So we went for a nice little Sunday afternoon run and this happens….

21 Aug 2021

…….. “This turned out to be a really bad decision because not only did we not get back before sunset, we also got badly lost. Everything changes and looks different at night…….”

It was a lovely Spring day on the Yokosuka base in Yokohama Japan when we ventured out to join our friendly little running group for a Sunday afternoon toot. It had been a while since we had all met up due to the covid situation, so we were happy to get together on such a beautiful April day, with blue skies, and 18c!

On this day we had a ‘themed’ run which is why so many of us have a Hawaiian flare going on. The run was nice with more than the usual amount of “shiggy” AKA mountain paths.

The Hayama Hash House Harriers is the name of our hashing club and the way it works is there is a “hare” who sets a mystery trail with chalk and flour and the rest of us are “hashers” who follow the chalk marks to the end of the trail. It’s the hare’s job to make it as scenic as possible with points of interest and nice views and it also includes several false trails and checkpoints where hashers must run in every possible direction to find the true trail. Once found, you scream out “ON ON” and the rest come running after marking the right direction for the slower runners behind them. It’s more fun than it may sound, haha.

In Japan the mountains are not very high, but they are steep so there is always a lot of “up and down” and usually lots of stairs too. This trail was no exception and we were glad to find the endpoint as we strolled in and found our quads finally stopped buzzing. We enjoyed a couple of drinks and light munchies as we waited for the stragglers to arrive, and most did except for one!

He wasn’t answering his phone, and no one had seen him on trail for a long time so the group was asked for volunteers to double back a ways and look for him. With sunset only about 40 minutes away, my husband and I raised our hands and set out. We had planned to go out about 20 minutes and then return back, however, while we were out there we got an “update call” and there was no change, still no word. Even more concerned now we made a bad decision and decided to hoof it all the way back through the long shiggy trail to the starting point where we first left the pavement and stepped into the mountain. We estimated this would take about half an hour and we knew that arriving at the other end at twilight would be fine given that we had just run the trail a short while ago and we felt we knew what to expect.

This turned out to be a really bad decision because not only did we not get back before sunset, we also got badly lost. Everything changes and looks different at night and we forgot to factor that in!

We think we were most of the way back when we came across the first “shiggy checkpoint” that was waiting for us earlier in the day, and that’s when mistake #2 happened. We mistakenly went in the wrong direction and headed down into the valley, instead of down to the street on the other side.

At this point the only direction we knew for sure was behind us, so we had a 1 in 3 shot and lost!

By now it was fully dark and we thought we could find our way out using our cell phone light, instead, we ended up walking around in circles down there for hours getting deeper and deeper in. Part of the problem was due to a huge storm that hit the area a few years back leaving a ton of debris all throughout the mountain trails in this part of the country. We’re talking about hundreds of acres of trails throughout the area so it’s taking a long time for the trails to get cleared and be reopened. The trail we were on was not a main public trail and it was at the bottom of the valley where a lot of the debris had ended up. So many paths leading in and out of this valley are obstructed and impassable and the actual pathways themselves are really hard to find.

Getting nowhere fast we decided to follow the stream out but that didn’t work either. We later realized that it was not running in a straight line and was in fact encircling a sort of island on three sides, and that’s where we were stuck.

With 1 cell phone dead and the other one now at 30% battery life we decided it was time to find a place to sleep and resume at first light. We were now wet from the knees down and completely ill-prepared to sleep out in nature on a night that was cold enough for us to see our breath. Jeans, t-shirts, hoodies, gloves, and face masks for the run were all we had. Much of the emergency-type things that normally live in our backpacks were safe at home in the closet after being cleaned out some months back.

As we cuddled up shivering and trying to sleep, I thought about the energy bars, hotshots, headlamps, wind-up flashlights, compass, and thermal blankets that were all at home. Our bodies must have been in some kind of preservation mode because neither of us was hungry after expelling a huge amount of energy to this point, on very little food. We had gone back out on the search mission with 2 bottles of water and 2 small bags of chips and we were now down to one of each. I think we may have been better prepared for this physically than we normally would have because we started intermittent fasting 8 months earlier and had done many 10km runs on empty stomachs during that time.

Fortunately, in this part of Japan, we do not have much wildlife to be worried about, in fact, we often marvel at how great it is to hike here without having to worry about bears, wolves, and cougars like we do back in the Rockies where we’re from. There were only two critters to really worry about, wild boars and snakes, so every rustle in the trees had me wide-eyed and at the ready. Ready for what I have no idea, but I was LOL!

