Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Mt Rokko traverse

The idea to run the Mt Rokko traverse above Kobe was born while perusing this blog about trail running in Japan. According to the author, “The Mount Rokko Longitudinal Course is a 56km trail from Sumaurakoen station…to Takarazuka station to the north east, with about 3000 m of climb and descent over 16 peaks”. I briefly thought about epic-ing and trying to do the whole trail in one day, but decided to curb my enthusiasm and only part of it. After a serious Strava Routebuilder session, I planned a route starting at the north east terminus of the Mount Rokko Longitudinal Coruse and descending down to Kobe central train station, for a total of about 26K. 

Once again, I felt completely out of place in my trail running gear as I caught to the train towards Kobe. That didn’t change when I got off the train at Takarazuka station and saw a cityscape around me, with no sign of the aforementioned trail. I had created a handy GPX track to follow on my phone, so I whipped it out and dutifully followed the red line through apartment buildings, first gradually, then steadily, uphill. The first sign that I was going the right direction came when another runner came flying downhill towards me.

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Crossing the Muko river near Takarazuka station.

My GPX track dumped me onto a tiny, excruciatingly steep trail. It was unmarked, and given the markings I found later on I wonder if this was kind of a back way leading onto the main trail. Hands on knees, I clambered up the dusty, root-strewn trail.

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This does not do justice to how steep the trail actually was. But look, I found a trail!

Not long after, I saw my first Japanese snake. I think I literally jumped as it slithered across the trail, and I began to look distrustingly at every curvy tree root on the forest floor. I think the snake was just as scared of me as I was of it, but all the same I didn’t want to be caught unawares again! 

I started to notice trail markings, stakes in the ground marked with symbols. Good, maybe I wouldn’t have to spend too much time navigating. I was on a sort of ridge now, still climbing, and the forest floor dropped away steeply on either side. Let’s hope this doesn’t dead end.

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I half expected these trees to start walking around and talking.

The trail continued to widen, and passed through several junctions. They seemed to be clearly marked for those of us who can read Japanese, i.e. not me. I stopped frequently to make sure I was still on the red line of my GPX track, but basically I just followed the main trail. I was starting to meet other people now, a good mix of hikers and trail runnings. I enjoyed the quiet kinship of meeting like minds, people who choose to sweat through the forest on a Saturday morning, even if we didn’t share a language.

I found myself fascinated by all the different trees I was running through. There were the green, ropey trees in the lower forest, which gave way to straight brown trees with flakey bark.

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Flakey trees. Cedars? Someone help me...

Then, higher up, the trees all had wiggly branches, like curly hair blown by a permanent breeze. Sometimes I ran through shoulder-height stands of thick vegetation that threatened to obscure the trail. (I think it might have been baby bamboo). The trail was relentless, either climbing or descending steeply, never flat, rarely runnable. I was enjoying the grind, because I knew there was a summit in my future. Occasionally I would get spit out onto a road for a few hundreds meters. This wasn’t exactly the wilderness.

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Squiggly trees.

Soon enough I was climbing the final slope up to Mt Rokko, on top of which there was, most anticlimactically, some kind of radio tower. It was a hazy day over Kobe Bay, and the view was of a different sort than I was used to. Beyond the jungle of forest was a jungle of city, stretching out to to a seemingly endless ocean.

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Kobe bay from Mt Rokko.

I stopped at the top to eat an onigiri (rice ball), one of my favorite Japanese snacks. They can be bought at convenience stores for next to nothing here, and I’m seriously considering learning to make them so I can start bringing them on runs at home.

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Onigiri filled with some kind of fish, enjoyed on Mt Rokko.

After the peak, the trail passed through a developed area, with a ski lift, ugly modern art, a restaurant and then a golf course. It felt kind of strange that all of these things were just up there, after all the kilometers through quiet forest.

I was hoping to pick up the pace a little after the summit, as Mt Rokko was the high point of the day. But the trail kept undulating, with a series of short, steep climbs and descents. And then came the stairs - so many stairs!

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One set of stairs isn’t particularly threatening. Fifty is.

I consider myself a fairly decent downhill runner, but running downhill on stairs quickly requires a completely different technique than the one I use. Judging by the section of ‘trail’ between Mt Rokko and Mt Maya, Japan might be just the place to learn how to run stairs.

After seemingly endless stairs, up and down, I came to Mt Maya, from where I would begin my descent towards the center of Kobe. There’s a road to the top of Mt Maya, and there were tons of people on the top, picnicking and enjoying the sun and the view. There was a group of musicians playing flutes and a truck selling snack foods. I stopped to snap a few photos, and began my descent. I had already been out more a long time for a ‘mear’ 26K.

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Kobe seen from Mt Maya.

The descent through the forest was so steep and loose I wasn’t able to run - I had to sort of shuffle. This trail never really gives you a break! I thought. I lost all of the vertical I had spent the day gaining in a few kilometers. I had been alone on the trail during the descent, but then I popped out on some well-maintained tourist walkways to Nunobiki Falls. I decided to check it out, and ran past a gorgeous set of waterfalls dropping into round pools. All of this, less than a kilometer from the cityscape of Kobe! Even if the nature is a little overdeveloped for my taste, at least the beautiful areas are still here to enjoy.

