Ainan-cho Triathlon

Ainan triathlon finish

Getting to the Race
Ainan-cho is a small fishing town in a remote corner of Shikoku. This was the third year of its Olympic-distance triathlon and the first year as an official JTU ranking event. It looked like a good chance to see a part of Japan we would never visit, so Dave and I decided to give it a try.

We chose to fly to Matsuyama with JAL, as ANA often try to charge for bikes. In contrast, JAL has always taken my bike without question and treats it so carefully that you don’t need to faff around with a hard case. We had a rental car waiting for us at the airport, and then hit the rush-hour traffic for 10 km south to the motorway. It takes about two-and-a-half hours to Ainan-cho, half the time on motorway, and half the time on local roads which wind through dramatic mountains and along the western coast of Shikoku. We managed to find an onsen restaurant about an hour north of Ainan-cho where we had dinner, which was lucky as we saw few other places to eat.

Ishigaki-so Minshuku
The accommodation near the race start was fully booked so we were staying in a minshuku called Ishigaki-so four kilometres west of the race. We arrived in the dark to find a fishing village of high stone walls and traditional wooden houses stretching steeply up a narrow valley. Ishigaki-so is one of the last buildings up the valley, reached by a narrow stone pavement which climbs up beside a noisy river. Quite a place to stay.

Photo of the village 50 years ago
Photo of the village 50 years ago

The minshuku is 180 years old and perched high on of the impressive dry-stone terraces which once stretched high up the hillside. Fifty years ago, the terraces were rice paddies, but the few remaining are dirt fields and the rest have been taken back by the encroaching forest. It is sad to think of the hundreds of years of toil to build the walls and tend the terraces all destroyed by a few years of neglect.

View from our room
View from our room

In the morning, I opened the curtains to a view of towering drystone walls and forest. I went out for an early walk around the village which in itself justified the long trip down. The houses are all framed in orange-stained wood and topped with impressive tile roofs. Many have end tiles with dragons and mythical birds. You need to get on well with your neighbours as the houses are piled one on top of the other. Despite the crush, there is room for shrubs and flowers everywhere. It is one of those villages which makes you wonder how on earth the rest of Japan ended up as an architects worst nightmare.

Roof details
Roof details
Looking down to Sotodomari Harbour
Looking down to Sotodomari Harbour
View up through the village
View up through the village
Sotodomari village
Sotodomari village

Pre-Race
One of the appeals of this race is that it is on a Saturday and the start time is 1 p.m. This means you can have a leisurely breakfast, attend registration and race briefing in the morning, and then have plenty of time to get ready for the race. We had a big Japanese-style breakfast together with several other triathletes staying at the minshuku and soon we were all best friends. One couple we had met at the Yokohama race briefing – triathlon can be small world.

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Registration was quick and efficient and the race briefing fairly painless. There is no English briefing so I nearly missed the key point that you can’t use aero-bars in the race. It is okay to have them fitted, but you can’t use them. It is a good rule as the course is either steep ascents or fast winding descents. Fortunately, I had my road bike so I removed the clip-on aero-bars as I didn’t fancy carrying them four times up a 3 km ascent. Dave was one of the few people on a TT bike which was a definite disadvantage.

Everything is well-organised at this race and the atmosphere right from the start is positive and friendly. I asked about having my injured ankle taped and was helped by a doctor who works at the local hospital. Looking around the race area, it seemed that the whole of Ainan-cho were out volunteering and supporting the race.

The course is excellent from start to finish. The swim is in a protected harbour with very clear water. It is two laps on an out-and-back course, with a huge buoy marking the turn around. The transition has plenty of space and there is no distance to run between the events. The bike course is four laps on a course that climbs for 3 km on a good road up above the port, and then runs parallel to the coast for a kilometre or so to a turnaround. The turnaround is in a parking area so plenty of room to turn safely, and then you hit a few steep downhill zigzags until you hit a winding road back to the port. Finally, the run is three loops which take in a steep climb up from the port, a 600 metre tunnel, a gentler descent back to the sea, and a flat road which winds back through the town to the start.

Ainan Course

 

The Race

The race location
The race location

Dave and I were in the first wave of 100. There were fast-looking guys jostling for position at the front as we waded out for the water start. As the starting horn went off, I was immediately flayed by arms and elbows as I was squashed by the marker buoy. Nice start. I moved out wide and started sighting on a warehouse roof at the far side of the bay. Usually I get winded in the first couple of hundred metres, but this time I managed to get into a good calm rhythm from the start, helped by the clear, calm water and the wide course. Within minutes my ankle taping was coming loose and sadly ended up despoiling the beautiful water. So much for taping.

The turn buoy was easy to find and the turn around uneventful, and then I could start trying to increase my pace a little. At the end of lap 1, I got out of the water to cheers and offers of water. A glance at my watch showed it had taken 13.5 minutes, which was okay for the first lap. I tried to increase my speed again for the second lap but I didn’t have any more power in my arms. Usually I find I am limited by my breathing on the swim, but this time I had reached the limit of my strength. Must eat more spinach.

Transition
Transition

Towards the end of the second lap I got in a bit of a tussle with another swimmer, who didn’t just want to beat me out of the water, but seemed to want to beat me into the water. My time was 26:33 for the swim which was 38th overall. My Garmin measured it as a full 1500 metres so it wasn’t such a bad time for me.

