News & Updates

16 September 2022 • Mountain Running

Konoka hopes to tame the trails

Konoka Azumi hopes to take the next step on her sporting adventure by competing at the NZ Trail Running Championships over the long course distance of 83km as part of the Crater Rim Ultra in Christchurch next month (Photo: Anthony Chenot)

Konoka Azumi will be one of the star performers on show at the 2022 Crater Rim Ultra which doubles as the New Zealand Trail Running Championships on Saturday 16 October. Steve Landells chats to Konoka to find out more of her running journey.

A former international triathlete, Konoka Azumi hopes to take the next step on her sporting adventure by competing at the New Zealand Trail Running Championships over the long course distance of 83km as part of the Cratar Rim Ultra in Christchurch next month (16 Oct).

The 33-year-old Japanese-born athlete relocated to settle in New Zealand in late-2019 and has gradually built up a reputation as one of the finest ultramarathon and trail athletes in the country thanks to a string of good results.

Over the past 18 months or so the Nelson-based athlete has claimed victory in the Northburn 100-miler and South Island Ultramarathon, finished second in the Tarawera Ultramarathon and more recently performed with pride to finish fourth in the 140km Trail Verbier St Bernard in Switzerland.

But now the Owairaka AC athlete has turned her attention to the New Zealand Trail Running Championships in Christchurch for her next major competition where she will be chasing a potential national title.

“A friend at Owairaka recommended that I attend the championships,” explains Konoka. “Trail running is something still new to me. So, I wanted to build up my race experience by racing in as many hard competitions as I can. I’m also keen to see how I have improved my performance on the trails.”

Hailing from the city of Kawagoe – around 40km north west of Tokyo – Konoka started her athletics life as a 200m and 400m sprinter but shortly after starting university she opted to “challenge herself” and took up triathlon.

Despite having no previous experience of open water swimming, riding a road bike or even long-distance running, Konoka discovered a flair for endurance sport and quickly excelled. In 2010 and 2015 she competed at the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii, from 2017 to 2019 she claimed a hat-trick of victories in the Sado Island Long Distance International Triathlon – the longest triathlon in Japan. Meanwhile, she revealed more of her hugely impressive endurance skills placing second overall in the 2017 Ultra 520 in Canada – a three-day ultra-distance triathlon comprising a 10km swim, 425.6km bike and 84.4km run.

Achieving a sub-seven-hour time on the run – and becoming the first female to achieve that feat at  the Ultra 520 – she was keen to explore more of her running potential and placed third at both the 2018 and 2019 Japanese 100km Championships before taking bronze at the Asia Oceania 100km Championships in Jordan later in 2019.

Yet nothing has remained the same for long in the sporting career of the Japanese athlete and in late-2019 she made the big decision to relocate to New Zealand – initially settling in Auckland.

“My desire to train in a different, more natural environment and race in more ultramarathons brought me to New Zealand,” she said. “Ironman NZ was my first long distance triathlon race, so New Zealand holds a special place in my heart. It was a full-circle moment.”

Keen to focus on 100km marathons but also experience trail running races, she quickly realised she was blessed with countless opportunities in New Zealand. Fully embracing the beautiful natural landscape of her adopted homeland in February 2020 she competed in her first major trail race to placed fifth woman in the 102km Tarawera Ultramarathon.

“I had participated in some trail running in Japan, but the 2020 Tarawera Ultramarathon would be the first great trail race for me,” she says. “Even though they say the course is mostly non-technical and runnable terrain, it seemed like very steep slopes to me back then.”

Later that year she made another statement by winning the 100km Taupo Ultramarathon despite tripping and falling in the dark after just 5km and cracking a rib.

“It was great to experience that race, although most of my memories of this race are painful,” she says. “To cross the finish line, I was filled with a sense of relief, and I would like to run the race again without an injury.”

Last year she returned to the Tarawera Ultra and placed second behind Ruth Croft – the Kiwi winner of the 2022 Western States Endurance Run, who is regarded as one of the world’s best ultra-distance/trail runners. Konoka had not only improved by three places on the previous year but also completed the race a huge 43 minutes quicker than 12 months prior.

Konoka, who works as a kindergarten teacher and who is also studying early childhood teaching at college, later last year secured victory in the Northburn 100-mile race which further – a performance which further bolstered her growing confidence.

“The Tarawera Ultramarathon gave me an amazing experience in which I was able to race with Ruth Croft. She has inspired and motivated me with her great spirit and effort. On the other hand, Northburn was my first 100-miler. At that time, I had little experience running on trails at night or on uneven terrain with significant elevation gain, so everything was a new challenge.”

Earlier this year she relocated to Nelson to enjoy the benefits of the natural training environment and after winning the South Island Ultramarathon in the West Coast in May, two months later she further broadened her racing experience by placing fourth in the Trail Verbier St Bernard. She was pleased with her performance in Switzerland but learned the importance of adjusting her body conditions to changes in temperature and elevation and the need to improve her technical skills over rocky terrain.

Self-coached, although given sports science input from ten-time Ironman World Championship representative Keisuke Ishikura, Konoka averages between 160-170km a week but she wisely adjusts her training location based on which races she is targeting.

“I run twice a day on most weekdays, including one or two intense trainings a week, and I go for a long run every Saturday. Cross training is really effective, and I cycle three times a week. I’m an early bird, so my training starts early in the morning. I also try to do running drills and stretches to increase my range of motion before and after training. When it comes to the place of training, I change it according to the target race. For example, the South Island Ultramarathon in this May was a relatively flat course, thus I did speed workouts on gravel and road, while I recently run where I can do hill training – Coppermine Trail is a great place for such training, which is a 40km loop.

Given her fondness for the 100km distance, the 83km Crater Rim Ultra would appear just about perfect for her running strengths. Despite never having run the course, or even having never previously been to Christchurch, she believes the course will suit her skill set and she is confident of a good performance.

“Although the terrain is rocky and technical at times, the forest and grass trails look fun and runnable,” she adds. “I often go for a run on the coastal trail in Cable Bay in Nelson, and the terrain of the race looks similar. If so, it will be familiar and give me a positive advantage.”

Training specifically to gain a better technique through the up and downhill trails she is looking for an opportunity to improve on her past performances competing in a mountainous terrain. However, she is wisely not obsessing over finishing positions.

“For me, running is pure fun, and being in nature helps me to clear my mind,” she explains. “It is where I’m the most comfortable. Thus, in any race so far, I haven’t focused on outcome goals or competitive results. However, I do know that there are a lot of great trail runners in New Zealand, and it’s an honour to have the opportunity to run with them. If I have the chance to win a New Zealand title, it will build my confidence in trail running. Also, I really want to expand the trail running community in my home country, not only in New Zealand.”

Believing her perseverance coupled with her ability to stay “calm and focused on the positive” are strengths she loves the 100km distance and with this in mind what are her future goals?

“I would love to run the amazing trail races from around the world. So, it would be great to join the UTMB in the next few years. In addition, it would be nice to improve my 100km road PB in ultramarathon while enjoying trail running. That time could still be improved. I believe that increased physical strength in trail running contributes to my overall running performance.”

***To enter the 2022 New Zealand Trail Running Championships run in conjunction with the Crater Rim Ultra go here