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. 

Race Review - Wulong Trail 2019 110km

Wulong 1

By Jean-Marc Philippe

19-April  2019 – I took off at 7am from Singapore with Silkair MI972. Wulong city is at roughly 2hours train ride from Chongqing in Sichuan (China). It was my first trip in China since more than a decade so it looked like I was going to re-discover China starting from the most populated city in the world since ChongQing has more than 30 millions inhabitants. 

 

The arrival at Chongqing Jiangbei International Airport was uneventful and I was able to catch a metro train directly to the North railway train station. Once I figured out how the train system works, I managed to convert my Trip.com electronic ticket in a proper train ticket: it was at time comical as the staff English was as bad as my mandarin was.

The K687 train left on time to reach Wulong city 2hours at 2:50pm to reach Wulong at around 5pm.

From Wulong train station, spotting local runners, I figured out easily that I had to take a minibus for one hour ride to the Wulong “Fairy Mountain” tourist area where the race would start from and where I had booked the YunZong hotel (via trip.com again). Despite the total lack of English (like everywhere else in Wulong as far as I experienced), the manager was super friendly and helpful: I slept there before the race and kept the room for the night of the race in order to have a place to clean up and crash once I’m done. It was super convenient and literally at 100m from the race start.

Enough of travelling, let’s talk about the race! Here are some technical infos:

  • Distance:110km,
  • Elevation: 4,825m,
  • Cutoff time: 26hours (it took me 23hrs4min – ranked 52nd…),
  • 10 checkpoints with plenty of drinks and food,
  • Weather: Rain, rain and some more rain except for the last 3 hours,

Terrain: A real mud fest – I fell twice – except whenever we were running on road

More than 300 runners (176 finished) and I don’t remember seeing any other Caucasian

Race pack collection was super smooth: it’s worth noticing that it’s the first race where I got provided with a GPS tracker.

 

20-April 2019: After the previous night of continuous rain, the race started under heavy downpour so it was on a very very wet ground that few hundreds joyful but fully covered runners embarked on a 110km journey at 7am.

The course is very scenic for the first 20-25km when we went through the Wulong karst geological to a deep canyon, passing under enormous natural bridges and waterfalls. However, the weather clearly was detrimental to the overall experience. It wasn’t much fun later on despite the occasional village crossing. There were several sections of forest trail without much interest and the worst part were the hours spent through several lengthy sections of bamboos forest where you end up running bent at 90 degrees because of the short height of the bamboos blocking the path. I’m sure that with better weather, the course could be much more enjoyable but it seems that at this time of the year, heavy rain is very common.

About my race itself. I was not shooting for a great performance but I was really in pain from km30 to km50. Somehow I started to feel much better after 80km and I finished the race in a weird auto-pilot bliss, which allowed me to overtake quite a few runners during the last part of the race. I may had that because of the terrain condition, my poles proved super useful and I relied a lot on my arms in ascents.

21-April 2019: As it is not a very crowded event, there were many times where I ended up walking/running alone in the middle of the night but I never felt lost as the markings were very visible. I crossed the finishing line at around 6am, the square was very quiet and mostly empty… So once I confirmed that my timing had been correctly recorded, I headed straight to the hotel. After some long and thorough cleanup and packing, the hotel manager was super kind to drive me to the bus stop. And I made my way back step by step: bus to Wulong, train to Chongqing North railway station, metro train to Chongqing airport and Air China PN6357 flight at 6:30pm to reach Singapore shortly before midnight.

Overall, it was a fun experience. Despite the language barrier, the people in Wulong and the runners were super friendly and helpful. I have to admit however that the weather makes it a hard sell.

Race Review - Sundown Half Marathon Singapore

Can Sleep Wait?

sundown half marathon

By Markus Gnirck

For the third time in a row I entered the Sundown Half Marathon, this time however to pace a friend of mine, and not go for a personal best like the previous years. I guess that allowed me to observe the overall race organisation and get my thoughts together about this race. 

