Ainan-cho OD Triathlon, 2019

img_3252Ainan-cho’s natural harbour

It had been five years since I first took part in Ainan-cho Olympic distance triathlon. That was only the third edition of the race, but already it was an excellent event. I was keen to see how it had changed and whether I was right in thinking of it as the best OD race in Japan. It hadn’t, and I was.

p6080168Our minshuku, Ishigaki-so, on the left

As in 2014, Dave and I flew to Matsyama on Friday evening and drove the two-and-a-half hours to Ainan-cho in the remote south-west of Ehime Prefecture. On the way, we stopped at the rather good, and very cheap, Kitchen Ichi-Nichi, where we ate surprisingly good pasta. We arrived at Ishigaki-so minshuku which hadn’t changed much in five years – not surprising really, as it is 180 years old. The owner greeted us in her pyjamas and didn’t seem overly pleased with our late arrival, but I suspect we wouldn’t have noticed if she was delighted to see us.

img_3218Dave has race numbers affixed

Next morning, we had a leisurely Japanese breakfast and then drove 3 km to the race location for registration and the 10:30 race briefing. Immediately, the depth of local support for the race became apparent. It seemed like the whole of Ainan was in some way involved. Countless volunteers waved us on to the correct car park, guided us through registration, smiled at us, and generally made us feel very special. There was even a team of volunteers there to put on our race number tattoos. Dave and I were photographed and videoed and interviewed by the local media; heaven knows how they would treat real athletes.

p6080184Volunteers everywhere!

Everything about the race organisation is faultless. From the clear, succinct briefing to the well laid-out transition, via the brass band, sensibly timed swim warm-up, and mercifully short opening ceremony, Ainan is perfect. Even the weather was perfect after torrential rain the day before, and earlier forecasts of a wet weekend. The course, too, is perfect – at least if you like riding up a long, steep slope four times. There was just one change from 2014 which I found curious. Despite the entry website still stating that aero (DH) bars were not permitted, they announced in the briefing that they would be allowed this time. On a steep, technical course, this seemed like an unnecessary risk. I also felt irked that I had not brought aero bars so might lose some time.

img_3251Riding around the harbour on Sunday

In fact, my whole race went very well. I didn’t feel any pressure to race fast which together with the near carnival atmosphere meant I could just enjoy the day. I set up my road bike in transition, noted my spot, and ambled over to the swim warm up. I plunged into the clear, calm 24oC water and immediately entered a world of pink jellyfish. I grabbed them, kicked them, and swam through them. I was happy to be wearing a full wetsuit.

The warm-up ended just 20 minutes before the start, and then we had a few minutes of speeches before we got into the water for the floating start. The course is a simple two lap, out-and-back across the harbour. You swim to the right of a rope of buoys, around a huge turn buoy, and then back to start your second lap. The first wave set out at 1 p.m., and then Dave and I were off two minutes later. The second wave was for over 45, so I self-seeded a couple of rows from the front. Immediately I got stuck for what seemed like an eternity behind some slow, weaving swimmers. However, this was part of my race plan. I wanted to start the swim slow and not waste energy in a mad dash from the klaxon.

p6080215The swim is in a very protected harbour

The harbour was completely protected from the strong wind blowing from the west. The calm water allowed me to swim smoothly and, as I later learned, faster than usual. I left the water at the end of the first lap shoulder to shoulder with a big guy who turned out to be Dave. We had time for a short chat as we jogged up the concrete ramp and back for our second lap. Dave set off faster than I could manage, but I kept him in sight the whole way. This was helped by the fact that I tend to swim fairly straight in open water, while Dave prefers or more winding route. This seems to be another advantage of regular open water swim sessions in Hayama.

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p6080213-1Personalised bunting lined the streets

I finished an uneventful swim in 25:30 just four seconds behind Dave. We entered transition together, but I was out very fast and soon riding up from the port to the road which takes you high up above the bay. It is a fantastic ride. You climb a steady 7% slope for 4 km, and then descend for a gentler 6 km back to the port. There is just one short section of steep zigzags on the descent, but most of it is fast and exceedingly fun.

