It’s a cool December morning when I board the Kyoto Karasuma subway car, filled with people dressed for the mountains. Like me, they’re headed for one of Kansai’s most popular trail races, the Kyoto Higashiyama Sanjurokumine Mountain Race. There’s a growing fervor for trail running in Japan. It attracts runners tired of pounding pavement. The Higashiyama run has proven especially popular for its proximity, length and relative ease. If you hope to enter, you have to be quick: these days the 1,050 places fill up in about two weeks at the start of September.
The 30-kilometer course goes from Takaragaike to Fushimi Inari shrine, through the eastern hills. About 70% of it is mountain trail (mostly not very technical) over three main peaks, and it takes about the same amount of time as running a regular full marathon. The cut-off time is five hours. Though it’s not so hard, you’ll need to train: if you don’t think you can finish a full marathon, don’t think of this as an easier option.
Back to that December morning. I arrive in good shape but with a dislocated shoulder. I’d sustained the injury in a capoeira practice the week before and am concerned it might have repercussions over the distance. I’ve trained harder than previous years, and a personal record is within reach, but there are too many variables to hope for anything better than finishing the race.
After a brief chat with friends from running group Hash House Harriers, we are called to the starting line. The countdown echoes through the hills, and POW! We are off! We start on the road and head to the mountains. As we reach the trailhead, a bottleneck ensues. No need to rush, though, this race is about endurance. Coming down the first peak, I exchange a few words with a fellow francophone. The rest of the course is quieter but scenic, with bird’s-eye views of Kyoto, secluded temples and the season’s colours.
Nineteen kilometers in, calf cramps prevent me from running uphill. Is it a consequence of my dislocation, inadequate training or sodium intake? It hardly matters now. I need to focus. Unless something goes wrong, I will hit that personal best. When I see the stairs down to Fushimi Inari, my goal looks attainable.
Suddenly, about a hundred meters from the finish, an older gentleman stumbles and falls. “Are you alright? Here, take my hand”, I say, helping him to stand. He urges me to go on, and so I do, watching him jog again with a quick glance over my shoulder. I cross the finish line in 4 hours 19 seconds, beating my personal record by more than 20 minutes.
I am hurting, but receiving a congratulatory beer from my friend who finished it in 3 hours. I feel elated. The sun is warm, the air is fresh, and I can’t think of any better way to spend a Sunday.
Kyoto Triathlon Club
www.ktc-kyoto.com (Japanese only)
Hash House Harriers