Shonan Hiratsuka OWS Ekiden 2018

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A couple of weeks ago, my coach at Shonan Bellmare triathlon swim school, Nakagomi-san, asked me whether I would be joining the open water swim ekiden this year. I was a little surprised to be asked again after the disruption caused by our two TiT teams at last year’s event. We hadn’t realised that there are in fact two races, a qualifier and a final. After round one, we had got changed and started on our packed lunches, oblivious to the fact that a couple of dozen teams were waiting for us at the start line to begin the final.

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This year, we fielded four teams: Team Seiuchi (Walrus) with Jon, Marat, and Olivier; Team湾岸隣人 (Wangan-rinjin) with Roger, Stacey, and Raul; Team Squids, with Gabe, Alex, and Tom; and Amato Aquanauts, made up of Anna, Youri, and myself. We arrived at 10 o’clock to a warm reception at the registration tent with its backdrop of 2-metre waves rolling into the beach, pushed by Typhoon No. 26 “Yuto”. Surfers were riding in to our swim course with the waves towering overhead. It was an impressive sight. Even more impressive was the attitude of the organisers: If you are not confident, don’t do the race. It was such a refreshing contrast to triathlons where the smallest ripple leads to swim cancellation.

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We entered this year with a clearer picture of the race format. The first round qualifier decides whether you go through to a two-lap relay for the fastest 15 teams, or a one-lap relay for the slower teams. Teams are three members, male, female, or mixed – everyone races together. In the first round, teams set off one after another, a few seconds apart, and the overall team time is taken. The course is 3 laps of a 500-metre triangle, usually protected by a long line of offshore tetrapods. Only this year, the waves were crashing around and over the tetrapods, so the course was supposedly shortened to 400 metres. The waves were breaking over the first turn buoy, so the swim out from the beach promised to be interesting. The MC gave a wry smile as he told us to just dive under the waves.

DSC01887Lining up for the first round

At about 11 o’clock, give or take ten minutes, the race started. The mood was surprisingly jovial as teams rushed into the surf and started their battle with the waves. Our turn came, and soon I was trying to maintain a sort of front crawl as one wave after another churned me this way and that. Others seemed to be doing much better as I was passed by several swimmers, but once I rounded the first buoy, there was a little protection from the tetrapods. From there, it is a 200-metre swim parallel to the beach to the second buoy which was hard to spot through the swell. So hard, that one person actually came swimming towards me, 180 degrees off-course. Half way to the buoy, the waves were crashing over the tetrapods and it was hard to keep any kind of form. Still, I felt (wrongly as it turned out) that I was swimming well, and even managed to overtake some people. I turned the second buoy and headed back to the third buoy in front of the finish banner. Well, that was where it had been when we started, but now it was moving down the coast towards us.  I passed it and headed out once more for buoy number 1, under and through the crashing surf. I was starting to enjoy myself. My only slightly nervous moment was when I was approaching the third buoy for the second time and a wave lifted it up and over me. I felt my leg caught by the anchor rope, but then it slid off and I was away. It was a little unsettling.

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On the last lap, we were supposed to touch the third buoy and head into the finish. However, it had moved along the beach a way, so our final lap was a little shorter. This didn’t help me very much, as I then spent an age trying to get into the beach as the strong undertow sucked me back. I finally reached the finish in a curiously slow time of 31:51, for a distance of 1.58 km (Youri measured exactly the same distance).

Image-9Amato Aquanauts

Waiting on the beach were most of the other TiT swimmers. Team Seiuchi came in 6th overall with an impressively fast time. Youri was three minutes faster than me, and Stacey just 30 seconds behind him. Wow! I would try harder in the second round. The big surprise for us was Raul who is a newcomer to TiT. His time of 27:36 was just a little slower than super-swimmer Marat. Olivier was the fastest TiT at 26:33. I rushed back to watch Anna fight her way into the beach and enjoyed the usual ekiden comradery as our team finished.

Three of our teams got through to the two-lap relay final, while Team Squids seemed relieved to be doing the one-lap relay. After the battering we had taken, several of us would have happily changed places with them to avoid another two laps of the washing machine. Fortunately, the organisers made a quick decision and shortened the course to 300 metres.

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First off were Squids who each did their 300 metres in good time. Next, the first swimmers in each team lined up for the final. Team Wangan-rinjin had opted to start with their fastest, Raul, while we Aquanauts had put our fastest swimmer, Youri, last. As Raul headed out drafting the main pack, we realised the wisdom of putting the fastest person first. However, soon the pack was getting drawn out by the lead swimmer who completed the 600 metres in a great time of 8 minutes, considering the conditions.

I was in second. Anna ran up the beach, passed me the ankle band timing chip, and I was once more trying to get through the surf. This time I was luckier as I hit a lull in the waves, rounded the buoy and was soon heading out to the second buoy, now reassuring closer. I even managed to catch a few people and hoped this meant I was swimming better. I also got lucky this time swimming into the beach as I caught a couple of waves and was soon passing over the ankle band to Youri who swam a lonely leg with only two people behind him. Roger brought up the rear but returned to a hero’s welcome. Everyone formed a tunnel of arms for the whole team to run through. It was a really nice touch.

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TiT teams were at least consistent. We all placed exactly the same in the final as the qualifier: 6th, 13th, and 15th places. I did manage to go faster in the second round and was the fastest in our team, although the moving buoy and lucky waves might have had a lot to do with that. Team Seiuchi picked up the prize for third all-male team.

Image-10Youri, Jon, Anna, Mark, Olivier, Marat, Raul, Stacey, Roger, Gabe, Tom, Alex

The Shonan Hiratsuka Open Water Swim Ekiden is a small, informal race made all the better by its relaxed mood. There are a few serious (and seriously fast) university teams, but it is overwhelming a fun event. This year, the weather was great – warm and sunny – which meant the beach was packed with people surfing and playing beach volleyball. It was a good atmosphere. Afterwards, a few of us went for a late pasta lunch in the curiously named, but surprisingly good, Trattoria Little Tern.

Results

Bellmare Photo Album

Bellmare Race Video

Race Website

Google Maps

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Murakami Triathlon

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I have attended the Murakami Olympic distance race nine times – more times than any other race. Despite knowing the course like the back of my hand, I just can’t seem to get it right. Indeed, I have become an expert in coming a close second. In 2012, I was second by 8 seconds, which put me down into second place in the overall age group rankings. In 2014 I ran shoulder-to-shoulder with Misu-san all the way to the finish line, where he sprinted ahead of me. And this year, I was beaten by my other great rival, Sawada-san, who inexorably pulled away from me over the last three kilometres to win by 12 seconds. One part of me feels annoyed that I can’t just push myself hard enough in the run, but another part of me gets frustrated at the way the course seems to disfavour strong cyclists. Without a fast bike leg, it is always going to be difficult to beat runners like Misu and Sawada. They are both 55 years old but run like the wind. Misu can still run a marathon in under 2 hours 50 minutes, while Sawada still has perfect form – as he pulled away from me, I was strongly reminded of an older Mario Mola.

IMG_2197_1Simon Ferrari’s first Elite race

The course was shortened due to the impending typhoon to a 750m swim, 22km bike, and 6km run. My race started well with a relatively fast swim (12:32), and I was soon riding strongly on the outward bike leg. Despite the slight headwind, I seemed to be averaging 37 to 38 km/h. At around the 7 km mark, I overtook a big pack of riders drafting each other, and a kilometre later overhauled Sawada who had had a great swim. I thought I would be well ahead of them as I reached the halfway turn around, but there they all were, just behind me. I kept trying to pull away, but of course it is impossible. I was saving them 30% of their effort, and just putting myself into the red each time. To his credit, I could see that Sawada was constantly trying to keep out on his own, but it is so hard to get away from a pack. In the end, I dropped back 20 or 30 metres and stopped wasting any more effort. At the hill 5 km from the finish, I pulled away from the pack, but arrived at the finish only just ahead of Sawada. According to my Garmin, my time was 38:23 for 23 km (av. 35.9 km/h) – I had hoped for something better.

