Part 10. Day 1, Stage 1

At last, the morning of the race.

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(From left, Shin, me, and Kuro)

The Stage 1 course has the highest altitude in the entire race.

You climb up to 3,300m, and then you descend all the way down to 2,400m. The course’s distance is about 40km.

It was our 3rd day since we arrived to Atacama – we hadn’t gotten used to the high altitude yet.

“Today should be a wait-and-see day. We have to remember to be patient.”

There’s a “25m Rule” in the team race.

All team members must run within 25m of distance from each other.

All team members must start and reach the goal at the same time, and run through each check point at the same time.

The German team and Scotland team had their own uniform, so the team could be recognized at once.

However, the “unpredictable” England team didn’t have a team uniform.

It was difficult to tell if the runner is an individual racer or a member of the England team.

(Anyway, we shouldn’t worry about the others, and aim to reach the goal within 50th place.)

We did everything we could to make our equipment lighter.

Each of our members’ equipment weighed:

Me: 7.5kg (including the radish weighing 635g)

Shin: 9.5kg (including the banana weighing 635g)

Kuro: 10kg (including the giraffe weighing 711g) 

(Plus 1-2.5kg of water would be added)

Kuro was tall, so his food weighed more, resulting in his equipment’s heavier weight.

But compared to other racers, we were pretty lightweight.

Still, running above 3000m with equipment and water weighing over 10kg is more suffocating than you can imagine.

“This is pretty tough…”

In order prevent suffocation, we told each other, “Let’s bring it (SPO2) back to 90!” – a line our hypoxic training coach used to say.

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We walked during the uphill, and whenever we could, we ran at a slow pace.

(My leg seems to be alright so far. I’m so relieved!!!! But it’s still the first day of a 7 day race. I should be careful!!)

In the latter half of the stage, after the 20km point, my stomach started to have trouble. I started to have a bit of nausea.

(Oh boy. I experienced this in Sahara, but NOT on the first day… Maybe my stomach hasn’t recovered…)

On the way, we lost our course for about 5 minutes, but my legs and stomach were fairly OK. We finished our first day at 42nd place.

It was quite a slow pace like we planned. Not bad.

My leg, which started to hurt at the 10km point during the Tokyo Marathon a week before, was alright after 40km of running.

This was good news!

Evan (who treated my leg in New York) and Ayalo (who introduced Evan to me), I cannot thank you enough!!!

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(A photo of my “best” taping before the start)

(Evan told me that the pain might start to happen at the latter half of the race. What’s gonna happen with my leg during Stage 4 when we start to run seriously, and Stage 5, the key stage…? Well, I shouldn’t think about it too much for now.)

After reaching the goal, I checked out the results of other teams. I learned that the unpredictable England team finished 16 minutes ahead of us.

(Wow! I’m not sure how serious they ran today to get this result, but things might not be so easy…)

But later I learned that the England team actually didn’t finish at the same time. 2 reached the goal at the same time, but another member had reached the goal a lot earlier.

“Don’t they know about the 25m rule? Or did they quit the team race and decided to run the individuals race?”

There were many questions in my mind.

But the nausea that started during the race had become unbearable, and I had to lie down in the tent.

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(The banana next to me is Shin’s sleeping pad)

(Oh no… I may not make it after tomorrow if my condition’s so bad from day 1)

Because of my past experiences at the Sahara and the bad condition before the race, I brought a lot of medicine.

I took medicine for my stomach and anti-nausea drugs, but my condition wasn’t getting any better.

(Maybe I’m dehydrated…?!)

In a rush, I licked salt and drank water.

Since Atacama has a dry climate, you won’t notice even if you sweat a lot.

If you sweat, you will not only lose your body’s water but the salt within your body too.

(Hmmmm? Huh???? My condition is getting better!!!!!!)

It seems everything was because I was lacking salt.

“If you take too much salt, the concentration of salt in your body gets too high; as a result, your body tries to store water to lower the concentration, which causes your body to swell.” – Because I heard that story, I took less salt than the desert races in the past.

Just two tablets of salt, and the body that didn’t get any better with various medicines suddenly recovered.

The power of salt!

Even a small adjustment of salt would result in dehydration or swelling.

Once again, I realized the difficulty of desert races.

(Well, so many things happened during day 1.

But this is just the beginning! At Tomorrow’s stage 2, we will go across many rivers! We are going to splash each other water and run!!!)

(Continue to Part 11)

Part 11. Stage 2 – The True Meaning of a “Team”

It’s the morning of the second day at the Atacama Desert.

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What a beautiful sunrise.

Speaking of morning…

I was expecting this before the race, but…

“My poop won’t become solid” – That was my problem.

(Readers eating while reading this: I am so sorry)

Of course, it is good that I can at least eat. Several days ago I didn’t even have an appetite, and had terrible diarrhea.

But I just hope it would become more solid…

But on day 2, the solidity rate increased!

What a good start for day 2!

By the way, the England team that finishing 16 minutes earlier without each other didn’t seem to know the 25m rule.

Although it was against the rules, there were no penalties. They were allowed to continue the team race.

Anyways, it’s still day 2.

Today’s aim was:

“Save power by running at a comfortable pace. But not widen the gap between the England team.”

