Part 1. The Unforgettable Night at the Sahara Desert

“Winning the world championship in the Atacama Desert 250km marathon – team division.”

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Before I get into this story, I must first tell you about “that night”.

The night I cannot forget.

The night I ran alone through the pitch dark Sahara desert, crying the entire time.

October 6, 2011, was my second desert 250km race, “The Sahara Desert 250km Marathon”.

It was during Stage 5, which was the overnight stage where you have to run 90km through the night.

Although it was just under 2 years since I started running, I was able to rank high on stage 4 on the fourth day of the race.

I was No.1 among the Japanese runners, and No.6 in the entire race.

But at stage 5, the fifth and sixth day of the race, my stomach started acting up and I was delayed.

When you run more than a full marathon, it is important not only to have legs with the strength to run long distance, but whether you can maintain a healthy stomach so that you can eat, digest and generate energy to keep you running.

Simply put, if you cannot eat, you’re doomed. No matter how much strength you have left in your legs.

On my second Sahara desert race’s day 5, and during the most important stage, I fell into that “doomed” condition.

I was so Irritated with myself. But at the same time, I was relieved because I recovered enough to run by then.

With mixed emotions, I cried and ran all the way through that night, alone under the sky filled with stars.

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(The picture is me collapsing after finishing stage 5)

“Run 250km through a burning desert in 7 days.”

Plus,

“Carry everything you need with you in your backpack – 7 days worth of food and goods weighing up to 10kg – and continue to run.”

Ever since I was born – for 35 years – I was never the athletic type.

I always stayed indoors.

I was even in the “culture club” in school.

But then one day I started running for no reason.

As soon as I started running, I was totally hooked!

And the race that I definitely wanted to try before I died was the Desert Marathon.

I used to be a super chubby guy with a body fat percentage of 20%.

But I dropped 20kg,

Through various occurrences – which I can only describe as “fate” –  and my overdoing character, within 2 years I ran the Egypt Sahara Desert 250km Marathon.

I placed No.8 among all runners, and No.2 among the Japanese runners.

Satisfied with the unexpected good result, and yet irritated at myself for the stomach trouble I could have avoided, I was at the after-party with mixed emotions.

What I saw there were 4 Italian runners at the victory stand, receiving an award for the world championship of the team race.

They shined so brilliantly on that stage, and I was so amazed that I forgot any irritation that I’d felt.

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The 4 member Italian team: “Desert Runners”.

During the race, we had continuously ran past each other.

They looked so awesome to me, and I got a lot of power from them during the race – I completely idolized them..

That was the moment I learned there was a team race for the Desert 250km Marathon, not just the individual race.

My thoughts were: “Wow! They are SOOOOO cool!!”

“Run 250km through a burning desert in 7 days while carrying food, outfit, and emergency goods in your backpack that weighs up to 10kg.”

That is the rule for the Desert 250km Marathon, whether it is an individual race or a team race.

But the team race has another rule:

“A team has to consist of 3 or more members. There is no limit to the number of members, but if members retire, making the team less than 3, then the whole team retires.”

“All members of a team must be within 25 meters. All members of a team must start and reach the goal at the same time.”

They must support each other at all times – sometimes the leader would take the hand of a team member who’s in bad condition, and so on.

Dressed in the same wear, the 4-member team from Italy, “Desert Runners”, ran to become world champion for the team race.

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The “Desert Runners” members were giving a victory speech at the stand.
A glorious sight it was, with each member holding the “Silver Shield” in their hands, the same shield given to the men/women individual race champions.

“I definitely want to get on that stage and hold that shield in my hands!”

“Winning the individual race is too much for me, but if it’s a team race, I might have a chance.”

Only a year and a half later, I would be challenging the Atacama Desert as a team with Shinya Sasaki (Shin) and Yousuke Kurosawa (Kuro). They were also there, completing their first desert race and  watching the ceremony with me.

But at that time, I didn’t have a clue that would be happening.

(Continue to Part 2)

Part 2. The Lineup of Desert Marathons…

“I want to run the Sahara Desert 250km Marathon one day.”

Several months after I took up running, I found this picture and I have been longing to run the Sahara Desert Marathon ever since.

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But one day I was shocked to find out that there are several other 250km desert marathons.

“Gobi Desert Race in China”

“Sahara Desert Race in Egypt”

“Atacama Desert Race in Chili”

If you complete 2 of the above, you will be eligible to race the last desert, Antarctica.