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Nunobiki Falls.

I ground out the final kilometers on pavement to Kobe main station, feeling sweaty and dusty and disgusting amidst flocks of clean city people. I stopped outside the train station for some salty, delicious ramen and several glasses of ice cold matcha tea. I had earned it.

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Strava data here

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Cool corners of Kyoto (Adventures this week)

I’ve decided to reinstate my weekly training recaps, mostly for myself. It also gives me a chance to chronicle all the cool corners of Kyoto I’m exploring during my time here. Enjoy!

I’ve signed up for a 25K trail race on October 23, and I’m considering running another, longer trail race in November. This is mostly because I want to experience trail racing in Japan, and also have some motivation to keep my fitness level high. Since I don’t have as many options for alternative training here as at home, I have time to run quite a lot. So these months will be an interesting experiment in just how much I can run - without getting injured. Here’s how last week went down.

Monday: Rest day, AM yoga + body weight strength training. Quads were sore from the long descent off of Mt Fuji.

Tuesday: Run to the Imperial Palace including 6 strides, 11.1K. I was going to do intervals but I was feeling sluggish and decided to wait another day. I enjoyed the Imperial Palace park; there were actually some trails! It’s not super close to my apartment unfortunately, but I’ll definitely be back.

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Rainy morning selfie in the Imperial Palace park.

Wednesday: 8x400m around Nijo Castle. The circuit around Nijo Castle is rectangular, and the short sides are roughly 400 meters while the long sides are about 500 meters. So I did intervals on the short sides and recovered for the duration of the long sides. After consulting Daniels the Almighty, I decided to try to do the intervals at 3:49 /km pace. The hardest part about this was finding the right pace! My average paces were: 3:44, 3:47, 3:45, 3:50, 3:45, 3:46, 3:52 and 4:00. So, yeah, I went out too hard and basically bombed the last one. Pretty castle though! + 45min evening restorative yoga.

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Totally destroyed after the 8th interval at Nijo castle.

Thursday: Strength training + easy run along the river and through the Gion area, 7.1K. I wore my heart rate monitor to make sure I actually went super easy, but keeping my heart rate down was not a problem for once. I just cruised along, thinking about the interview I listened to recently on Running on Om with Runner’s World senior content editor Scott Douglas. He talked about running in Kenya, and how incredibly slow the Kenyans go on their easy runs. He described one instance where he ran a loop with his wife, who is a very casual runner, and then later he ran the same loop with the Kenyan marathoners. And guess who ran the slowest? The Kenyans!

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I may have also visited Mister Donut. Because, recovery.

Friday: I thought about talking another rest day, but when I woke up I felt like getting out, so I ran to Kiyomizudera temple, 7.4K. I don’t think going to Kiyomizu will ever get old! I had a lot more pep in my step than on Thursday, and my splits showed it. A lot of stopping at cross walks unfortunately, I still need to find the best routes to avoid waiting for traffic lights. 

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Kiyomizudera in the morning.

Saturday: Rokko-san traverse, 26.8K. So much more of which later.

Sunday: I went for a little run in the morning before I went to work, 6.2K (I don’t usually work on the weekend but I’m taking some time off next week). I wanted to run around Umekoji park near the train station, but there was some kind of festival going on and the nice running loop was closed off. So I ran a longer route home, and it started to rain. And did not stop. Actually working in the nice dry lab was a good use of the day considering how much it rained.

Weekly totals: 71.3K, 1549 m of climb (1400 on Saturday alone!), 8h59min.

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Friday, September 16, 2016

On finding routine

Somewhere between emigration and vacation, there is the three month stay in a foreign country. I’m in Kyoto for long enough to develop routines and become accustomed to my surroundings, but not long enough to truly fit in. This week, week 3 of my stay, has felt like the turning point where everything goes from novel and strange to more or less familiar and routine. Since my every day is in Japan now, I will take it upon myself to write about the every day.

I start most days with a run. Given my lack of a bicycle, I’m definitely seeing an uptick in the number of kilometers I run. The first week I came here, it was unbearably hot and humid, and the best way to avoid the heat was to start early. Now the temperature is more bearable, but I still run early to fit my life around the ‘Japanese work hours’.

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Intervals around Nijo Castle. I’ve been doing a lot of pavement pounding, but at least I can run to beautiful, historic places!

The Japanese work a lot, and (at least at the University), they start late and end late. Really late. The PhD students I work with seem to be nocturnal creatures, which I most certainly am not. I’ve been getting to work between 9 and 10 o’clock, but my colleagues think I get to work early.  I live downtown, and it takes about 40 minutes to get to work by train and bus. Every time I swipe my commuter pass on the train I feel like a pro, like I blend in and am doing something right.

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The bakery on campus. I haven’t gotten through the entire selection. Give me another couple of months.

