Team Hoka One One-3rd place team- Nicolas Mermoud (15th), Nina (5th women 11h 13m) and Ludo Pommeret (winner 8h2m)
When I was invited to Japan with Hoka One One and Ichi Sports for the Hasetsune 72k Cup, , October 10th, 2010. I spent some time trying to find information in English about the race. I found very little. A few videos on Youtube and a limited english page on the website. So, in attempt to put the word out for anyone who might want to race this someday or simply for others who would like to hear my story, here it is….somewhat lengthy, but it was a long race. Grab a cup of Japanese green tea and get comfy…
It is not unusual for athletes or climbers to spend time aclimitizing before a race or a big climb. For me it might be spending a night at the Cosmique Hut or making a few trips up high to the Aiguilles du Midi in preparation for a high altitude race like the Swiss Patrouille des Glaciers. The course profile: distance, elevation gain, and loss is often imprinted in our minds and marked with tape on my watch. Acclimatizing is just what we did when we arrived in Tokyo the days before the Hasetsune Cup. We tested the food, the shopping,
the sites and streets of tokyo and even navigated on the subway out of Tokyo to our next hotel (sans GPS).
You might think that sounds pretty easy but it was harder than navigating on course. No English, written or spoken. Challenge number 1 of the day, check. I can fully attest that there are no toilets on the trains! I had been pre race hydrating all day and I paid the price! Challenge number 2.
Normally the day before a long race, one does not do much, some light stretching, yoga, legs in the air. Often I am out running around with my boys so it is not always resting. We did just the opposite pre race day and hit the streets of Tokyo with Kay, who was our interpreter, guide and also runner. Kay works part time for ICHI sports, the Japanese importer of HOKA One One and the shop who invited us to Japan to compete. The store is one of the top mountaineering and trail running shops in Japan. We were honored to be invited and are very thankful for their kind hospitality and generosity.
We spent the day pounding the pavement as one might say, soaking in the sites of the city, and soaking is no joke. It was hammering with rain. I did buy an umbrella but after about 20 minutes it took a strong gust of wind and went inverse. Sayonara to my umbrella- made in china. Never try anything new before race day…so the saying goes. We were all about trying new things here, well almost everything. (no octopus!) Normally a pre race meal is light pasta meal- some carbos. We had a delicous Japanese pre race meal, soba noodles, miso, rice and tempura.
As I said, normally for a big race, you have an idea where all your check points are, places to get food/ water. The big climbs, the smaller ones. For this one, we did not know much, but little by little we were gathering information here and there like squirrels gathering nuts for the winter. The flying squirrel was in fact the symbol of the race here, though I did not see any leaping from tree to tree while I was running.
We learned from our friends at Ishi Sports that this race has been going on for 18 years and it originally started as a training challenge for climbers going to the Himalayan mountains. Hasetsune was a famous climber and these Okutama mountains were his training ground, hence after his death, the race was founded. It is now the most popular trail running race in Japan. The maximum amount of time you have to complete it is 24hrs. The race fills up in less than a day and people spend the better part of their year with this as a goal, for some the hardest challenge ever they will face physically and mentally. They have trained on the course and probably no the course like the back of their hand. There is one official place on the course at 42km where you are allowed to take 1.5 liters of water, no more. Along the way there are a few natural springs, so we heard, but sometimes it might be 5-10 min off the trail. Really there were 2 on the trail at 55km and 58km on the trail and the others, hard to say no knowing.
There was no English spoken on the course, nada, rien, none! There were 3 km markers signs in English, at 23km, 42km, and 60km all the other signs were in Japanese characters hence, once again, hard telling, not knowing. From time to time I would ask someone around me, “Mizu? (which means water) or what number kilometer- but just a friendly response in Japanese? Humpf…Onwards and upwards I guess to the end.
Considering the remoteness of the race and the difficult weather conditions, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of spectators. My favorites were the two girls dressed up like mini mouse cheering with big smiles. They were cheering……! Which does not really have an English translation but means go!
Once darkness fell, the crowds of runners dispersed greatly. Occasionally I played leap frog with a few other runners. I would say go, or good job but they probably had no clue what I said. One of my main concerns was getting lost. We were reassured that the course was marked pretty regularly throughout, at least every km. It was quite regular until 42km and then after less as it was more remote. Occasionally every now and then a race official would appear in the middle of no where with a tent set up, and a large white light directing you the right way. He would say something I had no clue what…..I would smile and say ‘arigato’ (thank you!): It was not uncommon for certain 1kms to feel pretty long while running in the densely forested Japanese mountains. A few times I questioned, did I take the wrong turn? However I pattered a long and thankfully I saw a little blinking red light in the distance. Yes! I am not lost and will not wind up in some place off the grid with no cell service in who knows where! I never once felt lonely, but I know that for many that was the biggest challenge. It was just me and the monkeys (really there are monkeys though I did not see them) and my tunes which helped me think about staying light on my feet and dance my way over 72 k of these so called Japanese hills. I’ve got to hand it to my little pink shuffle! It suffered the same sweat, humidity, heavy rain and still was going strong after 11h15m.
