Kochi Ryoma Marathon

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I originally entered Kochi Marathon with the aim of going under three hours for the first time. This plan was rather scuppered when I surprisingly went under three hours in Shonan Marathon on the back of almost no marathon-specific training. I was then left with the feeling that I might lack motivation to push myself so hard again in a marathon just two months later. This is not the best frame of mind in which to prepare for a marathon. Things got worse a month before the race when my old ankle injury started to flare up and stayed with me till race day. This led me to abandon my only long training run 25 kilometres through it and to limp to the nearest station. To cap all this, I caught a cold four days before the race. I considered cancelling, but on the Saturday morning I woke up feeling a lot better and headed off to Haneda for the first flight to Kochi.

IMG_0574A circular rainbow in the clouds over Mt. Fuji

After a pleasant lunch at Trattoria Libero, I went to Kochi Central Park to register for the race and to meet my colleague, Matt, who had also done Shonan Marathon, and his old friend Grace, who was doing her first full marathon.  We were then taken to our AirBnB by the owner, Eriko, who kindly drove us out to the house we had booked for the night. It was good staying in this old house as we could just relax before the race.

DSC08414Sunset in Kochi

The race start is at Kochi Park next to the Prefectural Office. It was a chilly 3 or 4 degrees when we arrived too early at 7 a.m., but the forecast was for fine weather, 11 degrees, and little wind. Gradually, the 10,000 participants assembled in the park, but unlike most races I’ve done, the toilet queues stayed curiously short – a great boon for any runner. We checked in our bags to be transported to the race finish, several kilometres away at a sports park, and then made our way to our respective start blocks.

image1Chilling before the race

I was in the A block, just behind the S block. This might well have contributed to my demise in the last third of the race. The course heads for 8 km east out of the city, and then turns south down to the sea. It then follows the coast westwards for nearly 20 km, doubles back on the other side of the road for 6 km, before heading north to the finish. It is a mostly flat course punctuated by several short climbs over bridges and tunnel passes, one 50-metre tall estuary bridge, and a final, agonising climb of 30 metres to the finish. By that time I was struggling to put one foot in front of the next.

Kochi marathon mapThe race has 350 metres of climbing

Without a clear plan apart from finishing the race, I found myself running at the speed of a group of A-block starters which was very slightly faster than at Shonan Marathon. However, unlike that day, I didn’t feel good right from the start. I should have slowed immediately and gone for a more modest time, but instead I kept persevering at around 4:10 pace. Each kilometre it got harder to keep the pace, especially after the huge estuary bridge at 20 kilometres. The pain in my ankle was gradually forcing me to change my gait – while I could still run normally on the ball of my left foot,  I started to strike with my right heel. Not a good look.

At 22 km I did my last sub-4:10 kilometre and from then I progressively slowed as my gait deteriorated and the pain intensified. The pain spread to my left hip and then round to my back. At 36 kilometres I slowed past the 5-minute per kilometre mark, and at 42 kilometres I did my first ever 6-minute kilometre.

Despite my race gradually falling apart, I couldn’t help but smile at all the fantastic support along the way. For several kilometres out of Kochi the road was lined with cheering spectators, taiko drums, baseball teams, and school brass bands. Even in the rice fields and along the coast there was great support, especially as we ran through every cluster of houses or a village. For a couple of kilometres, I thought I had suddenly become very popular, as people smiled and cheered and shouted out kawaii, but then I realised a man dressed in a girl’s high school uniform was running just behind me.

On the final climb to the finish, I had to really dig deep to keep running, but the cheers of encouragement from the big crowd kept me going up and into the stadium where a seemingly endless lap of the running track awaited me. I crossed the line in 3:10:11 which seemed a much better time than I deserved.

DSC08396Matt approaching the finish

After a reviving bottle of yuzu juice, I returned to the finish slope to cheer Matt up the last few metres; he wasn’t looking much better than me. We both then waited for Grace, expecting her to come in some time after 5 hours. Instead, just before 5 hours she came bounding up the hill with the biggest possible smile on her face. That one moment made the whole race worthwhile!

DSC08402Grace dancing to the finish

We took a race shuttle bus to Kochi station and limped the mercilessly short distance to Hotel Minatoya which proved to be an excellent choice for two reasons: a decent-sized onsen with an adjoining cold bath for tired leg muscles, and two free electric massage beds. Oh bliss! We finished off the evening with a curry at the rather good Aama restaurant.

DSC08413The race finishes in a stadium

I’m still not sure what I learnt from this race. I am certain my time would have been better if I had started at a slower pace, but there was no way I could have repeated my performance at Shonan. Perhaps the main thing I should take from the experience is that you need to accept the fact that you are feeling below par and adjust your pace accordingly. If you feel bad at 10 kilometres, there is no way you are miraculously going to feel better at 30 kilometres – you are inevitably going to feel much, much worse. I also learned that there are limits to performance however hard you try. I am starting to feel that luck played the biggest part in my previous race at Shonan.

My Garmin data

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Kamakura to Kanazawa-Bunko

img_2689cropShomyoji in Kanazawa-Bunko

Every marathon training plan I have seen says you have to build up to weekly long training runs before the race. Once again I have found myself three weeks before race day with my longest run only a half marathon two weeks ago. On top of this, I have picked up an ankle injury which is getting worse each time I run. At times like this, I open up Google Maps and look for a new place to run. I find the promise of discovering a new route or a new trail is enough to get me out the door and running.

img_2677Mt. Fuji from my street

My aim was to run to Kamakura, through the ancient Shakako Kiridoshi Pass, and then follow the Ten’en hiking trail all the way to Shomyoji temple in Kanazawa-Bunko. This trail connects the ancient capital, Kamakura, with one of medieval Japan’s most important centres of learning, Kanazawa-Bunko. My run started auspiciously with a dramatic view of Mt. Fuji beyond a wind-whipped Pacific Ocean.

img_2681The south side of Shakako-kiridoshi

img_2685The north side of Shakako-kiridoshi

My route took me through Zushi town centre and out on Route 311 and through tunnels cut beneath another ancient pass, Nagoe Kiridoshi. I did a quick circuit of Kamakura with its crowds of tourists, and then headed up to Shakado Pass. There are several signs warning you that the pass is closed, and then just before the pass a fence blocks the way. The pass itself is just as magnificent as the photos I had seen. It is actually a short tunnel cut through soft, unstable rocks. So unstable that the north side is littered with massive fallen boulders.

img_2683Boulders litter the pass

On the north side, I ran down and across Route 204, past the ruins of Yofukuji Temple, and up to the start of Ten’en trail (天園ハイキングコース). It is a beautiful old trail which follows a winding ridge line for several kilometres. At places the rocks are polished by wear and various historical sites line the route. The only thing to mar this fine trail is the Yokohama-Yokosuka Expressway which bisects Kamakura and Kanazawa-Bunko. At that point you have to climb up and down several flights of steps, cross the motorway, run through the car park of a zoo, and then you finally rejoin what is now called Rokkoku-toge Trail.

img_2687Ten’en (heavenly) Hiking Trail

The Rokkoku-toge Trail follows a narrow wooded ridge above a crowded residential areas but somehow manages to retain some of its ancient atmosphere. The last part descends steeply through rock cuttings to the small town around Kanazawa Bunko station. I continued across the railway tracks for my final destination, Shomyoji. It is a lovely place which took my mind off my now swollen, throbbing ankle. The temple stands next to a lake with a photogenic red, arched bridge. All around are forests with their own walking trails. The famous library is reached through a tunnel cut beneath the woods. Despite its beauty and history, there was not another soul in the temple grounds. It seemed a world away from the crowds at Kamakura just a few kilometres across the hills.

img_2691Shomyoji

My route on Garmin

 

Toda Vegetable Half

veg marathon

There were two reasons why I travelled out to Saitama to do the half at the Vegetable Marathon in Saiko: to prepare for Kochi Marathon in mid-February and to get below 1:25 for the first time. It was certainly good marathon training, as the course is mostly flat but has three short, sharp climbs on each of the four circuits of Saiko lake. The race is low key but also serious enough to get the adrenaline flowing. The only real problem was the course measurement. Both I and my colleague Matt had it measured at 400 metres short on our Garmins which was rather disappointing. Still, my pace of 3:55 works out at a half marathon time of 1:22:38 which I was very happy with. Matt also had a personal best of just over 1:30 compared to around 1:50 only a few months ago.

dydbq4ru8aaceigLake Saiko

The race is pleasant enough. It is around a reservoir next to the Arakawa River, with trees and parks all around. The three short climbs on each lap are 10, 8, and 6 metres respectively, which are just enough to test your legs, and in my case to give me blisters from the fast descents. Apart from that the course is flat and wide and fast.

