Saturday, April 15, 2017

Staring Down the Demons at the Barkley Marathons

The Yellow Gate.
Where dreams begin and end.
After last year’s ho-hum completion of 1 loop and 4 books, I thought there was no way I would be getting a second chance at running the Barkley Marathons again in 2017.  At best, I hoped to maybe get on the Weight List, and over the next few years, work myself back up onto the group of unfortunate 40 who get to toe the line. As part of my essay (below) details, I acknowledged there was no real reason I should be selected to run this year:

“This year I am hoping to do better.  Although, in applying, I recognize that I am no more qualified, in fact substantially less qualified, than most of this years applicants.  I haven't finished a 100 mile race since 2013 (Barkley being the only one I've started). I've struggled to find "it" over the last 9 months, settling for long mellow hikes and explorations with kids and neighbors and/or a bow and arrow, rather than "training" hard. I've wondered if at 44, with a surgically repaired ankle, and 4 kids (#5 due the end of April), I'm spread too thin to give Barkley another go. 
As far as credentials go, I have nothing current to supply. I'm relying on past accomplishments, wins, FKT's, etc.  But I can promise you that if I do happen to make it into the Unfortunate Group of 40, the past will be forgotten, and the focus will be on the next 4 months.  As I stated in a post-Barkley race report earlier this year, "The goal is five loops, and there's really no room for any thought other than that".   

So when I received my Letter of Condolences indicating my acceptance into the 2017 event, I was shocked (Brooke even more than me), ecstatic, nervous, grateful, and overwhelmed.
Obligatory Check-in Selfie.
Which brings me to Friday, March 31, 2017.  I had trained the best I could.  I had gotten myself ready physically. I was in a much better mental state than during the previous year. I was ready to go.  I checked in and handed Laz the pack of comfortable white socks that along with $1.60, was this year’s entry fee. I picked up my Loop 1 race # (49), and took a look at the Master Map to see what changes would be facing us this year.  The map changes were small, but the big change was that instead of running Loop 1 &2 clockwise, and Loop3 & 4 counterclockwise, each loop would alternate directions. 1 clockwise, 2 counter, and so on.  Wow-that was a change all right.  There were plenty of veterans out there who had never run a counter clockwise loop, me included!! This could be interesting, and I was really excited about the change.  A loop 2 in the counterclockwise meant I’d see it with a fresher mind and eyes, but depending on the start time, it also meant it could be run entirely in the dark.  But I wouldn’t worry about that until the conch blew and we knew the starting time.  Just in case this year’s loop was an early start (which hadn’t happened since 2011), I made sure my food bags were packed and labeled for each loop, had my clothing and gear laid out, and asked Dale Holdaway’s sister and brother-in-law, who I was sharing a campsite with, to wake me up if I slept through the conch. I was asleep by 9:30 and all of the sudden someone was knocking on the window of my van telling me the conch had been blown and I had 45 minutes. What the???? I had slept through the conch??? It was 1 am, with light rain and camp was abuzz. By the time I got something to eat, got dressed and took care of last minute details, everyone (but me) was gathered at the gate. As I put my pack on, I heard taps being played for “those who have gone before us,” and then the lights gathered at the gate let out a shout and were moving up the trail, as I ran to catch up.  I’m embarrassed to say this wasn’t my first late start……

