Ist Mt Rokko Juso Race report

Trail race 45km/3,000m (28 miles/10,000ft) Kobe, Kansai, Japan
Red Lights in the mist

Well that was very interesting, to say the least. So many things I have never seen before in a long mountain race - some entertaining, like the woman who finished in still pristine make-up, wearing what appeared to be immaculate full 1980's disco gear including a skirt, tights and shocking pink leg-warmers, all topped off with a plastic mac. She did a decent time, too. Hats off to you madam, I always end up with panda eyes and sparkly tights round my muddy ankles when I go for glam in trail races. One or two novelties I'd be happy not to see again too soon, like queueing for a checkpoint stamp, amongst other things not involving actual running. My legs hurt and I have that 'day after a long race' feeling - hungry and thick headed with scary forehead veins and screaming skull eyes, but deeply satisfied - so something must have gone right.

The finish of the Mt Rokko 45km race in Arima Onsen - that's the time of day, not the elapsed time

Perversely, I was delighted to see the weather forecast was bad, and the first third was in heavy rain and wind, the 'real feel' at about 10c. Just a normal day at the office for an English fell runner, but not much to the liking of the average Japanese person. Not that trail runners are average - racing 45km with 3,000m of climb and descent (28 miles/10,000ft) is something of a specialised taste, but everyone was pretty wrapped up. Quite a few were wearing full length disposable plastic coats over their gear, as if in a last minute panic at the 'extreme' conditions - the first of the day's firsts. I decided that getting dehydrated was worse than being chilly and gambled on it getting warmer, raising a few eyebrows by setting off in shorts, thermal and pertex top, which proved to be right for me as I never felt cold, although there was a bit of ice around above 800m and it got a bit blowy. They will all have the last laugh when it gets hotter though. They will all be trotting along with nerry a bead of sweat in the summer, while I lie down, a crumpled and soggy mess of crimson heat stroke.

As predicted, the wave start was frustrating and even dangerous, as setting off last meant that the first  30% of the course was choked with runners, which provided a strange combination of being slowed down and frustration-induced adrenaline. I'm not sure if it made me push too hard or kept me to a sensible pace, but it felt weird. Not as weird as the controlled sections though - having to walk off the first hill on steps with no overtaking allowed, knowing that the first few through would have been running, was galling, followed by walking through a shopping street. Stewards were watching to disqualify anyone not complying. The most dramatic section of the course is the steep crag coming of Yokoo-san. There was a queue for this walking/no overtaking section, and again people starting in the first group would be quicker. I would usually look to pass a lot of people on this kind of terrain - not today! The second climb is a big flight of concrete steps, and threading past all the people strung up it took a lot of apologetic 'sumimasen' s.

The finishing tape for every runner was a nice touch

Releasing some frustration by blasting down the next descent felt good - until I got to the first of four sets of traffic lights on the route. Red. The wait of several aeons and a millennium gave all the people I'd passed time to catch up. Bugger. On the plus side, the next mountain had time to be eroded by 5cm.

The great thing about having run a course check beforehand is that on the day it all seems to fly by much more quickly, and the next few hills, mainly on one kind of step or another, didn't seem so bad. The field was thinning out now, and I had caught up the people going at my pace. Two more red crossing lights ("This is getting silly, is my race IC chip switching them from green?") and we were on to the long drag up Mt Maya, we had broken the back of that 10,000ft of climbing, and we were into the mist.

Running alone for long stretches now, more concentration on route-finding was needed despite the organiser's extra signs, but having seen the route before helped in reversing a potentially disastrous mistake - there are endless path junctions. I called back runners who were heading the wrong way several times. I buddied up with a young guy in orange that I kept seeing who was stronger on the climbs and slower on the descents and we ran the fast road section to checkpoint four together, time for one last red light, and off along the caged paths through the golf courses, until a sore leg slowed him down. I was slowing down too, loosing concentration after five hours running, keeping a dodgy stomach at bay and getting passed by a couple of guys who had paced themselves more evenly and knew where the finish was. After a few undulations and more steps threading the road Rokko-san top itself seems to come quicker than expected, and I felt I could have emptied the tank a bit more. Time to do just that.

