“Gambatte!” How many hundreds of times did I hear this during the Shinetsu Five Mountains 110K? Gambatte is the Japanese equivalent saying for our “good luck.” While it’s used in the same situations, though, it doesn’t mean the same thing. Literally, gambatte is closer to “do your best.” I love the emphasis on your own efforts, rather than some random set of occurrences lining up for you (luck). Shinetsu Five Mountains 110K was a amazing and REALLY TOUGH race, that definitely required preparation and personal toughness; luck alone would not cut it for this one.
This was my first overseas race. I arrived in Tokyo late on Sunday night, stayed overnight, and then took a Hokuriku Shinkansen up to Iiyama (in Nagano Prefecture) Monday, mid-day. The race sets aside 20 spots for international participants, all organized through a 3rd party (Avid Adventures), who handled the logistics of picking up up in Iiyama and shuttling us around between checking, the hotel, and the race course. While it was a whirlwind, it was nice to have many of the details taken care of (especially since I speak “restaurant Japanese,” at best).
Check-in occurred on Monday, the day before the race. (A quick note – there was an alignment of holidays that resulted in a five-day weekend, or “silver week,” this year. As such, the race took place on a Tuesday instead of a weekend.) Check-in felt a bit more like a road marathon check-in than the loose trail affairs I’m used to. Inside a ski lodge, there were a few tables with volunteers handling different sets of names and handing out race swag. There was a mini-expo set up outside, with sponsors showing off their goods (considering the dollar/yen exchange rate, I probably should’ve been looking).
After check-in, we headed to the hotel, settled into our rooms, and got ready for our race briefing. As the race is officially only in Japanese, our group had a special English race briefing just for us. There wasn’t anything surprising that came out of the briefing, but it was nice to hear that confirmed. I then proceeded to hit my head about five times on low-hanging objects around the hotel, after-which we had a group dinner (shabu shabu – yummmm).
I have mixed feelings on if the approach of just jumping right into the race after arriving in Japan was a good idea. One thing that it helped with: I had no problem falling asleep at 7:30 PM and waking up at 3:00 AM the next morning! It actually left me feeling a little cocky, which I, of course, paid for later. Breakfast was a selection of cereals, onigiri, and bento boxes. I didn’t feel like this was the time for the cultural experience, so I stuck with corn flakes. There would be time for Japanese food later.
Shinetsu Five Mountains – Raceday
There was a huge crowd moving around near the starting line when we arrived, around 4:30 AM. Conditions were foggy and cool, although certainly warmer than what I’d had in Seattle for the past month. I was able to start the race in a t-shirt and shorts and be totally comfortable. We promptly started at 5:30 AM after a group countdown from eight: Hachi, nana, roku, go, yon, san, ni, ich! GOOOOO! The support by spectators at this stage was amazing. We had a few gauntlets of cheering, high-fiving people sending us on our way. I doubt I’ve ever smiles so much at the start of the race. All the nerves were simply gone!
One of the pieces of required equipment for the race was a “poison remover.” I had never heard of such a thing before, but after a little research, discovered it’s some type of suction device meant to pull the venom/poison out of snake/bug bites/stings. Sounded questionable, at best. A few miles in, I quickly felt my achilles ignite when a hornet decided she’d had enough of the hundreds of people pounding past her house. This was a SERIOUS sting – those things are huge. I decided to give the poison remover a shot. Annnnnnnd… it was worthless. Oh well – I’d just have to handle the sting the old fashioned way: Do nothing and let it pass. The sharp pain soon subsided, but the swelling got pretty intense. I actually thought that I hurt my achilles during the race until I realized a coupe of days later that all the swelling was just due to the sting! My ankle didn’t look normal for about four days after the race. Don’t mess with Japanese hornets!
Back to the race: There was a LOT of runnable climbing. Many miles of slight uphill on gravel roads. With the steep, sharp climbing I’m used to in the Cascades, this had me a little nervous. I don’t usually do this much running for long, uninterrupted periods! Fortunately, the first huge climb began about 10 miles in, stopping me (and everyone else) quickly. I had met a runner who spoke very good english, Moritani-san, earlier. He had been giving me the low-down on the race. We made the summit and he took off really quickly down the decent! This decent made me start to worry. The mud was hard-packed and slick. I was tensing up my entire upper-body trying to keep my balance and not start sliding/falling down the trail. Nobody else seemed to be having these problems – I suspect being much larger than most the other runners wasn’t helping me here. Also, the terrain was feeling a bit foreign to me.