I had done some research on the course prior- found a few videos on Youtube, found it on the UTMB site as a qualifying at 4800 meters and 72km. It was coined somewhere as the baddest, toughest race in japan. Ok, it can’t be too tough, I thought. We live in the Alps, our trails are pretty rugged there. I tried to be pretty open about what to expect however Ludo almost convinced me that the 4200 meters was the accumulated gain and loss, and it could not be more than 2600 meters climbing according to the profile. The highest point of elevation was only 1500m. Well, when my altimeter read 2100 meters at 36km I was rethinking my strategy. Actually it was before that. I was laughing and cursing at the same time. So, yes it was 4120 meters in the end and these Japanese hills do have a punch to them. They are technical, with rocks and roots, slick mud, narrow passages, steep cliffs, scrambling sections with hand rails. Even though the high point in elevation is just a few hundred more than where I live in Chamonix, this had some serious elevation gain and loss. In the end there was more loss than gain. If this had been a ski mountaineering race, there would be so many transitions, and you would need a few pairs of skins.
So what was the weather like??? The day before it rained cats and dogs. No, it poured cats and dogs on Saturday. Sunday morning more rain and then the sun came out! The roads dried up and it became hot! 26 degrees- The start was at 1pm. The area was mobbed with Japanese runners getting ready. I desperately wanted to find some shade, lie down on my back with my legs in the air. The first 3 hours of the race were hot and humid. Sweat poured off my body and in not too long I resembled someone who had just stepped out of the shower. Around 5pm the fog set in and then a heavy rainstorm came just to keep things interesting. I did not bother to get out my raincoat as it was still pretty warm and I was already soaking. Sano, our friend and interperter confirmed at the start, “its not going to rain” ok, cool, but never trust the weatherman. Sano owed me a drink! It rained hard for about 1hr giving the trails an extra bit of slickness to them. At one point I think I was running with a pound extra of mud stuck to the bottom of my shoes, a bit like when your crampons ball up with snow w/out anti balling plates. The rain stopped and soon the heart of darkness had arrived and it was there to stay for the rest of the course. 4 hrs of light and 7 hrs of darkness. At one point in the night, I caught a glimpse of the stars through the forest canapy. It was a clear night after all. The lights of Tokyo glimmered not too far in the distance. I was funny to think the hustle and bustle of the city was not too far away from this remote natural setting. Unfortunately I have not found many photos to capture this scenery. This link gives some idea of the terrain.
Actually, I preferred the dark, to the hot humid sun. It never once felt too dark, as I had my Petzl ultra lightling my path right to the end. I switched between the lowest setting for the ups and the medium setting for the down and I still had reserve power when I finished. Normally when you finish a race there are plenty of sports drink, water, food to give you some recovery fuel right away. Often you get meal ticket with your entry that you can go to post race, and sometimes if you are lucky even massage tents to tend to your tired legs or aching feet. At this race, it was similar to English on the course, zippo, rien, nada. When you finished, you could buy a bowl of noodle soup.
Thankfully my team mates were there to greet me and offered me some food.They had been done already for a few hours, Ludo taking the race in 8hs and Nico swapping leads with him til 60km and then not far behind in the end. You might not get a free soup ticket here but you do get a finishing certificate and a race t shirt. I will say that this t shirt and my Petzl ultra will go well together! Maybe I should take it night running so I will be sure not to be missed!
Shortly after I finished we headed back to the hotel where all of us tried to get a little shut eye, with not much success. It is often hard to sleep after a long effort even though one’s body is tired, lots of endorphins still are being pumped though the body. A few hours later, we greeted a new day with bright sunshine and returned back to race headquarters for the awards ceremony. Racers were still finishing, some would use all the 24 hours they could take. The heat of the day was setting in, with a high of 27 C and 90% humidity. Wow! Hot. It looked somewhat like a refuge camp with racers lying around on blankets and pads trying to escape the hot sun.
It was a real honor for us to be invited to this race and experience the Japanese culture, the spirit and history of the race . The awards ceremony was traditional. One of my favorite part was at the end when the who crowd did Rock, Paper, Scissors for the rest of the prizes where we normally do a raffle drawing (tirage au sorts). Maybe we should try that at the next race we put on in Chamonix?
As I mentioned before, Hoka One One, really means Time to Fly (in the maori dialect). These Hoka’s really flew in Japan on the trails in some of the toughest conditions. With Ludo’s race victory, Nico’s 2nd place for his age, my 5th place overall for women and our team 3rd place, I think they made an impressionable debut.
A few race stats:
From the Suunto Tc6:
calories burned: 5,389
4120 meters of elevation gain
4,142 meters of elevation loss
highpoint 1585m (Mt Mitake @ 5hrs 40m)
lowpoint 296 m
finishing time for me 11h13min. 5th overall women, 114th out of 2232.
Offiicial report – 2232 runnsers started and 1622 runners finished. 72% finish rate.
5 westerners raced
there is 1km of pavement in beginning, and about 1km in the middle and then 1km at the end the rest is densely forested Japanese hills with rugged technical trails.
So with all of that said, and you are still entertaining the idea of entering this race, I think it is not cheap- about the same of the UTMB. I say, Go for it! What a great way to take on a challenge and experience another country! But be sure to brush up on your Japanese prior to going!