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(From left: Me, Shin, Kuro)

Today’s course was the famous one for the Atacama Desert race – you run across many rivers and deserts.

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The moment you run down a desert hill is when you can really feel the joy and excitement of a desert race.

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(You can sprint all the way down to the bottom)

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My leg doesn’t seem to have any problems so far.

My stomach has recovered enough that I don’t have nausea.

I was so happy I wanted to shout out to the sky, “What a wonderful thing it is to be able to run!!!”

Now, I will introduce the personalities of the three members of team “KIZUNA” from my point of view.

I ran a lot of races with Shin and Kuro before Atacama, so I know their personality and their strengths/weaknesses.

But we were to spend 7 days in the desert, an extraordinary and tough environment.

It comes as no surprise that some kind of trouble would happen, despite our close friendship up to now.

Shin:

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Although his running ability was the least among the three of us, he could make friends with anyone around.

He could make people laugh or get relaxed.

His words were always full of compassion towards others.

He was the type who would come to save you during troubled times.

Kuro:

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Because he was involved in sports during school, he was always stoic towards the races.

He was an extremely serious person.

That’s why his running ability and cardio-pulmonary functions became No.1 among us three, despite the fact that he had the shortest history of running.

He was the type that would lead the entire team to run at important times.

And me (Ono):

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It is always difficult to take an objective view of yourself, but I will do my best.

I am good at checking other competitors; planning race strategies; coming up with various ideas (like running in costumes) and implementing that idea into reality while involving others.

When it comes to running abilities, I am the most experienced for long distance runs and trail runs.

But I tend to over-think, only to self-destruct.

(Now that over-thinking danger concerns my leg and stomach…)

Yes, you are right.

The three of us had completely different personalities.

At the pep rally for the Atacama race, we had an opportunity to present our feelings about the race.

Shin told us a very good story about the difference of a team and a group.

“The power generated by a GROUP would be the sum of all the power generated by the individuals belonging there.

In a TEAM, every member would listen and react positively to others.

They would respect each others’ interests and success.

The power generated from that culture would be so much more than the sum of all the power generated by the individuals.”

Actually, from the very first day at stage 1, there was a quarrel between Kuro and me.

I’m the “Let’s enjoy running in order to accomplish the time and rank!” type.

Kuro is the “Let’s do everything we can to accomplish the time and rank!” type.

The entire team’s aim was of course, “No.1 – World Champions”.

But the approach towards that goal was different from one another.

For instance, my approach is like this: “Let’s create an enjoyable situation. It’s a long race. Keeping our minds at a healthy state would ultimately lead to achieving a good time record and rank.”

Thus, stopping for a moment to take photos is totally OK with me.

However, Kuro’s approach was like this: “If we could shorten our time, we should try and move forward. That would lead to achieving a good time record and rank.”

Of course, no one can say which one is right.

We must respect each others’ thoughts.

But we were running above 3000m at a low oxygen level, in 40 degrees Celsius of heat, carrying 10kg of equipment.

Our emotional composure was decreasing.

Our quarrel started because of this.

Shin, who would usually be the mediator, wasn’t in good condition so he was focusing on his own run.

An awkward atmosphere hangs around Kuro and me.

But in the end, after we reached the goal, we shook hands and smiled, realizing the importance of respecting each other.

So, our second day was cheerful again.

We were even saying to each other, “We should do one quarrel a day!”

Shin’s stomach was quite troubled on the second day.

But we were able to safely reach the goal, talking about love.

My injured leg didn’t have any problems after finishing stage 2.

However, the opposite side of the injured part (the inner heel) started to have a dull pain.

(I might be protecting my injured part too much… But it will be alright. Hey, I still can run even after the second day! It’s already great enough!)

Day 2′s result – 28th place.

Like day 1, we saved our pace. But the result was pretty good.

We were even able to get a 10-minute advantage against the England team for the total time of day 1 and 2 -  they were 16 minutes ahead of us in day 1.

(Our aim was not to be lead by more than 16 minutes, but we lead them by 26 minutes in one day, and we were running at a mild pace. We can do it! But maybe they are saving their pace too. We should be careful. Anyway, everyone did a great job! I’m so happy!!)

Meanwhile, the England team was acting strange again.

One of them reached the goal 4 minutes earlier, and after that the other two reached the goal.

“This is against the rules. I wonder if they either want to race as a team or race as individuals…?”

Everybody has their own comfortable running pace.

But this was a team race. They should adjust their pace considering each members’ condition and running ability, and run as a team.

“The first member to goal should have waited for the other two – it’s only a 4 minute difference.” I thought.

But probably they had their own situations.

But being pointed out by the race office, the England team decided to stop the team race and switch to race as individuals this day.

In addition, one of the three members of the Germany team had to retire due to an injury while crossing a river.

The team could not qualify because they were less than three members.

The team had to break up and race as individuals.

It was Day 2.

But the only teams left were us (team “KIZUNA”) and the Scotland team (one of the four members had dropped out, and they became a three member team).

The Scotland team was already behind us by several hours.

The situation was that if we won’t retire, we would be able to win the team race.

But we won’t ease up.

In addition to our original goal to become world No.1 for the team race, we set another objective – “Each one of us should exceed his best record as an individual.”

So we aimed to exceed Kuro’s best record, 28th place.