On this long night, I had the benefit of being distracted from the cold by expelling great mental energy to ward off those wild boars and I thought I did an amazing job of that quite frankly! My husband, Mark also did his part by letting out a few grunts and snores throughout the night and this may have been the first time ever that he did not get an elbow in the ribs for snoring, LOL. The next day he told me that the boars would never have come near us… that would have been great to know the night before haha but I probably wouldn’t have believed it in the moment anyway!

I’m pretty sure that is the coldest my toes have ever been and that’s saying a lot for someone who grew up snowmobiling, skiing, and skating. I’ve had my fair share of cold wet feet but nothing like this. In between the full-body shakes that you just can’t stop I kept wiggling my toes hoping they would warm up somewhat and they did for a wee little bit. This was definitely the absolute coldest I have ever been for a sustained period and that was a long 7-hour stretch.

We both had our faces covered for more warmth and I kept hoping and praying not to open my eyes to one of those curious boars who came to check us out unless it was Pumbaa from The Lion King – he’s always welcome! The only other thing to worry about is snakes but it would have been highly unlikely for them to be out that late in the cold. So I figured that unless a snake was nearby and sensed the warmth, we were pretty much safe from them. Good guess, and we were.

We didn’t do much shuffling or rolling around despite the badly positioned rocks we each had under our hips. The one time I checked the time it was 03:41 which is the coldest time of the night. I know this for a fact because I have recently been up for 3-day virtual conferences that started at midnight my time and when 03:30 rolls around you know it.

I found it really interesting that the deep cold was not steady. It seemed to ease in like fog and it was suddenly markedly colder, then it would ease up somewhat. If it had been windy or raining that night (as it was the next two nights) there definitely would have been a concern for hypothermia and I am so grateful the conditions were as mild as they were. As bad as this was it could have been so much worse due to a variety of factors.

At a certain point we both endured enough of the rocks we were laying on and had to dig them out and flatten out the ground under us, then wait for our bodies to slightly warm the earth and take that chill off the ground. This was an experience I have never had before and do not wish to have again even with the proper gear in place. I have been quite adamant over the years that I am not a “camping type of girl” and this definitely solidified that self-imposed label.

I remember thinking, come on birdies start chirping! Let’s get this day started! The first squawk I heard was a crow, followed by a parrot and several other songbirds after that. Oh, but the hours leading up to that also had me focused quite intently on this one lone cricket that was way too close for comfort all-night-long. I had to shuffle my feet around in the leaves several times to keep whatever I thought might be lurking out there at bay. Job well done on that front!

Now awake and seeing more and more of our surroundings come into focus we were silently working in unison, planning our next moves while trying to recount and “place” where we had been several hours back. But for now, we had to focus on simply standing up, what a rude awakening that was! It took us about 20 minutes simply to stand up straight and feel like the blood was back in our feet. We were both very off balance and lightheaded. Not how you want to be feeling before climbing back on the skinny, sloped paths that are eroded in spots and often covered in sheer rock faces that can be quite slick. We did some light calisthenics, jumping in place and bouncing back and forth from one foot to the other to wake up our bodies and warm up.

From the start of this “adventure,” my biggest concern was one of us slipping off the path and getting badly injured which is what set us out on the search for our friend in the first place……

When we were ready to go we decided to head in a new direction because we could see in the light of day that it had the lowest peak to climb and the most clearing above it. This seemed logical, so we set out. Our first attempt to climb out had us on our hands and knees launching ourselves upward to grab hold of the next tree in a hop-scotch sort of fashion. Mark made it to the top first and said it didn’t look promising. Once I got there we agreed and going back down was fast and it was a bit fun sitting on a pile of leaves and sliding down on our butts. I can assure you this was a controlled descent and probably the first smile seen or made in several hours ☺

We ended up on that damn stream again but this time we could see and were able to keep our feet dry, and it was opening up as well. We spotted a few Inukshuks on the edges of the stream and those rocks piled in the shape of a figure act as a beacon to indicate you’re on an actual right path. This was a very welcome sight, but we were both still “smarting” from the night before and guarded our enthusiasm well at this point.

We also saw some footprints in the mud that were going in our direction, another GREAT sign despite not knowing how fresh they were. Soon we came upon an overgrown footpath that barely resembled a trail, but we took it and were never so happy to chains and ropes installed on the steep rock face we were standing at the bottom of.

This is a common thing to find when hiking in Japan because the mountains are so very steep they often install actual steps and ropes or chains that you hold to control your descent or use to heave yourself up the mountainside. Time to activate those triceps and biceps! The real excitement was knowing we were back on an actual trail and on our way up.

(These are hashers from the day before while the sun was still up!)