“Oh my god… The Sahara Race I’ve been longing for was kinda like a middle boss I have to defeat to get to the last boss, Antarctica!”

Indeed, there are many kinds of desert races.

It was like suddenly realizing that the person that I admired my entire life was just a standard guy, and that there are so many other great people who exist around the world.

However, people tend to lose rationality when they get desperate.

“Alright! I am going to complete two desert races in a single year, and get the ticket for Antarctica!!”

After I started running, I acquired this bad habit to “FLASH-CLICK” (meaning randomly registering to races in a flash before thinking about the consequences) to various races.

Although my running history was less than 2 years…

June 2011: “Gobi Desert 250km” FLASH-CLICK!!

And a race only 4 months later…

October 2011: “Sahara Desert 250km” FLASH-CLICK again!!

OMG! I just FLASH-CLICKED two desert races!

Back then, I had just started a business of my own. But I didn’t tell anyone about registering for races.

In fact, I didn’t even tell my wife about it.The more I think about it, more reasons NOT to challenge would come up.

To block any escape route, I should FLASH-CLICK first!!!

So immediately after I FLASH-CLICKed the two races, I announced on Twitter, “Two desert races FLASH-CLICKed!”

My wife replied to me via Twitter, “What??? I am going to kill you!!”

But it was too late.

So next I will talk about the Gobi Desert, which was 4 months before I cried/ran through the Sahara Desert.

June, 2011.

A whole bunch of people came to the pep rally for my first desert race, the Gobi Desert 250km Marathon.

Among them were Yosuke “Kuro” Kurosawa and Shinya “Shin” Sasaki ,whom ended up joining me in running the Atacama Desert as Team “KIZUNA” later on.

I met Shin half a year ago. We were both in the Internet business and also our hometown was Hokkaido, so we had a lot in common.

And I met Kuro through a mutual friend several months ago.

Simply put, both guys were people I had just recently became friends with.

However, they were both active guys.

Although both had a challenging job, they were inspired by my challenges – they started to run as well.

Shin had only a half year of running experience, and Kuro, only 2 months.

Kuro and Shin had met each other only a few weeks ago. And of course, they didn’t have any experiences at the desert.

Yet, the two came to my pep rally through some sort of fate.

“Run 250km through the desert with temperatures passing 40C during the day and less than 0C during the night, carrying a 10kg backpack containing food and supplies to last 7 days.”

“You only have one life to live.”

“I want to see things I haven’t seen before.”

“Only the challenges you create will change your world.”

The two were totally ignited by my presentation speech, emotionally talking about the unknown challenge.

Then, there was this crucial conversation that determined our future.

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Shin: “Hey Kuro, are you gonna do it?”

Kuro: “Ummm….”

Shin: “I’m asking you, are you gonna do the desert thing?”

Kuro: “…(smile)”

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(Left: Kuro, Right: Shin)

Several weeks after I managed to complete the Gobi race, I heard rumors about this “Desert Conference” get-together to be held by Kuro and Shin. This was in July 2011.

“I obviously have to join this!”

Being both a Gobi desert finisher and a Sahara race registrant 3 months later, I was in a very excited mood.

“Hey, your heart is already heading towards the desert. Your only choice is to FLASH-CLICK!”

“Life is short. Let’s FLASH-CLICK right here, right now. Here’s the computer.”

Kuro, Shin and several others were so drunk and excited.

“Sahara Desert 250km Marathon FLASH-CLICK done! 3 months to go!”

What we didn’t notice at that time was that this was the very moment when our fates moved drastically towards the Atacama Desert’s Team KIZUNA.

(Continue to Part 3)

Part 3. Team “KIZUNA” Is Born

Anyone can FLASH-CLICK a desert 250km marathon, but running a race is a completely different story.

(“FLASH-CLICK” means to randomly register to races in a flash before thinking about the consequences)

After July 2011 when Kuro and Shin registered for the Sahara Desert 250km to be held in three months,

I gave them various training menus, with a few pranks included, since I was the only one with actual desert race experience.

Kuro: “Hey, Hiro, I am thinking about climbing up Mount Fuji from station No.5.”

Me: “Are you serious? The race I did is like racing all the way from the bottom to the top of Mount Fuji! You should be doing the same thing, Kuro.”

Later.

Kuro: “Are you nuts?! I did it, all the way from the bottom to the very top of Mount Fuji! When I reached the top it was midnight! I was so scared!”

Me: (This guy’s got guts! And he’s really crazy!)

Shin: “Hiro, I want to look for a pair of shoes for the desert. Would you come with me?”