The finishing descent is fun -  fast, then getting rougher. I passed two runners who had stopped to refuel at the last checkpoint - thanks lads! Then another, and a tall young guy I'd chatted to earlier while queuing for one of the walking sessions earlier, who seemed to be ambling along looking at the trees. Well they were nice trees. "It's only 2km to the finish you know! Let's go!" I called, in case he didn't know. "Oh, be careful!" he replied. Erm...I don't think so, sir, more than enough control for one day methinks. This came out as a shouted "No!" A well-meaning marshal on the way down also told me to be careful before the rough section down a small steep-sided valley. The tank was well and truly emptied now, and the small climb near the end made sure I left it all on the course.

The finish was well organised, with a gantry, big clock, a tape for every finisher, and even, comically, someone holding up a card saying "You are looking good!" I think not. I needed a few minutes sitting down before I could face getting changed, which took a while - if you have done a mountain ultra you will know the feeling. Feeling half-human again I collected the certificate with time (5.46.08) and position (18th from 485) though I don't yet know how I'd done in the 45+ group. The winner took 4 hours 53 minutes. Hell, with my medical history and age (53), I'll take that. Still, we all have to take our times with a pinch of salt what with the lottery of queuing, red lights and all.

Hello, is there anyone there?

All that was missing was a bit of post-race banter and socialising. Like most of the races I've done in Japan it was just finish, get changed, and well....go home. Nobody talks much. English fell running is such a great social scene book-ending the races, starting with protesting about how unfit, untrained and unwell you are, and usually ending up with talking crap and swapping war stories in the pub afterwards. There is a shared history and everyone knows everyone else. So it felt a bit lonely, phoning my entirely underwhelmed family to say I'd survived and then wandering off to catch the bus. Still, that's what blogs are for isn't it, you know exactly why I feel so satisfied, don't you? There, I knew I could count on you.

Having found my way over 45km of mountain, I couldn't find the bus, until a sprightly gentleman of seventy seven, as he proudly told me, said he was going to the bus himself and showed me the way, and quite a way it was too, I would never have found it. He said that now he was retired he likes to take children walking on the mountain. When we got to the bus, he didn't get on, and I realised he had come right out of his way just to help me. So I wasn't the only one to have gone the extra mile.

My number, after it had been through the wash by mistake - makes you want to run, doesn't it?

The Mt Rokko Longitudinal Race (45km / 3,000m climb) takes place in mid March. See my previous posts:
Rokko course pt 1
Rokko course pt 2
Rokko race rules
It is organised by Actrep.


Rules rule?

An example of rules in Japanese trail races: Mt Rokko Longitudinal Race 

Fell running. The freedom of the trails, the one area of life where yo are free to let rip, to rediscover your animal self on the mountains beyond the narrow nit-picking bounds of modern life, right? Well, not quite.

A nice fat white envelope arrived from Actrep, the organisers of the Rokko Longitudinal Course race (45km/28 miles with 3,000m/10,000ft climb). An essential part of trail and mountain racing in Japan is making sure you understand the exact format and multiple rules for a particular race, as there are no agreed standards . I retired with a translator friend to the chain restaurant, queasily coloured an intestinal orange that makes you feel as if you are being digested as you eat. It has all the effortless charm of a motorway service station, but it is cheap and there are no locally run alternatives. Oh for the Red Lion in Littleborough. So, what is on the race menu for a week on Saturday? Let's work through the race information. Take a deep breath.

'Wave' starts
Firstly, as number 561 of 600, even though I entered very early, I am leaving in a 'wave start' at 9am. 50 people at a time start every 3 minutes from 8.30. This means someone in my group running well might have to overtake 10 people every 1km, or one every 100 metres (450 people over 45km). If it slows you down by at least 1 second to overtake someone - if you are lucky - that means you are giving a minimum of around 6 minutes to a rival starting in the first group. Not good. I'd prefer a mass start, asking people to be sensible about their position, with a loop to string people out to start. Route finding shouldn't be a problem though with that many people to follow...

Improvised and official signposts, map reading, or just follow people?
Special sections.
There are designated sections where....you might want to sit down to prepare yourself for this one.....you have to walk. Yes. There are sections where you cannot overtake. I nearly had a seizure in my first Japanese race when I saw that overtaking was not allowed on the only steep rough downhill section! I got permission from the organiser to overtake as long as I politely requested to do so from my fellow competitors. I mean, descending is the only thing I can still do!

