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Runner conquers a volcano

Japan's Mount Fuji is considered sacred by some, majestic by most.

Chad Atkinson considers it simply awesome, and he should know.

Atkinson, a 1991 Springstead High graduate, participated this past summer in the 17th annual Mount Fuji Climbing Relay Race as part of an American military team, one of five U.S. entries in a 112-team field.

"I was amazed," Atkinson said recently of his initial look at Mount Fuji, a dormant volcano whose peak is shrouded by clouds and snow for most of the year. "I knew it was big, but you don't realize how big until you actually see it in person.

"You see it all over here _ on television, in pictures, on postcards _ but you don't appreciate its beauty until you actually see it."

And perhaps you don't properly respect Mount Fuji until thinking about climbing it or, in Atkinson's case, running a relay race up and down it.

"When I first saw it," Atkinson said, "I thought, "What did I get myself into?' "

One tough run and a lifetime memory.

Atkinson, now known as Lance Cpl. Chad Atkinson, left for Marine Corps boot camp in Paris Island, S.C., six days after graduating from Springstead, where the previous fall he had helped lead the Eagles to a runner-up finish in the 1990 Class 3A state cross country championships.

Atkinson enlisted for a four-year hitch and was based at Kaneohe Air Station, on the island of Oahu in Hawaii, when volunteers were sought for what would be one of five Marine entries in the relay race.

"At first I was kind of reluctant," Atkinson said, "but one of my friends signed me up for it."

Sixteen members of a 1,000-plus battalion _ some actual volunteers and others "volunteered" _ showed up for a time trial in hopes of earning one of three open positions on the six-member team.

Atkinson, even though he was sick, showed up not even knowing what the trial would involve. It wound up being a 6{-mile run.

"I just figured I'd go out and do my best," said Atkinson, a former all-Gulf Coast Conference honoree who, as Springstead's No. 5 runner, finished 38th at the state championships. "I didn't even know if I'd make it, but I went out, ran the race, and finished second."

Scheduled anyhow for six-month deployment in Okinawa, Atkinson left a few days earlier than planned after being chosen for the Camp Hanoch-based 9th Marine Regiment team.

He trained with teammates in Japan for about a month before tackling Mount Fuji, located about 60 miles from Tokyo.

Hikers can climb to the top of symmetric-coned Mount Fuji, whose 12,388-foot peak is the country's highest, only during July and August because of snow, ice and cold weather.

Ten stations link a 12-mile stretch up the mountain. Hikers usually take a bus to the fifth station before beginning a physically demanding, four-hour-plus ascent. The climb is considered a pilgrimage by most Japanese.

"It's a religious thing," said Bob Atkinson, Chad's father. "There's a saying that if you walk up there once you're very physically fit, if you walk up twice you're crazy."

The younger Atkinson certainly had to be fit to help his neophyte relay team, which was battling for respect as the top American military entrant while scores of experienced Japanese, Chinese and Korean relays raced to win the international event.

Atkinson, a national Junior Olympics cross country qualifier and former Sunshine State Games steeplechase contestant, carried the 9th Regiment's sash for the second leg of the 31.5-kilometer relay. Teams ran up and down the mountain course in rainy, near-freezing weather conditions.

Running a 2.9-mile leg with a 4.7-meter incline, Atkinson went up in 24 minutes, 53 seconds. He ran the same leg going down, shaving more than 10 minutes off his time to finish in 14:23.

The 9th Regiment finished in 5 hours, 11 minutes overall, well behind a winning Japanese team (3:54) that trained daily on the Mount Fuji course, and in 88th place overall.

But Atkinson's team finished second among the Americans, nearly meeting its pre-race goal.

"The lieutenant in charge wanted to win the whole thing," Atkinson said, "but he pretty much said that was impossible before the race. All things considered, we did about what we expected."