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Saturday, June 2, 2012

JAPAN LITE

A 100-mile race — it keeps you runnin'


Paul Walsh has just finished running 156 km. For fun. Around the bottom of Mount Fuji.

If you think he's crazy, then you'll have to incriminate the other 611 people who also finished the Ultra-Trail Mount Fuji (UTMF) 100-Mile race held this past May 18 to 20.

What's it like to run 156 km? It took Walsh, who came in 42nd overall, 28 hours 55 minutes and 38 seconds to run the circumference of Mount Fuji. He started at 3 p.m. on Friday, ran all night and all the next day, finishing Saturday evening at almost 8 p.m. He hardly ate. He got no sleep. And that's the good part of it!

"I had nausea for quite a few hours during the night," he said. The day after the race, one leg went completely numb. His massage therapist, David Koerner, suspects the cause was "overuse." Koerner was able to solve the problem by "using vibration and traditional massage strokes to release the tissue that had adhered to itself and to other structures around it in order to reestablish circulation of lymph, blood and interstitial fluid and to un-impinge the nerve endings." Nice.

Walsh described his physical condition a couple of days after the race as "really very tired, dehydrated and hungry. Really very, very tired."

Just to help you get your head around this, try to think about what you were doing that weekend. I'll bet you spent a good part of it sipping coffee, tossing back a few beers, shopping and eating chocolate while poor Walsh was running his butt off. You do feel bad about that, don't you? Maybe you're the crazy one.

While we could all use a little more exercise, you're probably wondering if running 156 km isn't going a bit, um, too far? What would induce this Hiroshima University of Economics instructor, part-time DJ and father of two to do this?

While it's true that living in Japan can make some people crazy, you can't blame this one on Japan — ultrarunning (anything longer than a standard 42.2 km marathon distance) is becoming extremely popular all over the world. And Walsh is an ex-ironman triathlon competitor. In addition, he's British. "Fell running" has a long tradition in England, where every year people run to the top of mountains and back down in the most direct route possible. Walsh's father, who is reportedly in his 60s, has been doing this for years. So there — get off the sofa!

A long-time resident of Hiroshima, Walsh started training for the inaugural UTMF race in 2011, just six months before the event. But when the race was postponed till 2012 due to the March 11 tsunami disaster, he found himself with an extra 365 days to train. An extra year of running five days a week, including a 30 km practice run on Saturdays and a 50 km run on Sundays! This strikes me as the perfect hobby for those wanting to escape the in-laws on weekends. Those are looong runs, taking seven to nine hours each.

But the UTMF was the first time Walsh had ever run nearly 100 miles. Indeed, he admits, "I had no idea how tired I was supposed to feel, or allowed to feel." When he passed the halfway mark, he says, "I just couldn't believe I had to do another 50 (miles)." This was before he entered the part of the course affectionately referred to as the "Hell Section," which is 27 km of mountains. He spoke of evil bamboo roots that reach up out of the ground and grab your ankles to trip you. "I was falling all the way down the decent," he said. He was dehydrated, and couldn't eat properly. But he ran on.

"I was very cold at night, I was feeling queasy," he said. While looking for his gloves and cap to put on, he realized they had fallen out of his pack somewhere back on the trail. He ran on — just he and the volcanic scree of Mount Fuji.

By the time he arrived at Aid Station No. 9 (out of 10 aid stations where runners can stop to rest, refill water bottles, etc.), he had completely run out of food and water. "All the volunteers at the aid stations were really nice, but at No. 9, the people were really something," he recalled. "I'm vegetarian, and they offered me miso soup. I had a cup of coffee too. I still felt crappy at the aid station," he says, but he filled up his water bottles, stretched, and headed back out on to the trail.

Blaming a Facebook addiction, Walsh said he posted about 20 times to the social networking site about his condition during the race. "I posted about how crappy I felt," he said, but after Aid Station 9, he experienced something equal to an alien abduction.

While updating Facebook and telling how much he wanted the race to be over with, he happened to see a post by his wife about how his Hiroshima friends were cheering him on. He realized he should stop winging. At that time, he entered one of the most beautiful parts of the trail. "It was a perfect running surface, a gorgeous forest, and soft ground. The food started to kick in, and I started feeling more positive. I just felt better and better." And then, he was struck by an idea he had long given up on: "I should see if I can run, see what can I do!" So he started running again. "The final section, a climb, didn't feel like a climb at all. My entire perception of the race was completely transformed." He ran strong all the way to finish.

I was standing at the finish line when Walsh came through — he looked absolutely refreshed! After a small rejoicing session and photos, I had to excuse myself though. I had been standing there for a couple hours and I was tired, hungry, and needed a shower.

After just four hours sleep, Walsh made the eight-hour trip back to Hiroshima to make a concert his kids were performing in.

When I called him to talk on the phone for this interview a couple days later he said, "I'm glad I got back for the concert, it was really worth it. My kids were so happy."

As David Koerner, the body work specialist, says, "People would be surprised what they are capable of doing with the right help and training."



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