For this race, it goes like this:
  • Section 1 - downhill steps: you can run but there is no overtaking. Someone will walk, so basically you are screwed. The leader of the first group to start will gain 5 minutes.
  • Section 2 - urban pedestrian walkway: you have to walk, but overtaking is OK. Do the hip-shake thing: practice race-walking now.
  • Section 3 - mountain crag with some exposure: you have to walk and there is no overtaking. Nullifies the skills of rough stuff specialists.
  • All urban sections: 'jogging only.' All traffic signs have to be obeyed as usual, meaning if a pedestrian crossing is on red you have to wait, even if the road is empty. This can work for and against you. Maybe if I time it right I can recoup that 6 minutes. For most runners jogging won't be a problem on a race of this length - and what is it anyway? I don't fancy trying to keep up with Paula Radcliffe's jog.
Perhaps these rules are in response to police, local government and insurer requests, with a touch of organiser wariness thrown in. Anyway, it only covers 2 or 3km out of 45. We'll live.

No rules! That's right, no minimum clothing, kit or food requirements. Feeding and navigation is the competitors' responsibility. You get a nicely printed map free - but if you want to orienteer by compass you will need to draw your own grid lines on as there aren't any and north is somewhere up in the top right corner. This is a well used route near to roads and civilisation, but I will be carrying at least a waterproof top and bottoms, and I would always say full body cover must be carried. Mountains are mountains and one wrong turn and a broken ankle could see you in trouble. Viva FRA rules! There are drinks machines, shops and cafés on the way - lighter than carrying liquid.

Checkpoints, end points, and another kind
OK, this straightforward. There are three kinds of points on the routes: 5 end points in case you need to drop out, 3 checkpoints that you need to get your card stamped at, and another kind which we don't yet understand. Some checkpoints are also end points, but not all end points are checkpoints. Endpoint 4 could be checkpoint 2. Then there is the other kind which we don't understand yet. Got that? Good. Now can you explain it to me?

There is a card that must be taken to sign in with, then we will be issued with a card which must be stamped at the three checkpoints (fun if it's wet) and handed in at the end, and another card which we don't understand yet.

It's all very interesting. There is a high tolerance for rules and administrative detail in Japan, so local runners won't bat an eyelid at all this. Being used to the UK fell running scene I'd prefer to see minimum rules and runners treated as responsible adults. I would, I would, I would! (Sound of toys being thrown out of the pram). In 30 years I have never seen a runner endanger either another runner or a someone out walking their dog. Mountain people look after each other, right?

Safety has to come first though. And, having organised races myself, I am well aware of the hard work that goes into it and all the different pressures that end up giving the race its particular character. As a runner I really appreciate the chance to see what will happen when I push myself alongside others. It's all good. Let the slightly constrained fun begin!


Mt Hiei and the marathon monks, Kyoto

Mt Hiei just north east of Kyoto in late December
I didn't know until we were on the mountain that I would be coming into close contact with one of the world's great historical mountain endurance traditions. I had read about Mt Hiei's 'marathon monks' but never thought I would see the place - especially by accident.  In a gloriously incongruous transplanted cultural tradition I had been invited for a Christmas Day meal, sleep-over and long Boxing Day run by David, who I had only met once before - oh the joys of spontaneous sociability! Ohara was snowy and beautiful, and it felt like being at home back in Fukushima's mountainous Okuaizu villages.

Ohara morning - only 10km north of Kyoto

Run preparations were of Olympic standard. Well stuffed with the a western-style meal, refreshed with long conversations in English and slightly pummelled by David's great kids acting out their favourite animé scenarios, Boxing Day dawned with more snow. Let's get at it.

David heading up the first climb in Northern Irish  hard man style  - gear is for wussses

It was only now as we climbed gradually up the first hill in pristine shallow snow that I understood where we were going - over a couple of tops to Hiei-san. We would be running in the footsteps of the 'marathon monks.' Wow, I'm not worthy. Nah, not really, I'm too much of an egotistical sceptic to feel that. But it would be very interesting. We made the top of Yokotaka-san and made our way along the undulating ridge, ribbons of ice coating every twig, and a stiff breeze cutting over the hill. "It'll harden ye," said David with a wry smile. In a homage to Michael Jackson he had managed to come out with only one glove, and he explained that "It'll harden ye" is a stock response to any hardship in Northern Ireland, where they have known a few.

