For some, running 100 miles around Mt Fuji is pure joy
The late Czech long-distance running great Emil Zatopek once said: "If you want to win something, run 100 metres, if you want to experience something run a marathon." I wonder what he would say about running four straight marathons (that's 42.195km each) in a row.
I guess I could tell you the feeling sometime on Sunday, when I'm done running nearly four consecutive marathons - 161 kilometres to be exact - here in Mount Fuji. I'm among nearly 80 Hongkongers that have made the trip to Kawaguchiko, Japan, to run the Ultra Trail Mount Fuji (UTMF), the country's first and largest international trail running race. There will be 10 cities and villages from the Yamanashi and Shizuoka Prefectures, numerous organisations and over 1,000 volunteers supporting the race.
The event, in its second year, consists of two distances. The UTMF takes racers around the entire perimeter of Mt Fuji, over mainly off-road terrain, including the challenging Tenshi Sanchi Mountain Range and Makuiwa, which at 1,800 metres elevation is the highest point of the race. The course has a total elevation gain of 9,164 metres - more than if you climbed Mount Everest (8,848 metres) from sea level. The other race, which starts tomorrow (Friday, April 26) at 1pm - two hours before the UTMF - is the 85km-long STY (Shizuoka to Yamanashi), which covers the second half of the UTMF course and has a total elevation gain of 4,980 metres.
I figured if I paid all that money, took quite a few days of leave and spent all that time travelling to Japan - my first trip here - I might as well run a hundred miles. It would be my first attempt at the distance; the longest race I've done to date is last summer's Trail Verbier St Bernard in Switzerland, which was 110km-long with 7,000 metres elevation gain. That was also my first race over 100km, and I took about 22 hours (you can read my report that was published in the SCMP here). Being inexperienced at such long distances, I started too fast and suffered at the end. I was leading the race at about the 50km mark but had a spectacular crumble to finish fifth woman overall.
My goal at UTMF - as it was in Verbier - is simply to enjoy myself, savour the amazing nature around me, start slow and finish strong with a smile. I hope to make it back before Sunday, because running into a second night is going to really hurt - you have to battle the cold and dark again, and stave off the sleep monsters. So, that means a maximum time of 33 hours (the cut-off is 46 hours). Last year's men's winner Julien Chorier from France took about 19 hours and the women's, Nerea Martinez of Spain, about 22 hours, but according to organisers, this year's course runs counterclockwise and will be more difficult. Uh-oh.
I sought advice last week from Kami Semick, a Hong Kong-based renowned American trail runner who was twice the USA Track & FIeld's ultrarunner of the year. "I would start slow. You should feel good at halfway," she said. "Make sure to keep the calories flowing, starting in the first hour. I find I can tolerate solid food through the first half, but then need to switch to [energy] gels for the second half. You should be able to consume at least 250 to 400 calories per hour in the first half. That will help fuel you in that second half when you might not be as inclined to eat. But still, force feed in the second half. That will get you across the finish line."
So, nutrition is going to make or break me. I'm a believer in having real food, rather than those processed, packaged - and overpriced - energy gels and bars. I've loaded my race bag with organic muesli and nut bars, brazil nuts, and dried fruit (apricots, figs and apples). I also have some gels, but that's only for desperate times, because I find the gels don't sit well in my tummy. Certainly they are definitely a convenient and quick source of energy.
Physical nourishment aside, I think I'm going to need all the luck I can get. I'm actually really looking forward to the race, because the hard part of putting in the training miles is over. Tomorrow at 3pm, the fun begins.
And I'll fill in the blank after: "If you want to win something, run 100 metres, if you want to experience something run a marathon, if you want to _________ run 100 miles."
Hong Kong hopefuls
A total of 2,127 people are taking part in the Ultra Trail Mount Fuji, including 269 from 40 different countries other than Japan. Hongkongers form nearly a third of this overseas contingent with 79 on the start list (some may pull out before the start) - 54 (43 men, 11 women) in the UTMF and 25 (16 men, 9 women) in the STY. A few Hongkongers are among the race favourites for the UTMF: Jeremy Ritcey for the men, and Claire Price and Chiaki Fjeddahl for the women.
I caught up with some Hongkongers to find out: 1. Why they're running 100 miles (or 50 miles); 2. What's their pre-race ritual; and 3. What's one thing - hopefully unusual - they'll carry in their race bag.
Joel Labelle aka "Jogger Joel" (UTMF)
1. Because 100km is not far enough.
2. Don't properly train during training, then do 150km the week before.
3. A GoPro camera.
Sofree Tam (UTMF)
1. I'm attracted by the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc [the holy grail for trailrunners] that I'd like to participate in next time, so I'm doing the UTMF to start taking part in ultra racing. I chose the UTMF as my first 100-mile race because it costs less vacation leave and I'm more familiar with the place and people. It sounds more comfortable and safe.
2. Suffering from injuries and not much training for the past several months, but nothing I can do about it. I'm just targeting to complete the race. The only thing that I can do is have a good logistics plan and course preparation, and try to keep myself in the comfort zone.
3. My MP3 music player and snacks to cheer myself up and keep going.
Wiwin Leung (UTMF)
1. I've never done 100 miles and want to enjoy the scenic view of Mt Fuji.
2. I did the Lantau 100km last month, and a 100km road race in Taiwan two weeks ago.
3. A shining lucky star.
Sabrina Dumont (STY)
1. I'm running 50 miles because I am not crazy enough yet to run 100 miles.
2. Having a lot of rest - maybe too much.
3. A bear bell [which is mandatory equipment] is unusual, no?
Clement Dumont (UTMF)
1. A self challenge while discovering a beautiful environment.
2. Resisting the temptation to train two weeks before the event to have enough rest. This time it was easy as I got sick.
3. Not enough space in my tiny backpack to carry useless things, although it's my first time having to carry a portable toilet [which is mandatory equipment]!
Rowley Aird (UTMF)
1. I did it last year and my neck hurt looking at Mt Fuji to my right so it made sense to do it again, so Fuji this time is on my left as it's now anti-clockwise.
2. Pre-race the opposite to Clement: basically as I was ill one month ago I spent the lay two weeks getting fit this time around. (Please note this tactic on Sunday after the race!)
3. Pickle juice....I learnt from Kami [Semick] the anti-cramp effects it has.
Nic TInworth (STY)
1. Because I read about the race last year and the location and course looked amazing. This is only my second ultra outside of Hong Kong, so the unknown trails and adventure aspect are both a little unnerving and exciting. I'm doing the 85km because I've always wanted to do Western States as my first 100 miler.
2. I don't really have any pre race rituals. I find it frustratingly hard to taper but luckily (?) I've been ill the past couple of weeks which is probably a good thing as it's been a long season and I feel like I'm bordering on a burnout. A few hours before the race I will try to meditate to clear my mind of anything distracting so that I can focus on the moment.
3. I always carry a small round crystal that my son gave me many years ago on races 50km or over as a good luck charm.
Armin Jr. Silbernagl (UTMF)
1. To enjoy the nature, friends and push myself and understand better who I am. It's about the journey not the destination. It's dyinamic meditation.
2. Brush my teeth.
3. A lucky race bag.