The Joy of Isshiki

IMG_1223Isshiki at its very finest

I almost hadn’t gone for a swim this week, as the forecast was for 4 degrees with brisk northerly winds. What the forecast doesn’t tell us is that the air would be crystal clear and the sea pellucid. At the last minute, we decided to swim at Isshiki in an attempt to avoid the icy patch of water in Ohama. What a very good decision. The water must have been at least a couple of degrees warmer, and it was so clear we could see right down to the bottom even two hundred metres out. It felt at times like I was flying high over the sand and rocks.

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I’d also forgotten how beautiful Isshiki can be on days like this: the gnarled pines, the sweep of sand, the curve of the bay, Oshima, Izu, and Mt. Fuji in the distance. After a 1700-metre swim, Tim, Niall and I soaked up the sun and absorbed the splendiferous view.

garmin 1A 1700-metre loop of Isshiki Bay

 

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Vegetable Splits

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Yesterday, I entered the 30-kilometre race in the Vegetable Marathon series. The course is 6 laps around Lake Saiko in Saitama with three short, steep slopes on each lap. In last weekend’s 30 km race I had positive splits, so this time I decided to try negative splits to see and feel the difference. I planned to do the first 10 km at 4:20/km pace, the next 10 km at 4:15/km pace, and then the last 10 km at 4:10/km pace. It sort of worked, but the difference was not so great: 4:18 > 4:15 > 4:12. The end result was an overall average pace of 4:15/km compared with 4:14 last week. In other words, I was a tad slower, but there was also over 100 metres of climbing. Overall, I didn’t really feel it worked well for me. In the first 10 kilometres I spent the whole time trying to control my pace, so I couldn’t really enjoy running. In the second 10 km I felt like I was trying to make up for lost time, so again I couldn’t really enjoy myself. And then in the final 10 km I had to really push hard to get down to 4:12 pace which felt way too hard for me. My conclusion: I need to try even splits.

garmin mapGarmin data

Overall, it is a pleasant enough setting, with lots of trees and the artificial lake to look at. The standard was very high, with my age group won by someone called Yuichiro Osuda (大須田 祐一郎) in 1:59:43 (for 30.5 kilometres). My 2:09:10 seemed pitifully slow until I googled Mr. Osada. It turns out he was second in Fukuoka International Marathon in 1986 with a time of 2:11:19. That made me feel a bit better.

Marathon training

As I am training for Himeji marathon on February 11th, I have been looking for advice, methods and inspiration to help me shave the last few minutes off my time to get under three hours. At the age of 57, there is only one way my times are going to go if I only stick with the status quo. I have to get better just to clock the same times. One problem is that I don’t have the willpower to do the intense, repetitive training sessions considered by many to be essential to improving times. Another problem is the niggling, long-term Achilles injury that flares up whenever I increase my training. I need to find a way to improve my times without destroying my Achilles while still enjoying my training.

Achilles exercisesAchilles exercises, from Alfredson, et al (1998)

Inspiration has come in two ways, both from recommendations of triathlon friends. Mika posted a link to a French TV documentary on the Japanese marathon runner, Yuki Kawauchi, entitled “L’incroyable Monsieur K”. I’d heard of Kawauchi and his individualistic approach to endurance running, but this documentary really put his achievements into perspective. As a devout amateur, he has managed to continue his full-time job as a civil servant working in Saitama, while becoming perhaps the most successful Japanese distance runner in recent times. While everyone else follows strict, scientific training regimes, he seems to succeed through self-discipline and logging high mileages, many in races. Basically, much of his training is through racing.

KawauchiThe incredible Mr. K

 With this in mind, I registered for two local races this month, a 30-kilometre along the Tama River, and another one week later in Saitama. During my regular training runs, I rarely manage to reach race speed, and then for only a few kilometres. However, whenever I enter a race, I find myself running at a pace I cannot imagine sustaining in training. For example, in December I did several training runs over 20 kilometres, but my average pace would be between 5:15 and 5:30. On Saturday, I did the Tama 30k run at an average pace of 4:14. What on earth is going on? Am I just lazy in training? Even factoring in the hilly roads and trails I train on, it is hard to draw any other conclusion.

Tama me runningTama 30K

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The other recommendation came from Niall who has run a marathon in 2:46. He mentioned the book “The Sports Gene” which I am now racing to finish. In some ways, it is a little depressing as it puts a strong case for the importance of genetics in deciding who is to become a top athlete. However, it also makes the point that everyone is genetically different so one training method does not suit all athletes. Instead, it is necessary to find what works for you. This is something I have been thinking about for a long time. It seems that many triathletes invest heavily in supposedly scientific training programmes which may or may not work for them. I prefer to take bits and pieces from as many sources as possible, try them out, see how they feel, and then make them my own. A sort of inverse o-makase approach to sport.

