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The Unsuspecting Trail Blazer

An interview with one of Japan’s top female trail runners: Chigaya Mase

 “I baked these Danishes today. Please, try one,” says Chigaya Mase, as she places a cup of freshly brewed coffee and a bun-filled dish onto the table in front of me. An apron-clad, bread-baking, soft-spoken mother of two, she looks, acts and sounds like a typical Japanese housewife. But don’t be fooled, because she’s not just any old typical Japanese housewife.

Her soft looks and modest demeanor can make it difficult to believe, but Chigaya is actually a tough-as-nails, fiercely competitive trail runner who has won some of the longest and toughest races in Japan. The steep and mountainous 43-km. Kita-Tanzawa Mountain Race and the 72-km. Hasegawa Tsuneo Cup Mountain Endurance Race, among Japan’s most difficult and prestigious trail races, are just a couple of the many victories under her belt.

Last year in August, Chigaya also managed to become the overall winner of the seven-day, 415-km. Trans-Japan Alps Race, a brutal non-stop mountain survival event open only to the best and, in my opinion, the craziest of mountain runners.

Starting from the Sea of Japan, racers run up and over the Northern, Central and Southern Japanese Alps mountain ranges where some of the peaks reach more than 3,000 meters, carrying their own food and water and bivouacking overnight. After running for seven days, 10 hours and 48 minutes, Chigaya reached the finish line in first place, a Herculean feat by a “typical” Japanese housewife.

‘Actually…I can’t run very fast…’

As one of the country’s top trail runners who has beat out many women and—for that matter—men, Chigaya at the age of 39 is still going strong. I couldn’t help myself. I wanted to be let in on her big secret. Does she train like a maniac? What is it that makes her so strong and what is it that makes her so darn fast?

“Actually…I’m not that strong and I can’t run very fast…” was Chigaya’s rather humble answer. Was she joking? Or maybe she was she just being modest? After talking to her more though, I quickly realizes she was neither. She actually meant it.

While in school, Chigaya was not part of the track and field club, did not partake in any competitive sports and did not do any type of athletic training in particular. She did, however, love to go up into the mountains and often went on trips with her “Wandervogel” Mountain Climbing club during high school. It was during this time she developed a love and deep respect for the mountains.

“I truly, truly love being up in the mountains” she exclaims, “and our family often goes hiking and spends a lot of time outdoors on the weekends.”

Chigaya’s husband, a high school teacher, is also an avid outdoorsman who enjoys the mountains just as much as she does, and it was one of her husband’s friends who invited her along to a grass-roots running competition called the “Shizenjin Race.” While running across the trails, boulders, along a river and sometimes through the river, she realized this is what she loves to do and was completely hooked. Seven years have passed since, and Chigaya is still running.

She loves to feel the nature around her, she loves the way time flows while in the mountains and on the trails, and she loves to be able to run far and run long, so she can see and experience more of the incredible scenery around her. The one thing she does hate, however, is to train, and she believes she does not train nearly enough.
This, I find rather suspicious. How can one possibly be so strong without training?

‘…Her weekly fun runs are about 3-4 hours long’

“I don’t like to run for just the sake of training, so I often run while doing things I have to do anyway, such as going to the grocery store. The store is actually quite near, but I take a few detours along the way and run for an hour or so before reaching the grocery store.”

Once or twice a week, Chigaya also hits the trails of Tama Kyuryou, a local forest near her home. When I asked her how near was close, her reply was, “It’s about an hour road run from my house.”

“And you run for how long in the forest?” I ventured.

“Only an hour or two.”

“And then you run home again, I take it?”

“Yes!” she replies cheerfully.

Doing a few quick calculations in my head, I realize her weekly “fun” runs are about three or four hours long. And this, is not training?

Chigaya also enjoys mountain biking and road biking and casually mentions that she often likes to go to Enoshima by road bike. By now, I was getting the hang of things and casually asked how far Enoshima was and how long it took for her to ride there and back. She thought about it a bit and came up with a somewhat vague answer.

“Umm…I’m not sure. I’ve never really measured.” Actually, round trip it takes at least four hours…

‘…good ’ol pushups, but only 10 a day’

Chigaya doesn’t really do any weight training but admits she does a few strengthening exercises. Sit-ups with the legs held up in the air and of course a few good ’ol pushups…but only 10 a day.

“It’s not nearly enough is it?” she bashfully says. She walks to her closet and pulls out a big rubber balance ball.

“I was told Asian people tend to have weaker core muscles compared to Caucasians. Caucasians are born with naturally stronger core muscles and there are relatively fewer people who have problems with bent backs as they grow old. It’s important for us Asians to particularly focus on strengthening the core.”

She demonstrates an abdominal exercise whereby she places both feet on the balance ball and both hands on the ground. She then pulls one leg in towards her stomach while balancing on the ball.
“Here, do you want to try?”

“Uh, no that’s okay.” I mutter. (I did give it a try later though in the privacy of my own home and nearly killed myself as my feet rolled off the unstable ball. And they call these things “Stability Balls?”) Finally, she ’fessed up to what she believes to be one of the most important things that drastically improved her running: walking.

“About a year ago, I had some problems with my back and went to see a seitai (therapist) recommended by a friend. Apparently many athletes go there,” said Chigaya.