Out of transition you are soon ascending steeply, first up and around a couple of bends and then straight up to the ridge. After a few hundred metres I found myself flying up the hill, but before I could get too optimistic, a 6.5% gradient sign announced the start of the real climb. It is a nice steady ascent on a good road so I could hold 19 to 20 kph. This might have been a bit conservative, but no need to kill myself with a 10k run ahead. I passed Dave near the top and didn’t envy him his TT bike. At the top of the climb (170 m) you get grand views across the bay, but there was not much time to take it all in as I was soon hammering down a long straight at 60 kph wondering if the person ahead was going to stay on the left.

I hit the turnaround fast with officials shouting at me to slow down, but there was bags of space so no worries. You then climb for a hundred metres before turning sharp left and descending on several tight zigzags, this time with the officials screaming their heads off. Somehow I don’t think they would survive a mountain bike race.

You then hit the best section of the course – it is a road biker’s dream. For the next few kilometres the road winds around a series of sweeping bends down the hillside back to the start. I tried to keep my speed as high as possible on each bend, which meant a few slightly hairy moments, and endless waving of flags and arms by helpful officials and volunteers. The whole course is lined by officials and volunteers, as well as occasional groups of cheering spectators. I even managed a bit of fancy 50 kph waving of my own as I went past a big crowd of elderly people on one bend.

The bike course filled up a bit on the second lap, but with only 300 racers it was never a problem. The hard climb followed by long descents meant lots of time to recover and prepare yourself for the next effort. I managed to keep an even pace on all four laps and returned to the transition area with a refreshingly small number of bikes already racked. My time was 1:11:24 including transitions, but only 10th fastest of the day. The fastest time was 1:07:03 which was an impressive time on such a course.

First bike climb
First bike climb

Quickly out of transition, I got straight into my stride and ran through the village cheered on my large numbers of spectators. You soon have to climb sharply out of the village and then sharp left into the long, cool tunnel. We had got lucky with the weather as it was only about 24 degrees and mostly overcast. Back in Tokyo, Oshima race was being cancelled due to heavy rain, but this rain had passed through Shikoku a couple of days before.

After the tunnel your run back down to the port on a fairly gentle descent, but still steep enough to play havoc with my ankle tendons. The good thing about the pain is that it takes your mind off other parts of your body which are suffering, so I just tried to keep up a pace which wouldn’t wreck my ankle. The last part of the run course goes through the village where you get the most incredible support from local people, from small kids to the very elderly. One part of the course is lined with bunting, each flag with the handwritten name of the runners. Another part has teams of people with start lists calling the names of the runners to a few firemen who were leading the cheering. As each racer came through, they would shout their names and the chant would pass down lines of screaming school kids. The roar was deafening in places. And completely uplifting.

On the second lap a cameraman on the back of a motorbike drew up beside me and for a moment I thought the rest of the people in front had all miraculously dropped out and I was in the lead. I was then lapped by the race leader who called out ‘Good luck!’ as he sped off with the motorbike alongside. The third and final lap was tough. The uphill section had mysteriously doubled its steepness and I struggled to get up to the tunnel. Looking at my Garmin data, I did the uphill at 12 kph on my first lap, 8 on the second lap, and 6 kph on the third – a ‘fast walk’ according to Garmin! But once I got to the tunnel, the worst was over and I could enjoy the final lap of cheering and shouts of ‘saigo’ from the more observant spectators. At the finishing carpet, I looked around to an empty road and cruised home. 41:03 on the run and a total time of 2:19:00 (13th overall). Not exactly a record-breaking time, but not bad on a hilly course. Dave came in at 2:28:12; clearly hilly courses don’t suit his flat-out power approach, but still fast enough for overall 29th.

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We hung around for a couple of hours until both transition and the car park had reopened, which gave us a chance to walk around the course and watch the enthusiastic supporters. By then, some bright spark had coined the expression ‘Ainan-man’ which was being shouted down the PA as each person crossed the finish line. Towards the end it started to rain which didn’t seem to dent anyone’s enthusiasm, apart from the two Miss Ainanchos who were stood either side of the finish line looking a bit disillusioned with the glamour of beauty pageantry. As the last racer came towards the line, a group of school kids surrounded her and they all ran to the finish together cheering. An impressive end to a totally impressive event.

With nowhere big enough to hold the post-race party at the race venue, we had to drive 10 km to the nearest town. Fortunately, we could get a lift from the couple staying at our minshuku. The party was great. The tables were loaded down with local food, and sashimi chefs carved up some whole tuna. There was more Ainan microbrewery beer than you could ever hope to drink post-race, as well as piles of fruit, including the Ainan speciality of a variety of mikan somewhere between a grapefruit and an orange. They even had the award ceremony sorted out properly, with all the 3rd place age groupers going on to the stage en masse, followed by the 2nd place, and then the 1st. I got a big insulated box full of the regional speciality, katsuo-no-tataki. My wife has suddenly become my biggest fan!

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The next morning, Dave and I went for an excellent two-hour ride around the small peninsula on which the minshuku is located. The road is almost empty of cars, and takes in incredible views of the coast. There are numerous isolated beaches, rocks and islets all the way around the cape with magnificent views across to the rest of Shikoku. With more time, there are many other hills and coastlines to explore, but this was the perfect way to fill a couple of hours before the trip home. Overall, this was about as good as a weekend gets. It would be hard to improve the race, and the local atmosphere was unforgettable.

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