On this day, we witnessed the difficulty of team races.

The England team had equally good running abilities, and was in good shape. But they broke up for some reason.

The Germany team seemed to be greatly bonded with each other, wearing the same team uniform. But one member retired, causing the entire team to drop out of the team race.

This was still day 2.

The same thing could happen to us.

(I am concerned about what will happen to my injury after tomorrow’s stage 3. I hope it doesn’t get troubled before Stage 4, when we start running seriously. Anyways, worrying won’t change anything.)

Under a sky full of stars, stage 2 finishes its day.

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(Inside the tent. From the back side: Shin, me sleeping with a cover on my face to protect against the dryness)

(Continue to Part 12)

Part 12. Various Feelings About the Desert

Day 3, stage 3.

We will slowly increase our pace from today.

But that doesn’t mean we will increase our running pace.

We will run at a slow pace, but not walk so much. We will run wherever we can.

This was our objective.

Walking less would drastically improve our overall time.

From day 1, our team “KIZUNA” shouted the following verse in unison. Originally this verse came from our triathlon team, “Iomare”, but we changed it a bit.

“We will not lose to ourselves! Everyone is a friend!! Be thankful for everything!!! Team KIZUNA!!!!”

In the morning of stage 3, when we started to shout as usual, other Japanese racers gathered around saying they wanted to join us!

“We will not lose to ourselves! Everyone is a friend!! Be thankful for everything!!! Team KIZUNA & JAPAN!!!!”

And stage 3 started.

I was expecting today’s course to be not so difficult. But it turned out to be quite tough.

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(Moving through the bushes from the very beginning)

Especially after we saw the day’s final goal – we were relieved, only to have many  challenging and hell-like courses come up again and again and again and again.

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(We could see the camp in front of us, but it was such a long road from here!)

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We had to climb up and down so many sand-hills.

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We had to go across muddy rivers, go through river beds that were difficult to walk.

We thought we had reached the goal, but we were wrong.  We had to go up and down some extreme sand-hills again.

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(Right before going down to the river bed at the bottom of the sand-hill. It seemed fun from above, but when I went down, it was all muddy and so difficult to move.)

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(Kuro and me, satisfied with climbing the sandhill)

Mentally, this was quite tough.

But Team KIZUNA was able to reach the goal at 27nd place for stage 3 with no difficulty.

We also accomplished our objective to run as much as possible.

Moreover, the pain in my heel that began after stage 2 was decreasing!!!

(Indeed, I did run with caution – not to put pressure on the heel, yet not to put pressure on the original injured part)

My running coach used to say, “Hiro, a pain in the leg should be cured by running.”

(I think I understand what he meant now!!)

I was so thankful for everything.

(Before the race, I couldn’t imagine myself at such a good condition with stage 4 ahead of me!! Thank you so much!!!)

Today, I would like to tell you stories about the other runners.

Many runners with various backgrounds come to the Atacama Desert.

I would like to talk about the two blind runners from Japan and Brazil.

Of course, without an escort runner, they can’t run.

The escort runner for Mr. Hamada, the Japanese blind runner, was Mr. Kim, a Korean living in Japan.

Because of the recent bad relationship between Korea and Japan, he wanted to become a bridge between the two countries.

Another escort runner from Korea, Mr. Hwan, joined to support, making them a group of three.

On stage 3, most runners reached the goal late at night, tired and worn out.

Mr. Hwan, who was always with Mr. Hamada and Mr.Kim for support, came back alone late. Something was wrong.

I couldn’t understand the details since Mr. Hwan could only speak Korean, but it looked like Mr. Hamada and Mr.Kim was having a hard time running the course.

Mr. Hwan’s time limit was running short, so he had to reach the goal alone.

Mr. Hwan said, “I’m sorry” by gesture.

“You don’t have to be sorry. We are so grateful that you support him! Thank you!”

The sun set, and it became dark.

But Mr. Hamada and Mr. Kim haven’t shown up.

(They might have to drop out at stage 3…)

Then, we saw a headlight swaying slowly in the distance.

“It’s them!!”

You had to climb up an extremely steep sand-hill to reach the goal.

From above the sand-hill, runners held up the flag of Korea and Japan and cheered the two on.

And…

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(Mr. Kim pulling Mr. Hamada with his entire strength)

Finally, with everybody cheering, the two reached the goal.

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Mr. Hamada immediately fell down.

The course was so tough that even non-handicapped people would have trouble just moving around.

Reaching the goal with an escort runner… that was unimaginable.

I was so moved by this moment that I was in a daze for a while.

This is a true team.

(We are going to run seriously from tomorrow. Whatever happens, we shall do our best in the race!)

(Continue to Part 13)

Part 13. Stage 4 – The “Other Member”

Maybe it was because of the excitement seeing Mr. Hamada (the blind runner) and his escort runner Mr. Kim’s dramatic goal, but I wasn’t able to sleep at all that night.

It was already 2am.

In fact, I was like that the night before as well. Kuro gave me a sleep inducing drug, and I was able to get a light sleep.

(I have run 250km in 44 hours without any sleep at all before, so I’ll be OK)

Finally it was stage 4.

We will run seriously from today, as planned.

This stage had the toughest course among all the stages.