Loop 1- Chaos
The initial climb up Bird Mountain was relaxed.  There was a light drizzle, and the higher we ascended, the denser the fog became.  I tried to figure out who was around me, and I remember talking briefly with Ed, Sean Ranney, Mike, Kathleen, Henry, and a couple others. As we ran along the ridge, Kathleen, right in front of me, excitedly yelled “ Hey it’s the Pillars of Death!” One step later, she slipped, went head first, and caught herself at the last minute. The Pillars almost lived up to their name. The fog was so dense that at times, I could barely see my feet, and I resorted to taking my headlamp off and holding it at waist level to better illuminate the ground in front of me.  As we neared where Book 1 (which had been changed to a new spot this year) was supposed to be, confusion set in.  There were searching headlamps everywhere, and voices echoing through the fog asking if anyone had found the Book. Finally, a voice called out that it was found, and all headlamps converged. Pages were ripped out, and off the headlamps went to disappear once more into the fog.  This was repeated over the next 4 books.  Each time I arrived at where a book was supposed to be, I’d start to hear voices drifting through night, and then headlamps would once again shine through the mist, casting back and forth until the book was found, and all the lights would converge.  Looking back at the situation, it is fairly comical, but at the time, it was extremely frustrating, and with each book search, I seemed to lose more and more time. As the sky started to lighten while heading up Leonard’s Buttslide, I was already an hour behind last year’s pace at this point. My prerace plan (to be in a position to attempt 5 loops), was to finish an hour faster than last years Loop 1 time of 10 hours 10 minutes. I was only 5 books in, I felt like my race was already beginning to unravel and the feelings of despair that had become so familiar over the last year started to manifest.  “This is stupid. What’s the point? Can I stick this out for another day and a half? Do I want to?”  It was getting dangerous and I needed to get my head in a different spot.  Luckily, the sky lightened, the fog became less dense, and as typically occurs with a new day, new hope came along with it. I had been tagging along with Heather Anderson and Adam Lint since Book 3 and while we didn’t do much talking, their company was appreciated! As we headed down towards the New River we found ourselves close to Rob Youngren, Scott Breeden, Kathleen Cusick, Megan Farrell and 1 or 2 others. Over the next 6-7 hours and 9 books, I focused on putting one foot in front of the other and moving efficiently. And while I lost my map temporarily just before Pig Head Creek, and was mostly by myself until I caught up with Rob, Megan and Scott at the Beech Tree, I kept the negative thoughts at bay and truly enjoyed my time in the Tennessee Woods, grateful to even have the chance to be out competing against myself and the course.
Clearing Fog
Photo: John Sharp
Loop 2-Demons
Arriving at camp in 10 hours 42 minutes, Rob and I agreed to head back out at the 11 hour mark. Dale Holdaway’s sister and brother-in-law were extremely helpful in crewing me and while I changed my wet socks, ate what I could, and got new food and batteries, Joey made me a 3 egg/sausage breakfast burrito to take on the trail.  Rob left camp at 11 hours on the dot, and in what would turn out to be a recurring theme for the rest of our time together, I left a few minutes later, and spent the next 45 minutes catching up to him on the long trail up to Chimney Top.  Rob was a great companion, and I was extremely lucky to be able to spend a little more than two loops (and 30 hours) sharing the trail with him.  This was Rob’s 8th time at Barkley, and with a Fun Run finish in 2012, he was about as experienced a participant as there was to be found in the woods of Frozen Head that weekend.  We motored along without any navigational errors and somewhere along the way (I don’t recall if they caught up to us or we caught up to them) we hooked up with Brandon Stapanowich, Jamil Coury and Michael Versteeg.  Heading down the Bad Thing, Jamil decided he wanted to actually move and disappeared down the hill in about 3 seconds, and then Michael did the same.  We didn’t see either of them again.  Brandon, Rob and I made a good team and seemed to be moving well, but at about the halfway point, as we were heading down Testicle Spectacle, I realized that we had been out almost 7 hours already, and this would likely be a 14 hour loop, with the sun going down in the next hour.  Holy (insert your favorite cuss word)!! My 36 hour Fun Run was out of sight, and a 40 hour finish was quickly becoming less likely. The demons that I had firmly put behind me on Loop 1 came shrieking back and I quickly found myself in a very bad place mentally, almost talking myself into quitting at the end of Loop 2.  I was starting to get tired, I didn’t know how I could do another 20 hours of the relentless climbing and descending, and I kept thinking to myself “This is stupid. What’s the point? Can I stick this out for another day and a half? Do I want to?” I was so tired of feeling like this, and finally, as this rolled over and over again in my mind, I remembered. I remembered why I was here.  This was EXACTLY the reason I needed to be here. It was to remember what it was like to be uncomfortable. To suffer. To feel the pangs of hopelessness. Not to “wonder why”, but to KNOW why. And to embrace these self-doubts. To welcome them and turn them into Strength. Resolve. Determination. I remembered something that Laz had said. Something along the lines of “The successful Barkley applicant will learn to Embrace that which they Fear the most”. That was why I was here.  My mental state leading up to Barkley had been great, up until the week before the race.  Then my mind began to race, my heart-rate would quicken as I lay in bed thinking about what was to come. I was almost on the verge of panic.  And I realized that it was fear. Not necessarily fear of failure (because most people “fail” at Barkley), but fear of discomfort, of sleepless night(s), of screaming quads, a rebellious stomach, and cramping calves. And fear that I wouldn’t be able to handle it.
So…in that moment, it all changed. Really. It was literally within a few second span that my mind raced through processing this, and all was good.  Sure, it was going to be uncomfortable, I was going to say to myself “Boy, Big Hell really sucks,” I may not even make the 3 loop cutoff, but all was good, and the Demons of Self-doubt that had plagued me since my Barkley attempt last year were banished for good.  
Brandon, Rob and I watched a spectacular sunset while climbing Stallion Mt, and we steadily made our way through the rest of the course.  Brandon’s left shin was becoming quite painful and starting to slow him down and I was sad to see him drop behind and out of sight before climbing Jaque Mate.  Rob and I decided that with the 36 hour cut off out of reach, but 15 hours left for a 40 hour Fun Run finish, we’d take an hour once back to camp to eat, and possibly take a nap.   

