Running to the Summit of Fujisan.
This is the tale of two races: one trail race up to 5th station and the second up the volcanic rock path to the top.
From the entry to the completion of this race, Fuji Summit race is tough. The first thing the race committee tells you is true: do not underestimate the toughness of this course. You have to be prepared to run for four hours and thirty minutes up from Fujiyoshida city hall to the summit of the mountain, continually up for 13.1 miles and total of about 10,000 feet. There is no break and rarely a flat section. It is all incline, and in the first hour, my lower back reminded me that core strength is more important on this race specifically.
If you’ve never climbed Fuji: the faster average climbers start at 5th station and climb to the summit in about 4 hours, a distance of about 4 miles. Yes, 1 mile per hour. To get to 5th station, climbers take a bus from the city and get dropped off and then begin to make their way up to the top.
In this race, 5th station is the 9th mile with a strict cutoff time of 2 hours and 20 minutes. If you hit that wicket, you get 2 hours to race up the last 4.1 miles.
About the course:
The first mile and a half are through the city and everyone is silently jostling for position nearer to the front. Jessey was elbowed hard about four times and I was tripped. I steadied myself by grabbing onto the men next to me. If I was going down, we all were. Luckily, I caught myself before the fall and kept moving forward.
Soon, the course leaves the city of Fujiyoshida and starts into the beautiful forest area, like nothing that we have on Okinawa. It is old growth pines, tall and lovely. No wild tropical jungle growth. Do not guess that it was not hot and humid; it was. The temp was around 80 degrees with 92% humidity at 7 am, which is the same as Okinawa. We were all drenched with our own sweat and struggle as we continually climbed.
The race then went onto a beautiful trail that had large sections that were full of stones. Racers had to pick their way around these sections as running through the middle looked painful and much tougher. What would normally be a wide trail, formed into a single track in many areas.
This trail leads on to 5th station, were the race changes completely into a different race.
About 80% of the racers, do not make the cutoff time at 5th station and walk right straight through the check point and onto the bus going down the mountain. We too missed our cutoff by about 10 minutes but decided we were going to run to the summit anyway. We got caught in the flow of DNF’ers and followed along until we sussed out we were going the wrong way. We hopped up on another trail and started back up, which added about 1 mile onto our course.
And then we went up. The trail up Fuji is loose volcanic rock. Each step feels like you slide back half way before you move forward, and becomes quite mentally challenging and frustrating. There is no purchase. We have nothing like that except the deep sand of the beaches, but those don’t go up.
The trail we run up is Yoshida trail, which is the steepest and toughest. Many, many sections, you have to use hands to help climb up. As you look up the mountain, it feels as if you are going nowhere. Your GPS will only confirm how slowly you are moving, too. Two miles an hour sounds crazy slow, but climbing straight up at times at mile 11 of a race, is fast.
And once you get to the top, you have to run back down to pick up your drop bag and meet the bus to take you to the finishing ceremony. Since we were about an hour behind the racers, we ran hard down the mountain, to 5th station in 55 minutes. Now that was run of a lifetime!
One thing us island girls cannot train in or simulate is altitude. I was expecting this and trained in the heat of the Okinawa summers to help, but still felt winded after running a short way. Part of the difficulty of this race is that most of the racers are from the area. The course record holders are from or live around the Fuji area and have access to high altitude training.
If you are looking for a tough, competitive race, this is it. There is no camaraderie that you may expect on a trail course. Due to the difficulty and stress on the racers, it was the quietest race I had ever run. No one said a word, and I could hear the heavy breathing of many runners around me. Everyone was giving it their all. The time restraints and high altitude are particularly challenging for us island living and loving people Although we missed the cutoff of this year, we have already begun training for next year. Hopefully a year of training will be enough to meet the demands of this challenge of two races rolled into the Fujisan summit race.