In April this year, ultrahottie Jess Baker and I travelled to Japan for a three and a half week visit that took us everywhere, from Hiroshima to most of the way up Mt Fuji, to a sumo stable in Tokyo and the temples of Kyoto, but the inspiration and purpose of our visit was an incredibly special ultra marathon, its full title being the Sakura Michi Kokusai International Nature Run.
One thing that draws many runners to ultramarathon is surely that this sport we love is so far from ordinary. Even most marathoners will never run 50km, so the experience of running a 100km race is an extremely special thing and should be treasured, because it is a feeling of struggle, achievement, satisfaction and life affirmation that many will never know.
So, within an already extraordinary sport, Sakura Michi is a truly extraordinary race. Why?
- single stage 250km road run
- close to 1,000 volunteers
- more than 40 aid stations
- crosses Japan, one of the few countries where endurance running is truly appreciated
- follows the path of over 2,000 cherry blossoms planted by a great man, Ryoji Sato, as they are blooming
- inspired and coordinated by some of the organisers of the original 420km Hiroshima to Nagasaki Peace Run
For any ultrarunner who isn’t aware of Japan’s depth in the sport, 2 out of the top 5 men and top 5 women for 100km on road in any one year are usually Japanese. There is a rich culture of running supported by serious inter-company competition with the ekiden and the blog Japan Running News is a good place to visit to start learning more about a running culture so deep that you might find yourself getting passed by grandmothers at the 190km mark on a Sunday morning if you ever make it to Japan for the incredible race I’m here to tell you about.
I would also say that in addition to Japan’s love of running being a fantastic element of Sakura Michi, the Japanese people and Japan’s general culture are also inherently attractive. We were treated with such kindness and hospitality, but also felt a real expectation that we would give our absolute best that we felt, ultimately, incredible support and a debt of gratitude. Just like training with faster runners, being surrounded by this attitude of aspiration and humility was positively challenging.
Before the race, we stayed with Ogo-san, the Race Director, at his beautiful and very welcoming home in the heart of a forested green mountainside as did the other guest internationals. Also, there was the wonderful Thierry who had completed Sakura Michi several times himself. This wasn’t just a great way to experience Japanese home life in a deeper and more patient way than travel typically allows, it was also a great opportunity to learn more about what we might face on the coming weekend … and get a little anxious about the potential for extreme cold and rain.
Our home stay with its array of wonderful meals, new friendships, visits to the annual Takayama Festival, morning waterfall runs, and anxious drop bag preparation soon drew to a close. We were bussed to Nagoya for the Friday afternoon pre-race briefing and final coordination before one last short sleep and the Nagoya Castle starting line on Saturday morning. This route to Nagoya also gave us a view of part of the course, as well as a sense of the harmony between human life and environment in Japan, with massive roadways disappearing into mountains and out the other side through gigantic tunnels that almost blended into the landscape. In some places in Australia where such a roadway is needed, the solution is more likely to involve blowing the mountains apart rather than tunnelling through them.
The pre-race briefing for the international runners had already been conducted as most of the main briefing would be in Japanese with translators helping out. A highlight though was certainly the surprise request relayed by phone shortly before the meeting for Jess to speak on behalf of all visiting runners. Opposite the castle and several floors above where the briefing would take place, Jess’ thrill at preparing an unprepared speech filled our room and for the next 40 minutes we entirely forgot the pre-race anxiety that still had some hours left to brew.
She did nail it, though, conveying our joint love of running, our excitement at being in Japan, how much we were looking forward to sharing the next day’s unique experience together from wherever we all might be on the route from Nagoya to Kanazawa, and a recognition that ultra marathon really is a movement and a force and a vibe that transcends anything as restrictive as nationalism or language barriers.
After a short break we got down to the serious business of drop bag placement, making sure the right set of gear would go to the right place, and that the right set of backup gear would also go to the right place before or after it on the course. Some runners, of course, had to drop off dragon onesies, in addition to their race nutrition and other such frivolities.
Wanting to cut straight to the run itself, this is probably a good point to say to any aspiring runners that Sakura Michi must be one of the best supported races in the world. There are approximately 42 aid stations, which are broken down into small (S), medium (M) and – that’s right – LARGE. These are also referred to as ‘Hotels’. Small has water, sports drink, maybe some candy or fruit. Medium has sports drink, water, maybe cola and candy, maybe red bean buns and umeboshi plums, maybe coffee or soup. The LARGE have everything! There are about 13 of these on course and they have EVERYTHING. These are also the aid stations where you can send your drop bags as you try to anticipate what you will need and when.
