It was a long run, so I’m afraid this is going to be a long post…. Let’s start with the morning of the race. There I was on the start line at 4:45 AM. The sun was coming up and all I could think about was the 100km of road in front of me. It was the fifth edition of the Hida Takayama Ultramarathon, held annually in Takayama, Japan. As a non-Japanese visitor, I felt a bit like a stranger in a strange land. But it didn’t matter. We are all equal on the starting line when stripped down to the bare essentials.
Back when I registered for the race, the idea of running 100km was very daunting. I had never run further than a marathon. But I was interested to know how my body would hold up. After getting a PR in Tokyo Marathon (2:52) I knew that I was probably in the best shape of my life. This is a nice feeling, especially because I’m no longer at the peak age for this type of thing (a youthful 43). After running faster miles, it seemed to me that it might actually be easy, or relatively easy, to run a slow pace and just hold on. Doing the math, it seemed like a sub-10 hour 100km race would be doable (by the way Derek’s awesome write-up really helped me understand what I was signing up for)
So that was my reasoning… if you can call it that.
When the gun went off, I had no regrets and as the miles flew past I was so glad that I made the decision to participate in this event. What an experience! There was no stress. The organizers provide excellent English language materials and everything is exceptionally well organized (thanks to Brett Larner for the pre-race orientation!). The course itself was beautiful. You might think because it’s all on the road that you might not get the natural beauty of a trail race, but that’s not the case. I was totally buzzing for the first half of the race and just soaking in the experience and taking in all of the fresh air. Small winding mountain roads through forests and picturesque villages — it’s a side of Japan that I had not really seen before.
I knew as we made our way along those roads that I may have been going a bit too fast. I told myself countless times not to do that, but the miles kept ticking off and I felt like I was running effortlessly. I think the hills were not as steep than I imagined them to be, so I ended up moving a bit quicker than expected (the hills that I had been training on in Hong Kong are generally much steeper and tend to slow me down more).
My first marathon split was 3 hours 55 minutes. I was ahead of my pace, so I tried to dial it back. I threw in some walk breaks. I saw very few people walking, but I stuck to it anyways. Looking back, I could have walked even more. Sometimes I walked 10 steps or so while at other times it might have been a half a minute. I noticed some people pass but I would overtake them eventually.
I printed off a little map of the course profile and had it tucked in my shorts. I kept referring to it, which helped mentally. I ate three small homemade energy bars, one sticky rice cake with honey and figs, and one gel in the first half.
At around kilometre 50 there is long descent and then a checkpoint at around 57 km where I could pick up my drop bag. My 50k split was 4 hours and 35 min. I was starting to hurt a bit at this point, but was still ok. I was looking forward to going in and picking up more supplies, but somehow I missed it. I may have been distracted by all of the action, or maybe it wasn’t clearly marked in English. In any case, I was left without any gels for the second half. Initially, this put me in a bad mental state. But before long, I realized that I had saved some time by just flying through. I noticed that I was running alone mostly so I think I passed quite a few people who had taken the time to stop. I decided that I would reward myself with extra time at the checkpoints and a few more walk breaks. I managed to refocus. Looking back, I believe it was good that I skipped the drop bag since there was plenty of nutrition on the course.
At round 60 km, the road kicks up steeply and leads up to a temple. It’s really the climax of the race. I actually felt a bit emotional making my way up the final steps to the front of the temple. I kept thinking, ‘so lucky to experience this!’ I appreciated the moment as best as I could and then started the long downhill section. It seemed to go on forever. My quads were on fire. I wanted to let gravity take me down and not waste energy by braking too much, but in retrospect I wonder if I could have slowed down a bit on this section. I may have gained a few minutes, but I think it took its toll. Or maybe the toll was inevitable.
I think my hydration and nutrition were good, and I continued eat and drink throughout the race. I am very glad that I brought along a small bottle. I was wearing a running belt that held one bottle and it really came in handy during the second half. Even though there are aid stations every 4 or 5 km, I was still drinking water in between the stations. I would head into the station, drink some sports drink and then fill my bottle. It worked out really well. I think without the bottle I might have become dehydrated.
But there was no avoiding the fatigue that was setting in. Things are a bit blurry between kilometres 70 and 90. My plan was to throw down some faster miles here, and things were ok for a while. I was running around 8 or 8:30 min miles for a bit, but then I started to suffer. The road was flat but exposed to the sun. Running on the side of a highway was not inspiring me either. No longer was I in magical Japan. I was in hell. I started to feel my upper back tensing up and cramping which was unusual. I popped a caffeinated salt tablet and it might have helped. The course starts to kick up again around kilometre 80 and at this point I just went into survival mode. More mini-walk breaks. Took more time than usual at an aid station. More slow running. More walking. I was losing time, but it was hard to muster up the energy to even care. Looking back, I realize that my suffering may have not been as intense as others (read Harrison‘s epic story about shooting for the podium)
Then, somehow, I started to feel a bit better. Not ‘good’ but just a bit better. It might have been the little rest I had at one of the aid stations. Even as I did my walk/run up the hills, I passed people who were stubbornly sticking to running.
The last 10 kilometres is a gentle downhill slope. Somehow I managed to hold on to a 8:00 min/mile pace for most of it. It was painful and very tough mentally but I tried to keep a smile on my face. I just wanted to finish sooner and stop the pain! When the finish came, at last, I was very pleased to cross in 9:27, over a half an hour faster than my goal. To see my wife Jenny waiting for me at the end was just like heaven.
It was the hardest challenge I’ve ever completed but probably the most satisfying. After the race I had a great holiday touring around the area and pretty much just eating and drinking (we loved Takayama, Kanazawa, and Nagoya).
- Saucony Kinvara 7 shoes
- North Face Long haul Shorts
- Garmin 920xt watch
- Aonijie Running Belt
- Pre-race weekly milage (with elevation): 74 miles (6,700 ft), 73 mile (5250 ft), 85 miles (6250 ft), 74 miles (7000 ft), 82 miles (5700 ft), 82 miles (4,900 ft), 84 miles (6200 ft), 70 miles (4000 ft), 50 miles (3000 ft), week of race 81 miles (including race)
- First marathon split: 3:55
- Halfway split: 4:36
- 25 k splits: 2:15, 2:21, 2:26, 2:24
- Average pace: 9:07
- Place: 48th (out of around 1952 starters. Don’t know my age group ranking but it might be released later).
Ideas for Possible Improvement:
I might do this race again. If so, I could make some minor improvements with slightly better pacing. The second half of this race should be quicker than the first half, not the other way around. Apart from that, if I want to take off more time, I think I would need more quality runs in training. This time around I put the emphasis on volume (with several weeks over 75 and three weeks around 85 miles) and perhaps not enough on quality runs.
I also could have maintained a better diet heading into the race. I was about 2 or 3 kgs too heavy. I knew it but didn’t care. Perhaps I was not as serious about this race as I was about Tokyo. If I lost that weight, it would probably translate into 10 or 15 minutes.
At the moment, I’m just going to keep smiling and be happy that I’ve accomplished something that was beyond my expectations.