Mitake Mountain Trail Race, Tokyo

15km 762m/2,500 feet of climb (Mountain top finish) November

GAMBARE! Run! Lunge up endless steps, gongs beating in your ears and stagger a last few paces as if through treacle. Book-keepers wait in judgement, a banner swims overhead- why can’t you read it? Higher still looms a huge silver warrior on horseback, sword poised to lop off the heads of those below. You want to shout, to warn them, but they can’t understand and you laugh manically as you sink to the ground. No, it’s not just another running anxiety dream and you aren’t loosing it. It is a Japanese mountain race … and that’s only the finish….

The finish is at Mitake-san's mountain-top shrine

Tokyo may excite the techno-urbanite, but it’s flat, it’s enormous and it’s very, very ugly. (Even I think that and I come from Rochdale.) Sanity demands that the fell runner gets the hell out. Fortunately, most of Japan is covered by beautiful mountains, some of which are only an hour to the west of Tokyo. The modest spot heights and wooded trails with neat signposts are deceptive. This is forest you can fall off. Being geological babies these ‘hills’ are sharply ridged and craggy, suddenly requiring concentration after easy running. Mountains are venerated with the suffix ‘san,’ each with it’s shrines and offerings, each feature with it’s own god of place and a sense of awe befitting a land that can shake itself like a dog scratching fleas.

Running ‘off piste,’ even on these modest hills, is not a good idea, as I have found to my cost. Flesh-ripping scrub, funnelling down into dangerous gullies tends to focus the mind on navigation a little more. And when the animal warning signs depict snakes, hornets, monkeys, boar and bears, you start to hanker for something cute and homely, like an aggressive farm dog. Winter is the best season below the tree line, otherwise you might sweat up 3,000’ and see nothing but leaves - and in winter some of the wildlife is safely asleep.

Until this visit I hadn’t seen another hill runner or been able to find a race to run. I finally managed to get a late entry for the Mitake Mountain Trail Race in November, the last of the season. A recce revealed a fast 15k/2,500’, very runnable course, with two thirds of the climbing on tarmac in the first 4km and a mountain top finish.

Early morning on race day found us shivering at the Mountain railway start. The entire field duly lined up, not to run, but for a full half-hour of synchronised group aerobics! We are talking Lycra clad women instructors with a sound system here. They all looked to be enjoying it but it was a star jump too far for me.

Pre-race exercises anyone?

According to the organiser’s map there was one short, rough technical downhill stretch to look forward to on the course, which mainly climbed, but I was stunned to find a ‘No overtaking’ instruction on this section! Hell, descending is the only thing I can still do. After clarification it seemed that overtaking was acceptable, provided permission was politely sought from other runners—this reprieve interrupting the rather less than polite string of epithets in my mind.

After photos with a splendid man in his seventies running with a flag calling for peace in Afghanistan; and another with my wife's uncle (clad in full black motorbike leathers set off by a girl’s borrowed fluffy blue hat) the start was called. The only other ‘Gaijin’ (foreigner) grabbed me and said hello, then we were all off to the beat of a large Taiko drum, the leaders disappearing round the hairpins, led by a forestry safety worker on a motor-cross bike in bright red leathers (but sadly no fluffy hat.)

The start, with the winner in yellow

Pacing yourself up a 1,000’ climb on tarmac is tricky and the second half on trails was spent hanging on, being passed by the odd runner—they were all thinner and more poshly dressed than me—not difficult on both counts, so perhaps I was the odd runner. Still, the sun striped through the trees, the air was crisp and good, the first time up the steps of the shrine was a novelty and the waterfall sparkled beneath pine-topped cliffs. Finally I was mountain racing… in Japan!

Things were getting painful by the bamboo fringed ridge path heading back towards the shrine, with runners chatting as they trotted by. I was looking forward to the short downhill section. I let my Walshies do the talking as I hit the descent, scattering gravel and sticks and shouting polite apologies to the string of somewhat shocked runners who kindly (and sensibly) got out of my way. I think it was their first encounter with English style descending.

Allesssandro nabbed first gaijin kudos by re-taking me just before the finish on top of the shrine steps for 25th and 26th place from 300. I’ve had a slight ME induced dip in form of late…ok, ok, so it’s a seventeen year dip…so this was good enough.

Alessandro turned out to be a 26-year-old who had been in the Italian orienteering team as a junior. He introduced himself and invited me on a run with his Japanese club before disappearing for the onsen (hot volcanic spa bath,) which came free for all finishers, along with a sweatshirt and numerous spot prizes.

I chose the English option—stay dirty and eat lots of food. Hot noodles in the sunshine; panoramic views across the hills to the vast plain of Tokyo greying to nothing in the distance; oh yes, that'll do nicely. Pushing our son back up the hill in his buggy for the prize-giving at the shrine: oh no. Entertainingly, most of the prizes were decided by an innocent, mystifying and protracted communal game resembling ‘paper, scissors, knife,’ with groans and cheers all round. Passers-by became embroiled and even got prizes. "Jan, ken, PO!"

That night saw us at home, being presented with an enormous celebratory strawberry and cream cake by my wife's uncle. He is affectionately known as ‘Mr Cakee’ for his custom of bringing ever-bigger cakes at every visit. On the top was the legend in chocolate ‘Have view of next champion.’ You’d need a bloody enormous pair of binoculars, mate.

With Alessandro on a later run in the mountains west of Tokyo from Ome

The club run a week or two later was a stonking three-and-a half hours which got faster and faster as slower runners peeled off for shorter routes, leaving a group of four of us, the pace being set by ultra-distance specialist and club captain Taku-san. He had finished 3rd in a 70k mountain race the month before despite his six-days-a-week, twelve-hours-a-day job. We played a game of ‘crack the newcomer’ as he eased the pace upwards at every rise and kept it there, drawing shouts and groans from Allessandro and a handy looking young Japanese runner. This felt faster than the race by some way but we finished together so I managed to keep my dignity and granite-hewn northern silence.

I learned on further runs that shouting ‘Itai, itai,’ (it hurts!) or ‘Damei’ (stop it!) is traditional and if Alle’ is anything to go by, with Italians too. Such ritualised groaning is not to be confused with actual exhaustion—they don’t slow down! At one point Alle’s groans were such that I expected to turn round and see him holding a baby.

Trail running on Hinode-yama Tokyo Japan
Training with Taku-san and Alle on Hinode yama, with Mitake-san behind

Another slight difference from the average British club-run was getting naked in the onsen together afterwards. There really is no better way to finish a winter day on the mountains! After one previous memorable snowy walk we sat outside, up to our necks in steaming water beneath a huge mountain moon. On a hot summer night I have had a small, unfenced campsite onsen to myself at midnight, looking up into the trees with increasing nervousness as I realised the lack of any barrier. I was a ready to eat boil-in-the bag bear snack.

All things must end, and an ill-advised half marathon along with 8,000 Tokyites a little later (flat, dull, windy with a sandstorm in the finishing field) saw me injured once again… bugger, and I was just starting to enjoy myself. Ah well, back to limping overweight and half-trained through the mud and sleet of an English ‘spring,’ back to sloshing off in a cold stone horse trough, back…home.

This article first appeared in the UK Fellrunner Magazine in 2007