Murakami bike

Sawada and I left transition together, and for the first 3 kilometres ran side by side. At an aid station, I made what was perhaps a mistake. I thought it would help to drop behind to let him pace me, but instead this seemed to give him the initiative. Now we were running at his pace, which to my weary brain seemed just too fast. I allowed him to pull away, assuming he would fade, but that just gave him more confidence (and me less). All the speed and energy I felt in my last three races had deserted me. My form deteriorated, and inexorably I slowed by one or two seconds each kilometre. Sawada was just a few metres ahead, but it was an unbridgeable gap.

murakami course 2Run course in blue

Sawada crossed the finish line 12 seconds ahead of me and promptly collapsed at the feet of some waiting medics. It was clear that he had pushed himself much harder than I had. My run time was actually pretty fast – 3:49 per km – but it didn’t feel fast enough. After he recovered Sawada thanked me profusely for pushing him to his best-ever run. He said that he was at the point of slowing down, but when I dropped behind him he got a new surge of energy. It showed me yet again the mental challenges of running races and how so much of it is to do with the brain and not just the body. As I slowed, I became apathetic and felt indifferent to losing our two-person race. Is this the same as being at your physical limit? Are physical and mental limits one and the same thing? Whichever way, I hope to stretch that limit a little bit further at next month’s championship race in Miyazaki.

 

Murakami results

My Garmin data

ITU World Triathlon Grand Final Gold Coast

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This year’s ITU Grand Final was held from September 12th to 16th in the Broadwater Parklands area of Australia’s Gold Coast. I was lucky enough to have placed first in my Japan Triathlon Union age group in the 2017 season, so the JTU paid for my tour package and race entry. I flew out with the team on the 10th, which meant I could spend a full week in the Gold Coast. I was a bit apprehensive about going on the JTU package, but all in all I had a great time and am really thankful for the support and comradeship. The JTU contingent was huge – Junior, U23, Paratriathlon, and Elite teams, as well as a large number of age groupers. There was also a doctor, mechanic, photographer, and several managers, coaches, and assistants. We had various joint activities coordinated from a team lounge in the hotel.

41791751_1278483795624881_280578522546700288_nTeam JPN in Broadwater Parklands

My plan was to do some light training, watch other races, and enter the aquathon as a warm-up for Sunday’s triathlon. Having a week to do all this gave me plenty of time to become familiar with the course and all the race logistics. We arrived at the inappropriately named Paradise Resort on the Tuesday morning, and I met my appropriately named roommate, Simon Ferrari (sub 2- hour triathlete). As an aspiring elite triathlete, he trained hard right up to the race day which encouraged me to train more than I usually would pre-race. On the first afternoon, I cycled out to the end of the The Spit which forms the opposite bank of the lagoon in which the  race swims were held. It was a surprisingly good place to train, as most of the 8 km ride is on cycle lanes through parks and woods. At the end, there were fine views of the sun setting over the lagoon.

IMG_2120Sunset from The Spit

Gold Coast Open Aquathon

41672028_1889299627772275_6932453819951349760_nTeam JPN Aquathletes

After lunch on Wednesday, I entered the short aquathon as both physical and mental preparation for the triathlon. It was a 750-metre swim on the sprint triathlon course, and a 5-kilometre run through Mitchell Park. I had expected a lot of strong swimmers, so I set off from the very back of the wave, and then lost even more time when I leapt into the water with my goggles still on the top of my head. Despite, the strong headwind and lively chop, and my intention to take it very easy in the water, I soon found myself weaving through slower swimmers, and got out the water in a surprising time of 10:51. Either I had turned into a swimmer overnight, or the course was short. It was – 706 metres on my Garmin.

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My run also didn’t go to plan. I had decided to do the first 4 kilometres at a steady pace, and then go all out on the last kilometre. Of course, with adrenaline coursing through my veins, I forgot all this and hammered the run from start to finish. My run time was a respectable 18:48.

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Garmin data

After my race, I returned by tram to my hotel, showered, put on my JPN team kit, and returned to the race venue for the Parade of Nations. There I was greeted by smiling teammates who were all coming up to shake hands and congratulate me. It turned out that I had won my age group but stupidly missed the medal ceremony.  I would find out on Sunday whether this was great preparation for the triathlon finals, or a foolish sapping of energy.

The Parade of Nations

The parade of nations was a very jovial affair. The biggest teams were of course from Australia (1,300 competitors) and the USA, but there were also a large number from New Zealand, GB, Mexico, and of course Japan. The Mexican team easily won the prize for cheerfulness, but there was a great atmosphere throughout the parade and opening ceremony.

IMG_2127Aquathon and Sprint Triathlon swim start

On the Thursday, we got up early for the 6:30 swim familiarisation session in Nerang River lagoon. It was then that I noticed the shark warning signs by the water. I decided to go for a fast swim time. The water was supposed to be 21.9oC, conveniently 0.1oC below the cut-off temperature for wetsuit-permitted swims. That early in the morning, the water was flat, but each day, the winds increased to near gale force by lunchtime. My start time was 8:35 so hopefully it would be okay.

DSC06723Danai running out of transition in the Sprint

image_6483441-001Danai approaching the finish

After lunch, I watched Danai in the sprint triathlon. It was a furious beach start with a 100-metre dash out to the first turn buoy. I was glad I didn’t have to fight through that melee. Danai came out of the water in a fast time of 11:25 but at this level he was half way down the field. He held his own in the bike and run to finish in 1:10:04.

IMG_0439Lunch at Cardamom Pod

I had worried about finding vegetarian food in meat-loving Australia, but actually I ate excellent vegan food for the whole week. On one evening, Danai and I met up for a curry with fellow TiTer, Tim, who was over from the UK working on the World Triathlon Store. Another time, we went out with Mika T (who was also racing on Sunday) for excellent Persian food – a first for me. Other days, I went to three different vegan restaurants Cardamom Pod, Govindas, and Giri Kana Cafe. My favourite was Govindas with its $14:50 eat-all-you-can buffet. It was the perfect pre-race fueling stop.

On Thursday evening I cycled once more out to the end of The Spit, where I watched the surfers from a rock jetty.

IMG_2141-001Surfers at The Spit

On Friday, I joined a group from Team JPN for a 6 a.m. ride out to the bike course.  It was a fairly straightforward out and back along the coast, with a couple of short diversions up side streets. The second diversion climbed a short hill and then descended on a curving road – a curious choice in such a big, potentially crowded race. On the return, we took a detour to the run course, which followed the coast and offered great views for those not too exhausted to appreciate them.

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IMG_2170-001View from the run course

In the afternoon, I watched the U23s racing at near-elite speeds. The winner of the female race, Taylor Knibb, is my tip for the Olympics. Later, I returned to Surfers Paradise for a run along the beach.

DSC06908Taylor Knibb with a white ibis

U23s communing with nature

IMG_0444Surfers Paradise, 5 minutes from the hotel

Saturday was a rest day for me with nothing to do but check in my bike and walk around transition a few times to memorise the course. I later watched the female elite race which would decide the ITU Champion. If Katie Zaferes from America won, she would hold on to her lead in the rankings and be 2018 champion; if Vickie Holland from the UK won, she would become champion.

DSC07078Elite female swim start

DSC07353Vicky Holland second on the bike

After a close swim and bike, three people exited T2 and soon formed a lead group: Zaferes, Holland, and home favourite, Ashley Gentle. They stayed together for the first few kilometres, and then Holland was dropped. The gap gradually increased and her chances of winning seemed to have faded away. Mika and I were watching at the finish, with the big screen in view, but we missed the start of Holland’s fight back. Suddenly the TV pictures showed Holland back in the group, and the race was once again. I don’t remember seeing a triathlete get dropped, but then fight back a couple of kilometres later.

DSC07396Gentle, Zaferes, and Holland leading the run

Next, Zaferes was dropped, and this time it stuck. Gentle and Holland raced to the finish line, but it was Gentle who sprinted away on the finish chute, carried along by the roar of Aussie cheers. It was the perfect finish – Gentle had given the home crowd a winner, while Holland had just done enough for the championship.

