“Saisho no josei!” the Japanese woman in the orange volunteer vest exclaimed, “Fighto!” First woman. Fight! With 19K left to go, I was leading woman’s race at the Hanase Trail Run. I barrelled down the trail, willing myself not to look over my shoulder too often. I didn’t feel like a leader, I felt like a rabbit being chased by wolves. Could I really pull this off?
The Hanase Trail Run is a small, 25K trail race in the mountains about 1 hour north of Kyoto, organized by Kyoto Triathlon Club. I found out about it through a webpage called Sports Entry, heavily aided by Google Translate, occasionally to hilarious and strange results (for example, Google Translate directly translates the town name ‘Hanase' to ’Forest Speak Exchange’). I signed up in September, thinking it was good motivation to keep running in the wake of the OCC.
And then I ran. A lot. Not currently in possession of a bicycle, my preferred mode of alternate training, I have run more in the last two months than I have ever done in my life. I capped if off with the Koyasan week, which worked out to be 88K of running - my biggest single week since my injury last year. This was maybe a little excessively, and I knew I had to rest during the week leading up to Hanase Trail Run. I felt sluggish all week, and took four (!) rest days. The race was on Sunday, and I lived out the PhD dream by putting in a 12 hour day in the lab on Saturday. As I set my alarm for 5:30 am to catch the bus to the start, I started to wonder if this was a very, very bad idea.
It would be an experience no matter how it turned out, I reminded myself. I was just there to experience a Japanese trail race, and to run some nice, new trails. I didn’t have to compete if I didn’t want to, I just had to complete.
The bus ride to the village of Hanase was terrifying, driving up narrow, winding roads. The bus was heavily packed. There was an extra column of seats that folded open into the center of the aisle, effectively blocking escape from anywhere except the windows. A couple of times the bus stopped in the middle of a hairpin, revving the motor. I seriously hoped we didn’t start rolling backward.
Under the start and finish arch, pre-race. Photo courtesy of Kyoto Triathlon Club.
The bus made it to Hanase safe and sound, nearly two hours before the race was due to start. I picked up my race bib, then milled around awkwardly. I met a Frenchman called Pascal, who had been in Japan for 26 years and runs a restaurant in Kyoto. He asked me how long I thought I would take to finish the 25K, and I told him, quiet honestly, that I had no idea. Twenty-five kilometers on trails isn’t just about the distance. I knew this race had a lot of elevation gain (1400 vertical meters), but I didn’t know how technical the trails would be. And I’ve stumbled across some extremely technical trails in Japan.
There was a large building with a tatami-lined room for the women to change and hang around in, and I sat there for a while, reading my book and eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Then I dropped off my backpack of extra stuff and started to warm up. Oddly, no one else seemed to be warming up. While jogging, I felt a cool wetness on my back and took off my race vest to realize that the water bladder was in face leaking very slightly. I taped it up with some sports tape I had in my backpack and crossed my fingers that the leak didn’t get much worse.
I guess it’s time to replace my water bladder...
Soon enough it was time to line up for the start. My big regret from the OCC was starting too far back in the field, and I vowed not to make the same mistake here. I lined up behind a handful of girls, reasoning that with 45 women participating I would likely be somewhere in the top 10.
Racers getting ready to start.
Then there was a lot of talking, including a speech from an important-looking man wearing a suit. I hoped I wasn’t missing any important race information, so when I saw another foreigner I decided to go ask him. His name was David, and he was an Irishman who had been in the Kyoto region for over 20 years. He, too, spoke fluent Japanese.
“San…Ni…Ichi…Go!” the announcer proclaimed, and we set off. The first few hundred meters were downhill on pavement, and I let my legs go fast, feeding off of the speed of the lead pack. Once the chaos of the start died down, I saw that there were only two women in front of me. So maybe I started I little fast, I thought, But I usually start too slow. Let’s roll with it and see where I end up!
We veered off onto a dirt road, and I chatted with David, discussing trails around Kyoto. Apparently I’m missing out of the big event of the Kyoto trail running season, Higashiyama Marathon, in December. Three months here is so short in some ways! After a couple of kilometers on a gradual incline, the warm-up was over and we hit steep, switchbacked singletrack. I had passed one woman by now, and was in second place. I could see the first place woman one switchback above me, maybe one minute ahead. Well this is unexpected.
The switchbacks were hard work, and I wasn’t chitchatting anymore. I was towing David and a Japanese guy up the hill, setting what I hoped was a reasonable pace. I could hear the Japanese guy gasping behind me, and I wondered if he knew what he was doing. The switchbacks transitioned to flatter dirt road again, and I got to chatting with my Japanese follower. His name was Ken, and this was his first trail race, although he had run several marathons and half-marathons. I could tell. He would try to run whenever possible, whereas I prefer to walk early but with purpose.
