1st Nikko 100km Ultramarathon Race Report

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Several years ago a good friend of mine and Namban Rengo running mate, Taro Oguchi, posted that he had just completed a 100km run. I was shocked. I could not believe that anybody could run so far. I had read ultra running books by Dean Kanazes, Rich Roll and Scott Jurek but I had never considered it possible for myself, or anyone I knew. However, more and more of my friends started doing them – Harrison, Eric, Derek, Rie, Chika, Mika and Mika, Nick, Yuichi, Yukari, Rika. The list kept growing. I decided that I had better get on this train before it completely left the station.

In November 2016, I had just finished my beloved Ohtawara marathon 8 minutes slower that I had run it the previous year. I was finding the track workouts too tough and harder to recover from. I really felt that I needed a change. I had been interested in MAF training for over 3 years and never had must trouble going out for a long, slow run. The idea of running an ultra was beginning to take shape in my head when Kasao san posted on the Namban Rengo FaceBook page that the 1st Nikko 100km Ultramarathon would be held the following July. I had just made a trip to Nikko with some colleagues the previous month and really enjoyed the scenery and the the atmosphere and now felt that the stars were starting to align.

It is fair to say that I have been blessed with the people I was able to run and train with over the last 6 months. With Namban Rengo, my company Colt and friends I ran over 1,600km in the first half of 2017 and over 300km in April, May and June. Along with the Tokyo Marathon, I ran three half marathons, two 10kms, multiple hill repeats and some very long runs along the Tamagawa and in Nikko itself with Mark and Bob. I also ran an Ekiken and Beer Mile with Namban Rengo and 10 x 1 mile Relay Race with Colt. I am very grateful to everybody who ran with me over the 6 months and made it one of the most enjoyable periods of training I have ever known.

The logistics of running an Ultra Marathon are quite daunting. For the 100km race, you must finish within 14 hours, presumably so that it will be run in daylight. That means that you have to start at 4:30am. In order to make this time you are getting up at 1:45 and eating breakfast at 2am. I left Tokyo for Nikko at 10am on Saturday morning to ensure that I would have lots of time to eat dinner and get at least 6 hours sleep. I posted a note on Taro’s FaceBook page as an “in-joke” between the two of us to say that I was coming for his ultra record. Before I knew it, I was getting messages of support from everywhere. This continued all night and really got me motivated for the race.

As you would expect in Japan, the organization was amazing, From the shuttle bus that took us to the reception and then to the hotels and the instructions at the opening ceremony, to the names of the runners outside their rooms with the words Ultramarathon above them, everything about the Nikko 100km Ultramarathon was very well planned and executed.

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I found myself sitting beside an ultra Ultramarathoner on the bus to the start. He was a chap in his 60s or 70s and was quite chatty. He runs 8 or 9 ultras a year and the previous weekend he had run from Atami to Nagano in a race of just 30 people that took 24 hours before taking the train home. I had felt that I had met Mr. Ultra and he looked clearly disappointed when I told him that this was my first one.

The rain started to fall as we got off the bus and I thanked my lucky stars. The forecast had been 32 degrees and sunny for most of the day and that would have been a disaster for this Irish boy who finds anytime above 12 degrees quite a challenge. This light drizzle was perfect for me. The rain had stopped before we headed off but the sky had remained overcast for most of the day and I was blessed again.

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30 minutes to showtime

I was not sure what to expect toeing the line at the start of an ultramarathon but it was very civilized. At the start of any other race there is always a certain amount of tension. People are stretching, jumping up and down, checking their GPS signal and trying to get the couple of steps closer to the start line. It seems that with these longer races, everybody knows that they will be out there for 8 to 14 hours and anything that they do in these final few minutes before the start will have no impact on the overall result. Even the countdown was low key and when the starter’s pistol fired, there was no mad rush, just a kind of amble to get going.

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As you can see from above, Nikko is a hilly race. It climbs for the best part of 30 kilometers and then drops down for another 30km before undulating for the last 40km. There are cutoff gates at first seem doable, but when you consider the hills, the 33.7km cutoff point after 4 hours and 45 mins (at 9:15am) was not a given.

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Cutoff times were 19.9km at 7:15am, 33.7km at 9:15am, 51.0km 11:45am, 74.6km at 3pm, 89.6km at 5pm, 100km finish at 6:30pm.