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You had to run forever through a dry and bumpy course like this.

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On a track like a Gateau Chocolat, but with random holes.

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At times you had to cross a river.

It was a tough course, but we were able to run a lot more than we had expected.

It turned out we were ranked No.23 for stage 4.

It felt good to rank up a little bit day by day.

My leg was alright.

The only stages left were the 2-day long stage (stage 5) and the final stage 6 on day 7.

Stage 6 was only a 10km course, so whether or not we could finish the race would be decided on tomorrow’s stage 5.

And yet my leg was in perfect condition at this point. It felt like a miracle.

(This is probably because Toshiwo is watching us….)

Let me tell you about Toshiwo. 

He’s the other member of Team KIZUNA.

He was a designer known throughout the world.

He designed the uniform that the three of us wore.

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He was an experienced athlete.

And above all, he was our mentor.

Toshihiko “Toshiwo” Shimada.

Actually, the three of us had a photo of Toshiwo on our backpack from the very first day of Atacama.

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I met Toshiwo 2.5 years ago.

Shin and several other friends could hardly swim (only about 25m) at that time. But we decided to practice and attempt a Triathlon

“Let’s make a cool uniform.”

Being a triathlete for a long time, Toshiwo joined “Iomare”, our triathlon team. And as a designer, he designed our uniforms.

This is the uniform he designed.

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The wear has the word “KIZUNA from 2010″ because the team was founded in 2010.

Only 2.5 years old, Iomare kept on attracting wonderful people of various ages and professions. It now has more than 100 members.

The uniform that Toshiwo created became our bond (which means KIZUNA in Japanese).

I admired Toshiwo so much that I once had this conversation with my wife.:

Me: “I want to be cool like Toshiwo.”

My wife: “You and Toshiwo are completely different. Forget it.”

He was so cool.

Then, about a year before the Atacama race, suddenly it happened.

A shocking truth was told.

“Toshiwo has terminal cancer. He’s got only one year to live.”

But Toshiwo was firm. He said, “Overcoming cancer is going to be the biggest challenge in my entire life.”

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Always so strong and smiling.

“Let’s do an ‘I-survived party’ after I live through the 1 year that I was told. We should invite the doctor too!”

He would say.

Whenever we would go see him in the hospital, he would encourage us or say kind things to us.

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(The photo was taken right after Toshiwo was told about the terminal cancer. The first (original) members of Iomare visited the hospital to see him. The man in the center is Toshiwo)

Toshiwo never lost hope. He always kept his smile in the toughest situations.

It was 11 months later, when our Atacama’s challenge and the date declared by the doctor were both coming near.

Toshiwo, who was becoming weak day by day, told us about a wish he had.

“I’m a shy person – I like supporting others but I never liked being supported. But nowadays, sometimes the pain is so bad that I just can’t bear it. If you guys could cheer me up from Atacama, I believe I can endure some more.”

We were able to receive so much through Toshiwo’s uniform – many friends, many challenges, tons of wonderful experiences and bonds.

And above all, he taught us so many things.

The importance of a team, the excellence of bonds, the value of being able to challenge, and most importantly, how we should live a special life as human beings.

We must do something in return.

Wearing the uniform Toshiwo designed and put his heart and soul into, we would race as a “team”, which Toshiwo values so much.

We would reach the goal in good condition, and become world No.1.

Let’s show him that.

We truly wanted that to happen.

Another thing Toshiwo taught us.

“Always be cheerful and have a sense of humor. Live by entertaining yourself and others. ”

We did lots of serious training menus.

We saved the weight of our equipment.

We were so serious about becoming world No.1.

Still, one of our main concepts was to run in costumes.

Of course, this concept was from Toshiwo’s attitude to “have fun in any kind of situation”.

We told Toshiwo, “We are going to be world No.1 in the uniform you designed! We will run through the desert in costumes! Radish, banana, and giraffe!”

Members of Iomare, Anna and Mizuki sent dolls like these to Toshiwo’s room.

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(The dolls) 

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(Us)

Now Toshiwo was a top class designer in the fashion industry – to see him hold dolls of a radish, a banana and a giraffe appeared so odd.

But smilingly, Toshiwo was gazing at the strange dolls in his hands, saying, “The three would have so much fun running the Atacama.”

Right before we departed for Atacama, Toshiwo said:

“That patch you guys have on your backpack… That is cool. I wish I could have that on my wheelchair so that I could feel like I’m running together while cheering you guys on.”

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“You guys will attach a water bottle on your backpack while running, right? I would prefer Starbuck’s coffee!”

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(Left: Toshiwo’s partner of 7 years and wife Miki, who married him after he was told about the cancer)

He was always looking forward to our Atacama challenge like that.

But time is limited for everyone. And life can be cruel.

Several days before our departure to Atacama, Toshiwo’s wife Miki, who always had a smile on her face, informed us in tears.

“The doctor told me that Toshiwo may have only one more week left.”

I cried so much that night.

But crying won’t solve a thing.

I must do what I can.

That night, I contacted every member of the triathlon team Iomare, the team Toshiwo gave the uniform as a way to unite us.

“Tomorrow, come to Tengenji intersection where Toshiwo can see!!!”

We wanted to give the best support to Toshiwo and Miki.