Feeling Better than I look on Rat Jaw.
Photo: The RealHikingViking
Loop 3- Fun.
Again, Dale’s Sister and Brother in law were a huge help in getting me turned around at camp.  I changed socks, ate a pot of stew and climbed into my bag for a 20-minute nap. As I lay there processing all the things I needed for Loop 3, I remember thinking there was no way I was going to fall asleep, and then… my alarm went off and I woke feeling completely refreshed.  15 minutes of deep sleep felt like I had been out for 3-4 hours.  I added some hot water to the now cold cup-o-noodles I had prepared, filled my water bottle with hot chocolate, and headed out on loop 3, once again chasing Rob up the trail. He had left at 26 hours to the second, I was a few minutes behind, again. As I slowly caught up to Rob, I thought I saw a light way below me on the switchbacks. Someone in camp told me that Jamil had been asleep for a couple hours and they weren’t sure if he was coming back out. I figured he must have decided it was time and apparently the long nap had been good to him because he was catching up to us quickly.  Sure enough, Jamil passed us as we were almost to Book 1, then took off down Jaque Mate. I’m not sure where he went after that, because the next thing we saw of him was while almost to the top of Jury Ridge, and we could see a light way below us, back where we had just come from. Someday I’d like to talk to him, and see what happened.  Rob and I pressed on, knowing we had plenty of time, but very aware that if wasted any time, or made any navigational errors, our chances of a Fun Run would quickly be over.  Every time we came to a creek crossing, I would stop and fill up my water bottle. Rob had a 60-70 oz reservoir and didn’t need to stop so often, so he would keep moving and it would take the next 10-15 minutes to catch back up to him. It was a great motivator to keep me moving at a steady pace! The rest of the loop was fairly uneventful.  The sun came up and what a spectacular sunrise it was.  The sun a molten ball of orange hanging just above the treeline above Stallion Mtn.  All the infamous climbs and descents came and went and we plugged along. We ran into John and Gary at Indian Knob, a couple hours into their 4th loop and they looked as fresh as if they’d just started. The only other notable moment (to me) was while descending to The Beech Tree. Rob wanted to stay left, I wanted to go right, and being the unflappable guy that he is, Rob agreed with me.  Well, I chose wrong and we ended up in a nasty section of rocks that ate away precious minutes.  I could tell Rob was a little stressed, so when we sat down at The Beech Tree to get our pages, I said , ”Rob, If I suggest a route, and it’s probably not the best, just say ‘Bro-This is my 8th Barkley and your 2nd .” He smiled good naturedly and just said something about not having much room for error. Then we got up to move, I got something out of my pack, and spent the next 10-15 minutes catching up to him…. 
And then we were at Chimney Top, on Candy-Ass trail, and I gratefully allowed myself the luxury of admitting that we were going to finish the Fun Run.  I couldn’t believe it.  I don’t remember how many times I yelled out to Rob running in front of me “Dude!! We’re doing it!!!”  “We’re going to do it!!” If I could of, I would have flown down the trail at 6 minute pace. The reality was that I was happy to stump along at half that speed.  We crossed the creek, hit the walking trail, crossed the bridge, and finally, luxuriantly, allowed ourselves to relax, walk, and enjoy the last 200 meters up to the Yellow Gate.