I wanted to go out at around 6 min/km pace but my main goal was not to have to exert too much effort or feel like I was trying hard. The early part of the race was lovely as we ran through cedar lined streets, some of it over trials, from ShimoImaichi up to the Shogun Tokugawa’s shrine. We did not go all the way up to the actual tomb but running through the grounds in the early morning light was a great thrill. I was not feeling great, but not too bad either. Just before the grounds I availed of one of the many public toilets in the area. If you are going to do this race in future, I recommend that you write this into your plan as there many places and no lines.

As we left the grounds and headed right towards the Irohazaka climb, I grabbed some bananas from an aid station and started an eating and drinking pattern that would see me gain 1kg during the race. I had read and listened to a lot of people’s experiences with ultramarathon’s. A lot have said that they had serious trouble in the second half because they not eat and drink enough in the early on. A few months ago I noticed that Nick was training with a CamelBak so I sent away for one. I found that it was so successful in training that I decided to use it in the race. I  was a little concerned about the extra weight but I felt that being able to take a sip the whole way really benefitted me. It was not strictly necessary as there was 28km aid stations on the course, basically one every 3km to 4km. As the race went on there was more and more food at the aid stations. I had brought some great vegan bars from Wholesome Japan but I also ate a lot at the aid stations as well.

Nikko Aid Stations

Nikko Aid Stations

I pulled into the first cutoff zone, about 35 minutes ahead of the actual cutoff time. I could not maintain the 6 minute pace but if was good enough to give me some level of comfort heading into Irohazaka. This is the most challenging part of the race. It goes on for 8km with an average gradient of 6%, but in some places it is more steep. I came out here with Bob Johnston at the end of April to try it and to prepare myself. I was very glad I did. It was very tough and I chose to walk a few times when I felt that I was beginning to suffer. I knew that I could run the whole hill if I tried but the cost might be too much and I might have to pay for it in the second half.

Getting over the top was great but I did not feel the elation that I expected. I was tired and sore after running for 3 hours and I still had 70km to go. Over the other side of the climb we had to run through a mountain tunnel for 1km as we headed for Lake Chuzenji. The roads are not closed to traffic so we had to run in single file along the footpath and watch our step as we were quite close together. Then the view was beautiful as we headed down to the lakeside.

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Lake Chuzenji

I still was not feeling great as we passed the 30km mark but I plodded on. Japanese people were stopping every few feet to take photos. I had brought my GoPro with me but my heart was just not in it. I guess that I was afraid that if I stopped I might not be able to  get my concentration back again.

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Running along Lake Chuzenji

At around 31km, as we headed for a turn-around, a Japanese runner came up to me and said “Hey, we are running at the same pace, let’s run together”. I saw him try to mask the disappointment when I told that I not in such good shape and that I was planning to walk for a bit. He left me behind shortly after that.

I got to the 2nd cutoff zone in just under 4 hours, so with 45 minutes to spare. I was beginning to feel better and enjoyed the water and the cold noodles. I met an American chap, Brian, and we chatted briefly before I headed off again. The next section was the part that would make or break the run for me. It was the 8km down the opposite side of Irohazaka. Even more steep than the way up and with more bends, I knew that by the time I stopped again at the 40.4km I would either be further ahead on time or looking at another War of Attrition. In the end I benefitted greatly from the downhill. When I ran it with Bob in April, I ran it as hard as I could and I could not walk for 4 days afterwards. I knew that that was not an option this time and I kept an easy pace, as much in the middle of the road as cars would allow, and tried to let gravity pull me down without slapping my legs too much into the ground. My strategy worked well and I saw that I was putting in time between Brian and myself without a great amount of effort.

There is an aid station half way down Irohazaka but I decided not to stop as it would break my concentration so I kept going and by the time I got to aid station number 13, I was over an hour up and in the clear. Now I just had to keep an regular pace and my mind strong and I knew that I would finish.

It is a nice gentle downhill run from the bottom of Irohazaka into Nikko town and I continued to improve my time with respect to the cutoff. When we got to Nikko, we headed back into the grounds of the Tokugawa grounds. Somewhere before here Brian passed me and he was looking strong as he headed off for the 3rd cutoff zone at 51km. In rather comical form, not long after he passed me I caught up to him at a traffic lights where we waited for 2 minutes with 30 other runners for the lights to change.

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Running through the grounds of Toshogu

It was lovely running through the grounds of the Shogun Shrine again but there was a very different feeling now that there were lots of tourists about about clapping and wishing us well. While I missed the early morning quietness, I did appreciate the clapping and all the shouts of encouragement.

