• Elliot Cooper

Crash Course

Updated: May 23

My eyes are open. I'm waiting for my alarm to go of at 2:30am. Today is June 24, 2018, the day of the 4th running of the Yamanaka Onsen Trail Race. In 2015 it was my first trail race, and my first ultra marathon. Each time I’ve been stronger and run better than the last, and my connection with the race is deep: it’s how I measure my development as a runner. The alarm sounds and Mutsumi launches into action. We must depart by three. “Good Morning” Tomoda says. He’s 70 years old. It will be a long hard day, I’ve told him. But he still wants to come, with Mutsumi he will drive around to aid stations and help with photos, food and morale. What a champion.

I’m excited, but there are a few things on my mind. The last two years the race was held in the much cooler weather of October. Today the temperature is predicted to reach 30 degrees. From 2015, when the race was held in August, I know that heat is dangerous on this course. I’m also worried because instead of putting down a planned 160km each week leading up to the race, in the last four weeks I've run about four kilometers. Total. The third reason I’m worried is the same reason I haven’t been running. My right collarbone is only partially healed, I still can’t lift my arm above shoulder height, or apply force with my right hand (such as that required to steady myself with a rope while descending technical terrain). I don’t even want to think about what might happen if I were to fall.

I love the Yamanaka Onsen Trail Race. The course is both beautiful and challenging. In the first half of the course runners climb two magnificent peaks, Fujisha Peak (941m) and Mt. Dainichi (1368m). In the second half, with legs still coming to terms with those two massive and steep climbs and sometimes treacherous descents, runners’ mental resolve is tested as they push on through a series of seemingly endless climbs the last of which is a rocky scramble up Mt. Kurakake (478m). The final kilometer is no doubt among the most picturesque race finishes in the world, following the Daishoji river from the famed Basho-do, (Where Basho Matsuo stayed on his narrow road to the deep North), to the finish between the Yamanaka Onsen Kabuki Theatre and the town's famous public bath. Where else in the world are you able to finish an epic race and within minutes be treating your sore muscles in a historical natural spring?

In the last moments before the start of the race I’m surrounded by friends. We talk about our confidence levels and the challenges we face today. Morisaki and Nankawa make some doubtful comments, “ My knees hurt”, “I really don’t think I can finish today”. “Of course you can do it,” I say “You’ll be fine”. Privately, I wonder if my body still remembers how to run. It's a troubling thought to have when you’re lined up at the start of an 80km race. 5am ticks by and we start. A familiar nerve pain immediately manifests in my left hip and the first few 100 meters are incredibly awkward. My zombie-esque gait allows many runners to glide past me. I try to act normal. I tell myself it will get better.

Climbing is what I’m good at so I run the entire first climb, easily overtaking many runners as they opt to hike. I catch up with Morisaki, as he’s taking the first hills easy and saving his knees on the descents. Here and there we are together and we chat. I last saw him in December when we ascended Mt. Kanmuri together with no snow gear in snow so deep we were literally climbing through tree tops. It was a great adventure and we speak of the memory fondly. We cross to Mt. Kariyasu and take the fast winding descent down towards Waga Dam. My left hip hasn’t improved at all so I stop to stretch. I hear Morisaki’s voice from behind, “What’s wrong? Does your arse hurt?” “No, here” I say, pointing. “Oh, there, well, almost everybody hurts somewhere”. He’s right, and really I know that at some point the hip thing gets better, I wish it were sooner but not today. What I’m actually worried about is my stomach.

I cross the dam, then the suspension bridge leading to the long ridge up Fujisha Peak. I know that finding somewhere I can stop to take care of the demon in my stomach is unlikely. Here, for the most part, your choices are to be on the path or tumbling down a mountainside. Where the ridge widens the undergrowth is too thick to push into. But then, as Hemingway might have put it, I find a hidden place in the scrub to take a shit. I’m deeply, deeply relieved and climb well to the summit. The descent from Fujisha Peak is waiting and I’m afraid of falling. I go slowly, using my left hand to steady myself with the fixed ropes which are mostly on the right side of the trail. Time and again I stop to let runners pass me. I’m relieved to exit the trail without having suffered a fall. I know I’m behind my time from the previous year, but I have to force that thought out of my mind and recognise the triumph of not having fallen.

