Ultra Trail Mount Fuji
Some of this may be woefully out of order, or just plain wrong. A lot of the memories of this race got very muddled in my head. There was a stretch towards the end that my mind refuses to believe actually happened in this race and thinks that I am confusing it with another in the US.
Ultra Trail Mt. Fuji is a sustained effort around some of the mountain ranges that Fuji-Sahn has careful watch over. Standing at twice the height of most of the surrounding peaks expansive views of Fuji are frequent on the course. It never lost novelty and always offered stoic support to the sometimes painful traverse.
The lake Kawaguchiko area served as the start/finish town, itself seemingly comparable to a busy vacation spot in the US that focused on outdoor attractions. Cherry Blossoms bloomed gloriously, adding alien splashes of color against the earthy browns and greens from the backdrop of mountains. It wasn’t until I stood near the lake and observed the surrounding terrain that the total elevation gain of the course began to make sense. We were going to run up some friggin’ mountains.
I arrived in town the night before the race and opted out of going to the race registration figuring it would be safe to do so in the hours before the start. It was my esteemed pleasure to spend time with some folks I knew from NYC and get caught up in the pre race planning and prepping. We stayed in a delightful little hotel with some hostel style rooms and a beautiful cafe area to congregate and make food. It was sweet nostalgia to hear the discussion of aid stations and drop bags, hear the counting and dispensing of crinkly Gu containers. The floors of our rooms were littered with packs and bottles and running wear. Excitement!
The morning saw my traditional Japanese breakfast of pastries and crazy seaweed triangle things with random fillings (Tunafish? Egg Salad? Some other thing?) from 7-11. Despite my fear of cracking my head open I borrowed a rusty cruiser bike from the hotel and showed up to the race start to register and get my gear checked out. Arriving early I took a nice relaxing ride along the lake to kill time and calm my nerves a bit.
UTMF has something like 2000 entrants between the 100M and 100K events. I expected I would spend the entire race with someone trying to pass me or me trying to pass someone. As a new twist, rarely did those people speak english. It was certainly an odd feeling going that long and wanting to talk to people but not being able to. I felt I was making an exception for this race as I really didn’t want to do another BLOCKBUSTER hundred with so many people AND it was a North Face event which meant a kind of Hollywood excitement to the whole thing.
When check-in opened up it was a super smooth process not unlike going through airport security. I was quizzed by a volunteer and had to show that I had a subset of the required gear. I ended up carrying all 18 pages of the detailed map but it would have been kosher to split it up and put half in my drop bag. For the whole race I ended up leaving my phone on airplane mode and no one seemed bothered by it. This was to preserve battery life as they were indeed checking the battery charge later in the race.
I rejoined my comrades, plus two folks we met from Australia, for some delicious soup with big fat noodles. For the first time the whole trip I had someone with me who spoke Japanese which seemed like an incredible luxury at that point. We were able to barter for some extra soup!
With digestion underway we did a final gear check and reported to the start line. We didn’t leave a ton of time before the start so the wait was short. Wandering around briefly I inspected all the trail gear they had for sale at the various vendor tents. I didn’t recognize any of the Salomon sponsored runners but they had people following them around with jackets that said “Salomon Race Support” or something to that effect.
My friends from NYC are much, much faster than me and I let them sweep me up in getting very near the front of the pack for the start. We crammed in amidst media members feverishly snapping photos and ultrarunning studs with their game faces on. I stood in line with Joe Grant. That is not where I belonged.
It was cloudy but not cold, even some sprinkles from a cloud that appeared quickly from nowhere. The mountain creates some weird localized weather.
With a crowded whoosh we left the start chute and began what was repeatedly called (deservedly so) our journey. I doled out high fives where I could and tried not to step on anyone’s heels. Eventually we stretched out and began a short trip around the edge of the lake before turning for our first charge up a mountain.
The first incline was up a paved/dirt road that reminded me very much of some of Leadville. Long switchbacks and I kept a small efficient stride up. Up and up we went. A slightly undulating paved road section followed that offered extended views of the surrounding area. An impressive and mostly cloudless Mt. Fuji greeted us. When a particularly good view of it would appear groups of young Japanese men would shout which gave me reason to smile. I relaxed into the evening and enjoyed it while I could.
The first aid station was a rush of men slurping noodles and shoveling food in with chopsticks. My stomach was already bothering me a little but I ate as much soup as I could and took care of hydration a little. I had an immense amount of time.
Sparing not too many more easy miles the toughness of the course began to show itself. Long and sustained technical climbs. And by technical I mean there was sometimes a guide rope to help you along, and it wasn’t overkill. Rocks, roots and steep, steep terrain. In retrospect I might have been well served to have spent some time running up and down the more technical climbs in the blue hills. Steep, man!