Shortly after leaving Toshogu, we arrived at the 3rd cutoff zone where I was delighted to get about 30 messages, posts and likes on FaceBook from people who were following my progress. It was such a joy to see them, although I had no time to read any of them. I ran into Brian again filling his CamelBak and applying sunscreen before he headed off. I thought that was the last I had seen of him. You have the option to drop a bag at the start of the race and pick it up at the 51km point. I had decided to change my shirt, shoes and socks so I settled into the task of changing my numbers and shoe tags. I am not sure that I would do this again as it took about 15 minutes as my fingers were quite stiff.

After filling my CamelBak with sports drink, I hit the road again knowing that I had covered more than half the distance and that in 1km this would become my longest run ever. I also knew that there were now people watching my progress and that they would only get updates every 10km so I wanted to plough on to the 60km point as fast as possible so that they would see me. As I had a full CamelBak I skipped aid station number 17 and kept going and got through 60km just under 7 hours. I kept going. There was not a  lot to see in this section of the course. It was just a matter of getting it done and know that after the 4th cutoff zone you could walk all the way and still make it in time.

Just after 71km you are faced with Furaibashi and a huge amount of steps with a picture of a Japanese Ghost or Monster, painted on them. I saw Brian at the bottom of them looking up.

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Steps at Furiaibashi – Thanks to Satohi san for the photo.

I left Brian and kept on running but he caught up with me at the next traffic lights as I waited for them to change. We were very close to the 4th cutoff zone and I could feel the finish approaching.

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4th cutoff zone at 74.6km

I did not spend too much time here but I did stop to eat and drink and in that time, Brian was in and out and I did not see him again until the end where he finished almost 15 minutes ahead of me. We were now in the Dead Zone. You knew you were moving but you had no idea how. Picking out any marks 100m ahead and trying to make it to them before picking out another one. Never letting your mind wander. Concentrating on little victories and adding them up. Soon after the 4th cutoff zone we were in Tobu Edo World Square, probably one of the most bizarre theme parks I have ever ran through, if not the only one. It totally blew my mind, especially the  little kids who had brought sweets and were handing them out to runners.

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Running past the pyramids in Tobu Edo World Square

I was now walking for 2 mins, about 200m, and then running until my Fenix-3 watch, which my brother had given me for my birthday to make sure I had enough battery life for this run, signaled another 1km had been completed, about 800m, and I walked again. I developed this strategy during a particularly gruelling Otawara marathon a few years ago and I keep it in my back pocket and pull it out whenever I need to dig deep. The kilometers passed more and more slowly. I was pouring more and more water on my thighs and my socks were getting drenched. At around 85km I felt what I thought was a stone lodged beneath my toes. I decided that I would wait until the 5th cutoff zone to take off my shoe and investigate.

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At the 5th cutoff zone I sat down on the chair and slowly removed my shoe. It was not a stone that had been bothering me but the skin of the ball of my foot has been bunched up under my toes. I also had a blister on the side of my foot which I burst with great pleasure. My right thigh was now very sore and I went to the medical tent to ask for Cold Spray but they had none. They was nothing I could do but keep on moving on, like a bird that flew. I was no longer stopping to fill my CamelBak but rather bought a bottle of tea from a vending machine as I could not stomach anymore Sports Drink.

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I promise I am moving

The last few kilometers were all up and down. I was very gratefully for the training that I had done with Mark Feeley in Okutama in June as it was exactly this sort of terrain. It seemed to take forever but eventually I turned left and realized that I was on the main road back to ShimoImaichi and had only 2km to go. I abandoned my walk/run strategy and just put in one last effort to finish. Crossing the line was a great feeling, very much like my first marathon finish in 2009. I got a little emotional before getting my head straight, collecting my medal and looking for the beer tent.

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Collecting my medal and trying to keep my legs straight for the photo.

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Don’t look back in anger I heard you say At least not today

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My final update

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10 thoughts on “1st Nikko 100km Ultramarathon Race Report

  1. You.
    Are.
    Amazing.
    Incredible description of your incredible race.
    I so much enjoyed reading this.
    Thank you for sharing, a d let’s run together very soon, Padraig.
    Keep loving.
    Keep running.

  2. You did it! What an achievement!
    Your report is so well written that I almost feel your pain in the last 30km!
    I can imagine how you were trying to find mental helps on small things.
    What a journey since 2009, and the best is still yet to come I guess. After having passed that mark, you can run everything … even a competitive 5k!
    My warm congratulations Padraig!
    Philippe

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