Ultra Trail Mt. Fuji

I don’t know about other ultra-runners, but I’ll cry at least a couple of times during a 100 mile run. Ultra Trail Mt. Fuji did not disappoint in that regard. However, its last blow just seemed unfair.

Unlike most endurance events I’ve done, I actually signed up months in advance. Thus, giving me months to prepare. In that time, I felt like I became a true workhorse. My body became so in tune with objective distances, that it’d automatically adjust its energy output to put me at the finish line with just a bit of a kick.

Overall, I felt strong. I felt like a runner. I felt like an ultra-runner.

In my opinion, the opening miles sometime seem the most daunting. My mind couldn’t help but point out, “1 mile down, 104 to go… ” and so on. Cruel stuff.

Around the 20′ mark, the trail kicked up. However, it wasn’t a gentle, runnable slope. It was a “Hey! Are you ready to hike!? slope. Being that I didn’t assert myself at the front (there were ~ 1,400 runners) I got in line and hiked with everyone else.

The going was expectedly slow and the seemingly constant rain didn’t help make the terrain any easier to traverse.

Quick note on the weather, because that’s super interesting… I checked the local forecast almost daily in the months leading up. I could probably count on one hand how many sunny days there were without any precipitation. It was always drizzling!

Given that, the trails were a touch slick here and there. And there. Here too. There too… you get the pictured.

In the early miles, I stayed uprights, felt good, and was averaging a solid pace.

Being that the race started at 13:00, daylight was limited. Especially considering the fact that we were running in a forest, so any daylight that did exist was blocked by the canopy. Therefore, a very long night began.

Just before that very long night began, I came into an aid station around 31.5 km (19.6 miles) in and was ready to chow down on whatever was available. Bad news; it was a fluids only aid station. This worried me, as I had just run 15 km (9.3 miles) and was basically out of food. Worse yet, the next aid station was 23 km (14.3 miles) away. At least I topped off my bottles.

As I left the aid station, I tried to figure out how to ration what little food I had left. Then, a few volunteers grabbed my attention and directed me towards the base of a hill. By this point, it was properly dark. I had no idea how long or steep this hill was, so I began the trek up. Up and up it went! Best of all [insert sarcasm], this hill offered little to no traction. It was as if the organizers dumped bags of potting soil on the slope. It was that deep and loose.

I don’t even want to know how much time I spent fumbling up that hill. However, shit only got worse. The descent, rather than featuring deep, loose soil like the ascent, was packed mud with roots protruding here and there. In short, I made quite a bit of forward progress on my ass. Most of it unintentional.

As the night wore on, it became more and more apparent that I was still battling jet lag. Actually, this felt beyond jet lag, because I felt downright drowsy. Like, incapable to walk straight drowsy. Or maybe I was drunk.

So, here I am not even halfway in and the urge to sleep is priority #1. Fortunately, I still had the mental capacity to acknowledge the first rule of ultra-running: maintain forward progress. I’m not sure if that’s actually the first rule, but it’s definitely a contender for the Top 3. Also, it helps when that forward progress is in the direction of the next course marker. I brilliantly managed to get off course not once or twice, but three times.

Overall, I’m in good shape and spirits, aside from having the intense desire to sleep. Somehow, I find myself at the pseudo halfway point, kilometer 90.4 (56.2 miles). I’m ravenous and eat things that I’d never care to admit ever eating. I change my socks and shoes and carry on in my drunken stupor.

If there’s one thing the Ultra Trail Mt. Fuji course does not lack, it’s hills. Everything is up or down. Let us not forget about the loose soil, because the inability to find solid traction took a huge toll on my achilles. See, my achilles heel is literally my achilles heel. The left heel to be specific. While it was solid throughout my months of training, it can sometimes feel like I’m one step away from crumpling to the ground.

Anyways, my achilles had had enough of this loose soil shit and became a nuisance around 100 km (62 miles). At first, it was a hindrance, then it became an issue. Later, a problem. The tendon felt like it was on fire. “Running” became too much to ask, so I resorted to some power-walk shuffle jig. But again, I was basically drunk at this point, so who actually knows what my forward progress actually looked like, because I don’t and I was the one doing it.

Being that we were running around a volcano, there was lava rock. While lava rock is neat stuff, it too is shit to run on, err power-walk shuffle jig on. One particular section featured a long climb on that very substance. I definitely did not love my life choices in that moment. Despite that, I recalled that it’s the small steps that ultimately climb mountains. Super cheese, I know.

At the top, there was an aid station. Of all the ultras I’ve ever done, which isn’t many, Ultra Trail Mt. Fuji has the best aid stations! Other ultras, take note: do away with PB and Js, pretzels, and potatoes. In with ramen, fried noodles, miso, and other Asian-inspired treats! Seriously, I have never loved being at aid stations more! In most races, I suck at eating. That is, I don’t want to or can’t. If given Asian cuisine, I’ll go for seconds or thirds. And yes, I did.

Back to arriving at this aid station… I ate, then did away with the notion of time and got a massage. I asked the masseuse to focus on my calf and achilles, hoping that somehow they’d magically make it feel awesome. That didn’t happen, but it was nice. However, I gold cold. I put a jacket on.

The run resumes and this is where my mind just starts messing with me.

It’s kind of inexplicable, but from this point on, on every downhill, I had an out of body experience. That is, I felt like I watching someone run down the hill in my place. This manifestation was some old guy, who I have never met or seen. So, to note, I do remember being there in those moments. It’s just that I felt like I was floating alongside like one of those Skycam cameras. You know, the cameras rigged over fields at NFL and NCAA football stadiums.

However, when the course presented an incline, I’d snap back to reality.

