Ironman Japan 2014

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Five years ago, it was inconceivable that I would complete an Ironman. In fact, it was inconceivable that I would even think to enter any triathlon race. I then entered the Kamaishi Olympic distance triathlon when I was 49 – or rather a friend entered me into the race, and then spent weeks persuading me to take part. Even after the Kamaishi race, I had no thoughts of doing a longer race, but after numerous short races, friendly pressure on me to go for the full Ironman gradually wore away my resistance. I guess this is what happens with many triathletes. We go from being unable to imagine completing an OD race to eventually entering the ridiculous event which is an Ironman, without quite understanding how we got ourselves into this situation.

Now I have completed an Ironman, I wish someone had persuaded me to do one 30 years ago. Why wouldn’t anyone who is physically capable of swimming, cycling and running put their true capabilities to the test? It might sound dramatic, but I feel that crossing the line in your first IM-distance race marks a before and after moment. Before I did it, I had no idea what it feels like to push myself at constant race intensity for 11 hours. I had no idea what would happen to my body or even whether I could complete the race. I now understand much about the extremes of human endurance and how we can do so much more than we ever imagine. What a wonderful thing to be able to have this experience.

TRAINING

I decided that I would do an Ironman this year after two half-Ironman races in Taiwan. I knew that I could do well at the half distance, so it was pretty much inevitable that I would have to try a full-distance race sooner or later. At 54, the decision becomes easier. You realise that later will not always be there for you, so sooner becomes the only choice. I understood that Ironman involves a whole lot of training, but unlike many people, I did not want to follow any kind of set training programme. It is important for me to enjoy my training, and never have the feeling that I MUST swim today, or I MUST do a 20k run the next day. I want to enjoy the scenery when I ride, explore new places, and fit training into a normal lifestyle. I am lucky with my teaching job as I have quite a lot of flexibility, but I have also chosen to live exactly 40 km – the OD bike distance – from work so I can combine commuting with training. I also want to eat and drink normally – have chocolate biscuits with my tea, a beer with curry, a regular Japanese teishoku – and not follow a life-changing diet or training programme.

However, just training as and when I feel like it, and eating any old rubbish, is not going to work with an Ironman. You have to find a balance. In terms of training, the main things I followed were training with a heart rate monitor, and training on an empty stomach. I read a few pages of Don Fink’s book Be Iron Fit and understood enough to realise that I had to do lots of long-distance training, but keep my heart rate in Zone 2 – around 130 bpm for me. I ignored all the details of the book, as I figured trail running on hilly terrain and cycling on Japan’s hills automatically gives a wide mix of training intensities. As for the empty stomach thing, as far as I could make it is one of the ways to get your body to burn fat when doing long endurance events. As I don’t like eating before or during training, this part was easy to do.

Nutrition has been harder, as I eat out a lot. This means it is difficult to control my diet and I end up eating too much simple carbohydrate, salt, high glycemic-index food, and so on. To compensate, I subsist on brown rice, beans and chicken when I eat at home. Add to this, I eat lots of nuts, fresh fruit and vegetables, and only one drink a night. But that is as far as I go with diet.

Warm-up Races
My training for the race started in the winter with Tokyo marathon. I had only previously done a couple of half marathons in my two Taiwan Half Ironman races, so I figured I needed to see how I would do in a full marathon. Training for this had started straight after Taiwan Half Ironman in early November, so I had no break all through the winter. The marathon turned out to be much less painful than I had anticipated. I expected to start suffering some time after 30 kilometres, but nothing happened. I think this had a lot to do with the amazing crowds lining the whole route, as well as the exhilarating experience of running with 35,000 people through the world’s biggest city.

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Smiling all the way to the finish – 1 km to go in the Tokyo Marathon

I had a few days off after the marathon and then got into training for the Ironman. It is a lot of commitment, as anyone who has done a long-distance triathlon will appreciate. I was plagued throughout by ankle and calf injuries which flared up before Yokohama OD and only gradually diminished as the season progressed. My swim training went well with support from my Isshiki beach swim buddies, Lisa and Youri, and I got in just about enough long-distance bike rides. However, my running was restricted by my only partially-healed injuries. As soon as I went over 20 km in training, I would gradually hobble to a stop. In the end, most of my running was 10 or 12 km, which I knew would cause a problem in the race.

