|Race: Mt. Fuji Climbing Race (Fujisan Tozando Kyoso), Fujiyoshida, Japan, July 25, 2001|
|Length: 21 km, 3006 m (9770 ft.) altitude gain to top at 12,383|
|Course: Well, the level parts where we ran across the patios of the mountain huts were really, really welcome. The steep 8 km hike down from the summit to the bus kind of sucked.|
|Check-in: Not to be missed is having 15 smiling teenage girls simultaneously shout "ohio gozaimas" (good morning) as you approach the registration tables. I could have run for free, except I was too far into trying to force my 5,000 yen (about US $40) upon the 15 puzzled teenage girls before I figured this out (the Japanese runners had to prepay).|
|Water stops: Every 5 km until the last road, then you're on your own. Some runners bought something at one of the huts.|
|Organization: Geared for elite runners, with a cutoff time that only allows 1/3 of the runners to finish officially. No age group awards. Champion chip for results and splits. Nicer buses for the ride down than Pikes Peak Ascent's vans.|
|Shirt: Your choice of many designs, but you pay for it separately. They gave us a nice "Lucky Bell", plus a key-chain and certificate for finishers.|
|Expo: Parking lot in the rain.|
|Post race feed: Outstanding! They gave us a bento (box) lunch after we hiked down to the bus. Then udon (noodles in miso soup, sort of like ramen only much more robust) back at headquarters. Plus fruit and this really awful vitamin B drink.|
My summary in a word: "relentless". This mountain never lets up. A friend who did it 20 years ago described it as "21 km of the 16 Golden Stairs" (an infamously steep section near the top of Pikes Peak). It wasn't really that bad. I think only the last half was that steep.
(Note: I make references to the Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon, the most comparable race in my experience. As I live in Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA, Pikes Peak is the local "big race". The best Pikes Peak racing page is here. I also want to thank the members of the Incline Club and Matt Carpenter for their inspiration, enthusiasm, and friendly competition on all those long workouts.)
At the start I was about in mid pack, but everyone ran like it was a 5K. I could barely keep up! We ran about 1/3 mile level to the center of town, then commenced the uphill.
It never let up from there, steadily increasing the gradient until it maxed at about 25% for the last quarter of the distance (the average for the whole race is 14.3%). I know I went too fast in this stretch, but I just couldn't believe I should be letting mid-packers go. I settled on a heart rate of 168 as an aggressive compromise for the first 7 km, yet people were steadily passing me.
I didn't reach equilibrium with the pack until the gradient steepened to the point where most began walking.
At the second water stop, Umagaeshi Shrine, the official splits show I was in 876th place out of 2,100 starters. This was about an hour into the race and half the distance, but only 22% of the elevation gain. At least I think it was Umagaeshi. Since I can't read the Japanese Kanji characters, I was pretty much in the dark as to location the whole way.
By this point everyone was walking most of the time, so I turned to my power walking mode and began steadily passing people. The trail soon narrowed to single track, much of the time running straight up the mountain in a V-shaped ravine 15 feet deep, cut by hundreds of years of erosion on this ancient trail.
We were in deep forest up to the 5th station, which provided welcome shade on a clear morning. Passing became a constant challenge with a lot of sweaty body contact, accompanied by "sumimasen" (excuse me) and "domo" (thanks). I constantly reminded myself to take the inside tangents on curves, frequently passing 3 or 4 people by sticking to the inside of each curve. By the 5th station, I had gained 200 places to about 675.
After almost 2 hours I began to run out of gas. At the 5th station, there was a welcome spread of food including empan (rolls filled with sweet bean paste), bananas, grapes and lemons (there were lemon slices at every water stop). I took a couple of minutes to wolf down a lot of food and water, miraculously feeling much better after that. This was to be the last real water stop until the top, despite having over half the elevation still to gain.