As the sun began to set I was getting near the top of a climb as I remember the soft amber twinkle of city lights in the quickly darkening land at the base of the mountain. Being sensitive to altitude (Or terribly out of shape) I had to stop often to catch my breath and let my heart rate smooth. I imagined the temples and the absolute peace of the days before. The beautiful and quiet gardens I meditated in surrounded by bird songs and trickling water.
Starting to feel like a true ultra we followed ridgelines between peaks which meant punctuated moments of steep climbing and steep descents. As I descended early in the race I leaned forward to hop down a rock and my $10 Marshalls sunglasses broke free and tumbled end over end a few hundred feet down the side of a ridgeline. I watched helplessly and tracked them on their way down, eventually losing sight of them. Sighing I briefly considered climbing down after them but figured it not worth it. A short distance ahead a camera crew was waiting and had seen the whole thing unfold, and they asked me questions about it. Maybe I’ll make the UTMF video!
Bloody and dirty from crawling and falling I stumbled into another aid station. The night was getting on and my stomach was feeling worse and worse. I think the altitude and pushing hard uphill was getting to it. I reiterated to myself all the reasons I had to finish, highest being the fact I had come halfway around the earth to do this damn thing. The aid stations often had little sweet rolls with various fillings like chocolate or cream. The regulars were there, fruits, soups, and random assortments of candies. At one point I tried to eat this thing that was like a hash brown with mashed potatoes inside of it? Whatever was inside of it, it was creamy and definitely didn’t help my gastrointestinal situation.
The late night sections always blur into a weird state in my mind. Rocks flatten out under the lighting from my headlamp and somehow my feet find where to go. Muscles on autopilot my mind struggles to distinguish the features of the ground as they whir by. It’s almost easier to cross thick rocky sections, due to a total lack of deciphering the terrain.
Someone passed me, gagging loudly as they ran. I stopped to shine light on another runner as they changed their headlamp batteries. It’s a weird encounter, pantomiming and limited vocabulary. As I entered some more climbs I too started to gag as I ran.
The next section had a weird surface to it, very fine volcanic looking pebbles. It made for some tough sections when climbing hills. Almost as if we were walking in sand. This surface continued up through the final climb to the next aid station. I could see the people waiting at the top as I crawled up. A few hundred feet out of the aid station I decided it’s best to be sick in a ditch before I sit down in the tent. As I gripped my knees and purged sugar and salt I felt a hand rub my back and squeeze my shoulder.
“Let all the bad stuff out, it will be okay.”
It was the most comforting gesture I’ve felt in recent memory, and I never even got a look at the fellow.
Feeling dizzy, nauseous tired, defeated and alone in a strange place I plopped down inside the aid tent. I watched as people got massaged and slept on cots. It definitely felt weird to be in that bad of shape in a foreign place. I have no doubt I would have been able to get help if I really needed it but still an uncomfortable time. Eventually I decided a nap is in order as the sun will start to rise shortly to revive me. I pantomimed a sleeping person to a Dr. and they directed me to a super comfortable bamboo/straw platform. Each aid station had stellar blanket support and it was easy to conk out for a spell.
The din of the aid station gently brought me back to reality. My stomach growled in hunger though still feeling a bit topsy turvy. Stumbling to a port-a-potty and opening the door it took a moment before I realized it’s not a western toilet. I decided now was not the time to have that new experience and picked up some grub and slowly wobbled out of the station.
The next section was a very brief road bit with only a few miles till an aid. Running almost started to feel normal again. It was super chilly and I was wearing my down and my effusion jacket. As the sun was coming up I could feel my mood increasing. Some spectators crowded the next aid station and I was able to get a ton of oranges and a few chocolate filled rolls down.
As I turned to leave the aid station I got a spectacular view of Mt. Fuji. Handsome bugger. Standing like a single Samurai against a horde of invading mountains. It hit me really hard in that moment how beautiful the landscape was. Our very human worries and suffering seemed nothing next to the massive stance of rock. A strong reminder of our place in the cosmos and the fragility of our identity. I didn't know what else to do than bow deeply to the mountain as I left.
The course continued on the road a bit more before dropping straight down a ski slope. After all the treacherous climbing in the night the ski slope made me laugh. Of course we run down a ski slope. It just wouldn’t be the same if there wasn’t a random ski slope involved.
After the ski slope we dropped into the most martian looking section of the course. An old dried up river bed that was littered with large volcanic rocks. The rocks formed odd and jagged shapes, a dull brown muddy color. We ran inside the river bed for a bit, climbing over the odd stones.