I cross Kudani Dam. Now I can distract myself from the pain in my hip by thinking about how I have no water left. The aid station at the far end of the Dam wall is where I fill one flask to to see me through the five kilometers of road to the first checkpoint. Crossing a bridge I hear a voice behind me in English “So you’re the other gaijin (foreigner) in the race”. I say yes, while thinking about the discussion at Basho Cafe the previous afternoon about how my name hadn’t appeared in the list of runners. How did he know? His name is Carl and he’s a Canadian who lives in Toyama. His road pace is a little hot for me but I keep up for a while and he tells me about his experience doing Ironman triathlons. I wish him well and let him go ahead. Before long I’m at check point 1 trying not to think about how I’m forty minutes later than in the last couple of years. Tomoda is taking photos and Mutsumi gives me some Tailwind and an energy drink I was planning to save for later, but drink now, greedily. I put on a brave face and move on out, but my hip is now so bad that after about 100 meters I can only walk.

A runner who recognises me from last years Koumi 100, Koga-san, catches up and asks if I’m ok. He tells me things will get better, there’s no need to push here, there’s still a long way to go. He’s right. We’ve only done about 27 kilometers. Koga goes ahead at his pace and soon my legs start moving again. I’m looking forward to the big climb up to the summit of Mt. Dainichi and another runner sidles up next to me. I ask if he’s been in this race before. “Once” he says, “It’s tough”. He goes on to tell me that he is also a finisher of Joshin, a 130km race with 9000m of climbing held in the northern alps of Japan. He says it’s much harder than UTMF, which he has completed 3 times. By now we’re around 4 hours in and the heat is starting to be a problem. There are already white salt marks on my yellow t-shirt. I drink a lot of the water I have just getting to the to the Mt. Dainichi trailhead, but I know there is an aid station before the mountain section begins and from my experience here in 2015, I know that the most important thing you can do in this entire race is fill every receptacle you have with water or sports drink here. I make sure all of my four bottles are full, then drink half of one and refill it. Now I’m ready.

On the way up Dainichi I get a good rhythm happening, and somewhere I realise that my hip has stopped hurting. I start to pass runners, one is catching her breath at the top of steep kick. I smile, “You’re fine. Mt. Dainichi is no biggie.” I climb and climb. The thighs are screaming, but the rhythm feels good. Halfway up there some members of my old Fukui running group are calling my name and cheering. I smile. They take photos. I climb and climb and I catch up with Koga. We talk again for a while and I say “see you again soon” as I go ahead. The foliage changes from tall proud trees to trees that grow horizontally due to their yearly burden of snow. I spy the opening at the top of the climb and drive upwards. As I pass the Dainichi hut another small group of supporters call out and take photos. From here there is a tricky descent followed by a gentler climb to the Dainichi summit. I feel like my body is learning how to run again. I pass the peak and turn to Mt. Kodainichi, feeling for the first time like finishing this race is possible.

From Kodinichi runners face the most technical section of the whole course. Last year it was a wet muddy mess. For most steep sections sliding on your butt was the only available option. This year it’s dry but there are a million trip hazards: rocks, roots, poorly placed steps, fallen trees and roots. There are roots, and then there are roots, a fact which requires a little explaining. In the mountains of western Japan the undergrowth is thick with a flat leaf fern. At some point in its evolution, the root structure of this fern became trans-terranean. In other words, the roots sprout through the surface of the earth and, after an interval return into the earth. This creates a strong loop, just large enough to catch the toe of a runner’s shoe. About half way along this undulating descent. That is exactly what happens. I place my right foot and when I try to pick it up again it is as though caught by a rope. Over I go, onto my damaged shoulder.

As I land on my back, splayed like a dead starfish both legs cramp horribly. It’s excruciating. Any movement makes things worse. Amid the stabbing pains in my legs I think of my shoulder. I hear a voice “Kuupaa-san” (that's me). It’s Koga. “What happened?”. I explain. “I have some medicine for the cramps, do you want some?”. I accept. In any case I’m done. I told him earlier that I’d have to quit if I fell. But he knows that’s not how this game works, “I’ll see you again soon” he says, and moves on. Several runners pass, “are you ok?”, “yes yes” we laugh at how ridiculous I must look. After a couple of minutes I pull myself to my feet. My calves and thighs pulse in electric shock-like cramps. I check in with my shoulder. It seems to be still intact. Lucky, I think, very lucky. I start walking, thinking it’s not far to the second checkpoint. But that 8 kilometers seems to stretch on forever. It’s the same as last year but I feel like somehow the rises on this ridgeline have all had children. I walk, stepping off the trail to let runners pass. One runner stops and asks me if I’m ok. I say yes, and we talk a little. She says this is her comeback race. Last year she tore a calf muscle during a race around Mt. Kinabalu in Borneo. She’s a fighter. I start to tell her that I’ve fallen badly and have to quit. As soon as I utter the words I trip on a large root and take a head-first dive off the trail, rolling several meters down the hillside. I say I’m ok. I’ll just sit here a while.