Through discussions with Shin and other team members, this idea was born.

“Let’s give Toshiwo a message of support from Tengenji intersection’s overpass where Toshiwo could see from his room. Let’s all dress in the uniform Toshiwo designed.”

Despite the sudden invitation, many members joined us.

This is the photo from the Tengenji intersection.

A message to Toshiwo and his wife, Miki.

“Thank you for the bonds, Toshiwo!”

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“Thank you for the smiles, Miki!!”

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“We are all a team!!”

Toshiwo had to try hard to raise his body, but he and Miki watched our message.

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Toshiwo, Miki, thank you so much!

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On February 27th, the day we were to depart for Atacama.

“Let’s visit Toshiwo at 7am, and go to Narita airport at 8am!”

That was the plan. But…

The very day, the very morning that we were to depart for Atacama, Toshiwo, after 11 months of battling cancer, passed away in front of our eyes at 2:43 am, February 27th.

He was only 50 years old.

I mentioned this in my previous posts, but at that time I had a terrible cold and had to go to the hospital right after I came back to Japan.

Then, I went back home to prepare for the departure to Atacama several hours later.

That was when Shin called me from the hospital, and I rushed to Toshiwo’s hospital.

1 or 2 hours later, I had to say goodbye to Toshiwo.

“Toshiwo waited for me to come back from China, and then went to heaven.”

The day Toshiwo passed away, February 27th, was “KIZUNA’s Day”(Bonds’ Day) in Japan.

What a coincident.

Yes, the very word on our teamwear, “KIZUNA since 2010″.

Also our Atacama team’s name, “KIZUNA.”

Toshiwo also made sure to live past February 26th, the anniversary date when he started to go out with his loving wife, Miki.

“Toshiwo, you’re cool even when you pass away….”

A week before Atacama, I ran the Tokyo Marathon in costumes and broadcasted it via Ustream although there was a possibility that my injury might happen again.

That was because I wanted to make Toshiwo, who was getting weak day by day, feel better.

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(Shin the banana, me the radish, Mr. Utagawa the cake. The green soybean in the right is Rikimaru, who was the pilot for the flight to New York.)

Because of Shin’s idea to write “Toshiwo” on the stomach,  tons of spectators yelled “Go for it, Toshio!!”

Via Ustream, I was able to broadcast that to Toshiwo.

The spectators thought Shin the banana was Toshiwo, but all their cheering was delivered to Toshiwo via Ustream.

When I was concerned about the race due to injury or bad condition, I would always think about Toshiwo.

Even though he always had to fight the fear that he may not survive the night, he would never complain about a thing; he would just smile and be kind to everybody.

He gave me courage.

Right before the departure to Atacama, he wrote a message on our uniform, even though it was so tough for him to even raise his body.

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(Kuro couldn’t make it because of an overseas business trip. But he wrote it for Shin(left) and me(right). Because he was becoming weak, it took two full days to write this message.)

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He wrote the Kanji character “KIZUNA” right next to the rising-sun mark at the chest.

This was a message Toshiwo handwrote the night before the Tokyo Marathon.

His power was almost gone, and he was losing consciousness due to the drugs.

But he wrote it with all his remaining strength.

It was his last words.

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“If we were to eat pasta with everyone after the race, you should immediately decide and eat the one dish you want; You don’t have to try to look clever and selective.

The most important thing to do in Italy is to eat pasta with your favorite friends. That’s what I think.

I’m looking forward to the Tokyo Marathon.

Don’t push yourself too much!

Toshiwo”

Even in his last message, Toshiwo seemed to emphasize the importance of being a team.

During the past 4 days, we had small fights due to little differences in our approach.

But we shared the same objective.

“You should immediately decide and eat the one dish you want; You don’t have to try to look clever and selective.”

He wanted to tell us how to think and act as a team.

After we saw off Toshiwo several hours before the departure, we came directly to Atacama.

The baggage loss that happened in New York with Shin’s uniform was probably because Toshiwo wanted to hang around in New York.

Toshiwo’s wake was to be held at the exact same time as our stage 5′s overnight run tomorrow night.(Chile time 8am, March 7th. Japan time 8pm, March 7th)

Two “overnights” were about to begin on  opposite sides of the earth.

And Toshiwo’s funeral was 14 hours later. (Chile time 10pm, March 7th. Japan time 10am, March 8th)

“Toshiwo’s been watching us from the very start at the Atacama Race. Let’s finish stage 5 by the time Toshiwo’s funeral begins so that Toshiwo will be relieved and can go back to Tokyo.”

After stage 4, our media crew, Ino and Tomo, called us to gather around the media crew tent.

They interviewed Toshiwo before we left for Atacama. They recorded Toshiwo’s support message, and brought it here.

Toshiwo told them to show this video when members of Team KIZUNA must exert all their powers.This was the video Toshiwo handed them.

As soon as I saw Toshiwo’s gentle but strong look in the monitor, I burst into tears. Toshiwo hadn’t said a word.

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Ever since I saw off Toshiwo that morning, I tried not to cry.

Toshiwo gave a message to each one of us through the monitor.

He understood us and supported us like this with his strong but kind looks until his final moment.

Full of grace and sorrow, I could not hold my tears. But I managed to watch the message video.