Fun Run Finish, with Rob Youngren
Photo: The RealHikingViking
As I touched the Gate for the 3rd (and last) time, a flood of emotions surged through me.  I struggled to hold back the tears of happiness and gratitude.  The sense of accomplishment was almost more than I could handle. In retrospect, I should have run high-stepping up to the gate with fists pumping, high-fiving everyone I could get close to and yelling at the top of my lungs.  But…. I am a fairly stoic person, and the only emotion I revealed was a huge, cheek splitting grin. 

Counting the final pages.
Photo: The RealHikingViking
Rob and I handed our pages to Laz, and while he counted them (Rob could only find 12 for a heart-stopping moment, then found #13 hidden in his race #) we joked that the race issued watches were not synchronized.  Mine was 4 seconds faster than Rob’s, so he was winning the whole race.  It turns out that Laz’s was 2 seconds faster than mine!!

All smiles. couldn't have done it without Rob
Photo: The RealVikingHiking
After the hand-shakes, smiles, congratulations, and looking for a place to sit down, I saw the bugler out of the corner of my eye, waiting for his turn. Rob and I both stepped back, and with hats off, and hands on our hearts, listened to Taps being played. Twice. Once for each of us.  We had “failed”, because “The goal is five loops. And there’s really no room for any thought other than that.” But I have seldom felt a greater sense of accomplishment. It was a somber, yet oh-so-fulfilling moment, and one that forever will be etched in my mind. 

Tapped out.
Photo: The RealHikingViking
Thanks go out to many- but foremost to Brooke.  Without her unconditional love and support, I wouldn’t be able to accomplish much. She sacrifices, and then sacrifices a little more to encourage  me to train, sleep, recover and eat everything in sight.  Thank you to my 4 (5 in two weeks) kids who inspire me to be a good person, and help me remember that there’s more to life than Barkley.  Thank you to my parents for always being there (if not always agreeing with where “there” is). Thanks to friends and neighbors, and training partners who are willing to get up hours before dawn to go on a hike.  And thank you to God for a body that allows me to do such marvelous things.  Thanks to people and companies that have supported me along the way. Altra, First Lite, Petzl, Wasatch Running Center, and Trail and Ultra Running (TAUR). And my heartfelt gratitude to Laz, and all the other volunteers and participants (past and present) that make Barkley what it is, and continue challenging us to embrace our fears, and to chase away the demons.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Jay Aldous - Year in Review

“You don’t seem to running much anymore” more was the comment. When I replied, “not true,” the response was “Oh, I just haven’t seen many posts.” While the posts this year have been limited, the running has not. It’s been a remarkable year of running that has included being able to run in 18 different countries, trudges to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro and Mt. Fuji, and four races ranging from 50K to 166k.

Crazy Desert 50K
My first race of the year was the Crazy Desert 50K in San Angelo, Texas. I was looking for an early season tune-up run with ambitions to go sub 4:00. I was pleased with the effort, which was good enough for first, but finished in an ‘o so close’ 4:01.

100 Miles of Istria - Motovan Aid Station
In April I returned to run the 100 miles of Istria trail race. This race, which crosses the Istrian peninsula in Croatia, is one of my favorites. The course, race organization and volunteers make this in my view one of the ‘must run’ 100 mile trail races. Two years ago I was able to win, last year I dropped at 85 miles, and this year I felt compelled to return both to redeem myself for last year’s drop as well as run with a number of Croatian and Italian runners that I have met since living in Italy. While it wasn’t my best day, I was able beat my previous time and place 3rd.