I’ve developed a bad bakery habit, hopefully offset by my running. There’s a bakery right near my apartment run by a charming elderly Japanese couple, and another on campus. The Japanese have managed to adopted Western baked goods and found a way to make them utterly Japanese. At the bakery, you pick up a tray and a set of tongs, and use the tongs to select baked goods before paying. I recognize very few pastries, so usually I just pick whatever looks good. You have to have a certain willingness to eat mystery food item when you live in Japan.

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My desk at the university, complete with the mystery pastry of the day (it was like croissant dough with a vanilla cream fill and cinnamon apple on top!) and iced coffee. Because it’s too hot for hot coffee.

My office is tranquil, and I only share it with one other postdoc despite there being 10 desks. In some ways, these exchange months are starting to feel like a sort of meditation retreat for my PhD. I’ve escaped the hustle and obligations of my ‘real’  life and am able to focus completely on one thing at a time. It’s pretty nice.

I also spend a lot of time in a (windowless) lab. I sometimes wonder at the choices that brought me, an outdoorswoman at heart, to a lab like this. But then I realize that I am using a machine that uses a focused ion beam to do the equivalent of carving my name on a single strand of hair. Science is cool, people!

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At the focused ion beam.

Although I don’t work nearly as much as my Japanese colleagues, it’s still usually dark by the time I go home. This week was the harvest moon festival, and the moon has definitely been showing off for the occasion. I’ve missed the bus a couple of times because I start gawking at the beautiful view our out-of-the-way campus affords at Kyoto city.

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Kyoto city as seen from Katsura Campus, illuminated by the harvest moon.

Here’s to finding a sense of every day in strange and new places!

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Monday, September 12, 2016

Mt Fuji: Above the clouds

I saw a man do a double take as he walked passed me in the train car. The passengers around me were dressed in tasteful, modest clothes in a palette of white, black and pastels. I, on the other hand, stood out in my short running shorts, a hand-me-down vintage Frank Shorter exercise top with a mesh back, and pink running shoes. Could this train really take me to the base of Mt Fuji, the tallest mountain in Japan and my objective for the weekend? 

My doubts were quelled when I found a line of other intrepid explorers waiting for the shuttle bus to the Subashiri trailhead outside the train station. Backpacks, technical fabrics, and Vibram soles abounded; we were all clearly headed for Mt Fuji. The idea had been born early in the week, as I sat in my office, hatching weekend plans over my post-lunch coffee. After reading the detailed information pages available on the web about the hike, I learned that this weekend was the last in the ‘official’ climbing season. Since I didn’t bring any winter gear to Japan, I decided it was now or never, and booked an overnight spot in one of the huts high on the mountain.

A common way of summiting Mt Fuji is over two days: first climbing to a hut high on the mountain, then spending a night (well, more like half a night) at the hut before climbing the last stretch to see the sunrise from the top. The weather on Sunday morning was critical to this end, and I watched it like a hawk all week, wondering if I had pulled the trigger too early. By Friday morning, the forecast took a turn for the better, and I booked my Shinkansen (bullet) train tickets to go to Mt Fuji the next day.

The bus wheezed up the winding road, ascending to 2000 meters, or more than halfway up the mountain. As we pulled up to the Subashiri trailhead, a recorded English voice over the loudspeaker informed us of the dangers of climbing Mt Fuji, and urged precaution. “The temperature at the top of the mountain can be 20 degrees Celsius colder than in the urban area,” the female voice emphasized. Well duh, it is at 3700 meters! I found myself thinking, before realizing that this might not be so obvious to the city-dwelling Japanese or eager tourists.


Thumb P1090880 1024Welcome to the Subashiri Trailhead!

The trailhead certainly catered to tourists. There was a small restaurant selling noodles and ice cream, a souvenir shop selling walking sticks to be branded at the different huts on the way up the mountain and other sundries, and pay-per-use toilets. Before starting my hike, I made the obligatory charitable donation (an oxymoron if there ever was one!) of 1000 yen, or around 10 USD, to the conservation foundation for Mt Fuji. There was no doubt about it: there are plenty of opportunities to empty one’s wallet on Fuji.

Thumb P1090889 1024 Flowers on the trail up Mt Fuji

It was just before noon as I began to hike up the mountain, and I focused on slowing my steps. I had all day to ascend the 1400 meters to the hut, hardly a daunting prospect given my current fitness level. The Subashiri trail is the second most used of the four trails ascending Mt Fuji, but right then I didn’t see any sign of the 100 000 people who purportedly summit each year. The first section ascended on a bed of volcanic pumice through a dense forest of stunted trees. Flowers dotted the path, signifying that summer wasn’t over, not yet. For a while, the trees closed in over the trail, forming a natural arched tunnel. I felt like a creature of the earth, burrowing my way up the mountain. I spotted a side trail, and popped out of the tunnel to a view of the bare mountain above me, the summit obscured by clouds. I’m going up there! I thought. 