Matt finishing fast

I managed to pace my race fairly well, apart from going out too fast at the start and having to slow right down at 500 metres. I then ran on my own for the first 10 km which I did in 39:21 and just as I was starting to slow, a guy in yellow overtook me and set a perfect not-quite-impossible pace (the second 10 km was 39:09). We swept up two more runners and for the next 5 km we took turns at the front of our little group. There is a good reason why records are set with pace makers. It might be that early humans naturally ran and hunted as a group so we are hard-wired not to lag behind our group. Whatever the reason, I was able to run faster than ever before at this distance and even increase my pace as our group shrank to three members. Over the last bridge, the runner in yellow, who always looked the freshest, kicked up the slope and broke away. The other runner started to overtake me, but I found a little more speed and kept ahead. After the finish we all enthusiastically shook hands and yoroshiku-ed, which suggested they enjoyed the competition as much as I did. At times, racing can be one of the finest, simplest pleasures in life.

Race website     Male over 40 results     Garmin data

The Seven Entrances of Kamakura

29. Asaina kiridoshiAsaina-kiridoshi

For the last few years, I have been gradually developing a mild obsession with the numerous ancient passes which cut through the mountains surrounding Kamakura. It started the first time I rode my mountain bike down Asaina Pass to the east of the city. I didn’t know it at the time, but Asaina Pass or “Kiridoshi” (road cutting) is one of the Seven Entrances to Kamakura (鎌倉七切通, nana-kiridoshi). Over the years, I have stumbled across other passes and cuttings, many of which are steeped in the atmosphere of the Kamakura Era. It is not hard to imagine travellers on foot or horseback entering these passes nearly a thousand years ago.

3. Nagoe dai-ichi kiridoshiNagoe-kiridoshi

Last year, on a random trail run from Zushi to Kamakura, I came upon Nagoe-kiridoshi with its narrow boulder-strewn cutting. I decided there and then to plan a running route which takes in all seven entrances. My task was aided by the fact that there is a brief Wikipedia page which names the entrances. It was then fairly easy to find them all on Google Maps and work out a circular course to take them all in.

Nagoe-kiridoshi information board and entrance

On a beautiful, sunny January 3rd, I tore myself away from the TV coverage of the Hakone Ekiden and jogged from home to Zushi where my route would start. From Zushi city centre, the route follows the 311 for a few hundred metres, and then heads left up the hill to Kotsubo 3-chome, Zushi’s Beverly Hills. At the climbing gym, a small road winds steeply up through houses to my first destination, Nagoe Kiridoshi. It is a good one to start with as it is quite unspoilt and retains the huge boulders that must have been left there to protect Kamakura from attack.

Asaina Cutting no. 1 (left), Asaina Cutting no. 2 (right)

The next pass, Gokuraku, is 4 kilometres away on the west side of Kamakura. I descended from the path on a stepped trail and ran to my second kiridoshi via Hase-dera. Hase has become really popular with overseas visitors, so it is not an easy place to run at the best times. At New Year, it is impossible, so I ducked down an alley to the relative peace and quiet of one of my favourite stops, Mitama-jinja. I often rest there, but today it too was packed with worshippers, so I headed straight for Gokuraku.

Clockwise from top left: Kokuzodo, Mitama-jinja, Hase-dera

Gokuraku-kiridoshi now has a road leading from Kamakura to the surfers’ village of Inamuragasaki. It is still an impressive cutting and retains its ancient atmosphere, but curiously there is no information board or stone marker showing that it is one of Japan’s historical treasures. Google Maps marks the kiridoshi at the top of the path to Joju-in (famous for its hydrangeas in June), but I couldn’t find any marker there either. Instead, I satisfied myself with the splendid view of Kamakura Bay which many years ago drew the Korean idol Yon-sama to the same spot.

10. Gokuraku kiridoshiGokuraku-kiridoshi

Clockwise from top left: view of Kamakura Bay, Joju-in, Michibiki-jizo-do, Gokurakuji

After a quick loo break at Gokuraku Enoden Station, I sat in the shade and checked the live Ekiden coverage: Tokai were in first place. It was turning into another excellent day. I set off up a narrow street lined with beautiful houses to my next destination, Daibutsu-kiridoshi, which is just above the Great Buddha. The road climbs ever more steeply to a ridge, and then drops equally steeply to the Daibutsu Hiking Course. After a few metres, I left the hiking course and climbed some steps up to the kiridoshi. Fortunately, it is marked with a sign as there is not much else to tell you that this is one of the great passes into Kamakura. It seems much like many of the hundreds of small cuttings that distinguish the hiking trails of Kamakura.

Daibutsu-kiridoshi

From here, I retraced my steps back to the Daibutsu Hiking Course and followed the signs to another tourist favourite, Zeniarai Benzaiten. The trail is excellent for running, even though it is very popular with walkers these days. Before Zeniarai, I turned off towards Genjiyama-koen and the top of Kewaizaka-kiridoshi. Kewaizaka is another deep, steep cutting with boulders to negotiate. Once again, there didn’t seem to be a sign marking this important site.

Kewaizaka from the top (left) and from the bottom (right)

I descended carefully down the slippery path, ran under the Tokaido Line, and turned almost immediately up to my next entrance, Kamegayatsu-kiridoshi. This is a much clearer kiridoshi cut deep into the rock, and there is an information board at the foot. The narrow road is blocked to traffic, so it is a pleasant walk over and down to the important Zen temple complex of Kenchoji in Kita-Kamakura.

21. Kamegayatsu kiridoshiKamegayatsu-kiridoshi

22. Zenkyo-in, KamegayatsuChojuji at the foot of Kamegayatsu-kiridoshi

The next pass, Kobukurozaka, is now home to Route 21 which connects Kamakura with Ofuna. Usually it is packed with traffic, but the road was shut for New Year so I could run in peace over to Kamakura. It is hard to know the actual location of the pass as it now has a modern tunnel-cum-rock-shelter filling it. Google Maps shows the Kobukuro-kiridoshi up a narrow lane opposite the side entrance of Tsurugaoka Hachimanju, the main shrine in Kamakura. I ran up this lane but it ended in a private road blocked by a kei-truck. It seemed sad that this kiridoshi has been all but lost, especially when it is only minutes from one of Japan’s biggest tourist attractions.

Kobukurozaka-kiridoshi

The seventh pass is four kilometres away on the east side of Kamakura. It is also by far my favourite. I ran along Route 204, which was also devoid of its usual traffic, all the time looking forward to running up the magnificent Asaina-kiridoshi. It didn’t disappoint. It is one of my favourite places in Japan. Apart from the beautiful scenery, running up the gorge feels like running deep into history. There were only one or two other people there, including a fellow runner who smiled at our shared knowledge. It has to be one of the best places to run anywhere in the world.

28. Asaina kiridoshiThe foot of Asaina-kiridoshi

Clockwise from top left: the track to Asaina-kiridoshi, information board, waterfall at the entrance, naturally stepped path, Buddhist carving at the pass

Kumano-jinja, on the trail to Hisagioike

34. Hisagioike-koenHisagioike-koen

At the top of the cutting, I passed the Buddhist carvings and turned onto the trail back to Zushi via Kumano-jinja. This is another little-used hiking path which is excellent for trail running. It ends with a steep descent to the pond in Hisagioike-koen which was just about holding on to some of its autumn colours. From there it is a couple of kilometres via the Famil Zushi Park tunnel back to Zushi. I ended my loop at Kameoka-jinja in the  town centre, and from there jogged home a very content man.

35. Kameoka-jinja, ZushiKameoka-jinja, Zushi town centre

kiridoshi mapThe Seven Entrances of Kamakura (click for PDF)

garmin map kiridoshiRunning route – click for Garmin data

 

Cycle Tour of Northern Laos

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Why Laos?

After our last cycle trip to the Spiti Valley in Northern India, John and I started to look around for another amazing destination. We considered Patagonia, but with only two weeks in February, it seemed too big and too far away. We talked about Sri Lanka, but we fancied something a bit more adventurous. In the end we decided on Laos which promised the three essentials for cycle touring: great scenery, quiet roads, and good weather. In truth, we didn’t know much about Laos apart from a vague image of steamy jungles, rough roads, and the Mekong River. There was little information on the internet about travelling outside the main tourist areas, and we even found it hard to get decent up-to-date maps. It was sounding better and better. In the end, Laos was both like I imagined, and quite unlike anything I had expected. It is a great place for a short cycle tour, but not quite the adventure we had hoped for.

