This year’s ITU Grand Final was held from September 12th to 16th in the Broadwater Parklands area of Australia’s Gold Coast. I was lucky enough to have placed first in my Japan Triathlon Union age group in the 2017 season, so the JTU paid for my tour package and race entry. I flew out with the team on the 10th, which meant I could spend a full week in the Gold Coast. I was a bit apprehensive about going on the JTU package, but all in all I had a great time and am really thankful for the support and comradeship. The JTU contingent was huge – Junior, U23, Paratriathlon, and Elite teams, as well as a large number of age groupers. There was also a doctor, mechanic, photographer, and several managers, coaches, and assistants. We had various joint activities coordinated from a team lounge in the hotel.
Team JPN in Broadwater Parklands
My plan was to do some light training, watch other races, and enter the aquathon as a warm-up for Sunday’s triathlon. Having a week to do all this gave me plenty of time to become familiar with the course and all the race logistics. We arrived at the inappropriately named Paradise Resort on the Tuesday morning, and I met my appropriately named roommate, Simon Ferrari (sub 2- hour triathlete). As an aspiring elite triathlete, he trained hard right up to the race day which encouraged me to train more than I usually would pre-race. On the first afternoon, I cycled out to the end of the The Spit which forms the opposite bank of the lagoon in which the race swims were held. It was a surprisingly good place to train, as most of the 8 km ride is on cycle lanes through parks and woods. At the end, there were fine views of the sun setting over the lagoon.
Sunset from The Spit
Gold Coast Open Aquathon
Team JPN Aquathletes
After lunch on Wednesday, I entered the short aquathon as both physical and mental preparation for the triathlon. It was a 750-metre swim on the sprint triathlon course, and a 5-kilometre run through Mitchell Park. I had expected a lot of strong swimmers, so I set off from the very back of the wave, and then lost even more time when I leapt into the water with my goggles still on the top of my head. Despite, the strong headwind and lively chop, and my intention to take it very easy in the water, I soon found myself weaving through slower swimmers, and got out the water in a surprising time of 10:51. Either I had turned into a swimmer overnight, or the course was short. It was – 706 metres on my Garmin.
My run also didn’t go to plan. I had decided to do the first 4 kilometres at a steady pace, and then go all out on the last kilometre. Of course, with adrenaline coursing through my veins, I forgot all this and hammered the run from start to finish. My run time was a respectable 18:48.
After my race, I returned by tram to my hotel, showered, put on my JPN team kit, and returned to the race venue for the Parade of Nations. There I was greeted by smiling teammates who were all coming up to shake hands and congratulate me. It turned out that I had won my age group but stupidly missed the medal ceremony. I would find out on Sunday whether this was great preparation for the triathlon finals, or a foolish sapping of energy.
The Parade of Nations
The parade of nations was a very jovial affair. The biggest teams were of course from Australia (1,300 competitors) and the USA, but there were also a large number from New Zealand, GB, Mexico, and of course Japan. The Mexican team easily won the prize for cheerfulness, but there was a great atmosphere throughout the parade and opening ceremony.
Aquathon and Sprint Triathlon swim start
On the Thursday, we got up early for the 6:30 swim familiarisation session in Nerang River lagoon. It was then that I noticed the shark warning signs by the water. I decided to go for a fast swim time. The water was supposed to be 21.9oC, conveniently 0.1oC below the cut-off temperature for wetsuit-permitted swims. That early in the morning, the water was flat, but each day, the winds increased to near gale force by lunchtime. My start time was 8:35 so hopefully it would be okay.
Danai running out of transition in the Sprint
Danai approaching the finish
After lunch, I watched Danai in the sprint triathlon. It was a furious beach start with a 100-metre dash out to the first turn buoy. I was glad I didn’t have to fight through that melee. Danai came out of the water in a fast time of 11:25 but at this level he was half way down the field. He held his own in the bike and run to finish in 1:10:04.
Lunch at Cardamom Pod
I had worried about finding vegetarian food in meat-loving Australia, but actually I ate excellent vegan food for the whole week. On one evening, Danai and I met up for a curry with fellow TiTer, Tim, who was over from the UK working on the World Triathlon Store. Another time, we went out with Mika T (who was also racing on Sunday) for excellent Persian food – a first for me. Other days, I went to three different vegan restaurants Cardamom Pod, Govindas, and Giri Kana Cafe. My favourite was Govindas with its $14:50 eat-all-you-can buffet. It was the perfect pre-race fueling stop.