Thumb P1090887 1024A tunnel of trees

Although there had been fog at Subashiri trailhead, I soon ascended into the sun and arrived at the 6th station. The trailhead is located at what is known as the 5th station, and the summit is at the 10th station. I assume there historically were 4 stations lower down the mountain that have fallen into disuse due to road that now goes up to the 5th. A ‘station’ is a group of simple huts selling snacks, hot food, water, and, you guessed it, pay-per-use toilets. Afraid they would extract money from me if I sat at one of the picnic tables outside of the 6th station, I found a nice place to sit further up the trail and took a snack break.

I began to contemplate my progress. Even trying to go slow, I was making good time and would arrive at the hut in the early afternoon. The weather was looking increasingly good, and checking my weather app, I saw a high likelihood of clouds and precipitation the next morning. I should just go for it, I thought, I can probably make it to the top this afternoon if I want. So I turned up the pace, and shot up the mountain.

Sometimes I feel like I am too competitive. Climbing a mountain, after all, is not a competition, especially not a mountain that gets climbed as often as Mt Fuji. But the satisfaction I get from passing people, as far as I know, doesn’t harm anyone, and so I relished in it as I motored uphill. I was out of the trees now, and had climbed high enough to be above the clouds. Despite the increasing altitude, I felt great.

I stopped to talk to a lightly dressed French/Tunisian couple. They had taken the bus from Tokyo that morning, and had no idea how far they were up the mountain, or even how tall the mountain was. I eyed their light clothes and single backpack, and said, cautiously, “You do know it gets dark at around 6pm, right?” They assured me that they would turn around at the next station, and I took off up the trail, eager to reach the summit. 

Thumb P1090898 1024Above the clouds on my ascent of Mt Fuji.

Above the 7th station, huts appeared so often you could always see the next one above you. At each hut, the price of bottled water increased, and I was glad I had taken it upon myself to haul 3 liters up the mountain. There is no water on volcanic Mt Fuji, other than what is transported up to the huts. The huts also sold canned oxygen, for those who felt the air at 3000 meters was too thin. 

The people I passed roughly fell into two categories. There were those dressed to the nines in state-of-the-art hiking gear: gaiters, hiking poles, special hats, mountaineering boots. And then there were those who looked like they had just walked off the streets of Tokyo onto the mountain, wearing jeans and tennis shoes and carrying computer backpacks. It was fascinating to watch this diverse multitude of people united by a common goal of the summit. 

Near the top, I passed an American who muttered to his companions, “We’re getting passed by girls!”, sotto voce. As though I was an entire flock of schoolgirls, giggling as I sprinted passed him. As usual, I came up with a good retort a few minutes after the fact. It’s called getting chicked, I should have said, own it! Inside, I just hiked on silently.

Thumb P1090906 1024Lions guard the entrance to Kusushi shrine, just below the summit crater of Mt Fuji.

Predictably (we are in Japan after all), there was a shrine at the edge of the volcanic crater of Mt Fuji, complete with an arch and statues of lions. The highest point on the mountain, Kengamine, is on the other side of the crater from the Kusushi shrine where the Subashiri trail ascends. It didn’t look that far away though, and I decided I had time to hike the trail that encircles the crater.

Thumb P1090916 1024 Hikers overlook the sea of clouds on the Mt Fuji crater rim trail.

The crater was an absolute moonscape. There were icicles on the shaded sides of some of the massive rocks on the crater’s edge, and rocks of red, yellow, brown and white formed a muted rainbow. Although the weather was beautiful, sudden gusts of strong wind swept the crater and I stopped to put on more clothes. Mt Fuji was a cruise boat on a sea of clouds that stretched as far as the eye could see.


Thumb P1090910 1024A rainbow of rock on the Mt Fuji crater. 

The final climb to the Kengamine was a steep ramp of loose volcanic soil, and I found myself missing my dweeby hiking poles as I slid one step back for every step forward. There was a meteorological station on the summit and I marveled once again at how developed this mountain was. At least there’s no shopping mall on top, I reminded myself, thinking of Mt Washington in New Hampshire. Well, at least not yet. 

Thumb DSC 0164 1024The Mt Fuji crater as seen from Kengamine summit.

I completed my circuit of the summit crater and jogged down the side of the mountain to my hut at the 8th station. Mt Fuji has separate uphill and downhill trails to accommodate the crowds. While the uphill trail is rugged and climbs up fairly solid rock, the downhill trail is wide enough to drive a jeep up and descends steeply on loose volcanic sand.

 I rolled into the hut at about 4:30 pm, and was given a rundown of the hut rules in surprisingly fluent English. As I checked in, I saw a dark-haired, but clearly Western, girl eyeing me, and I recognized the look on her face completely. Someone I can talk to! I thought. She approached me afterwards, and that’s how I meet Kathryn, an Australian teacher who recently moved to Tokyo to teach at an international school. 

We spent the evening chit-chatting about the strange and wonderful lives we lead in Japan, and wondering how we would possibly sleep in the packed bunkrooms. The bunkrooms where the most cramped I’ve ever been in. They literally put you so close together you can’t move without your neighbor (a complete stranger) knowing.


