Shona Stephenson writes words of motivation on her arms before every race. Committed.
The world’s best ultra runners have descended on Japan for Friday’s Ultra-Trail Mt Fuji (UTMF). The 105-mile (169km) clockwise orbit around Japan’s most famous peak features almost 10,000m of brutal elevation gain and is a true test of physical and mental strength. Our committed athletes Shona Stephenson, Brendan Davies (both Australia) and Joe Grant (US) will all toe the start line ahead of what looks set to be a battle royal on the mountain trails. In this blog, the trio look ahead to one of the most highly anticipated ultra races of the year.
Wow, what a race the UTMF is going to be. The course has been reversed and lengthened to 169km (course map). The elevation has been increased as well, to almost 10,000m.
Last year I placed second on my UTMF debut and this year I’m going into the race more rested and fully tapered.
The UTMF is a special event to me. I love racing in Japan. I especially love racing around the iconic Mt Fuji. There are not many people I talk to who don’t know what Mt Fuji looks like. It’s easily one of the most famous mountains in the world, so to take part in an ultra trail race that circumnavigates it is very special.
The UTMF is part of the Ultra Trail World Tour (UTWT) and as a result almost all the top ultra runners from across the world will take part.
The UTMF is different to its sister race the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc. The climbs are steeper and at times the terrain is way muddier than when racing in Europe. On three of the climbs there are ropes, which we will use to haul ourselves over certain sections. What also makes UTMF different is that it features flat road sections connecting the mountain ranges that circle Mt Fuji. This means the race is a real mixed bag and a gruelling test on all terrains.
Racing in Japan is totally different to racing in Australia. I love it. This kind of racing really excites me. Call me strange, but I also enjoy the element of danger that comes with having to watch out for bears! It makes a nice change from having to watch out for snakes in Australia. It definitely gives me an adrenaline rush. During the night on the UTMF, I like to imagine the bears are chasing me through the forest in the dark. It makes me run faster!
Racing UTMF is also something of a spiritual journey for me. The mountain is simply beautiful; a perfect cone shape dotted with shrines. Yet to take the mountain and the course lightly would be a big mistake. Mt Fuji and UTMF demand respect.
This year my goal is to match and then beat my finishing time from 2013 (25hrs 56mins). The course has been reversed, lengthened and made more difficult, so if I can beat my time from last year then I will be stoked.
Above all the UTMF is a mental and physical battle -and one that I will be playing out on Anzac Day, a national day of remembrance in Australia and New Zealand. This will inspire me to dig deep and be courageous, especially when feeling low.
I will, as always, write words of motivation on my arms. On this occasion those words will include: focus, committed, keep your head and stay in the moment.
My training for the UTMF has been different from last year. I’ve moved inter-state and changed cities from Sydney to Brisbane. This has allowed me to get out and discover new training ground, including some insanely steep, heart-pounding climbs and descents.
I used the Tarawera Ultra in New Zealand (held in March and shortened to 69km due to a storm) as a stepping-stone towards UTMF. I came sixth (7hrs 26mins) and have since built my training up from there.
This year, both on and off the trail, my life has been about adventure. Now I can’t wait for the next chapter in this adventure story. Bring on the UTMF!
It was a year ago that I first tasted the sheer beauty and brutality of the UTMF. When the opportunity to return arose, naturally I jumped at the chance.
Last year, I was delighted to finish fifth (20hrs 38mins) and within an hour of winner Kazuaki Hara, the Japanese bullet train.
I found many sections of the course really tough; the climbs and technicality of the terrain are quite different from what I am used to in Australia. The long, flat sections between the mountain ranges are where I again expect to make up ground. Yes the elevation gain is huge, almost 10,000m, but this is a course I know and one I feel I can do well on.
With this in mind, my training this year has been quite different. I’ve used a couple of events -the Tarawera Ultra in New Zealand and the Buffalo Stampede Ultra in Australia -as key training races in order to come to UTMF with more specific conditioning. Strength and endurance have been prioritized over speed in the hope that I can increase my overall climbing times. I’ve also done a lot of hill training with poles, which many of the top guys used last year. However, it probably helps to pay closer attention to the race rules as I later discovered that poles are prohibited on the UTMF this year!
Another curveball came about a month ago when organisers announced that the course would be run in the reverse direction and an additional 7km in distance added on.
Even though it’s now 169km, the course, rather ironically, is arguably faster and slightly less arduous. I wouldn’t be surprised if the winning time was faster than last year. One very technical climb late in last year’s race now becomes a faster descent and the long 25km section of gravel road that was an uphill grind to Mt Fuji now becomes a faster, downhill run.
As well as myself, Shona Stephenson and Joe Grant will toe the start line in their inov-8 shoes. Joe is one of the world’s finest ultra runners and eats big mountains for breakfast, so I expect him to do really well. Shona will attack the course and I know she is determined to go even better than last year, when she finished second.
Both the men and women’s fields are staked with elite talent and it is a stronger line-up than previous years. The inclusion of the event on the Ultra Trail World Tour has lured the very best from all parts of the world. The start list reads a bit like the who’s who of ultra trail running. It’s going to be one hell of a battle all day (and night) for sure!
I will be wearing the Trailroc 245 shoes to race UTMF. They provide me with the perfect balance between grip and comfort and are really well suited for a course of this nature. It is forecast to be a cold and wet night on the trails, so the Race Elite 260 Thermoshell and Race Elite 150 Stormshell look set to utilized.
This year is a bit of an experiment for me as I am racing two 100 milers only one month apart. I’ve never raced two long events this close together, so my preparation has been a bit different than usual.
I went into the White Mountains 100 in Alaska well prepared for a long day of running on snow. The race went well and I finished feeling great (Joe won in a new course record time of 17hrs 5mins).
Other than some tightness in my hips and knees from running for over 17 hours on snow, my recovery was fast. I sustained no injuries and quickly felt my energy coming back.
Instead of jumping straight back into hard training, I decided to prioritize recovery. While I may have lost a little fitness doing this, I thought it better to come into UTMF feeling fresh and ready to go.
The UTMF course is challenging because it mixes long, fast road stretches with steep, technical trails. Many of the climbs are short and abrupt, which I think will make it hard to find a good rhythm.
The longest climb on the course comes at around the 100km mark, where the trail becomes steeper and more technical. It will be crucial to pace the first 100km well and not get carried away early on by running the roads too fast.
I suspect the 100km mark and beyond will be a decisive point in the race.
To carry my kit, water and food, I will be using the Race Ultra Vest, which worked very well for the White Mountains 100, and will hold everything I need without issue.
For shoes, I’ve been debating between the Trailroc 245 and X-Talon 212, but have decided to settle on the latter. While the lugs are a bit aggressive for the road sections, I will welcome them on the wet, muddy trails.
Anzac DayBrendan DaviescommittedDescenteinov-8JapanJoe Grantmountain runningMt FujiRace Elite 150 StormshellRace Elite 260 ThermoshellRace Ultra VestShona StephensonTarawera Ultratrail runningtrailroc 245Ultra runningUltra Trail Mt FujiUltra Trail World TourUltra-Trail du Mont-BlancUltrasUTMBUTMFWhite Mountains 100X-Talon 212