Before going into details about the actual race, here some key information about the Sundown (Half) Marathon. 

The race is flagged off at the F1 Pit Building and takes the runner off to Nicoll Highway to the Kallang Stadium before going on the Marina Bay course with a finish again at the F1 Pit Building. The course has some ups and downs (mostly tunnels and bridges) which one can feel over the distance. Flag off time for  both Marathon and Half Marathon was 11.30pm on the Saturday. 

More than 25,000 runners participated in this year’s edition which makes it one of the biggest road races in Singapore. The idea of a night race seems to appeal to many local runners. 

Now coming to the actual race experience…

While the race is a welcomed alternative to the typical morning road races, the organisation of the race didn’t seem to work out this time. Please note that those issues didn’t exist during the previous years. 

To start with, the flag off was delayed by over 15min apparently due to some issues on Nicoll Highway in removing cars from the street. While that is understandable and no one wants to run into fast driving cars, it kept the excited starting field waiting and apparently the waves of slower runners started over 30min late. Additionally, it is strange to flag off Marathon and Half Marathon Runners at the same time as it causes digestions along the way. 

The design of the course and the starting times of the different was wasn’t fully thought through. After the first 1.5km and water station, for some reason, the second wave headed straight towards into the first wave, without any barrier in between the runners. That caused a lot of confusion and runners were bashing into each other.

The route around Kallang and the Stadium is quite pleasant, if one doesn’t mind the bridges, tunnels and roundabouts. Those can slow down and bring some elevation into the course. At some point we had to take several stairs to get onto a bridge, which seems weird for a road race. 

There were multiple water stops along the way and as we were in the first starting wave, we didn’t encounter any shortage of water. However, many other runners later unfortunately came to water stops where no water was available anymore. Apparently many runners had to queue at public toilets to get hydrated and lost time. 

The final stretch of the Half Marathon course took us from Tanjong Ru, to Marina Barrage and Marina Bay Sands & Marina Bay Financial Centre. It did feel pretty cool to run in the night alongside this iconic skyline and hence get a last push for the final kilometers. 

Overall, a good experience to run through the night around the landmarks of Singapore. However, the organisation of the event was surprisingly bad for such a big event. That will probably hold many runners back to join again next year. 

 

Photo Credit: Ben Nevis Ultra

Race Review - Ben Nevis Ultra Race

scotland

By Govinda Finn

I had entered the Ben Nevis Ultra with realistic expectations. It was my first proper ultra and the primary goal was to enjoy myself and ‘make it to the finish’. That seemed a modest ambition once the mud-splattered, carnage of the previous day’s VK race forced organisers to enact the bad weather route, lopping off 3 kms and nearly 2,000 metres of ascent. Absent the Ben Nevis summit and the big Mamores climb this was a vastly different challenge.

There was plenty of discontent with the decision. This was Scotland after all – you expect a little rain, bogs and bruising. However, I’d dragged my family up to the Highlands with promises of fun so grumbling was not an option. I focused my energy on adapting – just by the power of acceptance I could gain a competitive advantage.

By the time I stood on the starting line I was not thinking of Ben Nevis or the CMD Arete. I was in hill race mode, stripped down to shorts and t-shirt with trekking poles cast aside. A short blast of the starting horn and we were away. I was immediately struck by the unfamiliarity of the field. The Scottish hill runner’s lot is largely one of being marginalised and misunderstood. The men and women of the Skyrunning Ultra World Championship, resplendent in their colourful, high-quality kit were more confident in their running preferences.

The first hill out of Kinlochleven was to be the most sustained climb of the race. It unfolded at a surprisingly pedestrian pace. I reminded myself this was an ultra and pledged to take it slow. The gleaming gear, poles, shoes of those ahead kept me in check. However, once the gradient evened out I started to pick off places. The trail steepened again. Here we go I thought.