On Thursday evening I cycled once more out to the end of The Spit, where I watched the surfers from a rock jetty.
Surfers at The Spit
On Friday, I joined a group from Team JPN for a 6 a.m. ride out to the bike course. It was a fairly straightforward out and back along the coast, with a couple of short diversions up side streets. The second diversion climbed a short hill and then descended on a curving road – a curious choice in such a big, potentially crowded race. On the return, we took a detour to the run course, which followed the coast and offered great views for those not too exhausted to appreciate them.
Team JPN riding the bike course
View from the run course
In the afternoon, I watched the U23s racing at near-elite speeds. The winner of the female race, Taylor Knibb, is my tip for the Olympics. Later, I returned to Surfers Paradise for a run along the beach.
Taylor Knibb with a white ibis
U23s communing with nature
Surfers Paradise, 5 minutes from the hotel
Saturday was a rest day for me with nothing to do but check in my bike and walk around transition a few times to memorise the course. I later watched the female elite race which would decide the ITU Champion. If Katie Zaferes from America won, she would hold on to her lead in the rankings and be 2018 champion; if Vickie Holland from the UK won, she would become champion.
Elite female swim start
Vicky Holland second on the bike
After a close swim and bike, three people exited T2 and soon formed a lead group: Zaferes, Holland, and home favourite, Ashley Gentle. They stayed together for the first few kilometres, and then Holland was dropped. The gap gradually increased and her chances of winning seemed to have faded away. Mika and I were watching at the finish, with the big screen in view, but we missed the start of Holland’s fight back. Suddenly the TV pictures showed Holland back in the group, and the race was once again. I don’t remember seeing a triathlete get dropped, but then fight back a couple of kilometres later.
Gentle, Zaferes, and Holland leading the run
Next, Zaferes was dropped, and this time it stuck. Gentle and Holland raced to the finish line, but it was Gentle who sprinted away on the finish chute, carried along by the roar of Aussie cheers. It was the perfect finish – Gentle had given the home crowd a winner, while Holland had just done enough for the championship.
Fighting pre-race nerves
Sunday, 4:25 a.m., Simon was already up eating breakfast, preparing kit, and looking like he needed a bit more time to get ready. His race start was 6:30 a.m. I left the hotel really early as there was still plenty to do before my race. I took the tram to Mitchell Park – they were running from 3:30 and free for those with competitors’ race bands – and spent a long time over transition preparations. All around me, people with disc wheels were in mild panic as it had just been announced that discs would be banned due to high winds later in the morning. Some people had a spare wheel ready, but others had to find one somewhere. If I ever splash out on a disc wheel, I will have to remember to take a non-disc spare.
Simon passed by on the run as I was preparing for the swim start
From transition, we then had to walk 2 km north to the swim start. We would swim one-way back to T1, do two out-and-backs on the bike, return to the same transition and do two out-and-backs for the run. It turned out to be an excellent, safe, simple, and in places very scenic course.
As I was getting ready for the swim, a couple of familiar faces from Japan greeted me – Takeshi Irie and Tommy Nakajima. There were in fact 5 of us from Japan in my wave. Saito-san, the team manager also came up to me and asked if I needed any help; everything was set. After some cheerful banter from the starter, the klaxon sounded (quietly), I pressed ‘start’ on my Garmin, and I was soon heading for the first pink buoy on the left edge of a very civilised wave. One of the great advantages of ITU races is that waves are streamed by age, and everyone is a similar ability. I managed to draft for a few short stretches, but mostly I aimed at catching a person just ahead, pass them, and then aim for the next person. For me, this chasing helps me to swim faster than all my attempts at drafting. I felt great in the water – a real rarity for me – helped by the fairly calm water and the ease of sighting on a 50-storey tower block conveniently standing behind the goal.
I turned the last buoy and exited by the ramp. It felt like it had been a fast swim for me. I ran into transition where my bike was right by the entrance. I had remembered for once to put lubricant around my ankles, so my wetsuit came off easily, and I was soon out and on the bike.
The first few kilometres of the bike were slow due to the technical sections and sharp turns around side streets. The short climb up Grace Avenue managed to slow most people (how I wish there were more climbs at big races), and the descent of Reynolds Avenue was fortunately much better than I had feared. Everyone seemed to be riding safely, an advantage of the race only having experienced triathletes. From there it was mostly fast, straight, flat roads, with only the occasional roundabout to add variety. My speed was hovering around 43 km/h, and despite feeling good, I forced myself to slow as I felt I would suffer for this speed later. However, when I reached the first turn-around at 10 km, I realised my speed was due to a building tailwind, and not because of my expending too much energy too early in the race. I was soon expending a lot more energy just to keep above 33 or 34 km/h. The return section was pretty much straight all the way apart from a couple of small bridges over lagoons. I tried to sink as low as possible into the aerobars to slide under the headwind.
