a month, so runnable sections really wore me out!
Coca-cola and bananas at Aid 4 were awesome, and the volunteer staff were really encouraging, too.
Aid 3 to Aid 4 (39km)
I was 30 minutes behind last year’s pace, but feeling a lot better. In fact, it was at this point one year ago that I decided to give up. The thought of retiring this time never even crossed my mind, but the long, 12km descent down to Aid 4 did take its toll on my body and I had to stop to shake my knees out.
“What happened!?” shouted a familiar voice as a I let people pass me. It was Takashi. He had found a second wind coming down the mountain and a bit closer to sea level. I told him I was fine and we went off together again. Suddenly, I saw him stumble in front of me, twisting his ankle. Gah! It was the same ankle that had sidelined him earlier this year and this happened literally moments after we were discussing how great our progress was!
He gave it a wiggle, put on a brave face and we kept going down the hill. By the time we hit the road, his ankle forced him to walk so I pushed ahead to the aid station.
I devoured a bowl of noodles, drank more Coke, gobbled up some banana chunks and refilled my bottles. Yoshikazu (back pain) and Takashi (twisted ankle) were sat on the curb contemplating retirment. I wished them well and set off… in the wrong direction! Fortunately I realized my mistake quickly and embarrassingly ran back to the aid station and wished everybody well for a second time.
Aid 4 to Aid 5 (53km)
After a short stretch of road, I headed up a small, but steep mountain. I wasn’t moving quite as quickly as before, but still kept a steady pace. Coming down I took my worst fall of the day, cutting my arm on a tree branch, but it was really just a scratch. I also lost control near the bottom and skidded across the mud like a figure skater on one leg. It was remarkable that I kept my balance!
I passed through the cut-off gate right on schedule and even with an hour to spare, and then faced a 10km hill climb up a rocky, forest road. At this point I decided to run for 30 seconds and walk for 90 seconds repeatedly all the way to the top. On the way I passed a friend of a friend who was surprised as I ran passed him on a steep bend. I explained that I was only running for thirty seconds, which he thought was manageable so he joined me. Two other guys he was chatting with joined us as well, so for the next 50 minutes we marched together as a group, with me calling out the intervals for each short run.
Aid 5 to Aid 6 (69km)
I reached the fifth aid station 10 minutes ahead of my planned schedule and debated whether to change my socks. The little toe on my right foot was hurting with each step, but I really wanted to keep pressing forward so I had a glass of milk and left the aid station.
10 minutes later I gave up and sat on the grass to change just one sock (I compromised!). Eugh! What a mess! Over 10 hours of running in water-logged shoes had left my feet horribly soggy and muddy as well. All the tape I had put on had just washed off in my sock and my toe was getting pinched with each step in such a way that the skin had cracked. I put on some more tape around the toe, a fresh sock, and continued my journey.
This particular part of the course was 16km and mostly runnable, which put unwanted pressure on me to actually run. I ran a few short bursts, stopping to catch my breath or to tiptoe around the mud, but I was struggling now. I had lost sight of the runner in front of me and couldn’t see anyone behind me, either. It was reminiscent of a position I found myself in three weeks earlier in the Asama~Sugadaira Trail Mountain Race. In that race, I conceded defeat and walked to the next aid station where I DNF’d.
Time was still on my side, but I knew I couldn’t dawdle. The sun finally came out and it got very hot, very quickly. I took off my jacket, opened a fresh packet of trail mix and turned on my iPod. The music got me going again and I started to make some headway.
As the trail descended, the conditions got worse again. Earlier in the day, there had been a 40km race on this very stretch of trail. The hundreds of runners doing that shorter course had churned up the trail really badly. It got so bad that it was totally waterlogged. I guess you could call it a swamp. I was really, really sick of all the mud by now, but I waded through, being very careful to keep my shoes on my feet.
At the bottom of the mountain were four or five water crossings. They were great in that they would wash the mud off your shoes and the cold water was a blessing on my sore and tired feet, but crikey, the water doubled the weight of my shoes!
