Race Review - Kyoto Grand Traverse

Eat Pray Run

Kyoto Grand Traverse

By Govinda Finn

Japan’s ancient capital attracts millions of tourists each year. Most are set on sampling the city’s delicious food or seeking out its golden temples. A lucky few will also enjoy a hike in its hills.

I was visiting for the 3rd edition of the Grand Kyoto Traverse, a hilly 65 km ultra-marathon with 3,000 metres of elevation gain. It is the longest race in the Japan Trail Running Circuit series.

With just 21 hours in the city, I would have little time for sightseeing. Yet even in its most pared back form, Kyoto proved an enlightening experience.

My first lesson came in the form of race nutrition. I must confess Japanese food has already transformed my ultra-marathon diet. Rice balls and salty seaweed regularly featured during long runs in Scotland. However, Kyoto raised my mastery to a new level.

Breakfast was a large bowl of rice porridge and an assortment of pickled vegetables. Topped off with a sour plum. The food was served in a community area which was already filling up with runners at 6am. 

These were seasoned athletes, approaching the sport with the obsessive of ‘Takumi’, or master craftsperson. One runner reeled off a list of marathons he’d run across the world. ‘More than 1,000 in all’ he proudly declared.

I confessed it was my first trail race in Japan and the startled response proved a little unsettling.

‘Everything will come together,” I reassured myself. “And besides I was not here to win, a modest pace and plenty of breaks would get me around”. The target was sub-10 hours.

By the time the start gun fired, I was feeling more relaxed. Most of the runners were eager, and I drifted towards the back of the first wave. The lack of serious exertion on easy but picturesque terrain alongside the Kiyotaki River and a pledge to eat as much real food as possible in the first half of the race meant I was happy to stop at each aid station.

Once again the sour plum took my eye, while rice balls and rice crackers also featured heavily. The biggest find of the day was the yokan, a thick, jellied Japanese dessert made of red bean paste, agar, and sugar. Scrumptious. Unfortunately, the eating was not doing wonders for my pace. I was going backwards even before the aid station pig-outs.

Things started to improve for me once we hit the first serious hills. A prolonged climb followed by a sublime downhill section to a false valley and then a final lung busting ascent. The combination had a dizzying effect – a trail equivalent to the legendary ‘eau rouge’.

As we descended again, losing elevation and the shade from the forest, the exhilaration started to be drowned out by perspiration and the intensity of the day’s heat. A distant typhoon had pushed hot air north into Kyoto and temperatures were hitting 35 degrees.

Kyoto Grand Transverse 2

‘Walk if you have to’ I told myself. A drinks machine turned into an impromptu aid station. But I couldn’t seem to take on liquids fast enough.

At the next stop I was 37km in. It had taken me six steamy hours and I was seriously considering dropping out. As if on cue, one volunteer chimed, ‘the 10km to the next aid station are the most grueling’. We would also pass the highest point of the route, Mount Hiei.

That was all I needed. I made up my mind to stop at the next aid station. DNFs are part of the sport, I reasoned. It would still be an ultra-marathon and given the conditions it was madness to keep running.

Yet plan B didn’t last long. Again I performed well on the steep climb that led away from the aid station and took still more positions on the undulating terrain that followed.

It was also at this point the field began to noticeably spread out. I found myself increasingly running alone, with encounters with other runners brief. Most were tired and spent and I was keen not to lose momentum.

As the trail became remoter it also became quieter. A few years ago I had read of a sect of running Kyoto monks who run 1,000 marathons in 1,000 days in search of enlightenment. It seemed a super-human feat but I was now passing through the same hills on my own quest. 

Hopes for a transcendental experience proved short-lived. A sudden movement at my feet was the tell-tale signs of a mamushi, one of Japan’s most venomous snakes. Later I’d learn snakes are considered messengers of the dragon deity Ryujin.

If this one had a message it was that the Kyoto Grand Traverse is not for the feint-hearted. I laughed at my naivety, ultra-running may be meditative but it’s certainly not meditation.

I was soon facing a new anxiety. The course markers became increasingly sporadic, and with no other runners in sight I began to worry about getting lost. I wanted to check my map. However, the paper print out I was carrying had become a soggy mess of perspiration.

At the point of peak exasperation, a fellow runner came crashing through the trees. His name was Yoshi Hino. He explained he had run the course before. He had run many ultras in Japan.  It was a huge relief after the trauma of the last few kilometers.

After another wild descent, we emerged into a village and the final aid station. At this stage, the stewards were prepared for all comers. Some runners had collapsed to the floor, others stretched and moaned.

‘Will you be joining us next year?’ I asked. ‘Look at how much fun everyone is having’. It was said only half in jest. I was enjoying myself now and stopping was the furthest thought from my mind. We were 56km in.

Having filled up on the main meal, I wasn’t prepared to miss dessert: a charging descent into the twilight. The final 30 minutes were run alone and in darkness. However, I was still moving at a decent sub-7 min per km pace.

Turning a corner, my head torch lit up Bishamon-do Temple and it was only a few more steps until I embraced the finishing line. As others before me had done, I turned to face it and took a deep, silent bow. It was a low key end – with most people disappearing quickly into the night. I had run for 10 hours 55 minutes 27 seconds – 62nd of 102 finishers.

My achievement was greeted with no fanfare or medal and 20 minutes later I was stood on a train platform preparing to leave Kyoto. Despite the endeavors of the day, I was already blending into the commuters.


While I’d leave Kyoto that night with little trace it was not empty-handed. I had captured a satisfaction worthy of Kyoto’s finest dining; explored the spirit of ‘doryoku’, or refusal to give up; and tasted spirituality rare even in the city’s ancient temples. 

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