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Early morning swim training at Isshiki Beach – Mt. Fuji in the distance

A big part of my preparation for the full Ironman distance was to enter two middle distance triathlon races, as well as a couple of open-water swim races. The first triathlon was the Nagaragawa 102, which is a 2k-80k-20k event on the banks of the Nagara River in Gifu Prefecture (http://gifu-triathlon.jp/). This makes an excellent training event as it is easy to get to and very well organised. The second race was the Miyajima Woodman (2.5k-55k-20k) triathlon in Hiroshima (http://miyajimatriathlon.com/), which involves among other things swimming across an open strait from the World Heritage Utsukushima Shrine on Miyajima island back to the mainland, and then cycling over an 850-metre pass by a ski resort. I also wanted to find out how I would manage in a long-distance open water swim, so entered two races – a 3k event in Kamakura and a 4.5k event at my local beach in Hayama (http://www.kfctriathlon.jp/html/event_swim.html). The main thing I learnt was that I really suffer from the cold, even in July.

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Hayama OW swim race, July 6th

As the Ironman race got nearer, I found the main problem was training in the heat of summer. Hokkaido is relatively cool in summer, but training in Kanto in July and August is murder. Two or three weeks before the race I started getting saddle sores from sweating so much and had to miss a couple of training rides because of this. It is not a problem you read so much about in triathlon, but a lot of famous cyclists have dropped out of the big tour races due to this.

IRONMAN JAPAN 

Thursday
The race headquarters are situated on the south shore of Lake Toya, south-west of Sapporo. A beautiful spot, but not so easy to get to. I flew from Haneda to Chitose with Skymark, half the price of ANA and JAL and twice as good. They charge 2,000 yen for a bike which seemed fair enough. From the airport I took the airport express one stop to Chitose station and then managed to almost immediately catch the once-every-two-hour express to Toya station. From there it is a 2,000 yen taxi ride to the lake.

DSC01316  Lake ToyaDSC01320

By an excellent stroke of luck, I was staying at the same hotel as Dave, the very pricey Kohantei hotel. I had originally booked into the 5,500 yen a night Gokirakei, but got a phone call two nights previously to tell me that it might be noisy due to a function. Would I mind changing to their 18,000 yen a night sister hotel, Kohantei, for no extra charge? Daft question. The hotel is next door to the finish line, and my room was on the 7th floor facing the lake, and overlooking the IM flags leading up to the finish chute. Unfortunately, the room stank of smoke, and in the next room were a family which spent most of the night shouting and screaming at each other. The next day I spent an hour obstinately waiting in the lobby while they decided on whether I could have a different room. I figured that a good night’s sleep before the race was worth fighting for, and in the end got transferred to a non-smoking room. I suspect that they had just removed the ashtray ten minutes earlier.

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View of the lake from Hotel Kohantei

There was not much to do on Thursday apart from find somewhere for a lunch – a simple place serving lake smelt – and go for a ride around the lake to test out both my legs and the bike. One loop of the lake is a very scenic 36 km which felt just right for three days before the race.

Friday
After the Kohantei’s uninspiring breakfast buffet, I walked to the race reception to register. Registration opened at 11 am, so of course that meant precisely 10 am. The building was open, all the staff were ready and waiting, but a long line of athletes had to wait until the hour struck. To register, we needed a photocopy of our health insurance cards for some reason, as well as proof of having completed at least a 51.5 km triathlon. If you didn’t have such proof, you had to promise that you would provide it by Sept 5th. Curious.

Dave arrived in a hire car at lunchtime. We went to a new café near the hotel called Hydune which is run by a number of very cheerful and outgoing women. They served up a first class chicken burger to me and beefburger to Dave. So first class that we had the same for lunch the next day. After lunch we took the bikes out for a spin. As the course is so hilly, we rode up a steep hill to check our gears. It was a wise move as Dave’s needed several adjustments to get the gears changing smoothly. Something to add to the checklist of pre-race must-dos.

