When we think about Kyoto, I guess most of us would immediately think of geishas, temples and shrines and old-world Japan. But there are other areas outside Kyoto that we can appreciate too.
To celebrate my 40th birthday in September, I decided to run an ultramarathon in Japan and I found a road race there that was held a day before my birthday.
I registered myself for the Tango Ultramarathon International Friendship Race which was held in the city of Kyotango over two hours by train from Kyoto city.
Located on the coast of the Sea of Japan, on the western side of the Tango Peninsula, the ultramarathon offers spectacular views of both the coastline and the mountains.
There were two distances: 60km and 100km. With a strict cut-off time of 9 1/2 hours for the 60km and 14 hours for the 100km, I decided that the shorter option would be best for me to have a challenge and yet still be able to enjoy myself.
With my husband and son in tow, we arrived in Kyoto two days before my ultramarathon and did the usual tourist stuff. We visited the Arashiyama bamboo forests and climbed the stairs at Fushimi Iinari Shrine past the vermillion tori gates to get to the peak. We enjoyed it tremendously. I even met a Japanese guy who is a huge fan of our singer Dato’ Siti Nurhaliza during one of our train rides there.
Japanese courtesy and hospitality is renowned. During the race kit collection a day before the race, we not only enjoyed learning how to make barazushi, a local delicacy, we also got to enjoy an outdoor tea ceremony!
I was greeted by the race director himself, Toshifumi Kasao, from Runner’s Wellness Japan (which organises marathons and ultramarathons in the country).
On race day morning, I was also very honoured to be introduced to the race producer, Yuji Sakamoto, and the Kyotango City Mayor, Yasushi Nakayama.
Before the flag-off for the 60km category, the emcee announced that there were several runners from Taiwan in the race and two from Malaysia.
I had a modest target: to run and finish within the cutoff time and to enjoy myself throughout the course.
While the 100km runners were flagged off much earlier at 4am, the 60km runners were flagged-off at 9am in rather gloomy weather.
We were greeted with a slight drizzle at the start but by 10am, it was sunny. Pretty soon, the weather felt the same as if I was running in Malaysia! To be more precise, I felt as if I was running again in the River Jungle Marathon in Ulu Langat, Selangor, which I had just done two weeks earlier.
Distance markers, located every 2.5km, were easy to spot. I had expected climbs when we got to KM15 or so, but actually we encountered many ascents and descents as early as KM3. They were short and steep.
Water stations were aplenty, located about 4km apart (this was reduced to about 2.5km at the later stages after the KM47 mark).
There were traffic marshalls at every junction and also at dangerous road corners. They were friendly, efficient and encouraging.
What was served at the water stations certainly reflected the pride of the area of Kyotango: we got not only water and isotonic drinks but also pickled plum (umeboshi), local sea salt (which is one of the area’s specialties), candies, udon, special local buns, rice balls (onigiri), barazushi, fruits, bread and soup!
At the third aid station, after running past a beachside pavement, we were even served a special pear soup (or was it a drink?) on top of the goodies mentioned earlier. We were so well taken care of at the water stations that I never had to consume any energy gels during the race.
At around KM24, I decided to stop at a beach side public toilet. Good thing it was still rather early in the race because it was a squat toilet – imagine squatting after running 50km!
Some 500m ahead, I saw my hubby and son walking around. They had utilised the free shuttle buses provided for supporters and were waiting for me there. (*happy dance*)
Hubby asked me whether I was on pace and I happily replied it was OK, despite the unplanned stops to enjoy the local specialties, so enthusiastically given by the race volunteers.
KM26-30 was a really hot section but what made it fun and bearable was the fact that a Santa Claus was running with me. Yes, a fella garbed in a Santa suit was running the 60km! He waved at every car that was stuck in a traffic jam and that made me chuckle.
Along the scenic route, we were encouraged by villagers who stood in front of their houses and cheered for us. I was indeed touched by their encouragement and they spurred me to keep going even when it felt hard at times. Some of them offered drinks to runners and a nice lady offered muscle spray to any passing runners who might experience cramping!
With such lovely views of the coastline of the Sea of Japan, running in the Tango Ultra-marathon was an enjoyable experience.
While I was worried about slowing down too much and not meeting the cut-off time, I still could not help myself and stopped to take photos!
At KM47, there was a care station which offered quick leg massages. There was even a small kiddie pool placed here although I didn’t see any runner sitting in it.
It took me 15 minutes to finally move out of this area! Immediately after, I was faced with some serious inclines. Up and down. Up and down.
I did a final long stop at the KM53 aid station where I enjoyed some warm red bean paste soup. It was heavenly.
I figured there was no harm in resting as there was yet another steep climb after this. Up, down. Up, down. Again.
At 700m to the finishing line, runners entered the town area again and we ran past houses and lanterns placed on the roadsides.
Drummers were beating away and townfolk came out to play with fireworks.
Weary and tired as we were, we could not help but feel uplifted and surged ahead to finish our race.
With 500m more to go, I saw my husband and son waiting and cheering for me. My son then ran with me while my husband went ahead to wait for me at the finish line for the photo op.
At 100m to the finish line, we took out the Jalur Gemilang and ran with it. Proudly.
I was happy that I managed to finish a 60km road race to celebrate my 40th birthday, with the support of my husband and son. The Tango Ultramarathon was the 6th ultramarathon that I had done for 2015 and it was also my first overseas ultra-marathon.
I had to come out of my comfort zone and run faster than what I was used to, to ensure that I finished before the cut-off time (I managed to do this with over 30 minutes to spare).
To think that I wasn’t at all athletic when I was younger and that I had started running only four years ago when I did my first ever 10km race to celebrate my 36th birthday in September 2011. It seemed that I had come quite far.
Who knows, I may do a 100km race next. God willing. Never say never. I am looking forward to celebrate my upcoming birthdays with more awesome running adventures!