Friday, November 21, 2014

Hasetsune Cup 2014 (and 2013)

I understand why I don't blog with any frequency. Blog posts don't need to be books, but alas, here's another chapter:

About two miles into Hasetsune, I was worried as I looked up at the first vertical wall of a climb. From last year, I remembered that Hasetsune was really tough, but I’ve never run a race two years in a row where I remembered so little about the course.  Shortly before the start of the race, I turned to Max and told him that the hardest part of the course was from kilometers 30-55, and that the first 30K was” runnable.”  The first statement is likely true, although it’s hard to differentiate between the first 30K and the section from 30 – 55, or from 55 – 71.5. The first kilometer downhill through town is fast, but this quickly transitions into a climb for a couple of kilometers, and then, abruptly, to the first of many steep climbs—hands-on-knees steep. I looked up the first one, about 2 miles in, and at the long line of racers in front of me hiking, and my first thought was, “Max is going to kick my ass.” This first ascent still wasn't enough to jog my recollection of the climbs to come. In the first "runnable" 30K the climbs were relentless. Last year must have been so painful that I simply blocked out the memory of it, as this year it was like running the first half of the course for the very first time.  At every hill I thought to myself, “You've got to be kidding me.” Followed closely by, “Max is going to kick my ass.”
See just how mad Max was? 
While races without aid are not unheard of in the US (Plain 100, as an example), the set-up of Hasetsune is. Whereas Plain 100 has no aid, it also has little support on course, and no crowds of supporters, some dressed up in Mini Mouse costumes, shouting encouragement along the way. Hasetsune, in its 22nd year, is a big event in Japan; the 2,500 spots fill almost instantly online. The logistical support is high—in that there are many volunteers involved and a good amount of fan support along the way. It’s not like you see people the entire way, as you're usually enveloped in dense forest, but you do pass a handful of checkpoints where folks are out cheering, and also spots on the trail with volunteers taking down numbers. The course is impeccably marked with white signs (all in Japanese), and red arrows. Last year I did get slightly off course when I followed an errant sign to a shrine, but this year, I used common sense and followed all signs of the same size, color, and not made of wood (the permanent trail/tourist signs). Once it gets dark there are red blinking lights (like the kind you’d use as a rear light on a bike), that were spaced frequently enough to rarely doubt whether you're on course. Aid is minimal, in that they allow you just 1.5 L of fluid (water or sports drink) at the 2nd of 3 major check points. 

A wee exaggeration but if all the other signs are on laminated white paper, following a random wooden sign 60 Km in is a bad idea. 
Studying the course profile of Hasetsune is deceptive. It looks like an undulating gradual climb up to a couple of peaks, and then a gradual descent to the finish. This isn't what the course feels like or is actually like. While there are peaks, the continual short steep ups and downs make it hard to know which are the peaks and which are just part of the incessant zig-zagging up and down. Most climbs aren't super long, but it's almost all up and down. Over the 71.5 Km course, there's over 30,000 feet of ascent and descent, which equates to almost 700 feet/mile. 
Team Montrail/Mountain Hardwear Japan-U.S. in a rainbow of colors at the start. Photo by Sho Fujimaki.
Last year’s race was a challenge for me for different reasons than this year’s. I was fitter last year, after racing well at Western States and training for hills through the summer for UTMB. Despite a disappointing UTMB, my DNF wasn't for lack of fitness. I’d done a lot of hill work. However, a work training I was co-facilitating the week before Hasetsune made it so that I couldn't arrive until Friday late afternoon, and I didn’t sleep well Friday or Saturday nights before the Sunday start. The technical nature of the course dictates that a lot of concentration is required to stay upright, and for me, the combination of jet lag, poor sleep, and tired eyes made for a very sleepy Amy once the sun went down. The race starts at 1:00 on Sunday afternoon (Monday is a holiday), so that everyone gets the nighttime running experience. It gets dark around 5:30, which means that for all but the fastest, at least half of the race will be run in the dark. So, for the last 40 Km, I struggled to stay awake. It was also a bit warmer last year, and I ran out of fluids long before Checkpoint 2 (43 Km), where they allow you 1.5 liters of water or sports drink.  Last year I led through about half-way, to be passed by 4 women, but rallied late to finish third in 9:44. I felt like I disappointed the Montrail/MHW hosts, and myself, but it wasn't a complete train wreck, just not quite what I'd hoped due to some very sleepy miles. After last year I wanted to come back, focus on more specific hill training, and stay awake the entire race.

