This article originally featured in the November 2019 issue of Connect.
Sheila Mulherin (Hokkaido)
For the past year or two, I’ve been looking for the perfect 100 mile ultramarathon race to run. So I settled on Sado Island’s 208 km race, mostly because of the incredibly generous time limit: 48 hours! It was 48 km more than I had hoped for, but I realized 48 more kilometers wouldn’t be so difficult. After all, I could get a full night’s sleep at an onsen midway through the race.
Also, it was low-cost, without any bells and whistles like T-shirts, finisher medals, or timing chips. The scenery is also breathtaking, as the course runs along the perimeter of the whole island before cutting inland a bit to farms and cute little villages. Sado is also famous for many temples, shrines, and old, untouched architecture.
My heart raced after registering for the 208 km race. I had never run a race longer than 100 km. What if I permanently injured myself during the race? That was something I’d pondered during my previous 100 km races. Usually at about the 70-80 km point, both my knees and ankles radiate intense pain. If grandpas were out there doing this, then maybe I had a shot at completing this relatively unscathed as well. Besides, I always turned out to be totally fine in the past. I needed to stop catastrophizing. I did consider that if I developed a sharp, continuous localized pain and I started limping, it would probably be an injury and I should pull out of the race to mitigate any further damage and give myself the chance to toe the starting line in future races.
Despite my worries, I decided to take the scary leap into training. I printed out a 100-miler training schedule from the internet, similar to the 50-miler training schedule I’d been using for my 100 km races, except for it being 11 weeks longer. I altered the plan to include more speed work, as well as shorter ultramarathons and trail races into my training.
As for fueling myself, it took some trial and error to find proper food and drinks I can stomach during an ultra. For instance, I vomited after the 43 km trail run in Asahikawa, due to the heat and/or my choice of fuel (Maybe V8 during a race wasn’t the best option). And since I’m vegan, finding granola bars, energy gels and protein bars in Japan can be difficult.
But as race weekend came closer, I grew optimistic as I had done everything possible to prepare. I flew to Niigata on the Thursday before the race, and I took a ferry the next morning to Sado. That evening, all 188 runners attended a meeting to discuss the race course. A nice man who was both staff and race participant himself translated for me. Then for dinner, the omnivores had crab while a vegan-friendly meal had been prepared for me.
The general demographic of the runners was typical of ultramarathons in Japan: mostly men old enough to be grandfathers. The youngest runner was a 27-year-old woman while the oldest was in his 80s. I shared a tatami room with three sweet older women (one of whom spoke English very well).
The race started at 6 a.m. the next morning. We waited excitedly with our backpacks, each one filled with water bottles, snacks, a first-aid kid, a map, a change of clothes for the onsen, a raincoat, long sleeve shirts, and our phones for emergencies and photos. As for attacking the course, my strategy for ultramarathons—including this one—consists of intervals of running 20 minutes and walking 5 minutes, and walking up any hills. This would be my first time running again the day after doing 100 kilometers. I had no idea how my body would respond so I had no expectations.
Many runners stopped at vending machines and little shops along the way to refuel. I stopped at bathrooms to refill my Camelbak and Nalgene. Along the way, some cute little grandmothers sat on their doorsteps and cheered me on. Whenever I appeared at the aid stations, the staff started talking about preparing the vegetarian option for me. At this, runners stared at me with huge eyes and gaping mouths, saying “Vegetarian? Sugoi!” I’m sure they expected a malnourished weak being. Lo and behold, I was full of life, smiling and had enough meat on my bones. My mere existence blew their minds.
The course took runners to a stony path alongside the beach which was beautiful and a refreshing break from the pavement. The new scenery also introduced me to a cave with many Buddhist statues. Better yet, a very kind woman followed us in her van along the course, with a cooler full of cold drinks, fruit, tomatoes and snacks such as coffee jello and Pringles. She actually appeared twice on Saturday evening and once the following morning—I appreciated her offering me refreshing green grapes and cherry tomatoes.
On Saturday evening, I ran 93 kilometers to the onsen where the runners can eat, wash up and sleep. I arrived at 8:15 p.m. after doing the first 93 km in about 14 hours and 15 minutes, but I was hobbling around in pain. The resting room resembled a scene of carnage, as if the runners were wounded soldiers lying in battle. People put medicine on their feet and legs, stretched, ate ramen, or sat staring off into space. Some noticed me and said, “You’ve survived!” I sang a bit from the Bon Jovi song “Living on a Prayer” and some people smiled. Some runners spoke English well and we chatted a bit. I unpacked my own can of lentil soup, and ate the wakame ramen and snacks the race director had kindly given me. There was plenty of kombu and ume onigiri as well.
I took a bath at the onsen, where one woman noticed my broken state. “You know we’re running another 100 kilometers tomorrow,” she said. “I’d rather not think about it,” was my reply. I was only focused on accomplishing the immediate tasks: getting lots of calories down, taking a bath, brushing my teeth, and getting to bed. I saw many runners drop out of the race there. That wasn’t surprising—at the race meeting Friday evening, the race director had said about 51% of runners will finish the event. But dropping out of the race didn’t cross my mind at all as I had faith my condition would improve after some sleep.