Hayama Views

IMG_1203Evening on Sengen Ridge

We all need a reason to leave our warm, comfortable homes and go for a long run on a cold winter’s day. One reason for me is the incredible views that Hayama offers – views so spectacular that the Emperor had a villa built by Isshiki beach back in 1894. The same views lured the nobility, as well as many early foreign residents, to Hayama’s hills and beaches to have beautiful villas built in the latest fusion of traditional Japanese and western styles. Every year, during the Hayama Arts & Music Festival which is around Golden Week, a few of these old “besso” are opened to the public. Walking around these elegant houses it is impossible not to feel greatly saddened by the demise of most of these historical buildings, most of which have been demolished to make way for the latest fashion for concrete or plastic.

DSC_1162Dawn from our street

However, the views are still here. It is hard to pick a favourite, but the trail behind our house along the Sengen Ridge offers two of the finest. At the highest point of the ridge, a few of the trees were recently cleared to reveal a grand panoramic view of Isshiki to the south-west, right round to the deep bay of Zushi to the north. You can see why the Meiji nobility wanted to move here. It is a view like nothing else on Earth. To the south west, the curving sweep of Chojagaski island and sand spit protects Ohama Bay where we swim most Sundays. The palace is nestled among black pines behind Isshiki Beach, which CNN Travel ranked 65th in its “100 best beaches around the world”. Fifty kilometres to the south, the active volcanic island of Oshima stands alone in the Pacific. Moving northwards, the view from the hilltop is obscured by another ridge, Ominesan, which falls straight down into the Ocean at Shibasaki, a marine sanctuary where we snorkel all summer. From there the views become quite extraordinary. Sagami Bay sweeps round in a gentle crescent for 50 kilometres to the rugged Izu coast, with Amagi-san the highest point at 1406 metres. As the winter sun sets behind the Amagi range, it illuminates the iconic view of the white beacon off Shibasaki, the torii gate on Najima island, the lighthouse atop Enoshima island, and behind them all, snow-covered Mt. Fuji bathed in orange light. There is a famous list of 100 views of Mt. Fuji, which now seems to have 128 locations. Location 84 is Hayama, which confusingly has 4 different viewpoints listed, none of them Sengen. Clearly the authors of this list have not visited this spot on the ridge.

DSC_1111Isshiki Bay

At the end of the ridge, the view from Sengen-yama itself is equally stunning. Unlike elsewhere, there are no trees to obscure the view (There used to be a large grove of cherry trees on the slope, but they all died, perhaps from the salt spray which is carried up during typhoons.) As a result, you get the same view as the black kites which circle overhead every evening hoping to be fed by the Episcopalian church further down the ridge. It is a place to sit for a while, eat a mikan, and soak up the perfect scene below.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALooking across Najima from Morito Shrine

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAStorm approaching Shinnase Harbour, Morito

 

IMG_4791The Episcopalian Church, Sengen Ridge

 

IMG_4585Shibasaki Marine Reserve

 

IMG_1282The torii on Najima island

 

IMG_1207Kayaking in front of Morito Shrine

 

IMG_0374Hayama Motomachi and Fuji-san

 

DSC_1194Lenticular clouds over Mt. Fuji

 

IMG_4801cropThe View

Arasaki Running

IMG_1169Otowa Bay

Halfway down Miura Peninsula is a small rocky promontory called Arasaki. It is an area of great beauty, so far spared the condominiums and luxury second homes creeping south from Akiya and Sajima. One of my favourite long runs is to simply follow the coast as closely as possible south from Hayama, ending at Arasaki. The trick is to stay off the main road, Route 134, as much as possible. After ten years of cycling and running up and down this coastline, there probably aren’t many more back roads and tracks left to discover.

IMG_1164Mt. Fuji viewed from Tateishi

For the first few kilometres, I followed the 134, but just after Tateishi, a famous rock stack and Mt. Fuji viewpoint, I dropped down on to the beach and ran along to Akiya fishing port. From there, I ran up and down steep, narrow roads to the larger fishing port of Sajima, well known for its fishmongers and restaurants. I looped back to the 134, crossed to the backstreets of Ogino, and on south to the Japanese Air Force Base in Otowa Bay. Despite the base, Otowa is a peaceful bay, with its own grand views of Fuji-san.

