The Escape

Being wedged into a mass of humanity is not a novelty in Japan, but the crowd my wife Stephanie and I were stuck in clearly wasn’t going anywhere for hours.  I had visions of a Who-concert-style stampede and trampling, but of course the Japanese are used to this kind of thing and take it in stride, with their seeming infinite patience and courtesy.  Us Americans, on the other hand, have to be moving – we simply can’t abide being powerless and stuck.

It started in innocent fun. For several days we’d been exploring Kyoto, visiting the amazing temples and gardens of this ancient city, and hiking in the hills at the outskirts of town.  We’d heard about a big festival in Kurama, a small village several km outside of the city.  We spent the day walking there, taking an indirect route over the summit of Mt. Hiei, which is famous for the temple of the Marathon Monks, and so is a kind of pilgrimage for ultrarunners and other ascetics.  Arriving in Kurama early, we watched thousands of tourists flood into the tiny village, mostly via train, which would also create a massive bottle-neck for getting back to the city when the festival was over.

As darkness fell, the festival got underway in earnest.  First, small torches were lit and carried through the streets by little kids attractively dressed in traditional kimonos.  Some of the children were quite small, and often seemed dangerously unsteady, with 2 or 3 kids carrying a 50 or 60 lb flaming torch.  Later, the larger, 150-200 lb torches were carried by men in scanty costumes.

The whole thing was total pandemonium.  Throngs of tourists crowded the narrow street, trying simultaneously to take photos while not getting scorched in the process.  Hundreds of police ineffectually tried to keep the crowds in some kind of order using yellow police tape and megaphones.  The crowd seemed to mostly ignore the police, and of course the many foreign tourists had no idea what the police were staying.  Flames, sparks and smoke were everywhere, creating an apocalyptic scene.  If this was anywhere but Japan, the whole town would be in flames in minutes.

Eventually, Stephanie and I found ourselves corralled into a kind of holding area away from the action, crammed in with thousands of others as the police barked out (to us) incomprehensible announcements via megaphone.  We had no idea where this “line” was headed, but we could see it would take hours to get there.  I told Stephanie to grab on to my pack, and started squirming towards the edge of the crowd.  It took quite a while to push through, and then, while the cops weren’t looking, we ducked under the crowd-control tape and quickly disappeared into the darkness, aiming for the trail we’d taken into town several hours earlier.  We didn’t know exactly how we’d get to Kyoto, but figured if all else failed we’d simply run back to our hotel.  Heck, as ultrarunners, we’ve run all night many times.

As it turned out we didn’t have to.  After 2 km of rough trail, we reached another tiny village.  Miraculously, as we were standing in the dark street studying our map trying to figure out our next move, a public bus came by, picked us up, and we were showering in our hotel an hour later (public transportation is extremely good in Japan!)

Being an endurance athlete can be useful.  I was reminded of the many, many times I have been seemingly stuck somewhere, and got out by simply saying “Screw it, let’s run”.  Years ago Stephanie and I did a big adventure run on some old Inca paths in Bolivia.  After 55 km or so, we arrived at a small town and tried to negotiate a ride to someplace where we could catch a bus.  The man with the vehicle could see that we were stuck, and figured he could charge us an exorbitant fee (more than we had) for the 25 km ride.  We shrugged, said “What’s another 25 km?” and headed off down the road.  Of course the guy came after us, quickly agreeing to a reasonable price for the ride.

On another trip in South America with Stephanie and Buzz, we thought we’d figured out a way to run obscure trails from Peru’s Urubamba Valley back to where we were staying in Cuzco.  We had a late start, and the llama paths were confusing.  We ran into some locals and were told “You can’t do it”, but we kept going.  Eventually, we reached the point of no return – we would have to admit failure, turn back and take the bus to Cuzco, or risk an all-nighter on unknown paths up on the altiplano.  Stephanie very reasonably raised these issues.

“We have no idea where we are, have minimal food, and the locals say it can’t be done.  Maybe we should go back.”

I looked at Buzz and knew what he was thinking, because it was exactly what I was thinking:  “Perfect.”   This is where the rubber meets the road and the adventure begins.  Buzz and I reasoned with Stephanie that we’d been out all night before and we’d be fine if it came to that – she agreed to press on.  As it turned out, our route worked, and we reached Cuzco just after dark.

Of course, sometimes this method does result in running all night.  But, if you’re passably equipped (a workable light source, some way to get water, and a map), you’re good to go.  The point is that by recognizing that you can run where you need to go, you open up a lot more possibilities and freedom and adventure.

Whether your “Escape” brings you to a lucky public bus or results in an all-night epic, the adventure begins when you don’t know what will happen.

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