Hasetsune: Mr. Jones Goes to Japan (and Wins)
I ran out of both food and water with eighteen kilometers left in my 70 kilometer race last weekend. I had passed the aid station long before and, aside from the hope of finding a creek somewhere to drink from, I knew I wouldn’t get anything more until the finish line. Night had fallen long before and I was climbing up a steep and rocky incline guided only by the light of my headlamp, and all I could think to myself was, “well….I hope I can make it.”
Make it where? To the finish line. The Hasetsune Cup is Japan’s largest trail race, hosting more than 2,000 runners every year. It begins at 1:00 pm and has a cut-off of twenty-four hours – the late start is arranged so that everyone, even the fastest runners, must run in the dark. It begins and ends in the town of Itsukaichi, which is technically within the city limits of Tokyo, though the center of Japan’s capital is at least an hour and a half away by car. The name “Hasetsune” comes from a famous Japanese mountaineer named Hasegawa Tsuneo, and to get the nickname just put the first two syllables of his first and last name together. He died in an avalanche while climbing in the Himalaya more than two decades ago, and as a memorial his wife and friends started the race. From what I could gather, at first it was not a run at all, but more like an adventure, with competitors traveling much farther than they do now and with much larger packs. But the race has since been squashed down to a less formidable adventure, and is now a very popular race among the Japanese trail running community. However, it is by no means emasculated – the course is 71.5 km long and boasts a painful 4,500 meters of vert. But possibly its greatest distinction is that for that entire distance runners must carry all the food and water they will need for the race. The Hasetsune Cup has only one aid station at 42 km, and there runners can only receive a maximum of 1.5 liters of water. Nothing else is allowed.
Thus I found myself crawling over the third peak on the course, “Otake-san,” thirsty and without food or water. At the time, however, I was unsure even if I was on the third peak. That’s because the term “third peak” indicates that the Hasetsune has three notable peaks, whereas my experience was that the Hasetsune has at least twenty-two notable peaks, and maybe even forty-nine. Basically, I spent seven and a half hours either going straight up a mountain or straight down it, and hardly ever maintaining even a semblance of normal running rhythm until the final few downhill miles. The mountains of Japan may not be tall – the highest summit was just over 1,500 meters – but they certainly are sharp and steep. The climbs generally came in pitches of anywhere from 25-100 meters vertical, and the descents were similar, if slightly less while building up to a peak or slightly more while descending. Does that sound confusing? I hope so, because that’s what my race was like. The highest peak is Mt. Mito (“Mito-san”), and I knew it was around 1,500 meters tall. So you can imagine my distress upon finding that, after climbing up the steepest hill in the universe (which, in itself, came after a previous peak which I originally thought was the summit) I learned that this new summit was only 1,400 meters tall, AND I was about to go downhill for a while. I’ll leave off my complaining there – just know that the Hasetsune Cup continues like this from start to finish.
But all the races I do are hard – that’s half the reason I do them. I want to challenge myself against myself, my competitors and the landscape. Japan delivered all of that and more. The racing experience was similar to others in the sense that I started with a lot of people and eventually the pack wittled down to a few guys who were having a good day. Competition is exciting and invigorating, but generally a similar experience no matter where it takes place. For me, Hasetsune was more of an experience of a new landscape.
Being from Colorado, and having just spent time in Europe, I have become accustomed to long views and airy exposure. Japan is not like that. The mountains of the Hasetsune are densely wooded and often enveloped in cloud. The pine trees have wet bark and vegetation cloys the hillsides. The sightlines are short because the trail winds between the trees, often on the thin ridgeline itself or on the slope just below. Occasionally, a view flashes by and is remembered with extreme clarity due to its brevity – like a few clear words snatched out of radio static. I would often catch glimpses of approaching mountains through a break in the canopy above; I can remember once seeing through the trees a view of a large reservoir below flanked by misty peaks; and possibly best of all was the night view of the lights of Tokyo from some high point after Checkpoint 2. Much of the race, however, was contained in a drifting fog. The clouds floated between the trees and lent an air of mystery to the run. Even before night fell I was often wrapped in a layer of cloudy vapor, separated even from the ghostly blurred trees on either side, simply following the trail to the next rise. This was romantic until night fell and I found that the huge amount of water in the air actually reflected my headlamp’s beam and fogged my view of the trail. Fortunately a breeze picked up in the early evening and cleared much of the cloud cover away. Running, hiking and worrying over my lack of supplies, I eventually found my way to the finish just fine, successful and satisfied.
The Japanese trail running community welcomed me with their characteristic good cheer and deep respect. I had the impression that they were honored to have me run their most popular race, whereas I felt quite the same in the other way – running the race was for me a huge honor. They welcomed me and idolized me, for better or worse, and were happy to share the trail with someone they had maybe only read about in magazines or online. The community of mountain runners in Japan is large and enthusiastic. They have that passion for the sport that is often found amongst those who do what they love. I was impressed with the size of the outdoor community in Tokyo itself – I can think of few hindrances to trail running as great as being in one of the world’s largest metropolises. But they still manage to get out when they can, and turned out in full force for the Hasetsune. In the end, like mountain races everywhere, the finishing time was less important than the sharing of the challenge. We all ran the same course on the same day, and that developed a bond between people. At the finish line the pre-race anxiety was gone and instead replaced with a brotherly camaraderie. Friends discussed the race and I sat nearby listening and trying to understand how the sounds they were making formed words with meaning. Hands were shook, honors and congratulations given, and then we all went home. Of course, for me “home” is a hotel room in Shibuya (google it). And then tomorrow it’s back to Europe. What a life.
[Editor's Notes: Mr. Jones won the 2012 Hasetsune Cup in a course record time of 7:22. Koichi Iwasa has translated this article into Japanese at DogsorCaravan.com.]