Me: “OK, but let’s run the “Okutama 99km Eco Journey Race” which is in 2 weeks. You definitely should experience a race longer than a full marathon.”

It was way past the entry deadline date, but I called the race office right away.

Me: “Hello? I am one of the runners of your upcoming race. There is a friend of mine who is insisting he wants to run….”

And together, from dawn till night, we ran the “Okutama 99km Eco Journey” – which actually turned out to be a 106km race according to the GPS.

Me: (This guy’s got guts too! Interesting!!)

Me: “Shin, Kuro. I registered for the “North Okhotsk 100km Marathon”. You guys should join too. I am going to wear a cow costume.”

Shin and Kuro: “Sure thing! Let’s go!!!”

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Through these kinds of pranks, our running ability and mentality were strengthened.

Then came the Sahara Desert 250km challenge on October 2011.

The race where I was blown away by the champion Italian team, “Desert Runners”.

* For details, please check these articles (only in Japanese)

Gobi Desert 250km

Sahara Desert 250km

Thanks to our intense training, Kuro and Shin were able to safely finish their first desert race, Sahara 250km,

But they didn’t stop. Their challenge got even higher.

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Through experiences like “Finishing a 100km Marathon with all three in costumes”, we continued to develop our running abilities. Also, we were able to understand each other’s running abilities, style and characters.

Then one day.

“I am looking for another challenging race!”

“OK, how about the “Atacama Desert 2013″? Shall we FLASH-CLICK right here, right now?”

Click.

Click.

“Hey, let’s run as a team. This way we might even be able to become world champion!”

Getting carried away as usual, the three of us completed the team race registration for March 2013′s Atacama Desert Race.

Which is just the beginning of this blog’s main topic – Team KIZUNA’s challenge to become No.1 in the world in the Atacama Desert 250km Marathon.

(Continue to Part 4)

Part 4. Hypoxic Training, Costumes, and Me

”I am gonna race the Atacama Desert 250km with a team.”

”My target will be to become the world champions.”

We told ourselves.

The three of us, Kuro, Shin and I.

Every one of us kept on beefing up our running ability, without even pushing each other. 

On weekends, we would FLASH-CLICK for full/100km marathons, encouraging one another.

Gradually we increased our level of challenge – like running 140km in 24 hours (The Hagi Oukan Race), trail-running 156km around Mount Fuji in 48 hours without sleeping for two nights (Ultra Trail Mount Fuji).

All of us had a job. We were neither professional runners nor were we out of jobs.

Although we didn’t have time to meet up, we shared information and encouraged each other online, looking forward to the Atacama day.

By then, each of us had accomplished quite a bit.

- Me

June 2011: Gobi Desert Race in China

October 2011: Sahara Desert Race in Egypt

- Shin

October 2011: Sahara Desert Race in Egypt

June 2012: Gobi Desert Race in China

- Kuro

October 2011: Sahara Desert Race in Egypt

Every one of us had completed a desert race, and we were gaining confidence in ourselves.

However, the Atacama was a new experience for all of us.

The biggest difference between Atacama and other deserts is that Atacama is at a high altitude.

“There’s a possibility that you might get altitude sickness because Atacama Desert Race is held 3000 meters above sea level, and its oxygen level is so low.”

That’s when I came up with the hypoxic training and recommended it to the other two in order to improve our heart-lung functions.

It was incredibly painful!

Basically, it’s like this:

You wear a mask covering your mouth and nose first.

Then you run on a treadmill, increasing the pace and inclination, while gradually lowering the level of oxygen.

During this training, you must always measure the oxygen concentration in your blood (SPO2. Usually it’s 100).

When the SPO2 gets under 80, you must breath hard or slow down in order to get back the oxygen concentration to normal.

Never had I felt breathing was so painful and difficult.

On days I planned for the hypoxic training, I was terrified to go to the gym.

But we competed against each other with this training.

“I did the hypoxia level of Kilimanjaro!”

“For a moment, I ran the Everest!”

Afterwards, it turned out this method of training was a very important one.

Another feature of the Atacama’s was the cold temperature.

Because of the Atacama’s high altitude, the temperature may get down to 0 degrees Celcius during nighttime.

If you don’t have proper protection against the cold, you won’t be able to run.

But the desert races’ rule is that you must carry all your equipment and run.

If your equipment is heavy, it will slow you down.

If it’s a team race, this might affect the entire team’s running pace.

