Goto Nagasaki International Triathlon runs on the same course as the former Japan Ironman which was last held in 2010. It is now called the “Baramon King” and has a suitably impressive logo with flames pouring out the back.
There are two races, the A-race, which is full iron-distance, and the B-race which is a middle-distance race with a long bike leg. I had decided to do the B-race as I needed to fly back on Sunday evening. The two races share the same course, with the A-race doing extra loops of each leg. The swim is a 2 km loop in the sheltered waters of Tomie Harbour in the south of the island. The bike course starts with a small loop around the southern tip of the island, and then cuts across to the west side where it does a 55 km loop, before returning eastwards to the centre of Fukue town. The run is an out-and-back half-marathon to Dozaki point in the north-east corner of the island. The whole course is perfect from start to finish. The swim is well-marked, safe, and has no crowding at all. Likewise, the bike course has no bottlenecks, no crazy corners, or poor surfaces. It is very hilly, but there is plenty of fine scenery to enjoy as you struggle up yet another climb. The run is also very scenic, although there is little shade from the sun. The race is centred around the impressive walls and moat of the former Ishida Castle.
T2 and the finish area
Shin, Ben, and I were all doing the B-race, together with some friends of Shin. On race morning, we met at 6 a.m. by Ishida Castle and took the shuttle bus down to the swim start. Transition was already full of A-racers getting ready for their 7 a.m. start. We cheered them off and watched as the competitors quickly stretched out into a long line, with the leaders passing the second buoy, as the tail-enders were just entering the water.
I set up my bike, clipped my shoes into the pedals, and loaded my top-tube bento with two SIS energy gels, two PowerBar gels, and two Enemochi bars. I was following Shin’s advice of using a mix of nutrition. All of the bikes around me were loaded with water bottles, saddlebags, and food. I just had my old Profile Design bottle between the aerobars, and empty bottle cages to take bidons from aid stations – I wanted to keep the bike as light as possible for the hills. I pumped my 25c tyres to 105 psi, checked I was in the right gear, did a final check of the brakes and wheel clearances, and headed off to T1 to hand in my “Bike” transition bag. Unfortunately, I had missed one thing on the bike which might have cost me a podium place.
The first A-race athletes were coming out of the water as we entered for the warm-up. The water was supposed to be 25°C but luckily felt quite a bit cooler. We then lined up on a launch ramp waiting for the klaxon to fire us into the water. I was on the far left as usual, two rows from the front. Ben and Shin were in the middle, looking like they meant business. 8:10 – the klaxon sounded, we were off.
I quickly got onto the heels of the two swimmers in front of me and was relieved to find them swimming at a strong pace. We were slower than the lead group, but it was just right for me – no stress, no breathlessness. We rounded the first buoy at 350 metres and headed for the next. My draft was starting to veer off to the right, so I left his wake and headed for the second buoy on my own. And that is how I stayed for the rest of the swim. I was completely on my own apart from when I passed the slowest of the A-race swimmers. Between the second and third buoys you head out towards the mouth of the bay, straight into the swell and chop. On the crests, I could see the lead group off in the distance, but at least they were in sight. At 1100 metres, I rounded the two furthest buoys, and then turned back towards the finish. It immediately got much easier as I swam with the swell, and soon I caught another person in the B-race. I seemed to be having a good swim as the lead group were still just in sight.
After the last buoy, the course turns back into the harbour, and I swam the last 300 metres in smooth water. I pulled myself out of the water, up the ramp, and under the clock. I had done the swim 31:38; I checked the distance on my watch – 1.95 km. This translated as my first 1500 metre swim under 24 minutes.
Finishing the swim
I ran to T1, passing several people who were walking, picked up my transition bag and entered a crowded changing tent. Ben was just about to leave when I arrived, but I think I must have passed him in the bike area. As I see it, cutting a minute in transition is a lot easier than cutting a minute from your swim. My self-satisfaction didn’t last long as the first thing I noticed when I got on my bike was that my trip computer was missing. I had changed the battery the evening before but not been able to put it on my bike which I’d had to check in on Saturday afternoon. I would have to rely on my Garmin for bike pacing, so I turned it around on my wrist to make it more visible. In the process of doing so, I hit the lap button and was now registering a run pace of 40 km/h. It is not easy resetting a Garmin watch during a race, but I really wanted to know the distances so I wouldn’t miss the point where the B-race splits from the A-course. Finally, I got my Garmin back to the bike leg and I returned to racing. I wonder how much time I lost there.