I felt good on the bike, but not quite as good as I had hoped. I had done several hard training hill-repeat sessions at Shonan Kokusai-mura, but I felt a little sluggish on the climb. I managed to hold around 20 to 21 km/h, but I was soon passed by one person who was miraculously climbing on his aero bars. A minute later I was passed by the familiar figure of Takahashi-san, who at 52 years old is still one of the very best cyclists on the triathlon circuit.

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And then the road ahead was empty. For the whole of the first descent, I had the course to myself. I swept through one bend after another enjoying the rare experience of an empty road with no chance of cars coming the other way. Still, I rode cautiously on that first lap, feeling my way around the bends, and maxing out at 51 km/h. On my final lap I was reaching 55 km/h on the short straights between each bend. With only 340 people on the course, it never got crowded.

p6080214Fisherman friends

Towards the end of the fourth lap, I got my feet out of my shoes, and then freewheeled down the steep slope to transition. There I was greeted by one of the best sights in triathlon: my section of bike racks was empty. I got through transition as fast as I think I have ever done thanks to jamming the tongue of my running shoes up into the laces and filling them with loads of talcum powder. I ran out with the announcer struggling to pronounce my name over the tannoy and was soon running through the narrow streets lined with cheering supporters. The course ramps up steeply out of the village, and my pace dropped to 6 min/km as my legs struggled to force their way up the slope and into the teeth of a strong wind. The climb is only 30 metres, but it feels like a small mountain on tired legs. But then you turn left into a 600-metre tunnel which is flat and sheltered from the wind and sun. 50 metres ahead was a single runner, but despite my efforts, I couldn’t close the gap.

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At the end of the tunnel, I glanced back at another welcome sight: the tunnel was empty apart from a lone figure just entering in the distance. I sipped on a drink at the aid station, and then started the descent to the far end of the port. I consciously changed from flat running gait to descent gait, and in no time, I passed the runner ahead. Each of the three laps was the same – on the short descent I changed gear and overtook numerous people who seem to use their leg muscles as brakes on the descents, rather than harnessing the free energy of gravity.

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The last kilometre of the run loop is by far the best of the whole triathlon course. You run along the narrow, winding road through the port village with crowds of cheering people. The elderly sit and clap while the young shout and cheer and high-five you. There are hoses and drums and bands and groups with practised chants calling out your number. For that one kilometre you feel like an Olympian, and my pace increased to 3:40 in celebration.

p6080180Dave approaching the finish

The finish is suitably noisy as you run up the blue carpet and under fisherman’s banners flapping in the wind. My time of 2:18:26 didn’t mean much on such a hilly course, but no one had passed me on the run which meant I had won my age group. More volunteers filled my hands with food and drinks of all sorts, and I sat down to enjoy my fill of carbs. I chatted for a while with Takahashi-san who had come in 8th overall in a surprisingly strong field, and then went off to cheer Dave in. He managed 10th in his age group despite little training.

p6080188The mighty Takahashi-san

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As we were stuck in the car park till the end of the race, I took the opportunity to walk through the village and talk to the locals cheering on the runners. It is about the friendliest place in Japan! It is also about the most energetic. They must have been cheering for hours, but there was no let up as the last triathletes struggled to keep going to the finish. One high school student walked up to each and every runner and gently touched palms in a strangely warm gesture.

p6080198A helping hand

That evening, we drove to the main part of Ainan-cho for the post-race party at the town’s only big hotel. As in 2014, the banquet was incredible. Tables were piled with food and bottles of local craft beer. There were chefs preparing sashimi from whole tuna, and a line of people making the local seafood rice bowl. In keeping with the earlier race, the awards ceremony was very jovial. All the third-place age groupers went up together, then those in second place, and finally the winners. We stood on the stage looking out over a sea of smiling faces and cameras. I left the hall with two seared katsuo, a bag of Ainan Gold oranges, and some barbecue sauce which I gave to the mystified minshuku owner.

