Thirty years ago, when she was 24, Junko Kazukawa left Japan for the United States.
“I didn’t want to be an ordinary female in Japan,” said Kazukawa. “The expectation was to go to junior college or work for a few years and then get married and have kids. But I like challenge in my life. I wanted to go someplace where no one knew me. I woke up one day and said ‘Let’s do this.’”
Rising to the challenge is a consistent theme in Kazukawa’s life. As a kid, she never liked phys ed in school and typically got a score of “2” on a 1-5 scale.
“One semester, I got a ‘1,’” said Kazukawa. “I was so mad at my teacher. So mad because this was not good.”
Kazukawa decided to change things around and began playing basketball.
“This was a big change for me,” she said. “I kind of got hooked on it.”
When Kazukawa went to high school, she changed the group of friends she socialized with and made exercise a priority. Rather than being something to dread, she began looking forward to it. When she went off to college, where she studied English, she started running to keep her weight down.
“I always felt way behind everyone else,” says Kazukawa. “I don’t have a naturally-gifted athletic ability so I try really hard. That makes me want to change things and make things happen. I decided that I wanted to study more about the body and training.”
In college, Kazukawa majored in kinesiology and went on to get her Masters degree in exercise physiology. Today she is a personal trainer and coach, which is a long way from the girl who hated PE. She is also an incredible ultra runner, which again was an accomplishment born out of challenge.
In 2005, Kazukawa was training for the Leadville 100-mile mountain bike race, but was tired during training. Two weeks before the race, she found the source of her fatigue – she had breast cancer. She had a lumpectomy and radiology and bounced back to normal. In the meantime, she wanted to do the Leadville 100 mile running race.
However, she would have to deal with cancer again before that happened.
“The cancer came back in 2009 and this time, I had to have a mastectomy and chemotherapy,” remembers Kazukawa.
Her chemo ended one month before the New York City Marathon, which she was already signed up for. Kazukawa decided to do it anyway.
“All of my friends told me to rest, and I said that if I feel sick in the marathon, I’ll stop. But I was enjoying the crowds and ended up finishing in four hours and thirty minutes.”
Kazukawa was so inspired that she signed up for the Leadville 100-miler and raised $6,000 for the Susan Koman Foundation. Not only did Leadville inspire Kazukawa to go longer. It inspired her to get off the roads and onto the dirt.
“Anything can happen on the trails. It’s more challenging because it’s not just about your physical strength but about the environment. There’s heat, terrain, and pain. Sometimes you throw up. But there is also a tremendous sense of peace out in nature. I feel comfort in trail running.”
It’s almost as if trail running and ultra running are ways for Kazukawa to transform the pain cancer and life doled out into something that can be conquered and vanquished. For her, trail running is eighty percent mental.
“You have to discipline yourself,” says Kazukawa. “If I am doing a 25-mile training run, then at the end, I make myself run two more miles. If there is a day I can’t do 100 meters more, I try to squeeze my energy out anyway. Your mind will always tell you to stop, so I just stop those thoughts as soon as they start. Because once you experience the moment of accomplishment at the end of a race, it’s really amazing. You need to experience it to feel it.”
While many couldn’t handle the training, the physical pain, and the mental challenge, Kazukawa maintains that trail running has changed her life. She feels more satisfied, more focused and more motivated. She also has a whole host of friends who share her passion for nature, the trails, and transforming adversity into something sweet. You will find a whole crew of them out on the trails at the XTERRA Golden Gate Canyon 8/22K on September 23rd in Golden, Colorado.
“If I didn't have cancer, I don’t know that I would like the challenge of trail running,” says Kazukawa. “Bad thing happened to me. Good thing happened to me. Sitting and crying doesn’t get you anywhere. That’s the same as running on the trails. You can’t stop. You have to keep moving.”
Learn more about the XTERRA Golden Gate Canyon 8/22K.
Photo provided by Junko Kazukawa, courtesy Alexis Berg