IMG_2165-001Fighting pre-race nerves

Sunday, 4:25 a.m., Simon was already up eating breakfast, preparing kit, and looking like he needed a bit more time to get ready. His race start was 6:30 a.m. I left the hotel really early as there was still plenty to do before my race. I took the tram to Mitchell Park – they were running from 3:30 and free for those with competitors’ race bands – and spent a long time over transition preparations. All around me, people with disc wheels were in mild panic as it had just been announced that discs would be banned due to high winds later in the morning. Some people had a spare wheel ready, but others had to find one somewhere. If I ever splash out on a disc wheel, I will have to remember to take a non-disc spare.

IMG_2172-001Simon passed by on the run as I was preparing for the swim start

From transition, we then had to walk 2 km north to the swim start. We would swim one-way back to T1, do two out-and-backs on the bike, return to the same transition and do two out-and-backs for the run. It turned out to be an excellent, safe, simple, and in places very scenic course.

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As I was getting ready for the swim, a couple of familiar faces from Japan greeted me – Takeshi Irie and Tommy Nakajima. There were in fact 5 of us from Japan in my wave. Saito-san, the team manager also came up to me and asked if I needed any help; everything was set. After some cheerful banter from the starter, the klaxon sounded (quietly), I pressed ‘start’ on my Garmin, and I was soon heading for the first pink buoy on the left edge of a very civilised wave. One of the great advantages of ITU races is that waves are streamed by age, and everyone is a similar ability. I managed to draft for a few short stretches, but mostly I aimed at catching a person just ahead, pass them, and then aim for the next person. For me, this chasing helps me to swim faster than all my attempts at drafting. I felt great in the water – a real rarity for me – helped by the fairly calm water and the ease of sighting on a 50-storey tower block conveniently standing behind the goal.

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I turned the last buoy and exited by the ramp. It felt like it had been a fast swim for me. I ran into transition where my bike was right by the entrance. I had remembered for once to put lubricant around my ankles, so my wetsuit came off easily, and I was soon out and on the bike.

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The first few kilometres of the bike were slow due to the technical sections and sharp turns around side streets. The short climb up Grace Avenue managed to slow most people (how I wish there were more climbs at big races), and the descent of Reynolds Avenue was fortunately much better than I had feared. Everyone seemed to be riding safely, an advantage of the race only having experienced triathletes. From there it was mostly fast, straight, flat roads, with only the occasional roundabout to add variety. My speed was hovering around 43 km/h, and despite feeling good, I forced myself to slow as I felt I would suffer for this speed later. However, when I reached the first turn-around at 10 km, I realised my speed was due to a building tailwind, and not because of my expending too much energy too early in the race. I was soon expending a lot more energy just to keep above 33 or 34 km/h. The return section was pretty much straight all the way apart from a couple of small bridges over lagoons. I tried to sink as low as possible into the aerobars to slide under the headwind.

24_m-100842243-DIGITAL_HIGHRES-2595_032137-209586471st lap: Keeping low into the wind

On the second lap, I was pushed by the mounting wind, but this time was happy to hold myself to 43 km/h as I knew the return would be brutal. It was. A Team GB rider soon passed me, but I managed to hold him to about 20 metres or 30 metres. I spent most of the return desperately trying to keep him in view; amazingly I managed, but I wondered what it had done to my legs.

28_m-100842243-DIGITAL_HIGHRES-2595_033212-209586512nd lap: Keeping even lower as the wind increased

T2 was nearly a disaster. I changed into my running shoes, grabbed my cap and sunnies (there’s one for the Aussies), and was just about to set off without my number belt. Unlike JTU races, number belts are not compulsory for the bike leg. I should have just put it under my wetsuit as usual, but I figured I might save a watt or two of drag on the bike without the number flapping in the wind. I later saw that several people had been disqualified for not wearing a number on the run. Another lesson learnt.

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For the first 2.5 kilometres on the run, I felt great. I was running at an easy 3:50 pace and felt like I could keep this up. After the turn, I once again discovered the effect of the headwind, and soon had to dig in for the usual tough run. My pace dropped to 4:00 but unlike other races, I managed to hold it at that. My warm-up races in Finland (a 10k at 3:45 pace), and in the UK (a standard-distance triathlon), as well as the aquathon, gave me the confidence to keep pushing.

36_m-100842243-DIGITAL_HIGHRES-2595_075698-20958659Endure

I was also helped by Dave Sims’ recommendation of the excellent book ‘Endure: Mind, Body and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance’ by Alex Hutchinson, which focuses a lot on the mental aspects of endurance athletics. According to the book, much of what stops us reaching our endurance potential is in the mind. My take on this is that we have a mental limiter, something like the speed limiters on some electric bicycles. We get to a certain speed, but then can get no faster, however hard we push (both physically and mentally). However, this limiter can be lifted in certain situations, such as racing in front of a home crowd. Ashley Gentle had defied the odds and outran both Katie Zaferes and Vickie Holland in front of cheering Australians. I discovered the same effect as I passed the Japanese contingent cheering me on as I passed the finish area at the end of the first lap; for a few hundred metres, the heaviness was lifted from my legs and I was running freely again.

29_m-100842243-DIGITAL_HIGHRES-2595_045492-20958652Enjoying the view

I was also buoyed by the sight of others in my age group just ahead. Apart from the usual race numbers worn on our arms, we also had to wear age group ‘tattoos’ on our left calves (M55 for my AG). Each time I spotted M55 ahead, I dug that little bit deeper and passed them. Time and time again I did this, making up the time I had inevitably lost on the swim. I started feel optimistic about my final position. As I entered the finish chute, I looked over my shoulder at an empty carpet, and coasted over the line with a big smile on my face. I had cracked 2:10 for the first time in an ITU sanctioned race. How good does that feel?

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In the recovery area, I met Mika who had had a tough run, but seemed to have enjoyed this excellent race as much as me. The best thing was being part of such an international event. As I passed, or was passed by people, I read the names and countries emblazoned across the backs of their tri-suits and felt privileged to be a part of it all. I also thought of the poster I had seen that morning on a wall next to the tram station: “Nationalism teaches you to take pride in s*** you haven’t done & to hate people you’ve never met”. This seemed like the mirror opposite.

41961453_711366382533209_882557651240615936_nTiTers after the race

When my time was posted, I discovered I’d had my best ever swim of 23:32 and my best ever run of 37:28 (my Garmin showed 9.8 km). My overall time was 2:09:35 and I was 8th in my age group.

Garmin data

Results 155-59 Age Group Results – the winner posted a time of 2:00:57!

Later, I watched the elite males battle against 40 km/h winds in the swim which made them almost invisible in the spray surrounding them. In the bike, Marten Van Riel and Kristian Blummenfelt impressively broke away in the bike, but it was Vincent Luis from France who ran away from Mario Mola to win the race. It takes your breath away to see triathletes run at 2:45 pace after the swim and bike they have just endured.

Vicky Holland,  Kristian Blummenfelt, Alastair Brownlee – poetry in motion

After the racing was all over, I talked to a lot of people who all seemed to agree that it was a first-class race. The organisation was excellent, the location ideal, and the course perfect. I am already thinking ahead to next year’s championship in Lausanne, Switzerland.

IMG_2182-001Flying home over the Great Barrier Reef

 

Life’s a gas

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I’ve often wondered whether it is worth carrying a puncture repair kit on my triathlon bike. My kit weighs 350 grams, which isn’t a lot on a flat course, but makes a difference on a course like Toyama with 560 metres of elevation gain. However, after 9 years of carrying the puncture kit in races, I finally got to use it. On the last descent before the final climb to the finish, I felt the front wheel slide out of control and realised I had punctured. I managed to hold on around a bend and stop before running off the road. Now I would see how fast I could change the tube.

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At first, it all looked to be going well. Dave passed me and asked if I was okay. I thought I was, but when I screwed the CO2 cannister into the valve adapter, nothing happened. I tightened it, turned it, wrenched it – nothing happened. I removed it from the valve stem, and suddenly all the gas started escaping. I jammed it back on the valve and managed to get the last few gasps of CO2 into the tube.