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img_3242View from the podium

Racing on Saturday is great. Apart from being able to enjoy the post-race party, we had the whole of Sunday to relax and explore the area. After another breakfast of rice and fish and miso soup, Dave and I walked around Sotodomari village with its impressive stone-walled terraces. The village is beautiful and unspoilt with its stone paths, high walls, and a small stream running down the middle. There is not a single modern house to spoil the scene, but at the same time the village is clearly hanging on for dear life. The terraces which once grew barley and now covered in weeds, and the forest has crept right down to the village edge. You wonder at its future.

img_1722Sotodomari’s walled terraces

Later, we went for a ride around the coast on empty roads with endlessly impressive views. Sections are marked as cycling courses, but we didn’t see another cyclist; in fact we barely saw any cars. We returned to the minshuku for a shower and to pack up our things. The owner wouldn’t accept any payment for a late checkout, so I gave her my box of yakiniku sauce. She looked a bit underwhelmed. We left Ainan-cho, and I wondered if it would be another five years before we made the long journey back.

img_3229Swallows catching flies in front of the minshuku

Results

Garmin data

More photos

Race location

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Another Nanki Sunday

IMG_3154Shirahama Beach under a heavy sky

Nanki-Shirahama is well on the way to becoming one of the best Olympic Distance triathlons in Japan. Each year since the first race in 2014, Wakayama Triathlon Union has modified the course in an attempt to iron out the problems. The swim no longer has the stressful bottleneck near the start, and since a horrible crash in 2017, the bike course has been reduced from 5 short laps to 3 longer, much safer laps. With its beautiful location, Nanki is now a must-do OD race in Japan.

IMG_3144View from Senjojiki, just south of Shirahama

I’ve written about the location in previous blog posts, but there are a few new things to mention about Nanki Shirahama. Miki and I stayed in the newly refurbished (and poorly monikered) Shirahama Key Terrace Hotel Seamore where all the staff bent over backwards to help. There is a bakery in the hotel, a good buffet restaurant, and a hot foot spa overlooking the ocean. More important, last month Giant opened a cycle store in the hotel. They have a selection of spare parts, bike rental, lots of helpful staff but no customers.

IMG_3131The new Giant store in Shirahama Key Terrace Hotel Seamore

The weather was overcast with light drizzle at times which usually puts a damper on races at resorts, but Nanki has a special attraction: free foot spas dotted around the town. Nothing feels better than soaking your feet in a hot spa on a chilly day. And they are a great place to chat. I met a JTU official who mentioned that he would be a course umpire located in the tunnel which makes up part of the new bike course. He might well have saved me from disqualification.

IMG_20190518_181710Foot spa with a view, Seamore Hotel

So how about the race? It starts with a required briefing where they employed the clever trick of handing out your numbered swim cap after you attend the briefing. They also gave us an A3 map of the bike course and carefully explained the new bike laps: 3 laps along the coast, a steep climb to the disused airport, and 3.5 laps of the runway. You need to count 3 times around the U-turn after the tunnel and 4 times around the U-turn at the far end of the runway. Nice and clear and easy enough to remember, especially if you shout, “turn 1”, “turn 2” as you round the cones each time. I also taped the distances to my handlebars which proved very accurate.

IMG_3148Handing out numbered swim caps AFTER race briefing

IMG-0643Distances of turnarounds taped to handlebars

Race day was cool enough for a jacket and windy enough to worry about the bike. As it turned out, the swim was more difficult for me due to the chop and spray. Transition was the same as previous years, squashed on to the pavement overlooking the staggeringly beautiful and blindingly white-sand beach of Shirahama (it must be one of the few places in Japan where you need sunglasses in the rain). I racked my bike without clipping in my shoes as my rack location meant I had to run with the bike across some of that beautiful white sand.

IMG_20190519_074535Transition is right by the beach

I then checked in my “R” bag with shoes and cap for T2, as well as my “T” bag with a jacket for after the finish I also picked up my ankle timing band, and managed to make the last 5 minutes of swim warm-up (timed to give our body 48 minutes to cool down before the race). We then all filed into the swim holding area where I met Miyuki; it was such a pleasant surprise to find another TiTer doing the race. We joined in an aerobics session led by an extremely energetic and personable aerobics instructor who warmed us up before we could cool down again during the opening ceremony. Note to organisers: opening ceremony first, please.

IMG_20190519_074704-cropPre-race aerobics

The new swim course is a triangle whose apex is now in the middle of the white-sand crescent of Shirahama beach. You swim straight out to the first buoy, turn left and swim parallel to the beach to the second buoy, and then back in to the beach. You run around the start buoy, helpfully balanced high up on a pole, back out to sea and around the two buoys, but on the way back to the beach on the second lap, you turn right and head to the old swim finish line. It is a well-designed course with no bunching at any point.

