Flashback Friday: Race Experience Eclipsed by the Joy of Japan

Flashback Friday: Race Experience Eclipsed by the Joy of Japan

Written by Nancy Hobbs (pictured above) for ATRA’s Trail Times Newsletter, May 3, 2005.

Tired, confused, more than frustrated. I’ve been running for 6 hours on an unfamiliar trail, a trail I’ve never seen except on a topo map. Believe me, the trail I’m on doesn’t look anything like the topo map I remember from yesterday and is not exactly what I expected from my memory of the course profile, save the beautiful vistas I encountered including wild cherry blossoms, bamboo shoots flanking the trail, worship flags floating the breeze by trailside shrines, villages in the distance. I am mentally drained, yet still searching for the right direction to stay on course – or at least somewhere near the course. I keep looking for some reassurance, even a course marking, but there are none. Sure, sign posts at the last junction, which fanned out to four different routes, but I can’t read any of the characters on the signs. I wonder where my fellow competitors are after passing most of them for the second time that day. I see hikers young and old. I ask for water and they freely offer to fill my empty bottle. We exchange nods, but no spoken words. I score with a spot of caffeine from one hiker and her two children. The tea goes well with my last GU packet. I don’t remember being on course at this point, I’m sure I took a wrong turn, probably more than one. I wasn’t willing to retrace my steps at this point because that meant uphill, more of the same. I didn’t know how far I’d traveled. No idea if I’d gone 10km, 20km, or 30km. No markings that I could read. And suddenly just ahead something slithered off the trail into the wooded bamboo and thick foliage. I bent down, picked up a stick ready to stave off the intruder. A bear? A snake? Probably a squirrel, but maybe not. I’m ready to defend myself…maybe.

At the start line there were 110 of us. A start line we reached after a one hour bus ride on winding roads from sea level climbing to about 1000 meters passing through tunnels, small villages, next to a few lakes, backing up over a final bridge before disembarking to walk 100 yards to the start area. In the staging area I noticed mostly men wearing tights and sporting backpacks, windbreakers, jingling bells dangling from their packs, several bottles of water visible on each side of their packs, energy bars protruding from mesh pockets, ski poles attached to their packs, eyes strained on maps until the last second before the start signal. The scene reminded me of the Eco Challenge, at least the scenes I’d viewed on the Outdoor Network coverage. The only thing that surprised me walking toward the start line was one of the competitors lighting up a cigarette and deeply inhaling the nicotine. We asked one of the English-speaking competitors if this was normal practice and he said firmly, “No. I’m as surprised as you are.”

I looked for water. Nothing but Ox tea. Not sure what this was, I passed and took a sip of Gatorade from my water bottle. I placed a GU packet in my glove and two more under my water bottle, and one velcroed to my water bottle. I looked out of place in shorts, yet I wore a long sleeved polypro top. Having finished the Pikes Peak Marathon three times and surmising that the course would be less challenging than the Peak, I figured I’d be prepared as a minimalist and that I was in shape and trained to run (my first 50km) for about 6 or 7 hours at most. As I stood at the start line, I glanced up and the first wave of 50 were off. Starting on pavement and running downhill for 100 yards, we took a quick left onto a very narrow single-track trail. A no-passing zone for sure.

Our group was at the ready and waited for commands from the race director. My US teammates Paul Low (a multi-year US Mountain Running Team member who changed two days before from the 10km to run the 50km – his first) and Adam Chase (a seasoned adventure racer and ultrarunner from Boulder) jumped the gun when they heard a word that sounded like “go” although it was the start of the countdown in Japanese. We see-sawed forward and back waiting for the right directive. An explosive bark of “HIGH” or something like it, and we were off and unfortunately not more than one minute behind the first (much slower) group. Our group of 50+ quickly caught the first pack and joined the conga line up the single track trail. Paul less than a switchback ahead, Adam and I close behind chuckling at the line of competitors and the absurdity of trying to pass anyone on the precarious ridgeline which ended up being an uphill jaunt for nearly 10 minutes. Periodically a friendly competitor (we found that everyone was more than friendly and supportive) stepped to the side and let us pass.

Reaching the first “summit” Paul was working his way to the front of his first 50km effort, slowly skirting ahead of other runners and Adam and I were running together, also making our way around competitors at every switchback. We finally reached a summit followed by a technical downhill and Adam pulled ahead. I skirted down the hill, but lost sight of Adam and found myself alone as no one had caught up to me.

At the bottom of the hill about 30 minutes into our race, there was a choice of a left or right turn. I looked up from the gnarly terrain and noted someone jogging to the left and looking at his course map heading down the trail. I chose to follow this person with a map. How could he be mistaken with a map in hand? After 30 minutes of rolling terrain, scaling a fence which looked to me like a Do Not Cross Zone, and some significantly exposed areas, I ended up near the start line with my Japanese map reader in tow realizing this was the wrong choice in turns. At this point I thought I should just quit and return to the start line, but couldn’t quite make it due to a treacherous precipice and no way to reach the start point just a few hundred feet in the distance.

Frustrated, I turned back to retrace my steps. I have always told people that when you think you are off course on a trail, go back to where you last saw trail markings and re evaluate your decision. I ran past the person studying the map as he stayed firmly planted on the trail looking down valley trying to decide which way to go. He ended up staying in place trying to sort out the map. By the time I was back “on course” which was evident when I spied a Boy Scout and Girl Scout with bright red wands directing traffic, urging me over a steel bridge on a highway, and pointing to another trail in the distance, there was not a person in sight. I was in last place. Mentally, not a good place to be.

Another climb. A long and steep uphill ascent complemented by narrow black and yellow twisted ropes hugging tree trunks and making the incline seem less challenging, but certainly not runable. I started passing the same runners again using the ropes occasionally to assist my uphill momentum as I made my way back on course. What made my frustration ease was the encouragement shown by my fellow competitors. I reached a set of steps and continued onward reaching another summit and was met with another choice. I waited for the closest competitor to help me decide which way to go. This would be a left-hand turn and another climb. Continuing to pass runners I looked for trail markings and found none to assure me that I had chosen the correct path. Two hours and 45 minutes later I somehow made Check Point One (there were to be four check points on the course). Long out of water, I asked for a refill at the station. Nothing. No water, save a stream some 80 meters down a hill. I asked if the water was drinkable. Blank and empty stares. Choosing not to experiment with a potential case of Ghiardia, I scored a fresh water bottle from a volunteer after much pleading, left a pull tag at the station so that organizers would know I made it to Check Point One and continued onward. There was no indication as to how far I’d traveled. Not a person spoke English to let me know the kilometer mark. Off I went up another hill. I figured I’d make the next station within one hour and had enough water for the journey. It ended up nearly two hours before I reached Check Point Two which was unmanned with no signs, or directions. A lone runner was stretched out on a bench hydrating and I pointed uphill to see if this was the correct direction of the three possible choices and received a nod in response. Off I went toward Check Point Three although I still had no idea how far I’d run.

This time I pushed my lap counter and figured another hour for Check Point Three. Not a chance. Within one hour I was out of water and had just finished another GU. I figured I was still on course as I met a few hikers on the trail and I had seen a few markers on trees at a recent junction, but I was again out of water. Having been told by the race director the day before that there were several aid stations on course, including some self serve stations (these ended up being metal trash cans filled with water and a funnel floating at the surface), I felt confident that bringing one bottle of water would suffice. Wrong. Thank goodness the hikers I met were willing to part with some of their water and help me continue onward in a more hydrated state.

I was discouraged. I was tired. At several points I looked to the distance and noticed a village beyond. I knew downhill was coming soon yet I had only experienced a few short downhill sections so far, but each was followed quickly by a long uphill and many of the uphills had steep steps and more ropes attached to the tree trunks for assistance.

I finally reached a clearing which seemed to be the final climb before a long descent to town (my recollection of the topo map from the previous day’s exchange with the race organizers). A woman on the trail suggested I turn left on a trail leading to a road. Down I went. Six hours at this point.

I reached a clearing which led to a steep paved roadway and beautifully terraced fields with crops adjacent to farmhouses. No idea where I was, I continued down hoping for some confirmation that I was still on the course. It was not meant to be. My legs were trashed and the steep downhill on pavement made my quads scream. A bit anxious, no water, no grasp of the Japanese language beyond hello, no idea where I was, no idea where I should go, frustrated and confused. A western looking woman was hiking uphill and I stopped to visit with her telling her I was lost. She suggested I continue to town and go to the train station. I was penniless and she offered me some money. I figured I’d try to catch a ride with a passerby, or continue running and declined the Yen she had in her outstretched palm. After another 15 minutes I decided my efforts to continue running with no idea of a destination were fruitless. Miraculously (at least I thought it a miracle) I spied a police car parked at a small house and walked up to the side door of the house.

Ringing the bell, I whispered, “Hello,” first in English then in Japanese. Success with the Japanese term a woman came out from the back room. I said, “I’m lost. Can you help me.” She turned away and her husband appeared around the corner and asked me to come into the porch. We spoke…he in broken English, me with arm movements acting out my demise on the race course and getting lost. Somehow we communicated and he offered me sports drink (yes, I was again out of water), made a phone call and held the phone to me. He called an English-speaking friend and I was relieved. This policeman (clad in a grey USA flag T-shirt, shorts, and flip flops – apparently on his day off), made numerous calls, writing Japanese characters on a piece of paper with several phone numbers after each call, and then leaving briefly to check the Internet in a back room for the race website (the race name in Japanese on my runner number and a subsequent Google search for the race name), and finally getting in touch with our Japanese hosts at the finish line. Unbelievable to me I was nearly 30km by road from the finish line. After one hour with the policeman (who showed me his football helmet from high school – he played wide receiver – a photo of his son running the 100meter dash as a 12-year-old, and finally a photo of himself on his motorcycle leading a runner in a Japanese Ekiden event) he ushered me into the family SUV and he drove me to the race finish line. The car ride started with a Japanese CD and he quickly changed the CD and I said, “Oh, another Japanese singer?” He said, “No, American.” We sang and hummed together Bill Joel’s Piano Man, music I hadn’t heard for years yet I remember so many of the words.

After 45 minutes of driving, I was reunited at the finish line with Anita and our Japanese host. I found that only Adam had finished and he’d gone a bit off course and Paul was lost some 20km away (I later found out that he reached the first check point on course 4 hours into the race) and eventually arrived at the third check point after nearly 7 or so hours of running. Our 10km runners were at the finish line and they’d all gotten lost on their course, but each had finished though after repeated attempts at finding the right route. Kelli Lusk had finished third overall with Anita Ortiz in 6th and Ethan Hemphill in 7th position. We were convinced that our American 10km squad would have been one-two-three (or at least in the top five) for the finish had they not gone off course.

At the awards ceremony the following day we found out that 11 of 160 finished the 100km course with the first finisher in more than 18 hours and the 50km had 33 finishers of 110 competitors.

We offered many suggestions to the race organizers and will prepare a report for review. In spite of the adventure I encountered, it was a true learning experience as to how much I could push my body and still feel reasonable good in spite of such a long run. I do have an opinion that a trail race should be mostly runable and the course should be stocked with a few aid stations, be well marked for safety more than anything along with kilometer marks to establish bearings for race progress during the run. Because the Japanese also got lost in spite of having course maps and trail markings in Japanese, it was obvious that organizers must revisit the course in terms of marking and also for difficulty.

I can’t offer enough thanks to the policeman and his wife who rescued me, to the anonymous hikers on the course offering me water and Japanese tea, and to our host Mr. Shinji Mabe for taking care of our team. A truly memorable experience.