“How to reduce your equipment’s weight, and yet be prepared well enough to race safely”

- This was an important issue for the three of us.

The desert race office specifies a whole list of mandatory equipment.

If you are missing any of the equipment, you won’t be allowed to start.

There will be equipment check during the race too – if they find out you have something missing among the mandatory equipment, they will penalize you.

Some examples of the mandatory equipment for the Atacama:

- Sleeping bag that can be used under 5 degrees Ceicius

- Whistle and a mirror (to reflect the sunlight) to call for help during emergencies

- Knit hat, down jacket, gloves (for protection from cold)

- Headlight or two flashlights

- Blanket for emergency use

- Food supply with more than 2,000 Kcal per day (more than 14,000Kcal for seven days)

“Hey! This gear’s 5 grams lighter!”

“This food’s got lots of calories per gram! And looks quite easy to eat in the dry desert!”

We were sharing information with each other such as “equipment that’s even just 1 gram lighter” and “desert-suited food”.

One day, another crazy idea came to me.

Me: “Hey guys, we have been completing 100km marathons in costumes so many times. Aiming for No.1 is not enough for us. Why not wear costumes and go for No.1?”

I was the one who started running in costumes in the first place. The reason is simple.

“Aid staff and the spectator’s cheering supported me throughout these races. I want to entertain them in return.”

It’s not that I want to be cheered on by girls or something like that (really!).

Running full marathons and 100km in costumes, I realized that not only the staff and audience but the other racers get entertained too, and their smiles give me power. Also people will remember my name, and notice me in other races (this made me very happy). My friends started running in costumes too.

Through the process of testing various costumes like pandas and penguins, my own “Costume Policy” developed.

- What the costume is should be instantly recognizable by people of all ages and sexes, and its name should be called easily. That way, everyone can enjoy it, and cheer in the short moment I run through.

- The audience could recognize our face even though we wear a costume. Then people could see our smiles, which makes them happy.

Running so many races wearing costumes, we developed our own favorites.

Shin: Banana

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Kuro: Giraffe

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Me: Radish

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Later I find out that radishes aren’t so popular overseas…

“Imagine a banana, a giraffe and a radish running through the desert to become world No.1. That would be awesome!”

Maybe we were so hyped up by the hypoxic training.

Maybe were starting to go crazy.

Oh, here’s how much the costumes weighed.

Shin: Banana – 730 grams.

Kuro: Giraffe – 711 grams

Me: Radish – 635 grams

“We should care about lightweight with other equipment, but not our costumes! These would be useful as sleeping pads and protect us from the cold too!”

We were obsessed with costumes.

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(Equipment being measured by the gram. And the radish)

(Continue to Part 5)

Part 5. Dropping out of a race for the first time in my life, right before the Atacama Race

Just 3 weeks before the Atacama race.

I am not sure why, but somehow I FLASH-CLICKed a race called “The Okinawa Main Island 315km Roundtrip Marathon”.

(“FLASH-CLICK” means to randomly register to races in a flash before thinking about the consequences)

It’s a race that goes around the Okinawa main island in three days, 315km.

For three days, you have to run 100km per day.

A normal reader is probably thinking, “This guy is an idiot – or maybe crazy”, which is absolutely right.

Moreover, the race office announced:

“Although this is our first race, please think of it as a pre-race. (Meaning: We aren’t sure what exactly will happen!)”

The race was so roughly planned that the actual distance turned out to be 324km instead of 315km, because of measuring mistakes.

“Well, this is going to be fun!!”

The longest race I had experienced was the 250km run in 48 hours called “Hagi Ohkan Maranic”.

This time it was 324km in 3 days / 2 nights – compared to the Hagi race which was 250km without sleep.

Even though the environment was completely different, if I was able to complete this race, I would be able to gain a lot of confidence for the Atacama.

On the second day of the Okinawa Main Island Roundtrip 315/324km.

Slowly I felt a dull pain in my right leg.

The pain increased so much that I wasn’t even able to walk. At the 165km point, it finally happened.

I, the guy who completed dozens of full marathons and 100/250km races, retired a race, for the first time in my life.

Yup. I reported my drop out from the race on Facebook with a smile on my face and an Orion Beer in my hand.

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But inside, I was feeling this extreme sense of failure, and moreover, I became concerned about the Atacama 3 weeks later.

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(The taping right after dropping out the race. It was painful just to walk!)

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After that, I spent days trying various types of treatment to recover.

