The 2016 Ultra-Trail Mt Fuji (UTMF) is one that will live long in the memory, but not for the reasons that many had expected. A typhoon battered the areas around Japan’s iconic peak and forced organisers to shorten the 169km ultra race to just 44km on the grounds of safety. Nickademus Hollon flew from San Diego, USA, to make his UTMF debut. Prior to arriving in Japan, he wrote a blog post outlining his pre-conceived UTMF notions. In this new blog post (see below) he reflects on how right, or wrong, he was with those notions:
Wow, what a journey over six short days. I got to participate and technically ‘finish’ both the Ultra-Trail Mt Fuji (UTMF), which was shortened to 44km, and the following day its shorter sister race, Shizuoku to Yamanashi (STY), which was cut to 21km. I got to wander the streets of downtown Tokyo, visit an authentic Shinto shrine, see Mt Fuji, relax and bathe in numerous bath houses, eat at an authentic rotating sushi bar and even travel back in time… Thank you to global time zones for the two Mondays!
It’s fair to say I was tossed into the deep end of Japanese culture but the team members of inov-8 Japan took me under their wing gave me a personalized tour of life in their country. In terms of the actual racing, we just had to get on with it. When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. Or in my case, when caught in torrential downpours, have faith in your Terraclaw 220 trail running shoes and jump deep into the puddles with a smile!
So, before heading out to Japan I listed my five pre-conceived UTMF notions. Here now are my reflective thoughts on each notion.
1 The bugs are going to be massive
The bugs were indeed massive, but mostly orb spiders, similar to those that we have in the USA. The heavy rain really prevented anything insect, bird or otherwise from flying during the race weekend. Before leaving the Fuji mountain region though, I took a short run around town and caught a glimpse of a single Japanese giant hornet. It was huge! Slightly scared, I didn’t stick around long to examine it. On a different note, VAAM (the sports amino-drink made from the giant hornet’s nectar) is delicious!
2 It’ll be half mountain race, half road race
Actually, looking at some of the words in that sentence, they were in fact correct. The STY was exactly a half-marathon, and UTMF was still ultra distance (just) but 85% a road race! Unfortunately I got completely floored at both events. I probably sound overly defensive here, but I’m a long-distance specialist. I don’t joke myself into thinking that I have a chance (professionally) against many folks over shorter distances. Following out the lead guys at this year’s UTMF, I quickly learned the speed required to stay up front. And for every one person I worked so hard to pass, I’d get eclipsed by four more Japanese trail runners tip-toeing their way over the slick mud and steep trails. It was actually the long road sections oddly enough that I found myself catching everyone on.
The STY course was both a mix of some seriously gnarly terrain and some of the most mundane (albeit flooded) roads I’ve ever run on. It was a strange blend, and both welcomed and unwelcomed by the mounting pain in my quads.
3 Expecting an inevitable struggle with heat and humidity
I struggled with nerves. Amidst the light drizzle on the UTMF start line, we learnt that the course had been cut to just 44km – about a quarter of the original distance. All the planning, the training, the carefully calculated calories… it all collapsed into a crescendo of feet pounding pavement. 5:40min/miles set the average pace for the front of the pack. I felt my heart jump into my throat as the course turned from road to a steep uphill single track. This was not the race I’d trained for.
By the time I arrived at aid station 1, I’d been so consumed by the constant competition that I lost sight of my own race entirely. I dashed into the aid station with three runners closing in behind me and two more just in front. Scrambling about, I filled a single bottle as another runner blew right past me. I was completely remiss to the fact that I needed to make it another 17km before I’d see another aid station. I was not running my own race and arrived at aid station 2, dehydrated and unmotivated from having lost so many positions in that short distance. So needless to say neither the heat nor the humidity were an issue at this year’s event.
4 I’m going to be a fool lost in translation
I did indeed make a fool of myself. I shared a bit about the USA and learned a whole lot about Japan. And then there were the things I’d never even thought about, like breakfast and how different it was compared to the USA (fried mochi is a new favorite), driving on the left hand side of the road and using toilets that not only spray you but also sing to you!
I arrived in Japan knowing nothing more than how to say “hi” and “thank you”. By the time I’d departed my vocabulary bank had doubled. I now know the Japanese for “cucumber” and “give it your all.”
5 Ultra Trail Mt Fuji is going to be insanely competitive
Competitive was an understatement. With both races cut to shorter distances, I was a nervous wreck on the start lines and got completely floored. I found myself getting passed on the climbs. In response, I bombed the downhills and quickened my steps on the lengthy road sections. Despite this, I still couldn’t shake more than a position or two from the intense competition.
I quickly learned and admired the skill and agility with which the Japanese trail runners navigated their home turf. Never before had I seen runners dance so gracefully over thick mud and jagged rocks, while I stumbled and slipped distantly behind them. If I come back next year, this is an area I’ll need to work on immensely.
And… my closing thoughts
A lot of people were upset or disappointed with the outcome of the event. But, for me, that’s the risk with our sport. In American Football, you risk concussions and broken bones, in open-ocean swimming you risk potential shark attacks and rough waters. In international big-ticket ultra races it’s the weather. Just look at the short history of similar races like Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) for a myriad of course changes and cancellations. With epic locations often comes equally epic weather.
I standby what I said to one of the inov-8 Japan members on the drive back to Tokyo: “Something like Barkley Marathons, well that’s one thing. You’re only sending out 35 folks at most into the woods to go get lost and suffer. Statistically speaking, they’re all pretty likely to survive. Now knock that number up to 1,500 like what we had at UTMF and statistically speaking, someone is bound to wind up severely injured or dead.”
So, although it was frustrating, I can understand the organizers’ decision. 90% of races operate on permits, which are renewed yearly and never guaranteed. Something like a death or a severe injury could seriously diminish the chance of that event ever happening again. The decision ensured the race has a future.
Although I didn’t get to see the entire 169km of the course, land on the podium or really use any of my training, I gained something far more than miles on trails… I gained new friendships and a glimpse into a new culture. I can’t wait to return to Japan and experience even more. Thank you again to inov-8 Japan for everything.
* Nickademus ran UTMF and STY in the Terraclaw 220 trail running shoes. The sharper studs on the Terraclaw, compared to his other potential choice, the TrailTalon 250, offer up more grip on softer terrain, so were better suited to the typhoon-hit course.
- UTMF 2016 results. Nickademus placed 27th in the UTMF (4:47:48).