Updated: Jul 13
*Note: at the time of writing this, I was dealing with a very bad case of poison ivy from this race. So I apologize for any typos! - Chelsey
“We don’t know yet.. but soon we will”
became the common saying and theme of Niseko Expedition .At first it was a frustrating feeling, but once we embraced the nature and feel of the race, we grew to love it and were able to turn our frustration into curiosity. From the time we started packing for the race to an hour before the race started we knew very little. Only after looking at the maps and planning our route we learned that we needed to attach our packrafts to our bikes and that we would have to guess our own time estimates based on the maps. It was at this time that I also started to realize why this 36 hour course was called an Expedition Race rather than an adventure race (usually we don’t call anything under 70 hours an Expedition Race). In this race, we would going back to old school AR- no TA bins (we would carry our food for entire race minus what we put on the bikes), no time estimates and very no information about other teams would be given out.
At the pre race meeting, Lars made quick work of the maps and when asked by Masato what he thought of the course, Lars replied “yeah I think it looks good, lots of trails and pretty straight forward.” This feeling along with hearing that last year there was a lot of trails made us think that it was going to be relatively mellow course. But boy were we wrong! After all, it was Masato’s course who we have known for many years now. I guess once he heard we were for sure coming, he wanted to put on a good show. He loves old school style races where there is a ton of bushwalking, some danger and a lot of unknowns. And that is exactly what he delivered.
At 12 am exactly they counted down from 10 in Japanese and we were off.
Our team, even though it was our first time racing together (other than myself and Lars) worked well and were able to push the pace comfortably. We got to the first TA pretty quickly and managed to get in the water first after blowing up our MRS packrafts. Once in the groove and paddling, we were moving fast, so fast that we actually missed a CP. At a km and a half past it, we stopped and pulled out the compass - Lars, Mel and I had a miscommunication about the turns in the river and Lars had forgotten to pull out his compass. It was bummer for sure, but thankfully no one blamed anyone. Instead, we put our heads down, paddled up river and went to get it. It took us a while to find it, but once we did, we again got to work and paddled like hell to catch up. We turned our make up session into a game. At the sight of a team ahead we would steadily gain on them, pass and set our sights on the next “rabbit”. After we passed one, it gave us a little boost and we would get some drive to go catch the next one up ahead. By the end of the river we had caught every team but one. We didn’t know how far ahead they were because the race org kept all of that information very secret which we grew to love.
At the end of the paddle, we saw the ocean and got out, packed up the boats as fast as we could and walked a short ways TA 2 where we dropped our boats and picked up our climbing gear and started trekking up into the cliffs above the coast. We had a little bit of trouble with the translation of the CP description, but thankfully we had Sachiko who was able to explain what she thought they meant. After some time searching and re-attacking, we found it and when on. The next section gave way to some intense cliffs and waterfalls that we had to pick our way down. It was here where we all dialed back our race mode and started to dial up the safety. I could also feel Masato’s love of adventure and technical terrain here. It quickly became apparent that this was not a race to go into auto pilot, everyone had to be on their game when it came to route choice, river walking, searching for the Cps and rope work.
At the next TA we quickly put on our harnesses and set off for what we thought would be a short easy ropes section. However, with in a few hundred meters we were greeted with a few traverse sections high above the ocean that started with ropes and then went into a few km of scaling slippery rocks over pools and using our tid blocks as ascenders to get us up the very “pushy” and swollen waterfalls. Soon after we started the canyon section we caught up to who we thought were the first place team (again, we were never sure of anyone’s placement, so it was only a guess). Not knowing where we were in the standings forced us to constantly focus on our own race And when we did falter from this even the tiniest bit by becoming a bit more relaxed or complacent, it was not long before we felt the effects and reminded each other of our goals. “We know nothing” and “we are doing our best” are just a few of the quick comments said as we pushed on and got ourselves back on our path.
After the canyon section, we knew there was a steep trail to follow for a long ways, but we were all so happy to just be off the river and on to a trail. However, the nice clear trail quickly turned into a full on bamboo bushwhack. We could still see that it was a trail, so we didn’t have to waste too much energy finding the route, but it was much slower than we had anticipated. The joke on that section was that we could really feel Masato’s love of bushwhacking! With out time estimates for each leg or TA bins, we had to guess how much food we would need and carry with us the entire time. In the end, this entire leg, plus the pro points took us 18 hours!
Just as we were about to drop down into yet another canyon to get the 4 pro points, we were startled by another team. They looked stoked and strong and obviously got a jump start after seeing us. Where we, even though we tried not too, all felt a little depleted. Luckily after a bit of time and more wrestling of bamboo on our way down to the canyon, we were able to keep our constant forward motion and not worry about the other team. Instead we let them pass, reminded ourselves and each other that we still had a lot of race and unknowns in front of us and focused once again on our race. By this time, it had grown dark, which made both trekking up the slippery wet river canyon and trying to find the CP a challenge.
In the end, we ended up passing and missing Pro CP17. Once we realized it, there was no sense in going back, and while we were all a bit bummed, we knew we had all done our best in looking for it and once again reminded each other that all we could do was race our own race. Around this time we also passed under a huge snow bridge, It was one of the most beautiful and eerie parts of a race course I had ever been on. Never had any of use seen such an incredible and scary feature!