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I turned in early, even though I wasn’t intending to hike to the summit for sunrise. I understood there would be crowds of people and I thought the likelihood of a spectacular sunrise low given the weather forecast. I still planned to get up for the sunrise, as it can be seen from the hut, which is at a respectable 3400 meters.

Thumb DSC 0177 1024 The shadow of Mt Fuji on the sea of clouds at sunset.

Unsurprisingly, I had a terrible night’s sleep. Although the bunkroom was well-ventilated, the sleeping bags we were given were far too warm for the heater that is this Wild Bazilchuk. I ended up sleeping on top of the bag for a while, marveling at the woman next to me who was dressed in down jacket and wool hat, her sleeping bag zipped up to her throat and covered with a fluffy blanket to boot.

Then, at 2 am, the hut staff came in, turned on the lights, and woke everyone up for sunrise. I tried in vain to sleep through the chaos of people getting up and packing, but in the end I decided to get up, avail myself of the pay-per-use toilet and check out the craziness outside. Outside the hut was a line of people shuffling towards the summit of Mt Fuji. The weather was better than I feared, but I couldn’t get excited about standing in line to get to the summit. I went back to bed, happy to have more personal space now that my neighbors were shuffling off to the summit.

Thumb DSC 0179 1024 The line of people on the way to the summit at 2 am. 

The wake-up call came again at 5 am, and this time I got up for good. The sunrise was a little disappointing, mostly obscured by clouds. I still enjoyed eating my breakfast outside the hut, taking in the view from one of the highest places in Japan. Glancing up, I realized that the summit was once again completely obscured by clouds.

Thumb DSC 0181 1024Clouds lap at the foot of the mountain, as seen from the 8th station hut where I spent the night. Man-made steps of contained rock run parallel to the trail; I suspect they are to prevent erosion of the soft, volcanic soil.

I reviewed my options. The hut staff clearly wanted us out; they were closing the hut that day and looked like they were eager to get started. The first bus was at 8:50 am, eons away. I decided to go for the summit one more time, just to see how fast I could do it! I motored up to the top in 36 minutes, feeling strong and powerful. It was cold, windy and foggy at Kusushi shrine, so I didn’t even consider the trek around the crater again.

Thumb DSC 0183 1024 A less-than-spectacular view from the summit on Sunday morning.

As I descended the mountain, I came into the sunlight below the summit clouds, but above the valley clouds. I slid down the volcanic sand, trying to ignore how much of it was collecting in my shoes (should’ve brought my Dirty Girls!). Gradually, the trail brought me down the mountain and back to reality. It had been a spectacular adventure above the clouds.

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 - The Wild Bazilchuk


Monday, September 5, 2016

From shrine to temple

Figuring out where to go running in new places is kind of an art. You want to strike a balance between exploring a new, beautiful areas and getting hopelessly lost. My first score was an exceeding jetlaged run around Nijo Castle near my apartment right at sunset during my first evening in Kyoto. The shoguns of the Edo era seemed to look at me from across the moat as I tried to pound of the jetlag with the rhythm of my feet. 

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Nijo Castle at sunset.

Before I embarked on my long run on Saturday, I spent hours trawling the Strava global heat map. I was looking for trails, having spent my weekday mornings trotting around on the streets in downtown Kyoto. I soon had planned a route that I thought was reasonable, both distance and navigation-wise, and with a high probably for finding trails. I would link up Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine and Kiyomizudera temple.

To get to Fushimi Inari, I pounded the pavement along the Kamogawa river for a five kilometers. I had gotten up early to avoid the oppressive heat, and was rewarding with having this famous monument almost all to myself.

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Entering Fushimi Inari early on a Saturday morning. I think there were a lot more people here about three hours later...

It felt irreverent to run through the torii in the shrine, so I walked, enjoying the contemplative effect of the pathway of red arches. There were several small temples in the area, and I saw several people praying. It always feels so strange to watch these people, who clearly have a spiritual connection to something that I can’t fathom beyond enjoying the simple beauty of it. My spiritual connection is to movement through the mountains; I guess there are many people who can’t understand that. 

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Walkway of torri in Fushimi Inari.

After passing through the shrine, I picked up a trail (!) headed up to Inariyama, the small mountain behind Fushima Inari. I ran through tall bamboo forests, listening to the loud, almost musical buzz of what must have been thousands of insects in the forest around me. I passed a graveyard or two, tightly packed with mossy headstones and housing statues of animals like cats (guardians to fend of evil spirits?). The trail climbed steeply to the peak of the mountain, where it met up with a paved walkway traversing yet more torii. 

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Bamboo forest on the way up Inariyama

From the Inariyama, the route-finding grew more difficult. I would occasionally find signs for something called ‘Kyoto trail’, which was definitely going in the direction I wanted to, but more often than not a fork in the trail would be signed only in Japanese. Luckily I had installed offline topo maps on my phone and could check which direction I wanted to go. I was all alone now, weaving through the forest, and feeling blissful.

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I found trails, running distance from downtown Kyoto!

