I rarely take photos during a race. Training runs, yes, I've carried my iPhone for Strava and used the camera to snap a few shots, but racing... very rarely. As part of the mandatory gear at UTMF we needed to carry a phone that could make a call while in Japan. My little compact French phone used at UTMB didn't fit the bill unfortunately, so my iPhone in it's Ultraspire sleeve did the trick and was hard to resist when we made our way around the beautiful Mt. Fuji. I gain a lot of strength from my surroundings, both the environment and people. This race was more proof in how I respond to the energy around me.
When I left Boulder on March 1 in Simba headed for Washington I knew I had a couple of busy months on the horizon, but I had no idea the impact life would have on my final preparations for the UTMF 100. There were a lot of lessons to be learned and relearned (I swear I've been here before!) in those two months spent traveling. The Chuckanut 50k, time in Hawaii, road trip to California, Coyote Backbone, food poisoning, rally Simba back to Boulder, home life changing, bad travel luck, presentations in Canada, Elite Immortal retreat in Zion and then on a plane to Japan! It went by almost as fast as reading that run on sentence...
Perhaps it is because of so many years experience, now I think I know better and should be better prepared, where before when more green I could only take a wild guess and hope for the best. In the final preparations the morning and afternoon of the race I kept expecting some nervous energy, but instead I was completely calm. I spent a couple of hours at the UltrAspire booth mostly chatting with the staff and then made my way out to the parking area to find that the girls (Kay and Motoko) set up a tailgate lunch for us. I finally changed out of my jeans around 1:30pm and was back near the starting area around 2pm. I got to see the PNW crew and share a bunch of good luck wishes. The crowd was massive and I believe around 2000 people were lining up for the start. After giving the girls hugs, I was whisked towards the front thankfully and we squeezed through the archway and out onto the road to start the race. Cameramen seemed to be everywhere, on bikes, in the crowd, hanging out of cars as we made our way through town and out onto the trail.
After a couple minutes of running I caught up to Claire from team Salomon and wished her good luck. I could only see one ponytail swinging up ahead of me and I told myself to let it go and just settle in. I really had no idea how things were going to go and I didn't need to burn a bunch of energy trying to race now. The focus became inward, listening to my body, fueling frequently and taking in some of the beautiful views of Mt. Fuji just before sunset. There were little bits of conversation here and there, but with my limited Japanese (Gambarimasho! - "Let's give it our best!) I ended up slipping into my own pace and the songs/rhythms that were in my own head. The ponytail came back to me on a dirt road climb. It was hard to see her face as she had her Buff covering her mouth and nose to protect and help with her asthma. The Australian accent wished me well as I cruised up the mellow climb. Her long legs passed me again as I filled my bladder at Aid 1. This time I kept pace as I could see her just ahead on the road section. Once back on the trail she pulled over (I assume for a pit stop) and I didn't see Shona again until the press conference on Sunday morning, but my crew kept tabs on her and kept me posted through the end of the race.
The evening went by quickly. We got to see crews at Aid 2 and Water 1 before heading into the night. I took my Roch modified (battery pack separated) Black Diamond Icon Headlamp at Water 1 and remember turning it on low as we started the climb. The section after Water 1 and before Aid 3 I later called the Torture Chamber. It was a long ?? mile section filled with technical trail, riddled with short steep climbs and descents that beat me up. I ran out of water about 90 minutes into the section and was mad at myself for not filling up more. There were safety check volunteers along the course and I repeatedly asked for Mizu (water) but they were not supplied. As we popped off of the trail not far from the aid there was a young family set up with a water jug and I took time to fill my Ultraspire cup twice. Minutes later I was in the aid station and thankful to see the girls. Even though it was a shorter section and the evening was cool, I took a bit extra water so that I could catch up on hydration. I was treated to the local favorite, Yakisoba noodles and impressed everyone with my chopstick skills and rapid eating. I have always said how embarrassing it is at how much and how quickly I can eat during a race and this time it was captured on video and film.