Will you be cold because of the weather, because of the time of day, or because of exposure as you begin the first juicy climb around the 100km mark? Wherever your clothes and torches are, you can begin to put them on while inhaling soup or noodles or sweetened oranges or beer or salted potatoes or having a massage or… are you getting the sense of what I’m saying here? Best. Aid. Stations. EVER!
The start from the gate of Nagoya Castle goes in waves 3 minutes apart. Basically, if you’re in Wave 6 like Jess was, it’s because your form rates you as very fast. Checkpoints on course are not checkpoints as we usually refer to them in races. Places on course where you get supplies are aid stations, whereas aid stations that are connected to one of a half dozen cutoff times are checkpoints. These cutoffs are times of day, so if you’re in Wave 5 as I was you more or less have a nice little 15-minute time penalty that can either play with your head or motivate you to go faster if things go wobbly as my race did on the first afternoon. More on that later though…
Back to the starting waves. Our friend Keith Hong was in Wave 2 on the basis of a slow ultramarathon time at Coast2Kosci (Australia’s longest race) a couple of years before. But having built up pumping quads of steel and knocked out some faster short course times – like 4:15 on the very climby 6 Foot Track 45km – we were expecting he’d have a solid race. Sure enough, as the waves departed and the timer counted down, he led his group from the start.
Countdown. Fortunately, we had been inspired by a friend to do this race. Paul Every and his partner Diane Weaver who jointly are Race Director for Coast2Kosci have experienced Japan in a very full way, both as a destination and a place to live. Paul’s earliest description of the race made us want to travel to Japan for it, just as the article he had first read in an ultra magazine 18 years before had made him want to. He had helpfully said to me that even though we start at the castle, to get a view of it you actually need to walk an extra 100 metres or so past the starting line, which most people don’t do. As I snuck back to view the castle I smiled and thought of Paul and Diane, and felt like they were with us for this epic adventure in a very real way.
Back to the starting line, a few last big hugs, lots of adrenaline, a real sense of being in the right place at the right time in the right country for such a unique running challenge and GO.
The GO moment is when preparation ends and the run begins. If you have put the hurt into your legs, if you have eaten healthy, if you have tried to sort out the weaknesses that cause your niggles, and if – very importantly for anything 100 miles or longer – you have mentally prepared by imagining the weakness, the exhaustion, the fatigue, the pain, the shutdown, the physical resistance and what you’re going to do to handle them when they happen, then you’re as ready as you’re going to be and you welcome the end of the preparation.
You welcome the start of the run.
Given our status as welcome guests, the last thing we would ever do is treat our hosts with intentional disrespect. Whenever we didn’t honour a custom – easy to do with misplaced shoes or poorly pointed chopsticks – it was by accident and we would hopefully not make the same mistake twice. I think such faux pas were also seen in that light. On our way through the city of Nagoya, we discovered the custom of stopping at pedestrian crossings when the red man lit up, even if there were no cars in sight and the road to be crossed was only one lane wide.
This did of course mean that any pack of runners functioned like an accordion, spreading out, then closing back together, then spreading out again only to regroup once more waiting for a red light to turn green. Running with a ‘must get through this’ mentality as my very prime directive, I could enjoy the novelty of this unusual in-race experience. But I was also thinking how somewhere behind me, much more capable and competitive, this could be working in Jess’ favour or against her.
The run out of town was exciting but relatively uneventful. The first aid stations would be roughly 10km apart and then get closer together once we hit the open countryside of Japan. Pedestrian crossings were funny. Our friends Tomotaka and Miho were amazing. A beautiful couple, we met Tomo through the Sahara Race when we took on the 4 Deserts Grand Slam in 2012.
Living near Nagoya and being a keen athlete, he had completed this race a number of times. Having dinner together the night before when they very kindly took us to a gorgeous local soba house that we would never have found ourselves, he said that they would come and cheer us at the race. The extent of their kindness toward us was as yet unimagined. The two of them would appear every 5km or so to start with, cheering and taking photos. There was great support on course from all the volunteers and passersby and spectators, but it was really nice to have friends smiling their support as we went by.
They would cheer us for the whole weekend. Jess caught me around the 20km mark which meant I’d started faster and she’d started steadier than expected – again, we think this was a pedestrian crossing consequence. And as Jess would pull so far ahead of me over the course of the next day, they must have been driving 40km up to see her and then back to see me. We’re quite sure they drove at least twice as far as we ran, and we were so happy to have the two of them as part of our story.
