Baramon King Middle-distance Triathlon

Goto logo

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

Goto wider map

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

IMG_1708T2 and the finish area

 

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

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

Swim mapSwim Course

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

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

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

image12Finishing the swim

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

bike mapBike Course

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

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

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

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

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

Takahama beachTakahama Beach on the bike course

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

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

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

image7 (1)Dismounting at the bike finish

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

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

Run mapRun Course

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

image9 (1)That finishing feeling

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

B-race results

 

image3After the race

The Best Race in Japan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pre-race fish dinner at Shinsei

IMG_1692Flying to Goto-Fukue from Fukuoka

 

Travel and Accommodation

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

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

Links: 

Race website

English race booklet

Japan Guide on Goto

 

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Sea Kayaking to Beach Muffin

P5270006Heading out from Ohama beach

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

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P5270011Arriving at Najima island

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

P5270017Up the river to Zushi

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

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

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

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Nagaragawa 102

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

InkedNagaragawa map_LI

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

Nagaragawa course mapCourse Map

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

IMG_1640Race bag goodies

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

image6Ben looking aero

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

IMG_1628Pre-race hydration

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

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

JMM jumpingJean-Marc trying to walk on water

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

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

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

image5Jean-Marc leaving the 20 km/h transition zone

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

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

group after race

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

IMG_1641More goodies

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

results

Results

Three minutes to paradise

Himeji-castle-marathon-2016-start

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

himejijo-marathon-2018-course-02

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

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

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWalking out of Himeji station

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

 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWalking to the start

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWarming up with 90 minutes to go…

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

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

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

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

Before and After

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARunning into the castle grounds

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

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My Garmin Data

The Joy of Isshiki

IMG_1223Isshiki at its very finest

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

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

garmin 1A 1700-metre loop of Isshiki Bay

 

Vegetable Splits

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

garmin mapGarmin data

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

Marathon training

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

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

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

KawauchiThe incredible Mr. K

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

Tama me runningTama 30K

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

Hayama Views

IMG_1203Evening on Sengen Ridge

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

DSC_1162Dawn from our street

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

DSC_1111Isshiki Bay

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALooking across Najima from Morito Shrine

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAStorm approaching Shinnase Harbour, Morito

 

IMG_4791The Episcopalian Church, Sengen Ridge

 

IMG_4585Shibasaki Marine Reserve

 

IMG_1282The torii on Najima island

 

IMG_1207Kayaking in front of Morito Shrine

 

IMG_0374Hayama Motomachi and Fuji-san

 

DSC_1194Lenticular clouds over Mt. Fuji

 

IMG_4801cropThe View

Arasaki Running

IMG_1169Otowa Bay

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

IMG_1164Mt. Fuji viewed from Tateishi

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

IMG_1170Arasaki Pines

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

IMG_1190Arasaki

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

IMG_1191South of Arasaki

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

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map 1 Hayama to Arasaki and back

map 2Arasaki detail

Garmin Data