Having already run for over 10 hours, thoughts turned to evening and the night, cold, and distance ahead. We had long put the city of Nagoya behind us, and although the increased steepness beyond the 100km mark wasn’t expected to be savage, the sustained gradual climb of the last few hours had definitely been getting into all the places you’d expect – hips, glutes, head!
Running through the rolling green beauty of Japan, dotted with towns and villages that seemed to live so comfortably within their natural setting, it was hard not to feel both blessed by the moment and intrigued by the prospect of what lay ahead. Any ultramarathon is a landscape in its own right. A familiar landscape seen and experienced through a different lens after an unusually long time on feet or in an atypical physical or emotional landscape is an almost entirely different place than usual, a place that defies simple cartography or contours, and can’t be shared through anything as neutral as a camera.
Within the realm of exultation and fatigue, all flavours and colours take on an emotional electricity. Maybe the runners who don’t experience that change too deeply have an advantage over those who seek it, or perhaps the opposite is true.
Which ever may be the case, this was amazing. Every cherry blossom exploding in the slowly lowering sunlight was a personal message from Ryoji Sato, the humble bus driver who had personally planted each tree more than four decades before. Each one was a promise that the next 150+ kilometres would hold incredible beauty to balance the pain that must surely come soon. Each cheered ‘Kudasai!’, and although they didn’t yet implore me to keep going I expected that the struggle would begin in the deep dark. It doesn’t mean anything to run the first 50km of a 250km race well. Anybody can do that, and in fact the inexperienced runner like me is more likely to do that. But to run the last 50km of a 250km run well, that’s the elusive goal.
At this point, there was an awareness that cutoff times must be met. The next major one was 14 hours for 107km, the checkpoint where most runners would be sending their night gear and anything they felt would keep them feeling good on the climb. Not a fan of crowds or dropbag enclaves I had sent my main gear to the 97km mark. With a high quality vest, thermal sleeves, and super light head torch my plan was to blow through the major aid station at Shirotori and deal with any need for severe cold protection later on the course. The Hotel at 107km was the one that most runners, realistically or not, expected to hit before the sun had gone, and sounded to me like Cherry Tree being said quickly in a Japanese accent.
One of the defining moments of the whole run for me did happen at roughly the 100km mark. Having collected my basic night gear and begun the steady roll from the flatter open lands of the afternoon toward the ominous range of peaks that now loomed close enough to think about, I was passing a large corrugated warehouse-style shed. With a couple of colourful little tricycles in the large opening where the roller door would surely come down during the night, it was clearly a family dwelling. A strip of flowerbed, just one plant deep and maybe fifteen feet long extended between the front wall and the pathway as I motored on.
An older woman, maybe the grandmother of the family, was squatted low tending the flowerbed, her soft brimmed hat now almost redundant as dusk settled across the valley. Attention turning to the motion in her periphery, she partially twisted toward me and looked up. A warm smile spread from her cheeks to her eyes, “Ganbatte ne!” she insisted warmly and immediately. This was the spirit of the run, the spirit of Sakura Michi. We had no previous connection, just this moment, and in this moment everything was what it should be. She was gardening, I was running, we were doing these things however briefly right next to each other, and it was cool. I was impressed by her garden and ability to squat, she wanted me to run with all my determination, and we were cheering for each other. Did we need anything more?
This passing interaction really stayed with me, reinforced by the cheers of small children from the back of a passing car just moments later. How wonderful to live in a place where commitment and effort weren’t necessarily valued above speed and form, but were valued similarly nonetheless. To be cheered equally by an older local and young kids zooming by, to me at least marked a culture deeply comfortable with its values. And I couldn’t help but think that these passersby – who could have given me nothing, who could have just ignored or even derided me – were frickin’ awesome.
Back to the chase, the constant battle in any ultramarathon, the slowly escalating dispute between time and flesh. After a moment of indecision at an intersection followed by the usual bout of walking that is readily blamed on navigational uncertainty, the 107km checkpoint approached with a feeling not unlike Christmas morning.