I got back on my bike and started gingerly riding with the rim clanking on every bump and rut. I put all my weight on to the back wheel and waited for the inevitable pinch flat which somehow didn’t come. I clanked over two level crossings, put my foot down at every corner, mountain bike style, and somehow got to the final climb. Normally, this is where I would gain a chunk of time, but instead I pedalled up slowly swerving from one side of the road to the next.

IMG_0005Happiness is a new Huub cap

Transition couldn’t come soon enough, especially for my poor Zipp wheel. There is not much to say about the run except it felt exactly how you’d imagine it feels to run up and down a ski slope in 37 degrees heat. My run time was 5 minutes slower than last year but just avoiding heat stroke was a great achievement. Dave came in a few minutes after me, sprinting to the line ahead of a chap with one leg stretched out to the side in agonising cramp. The things we do to ourselves.

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Despite the heat and the puncture, it was still an excellent race as always. The course seems to have settled down to the 2017 route after several previous versions (last year’s report is here). The swim was fine apart from the bath-like water temperature. The bike leg has a couple of rules which seem to be strictly enforced. For the first 3 km along a coast path, you are not allowed to use aero bars, and then again on two bridge crossings. There are also three level crossings where you have to stop, put down one foot, and count to two before setting off again. It seems a recipe for disaster to be crossing railway lines while trying to get your cleats back into the pedals, but it is strictly enforced. Apart from that, it is just a beautiful ride up into the mountains. It was too hot to really enjoy a post-race rest at the ski resort, but the trout sushi tasted as good as ever.

The thing I learnt from this race is that I need to practice fixing a puncture in race conditions. I will buy several CO2 cannisters and a connector which allows you to control the gas flow, and then practice repairing punctures against the clock. I might also try a combination CO2 inflator / pump such as the Topeak Hybridrocket HP. I also need to consider whether the super-fast Michelin Power Competition tyres I was running are worth the extra puncture risk. There is probably a good reason that Continental Grand Prix 4000S II tyres are so popular.

ikiiki garminGarmin Data here

 

Yosakoi Toyama Festival

I stayed one more night, so I could go for a long ride through the mountains on the Monday, as I did with Jay and Hoel in 2016. By chance, the Yosakoi Toyama Festival was in full swing on Sunday afternoon. Teams of dancers dressed in kitsch kimonos dance frenetically up and down the street behind sound trucks. It is curious mix of traditional odori, cosplay, and choreographed J-Pop which somehow works wonderfully. I have uploaded some video here.

 

Toyama to Kiso

IMG_1869Riding out of Toyama

On Monday, I cycled south through the mountains to Hida Takayama and then east over more mountains to Kiso on the Chuo Hon-sen. I followed the first part of the route Jay, Hoel, and I did in 2016, but without the torrential rain. It was a fantastic ride on mostly quiet roads through fantastic scenery and the added bonus of two historic towns along the way, Hida Furukawa and Takayama.

IMG_1872Route 360 to Takayama

The route leaves Toyama on the Jinzu river path, which you follow along the west bank for 5 km, before picking up R69 past the airport and out to Sasazu. There you join R41 which continues up the Jinzu river with its string of reservoirs and power stations. There is a bit more traffic and a lot of long tunnels, so you need a good rear light. At Inotani, you head south-west on the quieter R360 all the way to Takayama.

Hida Furukawa old town

Hida Furukawa has a well-preserved historical quarter with narrow streets and koi-filled streams. Takayama is more touristy, but I stumbled upon the 120-year-old Ebisu Soba-ya which served the most delicious tororo nameko soba I can remember eating.

Ebisu Sobaya, Takayama

From Takayama, I headed east on R361 to Kiso. This road is almost empty of traffic but absolutely full of beautiful scenery. It goes through a couple of ski resorts and then skirts Mt. Ontake which erupted disastrously a few years ago. It then crosses Nagamine Pass at 1350 metres before descending through Kiso Kaidan Highland with its fields and meadows. It’s a fine ride.

toyama ride

elevation

Garmin data here

Hiwasa Umigame 2018

IMG_1787Hiwasa Bay from Shirotodai Hotel

One of the benefits of doing the same race many times is that you can monitor your improvement, or decline, in performance. According to the data, performance in triathlon declines in your early 40s, most rapidly in swimming (5% per year over 45 years of age), and least rapidly in cycling. There is a point when I really must accept this biological fact, but in the meantime I am trying to stem the decline. Triathlon is a relatively complex sport, which means there are numerous ways to improve your performance without actually needing to be stronger or fitter or even faster.

IMG_1789Umigame Matsuri, the day before the race

In early July, I did my first Olympic distance triathlon of the season in Miyagi. I had a poor race. I felt sluggish on the bike and hopelessly slow on the run. My run time was 3 minutes slower than two years previously which made me worry that the decline had started. In this frame of mind, I prepared myself for another disappointing race in Tokushima – the notoriously hot and hilly Hiwasa OD triathlon. My pessimism was compounded by the forecast of 35C heat and the cold that I had picked up two days before the race. As we cycled around the almost deserted town on Saturday lunchtime, it seemed unimaginable that we would be racing the next day in that searing heat.

A few days earlier, I had watched an episode of GCN on YouTube featuring Cameron Wurf, Ironman world championship bike course record holder, and picked up a piece of advice that stuck in my mind. He said this: “When I’m racing, I try not to think too much about metrics. I try to think about riding fast. And what I mean by riding fast is, you’ve got to look for speed on the course, and that can sometimes mean accelerating over a rise, and accelerating down the other side to get up to top speed….Because at the end of the day, the speed is contributing to how fast you go and the time that you’ll race. It doesn’t matter how much power you’ve got. If you’re going slow, you’re going go slow.”

This might sound like stating the obvious, but it goes against the conventional wisdom of triathlon that you maintain an even power output over the whole bike leg. With the Hiwasa bike course being so up and down (I think this year there was a lot more up than down), I focused on accelerating at the top of hills (just when you feel least like accelerating), accelerating over the top, and then only letting off when I reached 60 km/h. I like to apply Wurf’s idea to the whole race; my take on this is that you need to cover every metre of a triathlon course as quickly as possible, whether is it running up the beach from the swim, or through an aid station. The time to take it easy is when you have collapsed over the finish line.

IMG_1793Dave and I checking out the bike course

My race couldn’t have gone better. I lined up at the swim start with Dave and managed to keep up with him for as long as it took to run down the beach and into the water. As soon as we were swimming, he was pulling away. Within no time I was trying to get around the stragglers from the first wave, and I lost any chance of finding someone to draft. Instead, I counted off the 100-metre marker buoys as I slowly made my way out 750 metres to the turnaround. It felt good to be swimming in a sleeveless wetsuit, but it didn’t feel fast. The return to the beach was easier due to the following swell, and I managed to get in at 27:05, over two minutes behind Dave.

DSC_0406Miyuki, Dave, and I with the legendary 89-year-old Iga-san

It is a long, narrow transition under the shade of the camphor trees of Hiwasa Hachiman Shrine. This suits me nicely as most people jog to their bike, take a breather as they take off their wetsuit, and then jog out to the mount line. I try to think of the section from the waterline to 1 km past the bike mount line as a race in itself. Everything is a mad rush, but at the same time I try to focus on each task: pull off the top half of the wetsuit as I’m running up the beach, tuck goggles and earplugs into the swim cap, sprint to the bike, pull down wetsuit, stand on legs and yank up, strap on helmet (visor already in place), pull out bike carefully, sprint to the mount line, vault on to the bike, use that speed to slip feet in bike shoes, and then pedal as hard as possible to 40 km/h. I then wait to the first bend to freewheel and tighten the straps on one shoe, and then tighten the other shoe at the next bend. For me, swim-bike transition ends about a kilometre into the bike leg; it is the biggest, easiest time gain in a triathlon.

