Summary for the Busy Executive: The Togakushi Trail Run Race, held in Nagano Prefecture, is a great event with an endearingly local feel. The distances offered are 41km, 28km, and 5km. It is well-organized, the scenery is stunning, and the organizers and staff are pleasant and efficient, friendly and encouraging. Based on my experience, I recommend it.
The Long Version: I arrived in Nagano the day before the Togakushi Trail Run Race not exactly brimming with confidence. I felt undertrained, having taken the previous three weeks off from running on account of a tender Achilles, and on top of that, I had gone to bed the night before heading to Nagano feeling dopey with what, I kept telling myself, couldn’t possibly be a cold. With a bad ankle and a head cold I wondered whether I’d make the 8-hour cut-off for the 28km race I had chosen.
The race, held on September 28 this year, offers three distances: for adults a 41km race, the 28km race I was doing, and, for children and beginners, a 5km. As this was only my second trail race, (and the first, having been run almost entirely on fire roads, was a “trail” race in name only) I chose the middle course. (Didn’t the Buddha have something to say about that?)
The good news is, I woke up the morning of the race with all signs of my incipient cold gone, with my Achilles feeling fine, and with weather—sunny and warm, but not too warm—that couldn’t have been better.
I had spent the night with two roommates who’d been assigned to me by the organizers of the race (by the oddest of coincidence, both of them were non-Japanese—Olaf from the Netherlands and Sebastien from France). Olaf, who was doing the long course which started two hours before my race was already gone when I woke up on race morning. Sebastien and I sipped cups of coffee while we made our final preparations before heading down to breakfast which, like the ample dinner we’d been served at our inn the night before, was simple and tasty.
It was nice that we were only a fifteen-minute walk from the starting line, and most runners were also close by, because, in an effort to support the local community, the race requires everyone doing the 41 or 28km distances to register the day before, and part of the fee racers pay includes a night at a local inn. Rural Japan is struggling. This seems to me a great way for racers to help out.
Finally, after some stretching led by a local yoga teacher and the obligatory milling around and final restroom stop we were, with horns blowing and a uniformed matching band playing, off. The 41km has three big climbs and descents, while the 28km course offers two, one after another, right at the beginning of the race. We start by running up a ski slope which eventually becomes single-track. Faster runners will want to be sure to get out in front early, because it does turn into a conga line here. Slower runners like me will be stepping out of the way a lot to let the speed demons get by. This first climb, up and down Meno San, took me about an hour and was invigorating, vigor I would need for the next, more substantial climb, up almost, but not quite, to the top of Iizuna Yama. The climb is steep and technical, no one around me was running it; those leading the race may have, but I wouldn’t know. We made it to the top, and then it was time for the long and technical descent, from about 1800m to about 1100m. I’m crap at descending, so lots of folks passed me on this part as I gingerly picked my way down. At last, though, I was at the bottom and soon pulled into the first aid station.
There are two aid stations on the 28km course, and three on the 41km course. This (augmented later in the race by locals handing out Shinshu apple slices and water) seems ample to me, particularly as the race organizers told us to carry at least a liter of water and some food, but I did hear some grumbling. The volunteers staffing the aid station, many of them folks connected with the lodges in which we had stayed or other tourist-oriented businesses, were helpful and efficient, friendly and encouraging.
Just as I had reached the bottom of the climb down from Iizuna my left knee started to hurt. Although the course had leveled out here, and was even paved for a few-hundred meters, I actually had to stop running and walk a bit on account of the pain. I ran-walked my way into the aid station, and considered consulting the doctor who was stationed there. He was busy with another runner, though, and I was eager to get going, so I set out; the pain disappeared on its own.
Here the race goes onto a trail that parallels the Togakushi “Bird Line” highway. It’s mostly flat and smooth, so it was a pleasure to pick up the pace here after crawling up and down the climbs. Since I had made it to the first aid station in about two hours, and was moving at a decent clip now—cold and Achilles entirely forgotten—I was no longer worried about making the cut-off, and wondered if I could get to the finish line in less than six hours. That’s a time that, I know, would be disappointing to more accomplished runners, but to me it seemed a worthy goal.
As I was feeling confident now, the rest of the race was a pleasant run through stunning forests and past ponds that looked so good it was hard not to dive in. In fact, the second aid station was at one of those ponds, Kagami no Ike, so-called because it offers a perfect reflection of the peaks that tower above it.
Though my legs were definitely tired at this point, thanks in part of a couple of highly caffeinated gels, my energy was rising as we neared the end of the race. One of the volunteers at the second aid station told us it was 5km to the finish, and I realized that with a bit of a push I had a chance to make it to the finish line in less than six hours. Part way through those final 5km a volunteer yelled “ato 3 kilo,” which was great news, except that after running for what seemed like a long time after receiving that encouragement I came to a sign that said “ato 3km.” This was mildly disheartening, but not too bad. I was soon at the finish. I crossed the line, and someone handed me a card with my time printed on it. It was going to be close; I really didn’t know if I’d beaten six hours. The card said: 5:58:24.
And that’s the time I’ll want to beat when I return to this race. It was well-organized and an entirely positive experience, so I definitely do plan to be back. (The winner of the race finished in 3:02:21. The winner of the 41km finished in 4:31:20. Hats off to them.)