One of my main goals since moving to Japan is to get back into ultra running. The landscape is beautiful here and I have a lot of time to train. Let me take that back. I have a lot of time to train on the roads while pushing my double stroller. Having two small children makes it difficult to duck off into the woods every morning for a trail run. Nonetheless, I have spent the last six months preparing for my first Japanese trail ultra marathon. I ran a lot of miles to prepare for this day and felt confident I would do well. A DNF (Did Not Finish) was definitely not in my plans.
We headed up to Mt. Osorakan early Saturday morning. On Sunday, we’d attempt the 3rd Hiroshima Osorakan Trail 65km. The drive was scenic and only slightly terrifying. The roads in Japan are much smaller than what I am used to in America. The race director sent out information suggesting everyone take the “long route” to the campsite to avoid a very dangerous road with no guard rails. Even though the “long route” was a 2-way road, it was tight enough to make you yield when another car was driving toward you and clench your teeth and lean in on every turn.
We made it to the campsite without getting lost, surprisingly. A very nice Japanese man helped us check in as the receptionist did not speak English and we do not speak Japanese. For 1,100 yen, we secured a campsite for the night. The campsite was very nice. The car parking area was right next to it so we did not have to lug our stuff very far. There was a cooking pavilion with several grills, a concrete table, and several sinks to wash and prepare your own meals. The toilets were the least exciting because they were squatty potties, but I guess that’s better than no potty.
We checked in for the race and then spent the afternoon relaxing and reading in the sun. It was a beautiful day and probably the most relaxed I have been in a long time. This was my husband and I’s first trip away together without our children. I kind of wish we had stayed longer, but he doesn’t enjoy camping as much as I do and I don’t enjoy being away from the kids as much as he does.
Around 4PM we made our way back up to the registration area for a race brief. It was very well done. They had a PowerPoint with a video of the course route and highlighted the technical areas. Granted we had no clue what they were saying, but the visual aids helped a lot. After the brief, the race director called us over. It was fairly obvious the four Americans sitting together had no idea what was happening. There were also a handful of runners from Indonesia running the race that did not speak Japanese who joined our short English brief. The most important thing we got out of it was that we would need to have a lot of water because there were only a few aid stations out on the course and then there was some confusion as to whether there were mini bears on the course or many bears on the course. Either way a bear bell was required for each runner.
We headed back to our campsite to make dinner and go to bed early. We thought we were being smart by bringing our air mattress to sleep on. Unfortunately we forgot it has a slow leak so we ended up sleeping on the ground 30 minutes after going to bed. It was not a very restful night. I think I woke every half hour to hour. This really is nothing different from my normal sleep cycle at home with the babies so I do not think it phased me much. My alarm went off at 0300 and we slowly got up, ate breakfast and packed away our tent. By 0415 we were headed up to the race start.
I think we were all in high spirits going in to the race. We planned to run together, but agreed to not wait on anyone. The gun went off and my three running companions immediately left me in the dust. What the heck? I guess they did not brief me on the pace they were going to attempt. I’m more of a slow and steady racer where as they are all full-throttle. I was pretty proud of myself for keeping them in my sights for the first 2 miles though. It was difficult to pass and I kept getting trapped in packs with other runners that sometimes forced me to run much faster or slower than I would have liked.
This was probably the best marked course I have ever been on. There were yellow marking flags every few hundred yards and guides out on the trail where the navigation could be tricky. The footpath was always obvious and you could tell it had been recently cleared of vegetation. This race was very well organized and well worth the registration fee.
To train for this course I ran the Iwakuni Castle trails, Mt. Misen in Miyajima and the route 52 Temple trail several times. All of which have over 1,000 feet elevation gain. I practiced on technical trails and spent lots of time on the stair master to help build muscle. I also have over 650 miles spent out running on the roads this year. I knew going in to this race that it was going to be difficult. Little did I know just how difficult it would be. Around mile 3, I rolled my ankle on a descent. Nothing too serious, just enough to make me more cautious on the next descent. I was keeping a good pace and sticking with the pack so I tried not to think about it. There was no pain while running and more importantly while ascending the mountain.
Between mile 5 and 6 the pack I was running with began a death march. With every ascent we walked. There was a lot of walking. It was so steep you could not run even if you wanted to. I grabbed on to trees to help pull myself up and regretted the decision to not buy trekking poles the day before. I have never ran with them and assumed trying something for the first time during a race would be a bad idea. I was right. You could definitely tell the people that knew how to use the poles properly verses the guy that kept flailing his poles about, tripping anyone that came near him.