However, the injury that turned Comrades into a long hike kept me out for almost 2 months this summer. Having suffering a fairly significant (1.8 cm) tear to my semimembranous tendon attachment (one of the hamstrings), I only began running again around August 1. I worked diligently all summer doing physical therapy, without feeling like it was healing, but a PRP (platelet rich plasma) injection the end of July really seemed to be the thing that helped it turn the corner. Trying to be smart, I eased back into running keeping my mileage quite low through August, and into September only got up above 50 miles once or twice going into Hasetsune on Oct 12. I was definitely not where I wanted to be, but I’d committed to the race months before, and the carrot out there of a Japan race in October had given my start back into training a goal on which to focus. And despite being polar opposites, I wanted to race prior to the World 100K Championships and this seemed like a good distance option, as it would also build confidence as a long run, and (hopefully) more time on my feet than will be required at the 100K.

Running near Yaya Village up in the hills above Addis. Really interesting glimpse into some aspects of how/where Ethiopians train.
In addition to injury, sometimes life gets in the way, and besides the injury, work and life has been hectic.  I decided to move to Bend, OR at some point over the summer and found a house to buy in early September. Between September 11 and Hasetsune on Oct 12, I had a 3-week work trip to Ethiopia, 5 days back home to close on the Bend house, a couple of days at work back in Portland, and then turn around and leave for Japan. I can't complain though, because Ethiopia is one of my favorite places to go for work. Addis Ababa is set at 7500 feet, and work permitted me stay at a high altitude training center, Yaya Athletes Village, so I was able to enjoy early morning runs up around 9000 feet in the peaceful hills above Addis, “long” runs on the weekends (my long runs were never as long as I intended—I topped out at 17 miles, but 17 miles at 9,000 feet felt like a lot more to me), and had the luxury of a decent gym, which is not always the case in the places work takes me. So, I had a decent 3-weeks of training in Ethiopia. And, Ethiopia is just a cool place to visit. I also got to spend a few days in Jijiga, and surrounding communities, near the Somalian border (couldn't run there), but a cool experience, regardless, and a good reminder of why I love my real job.

Cute little goat herder we came across while out on the run. 
During my few days back in Portland, I had one particularly good run with the Tuesday night group, that left me feeling oddly confident. It wasn't anything special, we just ran up Leif the way we always run up Leif, and I even bailed when they jumped on the trail to head back and cut the run short, but I felt strong and fluid, like I hadn't felt in months, and felt like I was really running again. Perhaps that one run was enough to convince myself that I was strong enough to tackle Hasetsune. The missing links were long runs (since June 1, I’d done one 20+ mile run in the Enchantments in August, a 26 mile run in Bend in September, and then one 17 mile run in Ethiopia. 3 long runs in 4 months), decent weekly mileage, and any steep hill training, but it’s all I had. I focused on believing that running is 90% mental.

Max and I arrived in Japan on Thursday, and spent Friday doing interviews at the Tokyo Columbia/MHW/Montrail office for Japan trail running magazines and websites.  The trail scene in Japan is a vibrant one, and growing, probably similar to the growth seen here in the US in recent years. I’ve had the chance to meet the MHW/Montrail team on 3 visits to Japan in the past 2 years, and they are fabulous hosts. Montrail is the number one trail brand in Japan, with the Bajada being the number one seller, so an interesting difference from the market here in the states.
One of the websites, DogsorCaravan, prides itself on being a Japanese version of iRunfar, down to the style of pre-race interview.