1st lap: Keeping low into the wind
On the second lap, I was pushed by the mounting wind, but this time was happy to hold myself to 43 km/h as I knew the return would be brutal. It was. A Team GB rider soon passed me, but I managed to hold him to about 20 metres or 30 metres. I spent most of the return desperately trying to keep him in view; amazingly I managed, but I wondered what it had done to my legs.
2nd lap: Keeping even lower as the wind increased
T2 was nearly a disaster. I changed into my running shoes, grabbed my cap and sunnies (there’s one for the Aussies), and was just about to set off without my number belt. Unlike JTU races, number belts are not compulsory for the bike leg. I should have just put it under my wetsuit as usual, but I figured I might save a watt or two of drag on the bike without the number flapping in the wind. I later saw that several people had been disqualified for not wearing a number on the run. Another lesson learnt.
For the first 2.5 kilometres on the run, I felt great. I was running at an easy 3:50 pace and felt like I could keep this up. After the turn, I once again discovered the effect of the headwind, and soon had to dig in for the usual tough run. My pace dropped to 4:00 but unlike other races, I managed to hold it at that. My warm-up races in Finland (a 10k at 3:45 pace), and in the UK (a standard-distance triathlon), as well as the aquathon, gave me the confidence to keep pushing.
I was also helped by Dave Sims’ recommendation of the excellent book ‘Endure: Mind, Body and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance’ by Alex Hutchinson, which focuses a lot on the mental aspects of endurance athletics. According to the book, much of what stops us reaching our endurance potential is in the mind. My take on this is that we have a mental limiter, something like the speed limiters on some electric bicycles. We get to a certain speed, but then can get no faster, however hard we push (both physically and mentally). However, this limiter can be lifted in certain situations, such as racing in front of a home crowd. Ashley Gentle had defied the odds and outran both Katie Zaferes and Vickie Holland in front of cheering Australians. I discovered the same effect as I passed the Japanese contingent cheering me on as I passed the finish area at the end of the first lap; for a few hundred metres, the heaviness was lifted from my legs and I was running freely again.
Enjoying the view
I was also buoyed by the sight of others in my age group just ahead. Apart from the usual race numbers worn on our arms, we also had to wear age group ‘tattoos’ on our left calves (M55 for my AG). Each time I spotted M55 ahead, I dug that little bit deeper and passed them. Time and time again I did this, making up the time I had inevitably lost on the swim. I started feel optimistic about my final position. As I entered the finish chute, I looked over my shoulder at an empty carpet, and coasted over the line with a big smile on my face. I had cracked 2:10 for the first time in an ITU sanctioned race. How good does that feel?
In the recovery area, I met Mika who had had a tough run, but seemed to have enjoyed this excellent race as much as me. The best thing was being part of such an international event. As I passed, or was passed by people, I read the names and countries emblazoned across the backs of their tri-suits and felt privileged to be a part of it all. I also thought of the poster I had seen that morning on a wall next to the tram station: “Nationalism teaches you to take pride in s*** you haven’t done & to hate people you’ve never met”. This seemed like the mirror opposite.
TiTers after the race
When my time was posted, I discovered I’d had my best ever swim of 23:32 and my best ever run of 37:28 (my Garmin showed 9.8 km). My overall time was 2:09:35 and I was 8th in my age group.
55-59 Age Group Results – the winner posted a time of 2:00:57!
Later, I watched the elite males battle against 40 km/h winds in the swim which made them almost invisible in the spray surrounding them. In the bike, Marten Van Riel and Kristian Blummenfelt impressively broke away in the bike, but it was Vincent Luis from France who ran away from Mario Mola to win the race. It takes your breath away to see triathletes run at 2:45 pace after the swim and bike they have just endured.
Vicky Holland, Kristian Blummenfelt, Alastair Brownlee – poetry in motion
After the racing was all over, I talked to a lot of people who all seemed to agree that it was a first-class race. The organisation was excellent, the location ideal, and the course perfect. I am already thinking ahead to next year’s championship in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Flying home over the Great Barrier Reef