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Click here for PDF of course map: imjapanbikemap

The mandatory race meeting was fairly comprehensive although all the rules and regulations began to become a blur. I knew that from previous races my brain would be a box of mush by mid-race and I would have to rely on the directions of volunteers and officials. Still, it was one of the better-organised races I have attended.

The evening buffet dinner at the Kohantei was already getting a certain Groundhog Day feel to it, which by day 4 was chronic. Once again sleep was elusive, partly due to pre-race nerves, and partly due to the extremely noisy firework display they hold every night on the lake.

Saturday
We had some rain on Friday night which meant the bike transition area was rapidly turning from lush grass into deep mud. We checked our bikes in and racked them up. I counted how many racks my bike was in from the entrance, which was optimistic as I usually forget to count in the heat of the race. The race rules stipulated that nothing was to be on the ground or hanging from the bike, except for shoes clipped in to pedals. We opted to put our shoes in the transition bag to avoid having to run barefoot through the mud. We then hung up bike and run transition bags on the ingeniously numbered hooks. All race numbers ending in ‘1’ were in one row, all the ‘2s’ were in the next row, and so on. It’s a system that works surprisingly well.

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On Saturday evening, we had a very early dinner and tried to force down as much food as possible. Surprisingly, I was fairly free of pre-race nerves and managed to eat plate after plate of the decidedly familiar selection of overcooked vegetables and undercooked meats. I then got the best pre-race sleep imaginable, falling straight asleep at 8 pm and sleeping soundly through to my 3 am alarm.

Sunday – Race Day, August 24th
I had my usual race breakfast of muesli which always seems to work well for me. I tried to eat bread and a gel or two, but it was hard work. Dave and I met in reception at 4 o’clock and walked the 20 minutes to transition where we handed in our aid bags. According to the race briefing, uncollected aid bags would be thrown away, but in the end, they collected them after the race and put them with the transition bags – a nice touch.

It is then another few minutes’ walk to the swim start which was already crammed with people waiting for the start. It was a lovely scene as we walked around the glassy lake with the sun starting to rise into a clear sky. Perfect race weather: a slightly chilly morning, but 23 degrees or so promised for later in the day.

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30 minutes to go

1300 people crowded around the start, grouped in 5 waves. Dave’s wave was 6:16 and mine 6:19 so I guessed I wouldn’t see him till the run. At the start I met someone I had seen at the Yokohama OD race and he gave me some last-minute advice: go out slow on the bike.

The starting gun went off, and I found myself in crystal clear, 23-degree water, with lots of space around me as everyone fanned out. I had already decided to just go steady on the swim, and focus on staying relaxed and hopefully efficient. The course is really conducive to this as there are few marker buoys and lots of space to swim at your own pace. It seemed at first glance to be a straightforward two laps of a triangular course, but actually it is quite confusing as the two triangles are different shapes, and you enter and exit the water at different spots. Note to organisers – keep it simple please.

The water was completely flat on the first lap, but the wind started to build up on the long leg of the second lap and got just a little choppy in places. However, my problems started at the turn buoy. There was the usual crush of thrashing swimmers trying to find the quickest line round the buoy and I found myself a little penned in. I kicked a little harder to get into space and felt my left calf cramp up. I swam to a lifeguard on a board and asked for help with my cramp, but couldn’t remember the Japanese for ‘cramp’. This has happened a few times to me so I think I will get the kanji for ‘cramp’ tattooed on my hand. The lifeguard responded to my muddled gesturing by calling to a jet ski to pull me out of the water. For a few panicked moments I thought my race would be over, but I managed to stretch my leg against the rescue board and miraculously the cramp eased off and I could swim away. I swam for the next five minutes without leg kicks, but finished off reasonably fast. This was helped by the fact that I was one of the few people around me who swam directly to the finish arch. Most people headed to the buoy we had turned round on the first lap, which is actually a fair way from the shore. For a while I thought I must have gone in the wrong direction, but fortunately I had taken the best line. I exited the water, checked my watch at the swim timing mat and was surprised to see my time was 1 hour 12 minutes which was about as fast as I had hoped for.