“Toshiwo would be angry at us if we kept on crying. Let’s all finish tomorrow’s stage 5 in good shape. Let’s get it done by the time of Toshiwo’s funeral. After that, let’s pray in silence.”

Let’s absolutely and totally enjoy the race, and show Toshiwo our championship!!!!

(Continue to Part 14)

Part 14. Stage 5 – The Overnight Stage

That morning has arrived.

The “Overnight” stage that starts at the same time both in Japan and the opposite side of earth, Chile.

Today’s three objectives:

1. To reach the goal by the time Toshiwo’s funeral starts 14 hours later.
2. To do our best while valuing the ranks.
3. To reach the goal in costumes if we have the chance (smile in any situation!)

The starting point of stage 5 was a fascinating place (which was also the camp of stage 4). It reminded me of Uyuni salt lake.

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On the day before, we had a conversation like this:

Shin: “This is really beautiful. Hiro, let’s step into it.”

But I had experience at the Gobi Desert when I had an infection which begun from a small blister.

Me: “We should be careful! We should be prepared for tomorrow, so let’s not go in it.”

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We just took photos at the very edge.

But, as we started stage 5…

Hey, the course dives right into the lake!

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For the first three steps I thought, “Today’s a 76km stage. If I get my feet wet from the beginning, who knows what kind of trouble will happen, such as a blister. I should be careful not to get my feet wet.”

After the fourth step, though, I was already thinking “I better enjoy this!!”

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Team KIZUNA floating over the lake. (From left: Kuro, Shin, and me)

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(Shin carrying the banana, with Kuro to the right.)

We were able to run through a marvelous sight.

Because our pace was faster than ever, the runners we saw on the way were quite different.

We even outran Vlad, who was our tent mate and also ranking No.2 among all racers.

(However, he outran us again, and lead us by more than 3 hours in the end!)

I wasn’t able to sleep much for three nights in a row, but our team was in great shape.

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We ran through various landscapes.

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Our shoelaces became crusty because of the salt lake at the beginning of stage 5.

We squashed salt crystals like these with our feet.

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We even had a surprise soda pop present! It was warm, but it was so delicious. Cheers!!

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What was strange is that the usual symptom of a desert race, the swelling of our legs and hand that we didn’t experience for the past 4 days, suddenly occurred to all of us on our fifth day.

It’s a symptom that occurs when your body’s salt content is too high, or when your stomach is in bad condition and cannot take in water to the rest of the body.

“Maybe Toshiwo went back to Tokyo for the wake.”

Every one of us was keeping a very good pace. The goal was near.

Our team rank must have increased drastically.

“OK, let’s do it!!”

The time had come.

The time had come to cross the goal in costumes.

The idea was to cross the goal in costumes when we are confident we will be world champions, and goal in Toshiwo’s team uniform on the final day’s goal.

Therefore, the only chance to cross the goal in costumes was at stage 5, which is today.

And finally, we reached the goal at 16th place for stage 5.

Our record was 11 hours 30 minutes, much earlier than our original target of 14 hours.

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We were so satisfied.

14-11

“Our championship for the team race is almost for sure. We are even doing well across the entire race!”

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Kuro, who always stood in front to lead our team’s pace.

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Shin, who had the least running ability among us, but always pushed himself.

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And me, who always had difficulty in explaining what a radish was.

Three middle-aged male runners in costumes immediately burst into tears after reaching the goal. Alina, the race director, understanding the whole situation, cried together and hugged us.

“Toshiwo, I did it! We made it to the funeral.”

(Continue to Part 15)

Part 15. Stage 5-2 – The Person We Waited for Has Arrived

Completing the 11.5 hour stage 5, the only stage left was stage 6 which was scheduled for the day after next.

(Stage 5 is a two-day overnight stage. Because we were able to finish in one day, the next day we could take a rest.)

I had been so worried about my injury, but miraculously, nothing happened.

15-1

The taping on my leg got so crusty in just one week.

But I was surprised that my leg lasted.

Just one week ago at the Tokyo Marathon, the pain occurred at the 10km point.

Now, after running for 240km, nothing is happening.

“Toshiwo is probably protecting us.”

Before the race:

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After the race:

15-3

Before and during the race, I wasn’t able to sleep well.

Even after the 11.5-hour run of stage 5, I wasn’t able to sleep, partly because of the nausea which was happening again.

Maybe I was freed from the invisible pressure I was fighting all the time.

I wasn’t able to sleep, and lying down alone wouldn’t help me recover, so I walked to the goal to welcome the runners still running in the darkness.

(I would be better off seeing everyone reach the goal)

It was a long stage – one runner would reach the goal every 30 minutes or every hour.

But whenever I could see a headlight swaying in the distance, I got really excited and encouraged.

“The toughest runner is the one who spends the longest time on the course. Their courage to reach the goal in the dark should be respected…”

Then, I saw a man running at high speed.

Me: “It’s Kiyopi!!!”

Actually, there was another runner that I had encouraged to run.

Kiyohisa “Kiyopi” Takahashi, who I met via Twitter, and had dragged into the world of running.

Kiyopi had registered for the Atacama half a year ago, but he kept it a secret in order to surprise everyone. He registered under the name of “Kirikomi Takaichiro”.

Kiyopi had done a lot of training before coming to Atacama.

