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Because It's There - One Man, One Tree, One Hundred Miles

Last weekend saw what will probably end up as one of the best distance running performances of 2020. In Tokyo's western suburbs, on a riverbank, around a tree, for 54 hours and 40 minutes, 25-year-old Goshi Osada ran 10,667 laps of a 15 m trail with 1 m difference between its highest and lowest points, covering 100 miles, just over 160 km, and climbing higher than Mount Everest and back down en route. Post-run JRN talked to Osada, a rising name on the trail ultra scene in Japan and Asia, about the why and how.

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Looking at your history, it looks like you started doing ultras after graduating from university.
I started doing trail running during the summer of my senior year at Tokyo Kokusai University. The runs were really short in the beginning, about 20 or 30 km. From there I started building up the distance to the point where I could do high-level races, and that’s where I am now after four years.

In university were you doing ekidens and track and field?
Yes, I used to do track and road races. But one time when I couldn’t get into a road race I was looking for something else to do and came across a trail race, and once I tried it I knew that was definitely what I wanted to do. That’s how I got into trail running.

How did you find that first trail race?
I was looking on the Runnet online entry site and a trail race came up by chance. I wanted to try the shortest one I could, so I looked at the shortest distance they had and signed up right away.

How long was it?
14 km. From my perspective now I can see that it was a race for beginners to introduce them to trail running. That’s where I got started.

You’re now in your fourth year as a trail runner. Your most recent race was the Transgrancanaria in early March?
Yes, the Transgrancanaria 360˚ in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, the first big race of the trail running season. I chose it by instinct. It’s a very famous event, one of the biggest. Since the beginning I’ve had the dream of becoming internationally competitive as a trail runner, and I just felt that Transgrancanaria was the race where I could make that happen.

This was my third time in a row doing it. I was 7th in the 42 km race, then 15th in the 65 km. Running it changed my perspective on life, so I wanted to keep doing it and keep increasing the distance. This year I went up to the longest distance and ran the 262 km race. Compared to the other races I’ve done up to now it was much longer, but it was just instinctively the right thing to do. I knew my life would really change if I did it. From my performances in other races up to that point I was confident that I’d be able to handle the distance, a combination of my actual running ability up to that point and instinct.

The longest race you’d done before that was 100 miles?
Yes, I did a 100-miler once, last September’s Shinetsu Five Mountains Trail 100 Miles. But two weeks before that I had done UTMB, where I ran 101 km. As a result I was pretty worn-out when I ran the Shinetsu 100-miler, and once I got through it I figured that I’d be able to handle 100 km + 100 miles. That experience served as a kind of tune-up.

In the Transgrancaria 360˚ you had some trouble.
I’d been awake for 45 hours. About 41 or 42 hours after the start, maybe from fatigue, I started having hallucinations. I was hallucinating that my light had died, when in reality I’d inexplicably turned it off. I was getting hypothermic too and my body was shaking, very unsteady on my feet. I fully intended to keep going, but I was at the point where it was all starting to hit me. I lost track of the route, and at some point around then I dropped my extra battery and my phone ran out of power. I had a map on my GPS watch but it ran out of power too, and at that point I had no idea where I was going.

It also got dangerously windy and my emergency blanket blew away. I had an emergency tent with me, so I took shelter in that, and the next morning I went to a nearby town off the course and dropped out. Up until that I’d been in contention for the win. I’d never been in that position in a big European race before, so even though it ended with a DNF I really felt that it was a major step forward, no mistake. I competed well against one of the world’s best athletes, and running competitively against the world’s best is the core reason why I’m doing an event where you have to run for 54 hours.

It’s still less than two months since then, but do you feel that your life has changed as a result of that experience?
No question, it has changed. But not a sudden 100% change. I think the changes will surface over the next year, two years, three years, four years.

If Transgrancanaria is held next year do you plan to go back again?
Yes, I’ll be going back to win.

Are there any races you’d planned to do that were canceled because of the coronavirus situation?
I was going to run the Ultra Trail Mount Fuji 100-miler this weekend. If I had run it then I wouldn’t have done the run around the tree.

The weekend before the tree 100-miler you ran the height of Mount Everest up the stairs of your apartment building. What can you say about that?
I had three reasons for doing it. First, at the Transgrancanaria last month I got to know the eventual winner, the France-based athlete Luca Papi. The fact that he won made a big impression on me. In France people aren’t allowed to go outside right now, so all athletes can do is create environments in which they can train in their homes. He did a 110 km ultra with 8300 m of climb inside his house. When I saw that, I wanted to do it too. That was one motivation.

Another was that my training plan called for a 20 to 25-hour workout. The third was that I’m interested in Skyrunning, a more extreme type of trail running. One of the things you’re supposed to do to prepare for that is to build up to 3776 m of elevation gain, using stairs or a slope or stepping stones or whatever, in about three weeks. So, based on those three things, I decided to do the stair run. But instead of aiming for Mount Fuji’s 3776 m my goal was Mount Everest’s 8,848 m.