IMG_1170Arasaki Pines

Past the base, I turned off on the road to Arasaki which soon leaves suburbia behind, and enters a typical stretch of coastline struggling to retain its beauty despite all the efforts of the fishing communities that line the road. I have no idea why this is, but orderly, tidy Japan disintegrates when it gets to the sea. I have yet to visit a pretty fishing community; instead, rotting, rusting, refuse piles up against dilapidated shacks and crumbling pontoons. Poverty is obviously one reason for the decay, but the piles of rotten fishing nets and ropes, broken polystyrene ice boxes, and years-old garbage is hard to explain. From Kamakura down to Jogashima, there is barely a beach or port which is not blighted by rubbish and decay. I think of the stunning beauty of fishing villages in Cornwall, the Algarve, and Majorca and wonder why it can’t be the same here.

IMG_1190Arasaki

Finally, I reached Arasaki Point from where I could leave the road and jog / walk / scramble along the next few kilometres of rocks and small beaches. It is an area of great natural beauty, with gnarled pines clinging to rocky pinnacles, all the time Fuji-san dazzling in the distance.

IMG_1191South of Arasaki

From here, I usually loop round to the bus stop at Yokosuka Shimin Hospital, but I had only run 23 km and felt like doing a bit more. I ran back towards Hayama along the main road, my legs starting to feel heavy and my head light. The traffic on the road no longer bothered me as I entered that runner’s world in which nothing matters except the next footfall and the building discomfort in your feet and legs. I was also past the point of getting a bus home, so I ran on back despite the feeling that I was about to lose a toenail or two. I arrived home drained but satisfied with an unexpected 34 kilometres of training completed.

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map 1 Hayama to Arasaki and back

map 2Arasaki detail

Garmin Data

Christmas Eve Swim

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It has been a long, long wait, but at last the clear winter waters have arrived. Clear enough to see the bottom two hundred metres out from the beach and to watch the sea urchins grazing the seabed. Clear enough to feel like I was swimming IN the ocean, rather than ploughing across its murky surface. And clear enough to watch and learn from Ben and Mizukami-san as they slid through the water ahead of me.

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Afterwards, we went for lunch at our new post-swim haunt, the oddly named H and Cafe. Are the owners inspired by two Londoners called Harry and Catherine? I must ask them. Anyway, the atmosphere is relaxed, the jazz music soothing, and the food quite excellent.

IMG_1162Hayama Lunch at “H and Cafe”

JTU Age Group Ranking

I think it was in 2015 that the Japan Triathlon Union introduced funding for all age group “champions” – the individuals who had accumulated the most points over the season – to go the World Championships. Previous to this, only one male and one female – the winners of the overall points championship – got funding. Now there is funding for 13 bands in both male and female age groups, not just for the Worlds, but also the Asian Championships. On top of this, you get a champion’s cycle top, announcements of every race you enter on the JTU website, and guaranteed entry for all ranking races.

Nanki 2016 - swim start

To win your age group, you have to accumulate points from JTU ranking races. Unsurprisingly the system is rather complicated and takes a bit of getting used to. Points are awarded for the top 5 finishers in each age group. There are three grades of race: A, B, and C. 15 points are awarded to the winner of an A race, 14 points for a B race, and 13 points for a C race. Your annual point tally is calculated on the basis of your best 4 races, but with one condition: only two A races are counted. In most age groups, it is necessary to get the maximum of 58 points to win – two 15-point races, and two 14-point races. If there are two people on the same number of points, they start counting your fifth and sixth races. This means that it is really hard to win an age group if you only do 4 races; most people do many races (one AG winner did 11 ranking races in 2017). If you are serious about winning the age group, you also need to win races you don’t need points for in order to prevent rivals getting those points. It turns into a bit of a rat race.

In 2013 and 2015, I just missed out on first place as I didn’t understand the points system. I was focusing on races I didn’t need to win, and missing races I needed. At the start of 2016, my friend and rival Misu-san explained how we needed to target certain races, particularly 14-point races, to win. (This act of kindness was based on our being in different age groups at the time; from next year we will go back to not talking!) I sat down for hours working out target races, and then arranged my training and warm-up races around them. Just like everyone else does.

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Each year, the ranking races change somewhat, but certain races are always A-ranked: Yokohama and Murakami in particular. In 2016, there were six A-races, all of them on the flat. For people who prefer hilly courses, this is a disadvantage. In terms of B-races, there is much more variety. You can choose hilly courses, such as Hiwasa and Toyama, or flat courses. C-races are mostly for training as they don’t allow you to get maximum points.