Ahead I spotted a runner who I’d seen at the start. He had cut a striking figure in luminous trousers and a tanned face. He had also started in the elite runners’ pen – impressive credentials! I anchored myself to his progress and prepared for the pain. Onwards and upwards, onwards and upwards. However, when I reached the coll it was not burning lactic but euphoria I was feeling. A snake of runners strung out ahead of me but I was 15-20 runners to the good at the top of that hill – including one elite!

ben-nevis-ultra-scotland

The changing geography shifted my mood. The descent was muddy and wild. Trackless ground that left many feckless. However, I was grateful for the lessons of the Ring of Steall recce run a month prior and soon began to enjoy myself. Momentum only halted by knee-deep mis-steps and occasional tumbles. I passed a Japanese; short legs, sturdy and clearly perplexed. She was one of another 10 runners I ticked off on the descent.

As we emerged into Glen Nevis and flatter terrain I suddenly felt heavy-legged. I’d prepared for this beautiful glen to be a race highlight but hill running is not a predictable endeavour. As we passed the trail up to Ben Nevis that marked the original course I started to question my capabilities. Was I out of my depth?

The answer was quick to arrive. I sat in with two competent club runners and, hitting firmer trails, a more rhythmic symphony began: breathing, thudding feet, pounding heart. Before I’d left the campsite that morning, I’d attached my son’s plastic snowman cup to the front of my bag – useful for scooping up water from mountain streams and my own Swiss cowbell. Its clanging became a mantra for focus.

My strength was returning just at the point when we realised we’d gone the wrong way up a narrow ravine. ‘Flag?’ went up the cry. ‘Flag?’ the word bounced back through the field. We had missed a turn and the red course markers were no longer evident. ‘Flag, flag, flag’, the word kept echoing in my brain.

Once back on track, I swore to use the mistake as a force for good. Each subsequent flag drawing me on. One at a time I told myself as a grizzled American and I headed towards the aid station at the Glen Nevis visitor centre. A wooden bridge led us in and scattered on the other side were my family again. I was amazed at how unimpressed they appeared with my arrival. Was my efforts really worthy of so little attention?   

Interest started to pick up when they became aware of the food table. Soon I had the kids running relays back and forth for food and drinks while Mayumi helped me swap my shoes. My splits showed I lingered too long at the aid station. However, I trundled away with renewed vigour and no regrets. 

We were now on the West Highland Way. Another long hill. Unfortunately, I was backing up my lengthy stop with a sustained period of position slippage. It did not break me, just made me angry.

The next 5-6 miles were some of the best running of my life. Surrounded by skyrunners, the storied men and women of the Alps and Pyrenees, I felt strong. On home Scottish turf. When hills came, my legs responded. When my feet ached, they were soothed by mountain streams. High above Kinlochleven I felt effortless – and a closeness to physical and mental potential that runners endlessly seek.

I had prepared for a weary traverse through wooded hills. However, the tiredness stayed at bay. The final steep descent felt like a babbling waterfall. Working with a fellow descender, we picked off those ahead one by one. Two gunslingers on the trail. The final crescendo had me spurting ahead on my own. 

Out on to the road and the final purgatory of pavement. Only 20 metres left. No puff left to push. The finish line gobbled me up, confirming my first Skyrunning Ultra finish and a sub-5 hour time. Bliss, hugs and broad, lingering smiles.

So what had I learnt? Yes, I could run ultras; yes, I could compete with an international field. But secretly I already knew that. The most striking lesson took me by surprise. Ultras are indeed difficult. However, not all are tales of disaster, fortitude or mental toughness. Ultra or not, running well can bring immense enjoyment. That also demands to be bottled and preserved. I’m grateful I found the time to comply.