Here I fell in love with salt and hot water. The salt was on my food, the hot water went into the bidon that was replaced in the chest pocket of my running vest. It was a thrill to see Tomo and Miho and get a quick report on how Jess was going. Although it was now pitch dark and cold enough to know that it was going to get a lot colder, based on what our friends had to say I pictured her blasting through here when it was still sunny. Despite the warm inner glow this produced I chucked on a fleece and beanie and got moving as quickly as I could throw in noodles and thank everybody for their help and support of the runners.
New Trick 1: Hot water might not sound like rocket science, but WOW! Having that hot 600mL against my chest slowed the onset of cold, both from night falling and from the pause to collect it and eat and dress more warmly was unexpectedly game-changing. By the time I was thirsty again, it had cooled to warm and again lifted my spirits as I sipped it on the run. Rather than the usual shift in focus from sweet to savoury, it was almost enough just to change temperature of inputs.
Over the next 35km, things got weird – good weird, but weird nonetheless. The run climbed and rolled back down into the treelined darkness of a slick road contouring its way into the heart of a mountain range that promised the uncertainty of future surprises but maintained an even temper. The temperature was about 5 degrees celsius by midnight, and with any pause of even a minute would begin to creep into the skin, and the breath, the lungs, and slowly crawl across smouldering muscle groups.
My GPS watch had hit the outer limits of standard deviation. This was to be expected with its communication to the satellite limited to one ping per minute rather than thirty, a measure intended to conserve battery life on long runs like this although 250km is a distance more typically covered on a multiday rather than single day race.
This meant that my calculations were out. I knew that I was slightly ahead of the distances that it was giving me, but running slowly I tried to not figure that into my estimates. It’s nicer to find out you’re closer to the finish than you thought, than that you haven’t covered ground you thought already behind you.
So when I ran into a major checkpoint and found the very highly tuned Leonie from the Netherlands sitting by a heater in a corner, all context changed. I wasn’t running with a focus on my own race and thinking in short bursts about how Jess might be doing far ahead of me. Suddenly, I was thinking all about Jess out near the front of the female pack in the dark and on her own, with the runner most expected to challenge her no longer in the mix. This, of course, highlights both the distraction and protection that Leonie had given in the lead up to the event.
Jess had always been focused on getting to the finish line and never expected that she would be able to run Sakura Michi the way that she had run Coast2Kosci. For Coast2Kosci, she had been able to focus on her first 200+ km race. There were many questions for her going into that run, but she also knew most of the field personally and although she had been focussed on the distance and the sheer bloody challenge she had also known that as a support team we would be with her the whole way, like an acrobat’s safety net.
Sakura Michi, though, presented a sea of unknowns. What would it be like to run without a dedicated crew? What would the other runners bring to the challenge? Who would go for it early and who would hold their cards close to their chest, perhaps laying down a handful of trumps at dawn?
Leonie was bold, strong, and well prepared. The internet had announced that her weekly mileage in preparation for this event had exceeded 200km consistently, and she wasn’t shy about her make or break ambitions. Hitting the pace hard from early in the day, she unfortunately broke. Two hours of digestive rebellion took too big a toll and now she was on the sideline waiting for it all to be over.
I ran out of the checkpoint on a higher high than usual. Yes it’s wrong to glory in the disappointment of others, and I was sorry for Leonie’s misfortune, and I had been looking forward to seeing what debris, carnage, and glory might arise from highly tuned front enders thrashing each other the whole way to the finish line. But I also was super stoked for Jess, knowing that Keith’s reports of Leonie’s race readiness must have played on Jess’ mind and that now, whether by good fortune or great gameplay, her night was wide open.
Of course, running in Japan and against some of the world’s best endurance runners within a culture where the sacrifice of the sport is properly understood, this viewpoint lay somewhere between naivety and ignorance. But perhaps that was a better place to be than full awareness, because to know the quality of runners in this field and understand properly just how many of the women could not only win, but win well, might have been paralysing.
It occurred to me some time later that I had run out of this checkpoint on such a high that I had not even asked for my dropbag. The plan to have a ‘B’ drop and ‘A’ drop had paid off, because even though I hadn’t collected my warmest gloves, most breathable shell, and brightest light, I could keep going through the night with what I had as long as I kept up a tempo. Or so I thought.