But he was so exhausted after finishing day 2. So much that I felt bad about bringing him here in the first place.

I said, “Kiyopi, you should focus on completing the entire race. Let’s lighten your equipment!”

I checked every single one of his equipment, and selected what gear to take and what to leave behind.

His finishing time became a lot earlier from day 3. On stage 5, he was reaching the goal before midnight. He was even doing a last spurt!

“Kiyopi!! You did it!!!”

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Me hugging Kiyopi(left) at the goal of stage 5.

Kiyopi: “Hiro, thank you for taking me with you!”

Me: “Thank you for coming!”

I don’t think it’s very often that you would so happily welcome somebody’s return like this.

After that, I kept welcoming the return of other runners at the goal curled up in a sleeping bag. I didn’t sleep until 7 am.

At dawn, I took a one-hour nap, and waited for the other runners to return.

All 20 of the Japanese runners, including the blind Mr. Hamada, was able to complete stage 5.

(All Japanese runners might be able to complete the entire race! With all these runners, this is quite unbelievable!!!)

When we finish tomorrow’s stage 6, it’s over! We would become world champion in the team race!

(Continue to Part 16)

Part 16. A New Champion Is Born

The final day, stage 6.

If we are able to finish this, we would complete the Atacama Desert’s 250km run.

At the finish line, a shower, great meal, and beer will be waiting for us! (It had been a week!)

And it would be the birth of the World Champions, No.1 Team, KIZUNA.

Everyone seemed to be relaxed on the morning of stage 6.

A photo with our tent mates for the week.

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The backpack which weighed 7.5kg a week before had shrunk so much that the radish looked like the main gear.

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(The white scarf-like thing is the radish costume)

And the final stage started.

So many things happened during and before the Atacama Race.

Recalling everything that took place, step by step we headed toward the goal, the City of Saint Pedro de Atacama.

Team KIZUNA started from a small joke.

Each of us overcame tough hypoxic trainings, handled work, and overcame injuries and illnesses before coming here.

It was probably a small miracle that the three of us were even able to stand at the starting line in good condition.

Even during the race, all three of us were able to head toward the goal without any serious injuries or illnesses.

During the race, we sometimes quarreled with each other.

But most of the time we were able to communicate and understand each other.

Most of the time we were able to bring out the good in each other.

As a result, our bond, our KIZUNA became tighter than ever.

Above all, we were grateful to Toshiwo, who bonded us together, and taught and encouraged us so much.

We were in Toshiwo’s uniform.

We had Toshiwo’s photograph in our hands.

“Toshiwo, we are about to reach the goal. We are about to become world champions because of you.”

(I won’t cry until I reach the goal.)

I told myself. But it was so hard to bear.

I pulled myself together, and kept on moving.

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Finally I saw the sign for the city of Atacama.

The goal is just ahead of us.

After reaching the 250km point, the moment had come.

“Let’s hold hands and run to the finish line!”

So many runners and staff were waiting for us cheering wildly.

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“We did it!!!!!”

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Finally!

Finally!!

The time has come.

Team KIZUNA is the world champion!!

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16-7

Holding Toshiwo’s photo.

Thank you so much, Toshiwo…

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Thank you Shin and Kuro, who fought the battle with me.

Thank you Ino, Tomo, Imaoka, who joined the battle together as the media crew.

We did it!!

We finally did it!!!

We’re the No.1 team in the world!!

Thank you so much!!!

Only because of everyone’s support were we able to accomplish this.

I was overwhelmed with thankfulness, and got choked up.

I couldn’t stop the tears falling out of my eyes.

To all the staff and volunteers who manage this race: thank you for staying with us in the desert and supporting us at all times.

To all my friends who supported us: your support gave us the strength. We were able to move forward because of you. I cannot thank you enough.

To our families and our ancestors watching over us: thank you so much for creating a body and soul that can participate in such a race.

To my wife who always supports my various crazy activities: thank you so much. Although I am always out for work or races or drinks, I really appreciate your support. Please forgive me for only giving you words. Thank you.

And…

“Toshiwo, we did it! We won and became World Champions in your uniform!”

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Toshio once said, “Sometimes the peak of pain and anxiety is so bad that I just can’t bear it.”

He is probably watching over us with the exact same smile he showed on that morning after he said those words.

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Thank you for everything - your cool looks,

your smile that you show all the time,

your kindness and courage that would even move the hospital staff,

your wonderful “KIZUNA” uniform,

the spirit of our teamwork,

and above all, your wonderful way of living as a human being.

Finally, we are the world champions for the team race!!!

This was accomplished by everybody’s support and bond (KIZUNA).

Thank you!!!

(Continue to Part 17)

Part 17. Increasing Shouts and Cheers for “KIZUNA”

After our team’s goal, one by one, runners reached the goal.

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The blind runner, Mr. Hamada, is coming to the goal with Mr.Kim!

There was a special moment after the goal.

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Every Japanese and Korean runner gathered around Mr. Hamada and Mr. Kim, and shouted together “Korea! Japan! Korea! Japan!” and took a commemorative photo.

The shout gradually changed to “Asia! Asia! Asia!”. Then runners from China, Taiwan, Thailand and Malaysia joined in too to take a commemorative photo.