While the points system undeniably adds an extra dimension to triathlon, it also takes something away. From when the season starts in April, till when it finishes in November, you have to keep training and keep winning. If you hit a slump, that is it. I have talked to several other triathletes who are at or near the top of their age group, and by the time it gets to the end of the season, they say they just feel tired – not only tired from racing, but weary of the whole chase for points. One person in the 60-64 age group told me he is going to do Xterra from now on as he wants to go back to doing races for the pure joy of it. He has a very good point.

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In 2018, I will try not to chase points again. As a break from Olympic distance, I have already signed up for the Goto B-race (middle distance) and plan to do at least two more at that sort of distance. However, for those who are interested in targeting the age group ranking races, here is the list for next year.

JTU AG schedule (2)

 [Click here for PDF file]

Winter Running

IMG_4795Home sweet home

I live at the foot of a range of hills which stretches inland from the sea. Five minutes from the house, a trail climbs up to a ridge, and from there I can walk or run for several hours without seeing another person, or indeed many signs of human life. In winter, the trails are clear, dry, and free from the sticky webs that make summer hiking a series of close encounters with fat, biting spiders. Winter is the time for trail running – for leaving civilisation behind and building up strength for the following season.

IMG_1088Mountain sakura on Sengen Ridge

Today, I ran a loop which starts from Sengenyama (仙元山), runs east along a sawtooth ridge as far as the Yoko-Yoko Expressway, and then loops around to Morita River. At times the ridge offers sweeping views of hill after hill after hill, all covered with untouched deciduous forest. The proximity of the ancient temples of Kamakura, and the emperor’s summer palace in Hayama, has protected this oasis of nature from urban sprawl and from the equally destructive plantation forests which cover most of Japan’s lower mountains. Instead giant hinoki and sugi must compete for space with even larger camphors and cherries and oaks.

IMG_1138Ridge Running

The first hour of the trail is so up and down that it is hard to run for more than a minute or two. At times the path tunnels through dense bamboo groves before reemerging in the sunlight. It is hard going. But once you turn north towards Morito River, the trail flattens out and for the rest of the way it is mostly fine running.  Just before Futago-yama (二子山) a damp train descends steeply to the middle reaches of the Morito River. Indistinct trails run up the various tributaries, deep into the forest, but today I headed west towards the sea. It is a rare place in Japan – a mostly untamed river, free from concrete and dams, just left to run its course through the steep-sided hills. Before dusk, the air is filled with the chatter of squirrels and the screech of birds. One evening, I caught a glimpse of the rare and exotic Japanese paradise flycatcher which lives in this forest.

IMG_1150Morito River

The trail exits the forest at a gate with a no entry sign. I remember the first time I went through the gate. I couldn’t believe that such a wild place exists within the urban sprawl of Kanagawa.

morito mapClick on map for Garmin route

二子山山系主要分岐図The main trails around Morito River. There are numerous unmarked trails and river-walking routes.

I have two great pieces of gear for trail running. The Inov8 Talon 200 are lightweight trail shoes designed for Britain’s wet, boggy moors. They somehow manage to combine a fairly low drop with great support and comfort. I bought them for swimrun, as they hold little water, which makes them perfect for river trails. The Mont Bell Cross Runner 7 has all the features of packs made by the famous brands, but at half the price. It fits like a glove, stays in place, and holds all you need for a day of running.

 

Beauty of Japan

I just found an old slideshow of photos I’ve taken in Japan over the years. They are mainly of Kamakura and Kyoto, as well as some nature pics. Miki kindly composed a piano piece to go with the images.

 

Winter Swimming

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There is nothing in triathlon that evokes such a swing of emotions as winter swim training. Putting on a wetsuit in a chill wind, knowing you are going to be even colder when you enter the water – it takes an effort not to turn around, head to a café and read the paper.

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Instead, with Youri and Ben and Niall there, I have the willpower to head out into Ohama Bay. The wind is already brisk and rising all the time. We head out to the rock in the middle of the bay so Youri and Ben can climb out and jump back in. The water is getting clearer as winter arrives and Mt. Fuji is now visible.

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By now, I’ve warmed up and starting to slip into a relaxed rhythm. We head out to Chojagaski where waves are colliding on the sand bar. It is so beautiful.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAChojagasaki

On the second side of our triangle, heading out to the three yellow buoys, the swell and the chop is building. We hang around enjoying a warm patch in the water, but I have to start moving again as seasickness wells up. The third side of the triangle is easy as we get pushed hard by the waves. We turn around the rock by the beach, head out and repeat the triangle for a 1500-metre swim.

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Ohama swim

It is cold in the wind so we head into the hills for a short run along the coast, returning for panoramic views of Ohama Bay. As Van Morrison sang, “Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time”.

IMG_1074-001Ohama Bay