Mt Kongo Climbing Challenge Trail Race, near Osaka, Kansai - April

Mt Kongo, south of Osaka - seen from Katsuragi-san

35km, 2,000m of climb and descent on fast runnable paths (22 miles / 6,000ft) 2012 winning times: men 3.14.45 (439 finishers), women: 4.44.18 (83 finishers), veteran men over 45: 3.59.12 (307 finishers). Total finishers: 829 (1016 starters).

I seem to be making a habit of ending up in the last group to start in 'wave start' races - an especially bad idea when there is a walking event tagged on to the race. 35km of trail filled with walkers and runners adds up to an awful lot of overtaking and apologising (around 2,000 times!), so if you know the route, get there really early and go in the first group off - I tell myself....again! Most of the front runners were in the early starts, though I'm impressed to see that some fast times were done from the back, so it can be done.

One of the last groups of 50 to start
Kongo-san is the name used for a well known and often walked group of mountains on the south east edge of Osaka. The ridge is not particularly interesting or dramatic, and the paths are fast and runnable, with most slopes covered in pesky steps. No doubt some of paths on the flanks are more testing and attractive. The race, the 38th Kongo Climbing Challenge, started at the small park 1km NW of Nijojinja station, went over the saddle just south of Nijo-san, then joined the main ridge over to Mt Katsuragi, Kongo-san, and the ridge heading south then south-west from there, before descending into the valley to the north and following the road to finish at Anami station.

Full of people on race day - keep to the sides
I jogged the course slowly the week before (and took the following photos) - and was passed by a whip of a runner steaming along at race pace - I guessed he would be in the first few come the day. He wasn't for chatting and flew past which emphasised the bad day I was on - cheers mate. It was good to know where I was going and how quickly to start, though I still had to ask at one confusing junction. Before answering the two young women I asked cried out 'Sugoi! Samui desu ka?' (Fanatastic - aren't you cold?), which is compulsory when faced with a foreigner in shorts and a vest when most are still wrapped up.

Mt Katsuragi 968.9m - good views from the top but not much to look at

Having checked the course makes it seem to pass more quickly in the race. It also taught me that on the uphill stepped sections it was often quicker and easier to find trods through the trees to one side. One way or another I was passing people all the way, and feeling good in the fresh sunny conditions.

A concrete and dirt road leads up this valley towards Mt Kongo, 1,125m
Although the course has 2,000m of climbing a lot of it is in undulations, the main climbs being up onto the ridge, up Kasuragi-san, and up Kongo-san. After Kongo-san there is very little climbing and the path gets more attractive as this section is less walked.

Steep stone steps around half-way - tricky when full of nervous joggers and walkers
There isn't any technical terrain, and the only steep rough section with stone steps was so full of people it was hard to let rip, and a marshal was there warning us to be careful (aw, sweet). I gave it a go, though, as is my wont, and put the wind up a few nervous souls. If they ever organise a championship series in Japan they would have to select race only events - walkers really cramp your descending style.

Gentle joggle checking the second half of the course, with bear bamboo
After Kongo -san I had worked through the field and thankfully it got a bit quieter, with mainly just runners to pass on the increasingly pleasant and less engineered paths, sometimes on springy leaf litter with dappled sunlight. OK, time to get going.

Run me, run me...
I was feeling good now, having paced myself correctly, and enjoyed pressing on, using each group I came up behind as a target. I caught up with a guy I had chatted to on the train on the way there whose start time was half an hour earlier. "Let's run together - two people are faster than one!" he said. That's sometimes true, but I was on a roll and sadly he was soon out of the back. Sorry mate. I concentrated on working hard uphill on the small undulations along the last ridge, knowing that the descent and road run-in would be OK whatever state I was in.

The final ridge SW from Mt Kongo
I was looking out for the turn sharp right off the ridge, and found that fortunately it was the one I had reccied the week before. Jumping down huge steps fit for giants made for painful thighs, but once on the valley road it was just a few kilometres blast to the finish. Everyone was lounging around in the sunshine, and I bumped into the guy I had run part of the Mt Rokko race with 3 weeks before. He turned out to be a hard-working fireman. A couple changed from their immaculate running gear into their immaculate going home gear, carefully brushing their already clean shoes before walking to the station.

Most of the course seen from the East
I waited for my friend Richard to finish his first ever race, which he duly did in good form. He was excellent entertainment value on the way home, as he experience his first ever leg cramps. Unfortunately for him this happened on a train carriage full of unsmiling and formal looking people. He suddenly arched his back with a shocked look on his face and lurched to his feet, proceeding for the next 10 minutes to execute what looked like an experimental modern dance exploring the tragedy of the human condition, whilst asking "What is it? What's happening to me?" through gritted teeth. He was bustin' some serious moves. I know how excruciating cramp can be, but his simultaneous attempts to look normal in the rigidly conformist context of the Japanese train, not cry out and explain to the stony faced passengers in polite Japanese that he wasn't ill, he had just done a mountain race (which I think they took as proof that he was indeed mentally ill), made keeping a straight face difficult. My normal way of helping someone with cramp, which would be to throw them on their backs, grab their heels and shake, followed by massage, would probably not have helped the situation. The cloistered sanctity of the railway carriage must not be disturbed. Apparently.

Later the results and an unusually tasteful race shirt arrived (no sponsor's logos, hooray!). I finished in 4.31.18 for 13th in the V45 race from 371 starters (7th V50 if they had that category), which overall was 60th from 912 men starters.

The Mt Kongo Climbing Challenge Race takes place in early April - enter in advance through Sportsentry. For race organiser's website click here (Japanese)