IMG_20190519_075814The first wave gets ready to start

IMG_20190519_080042A bit too relaxed before the start

The first wave set off at 8 a.m., and then at 8:03 it was my turn to once again experience the sensation of being chased by a group of green-capped middle-aged men who want to take out life’s frustrations on my feet. Fortunately, I was soon clear of the flapping pack and had just a few fellow green caps to follow out to the first buoy. Despite this, I couldn’t really get into a rhythm. The sea was a little choppy, the wind was strong, and I just couldn’t settle in to a good stroke. Soon I had the added problem of slower swimmers to negotiate, as well as someone in my wave who kept swerving across my path whichever way I turned. I tried to draft him, but apart from having to swim twice as far to follow him, his kick was so strong it was like swimming behind a paddle steamer. Overall I felt it was a disappointing swim. I had hoped to do it in around 24 minutes, but in the end I only managed 25:28.

Relaxing at Senjojiki

This is my last year in the 55-59 age group, so I have chosen to have a break from point-chasing, and instead focus on fine races in beautiful races. Being relaxed is good, but I was so relaxed that I didn’t bother to walk through the transition before the race or mentally plan everything I would do. After my second swim lap, I left the water, ran to my bike, and then realised I didn’t know where it was. I then hit “Stop” on my Garmin, rather than “Lap”, and headed out on the bike.

IMG_20190519_104900View of the race from our hotel window

The course has changed considerably since 2017. You now ride on the right side of the road to allow traffic to use the first few kilometres, which is actually fine as there is a lot of uphill to slow everyone down. You then ride up and down the coast on an undulating road which would be very scenic if you weren’t looking fixedly at the road a few metres ahead. Before the turnaround, you enter a 500-metre tunnel, do a U-turn and then ride back along the coast road to the second U-turn at the top of a steep slope. The climb to the airport is still the same: very steep and very tough on a time trial bike. At the top, you descend steeply to the new airport, and immediately climb again to the old airport. The new course has three laps on the wind-swept disused runway.

As soon as I started riding I felt surprisingly good. I steadily overtook people from wave 1 and managed a good pace despite the headwind. I don’t remember the last time I felt so good on the bike. My half-sleeve TiT speedsuit felt fast, as did my new Flo wheels. I got to the tunnel in no time and was just about to continue overtaking slower riders when I noticed that everyone ahead was in a single, slow paceline. I remembered the JTU official in the foot spa mentioning that he would be an umpire in the tunnel and it clicked: there was no overtaking inside the tunnel. It made sense as it was quite narrow and dark. I tucked into the paceline and pedalled gently to the end. I was then out into the sun for a few moments, around the turnaround, and back for another rest in the tunnel.

On the second lap, race winner and all-round incredible athlete Ryosuke Yamamoto (sub-2 hours) overtook me just before the tunnel, slowed right down to avoid overtaking, and started chatting to other athletes. What a great idea. I pulled up to the person ahead and we chatted about our hometowns and the race so far. Every race needs a neutralised zone.

Apart from the tunnels, I was alone the whole bike leg. I don’t remember many races where I haven’t had to battle against large groups of people drafting and blocking your way. People were also pretty good about keeping left, so I was able to really enjoy the ride. The climb up to the airport was not so easy. I had put on a 30-tooth cassette, but it was still a tough few minutes at 10 or 11 km/h. Once on the runway, I was flying again. There was a strong tail/side wind going down the runway, so I could hit 49 or 50 km/h, but even into the wind I reached 38 km/h. As I approached transition, the headwind almost stopped me as I fumbled with my shoes. But I was very happy with a bike leg which felt fast and comfortable.

IMG_3145I remembered to study the map of T2 before the race

As I entered T2, an official guided me straight to my bike; a very nice touch. However, I discovered that my Garmin hadn’t recorded the bike leg so all that hard work on the bike was lost to posterity. As I tried to skip forward to Run mode, I ran straight into a barrier, much to the horror of officials and great mirth to myself. I soon settled into the run but felt rather sluggish after the fast bike. I kept looking at my watch to check my pace, but it was telling me the pace was fine. I started catching and overtaking people, which seemed strange as I felt sure I was going slowly. I put this down to my recent Parkruns which seem to have helped my body get used to a faster speed. It is not just the training effect of fast 5 km runs, but the mental effect of normalising that speed. I also felt fairly sure that I was the first person in my age group to enter T2, so I wasn’t really pushing myself. I don’t remember the last triathlon where I was actually comfortable on the run.