As we made our way to the TA, Mel was able to do some backwards math and calculated that doing the O points would be a very close call. Also in our English rule book, it was stated that all the O points were worth only 4 and the pro points 8. Later on we learned that both the O points and the Pro points were worth 8. We also learned about some of the cut offs going forward, and had to switch gears from “get them all” to “be strategic” and make the best outcome out of what we had done so far. We knew that in order to have a fighting chance at winning we would need to get all of the mandatory points and the TAs as they were worth the most points. And in order to get those done, we would need to keep a good pace on both of the upcoming bike stages.
After a glorious mandatory 1 hour stop at the hot springs where they served up burgers, rice balls and miso soup, we set out on our bikes with the mission to get to the Orienteering CP and TA as soon as we could. On the way, we made an error, but thanks to Mel’s back up navigation and Lar’s ability to always know where we were, we were able to turn a potential disaster into a time saving positive. It did require a horrendous bushwhack that we were not expecting, but in the end we found out that it actually saved us a bit of time!
Once we were back on our bikes we were at the O course in no time, however even though we got there before the cut off we decided to not to go and get any of the points. At this point and time in the race we had experienced the bush and knew how slow it could be, especially in the dark. And looking ahead to a 85 km bike with 7,000 feet of elevation gain and many unknowns such as how we were as a biking team (again, this was our first time racing together) and how good or bad the navigation was going to be (we were using very old maps). We all decided that there was no way we wanted to risk missing any mandatory CP’s and TA’s. While we did have one snafu( where we went up ahead of Lars and thought we were on the right road) -all in all we were able to keep a steady pace and tackle the stage CP by CP and contour line by contour line. At one point towards the end of the bike, we were taking a little break on the way up to one of our highest points. For some miraculous reason Sachiko decided to pull out her rule book and check out what the remaining cut off times were. “Guys, how many more km to 39?” she asked. “Many, and some more climbing too” Lars said. “Well,.. the cut off time is 8 am for 39!” Sachiko called back.
All at once, we looked at each other and the energy shifted. All of a sudden, we were on the move faster than ever. I took Lar’s pack and helped push while Mel towed him and Sachiko kept up behind. We were on fire, with one soul purpose- to beat the clock! We helped one another push and pull like a well oiled machine. It felt like we had been racing for days at this point. Less than 400 meters to go to the CP, Mel’s spoke popped and sliced into her wheel causing an immediate flat. With out skipping a beat, Mel got off her bike handed it to Lars and started running to the CP. We all made it there with 10 minutes to spare. While we still had a big climb ahead of us, we knew for sure we could make it to the finish, which was a huge relief for all.
After fixing Mel’s tire, we were off again. We helped each other by pushing and switching backpacks. We were still working as a team but with slightly less stress as the route ahead was well laid out. Just climb up to the very top of the mountain and then run down to the finish line. Our second to last CP was yet another hot spring, but this time a more built up one. It was so cool to see and experience so many different types of terrain in 36 hours. Once we arrived at the very last TA, we dropped our bikes and walk/jogged down to the finish line. As we ran down, we chatted about what each of our roses and thorns were. We decided that the exciting ropes section, the way we all were able to work as a team to strategize and push to make to CP 39 before the cut off and our ability to bend and adapt to all the many challenges that came our way were our team roses.
This race was a true expedition race condescended into 36 short hours. The extreme terrain, the absence of TA bins, the unknown estimated times and the need to be 100 percent on it individually and as a team made this race feel bigger than it was in time. While I was not expecting this style of race at first (last years footage showed all trails!) in the end I am so happy we were able to experience a true Masato Race. I could feel is mind and heart in every stage and after racing alongside him for so many years in Patagonia, I felt like I became even closer to him. As for our team, it was a brand new team make up for all of us. While I had raced with Lars, I knew he would be coming into this race in a different kind of shape (see where he came from just before HERE!) and I had never raced with Mel (who also was coming back to AR after being in a serious crash) or Sachiko before. However, we all were able to pull each other at different times with out judgement and press on together towards one common goal.
Crossing the finish line of any race always feels like a huge accomplishment and relief. For this one I felt myself feeling an immense feeling of gratefulness and love. I was so grateful to have been apart of this team and to experience a totally new place that I have always dreamed of. Ever since I was young I had always wanted to visit Japan but never thought it would come true. And here I was, in some of the most beautiful terrain in Japan with a full plate of fresh sushi and champagne in front of me. Even though we couldn’t understand anything, the race ceremony was one for the memory books. The host of the organization called each team up starting from last place to 3rd place. Once he got to the 2nd and 1st place, he called both our team and another team up. We felt like we were on a Japanese game show, as he said many things in a very animated way. It wasn’t until he yelled BendRacing that we knew we were the winners, and even then we had to double check with Sachiko that we in fact earned first place.
Huge thank you to all of the amazing volunteers, to the organizers and to Masato for sticking to your roots and putting on a true 36 hour Expedition Race. As an organizer and RD myself, I could tell how much of yourselves you put into this race. Thank you to all of the racers for welcoming us with open arms. And thank you Sachiko for being both our tour guide, our translator, our logistics coordinator and for being such a force on our team! Team BendRacing will be back!!
Last but not least thank you to our sponsors, with out you, we would not be able to do what we do at this level.
Skin Doctor by Angelina Skin Care - perfect feet and hands thanks to you!
USWE packs - Innovative and comfortable packs
Kahtoola - Ultra light and durable gaiters
Leki Poles- Poles for the steep up and downs
Shimano Mtb Components: Light Durable easy to work on components
Four Hour Fuel - four fueling us all the way!'