Arriving in Thailand

Laos map 1

We didn’t have much of a route plan to speak of. We decided to start from Chiang Rai in the north of Thailand, as we could both fly there easily, John from Zurich, me from Tokyo. It would also give us easy entry to the north-west of Laos where we figured we would get the best cycling.  We were only half right about flying there easily. I flew Thai Airways as my bike would be transferred on to Chiang Rai, and they have a 30-kilo luggage allowance. Taking a bike was no problem: the box size allowance is huge, but they do require at least 48 hours’ notice. John was not so lucky. A couple of day before departure he learnt that eBookers had not processed his flight despite taking his money. At the last minute, he had to fly out one day early and delay his return one day. From Chiang Rai airport I took a pre-paid taxi to Grandma Kaew’s Guest House, a pleasant place in a quiet cul-de-sac near the town centre. John was waiting for me, all smiles and even a hug – it had been a frighteningly short two-and-a-half years since we last saw each other in India.

We talked about our route over dinner in a crowded Chinese restaurant on a busy main street lined with massage parlours. The border with Laos looked too far to do in a day, so John had booked a hotel two-thirds of the way. We then had a hotel booked in Chiang Khong near the border crossing, and another in Vientiane ten days later. Between these two places, we would just see where the road took us.

Chiang Rai to Chiang Kong

0217-dsc_0076v2_40733508521_oSetting out from Grandma Kaew’s

I got up at 5 a.m. the next day and assembled my bike before breakfast. We cycled out of Chiang Rai amidst the chaotic morning traffic but were soon out on the main road north, safe on a wide hard shoulder. Soon the traffic thinned out and we could enjoy the easy ride through fields and villages. We made good progress on the fast road surface so John cancelled the hotel and we veered north-east on the direct road to Chiang Khong.

P2170021Heading north from Chiang Rai

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Thailand has changed a lot since my last visit twenty years ago. It seemed much more developed with its smooth roads, new houses, and 7/11 convenience stores. We made the most of this comfort as Laos was sure to be different. After six hours of riding we passed the border turn off and rolled into Chiang Khong. The narrow town centre was jam- packed with a lively street market and a temple decorated for the Chinese New Year.

P2170040Street market in Chiang Kong

P2170051Chinese New Year lanterns

Our hotel, the Day Waterfront, was fantastic – off the main street down by the broad, brown Mekong River. Our rooms were huge and spotless with balconies overlooking the river and Laos on the opposite bank. Dinner was once more at a Chinese restaurant up on the main road; two days in Thailand and not a bite of Thai cuisine.

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P2180058Sunrise over the Mekong River

Chiang Kong to Donchai 

P2180062Tuktuks in Chiang Kong

Before the trip, I had spent hours on the internet searching for running races in Thailand or Laos. I really wanted to do a race with John as part of the trip, but in the end I couldn’t find anything on our dates. The next morning, as we cycled to the border, we passed numerous tired looking runners walking back towards the town. They had participated in a Friendship Half Marathon across the bridge between Thailand and Laos. I tried hard to contain my frustration at missing a big race in a unique location on the precise day we had arrived. There has to be a word for this – reverse Schadenfreude perhaps…or maybe inverse serendipity. Fortunately, there was soon lots to take our minds of this disappointment. We left Thailand, got our passports stamped, and then found out that we wouldn’t be able to cycle across the Friendship Bridge. Instead, we had a half-hour wait for a bus to take us over to Laos. At Laos Immigration, we had a long wait in line for entry visas. Finally, we handed over the two immigration forms, $36, and a passport photograph. (We later learnt that you can only leave and re-enter Thailand once in a year.)  We exited Customs and were out in the blazing midday sun.

P2180073The first of many vegetable fried rice lunches

There were three possible routes from the border (or four if you count taking a boat along the Mekong and then riding north on Route 2W). We could head west along the Mekong River, north on Route 3, or east on a minor road. We stopped for an early lunch of vegetable fried rice and discussed the options. Route 3 was wide, smooth, and relatively free of traffic, so we decided to head north. We later learnt that only the handful of major roads in Laos are surfaced; everywhere else is steep, rough, and very slow going. More important, although we had tents, we didn’t have cooking gear, so we would need to find restaurants along the way. The paucity of places to eat along Route 3, a major link between Thailand and China, told us we made the right decision to stick to the main roads.

P2180087Getting in a rut

The first part of our ride was fast and comfortable on new tarmac with little traffic. Before we could get too relaxed the first hill reared up in front of us. Oh my, was I glad to have put on a tiny 24-tooth chainring just before the trip. The slopes were well over 10% and dragged on and on beneath the baking sun. In places, deep ruts had been dug by cars and trucks which added a new dimension to the regular struggle to climb on a heavily laden touring bike.

P2190129Village along Route 3

The main impression of that first day in Laos was one of contrasts and surprises. The road is extremely wide, although there is little traffic to justify this. It is also mostly smooth tarmac which made our fat tyres rather superfluous. Along the road there seemed to be one long, endless village. Simple wooden homes, some with corrugated tin roofs, some with grass thatch, were built on the roadside. Some were perched on stilts over steep drops. It seems that roads provide a tiny clear, flat space for people to create a home. Among the homes, small children ran and chased and played. Other older children joined in the omnipresent activity of making brooms from tall grasses. Everywhere chickens herded their chicks, goats grazed with kids, and pigs sorted through rubbish with their piglets. Life lived on the roadside.

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There was one word that accompanied our ride: the calls of “sabaidee” as we passed every group of children. As soon as we were spotted, they would stop what they were doing, wave frantically, smile broadly, and scream “sabaidee” at the top of their lungs. There are an awful lot of small children in Laos so we got an awful lot of practice shouting sabaidee back to them. At times it was so joyous that it was hard to tire of the need to wave back and return the greeting. In contrast, our contact with adults was not always so joyous. Time and time again we would ask for food or water at the tiny stores along the road, but we would frequently just get the cold shoulder. It wasn’t that people are unfriendly; they just seemed indifferent to us. In other countries, we inevitably attract the attention of people hoping to make an extra bit of money from us, but in Laos that just wasn’t the case. We would enter a basic restaurant, mime eating, only to see the owner walk away. It soon became clear that we were mostly to blame as we hadn’t anticipated that no one would speak English – not even words like “hotel” or “restaurant”. On our third day we finally sat down and copied out some words and phrases from our guidebooks. We went less hungry after that.

P2180104Our rooms overlooking the river

The afternoon was hot and the route was hilly so we stopped at the village of Donchai and searched for somewhere to stay. Google Maps suggested there was a guesthouse, but we spotted nothing except for a couple of food stores. At the last one we stopped and asked about hotels and were told we could stay there. I expected a mat on the floor like in an Indian Dharba, but after a long wait we were shown to a wood and bamboo shack overlooking a river. It was basic but clean, and the view was perfect. I later asked the owner why there was no sign, but he just smiled knowingly; I guess he knew the reason. For dinner, we had a mountain of stewed vegetables and rice – a temporary break from the vegetable fried rice which would provide another theme to the trip. We also had our first Laos Beer which went down very well after the day’s exertions.

Donchai to Don Moune

P2190120Going to school in Donchai

The next morning, we got up before dawn and tackled the world’s biggest omelette and a pile of toast all washed down with sweet coffee. Sweetness would also be a noticeable theme in Laos – every drink seems to have heaps of sugar added – sweet soya milk, sweet coffee, sweet green tea. At most of the roadside stores, the only “food” available was salty processed snacks, or sweet processed cakes and cookies. No vegetables, no fruit – everything packed in a plastic bag in a factory.

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The previous day, we had noticed several convoys of luxury cars with Chinese number plates. They sped through villages with their hazard lights flashing, blaring horns to scatter chickens and children playing on the street. We had assumed they were some diplomats or dignitaries speeding to important meetings somewhere. However, it gradually became clear that they were rich Chinese on driving holidays through the wilds of their poor southern neighbour. As our second day in Laos progressed we lost count of the hundreds of luxury SUVs passing in convoys of ten or twenty vehicles like visitors from another world. Most of the cars were huge Mercedes or Audios, but every luxury brand was there – Volvo, BMW, Porsche, Range Rover. The more modest vehicles were Land Cruisers or Land Rovers, but they were far outnumbered by top-of-the range German cars. I had never seen anything like it. Fortunately, they were nearly all going the other way.