We climbed and climbed and climbed. I just kept telling myself to stick with the pack. When they run, you run. When they walk, you walk. Right foot, left foot, close the gap. It worked for a while, but I was exhausted and my legs were trashed. We made it to 1054m (3,458ft) elevation. It was breath taking. Everyone stopped to take in the view (or at least we all pretended to do that while secretly trying to catch our breath and refuel). After a few minutes the pack and I headed back down the trail. I felt great. Exhausted, but great. My hydration and nutrition were on point (thanks to Tailwind) and I was doing a good job of keeping up with the other runners. Watching some of them go down the trail was like watching someone ski. They glided from side to side and used their trekking poles flawlessly. I, on the other hand, looked and sounded like a boulder rolling down the mountain. I rolled my ankle again, and again. With each descent I rolled it more. It became too painful to step down. While runners were only walking up the hills I was now having to walk down them as well.
I made it to the first aid station (17km) in about 2.5 hours. I was disheartened and relieved all at the same time when I saw my husband walking towards me. His race must not be going as planned either. After a short break, we set back out on the trail together. A few more ascents and we agreed today was not our day to complete this race. We knew with the pace we were keeping the chances of us being able to complete the second and third loops were slim, especially since it would have more elevation than the first. My ankle was in a lot of pain. I planned on wrapping it and taking pain meds after the first loop before heading back out on the trail, but knowing I’d probably not make the cutoff solidified my decision to drop out and prevent myself from doing serious damage to my ankle. We ran the next 10km together to finish up the first loop. We laughed, we criticized and we planned for our next attempt. We may throw in the towel today, but we are not quitters and we will come back to defeat this course.
We completed the first loop 40 minutes before the cutoff. I was impressed we had that much time left considering how slow we were going. My Apple Watch battery died around mile 7 so I had no idea what time it was or how far I had gone. (I am now in desperate need of a good running watch that not only has a good battery, but also tracks elevation.) When we came through the check point I was secretly hoping to see our other two running partners waiting for us. I was also really happy to hear they were looking strong and happy as they came through the first loop and headed back out for the second. My husband and I turned our timing chips in and bowed to the race directors to thank them for the challenging course and amazing experience. We rested and got ready to crew for our friends who were still out on the course. I was over feeling sorry for myself for not finishing and now wanted my friends to do well.
After waiting several hours we heard from one of our friends out on the second loop. He was having a difficult time and not sure he could even finish the loop. We told him where the aid stations were and he was able to get a ride back to the truck. Three runners down and one still out on the course from our group. I went to the top of the last big hill on the second loop and waited for my friend, Amber. We have spent the last five months training for this race together. I convinced her to run an ultra. Something she had never planned to do and something she probably never wanted to do until I convinced her. I just kept thinking about how angry she was going to be that I had dropped out and she was out there all alone. I waited and waited and worried more and more as I saw the look of defeat on every runner that crested that hill. They were all in pain. Some even fell to the ground in disbelief that the top of the hill was not the end.
Amber had been out on the second loop for 5 hours… 6 hours… plus the 4 hours she spent on the first loop. It was hot out and I knew there were very few aid stations out there. I hoped she was doing ok. Close to 7 hours had then passed and I saw what appeared to be her rounding the corner to start the ascent up the long grassy hill. I started to walk towards her, ready to see what she needed to relay back to the rest of the crew. We were ready to get her prepped and set to go back out as smoothly and quickly as possible. The third loop is only a 10K, but the most challenging elevation of all the loops. A Japanese racer stopped me as I was coming down the hill and pointed to the speck I was hoping was Amber. He asked if she was my family then said something I didn’t understand, but I got the gist that she needed help so I took off running towards her because after all she is my family! I was greeted by an angry outburst, which was totally expected. She was floored that I’d have the audacity to finish the loop before her (somehow without her seeing me) and then run back to get her. Once I explained that I was a big fat quitter along with the rest of our crew, I could see the instant relief on her face. She then confessed that she was also done. She was about to complete 34 miles. The farthest and by far the most difficult distance she had ever run. I am so proud of her for all she’s accomplished.
None of us finished the race that day, but none of us left seriously injured and we all left smiling. That is a win in my book. After the race I learned that Mt. Osorakan is the highest mountain in the Hiroshima Prefecture. The Osorakan Trail ultra is also the toughest and most challenging race in western Japan. Maybe we shouldn’t have picked that as our first Japanese ultra, but one day later we are all making plans to train harder and go back out there next year to crush the course. So I guess it didn’t defeat us after all!