Max was happy to come across so many cats in Japan, this during some interviews in the Columbia office.
My pre-race plan was to start out a bit slower than last year in hopes of a stronger middle section. Time-wise, my training had been nowhere near where it had been last year, so I was hoping for a similar time if I had a good day, taking into account last year’s struggles. I tried to remind myself that muscle memory is a grand thing, and that ultra-distance races are as much mental as physical. The last thing I’d done before I’d gone to bed Saturday night was to check my splits from 2013, so I’d know roughly where I wanted to be.

The start. Note the creative and colorful use of KT tape. Very popular in Japan.
I felt like I started out controlled, but came into the first major check point at 3:00, 3 minutes faster than 2013. Likewise, I hit the next major check point (and water stop) at 42'ishK about 5 minutes faster than my 2013 split, and without running quite as dry as I had in 2013. The weather was warm at the start, but cooler than 2013, which also helped on the hydration piece, which is one of the challenges at Hasetsune—carrying enough to make it more than half-way without a chance to refill (each person is allotted 1.5L of water or sports drink), on a course that is going to take 9+ hours to finish.

A typhoon was on the way, and heavy rain was expected starting on Monday morning, but held off for many of us. Hasetsune has a 24 hour cutoff (yes, for just 71.5 Km, but this course is tough and many finish close to the cutoffs). The 2014 edition was much foggier than 2013, and visibility up top was a challenge at times once the sun went down, about 4.5 hours in. I used my Petzl Tikka RXP, which has the reactive lighting technology, and then a one AA hand-held Fenix. I love the Tikka, but in fog, no headlight is ideal, and the handheld was key in filling in the light from below.

Somewhere early on. Photo by DogsorCaravan.
So, while I assumed I would be slower than last year based on fitness, I guess it goes to show you that muscle memory is a great thing, and that ultra races are, indeed, often as much about your mental place as your physical. I went into the race with somewhat lowered expectations, but ready to accept what the day gave me, and that I shouldn't count myself out at the start. I surprised myself and felt relatively good for much of the race. It was hard, but my quads didn't die, and I was able to run faster than 2013 even in the earlier sections. I often feel that ultra runners, as a bunch are often over-raced or over-trained, so perhaps there's something to be said for years of experience and the benefit of a couple of months off (usually forced by injury, but injuries may be the key to mentally recharging us) to refresh and re-energize.
Supporters cheering at Checkpoint 1. 
Like last year, and as I mentioned to Max, for me the hardest part of this course does come after the water stop, namely on the last big steep descent following the last steep climb that includes some chains. I kept waiting for the chain section, but each chain-less climb helped indicate that there was a least one steep final climb to go (the chains are attached for hikers to hang on to). It's a super rocky section, that I would struggle to hike down without falling, and I always pussy-foot my way down it, and watch at least a few guys scamper past. I'm not sure how much I could improve on this section, as it's just not my cup of tea. Where I do think I could improve is in just ascending faster, as this is a section that one can train specifically for, and for which I hadn't trained. Despite my lack of steep hill training (both up and down), I didn't struggle on the downs, except in the super-technical sections, and that wasn't a quad issue, but a fear and agility issue.