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The contrast between all this conspicuous wealth in air-conditioned luxury and the surrounding conspicuous poverty was stark indeed. However, we were struck by another contrast. While most Laotians seemed to use their feet for transport, and a lucky few got to sit five to a scooter, a significant number cruised up and down Route 13 in huge shiny Toyota pick-ups. We hardly saw an old car on the whole trip; people either have nothing or they have a monster new pick-up truck. It provided a lot of food for thought as we climbed one long, steep slope after another.

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We had expected the north of Laos to be the most remote part of the trip, but the further we progressed, the busier the road became. Not exactly busy, but not as empty as we would have liked. The good thing was the space given us by drivers. As a cyclist, I can’t help judging people by the space they give cyclists. Spain good, France bad; Slovenia great, Japan poor. Laos now goes to the top of the list. Every truck slowed down and gave us several metres of room. Cars, scooters, pick-ups – everyone slowed down and pulled out. In nearly two weeks, not one vehicle passed too close. Living in Japan, I have to deal with vehicles skimming close by, scaring the living daylights out of me. In Laos, we could simply enjoy the ride.

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On our side of the road, giant trucks climbed the endless hills, giving us several metres of space as they lumbered past. But it was never too busy, and often we would have the road to ourselves. The main problem was the gradient of the road which demanded long periods grinding away at 7 km/h in first gear. I was grateful for my 24-tooth front chainring, and the occasional shade from trees. The last climb of the day seemed to go on forever, but finally we got to the pass and rolled for kilometre after kilometre back to the valley floor.

0219-dsc_0327_40733554281_oBougainvillea swathed hotel in Don Moune

At Don Moune (Ban Done Moune), ten kilometres before Luang Namtha, Route 3 veers off north-east towards Route 13. At this junction, there are several guesthouses and hotels which proved too tempting for our weary bodies. Instead of riding on to Luang Namtha, we checked into one of several hotels near the road junction, and then went in search of a restaurant for dinner. It soon became clear that there were plenty of places to stay, but few to eat, so we took an overpriced taxi to Luang Namtha for dinner. There we found a little centre of tourism with bakeries, coffee shops, and a choice of good places to eat. If only we had ridden on for an extra 10 km we could have stayed in a hotel surrounded by all this luxury.

Don Moune to Oudomsay 

P2190131Route 13

According to the otherwise excellent Hobo Maps, the northern section of Route 13 between Luang Namtha and Oudomxai (Oudomsay, Oudom xay, etc) is dangerously steep and narrow with huge trucks ready to cast you off a precipice. Cyclists are urged to take the bus. True, it was the busiest part of the trip, but absolutely fine for cycling. The road was narrower than Route 3, but there was plenty of space for trucks and cars to pass, and as with everywhere, we were given plenty of space.

P2200155Plantations have replaced old growth forest

However, this section of the tour was not our favourite for other reasons. The scenery was disappointing; much of the forest had been felled and replaced with rubber and banana plantations, and factories and dams and power stations are springing up everywhere. We had expected remote, virgin rainforest, but instead we found ourselves riding past a surprising amount of industrial development. The traffic was also heavier, much of it with Chinese number plates.

P2200149Khao phak in Na Teny

Despite the lack of wild scenery, it was still an enjoyable day of riding. We had bought bread in Luang Namtha, so we could leave our hotel early and breakfast by the side of the road. After a big climb we descended into Na Teny where we had a 10 a.m. lunch of khao phak (vegetable fried rice). There were also a lot of food stalls along the road where we stocked up on bananas and more bananas. We needed this fuel as the road climbed over passes between each town or village, but at least the scenery was better in the hills and the road a little quieter. Thirty kilometres before Oudomsay we climbed the highest pass of the day, and then rolled down towards the town. After 117 km of hills, we were relieved to arrive.

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Oudomasy is a lively town which has benefited from its proximity to the Chinese border. Big, shiny mobile phone shops vie for space with hotels and banks. It is obviously a boom town. In one of the shops, I managed to persuade an unsmiling clerk to set up my phone for internet, but when I tried to pay, she refused. I had a dollar of credit which lasted me the rest of the trip.

P2200182Sunset in Oudomasy 

We stayed in the Xaymoungkhoun Hotel, set back from the road just east of the river.  It is an attractive place with a carved wood front, and quiet, spacious rooms. As with everywhere, the insect screens left much to be desired, so I strung up the mosquito net John had brought for me. Later, we dined in Souphailins restaurant, which is a bamboo and palm house run by a friendly woman. There we ate delicious perch steamed in banana leaves, as well as a mountain of fried spring rolls. It was the best meal of the trip so far.

Map of Oudomsay

Oudomsay north to Muang Khoua

P2210188Leaving Oudomsay

We decided to leave the main road and head north on Route 2E. We cycled out of Oudomsay through heavy early-morning traffic, but within minutes we were on a quiet road climbing briefly through dense forest before descending to a beautiful broad valley. We passed through village after village as people dried grain, sawed wood, cut bamboo, and went about their daily lives. As we passed through, it felt like a long, slow movie telling the story of life in rural Laos.

P2210210Donsaat

At Donsaat we joined the river at a high bridge beneath which swallows were flying. From there, we spent the day on the left bank of the river, stopping time and again to take photos and soak up the view. Along the river, teenage boys waded into the river with diving masks and homemade spear guns to fish for perch. One group of people cut reeds and loaded them on to bamboo rafts. Another collected river weeds and pressed them into sheets for drying. All along the roadside, people of all ages, from young to old, worked at making the typical broom which is used all over Laos. They cut tall grasses, rolled them on the ground, and then threshed them against the asphalt. With the sun burning down on the road it must have been exhausting work.

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At the junction with Route 1B, we dined on our usual meal of veg fried rice at a popular restaurant overlooking the river. A 73-year-old German cyclist joined us for lunch. He was cycling for two months around Laos, as he had done for the last thirteen years. It was great to see someone his age cycling solo around the country; there are no excuses for the rest of us.

P2210231Views from Route 2W

As usual, the afternoon was ten kilometres too long. We arrived wearily in Muang Khoua after another 100 km day, but soon found a pleasant guesthouse near the boat landing. The Charlernsouk Hotel has decent rooms, clean bathrooms, good wifi, free coffee and hot water. Best is the veranda overlooking the rooftops where I sat and wrote emails and drank instant coffee.

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Muang Khoua is a pleasant little town lined with the usual mix of shops. We stocked up with oranges, bananas, apples, and rice cakes for the next day’s boat trip. As always, prices were cheap and fixed. 5,000 kip buys a bunch of bananas, a kilo of oranges, or a big bottle of water. Vegetable fried rice or soup noodles costs 15,000 to 20,000, and a decent guesthouse room is 70-80,000 yen. With an exchange rate of 10,000 kip to $1, we could get by on $30 a day.

Muang Khoua to Pak Mong, via the Nam Ou river

P2220235Boats moored at Muang Khoua

We had hoped to charter a boat to take us speedily down the river, but in the end there were no boats available for hire. Instead, we took the regular narrow boat along with a dozen or so tourists and Laotians, while our bikes were put out on the deck. Comfort doesn’t seem much of a priority with these boats. We sat on narrow wooden boards running along either side of the boat, our knees intertwined with those of the people facing us. At least the boat was not as crowded as the ones arriving upstream, so it was possible to spread out a bit. Despite the noise of the engine, it was a peaceful trip. We sped down the river which wound through dense forest broken only by the occasional village balanced on stilts above the steep valley sides.

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I had been too optimistic about our uncrowded boat. Soon we started to stop at villages along the way to pick up local people. Boats are still the only transport for many remote villages, so of course we would be stopping along the way. Gradually our boat filled with various people, who contrasted greatly with the tourists on the boat. A young mother fed her baby, while two young lads – one was perhaps the father – sat over from me with their bags of food and a home-made spear gun. An old man in khakis, who seemed somewhat inebriated, kept gesturing about the extraordinarily long wispy beard of a Dutch man sitting in the middle of the boat. At the other end, a group of young travellers sat glued to their smartphones, occasionally addressing each other about something happening elsewhere in the world.

0222-dsc_0254_38923362580_oHomemade speargun

I gradually entered that calm, accepting state of mind which allows you to get through a long, uncomfortable journey – half zoned out, and half taking in the beautiful scenery we were passing through. The boat sped down a series of small rapids, bumping and throwing up spray, past beautiful sandy beaches on which buffalo stood motionless as the sun removed the chill from the morning air.

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After two-and-a-half hours, we arrived at a huge dam being constructed across the river by a Chinese power company. We got out of the boat, waited for a van to take us around the dam, and then waited again for a new boat. It took at least an hour – it was going to be a longer day than we had thought.