“I’m going to run a team race in Atacama. If one of us drops out, then the entire team drops out. If I am not able to race or have to drop out because of the injury, everything would be over…”

During my 3.5 years of running experience, I was always struggling with injuries. A guy who didn’t do any exercises at all suddenly started to run like crazy. There was no way I could avoid them.

But through those experiences, I was able to gain a sense of how many days a certain injury would take to recover.

“This time, I will probably recover in time for Atacama in 3 weeks. But I will have additional treatments, just in case..”

Going through various treatments and doing stretches, it was only one week till the Atacama Desert race.

Somehow Shin, Kuro and I were accepted to race the “Tokyo Marathon.”

Remember, this was only one week before the race where we were trying to become No.1 in the world.

If situations were normal, I would probably choose not to race at all…

But I did.

“I’m going to race too! Obviously, we have to do it in costumes!!”

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(Eating beef bowls at Yoshinoya the morning of the Tokyo Marathon. From left, Rikimaru the pilot, me, and Shin. All mature adults about to become 40.)

“My legs should have recovered by now. If I’m able to run the Tokyo Marathon, I would be able to run 250km in the desert one week later, right?”

But, reality doesn’t go so smoothly.

As soon as I started, the leg trouble began again.

“Oh crap…”

I dropped out at the 20km point, giving Atacama the priority.

This time, I wasn’t afraid of dropping out since I had done it before.

Staff of Tokyo Marathon: “Are you dropping out? I will guide you to the bus”

Me: “No thank you. My house is around here, so I will run home”

Staff: “What? Can you run?!”

Me: “Yes, I will run home in this radish costume. Sorry for the trouble, but thank you for your assistance.”

That was the second time in my life that I dropped out of a race.

I had to go to China for a business trip several hours after the Tokyo Marathon, so if I finished the race at a slow pace, I wouldn’t have made my flight anyway.

But still, the fact that I dropped out of two races before the Atacama made me feel extremely uneasy.

After all, we were aiming for world No.1 in the team race!

Only 7 more days left until the Atacama Desert Race.

(Continue to Part 6)

Part 6. New members join Team “KIZUNA”!

Meanwhile, three more members joined our team “KIZUNA”, the team aiming for world Championship in the Atacama Desert.

They were the media crew for team “KIZUNA”.

The young “Ino” and “Tomo” (Tomoko Mikanagi) from the film production company “augment5″, which had just started their activities worldwide.

Ino from augment5:

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Tomoko Mikanagi (Tomo)

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And Imaoka, who didn’t have media experience at all, but chose to join us anyways.

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(left: Imaoka)

The three of them.

I met Ino, the media crew leader, only a month before.

It began through an online chat.

Ino: “Hello, Mr.Ono. It was nice meeting you the other day. By the way, you seem to participate in lots of interesting races. Please let me shoot your next race.”

Me: “Absolutely! Why don’t you come to Atacama Desert? We are aiming for World No.1 in the team race, which would be the first for a Japanese team. And we intend to run in costumes. It’s going to be so cool!”

Now, a film production usually decides a filming project when there is an expected buyer, like a TV program or a movie.

A mature and proper adult would make a judgment like that.

But…

Ino: “I am not sure what to do with the film, but alright. I will go!”

He convinced another staff member, Tomo, to join him, and the media crew for team “KIZUNA” was born.

I was very excited because the films produced by augment5 were gaining a lot of attention worldwide.

(These people have so much talent and they’re so aggressive! I love them!)

But then the Atacama’s race office informed us that they needed to check whether the media crew could join since it was so last minute, and that 3 crew members would be required to rent a media crew car.

That was when I was having a conversation with Imaoka (Shin introduced him) about another topic.

Imaoka: “I am planning to race the Sahara Race next year, 2014.”

Me: “Great! By the way, although it’s just before the race and still pending, a media crew might be with us the whole time during the Atacama Race. And there’s one seat left.

Imaoka: “Really? I want to go too! I don’t have media experience, but I will help with anything. It will be good training for the Sahara next year too!”

Me: “Alright! I will contact Ino immediately!”

And that was how the Team “KIZUNA” media crew was born.

Ino, Tomo and Imaoka.

At this moment, Ino and Tomo  and the last media crew member to join, Imaoka, hadn’t even met each other.

But all three reserved the flight even before the race office had officially told us that the media crew could join.

(Oh my, something exciting is happening here!)

With this, team “KIZUNA” became a six-member team.