Hiwasaa 2018 - 1

Having done the race twice before, I knew what to expect on the bike course. It follows the Minami Awa Sun Line road south west to Mugi village, and then comes back the same way. It is one of the best bike legs in Japan: lots of climbing, lots of fast, curving descents, no crowding, and views to take your breath away. I thought a lot about tyres and tyre pressures but still didn’t get it quite right. I had wanted to use Conti Grand Prix 4000S II 25Cs as the black chili compound is great on fast technical courses. Unfortunately, they don’t fit in my forks so I used the slightly smaller Michelin Power Comp 25Cs which just don’t have the same secure feel on descents. I’ve been trying to get a definitive word on the best tyre pressures for races, but all I get is contradictory information. Somewhere there is a sweet spot between too soft and too hard which balances out rolling resistance, jolting, control, and comfort, but I have yet to find it. I suspect no one actually knows as the tyre pressure calculators I have tried give wildly different results. I ended up going for 110 PSI back and 105 PSI front, but this was too hard. On a few bends, I felt like I was nearly losing control, and on the numerous rumble strips I was having to hold on for dear life. Another thing I made sure of before the race was that my front derailleur was working smoothly as I would be using it a lot. I replaced the compact chainset with a regular 52-39 as I find the compact is more susceptible to dropping the chain. I had a 25T cassette on the rear which was plenty as the steepest slope is only 9%.

Hiwasaa 2018 - 2

Apart from a few scares on tight bends, I felt good on the bike. I passed Dave at the brow of one hill and kept accelerating over the top. I rode hard at every opportunity and then caught my breath on the steepest descents. At about the 18 km point you descend a long, straight slope to Mugi village, turn a cone, and grind your way back up the slope. 20 km later I was back in Hiwasa, getting my feet out of my shoes, and dismounting for T2. I picked up a water bottle and headed out into the sun. After a too-fast start, I slowed to a 4:15 pace which I managed to maintain until the end. As with last year, the main thing that sustained me was the bags of ice handed out at every aid station. Ice, buckets of water, hosepipes – all I could think of was cold water.

Hiwasaa 2018 - 3

Like the swim and the bike, the run is a slightly asymmetric out-and-back with the turnaround at 5.3 km. At about the 6 km marker I spotted the first person in my age group – 1.5 km behind. The pressure was off so I could almost enjoy the run in to the finish. I must have kept running hard, though, as once I got over the finish line I staggered on autopilot into the medical tent where they took my blood pressure and laid me down on a mat for a bit of TLC and a lot of ice. Dave came in a while later followed by Miyuki. We returned to our hotel for an onsen, and then went back to the race finish for an awadori performance and the awards ceremony.

IMG_1825Finish area

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Overall Swim Bike

Run

Time behind leader

2013

2:29:28 30:45 1:15:46 42:56 17:01
2017 2:27:15 27:30 1:16:51 42:52

13:08

2018 2:25:09 27:05 1:16:12 41:51

11:57

Details

The race is centred around Hiwasa Hachiman Shrine.

Hotel Shirotodai – the staff are really friendly and bend over backwards to accommodate all the triathletes staying there. They allowed us early check-in and use of the bath after the race. The dinner buffet is excellent.

We flew JAL to Tokushima, rented a car from Avis, and then 90-minute drive to Hiwasa.

On Saturday, we had a great lunch at Hiwasa-ya (ひわさ屋)

The race sells out very quickly. There is a race website in Japanese.

 

Post-race, Hiwasa Hachiman Shrine

Baramon King Middle-distance Triathlon

Goto logo

Goto Nagasaki International Triathlon runs on the same course as the former Japan Ironman which was last held in 2010. It is now called the “Baramon King” and has a suitably impressive logo with flames pouring out the back.

Goto wider map

There are two races, the A-race, which is full iron-distance, and the B-race which is a middle-distance race with a long bike leg. I had decided to do the B-race as I needed to fly back on Sunday evening. The two races share the same course, with the A-race doing extra loops of each leg. The swim is a 2 km loop in the sheltered waters of Tomie Harbour in the south of the island. The bike course starts with a small loop around the southern tip of the island, and then cuts across to the west side where it does a 55 km loop, before returning eastwards to the centre of Fukue town. The run is an out-and-back half-marathon to Dozaki point in the north-east corner of the island. The whole course is perfect from start to finish. The swim is well-marked, safe, and has no crowding at all. Likewise, the bike course has no bottlenecks, no crazy corners, or poor surfaces. It is very hilly, but there is plenty of fine scenery to enjoy as you struggle up yet another climb. The run is also very scenic, although there is little shade from the sun. The race is centred around the impressive walls and moat of the former Ishida Castle.

IMG_1708T2 and the finish area

 

Shin, Ben, and I were all doing the B-race, together with some friends of Shin. On race morning, we met at 6 a.m. by Ishida Castle and took the shuttle bus down to the swim start. Transition was already full of A-racers getting ready for their 7 a.m. start. We cheered them off and watched as the competitors quickly stretched out into a long line, with the leaders passing the second buoy, as the tail-enders were just entering the water.

I set up my bike, clipped my shoes into the pedals, and loaded my top-tube bento with two SIS energy gels, two PowerBar gels, and two Enemochi bars. I was following Shin’s advice of using a mix of nutrition. All of the bikes around me were loaded with water bottles, saddlebags, and food. I just had my old Profile Design bottle between the aerobars, and empty bottle cages to take bidons from aid stations – I wanted to keep the bike as light as possible for the hills. I pumped my 25c tyres to 105 psi, checked I was in the right gear, did a final check of the brakes and wheel clearances, and headed off to T1 to hand in my “Bike” transition bag. Unfortunately, I had missed one thing on the bike which might have cost me a podium place.

Swim mapSwim Course

The first A-race athletes were coming out of the water as we entered for the warm-up. The water was supposed to be 25°C but luckily felt quite a bit cooler. We then lined up on a launch ramp waiting for the klaxon to fire us into the water. I was on the far left as usual, two rows from the front. Ben and Shin were in the middle, looking like they meant business. 8:10 – the klaxon sounded, we were off.

I quickly got onto the heels of the two swimmers in front of me and was relieved to find them swimming at a strong pace. We were slower than the lead group, but it was just right for me – no stress, no breathlessness. We rounded the first buoy at 350 metres and headed for the next. My draft was starting to veer off to the right, so I left his wake and headed for the second buoy on my own. And that is how I stayed for the rest of the swim. I was completely on my own apart from when I passed the slowest of the A-race swimmers. Between the second and third buoys you head out towards the mouth of the bay, straight into the swell and chop. On the crests, I could see the lead group off in the distance, but at least they were in sight. At 1100 metres, I rounded the two furthest buoys, and then turned back towards the finish. It immediately got much easier as I swam with the swell, and soon I caught another person in the B-race. I seemed to be having a good swim as the lead group were still just in sight.

After the last buoy, the course turns back into the harbour, and I swam the last 300 metres in smooth water. I pulled myself out of the water, up the ramp, and under the clock. I had done the swim 31:38; I checked the distance on my watch – 1.95 km. This translated as my first 1500 metre swim under 24 minutes.

image12Finishing the swim

I ran to T1, passing several people who were walking, picked up my transition bag and entered a crowded changing tent. Ben was just about to leave when I arrived, but I think I must have passed him in the bike area. As I see it, cutting a minute in transition is a lot easier than cutting a minute from your swim. My self-satisfaction didn’t last long as the first thing I noticed when I got on my bike was that my trip computer was missing. I had changed the battery the evening before but not been able to put it on my bike which I’d had to check in on Saturday afternoon. I would have to rely on my Garmin for bike pacing, so I turned it around on my wrist to make it more visible. In the process of doing so, I hit the lap button and was now registering a run pace of 40 km/h. It is not easy resetting a Garmin watch during a race, but I really wanted to know the distances so I wouldn’t miss the point where the B-race splits from the A-course. Finally, I got my Garmin back to the bike leg and I returned to racing. I wonder how much time I lost there.

bike mapBike Course

Awesome is an overused word, but the bike leg really did inspire awe. We rode through unspoilt forests, bucolic valleys, and traditional villages. We struggled up steep hills, and then descended at wheel-wobbling paces in an attempt to get enough speed for the next climb. We passed by breathtaking beaches with golden sand and turquoise water, and then zigzagged back up into the hills.