The first aid station I’d sent any drop bag to was at the 49.9km mark. To make sure I didn’t have any annoying complications from managing my type 1 diabetes, I had sent a spare canula (the bit that goes into your skin allowing insulin from the very tiny pump on your waist to be delivered into your tissues by an extremely thin tube) ahead in 5 of my 9 drop bags so that should any complication arise, I would have the parts I needed to fix it. I was also carrying a spare canula in the very thin race pack I was wearing, along with a water bottle, glucose meter, iPhone, ultralight jacket, syringes, fast and slow acting insulin vials, and mix of gels and powders.
The aid stations were UNBELIEVABLE. As I arrived at the 49.9km mark, a volunteer was out front of it with my bag ready for me. We had already been blown away by the Shinkanzen – Japan’s superfast train, which always arrives on time, leaves on time, and even pulls up to the platform aligning numbered carriages and doors with the exact place they’re meant to be. But this was Next Level Aid Station. The volunteers had a chuckle when I tipped two cups of water over my head and I had a chuckle when I realised there was a bucket of cool water with a ladle at the end of the aid station for that exact purpose.
There was a lot of chuckling on course, I must say. Constant high fives, constant gratitude and appreciation from the runners for the volunteers and the incredible way they looked after us, constant appreciation from the volunteers for the runners who they knew were taking on a mighty challenge, and constant appreciation and support from cars driving by with even young kids cheering and shouting ‘Ganbatte!’ which roughly means ‘Fight!’ or ‘Kudasai’ meaning ‘Give us your best!’ as they passed by. Fortunately, Paul had told us about ‘Ganbatte!’ before we left so we had it put on the front of our shirts in Japanese writing.
Normally I’ll wait 30km before putting headphones in and I’d have to say that Vitamin M, MUSIC, is a great ally on long runs. But even by 60km I had no interest in tunes, because I was absorbing the completely unusual environment and humans cape around me as we ran. I did unfortunately absorb something else – too much food! Getting into one aid station and realising that the nut butters I had decided to fuel on were just not working for me, I looked at what was on offer – red bean paste bun, watermelon, umeboshi (very salty and strongly pickled plums – magic for pulling you back together when you’re a bit scattered), and Yakult, that tasty little yogurt drink. So I ate it all. Mistake.
Eating any one of these things would probably fuel you nicely. But after perhaps 6 or 7 hours and feeling the first stage of a gradual slowdown kick in I decided to fuel and, frankly, everything looked tastily. So eating without any discipline or logic I threw in a bit of everything and my gut and I had a long unfriendly conversation over the next few hours as a result. But the conversation I didn’t expect to have was with Speedy Keith.
At around the 70km mark I had a very distinct thought, wondering where Keith was in the race. By this point, we were out of the city and running in open country at the side of a wide 2-lane road, a rock wall to my right and a cement barrier bordering a drop off into a valley to my left. I crossed the road to run into the next aid station and Keith came rolling out. He looked at least as surprised at seeing me run in as I felt at seeing him run out. Shortly after that we caught up and shuffled together for a while.
His guts were messing with him too. Although the temperatures were only in the mid-20s, the day still felt warm to a number of the other runners. I also knew that Keith had set out running to an ambitious time target, which can hurt any one of us on race day. This was very much a turtle and the hare situation. After going out reasonably well, I knew that I was slowing and would have to maintain focus if I was going to get through the checkpoints with their strictly imposed cutoff times safely. Keith still had a fast walk, though. I knew he had 7-8km/h in those wheels of his even if he couldn’t fire up and run right now. Even though we ran together for a short while, all that I could leave him with were some words of encouragement and the advice to keep moving forward but absolutely not redline anything until his body came back online.
My main chunk of training for Sakura Michi had happened 6 months earlier, with Big Octember. Rolling 3 100km races and a 174km slaughterfest into one 30-day block had given me practise at feeling really weak and useless, but simultaneously pushing on because there was no other option.
Your body probably has a lot more variables to deal with than a typical car engine, but they both take time to start working again if you overheat them, and they’re also both much more likely once overheated to blow up. Managing the red line, getting up to it but not exceeding it is probably one of the most important skills the ultramarathon runner can develop in self-management.
On the other hand, if you live in constant fear of that line, you will never achieve your best, on race days or in training. There are definitely two schools of thought – pacing versus breaking through. Keith had certainly gone out with the intention to push hard. With his training and speed base, I might have had the confidence to do the same. Instead, my vague plan – other than getting to the finish line well within the 36-hour cutoff and giving as much appreciation to the volunteers along the way as possible – was to roll through the first 150km and then see what I had in the tank.
As I pulled away I hoped Keith could regroup and run me down later on, but he already looked decidedly unhappy about life in slow motion.
——– tune in next week for Part 2, running through the night, and into the light ———-