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Monday, May 21, 2007

Oxfam Japan Trailwalker 2007: Part One

The scene: In a bar, central Tokyo, Japan. January 2007.
Joseph: Sponsored walk anyone? In aid of charity, should be a laugh!

Friend A: Ooh, that sounds interesting. I could do with a bit of exercise.

Friend B: Yes, does sound rather spiffing! I could bring along a picnic hamper, and the Pimms!

Joseph: Jolly good. I'll put you down for it...
How the scene should have been played out:

Joseph: Sponsored walk anyone? In aid of charity. It sounds pretty hardcore!

Friend A: That's not the Oxfam Trailwalker is it? I've heard of that.

Friend B: Oh yeah, didn't it start in Hong Kong in 1981 as a military training exercise organised by the Queen's Gurkha Signals?

Friend A: Yeah, that's it. My friend from Hong Kong was over in Japan last week, and they said that the Japan course is much harder than the one back home.

Friend C: You'd have to be mad to take part in that. Its not just a sponsored walk. It's a matter of survival. A friend sent me a link to their homepage last week. Have you seen how many mountains you have to climb? And all in 48 hours? No way.

Joseph: So, shall I put you down for it then?
That was the most difficult physical challenge I have ever faced in my entire life. It was also a very emotional experience, which at one point saw me crying on a deserted road in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night, waiting for 2 hours, praying for a miracle.

Just thinking about the event as I write this brings tears to my eyes. What a team. They were absolutely incredible, and I am so proud of them.




It all started at 4.45am on Friday, when *Twinkle*'s dad rang our doorbell. It was a long drive to the start of the course.

One might not think of driving through central Tokyo as being anything special, but believe me, it is when you're on the motorways which criss-cross the very heart of the city, raised 5 or six storeys up above the grind of the streets below. This is a different world. It's like flying. Flying through an only-too-familiar landscape, but seeing it from an entirely different perspective. The train takes half an hour to get from the north to the south. You always see the same things, and rarely find yourself more than 6 metres from ground level. Here we were, cruising along on top of roads that at some points were stacked 4 high, playing "Where are we Now?".

"Look! There's the DOCOMO Biru! We must be in Shinjuku"
and then just minutes later
"Wow! Check out the Mori Tower! So THIS is what the view is like from on top of that road that runs right over Roppongi!"

I tell you, life looks much sweeter up there. You can see the blue sky for one thing.

Getting to the start point was not without incident. As planned, our team was split into three for various reasons: two of us in the car with our support team, two of us taking the bullet train, two of us on the Odakyu Romance Car (a pretend bullet train). Human error when programming the SatNav meant that the car took us to a place with a very similar name to the one we were heading for. U-Turn, 30 minute traffic jam. Being team leader, I felt responsible for everyone, and thus I was pretty stressed out by the though of not making it on time! I couldn't bear to watch the scenery not pass by, and so covered my head with a jumper, and put my latest positive-thinking audio book on.

Finally, we arrived at the start point. Nigel's reaction was not atypical:
The first thing that I thought when we arrived at the sports track was that we would never be able to do it. We were surrounded by people whose muscles rippled with every step; they also had all the right walking gear: boots, bags, thermals, sticks, etc, and there we were strolling round in shorts and T-shirts shooting the breeze. When the event kicked off this feeling was accentuated by the fact that some teams started running round the track in order to get a head start!



Yes, some of the 160 teams of 4 were actually running! Feeling confident that we'd see their exhausted bodies by the side of the track later on, and repeating to each other the story of the Hare and the Tortoise, we set out at a steady pace (we were later to be proved right, as only 85% of teams made it to the finish line).

The starting trumpet!

We had two teams of 4 entered for the event, although upon our arrival at the start point we were all saddened to get a message from one of our team mates, Tom, telling us that he was feeling absolutely dreadful, and in no fit state for walking. Takashi, another member of our second team, had previously decided not to attempt the walk itself, but rather to be our support team. Although it was a real shame that he wouldn't be walking with us, his decision turned out to be an absolute godsend - without him we would have been absolutely stuffed!



The 100km course, which crossed 7 mountains and involved ascents totaling over 3500 metres, started out fairly easily. With over 600 walkers talking part, it was hardly surprising that for first two sections we found ourselves either in a long line, or in bunches of teams. That was especially useful when it came to section two - a relentless uphill slog which in itself had exhausted myself and Takashi some 6 weeks beforehand when on a training hike - now we found it not all that difficult at all, just follow the shoes in front.



Single file please!

Typical Nigel!

On we plodded, past the now only too familiar rocks with their ancient carvings, the sulphuric late, the forest with the steps that finished my right knee off back in March. This time my right knee was in tip-top condition. The training was paying off, as was the purchase of a walking stick. In addition to that, I was wearing three knee supports (all on the same knee!), making it rock solid. Great stuff. I smiled when I thought of the last time I'd visited that spot, and been in a great deal of pain.


Reaching Hakone Yumoto we proceeded through the ancient checkpoint from the Edo era, and the not so ancient checkpoint from the Oxfam Trailwalker 2007 era. For some reason, NHK TV's DoumoKun was having a go at playing samurai that afternoon. We didn't find him to be too talkative though, and so continued on our hike towards CheckPoint 4, Ashinoko camping Village, which lay at the other end of the incredibly long lake with its boats that had escaped from DisneySea.



That involved a vicious 350m climb, with some harsh steps made for giants. Anyone would think the Japanese were giants judging by their public footpaths... I'd say it was around that time, after about 9 hours of non-stop walking, that we began to feel pretty tired. Despite this hardly being surprising, it was a little worrying, as we were only 39km into the course!



Our support team, at that point in the form of *Twinkle* and her dad, were absolutely fantastic, especially Takashi, who'd been on the road since 4am, meeting us at every checkpoint and providing us with food, drink and vital moral support. Check point 4 was to be our last meeting that day: they'd then head off to pick up Misako, the third member of our support team who'd come all the way from Hiroshima by bullet train to be with us, and retire to their ryokan in order to be up bright and early for us in the morning.

Supporters on the route

Check Point 4 marked a real turning point, as it was here, whilst we stocked up on dried fruit and sports drinks, that the sun set and night truly set in. It also marked the beginning of a section that was to smash all our preconceptions of this being any old sponsored walk. We were in for a real shocker, this was to be something else entirely.



In the next update, read about how the British Embassy helped us conquer the 1150m Mount Kintoki, the hut at the end of the world, and the descent that was to prove catastrophic for the team as it was.

Then it's time for tough decisions to be made, tears to be shed, bears to be heard in the forest, rescue vehicles to be summoned.

Ours pass, the storm breaks ...are our prayers for a miracle to be answered?

It's all coming up in The Daily Mumble...

who said Japan was all concrete?

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