Racing crew: Shin the banana, Kuro the giraffe, Hiro the radish

Media crew: Ino, Tomo, Imaoka

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(From back left, Kuro, Ino, Shin, (Kiyopi), Tomo, me. In the front, Imaoka. I will tell you about Kiyopi afterwards)

My party gets bigger as I travel.

Things were happening like a roll-playing game.

And everyone was serious about creating a film about a radish, a banana and a giraffe running through the desert to become world champions as a team. Everyone was serious about this crazy idea and to distribute this film around the world.

(The pressure and anxiety is increasing as more people join, but I gotta go through with this!)

Let’s just do it!

(Continue to Part 7)

Part 7. The “Fateful” Journey to Atacama

All three race members of team “KIZUNA” – Kuro, Shin and I – had a hectic schedule right before the race.

Kuro: travel for work

Istanbul→ Washington→ London→ Tokyo Marathon in a giraffe costume→ Atacama

Shin: Tokyo Marathon in a banana costume in between business trips around Malaysia, Philippines, USA and Japan→Atacama

Me: Tokyo Marathon in a radish costume (dropping out at 20km)→ business trip to China for 3 days→return to Japan at midnight→ fly to Atacama few hours later.

Some wise readers would probably say, “You didn’t have to do the Tokyo Marathon in between.”

Well, you are absolutely right.

Anyways, the day to fly for Atacama finally arrived.

We hardly slept due to preparation for the race and work.

However, we were positive about this, confidant that this would be good for adjusting to the time difference.

The journey from Japan to Atacama was like this:

Narita -> New York -> Santiago, Chile -> Calama, Chile

A tough journey consisting of 3 flights and 40 hours.

I love the word, “Fate”.

Never have I experienced such a journey full of fate than the one for Atacama.

First, the flight from Narita to New York.

Coincidentally, the pilot was Rikimaru, Shin’s friend from elementary school, and a fellow runner. (He ran the Tokyo Marathon in a green soybean (edamame) costume with us just a few days before.)

And the flight’s chief purser was a friend of Maki, who is a desert friend of me and Shin, and was also racing the Atacama.

“What the…?!”

In the flight to New York, several cabin attendants gathered around me and handed me a card which said “Go for world No.1″. So many connections of fate!

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But the truth was that I got sick during the business trip to China.

I had a chill so terrible that I was trembling, with nausea and a headache right before I got on board to the flight back to Japan.

(Oh my, I might not be able to get on the plane back to Japan… But if I miss this flight, I won’t make it to Atacama…)

I was able to come back to Japan at midnight, barely breathing.

Even after arriving to Narita, I had to lie down all the time, fighting nausea.

That was only 7 hours before I left my house to head for Atacama.

I even had to visit the ER in the middle of the night, before going back to my house.

Therefore, I was lying down all the way on the first flight to Atacama from Narita to New York.

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(Lying down for 12 hours on a vacant four row seat. Seat-belt fastened! Photo secretly taken by Shin)

During the flight, cabin attendants frequently visited me saying things like:

“Are you feeling alright?”

“You have been resting the entire time. Would you like your meal?”

“You hardly ate anything. Is there anything you would like?”

They were so kind, and I was so thankful to them.

It was probably something Rikimaru (the pilot) and Maki (the chief purser) suggested.

Because of their support, I was feeling a little better.

(I am so easy to please… ) I definitely gotta do it now!!

So my condition got better during the flight to New York.

My biggest concern was the leg trouble, which started in Okinawa and recurred in the Tokyo Marathon.

In fact, while I was in China, I was so uncertain about my leg that I couldn’t sleep. I practiced taping many times studying taping methods online in the middle of the night.

(I must do everything I possibly can!)

That’s how I came up with the idea to receive medical treatment for my leg during the 12-hour transit in New York.

Another miracle of fate happened here.

I asked for advice to Ayako “Ayalo” Yamazaki living in New York. She used to be in the same class with Shin in elementary school, and also my junior in high school, and was also a runner herself.

“There is this great physiotherapist I know, and he will treat you!” She said.

Ayalo took the day off work for me and came to the airport to pick me up. With Ayalo driving the car, together we went to see Evan the physiotherapist.

Me: “Ayalo, thank you so much! How can I repay you? I will do anything you say! Thank you!”

Ayalo: “OK, then treat me dinner forever! For the next 100 years!”

Me: “No problem!!!”

During our drive through Manhattan, Tomo from the media crew asked me various questions with the camera on.

Tomo: “Mr.Ono, how is your condition and your leg?”

