I had a hard time getting to bed initially, due mostly to the cacophonous chorus of snores emanating in full surround sound from the densely packed tent city. However, once I drifted off I was able to sleep surprisingly well considering it was a cloudless, cold September night at 2,868m (9,409ft.), and the fact that I was spending it without a sleeping bag; using only a few warm layers and a tiny emergency bivvy (SOL Escape Lite Bivvy) to keep me warm.
Since Trans Japan is a 415km (258 mile) mountain race with a ridiculous 27,000m (88,583ft.) of elevation gain and loss, eliminating any excess items and carefully reducing your pack to the lowest weight possible is a huge part of determining success or failure. As a result, the standard sleeping kit consists of a super minimal 5mm (1/5 of an inch) thick foam sleeping pad cut to torso length combined with an ultralight emergency bivvy (glorified emergency blanket sewn into the shape of a sleeping bag). This system is generally warm enough during the summer months at all but the highest elevations, but not necessarily comfortable. It takes some getting used to, but every night I have spent in the mountains since July has been with this setup.
We were due to meet in front of the mountain hut at 2:50am, and depart together as a group at 3:00am sharp, so I had set my alarm for 2:15am. I woke up naturally just before 2:00 and decided to go ahead and start getting ready earlier than planned. I am an experienced trekker and have a tried and true routine for packing and preparing in the mornings with the gear that I have used for years and am intimately familiar with, but I have had a hard time adjusting to that process within the cramped confines of my new emergency shelter. I am still trying to come up with a streamlined method for getting ready quickly and efficiently with my new setup, so I figured the extra 15 minutes may come in handy. And it did. I had just enough time to eat, change, pack everything up, refill my water bottles, put on my helmet and get to the meeting point right on time.
Our group gathered together with helmets and headlamps on, bags packed, and trekking poles tucked safely away at the appointed place and time. Well, all but two of us. I am unaware of the reasons or details, but two people either overslept, opted out of day 2 or were possibly timed out on day 1 and didn't show up to the 2:50am check-in. The rest of us responded to the morning roll call, listened to a brief explanation of the route and details for the day, then departed together as a large group at precisely 3:00am.
The stretch of trail that we would start the day with, in the dark, passes by the boulder-strewn summit of Mt. Houken and is known as an area with the potential for rock falls and slips and falls resulting in several cases of injury and even death each year. It is not especially technical, but out of an abundance of caution TJAR participants are required to wear a helmet through this portion of the trail - and so were we.
We started the day together, moving slowly as a large group, partially in an effort to eliminate a mad-dash through this tricky section in darkness. Though I typically can't stand large groups in the mountains, I appreciated the chance to warm up the body and muscles slowly without the pressure of keeping up with the competition straight out of the gate. We continued moving slowly en masse for the first hour and a half until we reached a point that our leader had picked out to show us. The spot was a level patch of land located just off of and below the ridge, and surround by thick pine brush. It was pointed out to us as being a perfect example of a suitable location for an emergency bivvy, or an area to take shelter from heavy winds or approaching thunderstorms.
We each dropped down to check it out, and once everyone had taken a closer look - we dissolved the group and the free-for-all "race" to the finish began. It was now 4:30am, and we had to complete the remaining 17km (10.6 miles) along the undulating ridge up and over several peaks, and return to the start/finish before the 12:00 noon deadline. Finishing by noon would not be hard, but this was a chance to show what we were capable of, and everyone was eager to make good time.
The trail before us was both challenging and exciting, with unbeatable views complimenting the remaining ascents and descents of multiple major and minor summits high above treeline before culminating with a long, gradual and speedy descent through the forest on an enjoyable combination of technical and non-technical trails. The weather was perfect again, and we were treated to a glorious sunrise that reminded us of the pleasures that come along with the pain of pushing your body to its limits on days like this.
Derin and I quickly found ourselves in the middle of the pack, just as we had been on day 1. And despite still feeling a general lack of energy and having a harder time than usual on the climbs - the company and encouragement from Derin kept us moving forward at a good pace. By 7:30am we had topped out on the summit of Mt. Utsugi, a forbidding 2,864m (9,396ft.) peak with a punishing climb cruelly peppered with several false summits along the way. Utsugi however was the last remaining high point prior to the extended final descent, and our calves could now breathe a sigh of relief as they figuratively passed the baton to our quads.