Transition should have been fast as there is no distance from the swim to the transition bag racks and the changing tents. However, I opened my transition bag and somehow couldn’t get my head round which item should go on which part of my body. I had decided to wear cycle mitts, but for the life of me couldn’t remember how to put them on! It is amazing how befuddled you become during a race, and I guess the swim had not been at quite such a gentle pace as I had thought. I ran out of the changing tent and was just about to throw my bag into the receptacle when I realised I had forgotten to put on my shoes and socks. Back into the tent, socks on muddy feet, shoes on muddy socks, and I was ready to roll. Except I forgot to count the racks and stood lost for a moment before a volunteer rushed up and pointed me in the right direction. I then rushed out of transition the wrong way and had to back track to the proper exit. All in all, it was a farcical transition. I nearly topped it all off when I got on my bike and 20 metres later very nearly fell off again as my front wheel caught a rut in the pavement.

Fortunately, things started to go better once I was on the bike. The first 25 km are fairly flat around the lake, with one or two short climbs and quick descents. I had worn my Garmin and heart rate monitor but didn’t look at it once. Instead, I went with my bike computer and kept to 34 kph as much as possible. People kept flying past me, but I figured 180 km is a long way and I couldn’t imagine sustaining even 34 kph the whole way. In retrospect, this might have been a bit conservative, as those first 25 km were the only flat section without a strong wind. As the day progressed, the wind increased, and the bike turned out to be quite a challenge.

After the lake, the bike route heads north up and over the caldera rim which means a fairly sustained climb. After much deliberation, I had opted for my road bike with clip-on aero bars, which meant I had an advantage on the ascents. As usual, I couldn’t help myself attacking the climbs, even though I knew I might pay for it later. Still, it was all unknown territory for me so I just did what felt right at the time. I had never even ridden 180 km in one day, let alone raced it, so I would just have to see how I would get on. I also had no clear idea about nutrition on the bike, despite researching this particular topic more than any other. The two triathlon training books I have suggest 500 calories an hour (Be Iron Fit), and 400 calories an hour (Joe Friel’s “The Triathletes Training Bible”). In contrast, several fellow TiTers had suggested around 300 calories an hour. My main nutrition was the energy drink Tailwind which Dave had recommended and I had tried on a couple of rides. It seemed to agree with me on training rides, but in race conditions I found it hard to get enough down me. In the end I loaded up the bike with about 1000 calories of Tailwind, three gels and a Clif bar; I also put a honey sandwich and more gels in my aid bag. Despite all these preparations, I only consumed three quarters of my tailwind and two gels. I didn’t even see the aid station, so my elaborate efforts to have a homemade wholemeal bread and Hawaiian honey sandwich mid-race all came to nothing. In fact, I only consume 220 calories an hour on the bike, which must mean that my training to burn fat had actually worked.

Nearly 6 hours is a long time to be on a bike. I kept setting myself goals while at the same time focusing on the here and now. It is hopeless thinking too deeply about a 180 km time trial, so I just tried to focus on getting it right each moment. This meant keeping my cadence high, my elbows tucked in, my forearms close together, by back straight – everything as efficient and aero as possible. I also thought a lot about my calf which still hurt from the swim. And the damn wind which seemed to be constantly changing and throwing the bike around. I was grateful to be on my road bike, especially on the 70 kph descents.

On the last ascent, my calf finally cramped up and I was forced to slow down to a pitiful pace. I was passed by someone in my age group who smiled and said it was not far till the top. I kept thinking I was going to have to get off and walk, a thought which was even more painful than the cramp, so I just stood up on the pedals and forced my way to the top. And then down the other side into a wind which kept threatening to blow me off the bike. I caught up with someone on a TT bike who very nearly lost control on one bend, so I slowed down and just decided to get to the bottom in one piece.

At the bottom of the descent, we retraced the 25 km route around the lake back to transition. Despite being mostly flat, it felt windy and hard to keep to 32 or 33 kph. But others were suffering more as I passed several people and for once didn’t get passed at all. Finally, as I arrived back in the town, there were crowds cheering us on and the last couple of kilometres felt good.