Tell us about the origin of the idea to run 100 miles around a tree.
It seems like athletes all around the world from every sport are trying to outdo each other right now to do things they’d never normally try. It’s like they’re competing in some kind of new sport born out of the coronavirus restrictions. I want to be the champion of that sport, the world leader. That’s why I came up with the idea for this course. There are athletes in Europe like Luca who’ve run 110 km at home, or 160 km, 100 miles on a treadmill. I want to be on the leading edge of that, and as I was running around the tree I felt more and more like I was going to be this new sport’s world champ.

You wrote on Twitter that part of the reason you decided to do the 100-miler around the tree was that there are too many people around right now where you usually train. How did you find and plan the course you used?
It was along a riverbank in Hino, in western Tokyo near Mount Takao, where I usually go jogging. It seemed like somewhere people wouldn’t see me, where people wouldn’t usually go. I went to look for a tree and found one that had the kind of technical terrain around it that I’d encounter in a trail ultra.

What details of the course stick out in your mind?
One lap was 15 m, with 1 m of elevation difference. Going counter-clockwise from the start, the first half of the loop was a gentle downhill, a little bit rocky. In the second half, en route to the finish there was a steep uphill, 1 m all at once, with four trees that had fallen over horizontally. Very technical and difficult to run. Once you were past that you were back to the start of the loop.

Going clockwise, right after the start you hit the steep downhill with fallen trees forming obstacles that you had to clear. Following that, it was a gentle uphill that you could run when going clockwise. Those were the major differences between the two directions.

A few times you put tree branches and logs across the course as additional obstacles.
That was a joke. People were leaving comments saying I was just going around and around and around, so in response I wanted to make the course more technical and I made a few changes like dragging that big log onto the course to make it tougher. (laughs)

Maybe it’s something only trail runners could do. There are a lot of different sports, but there aren’t many others where you’re going for 50 hours straight. I think that’s what really sets trail running apart and makes it unique. Deciding to put a log across the course to make it more interesting is something only trail runners could do.

It took you about 54 hours to cover 100 miles. Were you taking long breaks and sleeping, treating it as a series of runs over three days, or doing it more as one continuous effort?
The first night I took a break at about 2:30 a.m. and lied down for an hour and a half. I couldn’t sleep, though. The second night I took another break at 12:30 a.m. and lied down for about three hours. So altogether I was off my feet for four or five hours, with about 50 hours of actual run time.

That was over twice as long as it took you to run the Shinetsu 100-miler. Where differences did you find between the two?
Well, when I started running faster I’d start getting dizzy. The course was tougher than Shinetsu in that regard. I had to do something to adjust for that, and that meant slowing the pace down a lot. There were a lot of fallen trees too, so it wasn’t really a course where you could run smoothly and I had to slow it down. The last day I picked it up a bit, but it was an extremely technical course and not one where you could really build up speed. Between the technicality and getting dizzy it just wasn’t a course where you could go for a time.

In the videos you posted to Twitter you often changed directions, sometimes going clockwise, sometimes counter-clockwise. Did you have the timing of that planned out in advance?
No, not in the beginning. I just listened to my body and changed direction when it felt like it was time. Going counter-clockwise, you couldn’t run the ascent but the descent was smooth. Going clockwise, the downhill was technical and not easy to run, while the uphill was smooth. So factoring in that and how I was feeling I changed direction when I needed to.

Your follower count looked like it went up as you were doing this. Did you hear from any international athletes you admire?
I heard from Luca Papi, who I was already in touch with, but some other trail ultra legends left comments saying, “A new legend has arrived!” and in Europe there was some buzz like, “This guy’s unreal!” “This is the guy who was leading Transgrancanaria? Who the hell is he?” and that kind of stuff. A lot of comments from within Asia, too. My follower count went up a few hundred, and a lot more people watched the videos. Good fun. Maybe I’ll get on TV.

Do you want to do it again?
I’m already planning to about a week from now. I think this kind of race, or “run” more than a “race,” I guess, has a lot in common with F-1 and mountain biking. Not about the tree, but about going around and around on a loop. That hasn’t really been part of trail running as a sport. If you could make a good course around five or so trees lined up side to side, you could make a new trail circuit sport like F-1 circuit races.

So, this next time I’m going to use five trees to do 100 miles. 250 km would be OK too, if I’m feeling strong. That’s what I’m thinking right now. I think it would actually be easier to do the extra 100 km this way because it would be harder to get dizzy. But going over 200 km running around trees will probably have more of an impact and make me more competitive with the best in the world.

Do you have any plans to do road ultras?
No, I want to stick to trails and become #1 in the world. After that I’ll think about other things, but until then it’s all about trails.

photos and video c/o Goshi Osada
text © 2020 Brett Larner, all rights reserved

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Saiya-jin Harri said…
Human mind have no limits it seems....

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