Autumn Views and Elevation
Shinshu Tenku Trail Run Race Report
November 2022 | James Mallion
For the millions of runners in Japan, 2022 has been a good year for events and races to gradually get back on track and get people involved again.
This past June I had previously really enjoyed running my first trail race, the Nariki Forest Trail Race and was eager to see what else Samurai Sports had on offer. As I mentioned in my previous race report on the Nariki race, despite living in northern Chiba prefecture and not having easy access to trails and mountains, I find myself drawn towards nature rather than roads when it comes to races and events.
The 4th annual Altra Shinshu Tenku Trail Race was organized by the KFC Triathlon Club on October 23, 2022 in the small town of Omi, Nagano Prefecture. The last time this race was held was 2 years ago in October 2020. This year for the first time, the race was divided into two categories, a regular division advertised as 28km and a long division pegged at 35km.
I chose the long course featuring approximately 4100ft (1250m) of elevation gain and loss. I had never attempted to run a race up and down a mountain course to this extent before. Would I be able to do it? I wasn’t entirely sure, but I was plenty excited to find out!
- What: 4th Altra Shinshu Tenku Trail Race
- When: October 23 (Sunday), 2022
- Where: Omi village, Nagano Prefecture
- Who: Around 200 entrants (104 in the long division and 102 in the regular division)
- Last Edition: October 25, 2020 (2nd Altra Shinshu Tenku Trail Race; 20KM division only)
The race venue was held at the charming mountain inn Schoengarten Omi, which is about 5km from Hijiri Kogen station on the JR Shinoni line. The station itself is very local and small. There are no ticket machines and no IC card reader when you arrive – just a single elderly gentleman working the ticket window. During non-peak hours trains only depart from the station around once an hour.
Ideally, athletes coming to this race would drive to the venue or stay at the on-site hotel the night before. However, coming from northern Chiba, I opted for public transportation and rode the Hokuriku Shinkansen from Omiya to Nagano, the entire trip took about three hours.
The start times for the races were 9:30 am for the long division and 10:00 am for the regular course. My planned route had me arrive at Hijiri Kogen station just after 8:00 am, upon which there were free shuttles taking athletes and supporters to the race venue.
A Race with Some Personality
Compared to some trail races closer to Tokyo with entrants in the mid to high hundreds or road races, which often have entrants in the thousands, the Shinshu Tenku Trail Race only had around 200 participants, almost evenly divided between the long and regular course. The compact number of runners made checking in, getting ready, and conversing with other racers easy.
Upon arriving at the venue, we were serenaded by alphorn players – a unique welcome that probably won’t ever be replicated elsewhere in Japan. Scattered throughout the start area, small booths sold running goods, a local farmer sold bags of Nagano’s famous apples, and a tent featured a variety of shoes by Altra Running, the headline race sponsor.
Everything pre-race was smooth and operated at a relaxed and leisurely pace. Because I was roughly an hour early I could take my time to warm up, use the toilet without waiting, and even get my legs taped professionally.
The Course and My Race
In previous renditions, the racecourse was about 20 km with around 70 percent on the road. Based on feedback, the organizers made several changes to the 2021 race, including the introduction of two separate distance categories and the inclusion of more trail segments. Unfortunately, the 2021 race became victim to the pandemic and was canceled. Now, the 2022 Shinshu Tenku Trail Race had taken its place – new and improved!
Compared to the regular course that simply traveled alongside the Kitayama Dam, the long course swooped into local visitor destinations, including Hijirikohan park, Hijiri Kogen ski resort, and Lake Hijiri. Not only does the long course feature spectacular views of the lake, autumn foliage, and surrounding mountains, this scenic route added an additional 6 km and over 3000ft (915m) of climbing. As a bonus, a Japanese wadaiko drumming group enthusiastically (and rhythmically) cheered runners.
Regardless of the course, all roads lead to the peak of Mt. Hijiri at about 4700 ft (1430m). A condensed downhill section returns athletes onto the trails, through apple orchards, and back to the start line.
As challenging as it was, I appreciated the varied terrain. With about half the course on road surfaces, many runners opted for road shoes. However, the off-road segments were often slick, muddy, or contained loose gravel and rocks. The extra support and grip offered by trail shoes is worth considering.
A winning combination of the relatively low number of participants and the often wide-open roads and trails gave me the freedom to run with, pass, and get passed by other runners without congestion or concern.
While the cutoff times of the two courses were generous at 5 hours for the regular and 6 hours for the long course, the initial 8km checkpoint cutoff is a mere 75 minutes. also features about 1575 ft (480m) of elevation gain on a mix of trails and roads. Long course participants who did not make this cutoff time were bumped down to the regular course, something I did not want to do.
Much of the race flowed in a combination of power hiking, jogging the climbs, and bombing the downhills. The final push up to the peak of Mt. Hijiri was slow and painful, but we were treated to a small band of local alphorn players at the top to keep spirits high.
Personally speaking, the final 6 km or so down the mountain and back to the race venue may have been the highlight of the race. I had lost the lead pack in this segment but was still ahead of the next runners, so I flew solo through the trails, the mud, the roads and the orchards on the way to the goal.
A Great Day in the Mountains
My day overall was everything I hoped for. The weather was amazing and the course was scenic, intimate, varied, and challenging. The stunning views this race provided of autumn foliage, the northern alps and the apple fields all added to the special day. Throw in a group of alphorn players and a local drumming group on course to cheer you on and it made things even more unforgettable.
Because of the elevation gain and distance, I wouldn’t suggest the Tenku Trail for beginners, but if you’re an intermediate runner who is used to hills on either roads or trails, I’d say give it a go as the cut offs are pretty generous.
For those in the Kanto area, the race is a significant commitment of time and money getting to the venue, but well worth it in my estimation. Racer swag was also exceptional and consisted of a buff, a stylish long sleeve tee, a delicious hotel lunch and of course, a fresh Nagano apple. For those lucky or skilled enough to finish in the top 6 in this race, you also came away with free trail shoes from title sponsor, Altra.
I surprised myself in this race by pushing harder than I was used to and I finished better than I had expected in the race. In the future, I’ll make it a point to spend more time on running uphill and making sure I know the course well enough that I don’t have to depend on markings or other runners.
There’s a lot to like about the Altra Shinshu Tenku Trail Race. I truly enjoyed that the bulk of the course was wide enough to run alongside and converse with people instead of being stuck single file behind groups of runners. I would definitely recommend this event for those looking for something a bit less crowded and a little different in terms of mixed terrain.
And besides, where else in Japan are you going to have alphorns cheering you on during your race?
About the Author
Coming from Canada, James has always been interested in the outdoors, mountains, skiing and climbing but his passion for running really took off as the Corona pandemic forced people to stay at home. Now, as normalcy starts to creep back into the world and organized races are a thing again, James seeks to challenge his mind and body on the roads, mountains and trails.
James is also a big movie and music buff, he hosts a podcast interviewing creatives on inspiration, he’s a sports fan of both team and endurance sports and a bit of a craft beer aficionado. Look to James for the perfect long run playlist or the best brew recommendation after you finish your next marathon or trail race.