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International border disputes, border lines… Nothing mattered among the runners who ran towards the same 250km goal together.

The final stage 6 ended like that.

But there was another important stage left.

The award ceremony at the race’s after-party, where I saw the Italian team in 2011.

To tell you the truth, I prepared my award ceremony’s speech before the race.

Maybe this is why my left neck gets so stiff because I think too much.

What I wanted to do was even more than what the Italian team did in the Sahara race in 2011.

I wanted to do the speech as a team too.

The leader did the speech alone when the Italian team won the 2011 Sahara race.

But with Team KIZUNA, every member was a leader at some point. Our team was a team with everyone being the leader, and we won as world champions.

We split our championship speech among the three of us so we could do it together.

We prepared a draft, discussed it, edited it, and thoroughly practiced the English pronunciation by speaking out loud.

At the ceremony with every runner and staff present, we displayed Toshiwo’s photograph on a computer and gave the following speech:

Me:

Thank you so much…

At first, very important thing…

During this race, we were very happy to be cheered up like “Go Boys”", “Good luck Boys!”.

But unfortunately, we are not “Boys”.

We are almost 40th, not 14th :P

Anyway, Our team name is “KIZUNA”.

“KIZUNA” is a Japanese word which means something can tie people  together emotionally, like a “bond” in English.

This wear is our KIZUNA for both all of us and with “him” (pointing at Mr. Toshio’s photo).

Shin:

He is the designer of our team ware, as well as our friend, elder brother, who taught us the importance of ” KIZUNA “

He had been fighting against cancer for 11months, and passed away last week , just the same day we left Tokyo for Atacama, for this race….

He was only 50years old….

It was his pushing us whole the way , that enabled us to get this great prize..

So we would like to pray for him , for 5seconds..

It would be great , if u could pray together for him..

Kuro:

Completing this race as a team, we got more experiences than expected.

We learned how difficult the team management under tough condition is.

However, once we got over the difficulties, we could enhance hour team abilities more than sum of individual abilities.

Thanks to my team mates, we got a successful result, as well strong friendship among us, our KIZUNA.

Also, we’d like to thank you for all competitors and staff.

Top rankers would open undeveloped wild course, all the runners encouraged us showing their fighting spirits toward goal, and, all the staff provided us great supports all the time.

Hiro:

Lifetime is limited.

But, this is why we do our challenge.

We really thank to each of our friends, family, and ancestors that we were able to do our challenge, like this crazy Atacama Crossing.

Lastly, we would like to thank to all the staff of Racing The Planet, thanks.

After our speech, many runners, including the top rank players, stood up and gathered around us.

The site was filled with everyone shouting and cheering out loud, “KIZUNA!! KIZUNA!! KIZUNA!!”

I was totally touched and got goose bumps.

“Toshiwo, are you seeing this? You must be watching. The uniform that you created, and the spirit you injected, ‘KIZUNA’ – everybody from around the world is cheering and shouting it as the world No.1 team’s name! Thank you so much!!!”

Many runners would say,

“You boys were great! Congratulations!”

“I was so moved by your speech, boys!!”

(I told everyone not to call us ‘boys’ since we’re almost 40. But I sense they are saying it on purpose. I feel love from their way of saying it!)

Toshiwo is probably holding his thumbs up with a smile on his face like this.

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We did it!!!

We are the first Japanese team to become world champions in a desert race!!!

We did it!!!

(Continue to Part 18)

Part 18. Weaving a Dream

(For those who visited this blog for the first time – this is the last chapter. You can read this blog from the beginning here)

Team KIZUNA’s world championship was accomplished through many emotions and encounters with people.

But bottom line, we were so lucky to be able to participate in such an experience.

Life is short.

We don’t have a clue when it will end.

Death is a very sad event.

But this is why we strive and challenge each day.

Because our lifetime is limited, we should accept the great spirit and emotions which were weaved through fate.

We must also weave it along to the next generation.

If someday, somewhere, our challenge would inspire others to challenge, nothing would make us happier.

Although we never know when we will die, we could say, “We did it!”

I want to be able to say that at all times.

I should live my time doing my utmost, doing things right.

This is how I feel.

Lastly…

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Thank you for reading such a long story!!!

[Footnotes]

0. You can see the photos taken by Thiago, the photographer who came to report about the blind runner from Brazil. Please take a look. They are very touching.

I love Thiago’s warm and heartfelt character.

I will never forget the scene when Thiago and the blind runner from Brazil were hugging each other after completing the entire race.

Photos of the blind runners from Brazil: 

Atacama-Crossing-2013-TD-457

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photos of the entire race (We are in it too. We borrowed some for this blog):

Atacama-Crossing-2013-TD-405

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1. Abridged video of the press release about Team KIZUNA becoming World Champions:

2. Video of our speech at the pep rally before departing to Atacama:

You can watch us give a presentation (90 minutes long)

3. The slide we used at the pep rally:

4. Contact for inquiries regarding our press release:

augment5 Inc. (Person in charge: Ino, Baba)

Email : atacama2013@augment5.com

TEL : +81-3-6407-0854 / +81-90-3427-2321 (Ino)

5. Shin’s blog about this race (in Japanese):

「絆。アタカマ砂漠 チーム世界一への軌跡。