Relieved, I finally passed the natural spring (another place on the course to get water, but being in the last section of the race, is nice, but not entirely helpful if you're already dehydrated by that point. It does indicate that you're approaching the 3rd major checkpoint, and from there is the "easiest" part of Hasetsune, which is mainly downhill, but also with some flat and steep ups, that remind you that you are still at Hasetsune, a race that keeps on giving.
In the final 10K or so, you do pass through a couple of small communities as you head back to finish from where you started. Single loop courses have always had a strong appeal to me. Photo by DogsorCaravan.
Throughout the race I had no idea how far behind me the 2nd place woman was. I'd seen a couple of women in the first mile of the race, which might have spurred my faster-than-intended start. There was a lot of chatter in aid stations, but being all in Japanese, I had no idea what was being said. The last section seemed not as gloriously downhill as last year, but I remembered more of this part from last year than previous, and while it does seem to go on forever, there is comfort in knowing that your'e eventually going to be spit out in town and a couple of blocks from the finish. I did finally find the finish, in 9:31:18, faster than my 9:44:47 from last year. After struggling all summer with injury, and sub-optimal training in August and September, I was thrilled with my finish. Second place (福田 由香理) was not far behind in 9:35:50, and 3rd (江田 良子) in 9:49:29. Full results are here.

First female and thrilled to be back racing. Photo by DogsorCaravan.
Happy to be done and to be greeted by friends at the finish. Photo by DogsorCaravan.
Max's first comment to me after the race was along the lines of "WTF?", but Max has not, in fact, attempted to kick my ass. We did laugh about it afterwards (I was laughing....he was sort of laughing).

On the men’s side, Ruy Ueda crushed the course record from last year ( 7:19), almost getting in under 7:00 at 7:01. I met Ruy briefly at the Shibamata 100K in June of last year. His first ultra, he came in behind Meghan and me by a ways. I believe he met the Montrail/MHW folks who had come out to watch me at that race, and was on the team by last year’s Hasetsune where he was 6th. Still in his first year and a half of ultras, Ruy is 21 and has a super bright future in front of him. Like Max, he likes to mix things up, and is as likely to jump on the track for a 10K as run a technical mountain race. He’s definitely one to watch on the ultra circuit in the coming years. Setting the Hasetsune course record is a huge deal in Japan, probably much like setting a record at Western States in the US. Ruy wants to come race in the US in the spring, and I can’t wait to see how he lines up against a competitive US field. Another Montrail/MHW team member, Shuko, was 3rd, and Max was 8th, which was good for a team win.
Team Montrail won all 3 Hasetsune Cups. Men's, Women's and Team. Photo by Sho Fujimaki.
Top 5 women. I'm big in the U.S., but I'm a giant in Japan. Photo from my iPhone.
I would like to do this race again, and like I said last year, to train more specifically, namely include some steep hands-on-knees hiking, and just more vertical. I’d like to break 9 hours on this course, or at get in the vicinity. After the race I looked up past times, just to see who holds the course record. The women’s course record is 8:54, set by one of Japan’s top ultrarunners, Norimi Sakurai, who has won Hasetsune 5 times (in addition to the 2007 IAU 100K world championships in 7:00, and holds track world records in both the 100K and 6-hour). Definitely not an "easy" record to go after, but one I would merely like to get closer to, and see if I'm capable of getting close to the 9-hour mark. 

As always, thanks to my sponsors, and especially Montrail and Mountain Hardwear. The Montrail/Mountain Hardwear staff and team in Japan have been wonderful hosts to me on my visits to Japan. I can't thank them enough. And to Clif Bar, Injinji, Flora and Nuun for their continued support. To all of the Japan Montrail/MHW teammates, but also to Max King who was an awesome travel companion. Max has a lot of fans out there and for good reason--he's a really nice guy. I'm a fan, too, despite his comments about cats. On a gear note, I wore the Spring 2015 Bajadas for this race and I love these shoes. They improve on the current Bajada, and have some significant improvements (tongue, upper, foam) that make them a shoe I would wear in any trail race.

The Spring 2015 Montrail Bajada. Love it!
And a few more photos from the trip:
Somewhere famous....A shrine near the hotel.
The view from our hotel in Tokyo.
Barrels of sake.
Food is always an adventure in Japan. We had some amazing meals (luckily this was not part of one). 
The last night in Tokyo. With Tomo, me, Max, and Daigo.