Running into the night with the full moon was beautiful. I was thankful that my only visual was not locked into the broad beam of my Icon and that thanks to the moonlight I was able to make out some details of the night sky. I spent a majority of the race running solo and was really only around people while in the aid stations. In rounding one particular bend Mt. Fuji came into sight and the moonlight bouncing off the snow capped peak was the highlight of the race. It was absolutely beautiful, magical and served as a source of energy, a reminder of why I do these long distance races/runs. One reason is to spend time with people, another is for the moments taken in with vistas like that.
During the night we covered a bunch of miles on double track road. My bear bell was quietly tucked into my pack and I hadn't thought about it the entire race until all of a sudden I felt like I should make some noise. Running solo I started to hum and look around. My headlamp caught two orange glowing eyes just off the road up on the hill. My hum turned to a yell and my legs picked up the pace. I kept glancing over my shoulder and saw the eyes watch me. My yell turned to a loud growl trying to sound intimidating and I kept watching as I moved down the trail. Many tactics ran through my head, but the eyes stayed put and I moved away. The quicker pace helped me click off a few more of the very runnable miles.
The night turned to morning and I found myself still able to give a bit and run well. I hit the "No Run Zone" just before sunrise and thought I would enjoy the mandatory hiking break, but found myself disappointed as the trail was some of the best we'd been on up to that point, perfect for cruising along, smooth, soft... but we had to walk. It was on your honor, it was cold and I wondered how many people truly walked that entire section. The trail finally pitched up enough that made the hike more necessary and as I broke through the trees the early predawn light helped make some details of Fuji easier to pick out. We were on one of Fuji's shoulders and the closest to the peak that we would be during the race. At our high point there was a small group of volunteers bouncing around to keep warm. They pointed me to make a right turn and told me it was now okay to run. A super cool decent on crushed volcanic rock facing directly into the sunrise and taking me in to Aid 6. It was still chilly, and as we walked out of the aid tent I couldn't help but snap this photo of our little team.
My pace felt steady and my body mostly felt good through about 75 miles, which truthfully surprised me. I was hoping to maintain that energy and pace through the remainder of the race, but was soon reminded the toll of 100 miles. Especially these 100 miles. Similar to the earlier torture chamber the course took runners over some longer sections with multiple climbs and descents. I kept checking the profile when I was with Kay in the aid stations and again while on the course but then gave up because it didn't seem to match up, meaning there were many more climbs and descents than charted. Some so steep that there were ropes strung up for safety. I recall working my tail off, huffing and puffing, hands on knees making my way up a particular section and coming upon a camera guy. He easily recorded and bounded up the trail next to me capturing my little sufferfest on film. And perhaps more impressive another following me on one of the descents. He made his way down on the little side trails letting me have the slightly more groomed path and still kicked my butt down the hillside. I was impressed. My knees were really starting to talk to me on the descents causing me to shorten my stride and favor them a bit.
The final Aid stops were harbored deep in the little towns making for many pavement miles. There were countless volunteers in red jackets that helped guide the runners through the turns and into the aid stations. At Aid 8 or 9 I received some much needed help from Koji of New Hale. He dug into my hamstrings while I sat and ate and also taped my hammie to help relieve the pulling on my patella which was causing the pain in my knees. I also submitted to take 2 advil to admittedly help take the edge off. I also received news that Shona was only about 1 hour back. I couldn't help but wonder if my pace continued to slow if she would be able to cut into that buffer. Fortunately I was able to find a bit of relief from Koji's help and keep moving forward. No longer able to push, but still kept moving.