I realize this all sounds ridiculous, but it’s exactly how I remember things.

Coming into the next aid station, I was a mess. While my legs felt okay, my achilles was going berzerk. As I had done at all but one aid station prior, I met with Christen and went through all the goodies to be eaten and not spoken of. I told her that running wasn’t an option anymore and that it would be awhile before the race was done. She was quietly supportive. I struggled to keep it together, so I left.

I hadn’t even passed the timing mat to exit the aid station and I was already well beyond welling up. In that moment, I was scared. I was scared of legitimately hurting myself, but at the same time, I was scared to call it quits. The best course of action was to embrace the moment and just let it all out… while making forward progress, of course.

This was at 120.5 km (75 miles) in.

Another long climb loomed; I got through it. Another descent; I watched merrily in my out of body state. One foot kept going in front of the other.

Civilization became a temporary norm, as the course followed a lakeshore multi-use path. My level of fatigue, or drunkenness, was at an all time high, but I knew another aid station was just a few kilometers ahead. Things were looking up, as the power-walk shuffle jig was getting me on reasonably well – I managed a few 15′ miles. Doing the math, I realize I’m in control of this race and it’s just a matter of time, and continued forward movement, before I cross the finish line.

I catch a glimpse of the aid station and increase my pace ever so slightly. As I enter, the organizers ask to do a gear check. I ask if I may use the bathroom first and they oblige. While enjoying the comforts of a stall – sorry if that’s TMI – I check my phone. It won’t power on.

In case you didn’t know, the Ultra Trail Series has a mandatory gear checklist. This is what UTMF required:

  1. Course map.
  2. Mobile phone (you must be able to make/receive calls in Japan).
  3. Personal cup for hot/cold drinks at aid stations (minimum 150cc).
  4. Water (minimum requirement of 1L at the start line and upon leaving each aid station).
  5. Food.
  6. 2 lights with replacement batteries for both lights.
  7. Survival blanket.
  8. Whistle.
  9. Adhesive elastic tape/band.
  10. Portable/disposable toilet.
  11. Warm fleece or warm long sleeve shirt.
  12. Warm running pants or leggings or a combination that covers the legs completely.
  13. Warm gloves/mittens and hat that covers your ears.
  14. Waterproof rain jacket with hood & rain pants.
  15. First aid kit.
  16. Overseas travel/accident insurance policy.
  17. Race number card/bib and Race IC Chips.
  18. Flashing reflector light.
  19. Backpack or rucksack to store all mandatory equipments.

Before the iPhone experts chime in and tell me about Airplane Mode, Low Power Mode, and the like… kindly fuck off.

My phone was fully charged at the start. It was in Low Power Mode from the get-go. I turned Airplane Mode on and off just in case the race organizers sent a text. Heck, I even turned my phone off from time to time. Plain and simple, most phones won’t last 24-hours.

When the race organizers discovered that it wouldn’t turn on, they called over who I assume was the chief organizer for this particular aid station. He fell silent and wouldn’t make eye contact upon learning my situation. I began presenting the other mandatory items, but they stopped me. I asked, “Are you going to disqualify me for this?” The gentleman nodded. I asked if I could charge my phone. After all, there were outlets all over. Why not let me take a self-imposed time penalty? Why not? Because I wasn’t carrying a charging device on my body.

Considering that I had been moving for 23-hours and 45-minutes and covered 139.2 km (86.5 miles), I took the news surprisingly well. That is, until the chief organizer asked me if I had trained myself for this race. I replied, “Yes, I trained myself.” He then said, “Then why do you not prepare properly and have an extra battery, if you say you know how to train for the race?” I did not enjoy this comment. So, I proceeded to give him several reasons why he should feel bad about making this call.

I can only imagine how hard it must be to tell someone that their race is over prematurely. I’m not proud of myself for being an ass, but emotions run high when something you care about is being taken away.

An unfortunate tid-bit: these mandatory gear checks were random. Who knows how many people got through, because they weren’t subjected to the same experience. To note, only 42% of all participants finished.

Overall, I get it. Rules are rules and I’m no exception to them. Even if I am a millennial.

Regardless, I still fail to recognize how a dead phone justifies a disqualification? A charging station is not a big ask. As I suggested above, make those people take a time penalty to recharge. I would have happily waited 30′ to an hour to recharge it to a sufficient level.

For how much time and money I poured into Ultra Trail Mt. Fuji, is that really unreasonable?

The bit of anger I had for the situation diminished by the second as I walked out of the aid station. I sat on a dock with Christen, slumped down, and broke down.

Ultra Trail Mt. Fuji literally took my blood, sweat, and tears. All for a DQ.

The man who single-handedly inspired me to race ultras, Loren Lewis, wrote the following on his Facebook after missing a cut-off at Pine to Palm:

On a day that the course will beat you, your experiences are wasted if you attach them to the finish. Remember to be amazed by what you are doing from the first step. Look around. Listen. Sniff. Form memories. Because when the sting of self-inflicted failure subsides, those memories will hang with you and bring the smiles of a thousand medals.

Loren, thank you!

Most importantly, thank you, Christen Dybenko! If you think my day is hard, she’s literally chasing me around a mountain! All while driving on the wrong side of road and battling the same amount of sleep deprivation I am. Worse yet, she can only guess as to where I am on the course. I can only imagine how hard the waiting game is! Your patience and support blow me away!

Thank you to everyone who encouraged me on yet another adventure. I’m humbled by your support.

So, what’s next? Well, that was supposed to be my qualifier for the Western States lottery. With that gone, I seriously considered walking away from 100s.

Fortunately, I have good ultra pals, because I’m running another.

It starts in less than 8 days.