The driving rain stings my eyes and I am soaked to the bone through three layers of outdoor gear. Hunched over, I battle my way through the banshee winds of an approaching typhoon, high atop the 2,454m Mt Myoko in Japan’s Niigata Prefecture—not miles away from the site of the ‘98 Winter Olympics.
In place of snow, I am trudging through mud so thick that I fear losing a shoe with every step; running is an impossibility. It’s been like this for six hours, I have at least 10 more ahead of me, and I have to keep reminding myself that I paid for this, trained for this, and choose to be here. I do this because otherwise I would have stopped hours ago, probably at the checkpoint that had the warm tent and heaters, hot miso soup and freshly warmed sweet potatoes.
The reminiscing triggers a reminder and I reach inside my jacket pocket to triumphantly retrieve a soggy rice ball that I grabbed hastily as I left. It is small victories like this that can make or break a race for me, and right now I’ll take whatever I can get.
Going the Distance
This is ‘ultra’ trail running, or racing in this instance, and although it’s not always in weather this extreme, my relentless pursuit of adventure has taken me all over the world to events just like this to run in—sun, rain or snow. This time it’s taken me back to my adopted country of Japan to join the Shinetsu Five Mountains Trail, a 110km romp up, down and around five mountains with 680 other foolhardy but passionate runners, 34 percent of whom would drop out along the way. I made it in just over 17 hours, a couple of hours over my goal time but ultimately happy to have finished at all. While weather conditions are out of your control, the ability to remain mentally focused and maintain a sense of humor can mean the difference between success or failure.
I caught the bug several years ago on my return to Hong Kong, when I started to explore the trails I had run on as a school boy. The endorphins I experienced were enough to get me hooked on the so called ‘runners high’ and I steadily progressed from 5km to 10km to 30km and beyond, and discovered a burgeoning community of like-minded individuals who were as excited about the trails as I was. These were definitely people I could relate to—a little obsessive, a bit mad, and a lot of fun.
Amazing views, the friendships and camaraderie, fitness and exercise, new challenges and goals: these were just a few of the motivations that fuelled my love for the ‘sport’ early on, but eventually I grew to crave the freedom and solitude that I find when I’m outdoors.
As well as the hours spent at work, many of us have family and other responsibilities. All these relationships need constant attention and nurturing, and the free time we have left is probably spent in our ‘comfort zones’—socializing, relaxing, shopping and surfing the web. As much as I need these moments in my life, nothing makes me feel quite as alive as when I am outdoors, on a trail, in solitude, running. Free to think, free to be, free to live.
When I’m out there I don’t have to answer my phone or emails, listen to people talk at me, or get bombarded with the daily soundtrack of the concrete jungle I live in. It’s the one time during the day when I can really focus, even if it’s just on my breathing, the rhythm of my stride or the circle of light from my headlamp at night. Being out there makes me feel more human than just about anything else in my life, and along the way it helps keep me balanced in a world that is increasingly lacking any.
Runners have different motivations that are unique to their personalities, competitiveness, drive and ambition. Some run to win and be better than others, some run to stay fit and healthy, some love it, and some hate it. Trail running leads me to a sense of connection with myself, with other people, and with the outdoor world that takes me away from the distractions of daily life.
Where to go around Asia
Japan is swiftly becoming a mecca for trail addicts around the region because of the variety of trails and the amazing food! Lake Kawaguchiko is an hour and a half by bus from Tokyo and nestled under the majesty of Mt. Fuji. As well as hot springs, a beautiful lake and the sacred mountain itself, there are a plethora of trails to explore. One of my favorites is a climb up Mt. Mitsutōge, an easy-access trail from lake to mountaintop, with options to explore many ridges along the way that afford stunning views of Mt Fuji.
The Philippines are quickly emerging as an incredible (and affordable) playground for the outdoor adventurer. The lure of the Cordilleras on the island of Luzon for hiking enthusiasts, nature lovers, mountaineers and adventure tourists is strong. This vast mountain range covers almost 20,000sq km, remaining largely pristine and unexplored, and guides are available to take you safely around.
Hong Kong has some of the most accessible trails in the world and although it is a world metropolis, about three-quarters of the territory is countryside. A scramble up the side of Kowloon Peak (Fei Ngo Shan, 飛鵝山) is not for the feint of heart or those scared of heights, but views at the top give you a full 360-degree view of the city and countryside, up to Sai Kung and beyond.
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Photos: Nic Tinworth