Ultra Trail Mt Fuji (UTMF): Chris Pickering
Chris Pickering is a Brit living in Niseko, Japan. He’s really learned to embrace running no matter the weather outside, including 50cm of snow. He also shares his interesting never fail nutrition supplement.
What's the name of the race? Ultra Trail Mount Fuji
What made you sign up for this race? Terrain, location, recommendation? It's probably the major 100 mile race in Japan. I had enough ITRA points to enter and it's a lottery to get chosen so I thought I would enter regardless and see if I got picked. I did, so thought I'd give it a go!
I've done a few 80-110km trail races and run them pretty well, but I dropped out of my first 100 mile race last September around 105km in. Oddly (for me) the reason was that I got so sleepy and just wanted to close my eyes...so this felt like revenge!
I'm interested in nice hilly trails really and the fact this had 2,500 racers and was here in Japan made it all the more interesting for me.
How far was the current race? Was it a new distance? The race was scheduled to be 165km - just over 100 miles. But (spoiler alert) due to extreme weather it ended up being shortened. I made it to 140km before the course was closed... so a new distance for me!
What was the elevation gains? Over 165km the gain was 7,942m. My Garmin had me at 6,679m when I reached the end of 140km.
Can you describe the terrain? Buttery trails, basically rock climbing? The first 30km is a relatively smooth mix of fire roads and single track through cuts in the woods. Then the climbing begins! I would say that the vast majority of the course was single track and fairly technical ascending and descending. Some places were pretty rocky and involved a few ropes for holding, but mostly it was soft ground. Unfortunately due to the weather that turned into serious mud and some of the descents were epic mud slides! Into and out of some of the aid stations there were some sections of road as well which were gently sloping in most cases and possible to run.
Along the ridge lines it was also possible to run - I'm sure the views would have been incredible if we weren't running in fog :-)
How long have you been running consistently? I ran a lot at school until I was about 19 years old. Then took a break to drink beer and play football (soccer!) for about 10 years. I did my first marathon aged 29 and in the last 10 years have got myself fit enough to run a marathon each year. I only got into trail running from about 2017 though and did my first trail ultra that year. I live in Niseko which is in the northern island of Japan (Hokkaido). Our mountains, roads and trails are covered in snow for about 6 months a year as Niseko received about 15metres of snow every winter on average. But over the last few years I've enjoyed getting out basically every day regardless of the weather and trotting around in the snow, sun, mud or rain! Running in 50cm of fresh powder snow is decent training even if I struggle to get much vertical training in during the winter.
What did you eat the most at the aid stations? Just gels? What kind? I had a crew for the first time ever! My girlfriend and a friend from work both made the trip with me. So at A2, A4, A5 and A7 they were there with some supplies and dry clothes. Mainly I took on more water and some energy drinks - I'm a big fan of Skratch as an energy source (both drink and chews). I'm not a fan of gels really, so I ate some chocolate, some fruit, some bread etc. My secret weapon though is a "crisp sandwich". Basically a packet of crisps (potato chips) in between two slices of white bread... must be a British thing! It's a bit dry so a good opportunity to wash it down with some coke!
High moment? I took at nap at A6 (see low moment below) and waking up after 40 minutes I felt like a new man. As I started running again and my brain caught up with my body, I knew in my mind I could make it. I also felt pretty good at the finish - even though it wasn't 100 miles I had completed the shortened race and was amazed to find out I finished 192nd out of 2,500 starters!
I think that the final leg was something else as well... at least in hindsight. As I left A7 the heavens really opened and it was a deluge. I was soaked through within minutes of leaving the aid station and then started climbing... the rain turned to sleet and then to snow. And then to heavy snow. And then to the point where I couldn't feel my fingers. With the help of another runner I got my survival blanket out of my bag (for the first time ever) and wrapped it around my t-shirt, under my soaking wet rain jacket. I think that moment saved me as I was able to keep some heat around my core whenever I moved... so it forced me to keep moving along the snowy/muddy ridge line. This might not seem like a "high" moment, but it was awesome and reminded me that I was doing something most other people would never do.
Low moment? In between A5 and A6 I got really sleepy and had that feeling of doom that ended my previous 100 mile race. I took some energy in and forced myself to keep my eyes open, but also made the decision that I had to take a nap at the next aid station. This was around 105km and I still had to get to A6 around 114km. I knew my crew wouldn't be there because it was not a supported station and I began to feel really down. Dragged myself to the aid station and went to lie down, but there were no blankets... then someone saw me just as they were about to carry on and gave me a blanket. I drank some coke and coffee, then just lay down on the floor in all my soaking wet clothes and shoes, wrapped myself up and closed my eyes. Missed 3 alarms and 2 phone calls but eyes popped open 40 minutes later... I had no idea where I was but autopilot kicked in and I got up, ate some cream buns and drank some more coffee and headed back out onto the trails (and into the rain!).
Do you listen to music? If yes, what's your song of the moment? I do sometimes, but not in this race as headphones are not allowed.
What shoes did you wear? Altra Lone Peak 4.0 (two pairs which I swapped a couple of times)
What race vest/pack did you use? Salomon S/Lab Sense Ultra 8
What makes this race special? The support. In Japan support (and participation) in long distance races is always epic, but this was something else. When you are running through the mountains in the dark and the fog and people are there on the ridges cheering it makes you feel like nothing else. The aid stations were amazing too. And to be honest it was incredible to have a crew there to support - that made a huge difference in the dark moments knowing my friends were out there waiting for me!
What race is next? I'll run the Hokkaido Marathon in late August (for the 7th year in a row) and then contemplating the Javelina Jundred in the States. Never run there but looks like a fun event with awesome people... which is basically the reason to do these daft races!
Favorite local running store/brand/community? I'm a huge fan of Altra and the Japanese running store that supplies them - Stride LAB - will be opening a store in Niseko this year so I'm really excited about that. It helps that it's being opened by one of my best friends, Toge-san, who runs SPROUT Coffee here in Niseko and is one of my favourite running companions.
Dream running destination? Race or holiday. It's difficult to say really. I always run wherever I am (holiday, home or business trip). I really do love running here in Niseko because the scenery is unreal and the temperature in summer is really pleasant, but I think I'd love to spend some time in the States on the trails there. Perhaps Boulder or the Pacific North West where there seem to be great communities as well as great trails.
Follow Chris around Japan thru the rain, mud, snow, and a few sunny days as well on instagram @nisekorunner . You can also find him on Strava. Thanks so much Chris for sharing your UTMF experience!