Speaking of shoes, it was at about this time that I was very grateful I didn’t wear my Goretex Inov8 Roclites. Not only would they have crushed my toes far worse than my Olympus did, but all the mud and water would have surely gotten into the shoes and then not have been able to escape because of the Goretex!
One more climb to the next aid station at Daimon Touge.
Without a doubt, this was the steepest mountain of the race. It was maybe only 200m high, but lacked any kind of steps. Remember walking up a slide when you were a kid? This was a very big, slippery slide with no handrails. Actually, the organizers did provide a rope, but to use it meant leaning back, pulling yourself up with your arms and walking your legs up the “wall”. That proved to be even harder than scrambling up on all fours, which is what I ended up doing.
Aid 6 to the Finish (80km)
I eventually got to Aid 6 at about 5 o’clock, half an hour before the cut-off time. There was a quick headlamp check, a bit of refueling and then I was off.
I just had one more cut-off gate to get through before the finish, and according to my plan it was only 3km away and I had 90 minutes to get there.
The trail was up and down, but quite runnable. However, my toe was hurting again and I could only manage short bursts of running on the downhills. Most of the time I walked at a pace fast enough to get me to the finish before nightfall.
That 3km felt like more like 5km, but I got to the final cut-off gate in just half an hour, putting me right back on schedule with two and a half hours to do just 8km. I gave a little shout of glee and thanked the staff at the gate. I knew that no matter what, I would make it to the end, even if I was outside the course time of 16 hours.
I stopped again to treat my toe. This time I rolled up a wet wipe and taped that to it.
While I was sitting beside the trail, a lot of familiar faces walked past. It was interesting that even though I had been overtaken by so many people, it was always the same people! I had somehow managed time and time again to catch them on the uphills and pass them at the aid stations. But I wasn’t competing with them and they weren’t with me. All of us had just one goal and that was to finish the race. And there was a great sense of comradery among us as we encouraged each other along.
Another steep climb tested our legs and willpower to their max. I had to take rest breaks before reaching the top of the last climb. From here to the finish, there was just a gentle run across the mountain top and then a long run down the ski slopes to the finish line. I emptied a whole bottle of water to lighten the load and enjoyed the scenery for the first time all day.
However, to my surprise and those around me, there was another mountain to climb… and then another, and another. None of these were very big, but having already climbed over 4,000m and with the finish line so close, these really were an unwelcoming sight.
With the clock ticking, we again took careful steps down steep, slippery trails and back up over the rocks. “5km to go”, read a sign. Everybody around me, myself included, sighed in disbelief. We thought it would be over by now, but on we trudged.
At last, a volunteer greeted us and announced that the last 4km would be down the ski slopes. Hooray! Hooray! What a feeling of relief!
I walked down, giving high-fives and congratulating the guys who ran past me. Even if I walked I would make it in time. Phew!
“Ohhhh! Nick-san!”, it was Takashi and Yoshikazu. They had convinced each other to battle on despite their injuries and caught me on the final stretch. Yoshikazu ran ahead, leaving me and Takashi to walk down to the finish.
It was an incredible feeling as we crossed the finish line together, 20 minutes before the time limit. People cheered and gave us high-fives. Music was blaring and the guy on the microphone was shouting out congratulations. Takashi broke down in tears. It was his longest run ever and he didn’t think he’d make it. I was overjoyed to finish what I failed to do a year before.
A fire roared, fireworks lit up the sky and we drank around a barbecue to celebrate an unforgettable day.
My toe hurts, my back is sore and my lungs and heart feel somewhat overused, but I think I came through this relatively unscathed. And just as well, really, because I’m doing the OSJ Ontake 100K Ultra in less than two weeks!
Update: According to the race director, the future of the Utsukushigahara Trail Run is uncertain. The impact on the trail was devastating, and one runner suffered a serious injury.If you like, you can find me on Twitter at @nick_ramsay. I'd love to hear from you!