I tried to pace both my effort and my nutrition. I started with an SIS gel which was too runny for me, and then alternated Enemoti bars and Powerbar gels. Halfway through the second Enemoti I realised it was sitting undigested in my stomach. The Powerbar gels went in easiest and seemed to agree with me. I guess my idea of eating natural food during a race is overoptimistic.

Top: Bukeyashiki Samurai Street; Middle: Hachioji Shrine; Bottom: Castle moat

I arrived at the 55 km loop and started passing more A-racers. At Tamanoura, the road passes through a long tunnel which comes out at a fjord-like inlet. It then climbs to a turnaround before returning to the loop. At this point, I was passed for the first time by someone in a Shonan Bellmare tri suit – the swim squad I train with. I caught him at the next hill and greeted him, but then slowed to avoid the mistake of riding at another person’s pace. Soon I was passed by another B-racer, Nakabayashi, in a national team tri suit, burying himself on the bike leg. He went on to get the fastest bike time.

There were several tunnels along the course which gave some brief relief from the sun. However, they were dark, especially seen through my helmet visor. In one uphill tunnel, I heard someone lose their chain as they changed down to the small chainring. Sorting out a dropped chain in a dark tunnel is never going to be easy. From then on, I made sure to change gear before entering tunnels.

Takahama beachTakahama Beach on the bike course

I hadn’t needed to worry about resetting the Garmin, as there were regular distance markers along the course. There were also regular aid stations with water and sports drink in bidons. I would take a water bottle at one station and squirt it into my aero-bottle. At the next station I would throw it into the bottle catcher, and then wait for the following station to pick up another water. That way I saved myself 500 ml, or half a kilo, on the climbs.

At the 88 km mark, the road passes through Nihongusu and this is where we left the A-race behind. I rode up a one-kilometre straight with no one in front and no one behind. For a moment I wondered if I had gone the wrong way. At the next big climb fatigue started to creep in, so I had another gel and focused on the remaining 35 km. At Nonokire, there is a 10 km out-and-back stretch which gave me the chance to see how many people were ahead. I lost count at 14, but didn’t spot anyone close to my age.

By now most of my thoughts revolved around ways to alleviate the aches and pains in my back and neck and shoulders. Some people might be able to contort their body into an aero position for hours on end, but I am not one of them. I started to look forward to every climb so I could get up off the aero bars for a couple of minutes. I wonder how much advantage a TT bike has on long races; the comfort of a road bike with aero bars might allow you to sustain more power. I shall try my road bike next time.

image7 (1)Dismounting at the bike finish

image8 (1)

Finally, I rounded a hill and Fukue came into view. I was spent. After nearly four hours on the bike, it was hard to know what kind of half-marathon I would be able to run. At T2, I got out of my shoes, and then leapt from the bike as if I was doing a sprint. Someone grabbed my bike, another gave me my transition bag, and I was soon exchanging bike helmet for run cap. Unfortunately, my transition to running was not so smooth. The first two or three kilometres felt like running through treacle – hot treacle. At the first aid station, I stopped and allowed myself to be showered down, took some sports drink, felt sick, and gingerly set off again into the blistering sun. At the next aid station, I did the same, but tried cola instead. As it passed my lips, I felt like I had taken the elixir of the gods. I was up and running.

It is curious that a drink formulated in 1886 has become one of the main forms of sustenance of triathletes the world over. Or maybe not. Coca Cola has two key ingredients: an extract from coca leaves, and another from kola nuts. The coca leaves are processed in the company’s own plant which is the only one in the US authorised to process coca. The kola nuts are a rich source of caffeine. It is not surprising that cyclists’ musette feed bags often contain a can of coke. All my efforts to race pure evaporated beneath the Goto sun. In my own defence, my brain was so fried by then that I was taking two cups of cola, but only drinking one. I kept pouring the second over my head much to the amusement of the already very cheerful volunteers at the aid stations (of which there were many).

Run mapRun Course

At about the 8 km mark, I passed Nakabayashi who was having an animated conversation with himself about the challenges of the run. Soon afterwards, I passed the Bellmare member, who wished me well as I overtook in slow motion. At the halfway point, I got to see what was going on behind me. To my surprise, there were several people just behind, including one with a race number a few below mine. Was he in my age group? Any hopes of slowing for the last 10 km were dashed. I turned off all unnecessary feelings, shortened my stride, increased my cadence, and entered that other world. On each climb, I worked hard to keep my legs moving, and then eased off a little on the gentle descents. I held off everyone until 2 kilometres to go, when I was passed by a reassuringly youthful looking chap with a spring in his step. I held him for a while, and even started catching the person ahead, but in the end let them race each other to the line. And how they must have raced. I could hear a loud roar at the finish ahead and excited commentary over the tannoy. They crossed the line with identical times, which is pretty impressive after more than 6 hours of racing. When my turn came to run up the red carpet, I had the luxury of no one behind, so could enjoy the moment to the full.

image9 (1)That finishing feeling

The enjoyment was short-lived as I soon collapsed into a chair from which I couldn’t move for the next 20 minutes. Shin crossed the finish line and joined me in the next chair looking much the way I felt. A few moments later, Ben came bouncing in looking full of life. That too was short-lived, as I soon found him lying on the grass with his arms twitching. I raised his legs on to a transition bag and wondered why we do this to ourselves. The answer soon came through. Apparently, I had come 6th overall and Ben 3rd in his age group. Shin just missed the podium by being not quite young enough nor quite old enough to place in the top three. When the full results came through, I discovered that I had won my age group by less than two minutes. It just goes to show that all those seconds saved along the course of the race are worth fighting for.

B-race results

 

image3After the race

The Best Race in Japan

Could this be the best race in Japan? It is hard to think of a better. Here are a few of my personal highlights:

The race briefing was at 1 p.m. on Saturday allowing the whole afternoon for race prep. It was clear, concise, and informative.

Shin, Ben and I swam near the hotel on Saturday afternoon

Bike and run bag check-in was at reception. We didn’t have to go anywhere else for gear drops.

The race is centred around the castle ruins, with their impressive walls and moat, and a large grassed area.

At the race start, there were no queues at the toilets! That is certainly a first for any kind of race.

There were more volunteers than any race I can remember, and they all scored ten out of ten for energy and enthusiasm.

There were more aid stations, both on the bike and the run, than any other race I’ve done. The run stations had shower hoses, and a full range of drinks and foods.

There was someone standing ahead of many aid stations to take your order! This is definitely a first for me. My order of shower and cola would be bellowed out through a megaphone, and then I would arrive at the aid station to get handed two cups of cola while showered me.

There was no crowding at all on the bike. I didn’t have to slow down once for other riders.

There was no obvious drafting. At a couple of points, they had set up drafting check zones with lines across the road at 10 metre intervals. Nice idea.

The bike course has everything: long flat straights, big climbs (1800 metres of ascending), curving descents, and scenery to die for. Riding around Takahama beach, it was hard not to stop and gawp.

The run is great. Just the right balance of hills and flats. And again, the scenery is fantastic.

The race organisation is excellent down to the smallest detail. There are even proper showers at the finish.

It is a beautiful, laid-back island steeped in history. It is being considered for World Heritage status for its hidden Christian sites.

The best thing is the local support. The whole island seems to be behind the race. The tourist office even seconds a bilingual support staff, Shiho Umeki, to the race organisation. She booked my accommodation, met me at the airport, showed me to registration, took Ben and I to a restaurant for lunch, and helped in every way she could. After the race, she took me back to the airport. Amazing.

image6

Pre-race fish dinner at Shinsei

IMG_1692Flying to Goto-Fukue from Fukuoka

 

Travel and Accommodation

There are various choices for getting to the race. I flew with ANA via Fukuoka on Saturday morning, and took a 7 p.m. flight back to Haneda on Sunday. The flight from Fukuoka to Goto-Fukue is on a 48-seat propeller plane with limited baggage space. The organisers say that bikes are not allowed, but I phoned ANA who said it was okay. However, this did not go down well with the organisers, so I will send my bike next year. There are also flights via Nagasaki on a similar plane. If you have more time, you can take a ferry from Nagasaki. There is a jet foil and a regular slow boat.