Eventually, my trails dump me out on a road, and I started to have to check my map more often. As I was waiting for a GPS fix, a Japanese man wearing a small backpack and lugged trail running shoes trotted passed. I’ll follow him! I decided, triumphantly. And so I did. He was keeping a steady pace, not too fast, and definitely going the right direction. I wonder if the guy thought is was weird I was following him, but I assumed the presence of a Caucasian twenty-somthing female behind you isn’t the most threatening.

This is such a cool adventure! I thought, as I rounded the top of another rolling climb and headed downhill, on trails once again. Maybe this trail goes all the way to…WHAM! I tripped on some rocks, obscured by leaves, and fell over, skinning both knees, one elbow and some fingers in the process. My silent guide, who was wearing headphones, didn’t see me fall and I lost him.

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I once thought only kids skinned their knees. In that case I will probably never grow up.

I dusted myself off, and decided my injuries were minor enough to continue. The trail dumped me onto the roads again, and soon enough I was lost again. I had just turned around after heading up a road that I decided was the wrong way when I saw my trail runner guide coming towards me. I smiled and waved, and he stopped to chat, assuming that I could speak Japanese. Which I can’t. Not past hello, thank you and please anyway. And he didn’t speak very much English. Still, I managed to communicate that I wanted to go to Kiyomizudera, and he motioned that he would show me the way. So there we were, two trail runners with no common language but one common goal, jogging along on a Saturday morning. Once reaching the home stretch, he waved goodbye and jogged off before I had a chance to do anything other than say thank you.

The kindness of the Japanese has thus far been unfailing. Last week, I purchased an expensive, three month train pass to get to the university. Of course, I managed to misplace it during my second train ride. I looked around the station frantically for 10 minutes, before almost bursting to tears when I realized that it might be gone for good. I decided to ask the ticket office if there was anything they could do about it. Imagine my joy when my train pass was at the ticket office, picked up by some kindly passenger and delivered to them!

Back on my run, I arrived at Kiyomizudera to weave my way through throngs of tourists and find the pavement home, where a leisurely breakfast awaited. I was sweaty, dusty, bloody, tired and utterly content with my little adventure.

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Three-story pagoda at Kiyomizudera.

Strava data here.

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Friday, September 2, 2016

Welcome to Kyoto!

And now, for something completely different - I’m in Japan! As a part of my PhD studies, I’m spending the next three months working in a research group at Kyoto University. In some ways this is rather ironic, since I swore I was done moving around and would stay in Oslo for more than a year this time around (in the past four years I’ve lived in Grenoble, France, then to Oslo, Norway, then to Trondheim, Norway, and then in Oslo again). But when life offers you an opportunity to move to Japan for three months, you have to take it! So once again this blog is back to its origins as an exchange student blog.

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Thank God for Latin characters on the signs!

The first week (well, half week, since I arrived on Wednesday) has been exciting and challenging. Professors and students at the University aside, very few people speak English. I will try to learn some Japanese while I am here, but it is a challenging language, especially due to the mixing of two different phonetic alphabets (hiragana and katakana) and Chinese characters (Kanji) in the written language. For now I am getting by mostly on sign language and big smiles.

Upon arrival, I had to navigate the complex train system on four hours of airplane sleep. It was mid-morning in Kyoto, which meant the middle of the night in Europe. I had printed out a train itinerary to get from the airport to my apartment, and dutifully switched trains three (!) times. Each train required a new ticket, which needed to be purchased on a series of esoteric vending machines. Rather than buying a ticket to where you are going, you have to determine the fare required to get to that station, and buy a ticket representing this fare. Sometimes there is an ‘English’ button on the ticket machines, but it is often well hidden.

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This is what jet lag looks like. Harder than running 55K in the French Alpes, I tell you!

I survived the train trip, got to my apartment and commuted to the University to meet with my professors and research group.

On my first evening in Kyoto, I decided I would try to cook dinner in the small kitchen in my apartment. A visit to the nearby grocery store proved more difficult than expected, as there were so many things that I simply didn’t know what were. 

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These are all different kinds of soy sauces. I think.

I was also surprised at the shear proportion of packaged food and instant dinners at the grocery store. This is in addition to convenience stores located on every corner, selling cheap snack food. As someone who typically makes food from scratch, and eats mostly vegetarian at home, this is definitely a different style of eating. I think it will take some adjusting to start cooking ‘properly’ here - I have to figure out where to get good ingredients, and how to cook with some new ones!

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What would you pick?

So far I’ve been eating out a lot - no one brings their own lunch at the University, and I’m enjoying the food, even if I couldn’t tell exactly what everything I eat is.

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Noodles and tea for lunch at the University cafeteria

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Out for a welcome sushi dinner with my research group - the Shinkansen train brings you your custom sushi orders on its own little track!

And then there is my name. ‘Molly Bazilchuk’ doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue in any language I speak, but it’s down right hilarious watching the look on Japanese peoples’ faces as they try and pronounce it. I’ve had to fill out some forms to register at the university, buy a train pass, etc, and I’m fascinated watching them transliterate the roman characters into Japanese Katakana. Here’s what it looks like:

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The Japanese letters above my name are the katakana spelling Bazilchuk, Molly. Go figure.