Awesome is an overused word, but the bike leg really did inspire awe. We rode through unspoilt forests, bucolic valleys, and traditional villages. We struggled up steep hills, and then descended at wheel-wobbling paces in an attempt to get enough speed for the next climb. We passed by breathtaking beaches with golden sand and turquoise water, and then zigzagged back up into the hills.
I tried to pace both my effort and my nutrition. I started with an SIS gel which was too runny for me, and then alternated Enemoti bars and Powerbar gels. Halfway through the second Enemoti I realised it was sitting undigested in my stomach. The Powerbar gels went in easiest and seemed to agree with me. I guess my idea of eating natural food during a race is overoptimistic.
Top: Bukeyashiki Samurai Street; Middle: Hachioji Shrine; Bottom: Castle moat
I arrived at the 55 km loop and started passing more A-racers. At Tamanoura, the road passes through a long tunnel which comes out at a fjord-like inlet. It then climbs to a turnaround before returning to the loop. At this point, I was passed for the first time by someone in a Shonan Bellmare tri suit – the swim squad I train with. I caught him at the next hill and greeted him, but then slowed to avoid the mistake of riding at another person’s pace. Soon I was passed by another B-racer, Nakabayashi, in a national team tri suit, burying himself on the bike leg. He went on to get the fastest bike time.
There were several tunnels along the course which gave some brief relief from the sun. However, they were dark, especially seen through my helmet visor. In one uphill tunnel, I heard someone lose their chain as they changed down to the small chainring. Sorting out a dropped chain in a dark tunnel is never going to be easy. From then on, I made sure to change gear before entering tunnels.
Takahama Beach on the bike course
I hadn’t needed to worry about resetting the Garmin, as there were regular distance markers along the course. There were also regular aid stations with water and sports drink in bidons. I would take a water bottle at one station and squirt it into my aero-bottle. At the next station I would throw it into the bottle catcher, and then wait for the following station to pick up another water. That way I saved myself 500 ml, or half a kilo, on the climbs.
At the 88 km mark, the road passes through Nihongusu and this is where we left the A-race behind. I rode up a one-kilometre straight with no one in front and no one behind. For a moment I wondered if I had gone the wrong way. At the next big climb fatigue started to creep in, so I had another gel and focused on the remaining 35 km. At Nonokire, there is a 10 km out-and-back stretch which gave me the chance to see how many people were ahead. I lost count at 14, but didn’t spot anyone close to my age.
By now most of my thoughts revolved around ways to alleviate the aches and pains in my back and neck and shoulders. Some people might be able to contort their body into an aero position for hours on end, but I am not one of them. I started to look forward to every climb so I could get up off the aero bars for a couple of minutes. I wonder how much advantage a TT bike has on long races; the comfort of a road bike with aero bars might allow you to sustain more power. I shall try my road bike next time.
Dismounting at the bike finish
Finally, I rounded a hill and Fukue came into view. I was spent. After nearly four hours on the bike, it was hard to know what kind of half-marathon I would be able to run. At T2, I got out of my shoes, and then leapt from the bike as if I was doing a sprint. Someone grabbed my bike, another gave me my transition bag, and I was soon exchanging bike helmet for run cap. Unfortunately, my transition to running was not so smooth. The first two or three kilometres felt like running through treacle – hot treacle. At the first aid station, I stopped and allowed myself to be showered down, took some sports drink, felt sick, and gingerly set off again into the blistering sun. At the next aid station, I did the same, but tried cola instead. As it passed my lips, I felt like I had taken the elixir of the gods. I was up and running.
It is curious that a drink formulated in 1886 has become one of the main forms of sustenance of triathletes the world over. Or maybe not. Coca Cola has two key ingredients: an extract from coca leaves, and another from kola nuts. The coca leaves are processed in the company’s own plant which is the only one in the US authorised to process coca. The kola nuts are a rich source of caffeine. It is not surprising that cyclists’ musette feed bags often contain a can of coke. All my efforts to race pure evaporated beneath the Goto sun. In my own defence, my brain was so fried by then that I was taking two cups of cola, but only drinking one. I kept pouring the second over my head much to the amusement of the already very cheerful volunteers at the aid stations (of which there were many).