Me: “It would be a lie to say I’m not feeling uneasy, but I guess things will turn out fine. I must make things turn out fine!” (In fact I was full of anxiety, but since the camera was on so I had to say that!!)

Tomo: “You seem so energetic all the time. Do you feel pressure?”

Me: “Well, since I have the most experience in both running and in races, I thought I should push myself to lead everyone. Now I am afraid I might slow down our team’s pace because of my injury.”

Then Ayalo, smiling, said something that blew me away.

Ayalo: “Ohhh… This looks familiar. I used to do team sports. In a team there’s always one person who just won’t stop over-thinking everything and takes responsibility upon themselves, despite the fact that no-one cares a damn about it!”

(Hey! Isn’t that…me? )

After an hour long drive, we arrived to Dr.Evan’s, the physiotherapist.

Checking my pulse,

Evan, smiling, says something that blows me away..

Evan: “Why do you seem so concerned?”

(How does he know!?)

Another comment.

Me: “Besides the leg trouble and my stomach, the left side of my neck gets stiff a lot these days.”

Evan: “Oh, that’s typical for people who get worried too much and over-think situations.”

And the final blow.

While touching my body, arm and legs, Evan says, “Hmmm… Maybe you drink alcohol too much. Your liver is a little bit stiff which is causing your right leg and left hand muscle to stiffen.”

(!!!!!)

He was right. Not only the troubled right leg but my left arm’s muscle was stiffer than my right arm.

(I didn’t expect all of these things to be connected, but I guess they are!)

Me: “Yes, I love to drink. You could say I run to have a good drink… But I am not in good condition right now. I will not have a drink until after the race.”

The chill and the troubled stomach that happened in China.

The stiff neck.

Both were because I get way too concerned.

And the leg trouble was because I drink too much and run too much.

Everything is my fault…

Of course, Evan will not only do the consultation but do the treatment.

For the uneasiness, nausea and diarrhea, I was treated good traditional Chinese medicine and herbal tea.

For the leg, it was acupuncture.

Evan: “I’ll treat a lot of acupuncture to your leg and your butt. It will hurt a lot.”

Ayalo: “Oh, I had that and it hurt so much I screamed!!! Evan, do it! I wanna see Mr.Ono have needles in his butt! HAHAHA!”

Me: “Sob… Well, if it’s gonna make things better, do wherever you need to…”

And then started the time of agony.

One by one, Evan’s needles were inserted into my leg.

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Ayalo: “Hey, Hiro. I’ve done this treatment before. It hurts a lot, doesn’t it???”

Me: “This… doesn’t hurt at all… Feels comfortable. Like I’m taking a bath… OUCH!!!!!”

Ayalo: “It hurts, right???”

Me: “No, this is alright…ARRGH!!!!”

Evan: “OK, next I will treat some to the sole of your foot.”

Me: “What!! I thought you’re not supposed to do acupuncture to the sole… AIYEEEEEE!!!!!”

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After inserting 20 needles and teaching me some stretch movements, the treatment was over.

(The treatment was so painful… Running 250km through the desert might have been easier than this…)

Evan: “After this acupuncture, you will have a symptom similar to a muscular pain in your leg, but it will recover by the race, so don’t worry!”

Immediately after the treatment, I was suffering a terrible muscular pain in my leg. I had to walk like a robot, with 5cm steps.

(Am I really going to be able to run 250km in just 4 days from now?)

What if I couldn’t make it to the start line? Even though I was able to make it to the start line, what if my leg starts hurting during the race and I can’t even walk?

No! No!!

I’m not supposed to worry too much. I’m not supposed to over-think!

Things will turn out fine! I will make things turn out fine!

After the treatment, I went to see my friends drinking in Manhattan, but the pain was so bad I had to lie down alone.

After the New York transit, I had 2 more flights, where I was able to recover from the muscular pain.

Finally, I was standing at Atacama, the race location.

(Continue to Part 8)

Part 8. “My Banana! Sob…”

We were a team of 6 of racing and media crew.

We had loads of various racing gear and filming equipment.

And our route started from Narita, transferring in New York, Santiago and Calama, and finally to Atacama.

Trouble will happen.

Yep. Lost baggage.

Shin was pale at the airport in Santiago.

Shin: “My bag isn’t here…”

Me: “Really? What was inside it?”

Shin: “My banana costume…”

Me: “Well, the costume was just for fun, so…”

Shin: “…And some of the racing gear, and the team uniform. Sob…”

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(Shin desperately asking about the situation to the airport staff)

There was a long story behind the uniform we made. It was much more than just matching wear. I will write about this later.