The final miles will forever be burned in my memory. The team really pumped me up with Udon noodles, some stretching techniques to relieve my screaming hamstrings and knees and a bit of laughter at the craziness of what running 100 miles does to your body. From A10 we made our way through town and onto an exposed dirt road winding up through a clearcut area. The afternoon sun was the warmest I have felt since landing in Japan and there was no where to hide on the first couple of miles. The road did turn to trail higher up and the course continued to climb towards the powerlines. Those 3 miles to the top took me 90 minutes. A slow slog, but huge effort as my body was tapped and I felt the only thing I could do was to keep moving forward. Near the top another runner moving better than I fell into stride behind me as we switched to a slow run down the single track to the awaiting pavement below. "A little uphill" was what the volunteer at the top told me... but at 90+ miles, 2 miles on a gradual road climb was a nightmare and my thoughts were anything but positive about this section. We made a turn onto a downhill dirt road which turned to pavement about 3 miles later and on that descent I started to wonder if Shona could catch me at this pace. Kaburyaki-san jumped out of a car to cheer me on and I had to ask how much further. He said 3-4km on the road. I soon passed through a peaceful Shrine and onto the road where a sign stating 3km to go was posted. Looking ahead the only path that made sense was to cross the highway bridge and run along the waterfront back to the start... I could see the sponsor tents and canopy for the stage. To have that visual and feel like it is not getting any closer even though your legs are churning underneath you is a difficult pill to swallow. I took one last hit of EFS liquid shot, put my head down and tried to encourage my turnover. I made it over the bridge and gasped when I saw the flight of stairs necessary to drop me down to the final waterfront stretch to the finish. It felt like the final snap in breaking me. I heard the volunteer that had told me to make the turn give an audible gasp as I reached for the handrail and limped down the stairs. My knees hurt so bad I wanted to cry, but something stubborn inside told me to just keep moving forward. The supporters waiting on the path were encouraging me to run, of course they want to see the first woman finish in good form. It took a couple of deep breaths and an effort to push off back to a jog. Now looking straight ahead, straining my eyes to find Kay and Motoko for the last time I focused on piecing myself back together. We rounded the corner together and as the number of people alongside the finish increased so did my smile. All of the feelings of being completely shattered were pieces I could start putting back together. So many outstretched hands awaiting a hi-five, instead of running through, I paused. I stopped to connect eyes and hands with the happy crowd. I felt them giving me their energy and I accepted it to help me heal. A couple of little girls had dandelions to give to me so I put one behind my ear and crossed the finished line with a handful of flowers and arms linked with Kay and Motoko.
It will be a spell to heal from this effort, it will take time. I acknowledge that I was not ready for 100 miles, especially these 100 miles. But I hope that in taking pause to rest and reflect I think I can encourage the process along.
The post race ceremony started as soon as we arrived back at our hotel, the Hamayou Resort. The staff there was incredible in their care of our team of three. We got to use the bath house, where I didn't think there was enough soap or hot water to clean me, checked into a comfortable room and made a request for pizza. The staff ordered, paid for, picked up and delivered the pizza to our room and followed that with a beautiful strawberry cake and a bottle of sparkling wine as a congratulations. We slept a solid 10 hours and were treated to breakfast the next morning and visits with the staff before heading back to the race finish for a press conference and the awards ceremony. The reality of my foggy brain and aching knees were only minor hinderances amidst all of the excitement and celebration that continued through the afternoon. It was nice to have the time and opportunity to see many of the faces that had cheered me on during the race and thank them for their support and their words or actions that helped me make it through. The moment where they called us all on stage was a complete adrenaline rush, to stand before a crowd like that is an unreal feeling. It brings up incredible emotion, inspiration and a feeling of giddiness... I only hope I don't do something too goofy in my overwhelmed state. The beautiful gifted trophies from a local artist will be a special reminder of the challenge endured while on my third visit to Japan.
How I cherish the moments like I have when taking time to right. I started this blog a couple days after the race while staying with Kay. The wind was howling outside, I sat well fed on Kay's couch with my swollen legs elevated, the girls were napping, so the house was quiet other than the clock ticking on the wall and the tapping of my fingers on the keyboard. This morning I write in bed. Again the house is quiet because my roommate is still asleep. The sun is shining through my window over my shoulder and the rumble of my hungry tummy seems to be the only other noise. These moments offer time for reflection. When times are busy it is hard to to reflect. The more I travel, the more I realize I need to make time to write or at least pause to take it all in. The moments just before the finish of this year's Mt. Fuji was exactly that for me; a great lesson in pause.