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We had thought of stopping for a day at Muang Ngoy which was supposed to be a little slice of paradise, but when we arrived we realised the tour companies had discovered it already. Guesthouses crowded the river banks while tourists floated around on truck inner tubes. We stayed on the boat. Unfortunately, some of these tourists were returning to our destination, Nong Khiao, so they squeezed into our already cramped boat.

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This part of the river is truly spectacular. It passes through impressive karst scenery – huge cliffs rise up from the river, and jagged limestone teeth stick up through the jungle canopy. The new growth forest gives way to old growth virgin rainforest which stretches right up to the mountaintops. It was the best scenery we had seen on the trip and it made the discomfort of the boat trip pale into insignificance.

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And then the rains came. First the skies darkened, and then the wind picked up. Soon large raindrops were pummelling the roof of our boat. Within minutes, rain had turned to hail, and the wind became a gale. We were lucky to have canvas blinds rolled up above the windows, so we pulled these down and held on tightly as they flapped in the squall. Our driver steered the boat to the riverside, out of the main current, and we sat sheepishly as the storm roared and drummed on our boat. After 30 minutes it died down and we could draw breath again.

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We arrived at Nong Khiao at 4 o’clock as the sun was peeking out from the clouds. John bought a large wrench at a hardware store to fix a loose bearing cone, and then we headed the 32 km to Pak Mong where we planned to spend the night. At 10 km, the skies darkened once more and an almighty storm bore down on us. We took cover beneath a large canopy in front of a house, and spent the next hour with three people on motorbikes and the owner’s family watching as the rain poured down. The owner was a beekeeper and seemed totally unfazed by his surprise guests; instead, he brought out some chairs for us. We felt very lucky to be out of the storm, especially as lightning flashed and thunder cracked all around.

P2220306On the road to Pak Mong

A 5:45, the rain stopped and we headed out for the last hour to Pak Mong. We arrived in the dark but soon found a hotel as the town is at one of Laos’s rare road junctions, with long distance buses stopping there for meal breaks. Our hotel was run by a Chinese family who spent a long time arguing with each other about keys. Curiously, they didn’t seem to have any kind of key system, only a cardboard box full of unmarked keys. We were shown to our dingy rooms, but there was no way to lock them. The wife kept shouting at the husband, who tried one key after another, but in the end we left them to it and went off for dinner. We each had a huge bowl of veg rice and a bowl of veg noodles – our first meal of the day.

Pak Mong to Luang Prabang

0223-dsc_0493_40023551394_oHeading out of Pak Mong

I was awoken at 5 a.m. by the sound of heavy rain penetrating my earplugs and flashes of lightning coming through the time-worn curtains. It soon became clear that it was also penetrating the roof as the corridors were flooded. We left soon after daybreak with the roads drying and the sun coming out. We ate breakfast of apple sandwiches in a bamboo roadside shelter surrounded by the usual piles of rubbish that line every road.

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The first 30 km were pleasant enough as we rode beside mud brown rivers flowing through palm-fringed rice fields. However, soon the road became monotonous, and convoys of Chinese SUVs made it easy to forget we were in Laos. We passed yet another massive hydro-electric project, but places to eat were much harder to find. The best sections were when we cycled up small hills away from the river. There the views of forested hills were pleasant, and we even met an elephant being ridden along the road. .

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As we neared Luang Prabang, the road got more crowded, and a plane from the airport passed low over us. Route 13 was turning into the soulless main road I had feared it would be. But then it all changed. One minute we were pedalling down a dusty, noisy, traffic-filled street, and the next we were cycling over a narrow motorcycle bridge onto the peninsula formed by the confluence of the Mekong and the Namkong. In a moment, we had stepped back in time and into a different world of fine architecture and tropical vegetation. Hotels with balconies and verandas, cafes selling French pastries, fine restaurants, and stylish shops. And lots and lots of tourists.

0224-dsc_0048_38923428590_oWat Xiengthong

We rode all the way around the peninsula, soaking in the atmosphere and looking for the perfect place to drink coffee. We randomly picked a modern-looking café called Saffron, which served us the best cappuccino I’ve tasted since Athens ten years ago. We sat on the veranda, soaking up the view of the Mekong and eating delicious banana bread with tamarind butter.

P2230343View of the Mekong river from Luang Prabang peninsula

I suggested hunting for a guesthouse the old way. Instead of going online, we wandered around in search of a likely place. After a few false starts, we ended up at the Xieng Mouane. A couple were just leaving and persuaded me to take a look at the VIP suite. It was $65 dollars compared to the $8 dollars we were used to paying, but what a place. Two connected rooms with high ceilings, polished wood floors, shuttered windows, and calm elegance. Behind the house, an enclosed garden was full of tropical plants. We took the room.

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At night, we explored the main street with its upscale backpackers’ shops, restaurants, and guesthouses filling the colonial era buildings. We had a beer in one fine place followed by braised fish in a garden restaurant. It was all such a contrast to what we had been experiencing for the previous week.

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I slept like a log in my beautiful room, and then at 6:30 a.m. went out for a run around the peninsula in the cool of early morning. We had breakfast in the guesthouse, and then walked up the steep steps to That Chomsi stupa on top of Phu Si hill. After more delicious coffee and cake in Saffron, we moved on to Khaiphaen (a “training restaurant for marginalized youth”) for an excellent green curry. In the afternoon, we spent time in the tranquil Wat Xieng Mouane just opposite our guesthouse. It has a restaurant, a tea shop, beautiful gardens, and no tourists.

P1180062Wat Xieng Mouane

Luang Prabang to Kiew Kacham 

As lovely as Luang Prabang is, cycle touring makes you impatient to move on to the next place. We said goodbye to the Xieng Mouane guesthouse and were soon climbing into the mountains. And that was what we did all day. Apart from a couple of short descents, we spent most of the time in first gear grinding uphill.

P2250355Rice crackers at one of many roadside shelters

At least the road was quiet. A new road links Luang Prabang to the cities in the south, so the old route 13 is now a great cycling route. The first main climb of the day was really steep, but at least we were fresh. The second climb was much longer, and it was really hot in middle of the day. Fortunately, it was somewhat less steep at 7 or 8%, and we could find some shade at times.

P2250359Lunch in Nam Ming

For lunch we stopped at the tiny hamlet of Nam Ming on the river of the same name. There were no restaurants, but we persuaded a kind couple in a small shop to boil up some water for cup noodle (for John) and cup sludge (for me). A kilometre up the road we passed a restaurant.  The scenery was pleasant, but nothing more. We had been told to expect spectacular scenery, but it was at best pleasant. There has been a lot of forest clearance, and fires were still smoldering here and there. There are also several big construction sites, one for a railway, and several for dams. We’d expected to be riding through impressive karst scenery like we had experienced on the boat trip, but instead the views were rather underwhelming.

P2250365The remains of yet another fire

We arrived in Kiew Kacham after 6.5 hours of riding and looked around for a guesthouse. The first one turned my stomach, but fortunately the second (perhaps called Duang Vichit) had clean, new rooms precariously balanced over a steep slope out back. It also had a decent restaurant with views of a karaoke party going on for much of the evening. We spent a relaxing evening watching village life and eating a twin dinner of first veg fried rice and then veg noodles.

Kiew Kacham to Kasi

0226-dsc_0215v2_40733660661_oEarly morning, Kiew Kacham

The next morning, we fuelled up with more veg rice which we needed for the morning slog up long, winding climbs. The scenery was much the same as the day before, but the weather was cooler with the promise of rain. There was little traffic which was lucky as we had to negotiate what was a treacherous road surface in places. There was a lot of resurfacing work going on which involved scraping off the asphalt down to bare rock and soil, layering on rocks, gravel, and loose asphalt, and then pouring over it a layer of wet tar. We had to negotiate each layer in places, but the worst by far was a downhill section of shiny wet tar which we teetered down in fear of a disastrous fall. We stayed upright but still our bikes and clothes were splattered with tar – not ideal.

P2260444A giant milestone marks to the start of fantastic limestone scenery

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Although there was little traffic, we did meet some cyclists, first a Danish lad cycling home from Hong Kong, and then four Germans. We stopped for lunch at Phukan in a busy restaurant at the junction of the main road which heads off to the east. We continued on Route 13 which had almost no traffic. From Phukan, the scenery gradually improved as we rode up and down through patchy forest. The reason for its patchiness soon became clear as we descended into the valley: smoke curled up from deliberately-lit fires, and ash fluttered down like light snow.

