For the first time since 2013 the XTERRA Japan Championship, thanks to long-time racer turned race director Makoto Shimamoto, is back in the mystic, fog-shrouded mountains of Marunuma.
The location, which hosted XTERRA racing from 2004-to-2013, has been praised by competitors from all over the world as being the most spiritual and scenic spot on the entire world tour.
Indeed, all foreigners who visit transform into ambassadors for the race. The last time XTERRA was in Marunuma, XTERRA Hall of Famer Dan Hugo won the men’s elite race and quickly proclaimed that the course and experience, was “extreme in every sense – the challenge, the culture, the beauty.”
The venue 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 race itself combines a 1,200-meter 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 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 Sunday’s race is filled with colorful characters, including Fabiola Corona from Mexico who is competing in her third XTERRA race in three weeks. She won XTERRA Dominican Republic on August 31 and finished 3rd at the XTERRA Pan Am Championship in Utah on Saturday.
“I’m addicted to XTERRA,” smiled Corona. “I’m loving the adventure, and Japan is wonderful. I love the culture and I love the food. Everything is with seaweed and I love that.”
Corona is the favorite to win the women’s elite race, but first she’ll have to get past five-time XTERRA Japan Champion Mieko Carey.
“I am so excited to be back with the XTERRA community at one of my favorite places on earth,” said Carey, who will be racing XTERRA for the first time since giving birth to twins three years ago.
“It has been challenging to train, raise two babies, and work, but I’ve been working hard at it,” she said. “I may not be in the best shape, but I think I’m in the best shape since giving birth. It’s a good thing I know this course so well, maybe that will give me a little advantage. But really, I just want to show my twins what I love, and I want to cross the finish line smiling with them.”
Leela Hancox from Australia will also mix it up in the women’s field.
For the men, last year’s XTERRA Pan Am Tour Champion Kieran McPherson tops the list of contenders. He took the trip to Marunuma with fellow Kiwi XTERRA racer Alex Roberts.
Those two will face off against two strong XTERRA athletes from Japan, Akihiko Maeda and Yoshitaka Nakahara, and three up-and-comers from Taiwan – Yen-Ching Chiang, Chung-Yin Lin, and Yuan-Keng Hsu.
“I love this place, it’s beautiful green forest and fresh air,” said Renata Bucher, the XTERRA Asia-Pacific technical director who also won here back in 2008. “Makoto and his team are doing a great job and there is a lot of excitement for the return of XTERRA here in Marunuma. The Japanese style, culture & food is simply incredible.”
After the race athletes can 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 a 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 ritual dances for everyone to enjoy.
XTERRA Japan is the fourth stop on the Asia-Pacific Tour, which culminates next Sunday at the inaugural XTERRA Kunming in the Yunnan Province of China.