Out of all the Trailwalker events around the world, the one in Japan has arguably the most challenging terrain and conditions. With a team of 4, the goal is to complete 100km within 48 hours and to raise a minimum of 120,000 yen per team in support of Oxfam’s projects in the region.
Kenneth and I have never gone for any marathons or endurance races before. Part of the reason is we don’t enjoy running, and part of the reason is we are not exactly what you would call fit. I used to think that the people who do these are kind of crazy for putting themselves through torture. Why do this when there are so many other fun sports to do for leisure?
However, I happen to have a super excited husband who is up for anything adventurous. When he came to know about this, he became really psyched up about the hike and asked if I wanted to go. I was reluctant at first because we would have just returned from a Japan vacation and this would mean traveling to Japan again in May. I wasn’t even thinking about 100km and what it meant. I naively thought; how difficult can walking be?
When the reality of possibly not sleeping through 48 hours and hiking up and down mountains became more real from reading the past accounts, we had to decide if we would go for it and to recruit 2 other friends. Eventually, what made me decide was this: I believe that if I can do this, I can pretty much do ANYTHING in this world. I would be pushing myself way out of my usual physical comfort zone. Importantly, I don’t want to be the wife who stays behind while the husband goes to do epic stuff!
It is a nice coincidence that our holiday coincided with the trial 20km walk on 8th March. We would test and find out if 100km is doable.
Along the way, I found that indeed there are humans and then there are super humans. On the bus ride to the starting point, we met Robin, who had participated in all 7 years of the Trailwalker, and his team had came in first and second before. They completed in over 16 hours because they ran most of the distance, wherever it was possible. If you look at the elevation map and terrain conditions, you will understand what a super feat that is.
We asked Robin, how best to prepare for this challenge? He said, the best thing is to train climbing up and down the stairs. A lot. Pack light as there are plenty of food and drinks at the rest stops and it is possible to complete without a support team. There will be a JTB bag drop service where you can drop off your bag, but unlike previous years, this year there will only be a bag retrieval at the finishing point.
He also gave a good tip that at some points, it may be best for the slowest team member to lead the group as it is very important for the team to stay together. The worst that can happen is to lose either the fastest or slowest members in the darkness where people have gone on wrong turns before. Establishing a group pace is important so it helps to form teams of relatively similar speed and fitness.
Without a doubt, we are the least fit compared to the 2 other regular marathon runners in our team. But it.is.ok. We fully intend to get fitter leading up to May!
There were 18 of us on this trial walk and we started off at the front of the group, having a good time chatting to Robin. But as the ascents began, I found myself having to say sumimasen repeatedly as I was holding up the single file group. It must be Japanese modesty when the ones who said they don’t really do hikes were climbing in a much more effortless manner. Or, we were just really unfit! Before long, we found ourselves firmly entrenched in the middle of the pack! Thankfully we were among a group of really cheerful and encouraging people, who kept our spirits high even as our legs gradually turned to mush. We don’t have any hills or mountains in Singapore so we do not get much practice with those sets of muscles!
One of the most interesting parts came when we literally had to walk through a trail that was besieged by bamboos, and on snow. Quite a few times, we got whipped by the branches! I felt like a jungle trooper and thought of how horrible war is like when the soldiers have to trudge through snow and bushes and have to kill or be afraid of being killed. Why cant people just live in peace? A few times I slipped as the snow gave way or the branches were being sneaky but I got right up. One just got to keep going. The actual walk in May may be muddy so it would be a different kind of slippery.
There were times when it was so peaceful and beautiful through the tall upright trees. Rows and rows of them standing regal. So many times I wish I could take out my camera, but we were walking single file and I didn’t want to hold up anyone. We only got small opportunities when the leader paused to make sure the last of the group was still in sight. I could only try to hold in as much beauty as my eyes could take in as we kept moving on. In life, there are so many moments you know you will probably only encounter once. I try to remind myself to stay present.
By a certain time, I could feel sloshing in my boots as the snow melted and my toes were numb from the cold. I could feel a very dull consistent ache in my legs and they were pushing themselves to keep going at a consistent pace. I found strength I never knew lay latent in me.
About an hour to sunset, we reached the top elevation of the route and we looked back. There it was, the glorious Mount Fuji accompanied by the glowing sun and swirling clouds. The feeling of being moved by such a kind of beauty cannot really be described except that it really reenergises you to go further for another 2-3 hours. I only wish I could have spent more time admiring the view.
The locals who were with us said that it was typically hard to see the unobstructed view of this famous peak. We were so lucky! It barely took 5 minutes before dark clouds came and cloaked it away from sight.
We have never done any night hiking and we got to experience that on this trip. The rest of the route was a descent of the mountain with the first section all covered in snow. The snow was so deep that backcountry skiing would have been possible! Each step was a deep plunge of more than a foot; leaving deep markings for others to follow. Thank goodness the snow helped with visibility as they reflected the remnants of light in their pure whiteness. By the last section, the trail was normal woods again and the knees were incredibly painful. We kept going and were grateful that we were with another 4 people as it was kind of scary walking in the dark forest with just a small headlamp on. I have never walked in such pitch darkness where the surroundings are deep dark forests and you know a fall can take you a long way down.
When the nearby city lights starting appearing, they looked like twinkling fairy lights giving hope to us. The city never looked more beautiful.
The finishing point was the onsen which made everyone very happy. By the time we got off the 5-minute bus ride there, the adrenaline had worn off and we waddled like tired penguins off the bus. As we only had 30 minutes, we opted to eat some hot food at the restaurant instead of soaking ourselves. It eventually turned out to be a wise move as we would end up missing our bus to Nagano and having to spend the night in a manga cafe.
We are mega excited about the actual event and we would be ramping up our training as well as getting started with our fundraising to support the wonderful projects Oxfam is doing in the region with regards to disaster relief and economic development for poverty alleviation. We would love to have your support!:)