Accommodation is limited, and if Goto gets World Heritage status, it will become even scarcer. As I discovered, the race office will help with accommodation, but a lot of this is shared bunk rooms. If you want a single room, make this very clear. It is best to stay in Fukue town as near to the castle grounds as possible. It is then walking distance to registration, race briefing, the shuttle bus to the start, and the finish area.

Links: 

Race website

English race booklet

Japan Guide on Goto

 

Sea Kayaking to Beach Muffin

P5270006Heading out from Ohama beach

I’m fairly certain that no one has ever written a blog on the subject of “Sea Kayaking to Beach Muffin” so here goes. After our Hayama swim on Sunday, Youri and I were joined by kayaker John for a paddle around the bay. Without a plan, we headed downwind around Shibusawa point towards Najima Island with its iconic giant red torii.

P5270010

P5270011Arriving at Najima island

Najima has been battered by storms in the last few years, and the bridges that once linked the concrete key to the island are now in the water. But there is still a tiny sheltered bay where we could rest up and enjoy the beautiful view of the Hayama shoreline, from the forests on Sengen hill, to the pines surrounding the Emperor’s palace.

P5270017Up the river to Zushi

I then had a  brainwave: let’s paddle to Beach Muffin. This little known gem is a vegan restaurant with tricky opening hours, and little sign from the outside of the pleasures awaiting within. It has the feel of a Sunday afternoon back home, lounging in a rustic pub, reading the paper, chatting with friends over a real ale.

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With beer and burgers in our minds, we paddled across to Hayama Marina, around to Zushi Bay, under Route 134, and up the river which winds into Zushi. The banks are high concrete, but as luck would have it, there was a narrow ledge beneath Beach Muffin where we could moor up, and climb over a fence, and cross the street to the restaurant. Our luck continued, as there was still one table free. We ordered vegan burgers and the No. 2 Yorocco pale ale made locally in Zushi. The beer was about as good as a beer can be, made even better by what we had done to get it.

P5270021

Refreshed, we returned to the boats which were now afloat on the incoming tide, and headed out across Zushi Bay and around Osaki point to Kotsubo with its cliffs and caves and marina. The wind had picked up so our trip back to Hayama was enlivened by a choppy swell and the sailing boats we had to weave through. This time we really needed the shelter of Najima island where Youri found his kayak was half full of water. The high tide let us paddle through Shibusawa rocks back to Ohama.

P5270028

P5270013

Nagaragawa 102

j1

Nagaragawa 102 is a middle distance race on the Nagaragawa river, 20 km west of Nagoya. It has a pleasingly symmetrical 2 km swim, 80 km bike, and 20 km run. The Nagaragawa was once famous for cormorant fishing, and traditional fishing communities still nestle around artificial lagoons and locks. The race is located around Kiso Misawa Park at the confluence of three wide rivers, the Ibigawa, the Kisogawa, and the Nagaragawa. Busy roads run along the tops of flood defences on all three rivers, but you barely notice the traffic as the race is down by river on the pancake-flat riverside paths.

InkedNagaragawa map_LI

This would be my first triathlon of the season, after Ishigaki was cancelled, and my first race over Olympic distance for three years. I had no idea how I would do as I hadn’t changed my training from my usual routine of swimming a bit, cycling to work, and running at an easy pace whenever I feel like it.

Nagaragawa course mapCourse Map

On Saturday morning, I took the train down to Kuwana station, 13 km south of the race, and went to check in at the Sanco Inn. As I left the station, my bike bag was nearly torn from my hands by a fierce wind. I took shelter in the Everest curry restaurant where I had a passable lunch set with the weakest chai I have ever left undrunk. After lunch, I left my bags at the hotel, and cycled to Kiso Misawa Park to register. The ride along the narrow spit of land that divides the Ibi and Kiso rivers would normally be very pleasant, but the strong winds turned it into an ordeal. My rear disc cover was not helping; fortunately, I had the tools to remove it before the race.

IMG_1640Race bag goodies

At reception, I met Ben and collected my race numbers and goodies from Kiriyo Suzuki, the Olympic triathlon manager. The last time I did the race was in 2014 with Stan and Jean-Marc. At that time, we received a nifty running backpack which I still use. This time we got the usual t-shirt, a top tube “bento box”, and some very useful arm warmers / sun protectors. And that was it – no race briefing, no rules, no waiting in line.

image6Ben looking aero

The wind was even stronger on my ride back to Kuwana along the top of the river bank. I kept worrying about getting blown into traffic, but in the end I got blown off the road and into some long grass – a new first for me. The next day’s race would be interesting. Back in the hotel, I met up with Keren and Makiko and joined them for a meal at an old-school Japanese-style Italian-ish restaurant, the curiously named “Depart”. The food was tasty, the salads huge, and the party at the next table was lively. They were celebrating an art prize for one of their members by opening numerous bottles of champagne which they drank from a hollowed-out melon. Keren got into the spirit of things by having a pre-race melonful of champagne – this could be a unique way to prepare for a triathlon.

IMG_1628Pre-race hydration

I was up at 4:30 on race morning, and the first thing I did was look out the window to check the wind. It had died down a lot. I ate a bowl of muesli, half a bagel, and dropped my race bag with Keren who had a car. It was still windy on the ride up to the race, but at least I could stay on the road. I checked in my bike and inspected the swim course which ran upstream for 500 metres, around a buoy, and then back with the current for a second lap. A line of buoys divided the upstream and downstream sections of the course which was barely a few metres wide in places. Upstream was also into the wind which would make for challenging swimming.

Unlike every other JTU race, Nagaragawa doesn’t appear to have much in the way of rules. There was supposed to be a race briefing over the PA, but no one seemed to listen. The swim warm-up was relaxed, and lasted until a few minutes before the start. There were no group exercises, no entrance ceremony, and the transition was left open. As a result, nothing went wrong, and everyone was relaxed. I can see why Jean-Marc keeps coming back year after year.

JMM jumpingJean-Marc trying to walk on water

The first wave went off with Ben at 8:00, two minutes later Jean-Marc and Shin headed off, followed by Keren and I at 8:04. Within moments I was struggling. The combination of the current, the headwind and the lower buoyancy of freshwater made breathing hard and sighting impossible. A constant barrage of tiny waves bounced over my head, so it felt like was swimming under the water rather than through it. At least dehydration would not be a problem as I took in more water than air with each breath. I soon caught up with the previous wave, which meant I had to find a way through a hundred pairs of flailing arms.

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At the turn buoy, it all got a lot worse. I trod water while waiting for a gap to emerge, and then had to keep changing direction to find a way through the crush of swimmers heading back to the start. However, it was much easier swimming with the wind and the current, so I soon found a pace I could settle into. The second lap was much the same as the first, although this time I was trying to find my way through the younger flailing arms of the first wave.

I was very relieved to climb out of the water, but less thrilled by the time showing on my Garmin – about 40 minutes. Still, there were not too many bikes in transition, so perhaps I was not the only one to have struggled in the swim. In transition, I pulled on socks to protect my feet on the rough asphalt and ran out for the 80 km bike leg. Normally, I would be reining in my enthusiasm on the first kilometres of the bike, trying to stay around 40 km/h, but here I was struggling to get above 35 km/h into the headwind. After 4 km of this, I got to the turn around, and was soon trying to hold myself below 42 km/h. Pacing was going to be tricky. The first lap was bliss as there were few riders on the perfectly smooth course, so I could gradually work my way into a rhythm. Before the downwind turn I saw Jean Marc battling back the other way into the wind, and was soon doing the same myself, a minute or so behind.

image5Jean-Marc leaving the 20 km/h transition zone

It would have been an uneventful bike leg had it not been for a small group of riders drafting ahead of me. Halfway round the second lap, I caught them, and then pushed myself into the red to open up a gap. Wishful thinking. A few minutes later, I got to the turn around, and there they were in a line behind me. It was the same old problem of how to deal with slightly slower rivals who are drafting in a non-drafting race. Again I tried to pull away, but all I managed to do was go back into the red and end up falling behind again. After several attempts, I gave up and stayed 20 metres behind the group. It was frustrating to see them up ahead in a bunch drafting each other, while I pedalled along on my own, but the alternative was to give them a free ride. On lap 4, I finally caught up with Jean-Marc who had the same problem disentangling himself from the pelaton. He had to ride out ahead, off to the side, or out back of them to keep away from their draft. In the end, I just rode my own race and tried to forget about this irritation.

