Trail running has really taken off in Japan in the last few years, and the number and variety of races on offer across the country, as well as the average number of participants for those races is growing steadily at an impressive rate. In my short trail running career, which kicked off in March of this year, I have now completed 6 trail running races of various distances and 1 mountain ultra - all in central Japan. Even the smallest local events have had more than 200 runners, with most races featuring multiple distances and total participation around 1,000.
This last weekend I took part in what turned out to be by far the most well-organized, unique, enjoyable and memorable race of them all - The Ninja Trail Running Race held in Iga City, on the Kii Peninsula, in Mie Prefecture. Iga is known as the birthplace of one of the largest and most prestigious schools of ninjutsu, and this race pays homage to those stealthy warriors who honed their craft here long ago. The race takes place largely in the same steep mountains and thick forests that the legendary ninja lived and trained in. But rather than just retracing their silent footsteps, the experience is taken to another level as runners, race staff and local residents alike dress in ninja clothing, complete with fake weapons. In fact, one of the great joys of the race is being cut down by katana-wielding assassins at various places along the trail and on the final approach into aid stations. Over-the-top reactions to the frequent eviscerations from the ninjas and their piercing blades are encouraged and expected, and a huge part of why this race is so fun. But be forewarned that explosive moments after mile 20, such as jumping quickly to avoid a sudden, surprise ninja attack is known to cause debilitating cramps. I am speaking from experience.
The event features LONG, SHORT and FAMILY & KIDS distances, registering at 48km, 18km and 3km respectively. I signed up for the long course (after some convincing), which was officially the longest distance I had ever attempted to run. Those 30 miles also happened to include a fair amount of vertical; officially tallied at 2,360m (7,743 feet) of both climbing and descent since the race starts and finishes at the Sarubino Onsen hot spring resort. I'm not certain what percentage of the course was road, but it was more than I initially expected. However, the road portions were runnable and provided the chance to experience some of the traditional Japanese countryside charm as they gently wound through rice fields and small settlements, providing a nice contrast to the wonderfully forested, but tough mountain trails.
Before you read any further, take a few minutes to watch this excellent, professionally-made official recap video of the race made in the short few days since. It does an outstanding job of capturing the fun, festive and unique atmosphere of the Ninja Trail Run.
Anyway, I had been training very hard and consistently on both the road and in the mountains in the lead-up to my 84km / +8,400m mountain race in July, but an injury to my Achilles during a 42km trail run at the end of June has made it almost impossible for me to run since. In fact, in the 19 weeks that have elapsed since my injury, I have only been able to go out for a training run on 10 occasions - a pace of only 1 run every 2 weeks versus the 5 runs per week I was logging in early summer. Luckily, for the majority of the summer and fall, despite some nagging pain and inflammation, I have been spending a day or two a week hiking with some short bouts of running (several hundred meters at a time) mixed in, with a lot of long, hard, extended multi-day efforts included, which has helped me maintain a base fitness level for sure. But not "running" fitness. Because of all of this, I considered pulling out and taking a DNS... but there was one catch. I couldn't.
I had been asked to participate in the Ninja Trail Run as one of the invitation athletes, an offer usually reserved for sponsored, professional runners and the occasional celebrity or local TV/radio personality. What led to me, a weekend-warrior with only a few months of trail running under his belt, being honored with such an unusual (and undeserved) distinction? One solid race and a fluke of fate. As it happened, I managed to pull off a first-place finish on the A Course of the Bunsuirei Trail Mountain Ultra Race I joined in mid July. Absolutely horrendous weather characterized by constant downpours, cold temperatures and terrible trail conditions robbed the faster runners of their speed advantage, and played right into my main strength: dogged determination. I essentially outlasted the rest of the field in a brutal suffer fest and willed myself to the win by refusing to stop for the 27 hours it took to reach the finish line. And when I got there initially, it was the most anticlimactic moment I could have imagined - with only three old men in orange vests there to see me in; one holding the finish banner, one recording the time, and the other taking a photo with his past-its-prime iPhone 6.
Yet, shortly after that my luck changed when two other guys showed up, emerging from the misty parking lot and looking to chat with the race director and watch the first group of finishers reach the goal. I was introduced to them as the winner of the A Course, and they were introduced to me as Trans Japan Alps Race (TJAR) Finishers. If you have been following any of my past blog entries, or even so much as talked with me in the last year, you'll know that my dream is to compete in that very race in 2020 - so meeting two past athletes was an incredible opportunity. Not to mention, the only reason I found about, applied for and ran this particular race at all is because it was listed on the Trans Japan homepage as the one and only event they recommend hopefuls run since the entry requirements, required kit, types of trails, alpine environment, daily distance and elevation, etc... are of a similar style and difficulty to the Trans Japan Alps Race itself. We chatted there in the light rain and fog at the finish, and I shared my ambitions of someday following in their footsteps and joining TJAR. We exchanged business cards, and I changed clothes before hopping into my car and driving 3 hours home in a daze of hunger and total physical depletion simultaneous to the buzz and disbelief at my field-destroying victory. (I didn't know it at the time, but I came in 2 hours and 55 minutes ahead of second place!)
A week or so later I got an email from one of the guys stating that he was the organizer of a trail run race in Mie Prefecture in November, and that he would like to ask me if I would be interested in coming and participating as a guest runner. He also sweetened the pot by telling me that many of the other guest athletes were Trans Japan finishers and that it would be a great chance for me to network with them. I was in - and of course I would be running the long. But then I couldn't train. And July turned to August, and summer transitioned to fall, and soon my calendar app was telling me the race was 3 days away. I considered backing out all the way up until two days before the race, but I told myself I may never have another opportunity like this again, and even if I had to walk or DNF, it would be a great experience. And I was so right.
I arrived the night before, on Saturday November 2nd, and joined with most of the other invited athletes for a low-key dinner. I felt incredibly out of place as I became aware of their unbelievably impressive running resumes. TJAR finishers made up the bulk of those present for Saturday night's dinner, but their were other notable athletes on their way, including the overall winner of the 2017 Badwater 135. I had to fight every impulse to carry myself like a desperate groupie and instead play it cool, casually talking to people who either fell into the category of legend, personal hero, or both. It was fun for sure, but my mind soon began wandering to the race, and the massive damage it was going to inflict to my undertrained muscles and my quickly shrinking ego. This sinking feeling of impending performance doom was exacerbated by the fact that the only food on hand was fried pork, fried chicken and fried squid, while the only drinks were alcoholic. So I sat there on the tatami floor, drinking beer and munching on fried foods, and trying to play it cool.
In the end I was only able to get 3 hours of constantly-interrupted sleep before a 4 a.m. announcement, meant for the volunteer staff to assemble, woke me up for good from my humble slumber on a wooden bench in a hall with the lights on all night. Race day.
TO BE CONTINUED...