IMG_20190519_100000Running down into Shirahama, past our hotel

After leaving the runway, you follow some lovely trails through a forest and a park and then come out onto a road which zigzags down, down to the coast. It is easy to let yourself get pulled down into the road and lose all the speed you should be gaining from the descent. I had to consciously force myself to change into descending mode, but soon I was lengthening my stride and trying to touchdown as lightly as possible. This is the time to gain some free speed. At the coast road, I turned right and headed down into Shirahama. The course passes right in front of our hotel where Miki was waving and cheering me on. Another few seconds of free speed.

The final 4 kilometres felt like a scenic pleasure run rather than a race. I didn’t have anyone breathing down my neck, so I could run at a steady pace rather than having to discover the point at which my legs start to fall off. As I rounded the headland, I took in the famous arched island of Engetsuto and the beautiful stretch of Ezura Beach. Just before the finish, I passed a couple of younger runners who then sprinted past me up the finishing mat. My legs had had enough for the day, so instead I jogged up between the brass band, cheerleaders, and flag wavers who welcomed us to the finish line. My overall time was 2:16:02 which seemed okay for such a hilly bike course, and my run time of 38:45 was a minute-and-a-half faster than two years ago. I later discovered that the swim had been long and my swim pace was 1.33 min/100m which is my second-fastest ever. It is hard to grumble about that.

Garmin swim and run data (no bike data)

Race website

Results

IMG_3149View from the hotel terrace

IMG_3153IMG_3130IMG_3128Good food, great company!

 

Yugawara Orange 10k

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I almost didn’t do the “Orange Marathon” 10 km running race in Yugawara this year. Youri had pulled out due to injury, so I didn’t want to go all that way on my own. Fortunately, I remembered in time that Matt from work had also signed up which gave me the motivation to take an early train westwards around the Shonan Coast to the spa town of Yugawara. I took my road bike with a vague plan to ride over the hills to Hakone and back to Tsurumaki Onsen.

I had done the race previously in the rain, but this time the weather was perfect – mild and sunny. I cycled from the station to Yugawara Elementary School which is the base for the run. It is a big event, with several thousand participants, so the school was packed  with runners and volunteers. I met Matt and we prepared for the start.

course map

The race is a squashed loop which climbs steeply up the Orange Line road for 3 km to a height of about 160 metres, and then down to the Chitose River which it follows back down to the elementary school. It continues down to the sea before doubling back uphill to the finish in front of the school. Up, down, and up again – not an easy course.

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I started in the second block for a target time of 36 to 40 minutes, but soon started passing lots of people as we hit the steep climb up the Orange Line. It is a long three kilometres to the top through a couple of tunnels and over a few false flats. By the time we had descended the kilometre to the river, the places had mostly been decided, so all that was left was to hang on for 6 kilometres. The descent was hard on the thighs, but it is great running down through the town with its old spa hotels and shops. The support is good and the atmosphere festive. I tried to leave a bit in the tank for the last two kilometres up to the finish, but I did get passed by a couple of people with a little more left than me. I finished a minute slower than three years previously, but I had done little running for 6 weeks due to an ankle injury. Matt sprinted over the line a little while later with a big smile on his face. I received a t-shirt, a bottle of Mt. Fuji Coca Cola, and a place on the podium for 4th out of 260 in the over 50s.

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After the race, I changed into cycle gear and headed back up the running course in the direction of Hakone, 800 metres above. It’s an excellent ride which basically follows Route 75 all the way to the far side of Hakone. At first you keep to the river, and then once you leave the spa town behind, the road turns right on to the Tsubaki Line. This road winds up through mixed forests with the occasional mountain cherry in full bloom.

IMG_2888Cherry blossoms at the foot of Route 75

At times you get splendid views across Sagami Bay to Oshima island. The only downside was the groups of motorcyclists passing too fast and too close and shattering the mountain quiet with their pathetically noisy machines. 