“I quit”, I tell Tomoda at the Kenminnomori checkpoint. “Ok” he says, “The car’s just down there”. “Gimme a few minutes. I should eat something.” I don’t feel completely done, but my legs are stiff and I know that if I run they will cramp again. But worst of all, I’m afraid of falling. The risk of re-fracturing my collarbone just seems too great. I don’t have much appetite, so I force down two bowls of soumen, and a second energy drink, which is horrible. Some other runners Mutsumi and I know arrive at the checkpoint. Eno-san and Haririn. These two are exceptional road runners, in fact they are respectively the mens and womens winners of the 2016 103km Ainomaronikku race. I’m surprised that I’m still ahead of them, but I guess mountains are not their forte. Nonetheless, they are tough and experienced enough to get through just about anything. They hang around eating, talking, making their preparations for the next section. Mutsumi tells Eno what’s happening with me. After he finishes his soumen he points at me, says “I’ll see you out there soon”, and disappears down the course. Haririn moves out too. Damn it, I think. There’s still eight hours left. I look at Tomoda. He got up at 2:30am to come out here and help me today. I have no idea what we would do for the rest of the afternoon if I quit here. I change my socks, a little trick I learned last year. “I’ll go to the next aid station” I say, “and quit there”.

There’s a point in any ultra where I can feel my lungs, kind of in the way one feels a muscle group after a long workout in the gym. Tired but strong. Inevitably I start singing, whistling, randomly yelling out “woot, woot”, to nobody. I’d caught Haririn quickly on the steep climb up to Mt. Gannome. After which runners are blessed with a beautiful and very runnable downhill section. It’s here that I’m woot-wooting, massacring nostalgic punk tunes, and laying down sub 5 minute kilometers. I exit the wilderness onto the road and blast my way to the 3rd checkpoint and aid station. My friend Q-chan (probably the best sports event volunteer in the world), it screaming out Eri-chan (that’s me), Mayu-chan is there too. Mutsumi and Tomoda can hardly believe I’m there already. And Eno is there. I’ve caught up with him! There are oranges. Never in my life have I eaten oranges like this. I could sit there eating them all afternoon, I think. Many photos are taken. Tough-as-nails Mayu-chan says “hey, Mutsumi said you we thinking about quitting” I smile, “I was, but I gave up”. “Forget about your shoulder,” she laughs, “if your legs aren’t broken, you have to finish!” I laugh and go back for more oranges. Eno says he’s going. “Right, I’m going too,” I say, chasing him down the road. “Thanks everybody!” I yell, “woot woot!”

The climb is tough and I’m drinking my water way too quickly. There’s a tricky bit with a rope on the right side. I hang on with my left hand as best I can. I climb and climb. My thighs are screaming, but this is a familiar section. I know when the suffering ends and I know I’m stronger than that. I get to the top of the climb where a volunteer directs me off to the left and says the next aid station is in three kilometers. No problem. The descent leads down through a beautiful cedar forest. The pain in my legs doesn’t matter a jot.

I spot Mutsumi at the end of the 4WD track, “woot woot”. More friends are there, Hasshi and Kaku. Tomoda takes photos and Hasshi fans me with her uchiwa. High fives all-round. I go through the 4th and last checkpoint and I’m into the oranges again. Damn they’re good. I try some mizoremochi too, which I have to chew for forever before I can get it down. Whatever. I have one more mountain to go, and, with no more checkpoints, a mountain of time in which to do it.

Mt. Kurakake is just as I remember it: steep and rocky and steep. I push and push and push. On the steepest section race organiser, Tamo-chan, is waiting with a cameraman. I’m happy to see him. I ask the photographer to take a photo of me with Tamo-chan and he happily obliges. Before moving on I thank Tomo-chan for another great event. The climb is so steep that the final ascending switchbacks are already quite a relief. Emerging at the top I hear applause. I take a bow and say thank you. A couple of photos at the summit and I’m onto the last descent. I run where I can, in other places I’m hanging on to whatever there is around to stop me from falling. The exit form Mt. Kurakake is all on fixed ropes, down into a river. It’s suddenly dark, so I put on my headlamp and take it carefully. On the gravel road I just want to run. The day has been a crash course in trail running, and now my body has relearned the art. I pass three runners “C’mon” I say, “we’re nearly there, let’s do this”. Mutsumi has run out on the course to check on me. “No need to sprint” she offers, “I heard you singing”. I laugh, “That's what I do”. I'm grateful to her, to Tomoda, to all the friends who cheer me on. I have pains; dull pains, acute pains, odd pains. None of them matter. I feel the rhythm and I’m running. I’m running down the road. I’m running through the tunnel. I’m running along the river. I’m running to that Kabuki theatre, to that onsen. I’m running. I’m running. I’m running.

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