The Trans Japan Alps Race (Part 1)
THE BACKSTORY: ADVENTURES IN HIKING, TREKKING & MARATHONING
My love for the mountains began early in life, first indirectly through reading tales of adventurers as a young boy and then personally during my first ski trip to Colorado when I was 12 years old. I was blown away by the scale and beauty of the Rockies upon first sight, and though I had never climbed a mountain at that point in my life, I felt an instant and intense curiosity; an almost overwhelming desire to scale the distant summits I spied through the car window as we drew closer and closer. From that moment in time, that love-at-first-sight fascination with high places never dwindled and when I came to Japan on a one-year contract in 2003, I began my life long love affair with the mountains in earnest.
My mountain journey transformed from a cerebral fantasy to boots-on-the-ground reality primarily because of my desire to stand atop the iconic summit of Mt. Fuji before before I returned to the States. With this goal in mind, myself and several friends began training in the spring of 2004, starting with short laps of a humble local mountain, and slowly increasing the intensity and duration of our efforts as the weeks and months passed. In the beginning, a two hour out-and-back with 300m of elevation gain was a daunting task, but within a few months we found ourselves scaling taller and tougher peaks, eventually working our way up to a multi-day traverse of Japan's Central Alps. As the Fuji climbing season drew slowly closer, my fitness and confidence were reaching new heights, and so too was my fondness for all things alpine.
I was able to summit Mt. Fuji on the morning of August 2nd, 2004, and with the newfound confidence I gained from that successful climb, I committed myself to tackling an even bigger project - a full traverse of Japan's Northern Alps, from Tateyama to Kamikochi just a few weeks later. Using mostly borrowed, heavy and bulky gear - and setting out on a solo hike for the first time in my life - I completed the route in just over 5 days. I was incredibly lucky to have nearly perfect weather the entire time, and despite my ridiculously overweight pack (approx. 30kg) and the terrible blisters that plagued me throughout, the accomplishment solidified my obsession with the outdoors.
In the intervening years, I remained in Japan and hiked extensively, both domestically and overseas, eventually transitioning more into extended, self-supported treks of a week or longer. I found that my happiness increased proportionately to the level of remoteness, duration and toughness of each outing. I began to realize that I not only loved nature, but I also yearned for challenges - the bigger the better. I had always believed in self-improvement, but I hadn't quite realized the masochistic extent to which that was true. This trend continued throughout the years as each summer I planned longer, higher and tougher trips all over the world, including places as far flung as Mongolia, Iceland, Kyrgyzstan, the Indian Himalayas, Nepal, Myanmar, and many more.
Fast-forward more than 10 years later, and somewhere along the way I heard about the Trans Japan Alps Race. Hands down the toughest race in Japan, the biannual event sees competitors travel the entire north-south width of the country on foot, from sea-to-sea, beginning at the Sea of Japan and traversing Japan's 3 major mountain ranges (the North, Central and Southern Alps) before finishing at the Pacific Ocean. Participants must finish the 415km race, with 26,000m of elevation gain AND loss, in 8 days or less. During the hottest part of the year. In typhoon season.
An excellent 50-minute English language documentary about the race is available online for those who are interested in finding out more. The link below will take you to the NHK site where you can stream the video for free.
I remember thinking how absurdly impossible it all sounded, while at the same time thinking I would love to give it a shot. The problem is the race allows a maximum of only 30 hardened competitors to enter, and as such, the entry requirements are exceptionally stout. I was slowly trending in the general direction of the race, but I was still nowhere near the level of even being able to apply, so despite my intrigue and unearned confidence that I could possibly do something like that, any ambition to participate was quickly snuffed out. Perhaps the biggest road block for me was the condition that applicants had to run a marathon in under 3 hours and 20 minutes, or a 100km road race in under 10 hours and 30 minutes. Despite my relative peak-bagging prowess, I was in my mid 30's now and definitely not a runner. In fact, I hadn't run at all since graduating from university, and even then the longest I had ever run was 3 miles, less than 5k. The idea of finishing a 5k now, let alone a marathon seemed impossibly distant and entirely un-fun. I just wasn't interested, nor did I even believe it was something I was capable of.
But things began to change in the spring of 2017, when a coworker implored me, for the third consecutive year, to join him for the Fuji-san Marathon. I had flat-out rejected the prior two invitations by clearly stating I wasn't interested, but telling the poor guy "no" for a third-consecutive year just seemed a little too harsh and I ultimately caved under the pressure to please by agreeing to give it a shot. I signed up and paid the entry fee along with several other coworkers, but that didn't mean I actually intended to show up on race day. I just thought that saying "yes" in the short term was the best way to soften the blow of yet another rejection, and I intended to back out later on down the road.
With that mindset, I predictably went the entire spring and summer without running a single mile, and in mid-July I set out on my annual trekking trip abroad, further extending the period of time that I would not run for at least another 6 weeks. It seemed a certainty now that my dubiously undertrained state and complete lack of desire to correct that status would in fact result in my dropping out. However, a weird thing happened during the summer. I spent a month and a half trekking solo through the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia and the Tyrolean Alps of Austria and gained a significant amount of confidence and fitness in the process. Though I wasn't running, I felt that now I had at least built a decent base from which I could launch into a marathon training program. I returned to Japan at the end of August and began a 12-week marathon training program on September 1st.
Twelve weeks is ordinarily not enough time to go from non-runner to full marathon, but that is all I had left until the race, and again - I felt that my hiking had earned me some credits and I was reasonably sure that my muscles and joints could now absorb the pounding of sudden run training without too much risk of injury. So I dove right in and committed myself fully to my training. Part of my motivation was that my mother runs marathons, often, and fast - and my pride would not allow me to accept a performance slower than her, so I set an ambitious first-marathon goal of sub 4 hours. Haha. But along the way I realized I actually didn't hate running, and at one point even felt something that strangely approximated enjoyment.
Fast forward to race day, and I toed the starting line with a level of nerves, energy and anticipation that I hadn't felt in years. I was completely caught up in the carnival-like atmosphere and relished the opportunity to engage in a proper competition, against thousands of other racers who had trained for months for the exact same goal... It was beautiful and moving, and I realized then that I hadn't had an outlet to channel my competitive spirit since graduating from university, and that an important and prominent part of who I am had been suppressed as a result. The gun went off and 42.195km and 3 hours and 47 minutes later, I crossed the finish line.
It was every bit as challenging as I had anticipated, but it was even more rewarding than I could have imagined. The tears started the instant my foot broke the plane of the finish line and continued well into my post-race phone call with my mother. The finisher's medal around my neck was more than just a fancy souvenir, but a physical reminder of a spiritual principle - that we are capable of greatness, and that the limits of what we can achieve are simply determined by the efforts we put forth.
This Darwinian realization was all the motivation I needed to aim high, and so I set my sights firmly on the largest, most ambitious goal I knew of; I would try to be the first non-Japanese person to join the Trans Japan Alps Race.
TO BE CONTINUED...