Remember what I said about my GPS being slightly off kilter? Turns out I had overestimated both its off-kilterness and my own running-smoothly-ness.
At the next Hotel styled checkpoint, with its soup and sticks of cheese and big heaters and barstools, one of the many fantastic volunteers brought out my dropbag, with torch and Tailwind (sports drink) and awesome night gear and so forth. So I sucked down a miso soup, telling myself that the bacon-looking bit that floated to the top when I was halfway through was some kind of strangely sliced yam, threw on the clothes that I had been hoping for but thought long gone, and ran out into the night. With no Vespa and almost no carbohydrate.
Quick explanation why that sucked:
- Vespa is an amino acid derived from the activity of industrial strength wasps and my own experience is that it seems to support more efficient burning of body fat and therefore energy production and reduced carbohydrate consumption on the long stuff, so when you try it and find it works for you and figure it’s an essential part of your race arsenal, it’s not something you want to leave behind
- Not just as an ultramarathon runner but as a type 1 diabetic, I depend on both the type and quantity of carbohydrate that I am going to consume on a long run. To leave my favourite sports drink behind when I don’t have another dropbag waiting for me until roughly 50km or six to seven hours further along the course, it’s just not part of the plan. If I can’t fuel, the potential consequences are worse than just reduced cadence
Having run out of the aid station, once again high-5ing everyone and Gozimassing, I returned to grab the stuff I needed. Realistically though, the extra 800 metres or so that I ran by having to turn around would have taken far less out of me than switching my nutrition on the fly or continuing with my ‘B’ torch – a very light but not so bright Black Diamond used for desert races which involved very little night running – rather than a ballistically bright AyUp head torch which would act like strap-on caffeine until sunlight returned.
With a reasonable buffer between my pace and the pace needed to stay ahead of cutoff, I made it into the 143km aid station needing to answer the call of nature. Everything went just a bit south here. The night was neither wet nor windy but it was still deeply chilling. Stopping had consequences. Worse still, though, so did squatting. Needing to answer nature’s call, I followed the directions to the nearest toilet. Unfortunately it was traditional.
Ironically, the action of squatting painfully over a ceramic hole in the ground interfered directly with the need to squat in the first place. Hanging from the door handle of a Japanese public toilet I realised that I was cold, that my prayers were not going to be answered, and that time was relentlessly getting away from me. Mission abandoned, I hobbled back to the heater that the checkpoint was built around, grabbed coffee, checked my provisions, and escaped by a narrow margin. Just as the nausea of the afternoon had put me in the Danger Box earlier, the fumbling inefficiency of this stop once again put my race at risk.
But if we wanted to play it safe, we probably wouldn’t run ultra. We would more likely stay at home with a hot cocoa and a comfy chair and occasionally rock out with a deck of cards or lottery ticket.
Motivation – a sensation familiar to anyone with competitive blood pumping however subtly through their veins – fuelled me for some time after this. The sustained break, perhaps, and the lack of hard running earlier, maybe even the realignment of nutritional needs and fuelling strategies all combined until all of a sudden I was running. I wasn’t just running, but running hungry. I pounced on any light ahead of me as a reason to push through. I would consolidate my breathing and leg turnover perhaps fifty metres before each stranger that appeared ahead of me and burn past them, shouting ‘Ganbatte!’ and meaning it.
I wondered where this feeling had been and looked forward to it continuing for the next 100km, I felt like everything was going to be apples from now on, that I might just run faster for the next ten hours than I had for the preceding twenty, and I think I even ran into a checkpoint singing along loudly and high 5ing once more to Eye of the Tiger.
Cue the sound of power to a turntable being cut. Barely an hour later, just like that, the ‘oomph’ evaporated. If I hadn’t jumped on the wave of energy that I felt, perhaps I couldn’t have ridden it for as long as it felt like I did. But of course if I had let it wash over me instead of keeping pace with it, maybe it would have just been the first of many.