Mt. Kilimanjaro
In June I ran to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. I’ve wanted to do this for a number of years and when a work trip took me to Kenya I knew it was my opportunity. I had ambitions to break Simon Mtuy’s self-supported FKT of 9:21. It took me 9:22. Darn! Running at 16,000+ feet was an amazing experience. I‘ve always sensed I was good at altitude. This run validated it.

Start of UTMB
During June and July I prepared for UTMB. I traveled to Chamonix on a number of occasions and was able to complete two preview/training circuits on the UTMB course. I enjoyed the long days of running followed by good food, conversation and companionship in the refugi along the way. I had ambitions to complete the course in under 26 hours, but after wilting in the heat and running out of gas on the final two climbs I finished in 27:04. While my time was not what I had hoped for, I was still pleased to have placed first in the V2 category.

Mount Fuji
In early September work took me to Tokyo and I seized the opportunity to run to the top of Mt. Fuji. This is another run I have wanted to do for some time and thoroughly enjoyed this remarkable Japanese cultural experience.

My final race of the year was the Desert Solstice invitational event where I wanted to set a new world best 100 mile 55+ age performance. I went into the race confident I could easily beat the existing mark of 14:15, but the day did not come together for me. My time of 14:37 was good enough for a new American 55+ 100 mile mark and I was able to set a new 55+ American mark for 100k along the way. Cleary some unfinished business in 2017??

Desert Solstice
So what does 2017 bring? I went through the fall ritual of applying for Western States and Hardrock in the hopes that some day I will be able to run these races. But no luck for 2017. One of the reasons I enjoy racing in Europe is that I am largely exempt from participating in lotteries because of my ITRA cotation. Yet, I have not registered for any events given that my work will reassign me early in the year and do not yet know where I will be living. Possibilities range from Geneva, Switzerland (great for trail running) to Freetown, Sierra Leone (not so good), and several other possibilities in Africa and Asia. By the time I know my new terra firma, I will have missed the closing dates for most of the big European races such as UTMB and TDG. The upside is that I will be somewhere new and will be able to experience a new trail running scene and races. And, there is the 100-mile age group record that will require a trip to an IAU certified course sometime, somewhere during the year. No doubt 2017 will be another exciting year of running!

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Rest and Recovery, and 2016 in Review.

2016 has been an interesting year in the running segment of my life.  I was weight-listed to run the Barkley Marathons in early 2016, then trained like I was in. I waited patiently for the list to move, and luckily, with a couple weeks to go, moved onto the unfortunate list of 40 who were to start the race.  Little did I realize how much Barkley would sap me. Physically, I over did it.  The demanding schedule of a young family, a full time job and other life responsibilities meant that the back to back to back days of tons of vert were only accomplished by giving up precious hours of sleep. Not a great recipe for peak physical preparedness.

Heading up Rat Jaw with Ty Draney
PC: Leon Lutz

And 1 1/2 laps into Barkley my knee (possibly as a result of over training and not enough recovery) decided it was done.  Mentally, I was fried.  I didn't realize just how much mental energy I was wasting worrying about the unknowns that Barkley presented.  What will the terrain be like, will I be able to navigate, can I keep up with a veteran and remember the course, what will the weather be like, do I have the right nutrition and equipment, will I actually get off the weight-list?  The mental stress was relentless, and taxing.

I took the rest of April and most of May off, going for a run if I felt like it, more often than not just going for a mellow hike.  I organized a monthly neighborhood hiking group, hitting Mt Van Cott, Mt Wire, Grandeur Peak and Red Pine Lake over the summer months.

Grandeur Peak
With the Valley View Neighborhood Hikers

During these outings,  I started thinking about races again, but every time I started to formulate a plan on how to get back into it, I just couldn't find "it".  I started the Millwood 100 in early July, and after just 20 miles, I was already a few hours behind my anticipated splits. With no desire to suffer for the next 30-40 hours,  I pulled the plug.  I managed to run a decent Speedgoat 50K, followed by a solid Vaquero Loco 50K a couple weeks later, but then lost the drive again.

