UTMF 2013 Edition: Insight into Japanese ultra-running – An interview with Koichi Iwasa

While many runners would be familiar with Japan’s legendary ultra runner Tsuyoshi Kaburakai and race director of the Ultra Trail Mount Fuji, other talented Japanese runners are perhaps less well-known. As eyes focus on Japan later this week for the 2013 UTMF  Ultra168 has turned to a tireless and trusted source to learn more about Japanese ultra trail running: Koichi Iwasa. 

Koichi describes himself as being “just your average ultra trail runner” (but with two 100 mile finishes in the famed UTMB and Western States – in a speedy 25 hours no less – we suspect he’s being modest). Inspired by Kaburaki’s 3rd place finish in the 2009 UTMB, Koichi took up ultra-running four years ago. Later, inspired by Bryon Powell’s iRunFar site, Koichi set up a resource for the Japanese trail running community which he hoped would connect the island nation to the rest of the ultra trail running world. And so Dogsorcaravan.com was born (representing the quote “the dogs bark but the caravan moves on” and reflecting his absorption in trail running and the mountains).

Koichi has been providing in-depth coverage and interviews on the 2013 UTMF to date, and will provide live coverage of the race over the weekend from his website, available at this link [http://dogsorcaravan.com/2013/04/23/livecoverage-on-ultra-trail-mt-fuji-2013-en/

We caught up with him to learn more about trail running in Japan and his picks of the local talent for this weekend’s race.

1. Japan has a long history of good distance runners – but how is the trail running talent?

Like in other parts of the world, trail running is a growing sport in Japan and attracting an increasing number of runners.  Some elite trail runners are coming from mountaineering and skiing mountaineering backgrounds, such as Shogo Mochizuki, Kenichi Yamamoto and Dai Matsumoto.  In the past couple of years, some young elite road marathoners have also come into the sport. With Japan’s long history and great talent in long distance running, I think we have deep potential talent for trail / ultra running as well.

2. Who are your picks of the Japanese men for the 2013 UTMF?

Kenichi Yamamoto
Kenichi Yamamoto

Kenichi Yamamoto (Houdini), who came 3rd in UTMF last year, comes top of the list. He is the two-time top 10 in UTMB and winnerof the 2012 Le Grand Raid Pyrenees.  His experience in 100 milers and international races, as well as his fitness, make for a big advantage over other Japanese runners.

Shogo Mochizuki (La Sportiva) was 4th in UTMF last year. He is strong in super long, multi-day races, having twice won the Trans Japan Alps Race (TJAR) 450km foot race though Japan Alps, in 2010 and 2012 (TJAR is bi-annual event).

Minehiro Yokoyama (The North Face) is veteran trail runner have placed 6th in UTMB 2009 and 6th in UTMF last year. His broad experience could be an advantage in pack of fast runners from the world.  Shunsuke Okunomiya (Montrail/Mountain Hardwear) is famous as the top contender of Japan’s most prestigious Hasetsune 71k for long time and was 7th in UTMF last year. Tsuyoshi Soma, three times winner of the Shinetsu Five Mountains 110k, dropped last year’s race and will be back to race UTMF again.

Minehiro Yokoyama
Minehiro Yokoyama

As attention to 100 miler grows in Japan, some other notable elite trail runners are tackling their first 100 milers at UTMF this year and may surprise. One such runner is Sota Ogawa (Salomon) who has won various Japanese races and was 2nd in the 2012 Nivolet-Rivard in France.

3. Who are your picks of the Japanese women for the 2013 UTMF?

Hiroko Suzuki (Salomon), who placed 2nd in UTMF last year, is the Japanese female pioneer for ultra distance races over the world. Her track record includes being the age group winner of the 2006 Western States (18-29 female) and 4th in the 2012 Tor des Geants in Italy. Her broad experience at 100 milers in various races will be a great advantage to her.

Yumiko Ohishi (La Sportiva) attracted attention from the community by her streak wins of major ultra races in Japan 2011.  Due to a stress fracture, she could not finish the UTMF (her first 100 miler) last year.  She is now back in the scene having recently won the Izu Trail Journey 71K in March.

Hitomi Ogawa (Patagonia / Vasque) is another leading female who placed 5th at UTMF last year.

4. What home ground advantages do you think the local runners have during the race?

Experience over the course and knowledge of the terrain of the race should be an advantage to locals, but I don’t think it will be that big of a deal to be honest. Compared to UTMB or Hardrock, UTMF is much more runnable and each up/downhill is short.

Hiroko Suzuki
Hiroko Suzuki

Having Japanese food at the aid stations could be big help for local elites, I think. [Note: Checkpoints will offer sushi, miso soup, curry rice, udon noodles and soup dumpling]. During international races I can imagine they may have food and nutrition issues where they are not used to the food.

5. There’s some great international talent coming to UTMF this year. Do you think we will see Japanese runners make the podium this year?

Considering the deeper field both in male and female field than last year, I have to say I think it will be much harder for Japanese runners to make the podium than last year.  Presumably, the upper of the podium (1-5 in male / 1-3 in female) will be dominated by international athletes.  So lower podium (6-10 in male, 4 and 5 in female) is the target for local runners.  Such results will encourage Japanese running community and will hopefully develop this sport in Japan even more.

6. What does UTMF mean for Japanese runners?

UTMF is still a young event, however within only two years it has become one of the top representative ultra/trail running event for Japanese runners.  It is very tough to finish, but that makes it more attractive for them.  UTMF is the first and sole 100 miler with international runners in highly organised style, like the UTMB in Europe.  This event is expected to grow as the “top of the pyramid” for Japanese runners and will become a brilliant window into Japanese ultra trail running for international running community.

7. Other than the UTMF, what’s the trail running scene like in Japan?

Trail running races in Japan date back to 1990 with the Noboru Yamada Cup, a 15km / 1,330mD+ race in Mt. Joshu-Hotaka.  Since the late 2000s trail running has become more popular. Today, we have 70 races in a year in Japan.  What was once a sport for males in their 30s to 40s has grown to include younger runners and more females. Races are run from Kanto area around Tokyo to other areas and range in distance from 30-40k long to 100k-100mile.  Hiroki Ishikawa and Tsuyoshi Kaburaki have really pioneered the growth of the sport in Japan, not only through their top performances as athlete, but also by producing quality events, like the UTMF, as race directors.

Thanks to Rachel Jacqueline for jumping on board the Ultra168 bandwagon this week to provide us with some great insights into this year’s race. Read her blog here – www.hkadventurebaby.com – or follow her on Twitter @raejacqueline and on instagram @hkadventurebaby.

Finally, good luck to all runners as well!

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I'm a mediocre runner who can bat above his average when I train hard. A man of extremes, I do enjoy everything life offers and consider it an absolute pleasure just to be able to put one foot in front of the other and let my mind wander somewhere different.

2 thoughts on “UTMF 2013 Edition: Insight into Japanese ultra-running – An interview with Koichi Iwasa

  1. Great insights into the local scene. It’s good for the local scene to have so many internationals join to have a quality field for comparison. Am sure the local elite has trained hard for this event to better last year’s results … exciting stuff.

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