We all felt the same way. But despite the concern and impatience, all we could do was wait.

The baggage was lost between New York and Santiago.

It was less than two days until we go to the camp location for the race.

Will the banana and the uniform make it?!

A tense atmosphere hung around the six members of team “KIZUNA”.

In order to support Shin, the rest of the team began to prepare backup equipment.

However, although Atacama was a tourism area, it was a super rural district as well.

It might be difficult to even find the specific and rare equipment required for the race. Not just the uniform.

Then, on the day before the departure to the race camp, the banana costume and the uniform arrived!!!

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Relieved, we gave each other a high-five!!

“We are so lucky!”

“Yeah, the uniform probably wanted to stop by New York.”

Thus, the concerns regarding the equipment was gone.

A shot at Atacama in the same uniform.

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(From right, Kuro, me, and Shin)

Another shot of a strategic meeting for the race.8_4

(This photo appeared on the Race’s official website. LOL)

The rear view shot of the three of us.8_5

(almost) Perfect!

The only cause for concern was my leg and condition (and I was the only one worried about it).

I was feeling a lot better than when I was walking like a robot right after the treatment in New York.

However, something was still wrong with my leg, and my stomach wasn’t in the best condition either.

But as I talked with other players from all around the world, I became more excited than concerned about the race.

(An “Abbey Road” shot taken for fun. LOL)

SONY DSC

“I am finally about to start the Atacama Race!”

“Who knows what will happen after the race starts? Just a few days ago I was lying in a ball because of sickness in China. I am lucky just to be able to start.”

Team “KIZUNA” and 150 athletes enter Camp No.1, the starting point for the Atacama 250km.

The race is about to begin!

(Continue to Part 9)

Part 9. Know Your Enemy, Know Thyself, and You Shall Not Fear a Hundred Battles

There were about 150 entrants for this year’s Atacama 250km Desert Marathon.

Among them, the 4 teams running the team race were England, Germany, Scotland and Japan (us, team “KIZUNA”).

The ancient strategist Sun Tzu once said “Know your enemy, know thyself, and you shall not fear a hundred battles”.

As soon as all the race entrants were fixed, we thoroughly checked the other teams’ past race experiences.

The Scotland team was a 4-member team mixed of men and women.

The team’s past results showed that they aim to complete the run rather than to rank high.

The 3 member team from Germany had a so-so result, but had one 55 year old member. From his past record, they wouldn’t be a threat to our team, because the slowest member will define the team’s pace.

However, the 3-member team from England was totally unpredictable.

No desert race records could be found.

But the team’s name shows they must be triathletes.

We have to judge when we see them on-site.

Besides checking out other teams, we prepared a strategy for this race.

“In the Atacama Desert Race, you must run for 40km a day for the first four days (stage 1-4).  Then you need to run 80km a day in the overnight stages on day 5 and 6 (stage 5).  Day 7(stage 6), you must run 10km and reach the goal.

The distance between teams will probably widen after day 3, when the food gets consumed and the equipment gets lighter.

So our pace should be like this:

On day 1-2 (Stage 1-2), we should reduce our pace.

Then on day 3, we should slowly increase our pace.

On day 4 we should start running at a full pace, and on day 5-6′s overnight run (stage 5) we should push as hard as we can.

From past team race results, if runners can rank within the top 50 in the individual race, they could probably win the championship for the team race.

Our individual results were pretty good – In the Sahara race, I ranked No.8, Kuro ranked No.28, and Shin ranked No.40. And our capability has increased since then. If we are able to run at a reasonable pace, we could possibly win the race.”

From the past desert races, the stages that the ranks change the most were:

- Stage 4, when runners start getting fatigued, and equipment starts getting light(Day 4)

- Stage 5, when runners must run the longest distance (The overnight Day 5-6)

In fact, when I ran the Sahara desert in 2011, it was stage 5 where my rank dropped.

The Italian team who won the championship for the team race was only No.2 at stage 3.

Among all teams, all members of the unpredictable England team are beginners for the desert race.

They will probably speed up from the beginning, but we should keep cool and speed up from the latter half.

The body structure of us Japanese are much smaller than Western racers, so the fatigue from carrying the equipment will probably be a lot more than them. 

In the later stages, the food would be consumed and the equipment will get lighter.

Then we can run fast. That’s when we can take advantage over the Western racers.

Again, maybe I am thinking too much on my own…

The Atacama Desert 250km race was about to start.

(Continue to Part 10)