At the top, I put on a jacket, crossed under Route 1, and continued steeply down to Lake Ashi (Ashi-no-ko). The views across the lake to Mt. Fuji were stunning. The last time I visited Ashi-no-ko was in 1994 with my mother and sisters. We had walked all the way around one side of the lake on a hiking path, and then taken the cable car up the volcano to see the steam vents. I remembered it as a cold, lifeless place where we had difficulty finding somewhere to eat. 25 years on it has been transformed by tourism. Crowds of foreign tourists filled every attraction and the road was jammed with traffic. I cycled up the inside of the cars for a couple of kilometres and then headed north-west up the surprisingly quiet lakeside road.

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A couple of kilometres later, I zigzagged up and away from the lake to pick up Route 75 again. People must like sitting in traffic jams, as the 75 had little traffic on it. I continued up to the north end of the lake where more tourists thronged the souvenir shops and cable car station. They need to get on bicycles; as soon as I rode away from the lake, I returned to quiet roads and tranquil scenery.

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At Route138, I followed the main road for a couple of kilometres and then headed up the forest road which serves Mt. Kintoki. It is a quiet road which provides a short cut over the mountain, through a tunnel, and down the other side where it picks up Route 78 to Minami-Ashigara. My plans to ride all the way to Tsurumaki Onsen were foiled by the approach of evening, as well as a warm convenience store with hot coffee and comfortable chairs. I packed my bike into its rinko bag and took the train from Kaisei station.

routeBike route

Garmin Data for run and bike

Official results

 

 

Improving Perfection

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When I first came to Japan, I owned a Reynolds 531 steel road bike made by MB Dronfield, just outside Sheffield. One day, climbing a steep hill, the bike mysteriously swerved across the road and ground to halt. I got off, had a look at the wheels and brakes, and tried again. No, something was seriously wrong. On closer inspection, the downtube had broken clean through, halfway between the saddle and the bottom bracket. My faithful MB was a right-off. I later stripped off the parts (a mixture of Campagnolo, SR, and Cinelli), and put them away in a cupboard.

MB-Dronfield-cycles-960x450An early 1980s MB Dronfield

I bought my next bike secondhand from a triathlete in Tokyo. It was another steel bike, but this time an 80s vintage Bottecchia made from Columbus tubing. The seller threw in some aero bars which came in handy when I did my first triathlon a few years later. The Bottecchia came with a mixture of cheap and expensive parts but the main thing was the beautiful frame. A similar frame had carried Greg Lemond to his famous Tour de France victory over Laurent Fignon in 1989.

1283255451493-110klqxckp68y-950-75Greg Lemond (left) on his red Bottecchia just behind Laurent Fignon

My Bottecchia had also served me well. I rode it in my first ever triathlon, and it carried me to my first age group win at Ironman 70.3 Taiwan. However, after many years of hard riding, the time had come for a complete overhaul. The cheaper parts had not aged well, and the paintwork was in a bad way. By chance, Hayama has a vintage road bike store which sells ancient Peugeots and Raleighs and the occasional Italian road bike. Curiously, most of these are in a worse state than mine. I asked about a respray for my bike and they scoffed at the idea – it seems that repainting an old bike is sacrilege.

0106_05608Riding my Bottecchia at Ironman 70.3 Taiwan

A year later, I took my bike to the UK and drove all the way up to Yorkshire to hand the Bottecchia over to one of the last places which does traditional stove enamelling of bike frames, Ellis Briggs. This involves spraying the bike with several layers of paint which are each baked in an industrial oven. I opted for a vivid blue. I also ordered chroming for the chainstay and dropouts, as well as red lug lining to highlight the fancy lugs at each joint of the frame. I was a little apprehensive leaving my partially stripped bike at Ellis Briggs, as their shop was very disorganised, and the single staff member seemed to know little about resprays.

My apprehension turned out to be well founded. A week later I got an email telling me they couldn’t remove the handlebar stem and would have to cut it out. I agreed to that but then heard nothing for two months. Finally, an invoice came for over £500, which I paid in return for the promise that the frame would soon be delivered to my mother’s house. It never arrived. I tried contacting the shop but got no reply. Numerous emails received no reply, and countless phone calls went unanswered. In late December, I finally got through on the phone, but only to a staff member who knew nothing about my frame. His promises to pass on a message bore no fruit. I spoke to him several times over the next 6 weeks, but each time I had to remind him who I was and why I was calling. Finally, in February I got through to the owner, who without a word of apology, promised to send the bike. It didn’t arrive.

