The first annual Japan Trail Running Grand Prix, consisting of three snowshoe races across Japan, began on February 15th with the 11th edition of the All Japan Snowshoe Championships in Niigata Prefecture. International Amateur Snowshoe Racing Federation (IASSRF) delegate and United States Snowshoe Association (USSSA) member, Sylvester Coons, served as the tour leader for Tiger Global Athletics’ Japan Expedition consisting of a week-long itinerary of snowshoeing, sightseeing, and cultural immersion.
With the race’s location on the western edge of Honshu Island, excellent snow conditions are virtually guaranteed as the cold air descending from Siberia picks up moisture crossing the Sea of Japan. The altitude is not much of a factor, with a base elevation of approximately 2,500 feet and Mt. Myoko, a steep. rocky, volcanic peak, only reaching 8,051 feet. The area is famed for its winter skiing and hot springs, as seen by the children and their families coming here for a weekend ski or snowboard getaway before having to return to the hustle and bustle of Tokyo.
Prior to race day, Tiger Global Athletics expedition members were afforded the opportunity to journey up the mountain via a chairlift with a local guide and the race’s mountain rescue team consisting of an additional seven members. Our group, outfitted with all the necessary first aid and course marking gear, also had our bentos, skillfully prepared by mama-san while we were finishing that morning’s breakfast of mackerel, rice, and natto. Marking the course proved to be a thrilling experience as we were mired in a thick fog most of the way and wound up sliding half the distance down the steep mountain terrain. About midway, we noticed bear claw markings in a grove of trees, but continued on to an overlook displaying the beautiful mountain gorge, where we had our bentos. After another 2 kilometers of sliding and hopping streams, we made it back to the sports hall for the opening ceremonies.
On race morning, the international field of racers were greeted by crystal clear, blue skies and the sun which warmed us up to a temperature which was much warmer than many had anticipated. Promptly at 9am, participants from countries such as the United States, Japan, and New Zealand darted off into the wilderness of Joshinetsu Kogen National Park, soon beginning the climb up Mt. Myoko. With the All Japan Snowshoe Race now part of a grand prix, top Japanese trail runners came to compete for the nation’s top honors. The race ended up being much quicker and more competitive than previous editions, a testament to the Japan Snowshoe Federation’s efforts to bring the sport mainstream and make it enjoyable for everyone.
“What intrigued me the most, was how the Japanese snowshoers were not necessarily that strong on the hills, yet made up for it on the downhill sections of the course,” Sylvester stated shortly after finishing ninth in the championships. “The front runners were just bombing the downhills and you really needed to be cognizant on the out and back portion of the course. They acted as kamikaze snowshoers just flying through the downhill section. It was as if you were in a human video game – it would have been over if someone managed to strike you!
After completing the task at hand, Tiger Global Athletics continued the expedition back in Tokyo with sightseeing excursions to the major sights of the area, a morning jog through the Shinjuku Gyoen National Park and a trip around the 1964 Olympic Stadium. The expedition concluded with a day trip to Japan’s highest mountain, Mt. Fuji.
If you are interested in joining the U.S. Team for the 12th Edition of the All Japan Snowshoe Race, or any other international snowshoeing or running race, please visit www.TigerGlobalAthletics.com. For details on the United States Snowshoe Association and in becoming a member, please visit www.snowshoeracing.com.