We eventually climbed out of that valley and ended up on a well-used path that had signposts and distances. This was great to see because we knew any one of these paths would eventually get us down. Normally we would have used google translate on our phones and be able to match the location points to the map using GPS, and then choose the best route down. Today this wasn’t an option so we made our best choice and carried on. It was getting steep now which gets hard on the knees going down and we decided to sit for a minute when we estimated we had less than an hour to go until we were off the mountain. We finally felt safe enough to share our last little bag of chips and the can of Heineken we grabbed for our lost friend as we set out from the crowd the night before. Munching down Lays chips with a beer around 6 am was definitely a first for us and it did provide the slight energy spike we were hoping for.

When we were approx. 0.5km from the end, the path all but disappeared and we were faced with a game trail or that stream again. Neither of us said it out loud but we were instantly concerned about having consumed our last sources of energy if we are not yet in the clear. We tried both options and the stream was the winner this time and it turns out we did not have far to go, thank God.

A very short while later we spilled out of the trees to a dirt path that became a road and we could see part of a house and pavement in the distance and we nearly kissed the ground. High fives, hugs, and big smiles followed by INSTANTLY feeling the full intensity of the sore muscles and swollen feet. Until we knew we were in the clear neither of us even mentioned what level of pain we were in, how cold we were the night before, or how serious the situation really was. It was all understood and agreed, and we knew all resources needed to be put on two things only; enduring and getting out and that did not include putting words to the depths of discomfort we had been in.

I was extremely proud of both of us and remain so grateful that none of the conditions were any worse than they actually were. There are so many ways it could have been worse; wind, rain, lower temperature, panic, dehydration, less energy, injury, fewer clothes, critter encounters, longer time to find the path out of the valley, to name a few….

All totaled it took us 2.5 hours to climb out in the light of day and having come through that we know we never could have found the trail out of the valley in the dark. We also know any nighttime search parties would have been futile since we had no lights or fire, and we were not where we were supposed to be!

Now hobbling our way down the road we helped ourselves to a water tap outside the first home we saw and tried our phones again with the hopes of having enough battery to get a text off to our worried friends. No go for the text but we were able to snap this proof of life photo before exiting this very rural, dead-end street.

We didn’t know which way to go without the benefit of GPS and maps on our phones but a friendly Japanese lady pointed us in the right direction. A short distance away we came across our first vending machine (they are everywhere in Japan) and were gulping down an electrolyte drink when she came driving up to us with a hand-drawn map for us to follow. This is the heart of the Japanese people, they are wonderful! If not for the whole covid situation she likely would have driven us to the bus stop, but we were very happy with the map. Given the early hour and the extremely disheveled state of these out-of-place gaijin, I’m guessing she likely figured out that we had just stumbled out of one hell of a night.

We estimate that we covered around 25kms from start to finish over those 17 hours or so and when we arrived home about 1.5 hours later and got our phones plugged in they started pinging off the hook with messages and emails that our friends had sent the night before and earlier that morning. Apparently, our “We just arrived home” text was received minutes before the search & rescue was being deployed. We are so glad our message arrived before they mobilized.

So what about the friend we set out looking for? Turns out he arrived safely at home right around the time we found ourselves lost in the dark the night before. He had taken a bit of a spill earlier in the day, lost the trail, and was unable to find it again which is why he decided to head home, leaving his bag behind. Makes sense when in context. Unfortunately, he lost his phone in the tumble and was also unable to reach out. Again, thankfully everyone was unscathed and there have been many lessons learned.

For those who like this kind of thing, here are our top lessons for running in the mountains, running a business, or living a life:

1. Evaluate the pros and cons of all options before rushing forward, especially when you feel frantic or are in a hurry.

2. Double-check your gear before you set out!

3. Make decisions based on facts, not hopes. I thought we could make it through the shiggy before dark, that was really “a hope” and that’s not good enough at night in the mountains.

4. If you think you have taken a wrong turn (literally or metaphorically) turn around and go back to the last “right place” you were in. This is true whether on the mountain trail or in the middle of a business strategy that is not panning out. We must intentionally stop doubling down on mistakes.

5. Remain calm. Once the darkness had set in, there were several times when I felt the panic simmering up inside of me and I could feel physical churning and heat in my stomach. Each time this happened I heard myself saying silently – you have control over how you respond to this. You have some control here, don’t lose it.

6. Know when it’s time to pack it in. The last thing we wanted to do was sleep in the woods that night, but any other option would have been a risk not worth taking.

7. Don’t be afraid to change course.

8. Last one, when you do feel that churning in your stomach or whatever the physical feeling is for you – stop and assess. Our bodies are constantly giving us feedback and trying to help us choose the optimal way to go in life. Pay attention to the sensations and follow the cues because they can help us make better decisions and avoid mistakes if we’re tuned in.

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hash house harriers living in Japan running in Japan

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