photos by Brian Vernor
The day before the Mt. Fuji Ekiden we headed over to the shadow of the mountain to witness the team presentations that would take place on the JGSDF Camp Takigahara track. It was a long, hot service of which I understood next to nothing. However, it was here that we were given our official race sash that would take the place of a traditional baton for the race. Each time we came to a checkpoint we were to remove the sash (now incredibly soaked with sweat) and pass it to the next competitor. From there we headed up to the Mountain to see what we would really be getting ourselves into.
The hike from the parking lot to the first handoff was roughly 3.5k and this would be Brian's section. From the moment that we crossed under the arches (officially signifying the fact that this entire mountain is a Shinto shrine) it was apparent that this was a far cry from a walk in the park. Or a picnic. Or anything else that resembled leisure in any way shape or form.
Hiro out of the fog.
It took us about an hour of hiking to make it up to the checkpoint where I would take the sash from Brian and he would patiently await my return. In that hour we saw the severe weather changes that are possibly on the mountain with fog rolling through at an insanely rapid rate and a little bit of freezing rain that lasted for all of 8 minutes. It was also a time for us to test out our running in the loose pumice-ey rock and maybe shoot a few shots of socks as well. As you do.
The lower part of the mountain was relatively easy to traverse, I say "relatively" because it really wasn't that easy at all, however, little did we know, it would get even harder from there.
Upon arriving at the checkpoint we climbed a bit above it and really tested the "run" down. This was a section we had kept hearing about in this fashion — "the fast runners go up in about 45 minutes and then come down it in about 9." Take a minute and think that through, 9 MINUTES! From the footage that Brian had used in Finding Strong it was apparent that this was going to be something else - some otherworldly rock demon that we had never faced before.
So, Brian cautiously positioned himself in the middle of the descending track (the way up is a series of switchbacks whereas the way down is one straight shot to hell) and we readied for the run towards him from about 100 yards up the chute. It should be noted here that "chute" in French means "crash" which is why sometimes when you get the French feed from SteepHill.tv and you see Sylvain Chavanel on the screen it says "chute" next to it.
All joking aside, there was no way we could prepare for what was about to happen.
First the runs down the mountain could be described as a scramble. A tumbling, fill your shoes with rocks and try not to eat it scramble. To say that I was scared in these first runs is a bit of an understatement, because no matter how hard you try to just "take it easy" on the way down, your arms start a-flailing and in a manner of seconds you are totally out of control. Like totally. There were a few moments that ended in a sort of baseball slide resulting in golf ball sized rocks being thrown into the face and camera lens of Mr. Vernor.
However, once we realized that this was the case, we started to have a little fun with it. It was like realizing that you could out long-jump Carl Lewis and then doing it everywhere. On the way to the bank? Jump 50 ft. Waiting to pick up the kids? I might as well jump across that road there. As you can see, we kind of went for it.
There was a technique that (thankfully) was shared with us that maybe helped save the day (and our back and ankle and shins). It was more of a skip then a run and once you had that mindset it was easier to control and avoid the large rocks that poked out of the ground in front of you. But it really was a large leap followed by a sort of strange transition that felt like a hop and back into the leap. I asked the National Guard Coach if we should sort of lean back while doing this and his reponse (while in Japanese) was translated as something like this "no, you won't be able to lean back, you'll be falling forward off the mountain too much to do that."
After about an hour an a half of leaping off the earth, landing, maybe giggling softly and then emptying our shoes of rocks before doing it again, we realized that we should maybe be getting down off this rock pile and get ready for the next morning.