Nana Korobi - ya oki: A Two-Chapter Recap of the Shinetsu 5-Mountains Race

(Note: I started this post while sitting somewhere in the Narita Airport…then finished it today in Missoula)

I’m enjoying a brief gap in flurries of travel.  I could catch up on work and writing and all that, but since the ups and downs of my last few days are consuming my thoughts, I figured I’d do some documenting.

This really should be two blog posts, so I will offer two separate reports of my experience with Japan and the Shinetsu 5 Mountains run.

Chapter 1:  The Amazing Race No One Knows About

The Shinetsu 5 Mountains Race is a world-class event.  The organization is spectacular and the attention to detail stunning.  Hiroki and his crew, with a ton of support from Patagonia Japan and ART Sports, do an unbelievable job and offer a product that transcends any race I have done stateside.  And very few have even heard of it! Patagonia has made a strong effort to change that, bringing Krissy over is 2010 and Jenn in 2011.  Outside of that, however, few if any Westerners have any clue it exists. 

But in the white-hot world of Japanese trail running it’s a big deal, with an emphasis on deal.  For a mere $180 entry fee, runners get 3 exceptionally catered meals, a flawlessly marked course with 1 or more volunteer course marshals ON EVERY TURN, 8 well-run aid stations, drop bag service, transfers between start and finish and award ceremony locations, and a reasonable helping of race swag.  Consider that value in the context of prices charged for US races.  Makes you wonder a bit.  There are even tents with chairs for the spectators at every aid station!

The course – at least the parts I managed to see – is beautiful.  The mountains in and around Nagano are rugged, lush and surprisingly remote.  It’s quite challenging and travels a winding path through the various peaks – mostly ski areas – in the Nagano region.  It is a good mix of technical ups and downs, roots and rocks, flats, exposed, shaded, remote and developed: 110k and 4,000 meters of climbing.  It always fascinating to think about how a trail system’s layout can reflect the agricultural and industrial development of a culture and this course offered plenty of that – rice paddies and terraces, remote shrines, train tracks, river dams, ancient irrigation systems, roads…you name it.  Some really interesting stuff to look at and think about.

What makes this event truly special, however, is the people.  The runners, the race staff, and the volunteers share an inspiring passion for the outdoors, running, and this race.  Everyone I encountered was incredibly kind, welcoming, and enthusiastic.  I would 100% recommend the event to any runner. It’s got support, hoopla and prize money for the elites, as well as a top-notch experience and value for everyone else…. and it’s a fantastic way to experience a wonderful culture in an active, adventurous manner.  Go check it out…I can’t wait to go back myself and have a better day…

Chapter 2:  Lost in Translation

Well that’s a pretty cliché title, but it fits.  When Josh and Fuji approached me in early July about participating in the Shinetsu 5 Mountains race - Hiroki’s race - I jumped at the opportunity.  The chance to represent Patagonia, compete in a foreign country and experience a new culture was a no-brainer.  A no-brainer, that is, when evaluated in isolation.  But if there is one thing I’ve learned this year, it’s that no action or decision can be considered in isolation.  Life is a complex system of interconnected decisions, actions, consequence and chance. In my younger days, this system was easier to manage, but as the equation of life has swelled to include an increasing number of variables, solving it has grown difficult.  And to exacerbate this reality, the system’s capacity to endure strain seems to diminish with age as well.  This isn’t just some verbose way of saying “I feel old;” It’s more of an admission, or confession really, that I’m coming to grips with my own limits.

I should have seen this season coming a mile away.  The load of life stress was building steadily through 2011 and erupted over the winter.  In the span of 6 months, we made the decision to move to Montana, welcomed the arrival of Charlotte, lost Maggie’s father, lost McMahon, engaged in two real estate transactions and defended a dissertation.  A chance solid run at Chuckanut, perhaps fueled by the stress, tricked me into thinking I was gaining fitness.  Then a win and CR at the podunk Squak Mt 50 reinforced this myth.  What I should have listened to, however, was my own thoughts during the last 10 miles of the Sun Mountain 50.  Running in second place, on PR pace, I felt empty.  Apathy.  That’s a shitty (and for me quite rare) feeling and it should have told me something.

At that point, I should have bailed on Angeles Crest. Instead, I not only persisted, but doubled down by making a half-assed attempt to attend Scott’s and Jenny’s wedding.  AC was a junk show at the expense of both family and friends.

We moved to Missoula the weekend after AC.  In many ways it felt like a system reset.  We have a great spot in a super town and I love my new faculty position at UM.  All great stuff.  But I have not felt strong since moving to MT.  I tried to fake my way through a couple of long runs with Seth, but I was struggling.  20 mile training runs should not feel like 50-mile races.

Then the wildfires came and with them, the smoke.  Since 9/1 the air quality in Missoula has been marginal to unhealthy.  All of us have felt sick…sore throat, burning eyes, and nausea after runs.  And yet I persisted…running in the smoke like an idiot.

As the Japan trip approached, we decided to get Maggie and the girls (Ainslie 2.5 and Charlotte 9 mos.) out of the smoke.  So instead of flying to Seattle, I drove the family over the day before flying to Narita.  I rationalized that the 8 hours in the car were worth the benefit of a night’s sleep in cleaner air.  Kind of like a couple of nights in the high altitude of Boulder would help me at AC.  Kind of like the logic of an addict, really.

The flight to Japan was what it was.  No way around that.  The bigmistake was arriving the day before the race, but how else could I fit everything in?  The life equation does not include variables for leisure time, adaptation or even rest. I played some mental tricks to get excited for the run.  Easy to do with all the great organization and fanfare around the event.  But once I was alone in the woods, the truth emerged.  I was tired to the core.  10 miles of running felt like 50 and after 20 miles I was staggering as if I had run 80.  Not normal. I tried to rally, but the tank was empty.  After 30 miles, all systems were failing – legs seizing, back locking up, and guts exploding. Then I stopped, and in a similar fashion as my drop at AC, I didn’t even have the mental energy to get pissed about it.  This is not a great place to be…

And so began the long process of unraveling the trip – 7 hours in the car back to Kamakura, a few trains to Narita, the long, sleepless flight to Seattle, a quick lunch with Maggie and the girls, and finally, the drive home to Missoula so I could teach the next day.  (Note that it was just lunch with the family…with the poor air persisting, we decided to keep them in Seattle).  It’s been a week and I am now finally starting to dig out of the hole.

So it’s time to reset and find equilibrium again.  I’ll find it, but I suspect it will take some time and some looking…

It was truly an honor to be given the opportunity to try the Shinetsu 5-Mountains. My sincere thanks to Patagonia, Patagonia Japan, particularly Hoshi, Jiro, Taka, Seiji, Kenji, and Fuji, my family and my new employer for enabling and supporting this crazy trip.  I greatly appreciate it.

Nana Korobi - ya oki: Fall seven times, get up eight.