“Seitai” is different from the Western chiropractor, massage therapist or physiotherapist and, although there are many methods, generally it’s a way to reorder or realign the body and ki (life energy). It was here she learned to effectively use the muscles in the back of her legs and buttocks, first while walking and then while biking and doing other types of physical activities.

“People tend to rely on their quadriceps and calf muscles which are much smaller than the hamstrings. When I started to really use these larger muscle groups, though, it made a huge difference.”

I asked her to demonstrate the walk.

“It’s a bit difficult to get a hang of it at first. You kind of have to move your hips and bum. Like this.”

I awkwardly followed while trying to copy her movements, then we both walked back and forth across the tatami mat floor, swaying our behinds.

“This is great for the girls because it’ll really make your bottom smaller! The key is to always be conscious of walking with the right muscles until it becomes a natural movement,” she said.

I enthusiastically take notes.

“The other thing I do is walk for about 20-30 minutes before I start running while consciously trying to use the right muscles. After running, I walk for another 20 minutes or so.” It sounds a bit like the warm-up and cool-down from the famous Maffetone endurance training method (although she’d never heard of Maffetone).

We get to the topic of speed training, and not surprisingly, Chigaya doesn’t do any speed training. She does however, sprint alongside her children when they’re out riding their bikes. These “sprint workouts,” as I would call them, are apparently pretty tough and are the ones that leave her totally out of breath. Sprint workouts while chasing her kids kills two birds with one stone. Impressive.

Another interesting fact is that, in this day and age, when large screen plasma televisions and Play Stations are all the rage, the Mase family does not own a single TV set. She doesn’t own a computer, doesn’t use the internet and doesn’t even have an e-mail address (although, she does have a cell phone).

The family enjoys a simple lifestyle, unburdened by the excesses of technology, which is in itself an almost unbelievable feat for someone living in and around the high-tech city of Tokyo. In the family’s bright and sunny home, instead of a TV, there’s a wood-burning stove in the living room that heats the house and, instead of playing video games in front of a TV, her children, 8-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son, are usually outside playing.
Family outings are often hiking trips to the mountains, during which, sometimes, Chigaya gets dropped off at the bottom and then runs up the mountain to catch up with her husband and kids who drive to the top.

After all this, I realize just why this woman is so physically strong. Mountain running, though, requires more than just physical endurance. After many hours of running, there’s a certain mental strength and sheer willpower you need to be able to dig up when taking on yet another steep climb or knee-jarring descent. As proven through her running accomplishments, Chigaya has an enormous amount of mental fortitude. Where does this come from? How does she keep pushing through those tough times when the body is screaming “stop?” She grasps for words, somehow trying to explain what it is that keeps her running hard.

“I don’t have very much confidence. Before, when I ran, I ran because I desperately wanted to gain acceptance and recognition from my parents.” Chigaya’s parents were extremely strict, and she felt she needed to prove something to them.

“I still don’t have very much confidence, but now I run, because I want to prove to myself that I can do it.” Interestingly enough, a fast time and a place on the podium isn’t necessarily “success” in her eyes. She has her own personal goal for each race and, if she’s unable to achieve what she had set out to do, she admits the crushing disappointment in herself plunges her into a very deep dark hole (although, of course, she always manages to climb out of it).

When Chigaya runs, she runs for enjoyment but she also runs to answer something deep within herself. After recovering from injuries sustained during the seven-day Trans-Japan Alps race last year, Chigaya is back with a vengeance and has an impressive line-up of trail running and cycling races planned for 2007 including The North Face 50-K Hakone Trail Race, the Tokyo 100-km Mountain Endurance Race, the Utsukushigahara Hill Climb, the Ontake Super Triathlon, the Kita-Tanzawa 12-hour Mountain Endurance Race, the OSJ Sky Marathon in Ontake and the Hasegawa Cup 72-km Endurance Race.

I asked her what overseas races she has planned.

“None, right now.” she says, “Actually, I’ve never even been outside of Japan.”

Chigaya hopes one day, to be able to participate in a trail running race overseas.

“Perhaps,” she mentions, “one of the races in the Sky Marathon series.” Although, running ultras would seem to be a natural progression given the long distance running events in which she has excelled, apparently her interest does not appear to lie with ultras. In fact, her ultimate goal is to compete in an Ironman Triathlon before she reaches the age of 45.

“I suppose I’ll need to learn how to swim first, though.” she laughs.

As I thanked her for the interview and prepared to be on my way, Chigaya handed me a copy of the recipe for the Danishes I so raved about, and she gave me a few pointers.

“You can substitute the chocolate with almond paste if you want. You should be able to find them at almost any grocery store, although I know of a really good one in Machida…”

So, next time you meet a “typical” Japanese housewife, remember not to judge the book by its cover, because you never know. That sweet, shy housewife may just blow by even the toughest of you, leaving you in her trail of dust.

Pauline Kitamura is originally from Canada and has lived in Japan for four years. After a decade-long “stint” in finance and accounting, she hung up the business suit to pursue her passion for the outdoors. She now works as a bilingual freelance writer and is the Race & Events Editor at Outdoor Japan. Her current passions include trail running, adventure racing, snowboarding, mountain biking and kayaking.

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