Ice decorations and David in his element on Mt Yokotaka
We were the only souls out - it is a normal working day in Japan, so we had the new-made world to ourselves, slithering, leaping and whooping down steep slopes. As we approached Mt Hiei David told me what  he knew of the place, that the Buddhist temple and it's army (yes, Buddhist mercenaries/soldiers, but if you think that is weird, check out the Yakuza scandal, links below), had got ideas above it's station and interfered once too often in the affairs of the capital in Kyoto, with the result that a large imperial force was sent in 1571. It encircled the mountain and neighbouring towns and then moved upwards, killing everyone (an estimated 20,000) and burning everything until it reached the top. Problem solved after a fashion. The temple was re-established, and the tradition of a gruelling discipline of mountain endurance and prayer resumed.

Part of the monks' prayer and endurance route
After exhaustive research spanning several minutes in the dusty tomes and darkened recesses of the internet, I have gathered the following. I'd take the details with a pinch of salt if I were you, as most sources say something slightly different and seem to be feeding off each other without looking at primary materials - and I'm doing the same.

They are sometimes called 'running monks' but this seems to be inaccurate. "Jogyozanmai" is translated on an information board I saw as "walking meditation" rather than running, and the films (links below) show fast walking  - so no, it is not that kind of jog! However, anyone who understands mountains knows that one person's fast walk is not the same as another's. The walking is incidental in that it is primarily there to gain access to the numerous prayer sites across the mountain. The difficulty of the Jogyozanmai lies not in its speed, but in its relentless succession of hard days in sets of one or two hundred, over seven years, amounting to an estimated 28,400 miles, set in the context of prayer and meditation, sometimes with limited food and sleep, no modern comforts, and all done in grass sandals through any weather and illness, come what may. Very few have completed it, though some have done it twice, and good runners are reputed to have given up after a week.

I have a feeling that English running greats Joss Naylor and Billy Bland would not have had a problem with it, mind you. Clearly, it is very different as even hardened mountain runners used to long distances have flexibility and fit their running around the pleasures of ordinary life, resting when they need to, and choosing when to suffer. It seems to be the unforgiving rigidity and emotional isolation - the intentionally soul destroying boredom even - of the Mt Hiei discipline that makes it particularly difficult - one day of serious illness and the whole thing is in jeopardy.

Jogyo-Do temple on the left, Hokke-do on the right, for walking, and walking and sitting training respectively. I'm looking for the cake eating temple
There is a wide continuum of human experiences that connect up with recreational mountain running and mountain asceticism. Both can span meditative thought, a quasi-spirtitual (in the sense of awe and wonder) relationship with the land and existence. Is there a point where both touch on the dysfunctional self (present company excepted of course) escaping the difficulties of ordinary life, or even a need for the kind of intensity that borders on self-harm? In case you think that is an exaggeration, the monks carry a rope and blade as in previous centuries they were supposed to top themselves if they failed, and the route is said to be dotted with the graves of those who have. Generally speaking when I fail to finish a run I have a little moan to my friends then go home and have some nice beans on toast - but then again, I am not enlightened. The long ordeal finishes with a 7 (or 9?) day sleepless fast where death, slash, enlightenment is hopefully approached. It used to be 10 days, but most people died so they shortened it, the softies. Imagine getting to the of it all end and feeling, well, no different? I know the Mt Hiei experience would not be for me unless all else had failed....erm...where do I sign? As David would say, "It'll harden ye."

Excuse me, is this the café?

Information on the marathon monks and Mt Hiei on the internet is patchy and often slightly contradictory: the truth is out there somewhere....
20 minute Australian video on the marathon monks
English documnetary (older film, different monk):Pt 1
Pt 2
A slightly wacky page on the marathon monks
USA today article 
The masacre on Mt Hiei
"The Marathon monks of Mt Hiei" is a book by John Stevens
Wikipedia page
Enryaku-ji temple and the yakuza scandal 
Warrior monks