A rabbit runs along a trail watched from above. I am the rabbit. A rabbit who runs faster and faster from a hawk I can't see but can feel closing in on me. I search for shelter but cannot find a hiding place...
The vibration of the mobile phone on my right shoulder snaps me out of the daydream. I pull it out of its pocket in my running vest, and answer while jogging along the trail etched into the high western slope of Mt Fuji.
“Hi Mom. Sorry. I’m running right now.”
“We,” my parents always speak using the plural pronoun, “just wanted to make sure everything is safe with you over there.”
A few inches to the side of my feet there is a 50-foot drop off.
“Everything’s fine here, don’t worry." I think about why moments when we risk our lives are so exhilarating.
“Your Uncle used to run before he had hip surgery…”
While she informs me about things that happened to my Uncle over a decade ago, ahead I see boulders that I will need to scramble over with my hands.
“Mom, I need to call you back.”
“Ok, Todd. Take care.”
I hang up and slide the phone back into one of the pockets in my running vest and tighten it very securely. There’s a chance I may not be upright at all times today.
And why am I spending 3 days and two thousand dollars to run around Mt Fuji? After spending a year at home barely going out except for morning runs after my breakup with Denise, mother said I needed to do something with my life. At a loss for what to do, I kept in mind the one activity I still enjoyed doing, spent the afternoon googling, and on a whim, signed up for an ultra marathon, one as far away from my hometown as i could imagine.
I take large steps up the irregularly sized boulders, searching for handholds in case my feet slip. While climbing through this long stretch of seemingly endless obstacles, Jane catches up with me.
Jane is late middle age. Her blonde hair might be called wind swept if it wasn’t tied into a ponytail beneath her running visor. Faint lines are etched into her taunt facial features that appear to have seen decades of exposure to the elements on the trail.
“My ITB is sore,” she says.
“Sorry to hear that,” I say, “What's an ITB?”
“It's a hip muscle, and I just recovered from a hamstring pull. You are young so you don’t have these sort of problems yet.”
”I have actually just started,” I say, “any tips for running from your experience?”
“For running, no.” She looks into the mist in the distance then back at me. ”But for life, I’ve learned you can’t control other people’s actions, you can only manage your own .”
We run together for a while. She’s very cheerful and smiles as she talks about her running training, various injuries she’s recovered from and the races she run. On the smoother sections of the trail between the boulders, her tight, slightly off-balanced gait is surprisingly steady and fast. Gradually I tire and am not able to keep up with her and she advances ahead into the distance on the rocky slope.
After a while the boulders become smaller and then, by the mechanics of some ancient geological process, disappear again under the trail. I'm soon running through a grassy field and regaining a steady tempo. There are 14 miles remaining to cover today. I’d normally be embarrassed to be running through a field with an A4 paper with a number on it pinned to the front of my shirt, but there’s no one around to watch except for the other people in the race. From behind me, I see runner number 34 approaching. All of us have been introduced to each other in the pre-race meetings and dinner and breakfast.
“Do you need any water?” Emiko asks as we continue running.
As we are on the trail for 6 or 7 hours each day, conversations seems to help everyone pass the time.
“No, but thank you.”
“I’ve never really talked to you before,“ she says, “so tell me everything.”
I'm flattered to have her full attention for the next two hours. I can’t help but think how much more attentive she is than my ex-girlfriend Denise.
“How many brothers and sisters do you have?” Emiko is still asking questions.
“One brother and one sister”
“How old are they?”
“2 years older and 4 years younger.”
“Where are they now?”
“One is in California. Another is in North Carolina.”
I’ve answered questions for hours, but Emiko hasn’t really said anything about herself. I make a gambit to make the conversation deeper.
“A lot of runners are getting away from things, running helps with my anxiety.” I say and then ask, “How about you?”
“We don’t talk about those sort of topics when we are running, Todd,” Emiko says, “now what other races have you signed up for?”
“The Copper Canyon 50 is next for me.”
After going over our running plans and history for the next 5 miles. Emiko bids farewell and says,“I'm going to catch up with Jane, have a nice race.”
“Be nice to her,” she says, “she had cancer last year.”
I’ve learned more information about more people in the last two days than I have in the entire previous year.
“I saw you two up there above me on the hill,” Hans says, “you had a good chat with Emiko?”
“Yeah, sure. I guess so.”
