My Race to the Top of Japan
by: Danny Matson
It drew me to Japan from an early age. As a child, I saw paintings of it in art museums around Los Angeles. I saw it again when I googled images of Japan as a young teenager, always so beautiful and majestic. When I was twenty-four and living in Korea, I traveled to Japan on vacation. I had approximately three goals: 1) make a Japanese friend 2) go to the Final Fantasy store in Tokyo 3) see Mt. Fuji. The first two were realized. The third, no luck. I wanted those paintings and Google images to come alive. I wanted to see the mountain that had sparked my interest in Japan. I passed by it on the Shinkansen with my JR Rail pass several times but saw only clouds. At age twenty-six I got accepted into the JET Program and came here to live. I continued traveling across Japan, often making early reservations for the Fuji-side window seats on the Shinkansen just for that special glimpse. I crossed approximately six times in two years. No visibility. Fuji was proving to be a tricky one!
Weak Beginnings and My Running Story in a Nutshell
I was an awkward kid. Painfully shy might be the better way to describe it. I had few friends and never spoke up in class at school. My freshman year of high school I joined the cross country running team as a way to feel included. I wasn’t sure if I liked running much, but I tried. I was okay, but not that good. At the end of the year we ran a meet. I was chosen as the eighth person, an alternate if anything happened to one of seven actual runners. I wasn’t chosen. I was sensitive (in addition to being socially inept) and I took things personally far more often than I should have. I felt like a loner and so I quit the club. That was the only club I was ever a part of in my school days.
That was it for me and running until 2012, age twenty-five. By this point I was pretty much out of my shell and I started running to get in shape. Then I made some friends in Korea who wanted to try a 10K. I ran the race and the energy of it invigorated me. I was tired of starting and stopping things all my life. I started piano as a kid and quit after a year. I began learning saxophone in junior high school and quit after a year. I took a photography class in college and loved it but–you guessed it–quit after a year. French for two years. Quit. Korean for two years. Quit. You get the idea. So this was it for me. Running or nothing. I ran to erase my past. I ran to conquer my demons of never fulfilling my potential. I ran to stay motivated. I ran to find inspiration.
Running my first race (10K) in Korea
“Okay, so, how about a race TO THE TOP OF MT.FUJI?”
“Holy God, what are you thinking?” is how I answered when I posed the question to myself. It was March 2014 and I was in the best running shape I’d ever been in thanks to finishing my second marathon in two years and participating in trail running events. Google came to the rescue again on this one when I searched “Crazy Races in Asia”. I did so out of curiosity. There she was one more time. “Mt. Fuji Mountain Ascent Race” (or 富士登山競走) looked truly crazy and miserable: 21 kilometers from start to finish, 3,000 meters of vertical gain, and absolutely zero flat or downhill sections. Worst yet, there are extreme time constraints, where the coordinators will physically bar you from continuing the race if you don’t make it in time. “In time” meaning the absolutely unreasonable 4 hours and 30 minute time limit. The official website’s offers the following description, “The Fuji Mountain Race is a rigorous, physical and mental challenge and is often considered the most difficult climbing race in Japan.” It goes on to warn applicants, “Many prospective racers tend to underestimate the difficulty of the race or overestimate their own aptitude and as a result have difficulty completing the race.” YIKES. Researching the race, I found that more than 50% of the racers DO NOT FINISH!
At this point I texted Jordan Langen, another Hiroshima JET at the time, ultra-running crazy-man, and new-found running friend, about my curiosity in the Fuji ascent race. It took but a few seconds for him to respond: “SIGN UP!” I responded in my Keanu Reeves Californian (texting) voice: “But dude… man… I think this is out of my league…” He responded, “You will train. Find the mountain. Run it. You will do it.” And that’s all I needed.
Maybe I just wanted the chance to finally see the elusive mountain. More likely there was something else inside of me that I wanted to conquer. At the very basic level I just wanted to see if I could do it. Race to the top of Mt. Fuji in 4 hours and 30 minutes… could I do it?
By the end of that week I was signed up for the 2014 67th Annual Fuji Mountain Ascent Race.
Mud and Mountains
From then until July, I saw little of other people and a lot of the rocks under my feet and the mud on my legs. After signing up for the race, a JTE at my school offered to show me where the trail entrance to my local mountain was. On a terrifying (but hilarious) afternoon after work, we found my local training grounds. We got lost on our way and he said, “I think it’s just up there” as he pointed to a steep mountain cliff with clearly no trail attached. With branches breaking, rocks falling below us, sweat pouring off this poor man’s face (he’s around 50 and not exactly an athlete), we climbed. We reached the trail and I walked back down to make sure he made it safely to his car before my first day of mountain training began. Respect through the roof for this guy for putting himself in danger just to show me where the trail began.