Vaquero Loco 50K
Corral Lake with Greg Norrander
Planning to run the Uinta Highline trail in early August, I fizzled in my half-hearted attempts to coordinate logistics, and opted for a leisurely and thoroughly enjoyable exploration of a few of the 13,000 ft peaks in the Uintas, along with some fantastic fishing in Cliff Lake, Dead Horse Lake and the West Fork of Blacks Fork river.

Wasatch Peak
High Uintas Wilderness
Tiger Trout
Dead Horse Lake-High Uintas Wilderness

I had a great time exploring some new hiking trails in Acadia National Park with my family.

Precipice Trail
Acadia National Park

And finally, after struggling with daily self-motivation sessions to train for and run the Mogollon Monster, a tough 100 mile Hardrock qualifier in Arizona, I decided 2016 was done as far as racing goes.  And I have enjoyed every moment spent outside since then.  I switched modes from "training" to "enjoying" and more often than not, when I was on a trail, I had my binoculars and/or bow and arrow in hand and was moving slower than I had in years.

Wasatch Mountains
Late Season Archery Elk hunt.
I stopped to soak up the sights, I paused to explore the rustlings around me.  I listened to bull elk bugling at each other (and occasionally at me).

This bull gave me the slip over and over again

I renewed friendships that had lain fallow while I concentrated on "fast and far."

Best 25-year High School Reunion ever.
with Drew Cooper and John Ballou
I slept more (occasionally). I was resting, I was recovering physically and mentally, I was rejuvenating.  What will 2017 bring?  I don't know.  The only certainty is that life will continue to get busier as we add Kiddo #5 to our growing family in the Spring.  I'd like to say that I will run a few races.  Maybe I'll even get psyched enough to run a 100 again (THAT hasn't happened since I finished the Bear in 2013).

I do know that whatever I end up doing, I'll take the time to Enjoy, Rest and Recover.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Paris by Night + Romania

This past week I had the honour of speaking at a dinner event hosted by US Ambassador Crystal Nix-Hines in Paris. Since my flight had me arriving several hours before the event, I reached out to Marie-Amelie Serre who I had met earlier this year at UTMB to see if she was available for a quick early evening run along the Seine.  Marie's response was that she had a commitment, but asked if I would be interested in a "Paris by Night" run after my event. My initial reaction was "no" given my phobia of not getting enough sleep. But after a bit of reflection, I realised this was a unique opportunity to see Paris by night guided by a Parisian ultra-runner. A few pictures from from a 15 mile route that captured many of Paris' great monuments and sights.

And if that was not enough fun for an entire week, the weekend brought a quick excursion to Brasov, Romania and some great end-of-year trail running in the Carpathian Mountains. Good fun!!

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Sights and Street Art - Running in Rome

Mile .15 - Piramade & the Old City Wall (where we live)

I’m often asked, “can you run in Rome?” Many runners think of Rome and imagine gridlocked streets, crazy drivers, and errant motos. While some of this is true, there is something magical about Sunday morning runs when Rome is slow to awake. Let me take you on tour of sights and street art during a spectacular 10 mile run this past Sunday. 

Mile .3 - 'Silvio's House' by MTO (right), Untitled by Lex (left)
Mile 1.3 - Palantine Hill
Mile 1.9 - The Forum
Mile 2.6 - The Colosseum
Mile 3.6 - Baths of Caracalla

Mile 5.1 - Caffarella Park
Mile 7.7 - 'The Weight of History' Jaz
Mile 7.7 - 'The Redeemer Child' by Seth
Mile 9.5 - Painted Building by Blu
Mile 9.7 - 'Planet Earth' by Baglioni

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Mt. Fuji Running

Mt Fuji-san

Sengen Shrine - Beginning of Yoshida Trail
For some time I have been intrigued with Mount Fuji given it’s historical, cultural and religious significance with the Japanese. I’ve wanted to run the traditional pilgrimage route from the Fujiyoshida’s Sengen Shinto shrine at the very base of Mount Fuji to the 12,388 foot summit. This has proved difficult given my past travels to Japan have not coincided with the short climbing season (July – mid September). However, this past week the stars finally aligned and I was able to run Mt. Fuji on the last day of the official climbing season.