As I reverted to mere mortality, swiftly flying legs a memory, many runners I’d recently bounced past began to steadily grind by me once more. Order was restored, the world turned beneath our feet and the night sky lingered overhead, considering when it might once more shuffle over any one of many horizons and leave us to the mercy of the Sun.
But the return of daylight would not be immediately cruel. Instead, I would soon be inexplicably moved by the dawn.
Whether it is a function of distance run, fatigue, or some deeper sense of complete displacement, there is a massive gap between the expected experience of a day spent running and shuffling and striding and the actual experience of doing these things until there is no longer any need to do them. My internal conversation at dawn was driven by the simple knowledge that I would probably be moving forward until daylight was once again at the point of fading. To simply do this thing – that is, to simply forget everything but the next step forward and run/ shuffle/ stagger – carried less weight of fatigue than the thought of doing it. That’s a valuable lesson.
As the day broke, I passed one more friendly aid station and headed slightly down to the right, away from the main road and into a misty valley. With the steadily building light of first morning and the passing of mist, a village revealed itself and suddenly everything moved for me. The night before had been unique in my experience of ultramarathon. The sleep monsters hadn’t appeared at all. There was no drowsiness, no zigzagging across the roadway, at least not that I know of. There had been no desire to prop against a tree and rest the eyes or lie under a blanket ‘just for five minutes’. Holding out to put my headphones in somewhere well past a hundred kays and most likely because of the absolute newness of Japan, senses had remained engaged throughout and, consequently, so had consciousness.
But now, first light in all its misty revelations, this was something else. This was the World Heritage listed UNESCO site of Shirakawago, an utterly traditional village whose inhabitants still slept and where the authentically ancient half-metre-thick thatched roves of successive whitewashed huts, cottages and halls broke the skyline even as the sun’s first fingers rapidly caressed the snowcaps of the mountain range that ringed the village from behind me.
Photos couldn’t do it justice, but chasing a runner ahead of me, gasping in literal awe at the sights revealing themselves all around me, and feeling in that moment like I had never seen anything so beautiful and most probably never would again, I pulled out my fruit-branded smartphone for the first time in perhaps 12 hours and clicked away on the run, like a blurry moron.
Cherry blossoms here reached tall, extending their cheerful pink above houses even underneath the weight of morning dew and cold haze. As the road led out of town, a Japanese crane flew high above and to the front of me, landing two-thirds of the way up some giant tree backgrounded by a cliff face topped by another ancient building – an instant silk print if ever there was one. I just couldn’t believe that such a moment had happened. I was stunned. And then, in almost the same breath, as the road led me more sharply away from Shirakawago a giant eagle flew out from underneath the bridge I was crossing. It circled the crystalline waters of the stream far beneath us both, looking for fish or any other mindless prey I thought, and then drifted slowly but deliberately back to its perch, metres beneath my feet and out of sight under the structure I was now running across.
If I had still had the camera in my hands, I should have rightly cast it into those same waters for the sense of hopelessness that any such moment could possibly be captured and recreated ever in any medium. Maybe it was the 180km run speaking, but this was a moment of incomparable sensation and wonder.
Onward! Ever onward. The sun was starting to rise now but soon it would once again be gone, and before that happened I’d better be in Kanazawa – the GOAL!
During the night I’d run with a discarded glove in hand for at least an hour, thinking it might belong to some frozen runner up ahead of me before deciding that it must have belonged to an absentminded gardener and releasing it back into the wild. I’d chuckled when I saw that the official temperature was zero degrees celsius, thinking that it was actually warmer than expected. And I had felt the thrill and terror of mind-altering tunnels like I had never run through before, concrete and metal tubes bending their way through mountainsides and turning every building engine noise into a symphony of sonic and sensory confusion, until you could find the confidence to ignore your senses somewhat and give into the logic – although the wall of sound and air pressure building around might be coming from every direction, the car or truck creating it could only come from one of two. That was reassuring, like the certainty of death and the trust in our own birth.
Two big challenges now remained – the dreaded and supposedly body-hammering climb at the 200km mark, and the final 223km cutoff before the Finish Line. Once through these it would be all but over, surely…