T2 was a whole lot better than T1. I got the right shoes on my feet, a couple of gels in my pockets and was quickly out and running. Whit Raymond called out my name and announced that I was running well, which I was at first. You head out anticlockwise around the lake for a couple of kilometres along the lakefront promenade, do a U-turn just past the finishing chute, and then head 10 km clockwise along the lakeside road. It is actually a lovely run along the lake, with only one small hill to get over, before it becomes flat and shaded beneath the trees.

My Garmin had failed to transition from bike to run, so I decided to restart it and record the run separately. However, it would only show my current pace but not the distance. I gave up fiddling with it and switched to my watch and just went by my overall time.

Soon my lack of long-distance run training was showing, and my quads were on fire after 5 km. With 37 to go, I knew it was going to be a long afternoon. I took in one gel, but that was all I could manage. The aid stations are every 2 km or so, but soon I couldn’t even stomach the sports drinks. At last the thing I most dreaded happened: I tried some Coca Cola. I remember my last sip of coke back in 1977 when I was working at Boots in the UK. Someone put a 2p coin in a glass of coke and then pulled it out a couple of minutes later, shiny and new looking. I figured my stomach could do without that. But here I discovered that coke has another mysterious property which is particularly suited to an Ironman race: it goes down and stays down. Each aid station I took half a cup of coke and quickly craved the next refill two kilometres down the road. The body is a mysterious thing.

There is not much to write about the run apart from pain, stride, pain, stride, pain, stride. The course is lovely, but at that the same time it lets you see exactly where you have to run and how much you have left to do. My pace inexorably dropped as my thighs became tighter and tighter. Without the Garmin, I had to calculate my pace from the time of day, which at least kept me constantly occupied as my addled brain tried to do the calculation. At the end of the first of the two laps, I was no longer running – just enduring. One stride after the next; no style, no pace. I knew that I would have to hold at least 10 kph to get within my target of 11 hours, so that became the benchmark for lap 2. Apart from my ruined thighs, I felt pretty good physcially – no stomach issues, no back pains, and surprisingly no hitting the wall, despite my lack of nutrition. The wall would come later.

The high points of the run were seeing Jess Ripper and Bevan moving fast and fluidly – at least that is how it looked from my perspective. Dave was not doing so well, but he was fighting every inch of the way. As was every other runner on the course. I felt my suffering was nothing compared to people a lap behind me, some older, some carrying a few extra kilos around the waist. This awe of fellow athletes is one of the things which keeps you going, I think.

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Approaching the finish line

Finally came the moment that every newbie Ironman competitor dreams of: the finish chute. You can hear the noise of the crowd and the enthusiastic commentary of Whit as you run past the finish to the final U-turn. But it was not until I was well and truly on the finishing carpet that my brain processed the fact that it was over. There are two photos of me at the finish. One ten seconds out with a rictus of pain written across my face; the second a few seconds later is of the biggest smile my face has ever cracked. Those last five seconds will be my enduring memory of the race.

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Crossing the finish line

I hope to quickly forget the next few minutes. After picking up my medal and a bottle of water, I headed for a free massage. I sat waiting for my turn and then spotted Jess and Bevan looking relaxed and content. We chatted for a minute or two but I soon felt the need to sit down on the grass. Suddenly I started shivering and shaking and keeled over on to my side. I then heard Bevan telling me he had to get me to the medical tent which together with a volunteer he kindly did. The medics covered me with blankets and stuffed hand warmers inside, and got me to drink rehydration fluids. Apparently my blood pressure was low and clearly I was dehydrated. But it soon passed. After just 30 minutes of recovery I was ready to get back to the hotel and hit the onsen.

After a bath, I went back down to the finish and spotted Dave looking just the same as I had felt earlier. He had had an epic on the run but still finished. He claims he won’t do another IM race for a couple of years at least; I know differently! As for me, I now have a time to aim for the next time I put myself through this ordeal.

Monday
The next day, we got up early and collected our bikes and transition bags from transition. Transition was supposed to re-open at 8:30, but you could send an email to get permission to check out bikes from 5 am. It was weird seeing all the bikes and transition bags racked up and ready for a race that was now over. We then packed and drove Dave’s rental car back to Chitose airport and that was it. After nearly a year of gradually preparing for my first Ironman race, it was over. Four weeks till my next Olympic distance race in Chiba.

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