Red Pine Forest on the Lower Slopes of Mt. Fuji
While tens of thousands of Japanese make the trek to the top every year, the logistics of getting on a plane in Italy and going straight to the mountain proved to be rather complex. My original detailed plan of trains, buses, taxis and finally running to the trailhead was thrown into flux when my flight into Narita was delayed by several hours. This resulted in getting on unplanned trains and buses with somewhat unknown destinations. In the end, I reached the town of Kawaguchiko at the base of the mountain. The earned reward for 30+ hours of sitting in a variety of seats not engineered for human comfort or health was a late evening Japanese bath overlooking Lake Kawaguchi.

The Trail Starts to Climb
I arose early the next morning knowing I needed to be on the trail starting at first light in order to be able to summit and get to Tokyo for a late afternoon meeting. My plan was to catch a taxi at 4:00 am from the hotel to the train station (where I would put my bag in a locker) and then have the taxi driver take me to the Shizuoka Sengen Jinja (Sengen Shrine) where the original trail begins. A great plan until I learned in the wee hours of the morning that taxis don't operate early on Sunday mornings. My run to the top of Mount Fuji began with a walk to the train station dragging my roller bag and then running to the outskirts of town in search of the Sengen Shrine.

3rd Station Ruins
2nd Station Ruins

Once the shrine was found I went in search of the trailhead. After several attempts of making a walking motion with my fingers and saying Fuji-san to a number of sleepy eyed monks, I was directed to the trailhead. I was excited about the first part of the run given that few people now climb the mountain from the bottom. More than ninety-nine percent of Japanese climbers start at the fifth-station, mid way up the mountain (there are ten stations from the base to the top of the mountain). In particular, I was looking forward to seeing the abandoned stations where in the past travelers drank tea and rested.   

My expectations were met. A trail to myself and interesting ruins to explore. The run from Sengen Shrine to the Kawaguchiko Fifth Station was exceptional.

As I reached the Fifth Station I moved into the clouds and into the billows of people descending from the summit. Most Japanese climb the mountain at night (resting/sleeping in the upper stations) with the goal to summit in time to watch the sunrise.

The Roped Trail
Those of us who run trails have different perceptions of what is difficult, challenging and possible. Yet, we often assume everyone else is like us.  As I power-hiked up the trail I was reminded we are different – the reminder being the faces and bodies of those coming down. The expressions of anguish. The jolting limps. The sighs, ughs and grunts as grim faced trekkers placed one foot in front of the other. And then there were those whose faces I did not see because they were walking down backwards due to quads that had failed them. It felt like the morning of the walking dead. I was also saddened in that the basic fitness of the general population is so poor – the distance from the 5th Station to the summit only being 7km!

The Last Kilometer to the Top
I continued to climb passing stations 6 - 10, most of which were closing for the season, with station staff busy bolting boards across the windows and doors. I finally broke through the clouds and was able to see my destination above me reached by a well established trail marked with ropes that switchbacked up the open and barren volcanic slope. 

On the Summit

I had originally planned to run around the rim of the crater before descending. However, the wind was screaming on top filling my eyes with volcanic dust making it hard and painful to see. Plus, I was cutting it close on time and felt anxious about catching my bus to Tokyo. I descended.

A few hundred feet below the summit the clouds rolled back making it hard to see and leaving me wet and a bit cold from all the moisture. I amused myself of as I modified the words to Twas a Night Before Christmas -  “visions of Japanese baths danced through his head.”  The thought of a long soak and getting the grit out of my eyes made the run down to the Fifth Station go fast.

Looking Down from the Summit

A Good Day at UTMB 2 Weeks Earlier
At the Fifth Station I decided to call it a day and take a bus down to the base. My descending legs were still a bit creaky from UTMB two weeks earlier and I was stressed about missing my bus.  It was a good call in that I had time for a nice curry lunch with a glass of sake in Kawaguchiko before jumping on a bus for Tokyo. All-in-all, an exceptionally good day!