The first runner gives up, then another. A well trained Japanese guy suddenly stops in front of me and sits down. It was at that moment that I finally realized; this race is not a normal 21 km trail run, this race is a nightmare. Only one that I had consciously chosen to participate in.
When my friend Anne told me about the Fuji Mountain Race, a famous competition taking place every July for the past seventy years, I asked myself; why not? After all, I had always wanted to hike Mount Fuji. Why not try running it? I consider myself a decent runner, averaging around 200 km per month, often in challenging weather conditions. I can run a marathon in four hours and I grew up in the Alps in northern Italy. Mountain climbing is in my genes.
While normal hikers usually start for the summit from the 5th Station, which you can access by car. The Fuji Mountain Race starts at the base of Japan’s tallest mountain in the small city of Fujiyoshida, which sits at 750 metres above sea level. With Mount Fuji reaching an altitude of 3776 meters you don’t have to be a math pro to understand that this is a serious climb.
The race has a 3000-meter elevation gain, 21 degrees temperature difference, and the oxygen drops by 70 percent.
I was well aware of the challenges – quoting the website: “The Fuji Mountain Race is a rigorous, physical and mental challenge and is often considered the most difficult climbing race in Japan” – and despite the fact that I knew that not even half of the participants made it to the top (there is a 4 hours 30 minutes time limit to reach the summit), I signed up the morning the registration opened.
On the day of the race, I packed my CamelBak, equipped myself with some CalorieMate energy bars and laced up my trail running shoes, after having stuffed myself with a salmon and umeboshi onigiri. By 6:30 am, half an hour before the start, the sun was already shining brightly and the air being very humid after some heavy rain overnight.
Looking around me at the starting point I begin questioning my decision. I was surrounded by super fit, muscular, mostly male Japanese athletes, all who were joining into the organizers’ shouts of “Let’s make it to the top!” Beside me was Brian, an American nervously setting his running watch. He had done the race already a couple of times but never made it to the summit. Now, ten years later, he is back to give it another try. “I basically spent the last ten years training for this race,” he tells me as my heart drops into my stomach.
At 7 am the starting gun fires. With my friends and husband running off as if they were doing a 21 km sprint, I quickly find myself without any familiar face. The first km which lead through Fujiyoshida on a closed public road – Mount Fuji sitting enthroned straight ahead – are brutally frantic. High temperatures make me suffer as well as running on concrete with trail shoes while every participant trying to get a secure place before the path turns narrow.
To train for the event, I sometimes took the train to Takaosanguchi and ran to the top of Takao-San, a small mountain west of Tokyo, which offers some pretty scenic yet challenging trail routes. The difference between training on Takao-san is the trails there offer some comforting downhill sections. Not here as the race is an unrelenting uphill course, getting steeper and steeper with every kilometer.
After kilometer seven more and more people start to walk, some even burst into tears.
I am still okay on energy, and I am now following a short, athletic Japanese runner who must be in his seventies. My entire gear is soaked in sweat as the temperature gets chillier with every meter in altitude. At kilometer ten on the Yoshida trail running becomes impossible, the path is simply too steep. I would rather call it speed hiking without hiking sticks.
I keep checking my watch constantly; as I am running out of time. If I don’t reach the first checkpoint at 5th Station before 9:20 I will be disqualified. There are strict cut-off times at every station. The last two kilometers before 5th Station were brutal. My time had dropped to almost 20 minutes per kilometer as my body screamed for rest.
The trail is very narrow leaving only space for one runner, making the running field look like a camel train. I push on desperately trying to make the checkpoint before the cut-off as I battle low visibility, difficulty breathing and a freezing wind that is whipping around my shaking body.
I finally reach the checkpoint and look down at my watch. 9:30 am. Ten minutes too late.
I have to conceive defeat. For the first time in my life, after all those years of running. I feel exhausted, disappointed and dehydrated. At the same time, I feel a tremendous sense of relief – relief that I don’t have to continue for another 6 kilometers.
“Otsugaresama deshita”, says the volunteers while handing me an energy drinks and some bananas. As I walk towards to the shuttle bus I ask myself, “is this really over?”
On the bus ride back to the sports center where the ceremony will be held later I meet Shigeki. He also made it no further than to the 5th Station. He missed the time limit by ten seconds. “But hey” he tells me “job well done.” That’s when I start reconsidering. Yeah, well done. 15 kilometers with a 1500 meter elevation gain.
I can’t tick Mount Fuji on my bucket list yet, but I will come back. But this time as a hiker, with no time limit, at my pace, and maybe even with a sleepover at one of the mountain huts just to get to the summit in time for the sunrise.
P.S. My husband, a strong and fast runner, made it to the summit within the time limit. At the last kilometer, he was suffering from so much oxygen deprivation that he thought he was going to pass out. Running Mount Fuji, he told me later, is something you cannot compare to any other race. It is a ride to hell and back.