 

P2260466Smoke and haze…

P2260473…gave way to spectacular views

Through the murk we started to get glimpses of spectacular saw-tooth mountains which became clearer as our road took us towards them. As we descended further, the views became progressively more stunning, rugged karst peaks rising up behind fields of tall grasses, all set to a backdrop of deep blue skies.

P2260492Farm terraces above the river

We cycled along a terrace above the river, where whole families were out in the fields watering rows of lettuces with watering cans. And then we started to catch quite awe-inspiring views of the river valley cutting a path south through lines of toothed limestone peaks. Finally we had discovered the scenery we had hoped for.

0226-dsc_0301v2_40690764732_oChildren returning from school

After a final descent to a wide valley floor, we cycled the last 10 km to Kasi, past waving school children returning home two to a bike, many holding umbrellas for shade. Kasi is basically one long, straight, and very wide street lined with stores and a few guesthouses. We chose the Daling GH as it is somewhat set back from the road. The rooms were basic and grubby but only 60,000 kip yen, and the owner was very friendly and spoke French. Alas, dinner was not so promising at the attached restaurant, so we went to another place along the road where the staff seemed initially dumbfounded by our arrival, but eventually warmed to the task of engineering massive amounts of noodles and rice for us. They also promised us an omelette for breakfast at 7 a.m. A good end to a fine day.

Kasi to Hin Heup

0227-dsc_0318_38923482610_oWet morning in Kasi

It was a slow start to the day. And a wet one. At 7 a.m. we strolled to the restaurant where the shutters were down and there was no sign of life. We waited a while in the rain and finally the sleepy cook opened up the shop, but it took an age for our omelettes to arrive. When breakfast came, it was well worth the wait – not only omelette but fresh baguettes and Lao coffee without sugar. We enjoyed our long slow breakfast looking out on the rain falling upon morning commuters, many serenely gliding past on scooters with a passenger holding an umbrella.

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By 8:30 the rain had stopped, so we headed out of town, but only got a short way before spotting the source of the bread – a small bakery on the edge of town. We loaded up with bread and pastries, and then cycled on towards Vang Vieng, 60 km away.

0227-dsc_0367_38923495660_oKarst scenery between Kasi and Vang Vieng

It was fine riding on a quiet road which passed through more spectacular karst scenery, made particularly atmospheric by the swirling low cloud and mist. At one point, we passed through a narrow gorge where a line of stalls were selling live crabs and all manner of interesting plants and fungi. From there the valley gradually broadened, but the views of limestone cliffs were still splendid.

P2270524Repurposed tequila bottles, roadside market

Vang Vieng had once been a sleepy town, but twenty years ago was transformed into a backpackers’ party destination. A few years ago, the government clamped down, ended the party, and it is now billed as an outdoor adventure paradise. As we cycled into town, signs for eco adventure holidays pointed down narrow roads, but when we arrived in the town centre, it was just another dusty strip of dilapidated stalls and glitzy mobile phone shops, albeit with a lot of Western tourists. However, we did find a good restaurant in the centre where we dined hungrily on Thai red curry, a delicious relief from our usual pile of fried rice and/or noodles. We could also get cash at one of the many ATMs.

P2270544Lunch in Vang Vieng

After Vang Vieng, the road is busier until it reaches Nam Ngum Lake, but after the lake most of the traffic heads off on a new road, so we could continue on the now much quieter R13N. We wound up and down through hills until we reached the small town of Hin Heup. There were two choices of guesthouse, and we chose the Vonemany with surprisingly good rooms and the luxury of clean sheets. The restaurant was also okay and gave us a good view of pickups rumbling up and down the dark road outside.

Hin Heup to Vientianne

0228-dsc_0377v2_40733690941_oEarly morning, just south of Hin Heup

Our last full day of riding: about 100 km to the capital. We set off early, ate some bread by the side of the road, and then hit the main road which takes you all the way into the city. It was busy and dusty, but plenty wide enough for us to keep well out of trouble. We just hunkered down and pedalled the last 70 km of our tour, arriving just before noon at the Vayakorn Inn.

P2280548On the road to Vientiane

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P2280557Arriving in Vientiane

John had chosen well. The Vayakorn is a lovely place with polished hardwood floors, Laotian wall hangings and ornaments, and palms outside. After numerous basic guesthouses along the road, we could really appreciate the comforts of this place. We were also spoilt for food choices outside. For lunch we had an excellent Indian curry for lunch, and then mid-afternoon an amazing vegan chocolate avocado cake and fine coffee. Our disused taste buds were in heaven.

P2280577Vientiane

Vientiane has some interesting buildings and places to visit, but I soon got tired of walking around tourist shops all selling the same tat. There was one exception, though: the Carol Cassidy textile showroom. We spent an interesting hour being shown around by the Ethiopian co-owner, watching the amazingly skilled weavers at work. I regret not buying a wall hanging, but they were expensive.

Vientiane to Bangkok

In the afternoon of the next day, we cycled from Vientiane to Nong Khai across the border in Thailand to catch the overnight train to Bangkok. It took about 90 minutes to get to the border via a rather circuitous route. We cycled right up to the Immigration kiosk for cars and they quickly let us through. We were supposed to take a bus across the Friendship Bridge, but we decided to see if we could cycle. Despite signs saying No Cycling, the officer at the barrier let us through after a bit of pleading, and we rode across the bridge to Thailand. The bridge is quite narrow and there is a single railway line down the middle of the road, but fortunately there was not much traffic.

P3010014Riding across the Friendship Bridge into Thailand

At the Thai side, we cycled through the car lane and found ourselves in Thailand – we’d missed immigration control! We cycled back and the official at the barrier pointed us to Immigration. We filled out the forms, got our stamps, and then rode round to the barrier and back into Thailand again. Immediately, we stepped into a much richer world. Our first stop was a 7/11 store to stock up on food and drink for the train. Next, we cycled the kilometre or so to Nong Khai station to find out about the trains. We had to pay for our bikes to go on a separate train to Bangkok as they couldn’t go on the sleeper train. This was a bit of a worry – I had lost a bike just like this in France thirty years earlier (it turned up at Kings Cross several months later). We had a couple of hours to spare, so we cycled back to the big roundabout near the border and spent the time in a very comfortable coffee shop.

P3010024 Nong Khai station

Back at the station, we found the train for our bikes – or at least thought we had – but then it disappeared off into the night. It returned some time later, and people pointed us to the luggage compartment at the front of the train where staff helped us on with the bikes. We locked the bikes and waved them goodbye.

P3010026First class sleeper compartment

We travelled first class on the sleeper train to Bangkok. We had bought the tickets online and from our expensive countries they had seemed like a bargain. In fact, they were fantastic – we had our own compartment, sink, power, monitor showing the route, and wifi. The food was not so good, though. Twenty years ago, my wife and I had travelled first class with friends and enjoyed a feast delivered to our compartment. Times have changed; this time we had to make do with tiny portions of heated up food in plastic containers in the restaurant car. Progress isn’t always in the right direction.

P3020033Riding through Bangkok

The next morning, we arrived at Bangkok station and started looking for our bikes. It took a lot of searching. Finally, we found them lying on platform 3; at least we had locked them so they couldn’t be ridden away. We cycled to our hotel, Citin Pratunam, which is squashed into a side street in Pratunam Market. We managed to find two bike boxes at Probike near Lumphini Park, 100 baht for the two, and packed the bikes ready for our flights home. The trip had come to an end.

Laos photo slideshow - map animationThe route

Links

John’s video of the tour

Video slideshow of the tour

Strava maps and Relive flyovers of Northern Laos Cycle Tour

Hobo Maps – Excellent detailed cycle touring maps

Reise Road Map – good map of Laos, but rather out-of-date

 

Training for a sub-3 marathon

Having unexpectedly broken three hours for a marathon, I am curious to understand how I did it. Since my first marathon, Tokyo 2014, my times have been as follows:

Tokyo

Feb 2014 3:16:18

Kyoto

Feb 2016

3:10:22

Oshima

Dec 2016

3:26:00

Senshu

Feb 2017 3:08:13

Osaka

Nov 2017

3:10:03

Himeji Feb 2018

3:02:38

Shonan Dec 2018

2:57:36

I was unable to prepare “properly” for the three autumn races, Oshima (which is very hilly), Osaka, and Shonan, as I always focus on short distance triathlons until early November when the season ends. Apart from the occasional middle-distance triathlon, I generally only run 10 km before my winter running season. This season, I was planning to focus on Kochi Marathon in February, with Shonan just being one step on the way to breaking three hours. So what happened?