THE SPRINT HOME
We made quick work of the short stretch between the summit and the mountain hut lying immediately below. We took a few moments to refill our water bottles, chat with the friendly staff and make sure we were ready to go for the final leg of the day. As we were preparing to leave, Otokozawa-san (the TJAR 2018 athlete who was running with the middle of the pack) was enjoying a cup noodle on the wooden deck outside. He looked at me and told me, "You're number 14." 14 out of 23 people. Bottom half of the rankings. Those were not the words I wanted to hear. I'm a competitive and proud guy, and though I was still on the rebound physically - I felt that I could and should finish higher up in the rankings, even if placement meant nothing officially. Those simple words lit a fire under me, and I responded by saying, "That's fine, I'm gonna pass almost everyone on the downhill anyway." And then I went to work.
I've always been good at descending, but didn't realize how good until I started running trail races this spring. Not only have I blown by people like they were standing still on descents of every angle on every kind of terrain, I have consistently elicited the most surprised and entertaining reactions as I did. The number one response has been a sudden shocked shriek, simply exclaiming, "ハヤイ！" (You're FAST.) But nearly as often I've been met with the likewise short and direct, "怖い！"(You're scaring me). Despite what it may look like to observers along the trail I am running in complete control and in a state of pure bliss. I love the downhills and my legs (quads) are built for them.
Without even informing Derin of my intentions (sorry), I set out running, quickly passing a few others in the first several minutes of the descent. Soon I was closing the gap on another one of the sweepers (from TJAR 2018), Ariyoshi-san. He heard the sound of someone approaching and stepped aside to allow them to pass, before realizing it was me. I was in the zone and not sure exactly what he said as I passed, but I knew it was a healthy amount of surprise mixed into a compliment by the tone of his voice and I smiled as I continued on, gaining confidence with each person I put behind me.
The entire descent stretched a total of 10km and was listed as 5 hours and 5 minutes of map time, but I was down in less than an 1 hour and 45 minutes. I could have made it down much faster, but routinely stepped aside to allow the many hikers climbing up the trail to go first, which is customary trail manners in Japan. And of course, everyone wanted to stop me and talk about how fast I was running downhill which only added to those breaks. Haha. I believe I passed 8 people in total, and arrived before 9:30 in 6th position. However, I found out that I was literally 2 minutes behind a group of 3 that arrived together just before me. It was a confidence boost for sure, and reminded me that everyone has different strengths, and a big part of being successful in events like this is knowing who you are and what you are capable of - and knowing when and where to push, and when and where to conserve.
As we arrived to the finishing point, we checked in briefly with a staff member who recorded the time of our arrival and then were free to eat, soak in a nearby onsen, change clothes or do whatever else we saw fit until the 12:00 deadline. At 12:00 an optional debriefing session would be held, where we could ask any final questions that may have popped in our heads during the last few days and have the opportunity to hear any final comments, observations and advice from the staff and sweepers who accompanied us during the training camp.
I waited for Derin to arrive, and soon after we headed to the nearby onsen to shower and relax our bodies in the geothermal baths. After reaching a satisfactory level of refreshment, we had lunch in the onsite cafeteria with a large group of other participants, and then made our way to the debrief session in a quiet spot along the river.
A lot of questions were asked and a variety of topics were covered, but the thing that stuck with me the most was the reassurance from Ijima-san, the weekend's leader, that all of us at the camp demonstrated that we possessed the speed and stamina necessary to compete in the Trans Japan Alps Race. Now our main goal was to familiarize ourselves with our kit, and to increase the number and types of environments and conditions that we can comfortably and safely travel through - by actually getting out and doing it. I felt at the end of everything that I stand a better chance than I even thought to make it into next year's race. I am confident in my experience and abilities in the mountains, and will continue to do everything I can to make this crazy dream into an even crazier reality. TJAR 2020!