A Decade in Marunuma

Aug. 23, 2013

XTERRA celebrates the 10th running of the XTERRA Japan Championship in the mystic, fog-shrouded mountains of Marunuma on Saturday.

Marunuma LakeWhile the first race held in the Nikko National Forest back in 2004 the foundation for its success was formed a few years earlier.

“It was the summer of 1998 when one of my American friends showed me an interesting article,” said Taro Shirato, the organizer for XTERRA Japan and the first Japanese athlete to race an XTERRA.

“I had heard of the event but had never seen such exciting pictures with a beautiful ocean, red clay, clear blue sky and sweat.  It was from the XTERRA World Championship in Maui and all of a sudden I was intrigued with the article and in October of that year, I tried XTERRA in Maui for the first time and was deeply fascinated by it.  What most stimulated me was ‘playing in nature,’  and getting dirty with sand clouds and struggling to run on the beach where most people lay down to relax. People think ‘what an idiot!’ but this idiotic adventure made me feel great! It reminded me of my childhood. It was like the first time I started riding a bicycle, I wanted to explore the world and as a child I loved to jump into mud puddles.  These un-ruled adventures thrilled me.”

It was this passion that led Shirato – known as the “King of Triathlon” in Japan – to introduce XTERRA to his fellow countrymen.

“I wanted more people to have the chance to try the adventurous game of XTERRA and enjoy nature,” said Shirato.  “XTERRA is not just for fun but it is for learning. It is a way to discover yourself.  The more you try, the smarter you become.  The real joy for me has been to see new communities and friendships develop out of this culture of XTERRA.”

XTERRA has been equally blessed to experience the culture of Japan.  The race site is four hours away from the bustling metropolis of Tokyo at the Kanko So Resort – a traditional Japanese inn with hot springs remotely situated in a protected natural preserve 4,000 feet above sea level.

The location has been praised by competitors from all over the world as being the most spiritual and scenic spot on the entire XTERRA World Tour.

XTERRA Hall of Famer Jamie Whitmore won the first four races from 2004-2007 and spread the good news of Marunuma wherever she traveled.

Indeed, all foreigners who visit transform into ambassadors for the race.  The latest addition to the crew is XTERRA Pro Dan Hugo from South Africa, who 24 hours into his visit proclaimed that this course, this experience, is “extreme in every sense – the challenge, the culture, the beauty.”

The race itself combines a one-mile swim in the calm waters of Marunuma Lake with an adrenaline-ridden 16-mile mountain bike and a ridiculously wild 6-mile trail run.

The bike course was crafted by a Nagano-based former pro mountain biker named Paul Chetwynd, who turned 52 today.  He bush-wacked his way through thick mountain foliage to connect to rocky, picturesque hiking trails carved out of the mountainside around the lake.  It’s been called by all who have ridden it the most technical, thrilling, and unforgettable route imaginable.

The start list for Saturday’s race is filled with colorful characters. Certainly the most compelling story line belongs to former XTERRA Warrior award winner Taeyoong Kim.  “Kim-san” survived a black bear attack while pre-riding this course with Mieko Carey last year, and this is his first race since.

“I’m a little nervous, not about the race, but about the bear,” said Kim, who suffered deep cuts on his arm and leg and a bite mark on his chest.

Local officials have been setting off cannon blasts around the mountains to scare away any local bears.  They’ve also hung portable radios on trees all around the bike course set to broadcasts of baseball games and sports-talk radio.  Competitors have bells attached to their bikes to signal their presence.

There are a pair of former XTERRA World Champions in the race – Kimiko Matsuda who won the 60+ division in 2009 and Keiji Matsuba who was the first Japanese athlete to win a world title when he captured the 45-49 division in 2002.

The elite race will pit Hugo against the defending XTERRA Japan champ Takahiro Ogasawara and Australian adventure racer Jarad Kohlar.  In the women’s race Mieko Carey will look to win her fourth Japan title in five years against Yasuko Miyazaki and Aussie adventure racer Emma Francis.

There are many athletes to celebrate, including Makoto Shimamoto who has done every race here in Marunuma since 2004.

After the race athletes soak in the “onsen” bath - a natural hot spring with extremely hot and cleansing volcanic water that the Kanko So Resort is famous for.  Then comes the feast – complete with curry and noodles and sautéed beef, succulent pork, hot corn on the cob and ice cold beer – followed by Taiko drummers and a Japanese tribe jamming out African drum beats and ritual dances for everyone to enjoy.

Past XTERRA Japan Champions


Year Men Women
2012 Takahiro Ogasawara Shonny Vanlandingham
2011 Conrad Stoltz Mieko Carey
2010 Ian Leitch Mieko Carey
2009 Sam Gardner Mieko Carey
2008 Sam Gardner Renata Bucher
2007 Nico Pfitzenmaier Jamie Whitmore
2006 Yasuo Takahashi Jamie Whitmore
2005 Yu Yumoto Jamie Whitmore
2004 Hideo Fukui Jamie Whitmore