By this point it was finally warm enough to shed some layers and I was back to sweating which meant my hydration wasn’t that screwy. Some really long road sections followed the river excursion. The roads winded through some residential and camping looking areas. Eventually it led us through what seemed to be a GIGANTIC, miles long, logging operation. Long rows of meticulously planted trees surrounded us on either side. Off in the distance the roar of a saw was ever present. A small water stop awaited us after an unbearable amount of turns in the road that weren’t the aid station. I met a very nice fellow from India at this station and he warned me about getting through the Tenshi mountains before dark. He said that 20k or so might take 6 hours.
He was not fucking kidding. Shit was about to get crazy steep.
With those words in my head I slogged it out to the next aid station (I totally forget what the course looked like here), which was a huge one. We had hit the 100k mark and this was the last stop before the Tenshi mountains. I ran into some crazy dude from Boston who runs like every ultramarathon. Ever. It was good to see a familiar face and his confidence inspired me. There was an aid station worker standing in front of a huge skillet doing some sort of noodle stir fry. I was enchanted watching it and was able to scarf some down. (Side note, At some point on the course there was a bathtub sized pot of soup going, hah. Just remembered that.)
The idea of taking a nap before the next push seemed like a good idea. There was a huge gym looking building with those soft bamboo floors nearby. It felt good to get out of the direct sun as I was getting pretty fried in a wide open powerline section before. I forget where they were. But, every ultra has to have a damn powerlines section. My nap was restless and my feet were starting to throb. I spent 10 minutes massaging them before putting my shoes back on. When the race was over it was about 30 hours of feeling like someone was pounding my foot with a hammer.
The Tenshi mountains section was on paper the toughest ultra section I’ve probably ever done. Starting 100k into the race, several thousand feet of climbing and descent, a touch of altitude, and 12 miles without an aid station. It turned out to be gnarly for sure, but due to my own stupidity or mismanagement of other races it wasn’t the hardest section I’ve ever done. That crown is worn by the seemingly innocuous guacamole loop in the Zion 100.
Right before leaving the aid station there was a gear check that involved pulling a few items from my bag and verifying my cell phone charge. And with that I was off. As we winded through some city streets to find the trailhead I met a very nice older runner who said she was going to be running across the entire US in 2020. As we approached the base of the mountain I laughed, as one does when faced with a cool problem. I let some culture creep out for those around me.
“We gotta climb that shit?”
Polite nods all around.
The climb went from super gentle to short switchbacks to hand over hand scrambling. My cough started to get worse but I otherwise felt okay. Halfway up I started taking breaks to catch my breath. Further up some cheering let us know the 100k leaders were catching up to us. It was great to see how the elite 100k guys handled this kind of terrain as they hiked super hard passed us. One gentleman out for a hike was wearing a shirt that merely said “Massachusetts”. I pointed and excitedly shouted “Home!”. Obligatory thumbs up.
At the top of the first mountain we traversed the ridgeline which steeply descended on either side. Enough trees lined the side that a fall wouldn’t ruin your day, too much. The rest of the 100k participants started to trickle along and I chatted with a few of the honkeys among them. The lead female was from CO, and was crushing it.
Small groups of hikers and volunteers had gathered near a few of the false summits and cheered us on. Towards the second mountain the terrain returned to the steep hand over hand sometimes roped trail. The 100k runners were getting much more frequent and I had to step off the trail often to let them by. As we descended the other side of the next mountain a few things came to a head. The trail was getting really chewed up by the runners before me (Hundred of them at this point). I was beat up enough that I wasn’t moving very fast down but at this point the 100k runners were still FLYING. Some of them fell or slid dramatically. A few times some of them would actually not be able to stop themselves fully and have to crash into a tree, or aggravatingly, someone running the 100 miler. Sections that really could have used a rope weren’t and I used strapping young trees to repel down.
I’d honestly like to write more in detail about the next few sections but things got a little fuzzy. Tons more up and down with one colossal downhill before the next aid that drove me crazy. The 100k torrent was far worse and I saw people get knocked to the ground because of wreckless behavior. One dude sat on his ass and “rowed’ himself down the mud, even knocking a woman off her feet sending both of them down the trail like they were in a toboggan. The sun was setting and I was getting pretty cranky.
The next two aid stations were mad houses. I forget which order they came in. One was in a small cabin looking building that was so packed it looked like a Tokyo train station at 8AM. I wanted to take another short nap but the sleeping areas were all full so I sat on the floor by the bathroom and closed my eyes amid the calamity and smell of feces. Race staff eventually asked non-runners to leave the building but it was still impossible to get to the food table. The steepest section of the whole course followed as we left the aid station and immediately climbed a hill (Mountain? Who knows at this point). It wasn’t technical but I was more comfortable crawling on hands and knees then hiking upright.