Photo Credit: Ben Nevis Ultra

Race Review - Higashi Tanzawa Miyagase Trail Race

miyagase16

By Eric Lebrasseur

Today was the 10th Higashi Tanzawa Miyagase Trail Race, about 30km and 1500m of total ascent. There is more road than trail, but I knew it so there is no frustration. Actually there is a very good long trail downhill, really enjoyable because it’s possible to run fast but it needs full concentration, so you are really in the moment, just thinking about the next step. I did this race 3 years ago, and finished 6th in my age group which was the last position to win a prize. This is the unique time I won a price in Japan and as I could not do it anywhere else, I finally registered again this year.

This time I was 5th/186 in my age group. What a progress. However, 3 years ago, I was very lucky to be 6th because I was only 40th overall. This year with a 17th/502 position overall, it feels more “right”. Surprisingly my time was 2min36s slower. I guess that the sudden and fierce heat today explain the slower results.

I was happy because I had a bottle of wine for prize, while the 4th place had some tea (I don’t like tea). Unfortunately, when I got back home Yuki told me that it was grape juice…
I was really exhausted after goal, maybe even worst than after a marathon. The last portion of road in the heat, after a probably too fast downhill was hard. It was a road along the lake with many small ups and downs and not always protected from the sunshine. It’s runable and you have to run or you will lose a lot of time here. It was feeling like the end of a marathon where you know you can’t make you initial goal anymore but you are struggling to keep running in order to do a sub something…

Anyway, it was a great day. No nambanners there, but I met for the first time a Strava friend, Arai san (thanks for the pictures), that I should see again at Fuji Mountain race.
Bye the way, in 2015, I stayed in a hotel near Hashimoto station, because the first train was arriving only 5min before the shuttle bus departure. This time I took the rist and went on the morning of the race. It went well, so go and return in one day is possible from Tokyo.

https://www.strava.com/activities/1523680684

 

Find more of Eric’s Race Reviews here.

Race Review Vietnam Trail Marathon

vietnam-trail-marathon

By MARKUS GNIRCK

The first edition of the Vietnam Trail Marathon took place on Saturday, 19 January 2019, in the area of Moc Chau in Northern Viet Nam. After a 5h bus drive from Hanoi, a beautiful mountain region opens up and exposes a great landscape for running. The race was organised by TOPAS Group who runs the series of Vietnam Trail Marathon, Vietnam Jungle Marathon and Vietnam Mountain Marathon. They do know how to organise those!

An estimated 20,000 participants came to do either 10km, 21km, 42km or 70km. I participated in the 42km race as Christmas was just happening and training wasn’t ideal during that time 🙂 Many, many runners seemed to do their first run ever and it was impressive to see how many actually straight went to do their first 21km or 42km race. The 42km and 70km distances are also eligible for UTMB qualifications and ITRA points.

Race / Route

The route takes you through a fairly hill region, mostly trail, some times crossing streets. The 42km had around 1900m elevation gain. After a 4km jog through some fields, it takes you up a steep hill for around 1km with 500m Elevation Gain – that warms you up for sure. After that it is another nice run for over 30km, slightly up and down, until another steep hill gets your legs challenged. The temperature was pleasant with around 18 degrees, mostly sunny, sometimes foggy. 

The most amazing part was to have lots of spectactors alongside the route. It seemed like that everyone from young to old from the nearby villages was outside to cheer up the runners, take pictures and videos and have a good time. That also gave great insights how the locals were living and was a good way to connect to the local culture. 

Organisation

The race was very well organised. Pick up was easy a day beforehand, the start was on time and the route well marked.  Plenty refreshment points were well stocked with water and fruits. The volunteers were friendly and helpful and seemed to enjoy their time. 

Scenery

What landscapes! For someone who hasn’t been to that part of Vietnam before, it was the best way to get to know the nature. The trail takes you through vast fields of blossoming plumb fields, tea plantations and bushy forests. As race start was 7am the sun rising through the hills gave some very nice views over the region. 

I highly recommend this race!

Bitnami