Next the course followed an undulating ridge line through the forest. The trail was covered with crunchy fallen leaves, making it a bit hard to spot in some places. I had lost sight of the first place woman, and I wondered if I had lost her for good. Run your own race, I reminded myself. Suddenly the first place woman appeared, downslope next to the trail, with a handful of other guys. They had gone off trail, off the ridge! I ran passed them, kind of feeling like a cheat for passing at that point, but there really wasn’t space to stop.
A little while later, we passed the first orange-vested volunteer who enthused, “Saisho no josei!”
“You’re leading the race!” exclaimed David behind me, “Don’t give up!"
Give up? I think it’s hard to overstate how incredibly competitive I actually I. From that instant, I knew that I would win this race or blow up trying.
It was terrifying yet exhilarating to lead the race. Every move had to be calculated. I had to bomb the downhills, but try not to fall as this would certainly cause me to lose time. I had to go hard on the uphills, but stay below my lactate threshold, since there was still so much climbing yet to come. Psychologically, it was difficult to never know how far behind the second place woman was. I saw her briefly, after going through the aid station at 9K, a few switchbacks below me.
Leading the Hanase Trail Run at about 12K. Photo courtesy of Kyoto Triathlon Club.
Despite the intensity of being in the lead for the first time in my life, I was enjoying myself. It was a beautiful, if a little windy, fall day. I regretted packing so much water, as I clearly wasn’t going to drink it all with the temperatures the way they were. I wondered if I should dump some out to lighten my load, but this seemed a little silly. There were volunteers everywhere, pointing the way, cheering and shaking what looked like little tambourines.
I crested over the high point of the course, spreading my arms out and exclaiming, “Sugoi!” (amazing!) to the volunteer waiting on top. Shades of blue mountains spread out into the distance. I wanted to take a picture, but I was still unsure how much of a lead I had. From the top point was a long, long descent, much of which was on fire road. After trading places with a handful of guys for most of the race, I found myself inexplicably alone on the descent. I struggled to push the pace. I knew a fast downhill like this was where I was most likely to lose time to other runners, as my advantage is usually on the more technical trails. Still, with no one to help me push the pace, I found myself flagging.
View from the top of the course. Photo by Bertrand Pigeard.
I also knew there was a monster hill ahead. “There’s a really steep hill after 20K,” David had told me, early in the race, “Save something for it!” I snacked on my Snickers bar and pear-flavored gummy candies, hoping I could avoid a bonk. I stopped briefly at the aid station at 19K, eating a couple more orange slices, before heading up the climb. Only 6 K to go, I told myself, You could actually pull this off!
The final climb was horrendous. My calves screamed, and I put my hands on my knees, pushing my thighs in an effort to climb faster. My head was aching; maybe I hadn’t been drinking enough water after all. I told myself that this would be a long climb, that I couldn’t expect it to end soon. It didn’t, and even when I was over the top I could barely believe it.
The descent to the finish was long and technical, and by this time I was ready for it all to be over. I hit the dirt road, and thereby the final K, looking over my shoulder but seeing only men descending the switchbacks above me. I had a couple of minutes lead at least then. Still, I mustered what little I had and ran hard for the finish. Three hours, nine minutes, twenty-one seconds, and I had won. The second place woman came in 4 minutes behind me, and the third place woman just one minute after that. David came if a few minutes after that, and we chatted a bit about the race. “That poor woman who was chasing you!” he said, “She was working really hard up the final climb!"
I had some time to kill before the awards ceremony, and since this is Japan there was a bath house near the finish line. I had the most glorious Japanese bath, listening to the other women chat as I soaked luxuriously in a hot pool of water. It was kind of strange to be distanced from my competition by the language. I wished I could join in on the conversation, and I hoped they didn’t resent me for being a silent foreigner.
The volunteers were all very enthusiast. “Congratulations, Molly-san!” they exclaimed as I walk back to the finish for the award ceremony.
Receiving my trophy on top of the podium at Hanase Trail Run.
At the award ceremony, I was absolutely loaded down with prizes. It was actually a little embarrassing because I almost dropped everything as I stood on top of the podium.
The swag, clockwise from the left: A North Face running vest, a trophy, compression socks, some energy products (one of which is ominously call ‘Athlete barley’, some kinesio tape, and a bunch of root vegetables.
I bought a victory beer from a vending machine, and sat around watching the finish line and chatting with other racers. I proceeded to fall asleep on the bus ride back to Kyoto. It had been an absolutely magical day, and I was completely wrecked.
Raceday friends: a Japanese guy whose name I didn’t catch, French Betrand, Irish David and Japanese Ken.
- The Wild Bazilchuk