Another of the aid stations was a giant circus tent (I think?). They had some bitching miso soup and I ate a bunch more rolls. What followed was the only section I got remotely lost in (Seriously, they had volunteers with flashing lights at almost every turn in the course. Hundreds of them out there.) as we ran through a very large dried up riverbed. The rocks were sized such that it felt like a talus field. We found some people walking backwards and had to backtrack a few times. Somehow it all worked out. Again, my mind was completely shut off and the world whizzed by my feet with its strange shadows. We climbed another mountain. I tried talking french to someone. We passed through a weird section at the top of the mountain where the surrounding thick shiny green foliage made it look to be some kind of purposely planted temple-y looking area. Kind of like a corn field.
Between two ridges we heard a man shouting loudly ahead of us. I never figured out what he was saying but I think he was cheering us on. A few steps ahead a man pulled someone aside and started talking to him. I turned to the Japanese fellow next to me and asked
I saw him smile as he replied. “I can see how that would be confusing.” And he added nothing more. This was the most laughable moment of the trip because in retrospect, that is a really complicated english phrase to know but not be able to translate what the guy said.
After more painful descending, A long stretch of flat led up to the final aid station. Before the descent I had sat down on the course for the first and only time the whole race. I rubbed my feet and muttered to myself. At the base I popped a 200mg caffeine Gu and crushed out a few miles at a good clip. We spilled out of the woods and onto a road as the sky began its transformation to a lighter hue. My adrenaline tapped I told myself the aid station was just around the corner and began to walk.
|Suspiciously eying up pastries.|
And walk. And walk. The recent effort had coated me in sweat, combined with the coldest part of the day I began to shiver. I had to stop and put both layers on again. This stretch was endless with long sights down the road ahead that revealed no aid. Fearing the wheels completely coming off I mustered a shuffle and found salvation. I didn’t know how far it was to the finish line but was pleasantly surprised to hear it was only 7 miles and I had enough time for one final nap. The atmosphere here was jovial and I busted out a short dance. I continued shivering after laying down and opted to put on my rain pants, thus wearing every piece of required gear at once. Without that list I might have actually been caught unprepared. I take back any bad mouthing I did about it.
After a short respite I awoke to a beautiful and glorious day. It was noticeably warmer and brighter. This last nap was a deep one and while far from refreshed I knew I’d be finishing the race. I gave my blanket to a poor fellow next to me who was shivering in his sleep. He was out so soundly it didn’t stir him and I briefly considered the HVAC system of the body responding and ceasing his involuntary muscle spasms as the extra trapped heat brought him to a better stasis.
Unsteadily I rose to my feet and consumed some more sweet rolls and oranges. The next 3 miles were quick and I was able to strip down my clothes again. I finished the last few miles at a slow walk, sauntering across the finish line giving the large line of people high fives. I hugged the race staff and thanked them for the great time. Nick Clark had been hanging around in the crowd at the finish so I talked to him for a bit about the race. He is just like he seems in iRunFar interviews. The last few miles were really beautiful but I was too beat in the feat to feel it.
The start/finish was close to the bus back to Tokyo and my bags were 1.5 miles down the road at the hotel. Poor planning abounded. Total disabled with indecision I sat down on a stone wall and took my shoes off. I sat there for 30 minutes soaking in the sun and watching people cross the finish line in fits of joy.
It was the most peaceful moment I had experienced in months, probably since hanging out with friends after Superior. I accomplished a big part of why I made the trip, the accommodations (aside from immediately post race) had all worked out and the things I fretted most about international travel had proven themselves easy enough to navigate. The majority of the race I was able to stay in the moment, even when that moment was not where I wanted to be. Pain, fatigue and nausea were isolated to when I felt them and I didn’t project them on how they’d affect my ability to finish the race.
Meditation has a way of really bringing to your attention all the directions your mind is pulled when you are not actively policing your thoughts. Negative emotions don’t just steal your energy, they force you to use energy to stoke their furnaces. When loneliness settles into my stomach and makes me grasp out for any reassurance of value in life, When a single hug would make all the difference in the world and all I have is me and the ants in my apartment, it feels good to give in to it. It stifles my senses and brings me further from the light and beauty in life.
I give energy to the self destruction.
Other times, a simple breath takes it all away and the energy spent to clear my mind pays back tenfold what the energy spent on hating myself would bring.
Sitting on the cold rock that particular day under a torchlight of sun, I had no energy to give. And the feelings passed through me like a breeze rustling through patches of bamboo. The leaves of my soul stretched out to dance as feelings rushed past, but held on to none of them.
Looking back weeks later, It’s exhilarating how much better I’ve felt after the trip. Honest to gawd, I actually feel good about the race. Albeit slowly, I finished my first real ultramarathon and I’m really damn proud of it. VT100 doesn’t feel like a compulsive reaction to the negative emotions in my life, like every race last year was. All in all, Excelsior!