This past weekend I had the exciting opportunity to join the official training camp held by the organizing committee of the Trans Japan Alps Race (TJAR). The event was staffed by several members of the committee as well as 5 participants from the 2018 race. Entry was capped at 25 people, and limited to those who had already met or were not far from fulfilling all of the necessary TJAR entry requirements.
I first learned about the existence of the training camp in the spring while randomly checking the information section of the Trans Japan homepage. Though the posting clearly stated that participation in the camp held no bearing on acceptance into the 2020 race, I felt that it would be an invaluable chance to make my name and face known, to demonstrate my competence (experience and fitness levels), and to make connections that could prove useful in helping me reach my goal of lining up at the start line on race day next year. I pre-wrote the draft of my application email, and sent it as soon as the entry period officially began on May 6th. Luckily, two and a half weeks later I received the email confirming my participation.
The camp was structured similarly to the final athlete selection event that takes place in late June during race years, a month and a half before the race itself - though much less stringent (no gear check, less course time each day, no skills checks, no written testing, etc...) One other major difference was that the real selection event takes place in the Southern Alps, while the training camp was held in the Central Alps.
It was recommended that we show up with the full set of gear that is required for the actual race, with the caveat that since it was mid-September and temperatures would be colder, it would be ok to pack additional/warmer clothing or sleeping equipment as necessary.
More than being a tool for the organizers to evaluate the participants, it seemed to be primarily an opportunity for the participants to measure themselves - to test their mountain knowledge, fastpacking skills and physical fitness against other hopefuls in a controlled, mini-simulation of the race. It was also a chance to garner knowledge directly from those with firsthand experience running the race.
Saturday, September 14th
8:30am - Meet in Komagane Kogen / Registration (Come packed and ready to run)
9:00am - Lecture and Q & A
11:45am - Final preparation and lunch
12:00pm - Begin the 11-hour (map time) hiking route from the ODSK outdoor shop to the Kisokoma Chojo Sanso camping area via the Ise waterfall and Mt. Kisokoma
7:00pm - Deadline to arrive at the camping area
Sunday, September 15th
2:50am - Meet in front of the Kisokoma Chojo Sanso (mountain hut) packed and ready to run
3:00am - Begin the 14-hour (map time) hiking route from the Kisokoma Chojo Sanso back to the ODSK outdoor shop via Hoken and Mt. Utsugi
12:00pm - Deadline to arrive at the finishing area / debriefing
On Wednesday, just days before the camp began, I woke up feeling very sick. I knew right away that I had a fever and quickly confirmed that I did. I called in to work, had a quick breakfast and went back to bed. I spent most of the day trying to sleep, but waking up in alternating states of hot and cold. When I checked my temperature again in the afternoon, it had climbed to 39.2C/102.6F. By this point I knew I should see a doctor, but was unable to even eat, let alone get myself up and out of the house. My wife came home around 5, but it was now too late to head to the local clinic.
Suffering through one of the worst nights I can remember, with a fever that peaked at 40C/104F, we woke up early and together headed an hour and a half away to a hospital in Nagano city. After a battery of blood and urine tests, the doctor informed me that I had a urinary tract infection (UTI). He told me that he would do what he could do - namely, give me an IV of antibiotics and some medicine to take home, but if my fever didn't subside that I may require hospitalization.
Luckily, my fever slowly subsided and eventually broke before midnight on Thursday evening, and I was able to eat a full lunch and dinner during the day. Friday I was still feeling weak from two days of high fever, so I took another day off and tried to rest and recover as much as possible. I still wanted to at least try and make my way to the camp, but wasn't sure if I would be physically able to participate. I emailed the organizers and asked if it would be acceptable to show up in the morning, meet the group, sit through the lecture and then take the ropeway up to the camping area (instead of running and climbing with the others on the 11-hour hiking route). I didn't get a response that day, but I felt that I had found a reasonable solution in the event that I wasn't up to full participation, and made my mind up to go.
Just before 5pm I got in touch with Derin, and he offered to let me crash with him that evening in his hotel room near the Saturday morning meeting point. That would give me the best chance for a full, comfortable night's sleep - so I quickly packed my bag and hit the road. Two and a half hours later I met up with Derin, had a ridiculously heavy fried pork cutlet dinner, and got to bed around 10pm. I slept well and woke up determined to join the camp in full, or at least try.
The weather was perfect, just as the forecast had suggested, and we arrived to the meeting area together as the only non-Japanese faces in the crowd. In fact, in the history of the race which began in 2002, there have been no non-Japanese participants. Furthermore, no foreigners had ever participated in any official event staged by the TJAR organizing committee. We were breaking new ground, and it felt great. As excited as I was though, I was also unusually nervous. I have spent a ridiculous amount of time (and money) obsessing over and preparing to even have the chance to enter the race next year, with most of my training done alone in the mountains. This was my first real chance to get a look at and measure my progress against the pool of others who were also specifically aiming at the same goal - i.e. the competition.
Registration & Lecture
We arrived and went through a brief registration where we each received our TJAR bag tag and had our photos taken solo. At 9:00am sharp the "lecture" began, with the first part being a demonstration and conversation related to setting up the 3 types of shelters approved for the race: internal "stock" (trekking pole) shelters, external stock shelters and traditional dome tents. I was a bit shocked at how elementary the information seemed, seeing as how most people here should have, at the very least, spent a handful of nights in the mountains in such a shelter this summer.