I returned to the UK in late February and still the bike had not arrived. After several more calls, and several false promises, it finally arrived in a large box, wrapped in layers of paper and bubble wrap. As I pulled off the wrapping, I groaned in disbelief; it was the wrong colour! Instead of the vivid blue I had ordered, it was a subdued blue-grey colour. On top of this, the lug lining had not been done, and to cap it all, the new Cinelli stem I had ordered was missing. I phoned the shop again and this time the owner managed a half apology and promised to send the stem. It didn’t arrive. I called again, and he promised to send another stem. It didn’t arrive. In fact, it never arrived, and the shop never returned my emails.

IMG_2846-001Wrapped in pipe lagging for transportation

Without the stem, I couldn’t assemble the bike, but this made packing it easier. I bought some pipe lagging from a DIY store and cut it to fit the frame. It is a great way to protect any bicycle for transportation. Back in Japan, I was determined to look on the bright side of things. I want to enjoy riding my beautiful Bottecchia without getting angry with Ellis Briggs. They are basically a small, traditional firm struggling in a world of mass production. The frame in its subdued blue looks stunning, especially when the sunlight catches the metallic flecks on the enamel. Ellis Briggs had sourced the original decals which complemented the new paintwork. I found a replacement Cinelli stem in the bag of parts I had stored away 15 years ago after stripping my broken MB frame. In the same bag I found a fine old SR seatpost, badly corroded but just the right size. I was ready to rebuild the bike.

IMG_2855-001Original Cinelli bar and stem and SR seatpost

The first thing I needed to do before the rebuild was to decide which parts to keep and which to replace. I decided to keep the brakes and chainset which were early 90s Dura-ace and still in good condition. The Cinelli handlebars were fine, and I could use the old stem and seatpost from my MB. The rest would need replacing and updating. The original bike would have had downtube shifting, probably 8-speed. I decided on 10-speed Dura-ace which I could buy used, and it would go with a 10-speed wheelset a friend had given me. Although I had a vintage Campagnolo groupset with downtube shifters, the Bottecchia was not going to be a museum piece – I wanted to ride it and train on it. It is hard to understand why anyone would voluntary return to downtube shifters when STI dual control shifters are available.

I spent several hours taking apart the old parts and removing the corrosion using a brass wire brush and WD40. I finished with metal polish which brought everything back to near new condition. I then started assembling the bike, piece by piece. There is something very soothing about working on a bicycle. I have watched several YouTube videos of people constructing or assembling bikes and find the process quite mesmerising. This time I was mesmerising myself with the slow process of constructing this most perfect of machines. It is so perfect and so efficient that it has barely changed since 1885 when Starley produced the first Rover Safety Bicycle. There aren’t many machines which are simple enough for the average person to work on, but complex enough to multiply the efficiency of a human three times. To walk at 5 km/h requires 60 watts of energy; the same power output allows you to travel at 15 km/h on a bicycle. That same power would not even move a car. Of course, we knew this way back in the 19th century when it was cyclists who pushed for the creation of roads paved with asphalt. When car drivers rail against cyclists cluttering up their roads, they fail to realise that it is actually the other way round.

Routing cable outer through the frame with a piece of an old spoke

Gradually my bike took form, first with the stem and handlebars, then the brakes and levers, followed by the chainset and derailleurs. The only slight problem came when trying to thread the brake cable outer through the frame. I solved this by cutting off a short piece from an old wheel spoke, bending it slightly, and threading it into the cable outer. It was a perfect fit. I am not sure why I have never heard of this trick, but it works a treat.

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Finally, with the wheels fitted and the gears and brakes trimmed, I was ready for a spin. After a couple of dabs of the brakes, I set off for a test ride. Everything worked perfectly. The brakes were as sharp as on my newer bikes, and the gears shifted precisely. The perfect machine was now even more perfect.

IMG_2861-001

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

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

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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.

Nagoe Cutting no. 1 (left), Nagoe 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 of 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