After Himeji Marathon in February 2018, almost all my running was around 10 km as I was focussing on Olympic distance triathlons. I did a middle distance triathlon in May and another in June, but only one 20 km training run for these races (a local half marathon race). In the 9 months up to Shonan Marathon, I only did 6 runs over 20 km, as follows:

  • May 20, 20 km (Nagaragawa triathlon), 1:30:45
  • Jun 2, half marathon, 1:29:40
  • Jun 17, half marathon (Goto triathlon), 1:41:17
  • Oct 14, half marathon 1:25:05
  • Nov 15, training 37.25 km, 3:04:14
  • Nov 25, training 22.25 km, 1:44:02

So how on earth did I run a marathon in under three hours? I think the key was my 10k fitness. I ran a slightly long Helsinki 10k in August at 3:45 pace, and then the Gold Coast triathlon 10k in September at 3:54 pace. I followed this with the Namban 10k on Nov 4th at 3:49 pace, and the Miyazaki triathlon 10k on Nov 11th at 3:47 pace, my fastest ever triathlon run. For training, I was mostly running 10 to 13 kilometres, 3 to 4 times a week, as well as swimming 3 times, and cycling 4 to 5 times a week.

This doesn’t look at all like conventional marathon training. I have a few training plans from the internet which all seem to follow the same idea of one long run a week which gradually builds up to something like 35 km, and then lots of somewhat shorter runs. I did something like this leading up to Himeji Marathon last winter when I got fairly close to 3 hours. In the 6 weeks before that marathon, I did a 20k race and two 30k races at 4:15 pace or thereabouts.

In contrast, I did 11 races in the five months up to Shonan Marathon, but mostly shorter distances. Including triathlons, I did the following races:

  • July – 2 x 10k
  • August – 2 x 10k
  • Sept – 1 x 5k; 2 x 10k
  • Oct – 1 x 16k; 1 x half-marathon
  • Nov – 2 x 10k

When I look at all this, it doesn’t seem very much quantity. However, it confirms what some people say: you don’t need to do a lot of long, slow running to run a good marathon. I mix trail running in the hills behind my house, with moderate pace running on hilly roads (usually 4:30 to 4:45 pace)…and that’s it. Shonan was the first marathon I have entered with only one long distance training run behind me (an ill-advised 37 km run which damaged my calves for ten days). The main thing that stands out for me is my good 10k times, especially in triathlons. As they say, if you train slow, your will race slow. Pushing yourself hard in 10k races might be more effective than pounding your body in lots of long training runs.

PC170410One of my favourite runs, along Isshiki Beach

P1020417One of the many trails that lace the hills around Hayama

IMG_1164 compressedThe coast road south of Hayama passes Tateishi with its atmospheric views of Mt. Fuji

IMG_0256Maedagawa is one of several rivers with trails up the river bed

 

 

 

 

At last…sub-three!

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After the Japan Triathlon Championships in November, I jumped straight into the winter running season. I was setting my sights on a sub 3-hour marathon with Kochi Ryoma Marathon my target race in February. In case Kochi did not go well, I was planning to enter Nagano in April, and maybe Barcelona in March. However, before that, I had decided to do Shonan International Marathon with two colleagues on December 2nd. This gave me just three weeks to transition from short distance triathlons to full marathon. Apart from a half marathon and 16 km race in October, as well as lots of 10 to 13 km runs for the triathlon, I had done almost no marathon-specific training. Four days after the triathlon, and 17 days before the marathon, I decided to run the 37 km to work. This broke all the rules about gradually building up training distances, and it was also too close to race day, but I felt I needed a long run as mental preparation. I also thought I had a lot of fitness from triathlon which would allow me to get away with it. Unsurprisingly, I strained my right calf muscles and my Achilles, and spent the next 10 days making frequent visits to the physio. I even agreed to electro-acupuncture, something I would never normally do. For the next few days after the acupuncture, I had unpleasant pains in my calf and vowed never to try it again.

I tried running again 2 days after the long run, but only got 11 km before giving up. Five days later I tried again, and this time was a little better. I then returned to shock training by doing two sessions on the weekend before the race, a 14 km and a 22 km run. This certainly wasn’t a conventional training plan. However, I had a secret weapon up my sleeve: “Endure”, the wonderful book by Alex Hutchinson. I planned to just run at sub-3 pace and endure for as long as I could. I would run until cramp or the wall intervened.

Shonan Marathon is not the usual kind of race I enter. I prefer courses that loop around historical cities or beautiful countryside. Instead, this course goes up and down Route 134, the dual carriageway that follows the Shonan coast. It starts in Oiso, runs down to Enoshima, and then back to Oiso. Flat, fast, and to my way of thinking, boring. Apart from good support at Enoshima, there is only the occasional small cluster of brave souls standing at spots along the road.

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The race starts and finishes in the grounds of Oiso Prince Hotel. It is hard to move around as whole sections are fenced off, and everyone is corralled into certain areas. You have to walk long, circuitous routes to get anywhere, and going the wrong way is firmly refused. The queues for the toilets were huge, but I and my colleagues, Eric and Matt, had arranged to go by bicycle to a small park where we would meet, get ready, and use the toilets. This was a great plan. I left my bicycle at Hiratsuka station on Friday night, and took the train there on Sunday morning to pick up my bike and ride the 8 km to the race. Only I couldn’t, as I had left my padlock key at home. Instead, I had to continue to Oiso station where I spent 10 minutes getting out of the station and 20 minutes waiting for a shuttle bus with thousands of other runners.

pic3Oiso Prince Hotel under heavy skies

Once at the race, it was impossible to find Eric and Matt, so I just got ready, went to the loo as late as possible, and then had to climb over the central reservation of the dual carriageway to get to the back of A block. It was colder than forecast and heavily overcast, so I was glad of the old sweater I was wearing under a cut-up bin liner. I also had on a pair of gunte gloves I planned to ditch later. I was all set.

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The klaxon sounded and we shuffled off. The road is too narrow at the start for 20,000 runners, and I immediately regretted being at the back of the block. As we crossed the timing mat, our shuffle changed to a jog, but it was frustrating to lose time right from the start. I saw the sub-3 pacemaker ahead but couldn’t get through the mass of runners. As the mass sped up, up ran too fast trying to make up lost time. I managed 4:31 for the first kilometre and then 4:10, 4:12, 4:03, 4:12 for the next four kilometres; would I pay for this later? At least I was back on my target pace of 4:15.

The next 13 km to Enoshima proved uneventful. I sometimes drive or ride along R134, so it was strange running along it without any traffic. Although I know the road so well, I barely noticed where I was – I just tried to keep to my pace, and where possible run behind small groups. This proved difficult as no one seemed be going my pace apart from one man who was curiously running with a small rucsac.

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At Enoshima, I made the turn in front of cheering crowds, and then headed back towards Oiso. After a couple of kilometres, I spotted a large group of runners who I guessed were behind the sub-3 pacemakers. I made my way up to them, and then for the next few kilometres ran in the middle of the pack. It alternately felt easy being swept along by the group, and difficult trying to keep to their fast pace – about 4:11 to 4:12. At an aid station, there was chaos due to the number of people darting over for water, and after that I found the pace uncomfortable. I decided to accelerate away before the next aid station.

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In my last marathon in Himeji, I got in a group at 30 km and tried to hold their pace. Gradually, I started suffering more and more, and finally felt I was on the point of dropping back. Instead, I accelerated and found myself able to hold that faster pace. I tried the same thing at Shonan. My Garmin shows that from 27 to 34 km I ran five kilometre splits below 4:10 pace. Suddenly I felt more comfortable and started to think that I would go under 3 hours. After reading “Endure”, I was convinced that the limits we set in our minds are far below our actual physical limits. It might sound a bit trite, but I stopped “thinking” that I would go under 3 hours and decided that I would just do it.

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In my experience, there are two things that can slow you right down, whatever your state of mind: cramp and hitting the wall. In the latter part of the race, I felt both things coming on, but just hoped for the best. Cramp is still a bit of a mystery to me, but fortunately the pains in my calves didn’t turn into cramp. At times I felt the wall was close, as I started to feel faint several times. Each time, I squeezed a little bit of gel into my mouth and held it there. This is supposed to trick your body into thinking it has more glycogen than it really does; it seemed to work.

