Singapore-based Italian Alessandro Sherpa has crowned himself as the new Asia Trail Master champion after beating his main challenger Salva Rambla in a straight dual during the Izu Trail Journey in Japan. Sherpa succeeds Malaysian Steven Ong as ATM champion. In the final 2018 ranking, Rambla is second and Japan’s Tomohiro Mizukoshi third. The iconic 72km long Izu Trail Journey itself was won surprisingly by Fuji-homeboy Ko Ito and the returning Yumiko Oichi in the women’s category.
After the Compressport Trail Blazer in Singapore, Salva Rambla had a psychological advantage over a still-injured Sherpa going into the big Japan final. In addition, Tomohiro Mizukoshi was running in the area he grew up in, and not for the first time. As Rambla more or less had to win the race of the ATM championship contenders (only runners who did two ATM races in 2018 are eligible for points in the season’s final), Mizukoshi was announced as the King Maker, who could make life even harder for Sherpa to retain his 130-points-lead in the championship. As last year, Izu Trail Journey was a brilliant ending to our championship, and six runners ranked in the top ten were present at the start line: Sherpa, Rambla and Mizukoshi, but also Diago Gonzales, Kitamura and Sungsik Joh.
It was cold again on race day, yet nowhere near the arctic conditions of last year when runners even found snow and ice on the way. Alessandro Sherpa had had a good night of sleep apparently, as rather than sitting back and following Salva Rambla he crossed the first checkpoint after km 10 as leader in the race together with former Izu winner Tomohiro Tsuji. Rambla was two minutes back in the main group of favourites. As the terrain became hillier, the local lightweight Japanese runners moved up the leaderboard. Four runners went ahead, with Sherpa and Rambla just behind and Hong Kong-based Frenchman Pierre-Andrew Ferriere gradually edging closer as well. Ferriere is on the Gone Running Team and had been announced as being in top shape for Izu Trail Journey, leading the Hong Kong Strava board in November in terms of elevation gain conquered. His first appearance in an ATM points race will be remembered, as he passed the two championship contenders half-way and continued to push through to eventually find himself as third on the race podium!
Meanwhile, Ko Ito had taken command of the race going up to Nishina Pass at the km 42 mark. Also Ito had made a relaxed start, and overtook everyone ahead of him uphill. However, even the Japanese race directors did not really know who Ko Ito was. Later in the interviews he would explain he hails from the Mount Fuji area and usually finishes races around the top ten rank. However, he had prepared himself meticulously for Izu Trail Journey, an A-goal, with many weeks of speed training, proving again how important that aspect of training is for trail as well. Ko Ito would not run away from the better known runners such as Katsuhiro Matsubara, Nobuya Tani and Tsuji (who clearly was too ambitious trying to follow Sherpa in the beginning), but four minutes was enough to take a unprecedented win.
Meanwhile, Rambla had managed to overtake Sherpa at some point downhill, raising the pressure on the Italian, who did not know where any of the other ATM runners were. If Rambla came first, and someone else placed himself between him and Sherpa, the ATM championship would go to the Spaniard. However, Rambla’s ‘attack’ did not last very long. Tired of all the traveling over the past weeks, he had to admit not having the best of legs for the final race of the season. Sherpa caught him back uphill and saw the moment. He pressed ahead by himself and opened a gap that later would never be more than a handful of minutes. But it proved enough. As he crossed the finish line as 13th, but first of the ATM championship contenders, he had the title in the bag. Salva Rambla eventually let go at the end and arrived just ahead of Tomohiro Mizukoshi, whose second part of the race was significantly better than his first. While Sherpa enjoyed his title victory after months of hardship (he kept on postponing necessary surgery), Rambla could not hide his disappointment, although in fair sportsmanship.
Behind them, Pablo Diago Gonzales and Hisashi Kitamura had their own fantastic battle going on for fourth place in this year’s championship. Both started the race on equal points, so Izu would decide their final ranking, too. The two runners exchanged positions continuously throughout the race. And just when Diago Gonzales appeared to have got it in the bag, Kitamura sprinted past him again in the last main downhill towards the finish! Caught off-guard, similar to Mantra Summits where he lost the race lead in the final kilometre to Elias Tabac, Diago Gonzales had no response left to the final burst of energy of the amazing Kitamura. Based in Kuala Kumpur, the Japanese runner has only begun to run trails exactly a year ago and has seen his performances grow steadily ever since.
The women’s race was won for the third time by Yumiko Oichi. The local athlete had just returned from a very long injury pause, and was delighted to have come out on top of a great battle with two other runners. Hakuba Trails winner Maki Tanaka was dominating proceedings until two-thirds into the race, when suddenly Oichi and Kaori Asahara returned to the front. Yumiko Oichi had the best final dash. A great run was also delivered by the now-Japan-based Carole Fuchs. After a modest early phase, diesel Fuchs managed to race herself in the top five of the race. She was also first of the runners eligible for ATM points, which puts her in the top ten of the final ranking. Aggy Sabanal from Mindanao, Philippines, was the second woman of her country to finish Izu Trail Journey. A mountain climber and specialist of technical trails, Sabanal can be very happy with her result on the hilly but runable Izu Trail. Her performance also resulted in second place in the ATM Championship ranking, splitting the Indonesians Ruth Theresia and Sri Wahyuni. Not bad for a 22-year-old university student!