132K into the race, I was pushing the pace on the road into Lake Yamanakako attempting to close the gap on that coveted last podium spot. I had about 30K left to accomplish the task. At the previous aid station, my crew, Yasu reported I was 15 minutes behind Norwegian Altra teammate Sondre Amadahl. Meghan Hicks of iRunFar appeared out of nowhere, apparently driving by on her way to another checkpoint and spotted me. She yelled a quick hello and informed me I was less than a kilometer behind Sondre and appeared to be moving better. Good news.
The first idea of coming to Japan to run Ultra-Trail Mount Fuji started the summer at the 2014 Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake City. One of my sponsors, Ultraspire, had a distributer in Japan, A&F Corporation, who had graciously asked if “Bronco Billy would be interested in running UTMF?” And the plans began to take shape for my trip to Japan.
Fast forward to Mount Fuji just over a year later and I was standing on the starting line of a 105-mile race that has quickly become a major race on the ultra world stage. The locals call it Fuji San, and it’s the iconic Japanese mountain. Part of the reason for the event’s quick rise to popularity in ultrarunning is the mountain’s celebrity status. Add to the fact that it is part of the Ultra-Trail World Tour and it brings out a solid international field of fast men and women.
The race course itself circumnavigates the mountain in a combination of extremely steep, technical trails. The major aid stations are in the 10 villages along the way. Each trail section is matched with a combination of very runnable rolling paved, gravel and grass roads and pathways in the valleys in between coming and going from the villages. This means that the 27,000+ feet of climbing is sandwiched into less mileage than the typical hard mountain hundred. This combo requires runners to be good at all disciplines. Strong mountain running skills and solid leg speed in the valleys. All in all, it’s a tough race.
The 2015 edition was moved from April to September due to a new National Heritage classification of protection for the mountain. This new date puts the race right in the path of typhoon season — strong tropical storms that come up from the Philippines and usually hit the coast of China and the island of Japan. This year the nice muggy weather earlier in the race week, gave way to clouds and moisture by Thursday. By the time I walked to the race start at 1pm on Friday, two inches of rain had fallen since Thursday. The race was forced to reroute two sections to a lower traverse due to the saturated conditions in the surrounding mountains.
We started off the race with humid, warm and misty conditions. Most of the heavier rain fell within the first few hours of the race. As we took off through town to head to the first trail climb up from the shores of Lake Kawaguchiko, I let a lead pack of runners take off, settling into a comfortable pace, inside the top 20. The rain and humidity wreaked havoc on my Rx Rudy Project glasses. There have only been a few ultras where the combination of rain and humidity caused constant fogging. This was one of them. Luckily, my eyes are not terrible and take about an hour to adjust into what I like to call “soft focus” mode. I see everything slightly blurry, but thankfully can function. That’s where I found myself within an hour of starting the race. After fighting it, I finally accepted it and put them away in my pack for the rest of the race.
After 10 miles or so, Gary Robbins caught up with me and we cruised together for a while, talking and catching up. It was nice to have company in the early miles and by mile 20, Gary, Sebastian Nain, and anther runner started to pull away from me. I felt they were going a little too fast, so I was content to let them go and run my own pace. Going into the Tenshi Mountains — the 18-mile section of notoriously slick muddy, technical trails on Fuji’s west side — I stayed on cruise control. This is where I started to pick off earlier the runners who went out too fast. I emerged from the Tenshi’s in 10th place and from there continued to pick off more runners. By the time I got to A6 at Tarabo at 110K into the race, I was in 6th (with 4th and 5th in the aid station when I arrived). I left in 5th and moved into 4th right outside of the aid station. That is when I started to be focused on moving well and not sitting back anymore. I pushed some and chilled some through the next few sections and left A7 about 15 minutes behind Sondre in 3rd. When I arrived A8 at Lake Yamanakako, I arrived the aid station as I saw Sondre leaving. Sweet.
With a mandatory gear checkpoint (they check your pack for required gear), I burned more time than I would have liked. But, with Sondre so close, I was laser focused as I left the aid station 4 minutes behind him. I caught Sondre near the upper part of the climb on the ascent to A9. After leaving A9, I was pushing hard up the steep, exposed scramble to the summit of Shakushiyama. I bombed down the rutted trail to A10 and asked where 2nd place was. “Left 27 minutes ago” was the answer. Dang. I continued to push over the final steep climb and descend back to Lake Kawaguchiko. I was so psyched to lock down 3rd place and it wasn’t until I crossed the finish that I found out Frenchman, Arnaud Lejeune in 2nd place was only 6 minutes in front of me. Apparently his wheels came off and he paid for his early fast pace leading the first 90K of the race and was forced to walk the final kilometers. So it goes. I was so stoked to grab a podium spot after such a tough injury-forced drop at UTMB. I was patient, waited and pushed hard the final 50K and it had paid off — maybe a little too patient!
What a great trip and stellar race. Japan is such a cool country. The race was very well organized and the aid station volunteers were great. The people I met are so honest, respectful and friendly. I made a lot of good friends. Thanks to all the new “Bronco Billy” brothers in Japan: Yasu and Seiji (Patagonia Japan), the A&F crew: Masa, Daisuke, Gen, Hisa, Fumiya, Honda, and also big shout out to the other Yasu (Yokohama Patagonia Store) and the rest of the Yokohama store for helping make a successful Mile For Mile showing. Thanks y’all. Awesome time. Thanks for all the hospitality. Giddyup.
We had an awesome Mile For Mile showing and slide show with a packed house before I flew back. If you haven’t had a chance to check out the film click on the link to veiw the 15 minute documentary on the new Patagonia National Park in Chile.
Patagonia Duck Bill Cap
Patagonia Capilene 1 SS Jersey
Patagonia Strider Pro Shorts
Altra Lone Peak 2.5
Rudy Project Rx
Patagonia Windshield glove
Black Diamond Storm Headlamp
Waist-mounted Ultraspire Lumen 600
Patagonia Capilene Midweight LS Jersey
Patagonia Cap 4 Beanie
Patagonia Alpine Houdini Pants
Patagonia Storm Racer Houdini Jacket
Leg warmers/compression, arm warmers
Gu gels and avacado sushi rolls
Special thanks to my family and their support through all of the training, travel and racing. I love you. And, finally thanks to the Big Man upstairs for keeping my path straight.