The last 4 kilometres are tough in any marathon, but when you pass the finish and have to run 2 kilometres further down the road before returning to the goal, it is simply brutal. Every step away from the finish means you have that step to run on the way back. It felt like an endless 2 kilometres to the turn around. I changed the display on my Garmin to just showing time of day and used the roadside distance markers to measure my likely finish time. I had a big buffer. I slowed to 4:18 pace, got annoyed with myself, and ran the last full kilometre at 4:09. I now just had the short, sharp slope to the finish. As I jogged towards the line, I started to feel unexpectedly emotional. I had made it with a couple of minutes to spare.

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My Garmin data

pic1Matt and I after the race

Shonan marathon my result

Full results here

1st National Triathlon Championships, Miyazaki

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Once more, I was standing on Sunbeach Miyazaki looking out at the distant white buoys ringing the artificial bay. Unlike the previous two years, I was in the first wave behind most of Japan’s fastest Olympic distance age group triathletes. It was the first National Triathlon Championships and would decide who gets a free ticket to next year’s World Championships in Switzerland.

DSC07769Elite men line up for the beach start

The klaxon blared and I jogged into the waves as the rest of the pack of 60 athletes flew ahead of me. My plan was to find some feet to draft off, but within moments I was detached from the bunch. They were just way too fast for me. I slowed my stroke and tried to find a sustainable pace, but every wave threw me up and off my rhythm. At the crest of each swell, I tried to sight the far-off buoy, but all I managed to see was the already distant pack heading further into the distance.

DSC07830DSC07834DSC07846Elite start mayhem

As I neared the buoy, I merged with some other older age-groupers and for a moment thought I saw my friend and rival Misu-san just ahead. At the buoy, there was the usual chaos of flailing arms and feet, but once we had made the turn, things got much easier. We were now being pushed by the waves towards first one closely-spaced buoy and then another. Two sides of the triangle were complete. The third side took us back to the beach through some waves breaking from our left. Fortunately for me, I breathe to the right, so I barely saw or felt the waves.

At last I found myself swimming with two other people, a woman and a man who were about my pace. Each time I tried to pull away, they caught me, so in the end I tucked in behind and had an easier two hundred metres to the beach. I left the water, ran around a giant pink buoy, and this time dove hard into the surf. I was determined to keep the feet of the two I had swum in with, but soon we got caught up with the hundreds of age groupers from later waves; the second lap proved really tough and chaotic. Somehow I manage to keep the couple in sight, and from time to time I would catch a glimpse of Misu weaving through the slower groups.

DSC07851Waves breaking in the swim course

I tried my best to swim well, but I find rough water just so hard. I remembered Coach Nakagomi’s advice to put all my kicking power into the downstroke, and to pull all the way back with my arms, but I felt like I was just splashing about haphazardly. The only thing I can say is I feel more confident in the water these days, but sadly no more competent.

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I completed the swim in 26:22, 34 seconds slower than the previous year. I might pay for this later. As I reached my bike in transition, Misu also ran in; this was a good sign as he has always been a faster swimmer than me. However, the racks of Sawada (winner of Murakami) and Tanaka (winner of Yokohama) were both empty. I was going to need a great bike leg. I struggled with my wetsuit for a moment, and then threw it carefully in the plastic box; it was my first time to use the elite transition area, so I wanted to do it right.

IMG_2301My bike in transition

I left transition ahead of Misu and gave it everything for the first kilometre on to the highway. I was passing people regularly until I got to the person wearing number 8, and then my troubles started. He held on to me, caught his breath, and then passed me. I dropped back ten metres, he slowed, I passed. For the next few kilometres we yoyoed each other; each time I pulled away, I went into the red, and he caught me. I was faster, but the physics of drafting meant I couldn’t get away. Finally, I broke free, but not for long. I passed a group of around 8 or 10 cheats drafting blatantly, and despite really digging deep, they held on to me. I was now trapped by a peloton blocking the whole width of the lane. I dropped back 15 metres, gathered my willpower, and tried to pass them in one go. I slowed at the first turnaround, and there they all were in my slipstream.

I had prepared hard for the bike leg. I had trained hard, bought new deep-section Flo wheels, fitted new GP4000RS tyres and latex tubes, bought a TiT speedsuit, and even shaved my legs for the first time. The latter was a big thing for me. When I was racing mountain bikes, I would be the only one of 200 cyclists on the start line with unshaven legs. Over the years, I never saw the point of taking a razor to my legs…not until I read about the wind tunnel tests by Specialized which showed an average 40-second advantage in a 40 km time trial.

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All this preparation meant I was riding fast, but also giving a bunch of cheats a free ride. For the next 20 kilometres I wasted so much energy trying to pull away, constantly breaking the rhythm you need in a time trial. What was more frustrating was the fact that race marshals passed the peleton several times , told them to split up, but did no more. Their inaction was spoiling the race.

At the last turnaround with about 5 km to go, I spotted Sawada riding off the back of the pack. I don’t know how long he had been there, but his presence was enough to spur me on to one final effort. As we pulled away from the turnaround, I gave it one last big push…and I was away. I had broken the cord, and without me to draft, the pack soon dropped behind. I entered transition with a 30-second cushion.

DSC07938Li’s custom shoes – laces replaced with elastic

I struggled to pull on my running shoes, exhausted by the uneven efforts of the bike leg. I had no idea how I would run, but I soon found myself holding around 3:45 pace. I felt okay with this pace and for a while thought I would be able to keep ahead of Sawada. At the first turnaround on the headland, I saw him 20 or 30 seconds behind, but surely if I stayed around 3:45 pace he wouldn’t be able to catch me. I was passed by several younger athletes and used them to raise my pace for a few hundred metres, before they inevitably pulled away.

DSC08131Elite male winner, Vicente Hernandez

DSC07756Elite female winner, Summer Cook

My hopes of staying away from Sawada gradually disappeared as we entered the third lap of four. At each turn, I could see him closing in. He was having the race of his life. On the third lap, as we approached the one short slope, he caught me and immediately opened a one-metre gap. I held on, but he clearly wanted this win very much. Gradually, oh so gradually, he pulled away, but my legs just could not respond. He looked back one last time, saw me struggling, and accelerated yet again. It was over.

Mark miyazaki run[more photos on JTU website]

I kept my pace till the end, just in case he faltered, but instead he increased the gap to 19 seconds at the finish, where he promptly collapsed. He had ran an incredible run leg for someone in our age group. After he had recovered a little, we shook hands and then hugged – he was pretty emotional and thanked me profusely for a great race. Not for the first time I heard, “Mark-san no okage desu”. What is it about me that pushes rivals to near breaking point?

Sawada Mark finishWith Sawada-san at the finish

Sawada’s winning time was 2:11:26 and my time was 2:11:45. These would be good times in any race, but my Garmin showed that all three legs were long – I guess the JTU was playing it safe with the National Championship. According to the Garmin, I swam 1.59 km at 1.39 pace, which is okay for me. The bike leg was definitely long – 42.5 km – so 1:07 including transitions was good. The best, though, was my run. My pace was 3:47 which made it my fastest ever triathlon run leg. At least I had tried.

At the medal ceremony, it was confirmed that only the winners of each age group would get the free package to the Worlds – there would be no roll down if they didn’t want to take their free trip. I was glad for Sawada as I cannot go to the Worlds due to a planned trip to India; I wonder how much that knowledge affected my motivation to keep him in second place. The mind is a curious thing.

IMG-2073TiT and E3Fit contingent

While I was having my own race-within-a-race, others were also doing battle with the Miyazaki course. Despite having an injury which had stopped him from running, Youri came in 11th overall in the AG race and second in his age group. Miyuki M completed her first ever triathlon and already seems bitten by the bug. Best of all, my roommate from Gold Coast, Simon Ferrari, won his age group and with it a free trip back to his home country for the Worlds.

After the race, Youri, Miyuki, and I cycled back to our hotel and stopped off at the wonderful little Spanish restaurant, Pepe, where we had dined the previous evening. There we enjoyed a post-race coffee and panna cotta and the company of the genial couple who run the place. We’ll be returning there next year.

So that was the end of the triathlon season for me. I was torn between disappointment at losing the last race, but relief that I had not deprived Sawada-san of his well-earned ticket to Switzerland. The result also meant that I had gained overall 2nd place in the age group rankings for 2018 which sat nicely alongside my surprising 1st place in the long distance rankings. Along the way, I have got a new personal best in marathon, half marathon, and 10 km running races, as well as personal bests in all three legs of the triathlon. Now I have to start preparing my legs for a shot at a sub-3 hour marathon in Kochi next February. Endurance sport is the gift that just keeps giving.

National Championships Results

Age Group Results

My Garmin Data

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

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