“She asks everyone the same questions,” Hans says, smiling knowingly. I sense a message not to overthink the attention I received from her.
Hans is of the same medium stature and build as I am. Somehow, this make him feel nonjudgmental and easier to talk to. I ask, “What else do you do for fun besides running?”
“I ski in the winter, and surf in the summer, I’ll spend a few months in Whistler this winter,” Hans says, “What else do you do?”
“I’m trying to write. Maybe about running”
“Running is great, but its not the most interesting thing to write about,” he says.
Hans is far faster than I am, and soon races off ahead. And I’m now alone running through the wilderness of Japan. Outside the occasional rustle of the wind through the trees, it is extremely quiet. The course is marked by blue plastic cord tied into ribbons on bushes and trees at regular intervals. The ribbons feel like my only connection to civilization for several hours.
Later that afternoon, I see Phil a few hills behind me. I’m slowing down after foolishly starting off too fast this morning. Soon, he catches up with me. Phil has well groomed hair, a closely trimmed white beard and a disarming smile. After having run 17 miles of todays segment of the three-day race, his enthusiasm is refreshing, reinvigorating and slightly addictive to be around.
“Isn’t this scenery amazing!” He says, “I’m pumped to be here,”
“This is great, isn’t it!” I reply.
“I was taking photos. I’m not racing, this is more about a trip to Japan,” he says, “No matter what happens, We are going to smile today.”
Runners as a group emote a certain level of mandated happiness. My legs and back are hurting in at least two or three places. I’m sure Phil’s are too.
The trail is now descending through thick grass which hides rocks underneath, and I need to focus on each step, so I don’t say much back to Phil for a while. I’ve lost the springiness to my stride hours ago and stumbled a few times and have definitely hit the wall. My body has run out of carbohydrates.
As I jump down a large step, I feel my shoe slide on a surprisingly slippery rocky surface. I might normally be able to recover, but today I helplessly flail my arms around. My other leg doesn’t come into place in time and I hit the ground sideways and tumble down several steps.
I find myself suddenly laying on my back, looking up at Phil.
“Hey bud, Are you ok?”
“I think I’m fine,” I reply. There’s no obvious pain, but I won’t really be sure I’m not injured until I stand up.
“You need shoes with better traction.”
I stand up, I’m shaken but ok and should be able to get moving again.
“Look at the tread in my Solomon trail shoes,” he says. I see deep grooves in the shoes he lifts up to show me.
This information about new shoe brands is not really helping my situation right now. I make sullen comments until he stops talking about shoes.
Five minutes later, Phil falls. It's a minor fall, but I believe I might have willed him into it by thinking about it.
A dark thought bubbles up inside my mind and begins to take shape. No one likes me here. They are just tolerating me. I’ll do my best to blend in and not annoy anyone until I can get away from them.
I remember that negative thinking is a symptom of low blood sugar. There’s only 3 miles left so I guzzle the energy drink I’ve been saving. After a few minutes I feel lighter. In fact, soon I’m also feeling much happier. I don’t know why I’ve been so negative today. After the race, I will write a gratitude list. I will say how lucky I am to have a mother that calls me when I’m away travelling. How nice it is to have fellow runners show interest in my life. And having a running buddy Phil, who even if he doesn’t always say the right thing at the right time, adjusted his own pace to run alongside me for an hour.
Today’s finish line at the Shiraito checkpoint is not far below. As I approach, I see a crowd cheering at the finish line. It feels like a dream the 26 mile run today is about to be over. As the other runners clap, I scan my wristband and then congratulate everyone for finishing.
Before breakfast, runners have their blood pressure and temperature measured by the race medical officer. The race webpage says they hired a first aid worker to keep us safe. Someone says it's for insurance purposes.
After breakfast, at the pre-race briefing, James the race director stands at the front of the dining room.
“I have an announcement,” he says earnestly. “One of our members, Jane, has been taken to the hospital this morning. Please keep her in your thoughts on the course today.”
Everyone looks down at the ground. Later we find out that she had a pulmonary embolism in her sleep and didn’t make it. On the course today, there’s not as much chit-chat. Phil tells me this was Jane’s 23rd year of running ultra-marathons.
I remember what Jane told me about managing my own life, and after returning home to Colorado, I sign up for the next race I can find, a 50 miler closer to home in Helena Montana.