At about the 8 km mark, I passed Nakabayashi who was having an animated conversation with himself about the challenges of the run. Soon afterwards, I passed the Bellmare member, who wished me well as I overtook in slow motion. At the halfway point, I got to see what was going on behind me. To my surprise, there were several people just behind, including one with a race number a few below mine. Was he in my age group? Any hopes of slowing for the last 10 km were dashed. I turned off all unnecessary feelings, shortened my stride, increased my cadence, and entered that other world. On each climb, I worked hard to keep my legs moving, and then eased off a little on the gentle descents. I held off everyone until 2 kilometres to go, when I was passed by a reassuringly youthful looking chap with a spring in his step. I held him for a while, and even started catching the person ahead, but in the end let them race each other to the line. And how they must have raced. I could hear a loud roar at the finish ahead and excited commentary over the tannoy. They crossed the line with identical times, which is pretty impressive after more than 6 hours of racing. When my turn came to run up the red carpet, I had the luxury of no one behind, so could enjoy the moment to the full.
That finishing feeling
The enjoyment was short-lived as I soon collapsed into a chair from which I couldn’t move for the next 20 minutes. Shin crossed the finish line and joined me in the next chair looking much the way I felt. A few moments later, Ben came bouncing in looking full of life. That too was short-lived, as I soon found him lying on the grass with his arms twitching. I raised his legs on to a transition bag and wondered why we do this to ourselves. The answer soon came through. Apparently, I had come 6th overall and Ben 3rd in his age group. Shin just missed the podium by being not quite young enough nor quite old enough to place in the top three. When the full results came through, I discovered that I had won my age group by less than two minutes. It just goes to show that all those seconds saved along the course of the race are worth fighting for.
After the race
The Best Race in Japan
Could this be the best race in Japan? It is hard to think of a better. Here are a few of my personal highlights:
The race briefing was at 1 p.m. on Saturday allowing the whole afternoon for race prep. It was clear, concise, and informative.
Shin, Ben and I swam near the hotel on Saturday afternoon
Bike and run bag check-in was at reception. We didn’t have to go anywhere else for gear drops.
The race is centred around the castle ruins, with their impressive walls and moat, and a large grassed area.
At the race start, there were no queues at the toilets! That is certainly a first for any kind of race.
There were more volunteers than any race I can remember, and they all scored ten out of ten for energy and enthusiasm.
There were more aid stations, both on the bike and the run, than any other race I’ve done. The run stations had shower hoses, and a full range of drinks and foods.
There was someone standing ahead of many aid stations to take your order! This is definitely a first for me. My order of shower and cola would be bellowed out through a megaphone, and then I would arrive at the aid station to get handed two cups of cola while showered me.
There was no crowding at all on the bike. I didn’t have to slow down once for other riders.
There was no obvious drafting. At a couple of points, they had set up drafting check zones with lines across the road at 10 metre intervals. Nice idea.
The bike course has everything: long flat straights, big climbs (1800 metres of ascending), curving descents, and scenery to die for. Riding around Takahama beach, it was hard not to stop and gawp.
The run is great. Just the right balance of hills and flats. And again, the scenery is fantastic.
The race organisation is excellent down to the smallest detail. There are even proper showers at the finish.
It is a beautiful, laid-back island steeped in history. It is being considered for World Heritage status for its hidden Christian sites.
The best thing is the local support. The whole island seems to be behind the race. The tourist office even seconds a bilingual support staff, Shiho Umeki, to the race organisation. She booked my accommodation, met me at the airport, showed me to registration, took Ben and I to a restaurant for lunch, and helped in every way she could. After the race, she took me back to the airport. Amazing.
Pre-race fish dinner at Shinsei
Flying to Goto-Fukue from Fukuoka
Travel and Accommodation
There are various choices for getting to the race. I flew with ANA via Fukuoka on Saturday morning, and took a 7 p.m. flight back to Haneda on Sunday. The flight from Fukuoka to Goto-Fukue is on a 48-seat propeller plane with limited baggage space. The organisers say that bikes are not allowed, but I phoned ANA who said it was okay. However, this did not go down well with the organisers, so I will send my bike next year. There are also flights via Nagasaki on a similar plane. If you have more time, you can take a ferry from Nagasaki. There is a jet foil and a regular slow boat.
Accommodation is limited, and if Goto gets World Heritage status, it will become even scarcer. As I discovered, the race office will help with accommodation, but a lot of this is shared bunk rooms. If you want a single room, make this very clear. It is best to stay in Fukue town as near to the castle grounds as possible. It is then walking distance to registration, race briefing, the shuttle bus to the start, and the finish area.
English race booklet
Japan Guide on Goto