The training began. The mountain is called Shiraki-yama (白木山) and it’s known for having one hell of a steep climb to its 900 meter peak (tallest in Hiroshima city). I went up and down this bad boy as often as I could. Sometimes in the rain, sometimes with friends (those were always the most fun days), once at night with Jordan and a headlamp, but most of the time all by myself. Sometimes I went up and down it twice in one day. It took two and a half hours to go up and down at a normal pace. You might think that seems pretty lonely and you may be right. It is… sort of. Running can be a lonely sport, but it also clears your mind like nothing else is capable of. Useless thoughts don’t exist while running. Life feels meaningful and the air you breathe is enough to invigorate the senses. Each and every time I ran up and down Shiraki-yama, the image of Fuji was planted in the center of my mind’s eye. As I made my way through the same path past radio towers, along rocks and rivers, swatting spider webs out of my way, occasionally dodging snakes, deer, or the rare inoshishi (wild boar), I imagined myself on the day of the race. I was always running with a purpose. There I was running steadily with 2,000 other people. Looking straight ahead at the mountain and seeing the beauty of Mt. Fuji for my first time on the very day of the race. I would be embarking on my biggest challenge yet.
Training at Shiraki-yama.
The Big Day Before the Big Day
The week before the race was somewhat unsettling. I fell in a “gaijin trap” (gap on the side of the road, referred to that way for a reason) and sprained my toe. It kept me from running for a few days. So I decreased my running distance sharply from my 80km per week maximum and rested up. I felt worried about my toe (which hurt!) but more worried about Jordan, who had sprained his ankle in a run we had done together in June and still hadn’t fully recovered. Despite being capable of contending for a top ranking in any race he enters, he was going to be running at much less than his full capacity for Fuji. It was a shame, but I was selfishly just happy he was still going with me.
One the day before the race, after going into work for an hour because of a lack of remaining nenkyuu, Jordan and I took a combination of buses, local trains, and the shinkansen to Fuji. We arrived at the race reception that night with just enough time to get our race-day packets. We didn’t see Fuji on the way up. Of course. But that was okay, because the next day we would be running up it. The excitement was overpowering. That night we suited up in our gear to take photos before settling in for a short sleep before our 4:45AM wake up call.
The big day had finally arrived.
Jordan and I the night before the race
The Race Itself
I’m sorry. I have tricked you. This story is in fact not about racing up Mt. Fuji. Although I finished the race in 3 hours and 46 minutes (44 minutes faster than that absurd time requirement), and in 198th place (out of 2,000 runners), the race itself was not so important. It was a special day, don’t get me wrong, but there’s something I learned when I crossed the finish line. I learned that this race to the top of Japan was a whole lot longer than just one day of running. As I crossed the finish line and embraced Jordan, who finished 20 minutes faster than I did (with a sprained ankle), I had to have a moment to myself. It was in that moment I realized what Fuji meant to me. Tears were impossible to retain. My mom, who had been cheering me along the whole way through emails and Skype chats, asked me to call her from the top if I could. I don’t remember the last time I was that emotional. There I was, at the top of Mt. Fuji, crying like a baby on the phone: “Mom… *sniff* *sniff*… I’m at the top of…. *sniff*… of… Mt…. Fuji. Mom…. I did it.”
All I could think of was the journey to that point. My training journey which started a few months earlier. My running journey. My Japan journey. My life journey. The race itself was exciting, of course. I was still unsure even on the very morning of the race if I was going to finish within their strict time requirement (only 44% of racers finished) even after all my grueling training. But that was exciting. The energy at the start line was exciting too. Everybody shot out at the crack of the gun faster than they should haveand five kilometers in people were already gasping for air like they were dying. I took pleasure in their pain and that was exciting. Realizing I was going to finish the race about halfway through was particularly exciting. Okay, not seeing Fuji as we were running towards it was annoying (fog) but everything else about that day was just plain EXCITING. (Yes, even with the race I still didn’t catch a glimpse of the mountain. I ran to the top and back. I never saw her.)
However, the race was not one day of running. I’m sorry to have tricked you if you were looking for stories of pain and suffering as I crawled my way to the top of Mt. Fuji. The truth is, I was ready for it. It was tough, but not painstakingly tough. It was just like my training runs. What I wasn’t ready for was the flood of emotion I would feel standing at the top of Japan as I realized that life isn’t just about one moment of trying hard, but the decision to do it on a daily basis. I get teary-eyed just recalling the memory. Japan has taught me about the fighting spirit—the “ganbarou” spirit to try my hardest in everything and never give up in all that I try, running or otherwise.
A Nice Epilogue to the Story of a Curse
Immediately following the race up Fuji, Jordan and I parted ways. I set off for my summer holidays to Vietnam and Cambodia by myself for adventuring. On my way back to Japan, by complete accident and absolute surprise, I saw Mt. Fuji for the first time. There were still clouds, but this time there was a hole in them and Mt. Fuji was at the center of that hole. At first I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and thought it must surely be some other minor mountain, but there was no mistaking her. It was Fuji. I smiled and stared, reflecting on the journey that brought me to this point, and feeling the warm welcome back to Japan. My Fuji story finally felt complete.
Oh yeah, I’d be lying if I didn’t allow myself a moment to grin and think, “I ran up that bastard!”