My road to Ultra Trail Mount Fuji
The inaugural 100 mile Ultra Trail Mount Fuji (UTMF) takes place this weekend. Billed as the sister race of the mecca of ultra marathoners, the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc, UTMF, at 156km, is a shade short of the 100 mile mark. But who’s counting? More than 8000m of accumulated elevation gain and a course that does a complete loop of the iconic 3776m Mt Fuji will more than make up for a measly 4km.
The race has been a long time coming. Back in 2010, I was excited to emerge from a frantic mouse clicking battle on the race registration site with one of the coveted 800 spots. The following February, I was able to escape the Japanese winter for a few weeks to Southwestern Queensland. There, keeping my eyes peeled for poisonous snakes and killer spiders, I gradually built up my long runs on Toowoomba trails. A few days before I was to return to Japan, I staggered in the door, jazzed at completing my first back to back 50km/30km training weekend. I collapsed in front of the TV and saw the, initially unfathomable, images of the massive tsunami that had swept away so many lives back in my adopted home nation a few hours earlier.
The planned UTMF was one of the many running events (trail and otherwise) in Japan that were cancelled in the months after the disaster. I took part in two tough Kanto area trail races of around 40km and looked around for an alternative longer distance event. I prevailed in another click battle and set my sights on Hasutsune in October; reportedly, one of Japan’s top trail races, a distance of approximately 70km, mostly run in the dark.
In the run up to Hasetsune, I was feeling a little jaded as my earlier races had felt like something of a slog and training through the long and very hot and humid Japanese summer had sapped my motivation. It was just at this time that the rescheduled date for UTMF was announced. Organizers said that anyone who had succeeded in getting a spot in the original race would receive priority for 2012. I was no longer sure that I was up for putting myself and my family through the training required to complete a 100 miler, especially if the final experience would be more pain than gain.
I decided to wait until I had finished Hasetsune, and that I would take my UTMF spot if, and only if, for some reason I found running 70km of trails in the dark fun. I was pretty sure that I was off the hook and that I could look forward to returning to more reasonable distances the following year. It was a tough race, but, to my amazement, the race went very smoothly and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was left feeling energized and, riding my longest post-competition endorphin rush, took my spot in the rescheduled UTMF.
That was then. And now event is upon me.
Am I ready?
I am having some doubts about my training, mainly focused on how well my running on the trails around Hiroshima city has prepared me for the long, steep ups and downs on the UTMF course. My regular training runs never took me anything above 500m, while UTMF starts at about 800m above sea level and we are close to 1500m for much of the first half. In the second half we will get up to a shade under 2000m, so even the fact that my training runs have started at sea level doesn’t make me feel any more confident. That said, scheduling 8-9 hour runs on weekends was tough enough on my partner, left alone to do that other endurance sport of entertaining two young children, without figuring in another couple of hours to get to and from higher peaks.
I’ll find out if these doubts are justified soon enough. Now I’m trying to push them to the back of my mind and focus on my race strategy; summed up by the mantra “slow, slow, slow!”
I have a tendency to get carried away in the early stages of races. If I do that this weekend I will really pay for it. Even a few seconds a kilometer could be the difference between feeling like I’ve earned my T-shirt and a DNF. I need to view UTMF as a experience, more as endurance hike than a run, and as a learning opportunity.
In this respect, it is fortunate that the toughest part of the course does not come until around the 105km mark. This 27km section starts with an 800m climb to a 1300m high ridge, goes over three 1500m peaks, and them up a very sharp climb to almost 2000m. I am counting on the sheer terror I feel at the prospect of trying to overcome this obstacle, to scare me into moving at a very conservative pace in the hours before I get to it. After all, if I get down in good shape, I can still stretch my legs and blast the last 20 miles (yeah, right!).
I’ve finished several Ironman triathlons, cycled to the top of Haleakala on Maui, done a 22 hour bike ride in torrential rain, struggled up and charged down Ben Nevis in Scotland, as well as running an 88km road race among the mountains of Hiroshima and, of course, Hasetsune mentioned above. They were all tough in their own way, and I said of several of them “that’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done”. But, from all the books, interviews and online race reports I’ve read, running 100 miles over a course like this is a challenge on an entirely different scale. It’s a scale that I cannot comprehend, and this is the first time in a very long time, when I’ve had no idea whether I will be able to meet the challenge.
I’m trying to enjoy my ignorance. It may not be bliss, but may well be more pleasant than knowing what’s in store. It is certainly exciting, in a “I think I’m going to throw up” way. And, whether I cross the finish line or not, it is a precious thing. I may end up attacking the 100 mile distance many times, but I will only ever attempt my first once.