After the demonstrations, the conversation moved on to a variety of other topics that I found to be more helpful, specifically getting the chance to hear some practical tips and tricks and to see the gear actually used by athletes from last year's race: such as the contents of their first aid kits, cooking sets, warm clothing choices, footwear and insoles, sleeping gear and more.
Lunch & Final Preparation
The lecture wrapped up just before 11:40, and we were scheduled to start our hike at 12:00 sharp, so we had just a few minutes to use the restroom, down some food and make our way to to the starting point. Once everyone had arrived, we assembled for a group photo, and shortly after we were off on our way. The map time for the day's course was 11 hours and 44 minutes, but the deadline to reach our destination was 7:00pm, meaning we had to complete the course in under 60% of the suggested map time. One of the standards for TJAR entry is: "Possession of the physical strength and endurance to run the length of a mountain trail with a course time of more than 25 hours, in 60% or less of the course time." So today was a relatively easy day compared to the level of speed and stamina needed for the race itself.
The Hike [19.7km / + 2,033m / 4 hrs. 57 min.]
I had read several blog posts from participants of past training camps and found widely varying accounts of how the hike itself unfolded. One particular post from a previous year detailed how the group moved slowly, in a single large pack, and "nobody ran" - even after being asked by the sweeper, "are you sure this pace is good enough?" On the other hand, STRAVA data from a few individuals that participated in this year's July training camp showed that they were moving pretty fast out of the gate. I wasn't sure what to expect, but quickly realized how it was going to be when the lead pack started running straight from the start.
Our group of 25 hopefuls were accompanied the athletes from the 2018 TJAR, with Go Yoshifuji and Satoshi Funabashi at the head of the group, Hiroki Otokozawa and Masaki Takada running mid-pack, and Toshihiro Ariyoshi at the back along with TJAR veteran and the weekend's leader - Hiroshi Ijima acting as the final sweeper. For the first 15km or so we ran on a combination of asphalt and gravel road, steadily climbing from roughly 900m to 2,200m (+4,300 feet) in elevation during that span. We started towards the back, but Derin and I soon found ourselves rubbing shoulders with the mid-packers.
We eventually reached a single-track hiking trail that we traveled on very briefly before joining and following an unmaintained trail through a "map-reading" zone for the climb through the forest up to the ridge above tree line. For this section we were each given a 1:25,000 scale map with the route marked in red, and told that the route was extremely hard to follow, and that we would be practically swimming through thick brush at some points.
In reality, we moved quickly and efficiently, only pausing to search for the trail on a few brief occasions - which helped us catch up to and overtake a group that had been in front of us up until that point. It was really an exercise in reading the terrain and anticipating where the trail should be based on the slope and geographical features in your immediate surroundings. It was exactly what I have had to do when hiking overseas, and I quite enjoyed it.
After reaching the ridge, we were rewarded with spectacular views of Mt. Shogikashira behind us and Mt. Kisokoma ahead, with a sea of clouds below us. I felt completely dead on the climbs, but still made decent progress with motivation coming from the both the superb views and the pressure to keep up. From the ridge we could see our campsite for the night off in the distance, and could tell that it was absolutely packed. It was the start of a 3-day weekend, at the end of the summer hiking season, with a glowing weather forecast - and people had come out in droves to take advantage of the perfect chance to be in the mountains. We knew the earlier we arrived, the better chance we had to snag a decent spot to pitch our shelters amongst the crowded, rocky campsite. We pressed on quickly, stopping only to snap a few photos from the summit of Mt. Kisokoma, and arrived at the check-in point just before 5pm, more than 2 hours ahead of the deadline.
Setting Up Camp
I quickly found a relatively flat spot in a tight space in front of a few other tents, and decided to pitch my shelter then and there, figuring that I would have a hard time finding a better option. For the official athlete selection event for TJAR there is a timed shelter setup test, where you have four minutes to go from pack on your back to inside your fully set shelter. And to make it even more challenging, the shelter is then subjected to a stress test, where the apex is pulled with a force of 3kg. If the tent has not been pitched tautly enough and moves too much when pulled, your TJAR dreams end then and there.
This time there was no such test, but I personally know someone who failed the shelter setup and therefore was unable to participate in TJAR last year, and I have been determined to not make that same mistake. So prior to the camp, I experimented at home to find a quick easy way to stabilize my shelter and put my best idea to the test for the first time in the mountains. It worked like a dream, and before I knew it - other participants were surrounding my shelter, pulling on it, taking photos and videos and asking me to explain the setup process.
By this point it was getting dark and cold - so after taking a moment to appreciate the tail end of the sunset, I cooked up a quick dinner of couscous and tuna, refilled my water and climbed into my emergency bivvy. In true TJAR style I had decided not to bring a sleeping bag despite the potential for cold temps, opting to suffer through a sleepless night if necessary - but luckily my layering system and bivvy kept me just warm enough to sleep relatively comfortably between going to bed at 9pm and waking up at 2am to pack up and head out with the group for our 3am start on day two.
TO BE CONTINUED...