Stay tuned for an update of the running situation in Kyoto, and more details of my crazy Japanese lifestyle!

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Race report: Orsières - Champex - Chamonix

The starting area in the main square of the small Swiss town of Orsières was crowded even though it was nearly 40 minutes till the race was due to start. Having already queued for the restroom for 30 minutes, eaten all my pre-race snacks, applied sunscreen, shed all my extra layers and deposited my drop bag, I simple stood around, watching people and feeling stupid for not having anyone to talk to. 

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Nervous selfie near the start in Orsières

As time passed, the square became more and more packed. People pushed passed me, moving forward towards the starting arch. I guessed I was somewhere roughly in the middle, which I thought was probably just fine. Don’t go out too fast! I reminded myself. As the crowd grew, the noise around me escalated, with people jabbering to each other in numerous languages. They were competing to be heard over the boom of disembodied voices through the loudspeakers. The speakers reminded us of how the UTMB races united France, Italy and Switzerland, and how this was our moment!

It didn’t feel like my moment. For the first time I understood how farm chickens, stuffed into barns so tightly they can barely move, feel. I was ready to fly this coop!

Finally - finally - the start signal went off, and the crowd shuffled forward as one. I was a small cog in a big machine, with no choice but to move at the pace dictated by the masses. After passing under the start arch, the shuffle became a jog, and soon we were trotting through the streets of Orsières. All the school children in Orsières stood line up along the streets, waiting to be high-fived by passing runners.

I passed out of Orisères and started on the first climb on a steeply graded dirt road. Many people got their trekking poles out, but given how crowded it still was I considered this a dangerous proposition. I felt stressed, like I wanted to pass lots of people and charge up the climb. Looking at my heart rate though, I knew that this seemingly slow pace would probably prove quite wise. I would wait until the race stretch out a bit to worry about passing people!

At the top of the climb the first rays of sun touch me, and I steeled myself for the heat to come. As the road descended, the field of runners stretched like a Slinky. I let my legs roll along at what I felt was a casual pace, but I was passing people left and right. I was starting to suspect I should have pushed for a place further forward at the start.

After the initial descent, the course hit a paved road and started climbing once again. I passed through a bucolic Swiss mountain village, the name of which I do not know, but which I call ‘the Village of More Cowbell’. Cowbells, large and small, rang out through the hazy morning, cheering us on. I couldn’t help but smile. It might be crowded, but this race had energy.

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The elders of the Village of More Cowbell.

Soon the road veered off onto single track, mercifully in the shade. However, technical, steep areas in the narrow trail caused traffic jams, and the conga line of people was moving so slowly it was sometimes literally standing still. I started to get irritated at the organizers who had decided to pack this many people onto the course, but reminded myself that it was still early and I would be able to pass people later.

I rolled through the aid station in Champex, stopping only to snag some Reese’s peanut butter cups out of my pack. I was glad I had filled my water bladder to its max and thus didn’t need to fill yet, saving time. There was a long runnable section after Champex, which I spent passing people, before the grade steepened and threw us into another climb. We climbed around a valley, first on the shady side and then in the exposed sun. I remembered this particular section of the trail vividly from when I mountain biked the TMB. The climb was much easier without the added weight of pushing a 12 kg mountain bike up the hill!

I focused on not working too hard in the hot sun, drinking water and enjoying the view. I had certainly earned it.

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Beautiful views on the way up to La Giete.

As we approached the top of the climb, the trail flattened out and the landscape opened up out of the trees. I hear the chunk-chunk-chunk of rotating helicopter blade, and saw the source of the noise swoop passed me. There was a camera man filming us from the helicopter. I threw my hands in the air and cheered, not sure how I felt about a helicopter up there but marvelling at the absurdity of the whole situation.

I stowed my poles as I reached the top of the climb and started to run the descent. There was a water station a few minutes down the hill, but feeling my pack I decided I could to fill water at the big aid station in Trient. I bounced down the descent, passing people left and right and generally having a great time. I was drinking more water than I had gambled on though, and ran out just above the hotel at Col de Forclaz. I didn’t see a spigot obviously available at Col de Forclaz, so I decided to suck it up and go without water down to Trient. 

The downhill from Forclaz to Trient probably took less than 15 minutes, but my mouth grew dry from the lack of water, and I wondered if I had made a horrible mistake in not filling up my water bladder up on the mountain. At Trient, I saw Audun for the first time. He had ridden a rental road bike from Chamonix to spectate.

“You look great!” he exclaimed, “How do you feel?"

“I feel fine, but I’m out of water,” I said seriously, “Where is the aid station?!” I had another flight of stairs to climb before I got water.

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Arriving at the aid station in Trient. Photo by Audun

I sat down for the first and last time at the aid station in Trient, slurping a bowl of too hot noodle soup. I needed the salt, I reasoned. I also took of my t-shirt and dunk the whole thing in the water trough, trying to stay wet and cool. I met Audun at the far side of the aid station, and we walk together a little ways down the street before I bid him farewell. I had another mountain to climb.