We moved into steady, rolling trails soon after the bottom of the decent. I was feeling pretty beat, so pulled back the throttle. It was only 25K into the race – not really the time where I should be feeling winded and tired. I suspect this was part of the downside of the travel. It was getting to be evening in Seattle, I was feeling tired and hungry. I wasn’t eating much from the aid stations (I couldn’t tell what many thing were). Feeling in trouble, I decided to basically shut things down and try to get back in control. From 25K to 45K, I was moving SLOWLY. I ran into another one of the Americans at the race, Alicia, around 45K, at an aid station. It was great to talk to someone. Between chatting with her and having some delicious Japanese pears, my spirits were picking up again! I took off, moving well through the next 10K. I caught up to Moritani-san around 50K, and we stuck together for about the next 10K, up a long, slow dirt road climb.
The “big” aid station, with drop bags and a lot of food, was at 65K. I won’t lie, I thought about dropping here. I was low on energy again and feeling some aches. As I mentioned earlier, I though I had hurt my Achilles. I was a little concerned that pushing through it might leave me limping around for the rest of my vacation, which wouldn’t be a great way to spend it. After a little resting, drinking coke and icewater, and drinking some soup, I tested my ankles and decided to head on back out onto the course. I shortened up my stride a bit, which required less mobility on my ankle and left it feeling reasonable.
The sun set, and my spirits continued to yo-yo. I had another really fun stretch through a long gravel approach to a shrine in the dark. followed by flat, fast sections on brick walkways. The last third of the course was very muddy. There was a great aid station 92K that served bowls of soba noodles with a soy-based sauce. I had gotten into my Japanese ultra-running groove by this point. Miso soup and rice balls were perfect. The bowl of soba noodles were an awesome addition. I was feeling fueled and relatively strong. Good thing, too… because coming up next was…
This is one of those race… one of those wonderful races… that leaves the toughest climbs for the end. The highest point on the course is at 97K: 1748 meters (5735 feet). You get there through an endless slog up a muddly, switchback-less trail, following by a trip straight up a ski slope to meet a chair-lift at the summit. I felt like the chair lift was mocking me, at this point. The descent off the mountain was no easier. Muddy, rocky, rooty, wet. There were no significant stretches where there was speed to be had. I mostly managed to stay upright: I landed hard on my tailbone at one intersection where a couple of race volunteers were watching. They started yelling concerned Japanese at me. As I tried to suck air back into my lungs while laying on the ground, all I could manage was “gomenasai…. nihongo….. oooooo…. hanashimas…..en…..” (I’m sorry, I don’t speak Japanese.)
At 4.7 K left, the course turned onto a flat dirt road. I was still feeling relatively fueled and strong (just not for technical trails)… so I opened up. I probably ran sub 8-minute miles in for these last 3 miles, passing around 10 people, most of whom gave me big cheers. It was a really exciting finish, through a field, into a ski lodge. All smiles, I caught up with a few of my new friends, grabbed some soup, and got off my feet. An amazing race and experience.
The Next Day
The next morning came early, as we had gotten back to the hotel via bus at around 1 AM. It was pretty hilarious to see our group hobbling down the stairs of the hotel (no elevator) to head to the restaurant for breakfast. Breakfast was… a little strange, but delicious! Spagetti and ketchup isn’t something I usually have on my morning plate. Not everyone went to breakfast, so a few of us had seconds. We traded stories from the previous day and got ready to head to the awards ceremony, about an hour from our hotel.
The awards ceremony was a big event! I had never seem something like this at a race before. Race pictures were only 500 Yen (about $4) – what a deal! I was really enjoying the huge pot of Japanese curry they were serving. After our group settled down on the gym floor, I was especially grateful when my new friend Thomas offered to go grab another bowl for me on his way back over to the curry table. I felt decent for having run 68 miles the previous day – but I still wasn’t anxious stand up and sit down anymore than needed.
On to the ceremony. One of the group of foreigners, Corinne Williams, won the women’s race! In only her second ultra! It was exciting for us to get to cheer for her as she went on stage to accept her AWESOME trophy and endless array of amazing prizes. What a great performance!
On the men’s side, I was happy to see Saijo-san on the podium! My friend Masazumi introduced me to Saijo-san at Chuckanut 50K earlier this year. He also raced the Gorge Waterfalls 100K (which I also ran) about a month later. He had great finishes at both, so I was fully expecting to see him getting a trophy at this awards ceremony!
This was an amazing race. I’ve been to some very well-run races, but this was by far the most organized event I’ve been a part of. As someone racing overseas for the first time, this was a huge help. I had nothing to worry about during the race other than racing. Every intersection was perfectly marked. There were no markings were markings weren’t needed. The aid stations were very well stocked and had some really good food! The volunteers were wonderful; very encouraging and looking out for us at tricky sections of the course. The finish line and awards ceremony the next day were fun. Everyone made me feel very welcome! It was a great running and cultural experience.
Thank you to everyone involved, especially Hiroki Ishikawa (SFMT race producer), Harry Ohara (Avid Adventures), and the race volunteers and staff!
Well, I didn’t adjust the settings on my watch before the race, so it died after about 11 hours. This is all I got: