The 67th Fuji Mountain Race

Last Friday I ran the Fuji mountain race in Japan. There are a few races around Mt. Fuji, so for clarity, this one is not the Ultra tour of Fuji or any of the other races "on" Fuji... it's the one that starts at the bottom and finishes at the top, with 21km of distance and 3000m of ascent between the two.

The runner's fair at registration on Thursday, with Fuji-san in the background
It's renowned as a bit of a brutal race, and the cutoff times are notoriously tight, with a lot of dissapointed racers each year! The race accepts about 3000 entries, but only 50 of these are open to foreigners, so when I realised that I would actually be in Japan for the week following the race for an academic conference, my initial excitement at being able to enter the race faded a bit as I realised I would need some luck to even get an entry. I entered and crossed my fingers...

Fast forward to last Friday and the dream had come true, I was standing on the startline in the city of Fujiyoshida, about to start the 67th Fuji Mountain race. And when I say standing on the startline, I mean it! Last years' top 20 are ranked 1-20 and given a fancy colour race number, but the numbers from 21 - 70 are allocated to foreign runners! We were told to line up in race number order and spread across the startline, so I was literally at the front, standing next to a member of the Phillipines Skyrunning team, and just behind a tall Japanese Salomon runner who was the race favourite. It was loud, hot and I was surrounded by people and excitement - I couldn't help grinning! The favourite took a bottle of water and proceded to prepare for the race by throwing it all over himself on the startline.The rest of us settled for some nervous stretching.

The startline, from the front row!
Soon enough the big clock showed only 1 minute to go, then 20 seconds, a 10 second countdown started: we all shook hands with everyone nearby, then we were off!

The pace was fast, I hadn't appreciated how much of the race is actually relatively flat. My movescount record for the race shows that in the first 10km we only climbed 600m. That's a reasonable climb for a 10k, but meant that we were left with 2400m to climb in the remaining 11km...

I felt I had run the first 5km a bit too fast (21:30ish), it was hot and I felt really dehydrated. At each water station I'd grab a cup of water and try to drink it as I ran, spilling most of it all over myself, but by this point I frankly felt rubbish and decided I wasn't doing myself any favours. I slowed down (10km in 50mins) and made sure I stopped at each water station for a proper drink.

Umagaeshi Shrine, off the tarmac and starting to climb properly...
By the time we reached the end of the tarmac and start of the climb proper at Umagaeshi Shrine I was feeling a bit better, but still hot and as if I had potentially given too much. At least we started climbing properly at this point and the pace dropped slightly. I'd lost quite a few places during that second 5km, but now my confidence gradually returned and I began to slowly pick off those in front of me over the next hour or so. After a worrying first half of the race, this is where things turned around for me...

"Right, we're going uphill now. I can do uphill..."

 From Umagaeshi I didn't set off to hard, but tried to keep myself moving in the knowledge that now we were climbing and I was drinking properly, things would sort themselves out. I had with me one packet of Shot Blox and one gel, but I also made the most of the food offered by the supporters (Lemons and Cucumber dipped in salt sound horrible, but tasted like exactly what I wanted!)

The next place our time would be recorded was the 5th station, at about 2200m. Fairly obviously this is the end of the 5th station race, and this is where we'd jog back down to after the race to get our lift home. It took me just over 44 minutes to climb the 800m from Umagaeshi, and I was amazed at the number of people I was now catching up with. I was trotting along at what felt like a hard but sustainable pace, and for the first time was actually enjoying myself! I remember taking a minute to think about how long I'd planned for this race for, it felt quite unreal to actually be there, running up one of the most famous mountains in the world.

Getting serious now: Climbing up from the 5th Station
Up to the 5th station the underfoot conditions are good, the tarmac obviously, followed by what is basically an easy gravel trail. As you climb the mountain though, the trail gets worse. Firstly, the gravel seems to get looser and looser, and any drainage ditches or low walls at the edge of the trail are the best thing to run up, otherwise you slip back every few steps. Then, just when you get used to that, maybe at about the 7th or 8th station, the trail turns into hard volcanic rock, which you have to climb up, often needing hands and knees. From there the trail climbs a lot in not much distance, but it's hardly quick going!

At the 8th station we had our final timecheck, it had taken me 1:08 from the 5th (2:46 overall), and somehow I was still going well and continuing to pass people. I don't want it to sound like the race was easy, it was probably the hardest thing I've ever done: the air tasted thin, my vision would go a bit wobbly at the edges if  I pushed really hard, and I could feel sickness rising in my stomach, but I was moving faster than the runners in front of me, and now to my surprise I was starting to catch and pass a few people with elite "full-colour" top 20 race numbers from last year.

"Run when you can. Walk if you have to. Crawl when you must. But never give up"

This delicate balance between running OK and passing people vs. really working at high altitude was hard work. I occasionally looked back downhill to Fujiyoshida a long way below, but mostly I focussed on running when I could and just keeping going when I couldn't... I was glad it wasn't far to the top because I could feel my body was close to the edge (metaphorically as well as literally). I had realised at the 8th station that my altimeter was reading low, so I knew that when it said I was at 3500 I was getting close to the top (actually at 3770). Not far now!

Mt Fuji crater
The watch said about 3450m when things started to go a bit wrong. I was stumbling more and more over the rocky climbs, when walkers stepped to the side and let me through I would sometimes fall onto them or their children, which understandably seemed to confuse them a bit. I was now totally focussed on just continuing uphill and getting this over with as soon as possible. I'd re-passed an American guy I had spoken to as he glided past me in the first kilometre and decided that if I held this position I was happy. Actually I passed one more - Mr. Orange vest had been almost in sight for the whole race but I'd never quite caught him till now, but with 50m to go I passed him. As soon as I did so my whole body felt wobbly and I nearly flopped to the floor. I was determined not to collapse as we were now within sight of the top. I stood to the side and let him past, took a couple of deep breaths and set off to get the bloody thing over with.

Soon I made it to the top, 15 seconds behind Mr. O. The relief was amazing, for a while I couldn't believe I'd done it! No going home and telling people I'd missed cut-off times or any of the other disaster scenarios: I'd finished the Fuji Mountain race.

The finishline. I have no memory of high-fiving spectators!!
I had a drink, employed some considerable mental effort in not being sick, then had an amusing wander around the tourist tat shop at the top of the mountain. The congratulated the tall Japanese Salomon runner, who seemed very nice. He had won in 2:48, I'd finished in 3:09. I didn't know it at the time, but I was 22nd of 1020 who made the cutoffs.

Results
So, that's that then! In Fujiyoshida, and actually almost anywhere in Japan, the image of Mt. Fuji is everywhere... Tourist shops, leaflets, beer bottles, hotel signs, lamp-posts, manhole covers, buses... everywhere! It was a relief that finally seeing the image didn't need to worry me. I'm now in Tokyo and it's STILL everywhere, but now it reminds me of an amazing day and the hardest race I've ever run.

After a few minutes at the top I went to look at the crater, and met a German called Steffan. He'd had a great run and finished in around 3:02, it turned out later that he was 1st and I 2nd of the non-Japanese runners. It also turned out, over noodles at the park after a loooong and painful jog down to the 5th station and a bus ride to the park, that he too had a broken / dislocated toe! We'd both run the race with our right foot little toe strapped up after seeing it stuck in a very unatural angle a week or so before the race. I think there's a strong chance both of us will be back for another go at this race, with a full complement of operational metatarsals.

Done! Back down at the 5th station.
So.... onwards to the Matterhorn!

Comments

  1. Thanks Stuart,
    I'm doing this race this year, and the information you provided here and in movescount is very valuable in my planning.

    Julian

    ReplyDelete

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