The climb from Trient went up to the high point of the day, Catogne, at a little over 2000 meters. I got my poles back out, and focused on drinking lots of water, snacking, and moving at a sustainable pace. It was a race going at a snail’s pace, and although I was still passing people I was doing so at a crawl. We were in the true heat of the day now, and lots of people stopped to take breaks in the meager shade provided by trees along the switchbacks

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Crested the high point of the day in Catogne.

At Catogne, I was handed a bottle of water and immediately dumped to whole thing over my head. I was feeling the heat, but not as bad as I feared. So far, I wasn’t dizzy and I felt strong uphill, but even more downhill. And it was time for another big downhill, this time to Vallorcine. I let my mind go and my legs go faster, and even passed some mountain bikers as the trail zig-zagged through the forest. As I popped out of the trees and saw the village of Vallorcine appear before me, I heard cheers. There were people lined up on the way into the village, spectating. I gathered the energy of their enthusiasm and used it to propel me towards the aid station.

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Keeping up the pace coming in to Vallorcine. Photo by Audun

In the aid station, I spent a few minutes cooling off in the water trough and snacking before heading out. Looking at my watch, I knew there could only be a few kilometers left until I hit Trel le Champ and the final 14K of the course which I had run with Audun two days previously. It was nice to know I would be on familiar terrain.

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Cooling off - the right way - in Vallorcine. Photo by Audun

The next kilometers were the worst. The course coming out of Vallorcine was a gradual climb towards Col de Montets, across grassy fields in the unrelenting sun. I forced myself to alternate between walking and running. The course dovetailed the road, and Audun kept cycling up the road to pop up at various moments.

“This part is aweful,” I told him, “I feel terrible."

“You’re walking way faster than everyone around you though!” he remarked. This was true. Many people were moving at zombie-march pace, while I was still power hiking.

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Downing a gel at Col des Montets. Photo by Audun.

Still, when I came over the top of Col de Montets, the landscape opened up into a spectacular view of the Mont Blanc massif. I threw my hands up into the air and smiled. This is what I am here for! I thought. I hit the final climb towards La Flegère hard, pulling my poles out of my pack and pushing up the trail. I didn’t want to leave anything behind on the course.

For the first time all day, I wasn’t in a line of people dictating the pace. I found it almost comically difficult to set the pace on my own. I would be moving fast, then start to feel dizzy and wonder if this was sustainable for another hour of climbing. I would slow down and laugh at the glacial pace of my legs.

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Out with the poles, headed for La Flegère. Photo by Audun

The trail climbed 200 vertical meters before diving down the most technical descent all day. I knew this was coming, though, and launched myself off rocks and roots with my poles. As the trail started to climb again, the final 400 vertical, I started to feel the heat get to me. Would I actually faint if I kept pushing? I wondered through my dizzy haze. I drank more water, and thought about the Central Governor, a theory in exercise physiology that says that pain is actually your brain limiting your body in order to protect it, rather than your body telling you it is near its limit. Was I near my limit? I didn’t dare go any closer, and so kept drink water and moving at a steady, slow pace. For the first time all day, a few people were passing me.

The final climb to La Flegère was on a murderously open ski slope. The only thing that kept me going was the thought of the beautiful descent to come. I knew I could crush it. I stowed my poles as I crested the top, and stopped briefly at the aid station to down some energy drink. I was surprised to see how many people were actually sitting down in the aid station tent. Come on! I thought, only 7K to go, and downhill to boot! No use stopping here!

I began descending, once again passing people, but my joy was brief as the oh-so-familiar pain of side stitch dug itself into my stomach. Why? I wailed to myself, This part is supposed to go fast! But I made myself breath, and slow down slightly, and soon enough the side stitch disappeared. This time I had beat the demon.

I positively flew down the hill, and found Audun at the begin of the final paved kilometers to Chamonix Centre. 

“My watch died back there,” I told him, “So this last part isn’t going to be on Strava. Guess I should just stop now!” I was of course joking, and accelerated passed another runner. In the corner of my eye, I saw the runner drop, crumpling to the pavement. What had happened? Audun stopped to look after him though, and I figured there was nothing I could do, so I ran on.

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Finding my stride in the final Ks to Chamonix. Photo by Audun.

Faster and faster I went, through a blur of streets with volunteers pointing the way. I felt really good - I was running with a stride similar to my 10K race pace - and when I saw the finish line I sprinted with every ounce of muscle fiber I had left. I passed one more person on the final sprint to the finish, before jumping over the finish line.

9 hours. 15 minutes. 24 seconds. It was over.

I was 28th out of 317 women, and 215 out of 1231 finishers over all. Nearly 200 people dropped out along the way. I moved up 700 places from the first to the final checkpoint. Great success? I think so. But I have to learn to start further forward!

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Recovery - the right way - at our campground outside of Chamonix. Note the strategically placed bag of potato chips. Photo by Audun.

- The Wild Bazilchuk