Upon entering the women’s napping room, one woman was already snoring. Then she abruptly woke right up, efficiently packed her backpack and dashed out the door. Some women said to her, “Hayaku. Gambare!” I fruitlessly tried to sleep, but my legs were restless. Around midnight, I’d woken up to hobble to the bathroom, and a race staff member gave me an enthusiastic affirmative nod and a thumbs up as if to say, “You’ve got this!” He lifted my spirits.
I shuffled back to bed but when I woke up at 3 a.m., I felt noticeably less pain. I walked more easily after my blood started flowing, so I prepared to get back out on the road. I used roll on liquid pain reliever on my knees and ankles, and put medicated pain patches on my knees. At 4:30 a.m. Sunday morning, I set off again in the dark. My legs moved with ease for a couple hours. Although a wave of fatigue hit me hard, I kept mechanically moving forward. A dose of caffeine helped. Still early in the morning, one man walking his dogs enthusiastically shouted to me “Hey! Sugoi! Gambare! Fighto!” He shouted “Fighto!” again as I ran further down the road. The inside of my legs had started chafing severely, so I stopped at many bathrooms to tend to it throughout the morning.
I saw the friendliest cat around the 130 km mark and I had to stop and cuddle it. It was sad to see me go but I figured it might not want to follow me for 70 more kilometers. After a short time, I arrived at an aid station and two men there said “Hayaku!” They boosted my confidence—I wasn’t doing so bad after all. The staff encouraged me to sit down, but sitting is the devil during an ultramarathon (unless you’re using the toilet of course). I ate some onigiri, daifuku and bananas, and downed some Aquarius. I was tired, but I carried on in high spirits.
The course passed through little port towns. The race director had recommended a ship museum and onsen to stop by and enjoy along the way. I declined the recommendations as I was on a mission to finish.
The last aid station sat at the 160 km mark. I loaded up on onigiri, Pringles, sweets, green grapes and cherry tomatoes, which rejuvenated me. As I left the aid station, my legs felt light and I was ready to finish this race, so I picked up the pace. The sun set so I put on my headlamp.
Then with about 30 km to go, a rainstorm hit and it rained hard for the next 15-20 km. Sleepiness also hit me as the night wore on, and I passed some enclosed bus stops with empty benches that looked enticing for a nap. I didn’t want to be in the race through the night and not get any sleep at the hotel, so I pushed on. I passed a few groups of runners, then I ran completely alone for the rest of the race. The wind blew powerfully through the woods and the trees banged loudly against each other. I worried a branch would come crashing down on me. Some trees had fallen on the course, but no runners were injured thankfully.
My knees, ankles, and heels hurt, and my toes felt swollen but the finish was nearing so I attempted a sprint. It was 1:20 a.m, and the finish proved surprisingly anticlimactic—absolutely no one stood outside, and there was no finish line to cross. I stopped, looked around outside the hotel, and climbed the stairs inside where two sleepy people looked at me. I said “Where’s the finish line?” in Japanese, then one man hesitantly gestured towards the entrance I’d just came in, saying “Well, this doorway is the finish line.” Then I heard a woman say, “Amazing! She did it.” A man took a picture of me with a disposable camera, which he said he would send in the mail (along with a finisher’s certificate) in a month.
My finish time was 43 hours, 20 minutes. Minus the time I rested at the onsen, I had been on the road for 35 hours and 5 minutes. I had trouble walking, which is a natural response to running 208 km. Because of my struggles walking, some people expressed concern for my knees. One woman questioned my choice of footwear: Vibram FiveFingers shoes. (“It’s her shoes,” said within earshot in Japanese). I hobbled to the onsen, came back and slowly ate some curry. A man gave me bags of ice to put on my legs and I shuffled gingerly back to my room (where there were three other women fast asleep on their futons who had already finished) and I eventually slept nicely for a few hours.
Next year, I want to do another race of this caliber. Ultramarathons always push my mental and physical limits and make such amazing experiences.
There are some valuable lessons to be learned from ultramarathon running, which can also be applied to other activities that require short-term and long-term goals, whether that be travel, learning a new skill, or even higher education. Faith in yourself and faith in the process is so vital. Do your research, set a goal, and take that big scary leap into the unknown. Go through the motions, stick to the plan (with a little flexibility, because there will surely be little setbacks along the way), and you’ll start to see results. We’re all capable of accomplishing more than we imagine. When we throw ourselves into the thick of it, it’s either sink or swim. I hope you’ll dig deep and find the willpower to swim in whatever venture you set out on.
Sheila is an English teacher in Hokkaido. Originally from Boston, USA, she can be seen hiking, reading, trying out new vegan recipes, playing with her adorable cats Bailey and Maisy, or running obscenely long distances on the roads and trails. She also looks forward to the Hokkaido winters when she can cross country ski.