After the 5th station we joined the mainstream hiker's trail to the top, since there is bus access up to that point via a different route than ours. We also broke out of the trees into a tilted volcanic moonscape of variously colored gravel. The trail became wide enough for 3 or 4 people side by side, with enormous highway-grade embankments to hold back the slopes. There was a solid line of people switchbacking up the mountain as far as I could see both up and down. Clouds were streaming across the slopes above (and below) us, but it never rained. We spent the rest of the day surrounded by clouds, never able to see up or down more than a couple thousand feet, but frequently in sunshine. I wondered if my sunscreen would be effective after so many hours of soaking wet skin, but the only sunburn I got was 3 little dots through holes in my watchband where I didn't put any on.
With the humidity, my clothing was completely soaked after the first half hour. I've never felt a Coolmax shirt dripping wet from sweat in Colorado! My favorite mark of distinction now is the rust spots on my shirt from the safety pins. These photos are from a single-use camera that I carried in a mesh pocket in my shorts. The viewfinder was always too fogged to see through, although by keeping the lens facing out it stayed mostly clear.
At one of the 7th station huts, a young woman was yelling my name. I guess she picked me out as a "gaijin" (foreigner) and found my number in the race booklet. At least it got me running across the stone patio of that particular hut. Interestingly, I was listed as "L. Randy" which is in keeping with Incline Club tradition. Most gaijin got the same reverse treatment for their names, since Japanese typically write the family name first.
By the 8th station, I was in about 600th place, having gained another 75 places. I was starting to be concerned about the cutoff time, a new experience for me. I had 45 minutes to climb the last 1,200 feet, and it was looking like a long way up there -- I still couldn't make out the top. It had been rock scrambling since the 7th station, and I was having to use my hands to prevent balance errors. But around the 9th station, the rock turned back into gravel and the gradient began to ease slightly (to 18%). Finally I could see the top and my confidence increased.
I reached the summit in 4:16:05, 14 minutes ahead of the cutoff. I was in 538th place, and another 200 made the cutoff behind me. Looking down from the summit, I could still see a solid line of racers who had no chance to finish officially. It seemed sad to me that the race couldn't be more accommodating to regular people. We didn't have the Pikes Peak Ascent's cheering crowds and announcer at the top, but we did arrive into a highly commercial, bustling city street atmosphere. Vendors were hawking their wares as we walked past a line of huts offering food, drink and accommodation. The race supplied water here, and I bought a half liter bottle of aptly-named Pocari Sweat for 500 yen (about $4) to drink on the way down. My 1000 yen bill was still soaking wet when I handed it to the unfortunate salesman. Glad I didn't try to feed it into one of the vending machines.
After a detour to see the crater, I headed down the descending trail (separate from the ascending trail). I can see why they don't include the descent in the race, although it makes for kind of a bummer to have to hike down after you finish. There'd be a lot of dead hikers knocked off the trail by runners if we were racing down. This trail is MUCH busier than Barr Trail. I jogged most of the way through loose soil and gravel, reaching the 5th station in an hour. There I collected my spare clothing bag (marked with permanent ink after last year's rain-soaked debacle) and a bento (box) lunch of rice balls wrapped in seaweed. I was soon on a chartered bus filled with chatting, laughing runners, arriving at race headquarters by 2:15 in a driving rainstorm. Last year's winner was just presenting his 3 trophies (each one 6 feet tall) back to the officials in exchange for smaller, but still impressive, permanent trophies. After a meal of udon noodles in miso soup provided by the race organizers, I walked the 2 km to a train station and my ride back home.
In retrospect, I didn't give this race enough respect beforehand. I thought it would be a slightly longer version of the Pikes Peak Ascent, ending at only 12,380. But I wasn't prepared for the steepness, and the lack of breaks. I'll really value that gentle stretch before Barr Camp on Pikes Peak in the future! Although the average gradient is only 14% compared to Barr Trail's 11%, it doesn't account for the long, gentle stretch at the start. Thus for the last half, the gradient averages 23%.
Given that I only have 7 more years before I hit the age cutoff of 55 for this race, I think I'll obey the traditional Fuji credo, "A wise man climbs Fuji once, but only a fool climbs it twice."