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I was in and out of T2 in a flash and soon running much too fast. My Garmin was showing a 3:45 pace which I would pay for sooner or later – sooner as it turned out. After five minutes my thighs were cramping and I had to slow right down. I passed someone who was doing the familiar straight-legged, cramped-thigh walk and slowed even more until my own muscles loosened a little. At the first turn around, I looked out for anyone else in my age group, but there was no one there. It was then just a case of trying to hold my pace as much as possible to the finish. On lap 3, I started to feel faint and realised I had had only two gels on the bike, but couldn’t face eating another. Instead, I just slowed a little each kilometre until I reached the finish at 4:40 pace.

group after race

In keeping with the laid back race organisation, there was no grand medal ceremony. Instead, I was immediately called up to the stage and given a bag of goodies. Soon after Jean-Marc crossed the finish line looking much the way I felt – contentedly exhausted. Ben came in soon after, followed by Shin and Keren.

IMG_1641More goodies

It is easy to think of Nagaragawa as a run-of-the-mill training race, but actually it is a fine race in its own right. There is nothing to dislike about it, and the simplicity of the course gives you the chance to focus on your own strengths and weaknesses. Clearly, my swim is still a problem, especially in difficult conditions. At first, I felt that all my winter training in the ocean had gone to waste, but actually I was 40th in the swim which was okay. I was disappointed to have faded badly in the run, but it is so hard to know how to pace yourself after 80 km of cycling in strong winds. Perhaps it just makes sense to run as fast as you can at each moment of the race. The biggest plus was that my time of 4:21:39 was 6 minutes faster than four years previously in calmer conditions. Four years older and 6 minutes faster. At this rate, I will be on the overall podium by the time I am 70.

results

Results

Three minutes to paradise

Himeji-castle-marathon-2016-start

Himeji seems a good place for a marathon. It is a small city with a lot of space and a magnificent white egret floating over the north part of the town. The White Egret is the finest surviving example of Japanese castle architecture, and usually crowded with World Heritage sightseers. But for one day of the year it becomes both the start and the finish of a rather good marathon. As with every race I have attended in Japan, the route is lined with cheering spectators, who somehow found the energy to cheer and shout through a bitter northerly wind.

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Although it is a young race, it is well organised and sure to grow in popularity. It is also timed nicely to catch disappointed Tokyo Marathon applicants like myself. However, I had left my search for a hotel too late, and had to make do with the Station Hotel in the extraordinarily named Aioi, 20 minutes away by local train. Apart from having 4 consecutive vowels in its name (something which apparently only occurs in one other language, Kiribatese), there is not much to say about Aioi, apart from the fact that it has more hotels than people. It would be a good place for a conference on Micronesian linguistics.

On Saturday, I ducked out of the heavy rain and into a crowded registration hall where I was whisked over to the overseas entry table. I was then jumped upon by a local TV crew eager to interview a genuine overseas entrant, but their enthusiasm faded when I told them I had only popped down from Kanagawa. With the rain still pouring down, there was not much to do but to go to Aioi, eat a fish supper, and get an early night. I was trying to be serious about this race as I had trained harder, or at least longer, than for previous races. I hoped I could take another step towards three hours.

In the morning, I obsessed over all the usual runner’s obsessions: a big, early breakfast (muesli, banana, bread and jam at 5 a.m.), no coffee, gels in the back pocket of my shorts, anti-chafing cream around my toes, the right combination of clothing (thin long-sleeved thermal top plus long-sleeved running top), and of course setting the virtual pacer on my Garmin to the all-important 4:16/min. I wouldn’t run at that pace, but I would at least know how far off three hours I was. And of course, I have missed one obsession that every endurance athletes knows about – the toilet. The huge queues in front of the portaloos at ever race tell me I am not alone with this concern. Having lost time for a pee stop during Osaka Marathon, I had researched long and hard about this issue. My conclusions were as follows: no coffee on race morning, keep warm before the race, find a way to use the loo as near to the start time as possible, and wear warm gloves during the race. Anything is worth a try.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWalking out of Himeji station

I arrived at Himeji station at 7 a.m. and emerged to a line of volunteers and schoolkids cheering us loudly. This was going to be a good day. The castle was catching the early morning sun, and the rain-drenched streets were already starting to dry. It was 2 degrees and the wind was whipping through each gap in the buildings. I was glad I had dressed properly for the occasion.

 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWalking to the start

The next couple of hours passed slowly as I made my preparations and checked my bag into a huge subterranean car park beneath the castle grounds. At least it was warm there. The entrance to the starting block did not close until 8:45 which is a big advantage of a smaller race. I then played my final tactical card: I grasped my stomach and asked the volunteer guarding the starting block if I could pop out to the loo, and he obliged with a sympathetic smile.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWarming up with 90 minutes to go…

The race was started by a man with a fine set of lungs, and we were off running down a much too narrow street to the first turn. As usual, I quickly lost all sense of direction as we turned several times on our way to the river we would follow out into the countryside. Instead, I tried to pay attention to keeping a pace of 4:18/km, the arbitrary pace I had set for myself. This proved hard to do. One moment my Garmin showed 4:10 pace and the next 4:25. I felt like I was speeding up and slowing down all the time, so in the end I took my eyes off the watch and instead followed a chap with leather sandals and a strange arm swing. Anyone planning to run 42 km in leather sandals must know what he is doing, so I kept with him for the next few kilometres. Finally, I found my pace and left him and his swinging arms behind.

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From 2 km to 16 km the route gradually climbs from close to sea level to 80 metres. All this way there was an icy wind – at least the predicted 6 m/s – which buffetted both runners and spectators. At least the scenery was splendid. We ran up a river valley planted with yellow blooming rape and mountains rising all around. Despite the cold, every villager and farmer seemed to be standing by the road, and from time to time taiko drum groups belted out a thunderous beat. I can only wonder at the fantastic enthusiasm in Japan for running races.

At 16 km we turned back down the valley, crossed the river, and ran close to the mountainside for a while. The wind here was worse but by then I had reached halfway and my world was narrowing. I ran in group for a time trying to find shelter and support, but it was hard to keep up. The string between us kept promising to snap, but time after time I willed myself to hold on to them. I hadn’t reached 30 kilometres, but already I was struggling to hold my 4:18 pace.

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My next target was 32 kilometres; at this point I would be in familiar territory – a 10 km run. Olympic distance triathlons often come down to a 10k run on tired legs. All I needed to do was convince myself that this was just one more run leg of a triathlon…and it worked. Somewhere I found my legs and pulled away from the group that had made me suffer for the last thirty minutes. I started chasing down one fading runner after another and found to my surprise that I was holding a 4:15/km pace. My fastest kilometre split came at the 39th kilometre – 4:13. This was something completely new for me. It was hard to know which part of my body hurt the most, but it felt good to have finally beaten the dreaded fade.

Before and After

The last part of the race winds around the castle walls, past lines of cheering spectators, through a gate, and into the castle grounds. I slowed my pace to savour the last minute of running inside a World Heritage Site, and crossed the line in 3:02:38. A medal was hung around my neck, a bottle of Pocari Sweat placed into my hand, and I was then ushered with all the other weary finishers into of all places the city zoo. What a terrible shock. I had run the marathon of my life and then suddenly I was plunged into a stinking hell of imprisoned polar bears and elephants and kangaroos sitting in mud. I found the solitary caged polar bear particularly shocking. I had never seen one before, but turned away in guilt.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARunning into the castle grounds

I waddled away from the zoo as fast as my wooden legs would carry me. After picking up my finisher’s certificate, I entered a new paradise – a tent full of onsen footbaths. I slipped my poor feet into the steaming water and actually shed a few tears of joy. From hell to heaven in three minutes. Now I have the matter of a different three minutes to ponder over till next season.

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My Garmin Data