by Chris ‘the runningman’ Pavey
On the 22nd July 2011, the 64th Annual Fuji Mountain Race, ‘Japan’s most difficult climbing race’, was run. As the conclusion of Project Fuji,Â a personal goal to remember Christina Bingham, and raise money for Oxfam Australia, IÂ was one of 2,500 runners who took this challenge on, and below is my account of the events…
My story as to how I ended up at the top of Mount Fuji is availibleÂ now in print! Running Against Time: an unorthodox guide to combining endurance sport and fundraising.
22 July 2011: Japan
I was hurting, hurting badly, and the race was only half done. I spotted Julia, tall lone foreigner amongst a throng of Japanese spectators, as I emerged from a sea of trees onto a rare flat section of trail. I ran to her, relieved that sheâ€™d successfully navigated her way by taxi to the half way point. I leant down beneath her Australian flag bucket hat and kissed her smack on the lips. She was every bit a part of this, as was the memory of her sister, Christina.
With renewed energy, I continued on. With just over three miles to go and 3000 feet still left to climb, things were about to get really steep. Japanese hemlock and beech gave way to a lifeless solidified lava rock landscape. I clawed my way up over the crumbling steps, around steps, dodging and weaving, pumping my arms, pushing my legs, passing people, people passing me. I gasped for breath. I gritted my teeth against the pain.
The clouds dispersed allowing the blazing sun to heat the mountain. Thankfully, my ascent brought me to cooler heights, and I felt a sense of euphoria at being on top of the world in what had become a totally clear day. Either that, or the altitude was affecting me.
While Julia was probably enjoying the views from down below, my back was so bent over, that the only thing I could see were the runnerâ€™s shoes in front of me. For the most part, that was all I concentrated on.
When a runner ahead of me slowed, I passed. But with such a steep narrow rock strewn path beneath my feet, it took great exertion, so I chose my moments.
As I neared the sixth drink station, four more still to go, my Garmin watch reluctantly ticked over another mile. I noticed that my pace was an horrific 32 minutes per mile. The sections were becoming steeper and more treacherous, and now altitude would truly come into play.
Unable to undertake any kind of training for these sorts of heights, Iâ€™d not been able to prepare myself for the shortness of breath, dizziness, headaches, and that ill feeling in the pit of my stomach that assaulted me. I forced myself to remain steady on the path. I didnâ€™t want to slide over that edge! The world was wobbling all around me, people slipping and sliding. Thank God for my Salomon trail shoes, I thought. They were holding up well. My ground strike was controlled and my feet protected. My Camelbak backpack decision was also paying dividends. Despite the weather being on the cool side, I gulped down water faster than the drink stations were appearing. It was a relief to have a reserve source.
With the cloud cover gone, I could see the way to the top. The vision was as much daunting as it was inspiring; knowing that the peak was still so far away and didnâ€™t seem to be getting any closer.
Regardless, I plugged on, thinking of nothing but where to put my hands and feet and how to stay close to the runner in front of me. I gained the seventh station, and then what I thought was the eighth station. But it turned out to be a seven and a half station. I panicked. My pace had slowed even further. Fuji had become even steeper!
Could I do this? Through a fatigue-haze that threatened to consume me, I calculated that I was outside my hoped for sub 3 hour 30 minute finisher pace. I held out for a three thirty something, but even that seemed unlikely. My body rippled with pain, my head swirled, and I sounded like a freight train on a collision course to nowhere. It took every ounce of determination just to keep going.
It was no longer a matter of finishing in a certain time. Runners in front of me were dropping out; some throwing up, others looking shattered. I didnâ€™t want to become one of those who had failed. I simply focussed on getting to the top, and keeping ahead of the eighth station cut off time of four hours. At that time, race organizers would draw a rope across the path, putting an end to many a competitorâ€™s race; so many dreams would be shattered. I couldnâ€™t let that happen to me. I simply had to finish.
I zoned out and followed the runner in front of me. I pushed hard, treading a fine line between moving forward, and my body seizing up. That was new to me – Iâ€™d never had to play it safe. But thatâ€™s what I had to do. Too many people were counting on me for me to risk blowing up.
My muscles were cramping. My body threatened to give out. Iâ€™d used two Endura energy jells, and contemplated consuming a third, but I didnâ€™t have the energy to retrieve it from my backpack. I was just too exhausted.
I had hoped Fuji would adequately challenge me. Iâ€™d hoped that she would be as hard as all the fundraising, the website design, and the raffle ticket selling. Iâ€™d hoped the race itself wouldnâ€™t be an anti-climax. She wasnâ€™t disappointing me. Mount Fuji was pushing me right to the edge: I felt on the verge of tears. Doubt crept in.
Iâ€™ve gone out too fast. I have nothing left to give. What if I donâ€™t make it to the top? People had placed their trust in me, and had handed over a lot of money for my cause. They wanted me to succeed as much as I did. Those who had helped me raise all this money needed me to succeed. Julia and her mother needed me to succeed. I had to succeed for Christina; taken so young, she deserved that honor. Everyone was depending on me. I had to keep climbing.
I rounded the next corner and saw more steps, more corners. I didnâ€™t have any more left to give! Iâ€™d spent every waking hour of the last six months working towards this. Iâ€™d lived and breathed this challenge until it had consumed me. We were one, Mount Fuji and I. I could no longer differentiate between us. But at the final hurdle, my body was letting me down, and my mind was collapsing under the pressure of it.
Would the finish line ever come? Would Project Fuji ever come to its rightful completion? I stopped and breathed in hard, looking at what still lay ahead.
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