Accentuate the Positive
I was reluctant to register for the Japan Ironman 70.3 race which is held in Aichi Prefecture south of Nagoya. I’d heard so many complaints about the location and the course that it seemed unwise to fork out 40,000 yen to enter. However, with the announcement of a new bike course running straight down the Chita Peninsula, rather than the old, crowded circuit course around an industrial area, it seemed it was worth taking the risk. Unfortunately, the new course was not the improvement many people hoped for.
I’ll start with the positive aspects as it is easy to get frustrated with less-than-perfect events, and then forget the incredible efforts of the volunteers, local people, officials, staff and everyone else who works so hard to help us enjoy triathlon. Especially with a long, complex course like this one, with excruciatingly complex logistics, it is necessary to stop and think about all the planning that went into making the event happen. On top of this, there was strong local support with people cheering us along the way, and an impressive noise at the finish chute.
There were of course lots more positives. The English race briefing was fairly efficient, and was held early enough to allow us to register and check in bikes afterwards. The shuttle buses worked well for me and took us everywhere we needed to go. There was also plenty of free parking both at the airport and T1. On race day, all the logistics worked well, especially getting bikes and transition bags returned quickly. Watching the line of trucks loading and unloading bikes at the airport parking, I wondered how on earth they had managed to get them all back from T2 in such quick time. It was a huge logistical effort and a lot of physical work for many people.
Swim start: Shin-Maiko Marine Park
In terms of the race, the swim course works well. The water is murky but seems clean, and the swim start is in a pleasant enough park. The course is well protected from the open ocean, so the water was flat and fairly still. The exit from the swim is easy on to a sandy beach and then immediately into the bag pick-up area, which used Japan’s clever numbering system based on the last digit of your race number. The run course was also okay on balance, with some nice sections through farms and villages.It’s a point-to-point, running from T2 in the south of Chita Peninsula all the way back to Tokoname, a couple of kilometres from Centrair Airport. Two sections could be better: the first section which climbed steeply up and down alongside the motorway, and the final section which involved several series of steps up to, and down from, the sea wall. But on balance, it is a decent, if somewhat challenging, course.
In other words, there are lots of positives to take away from the race. But overall I felt that Ironman 70.3 Japan fails on one simple test: Do I want to do it again? I didn’t meet anyone who was eagerly anticipating next year’s race. I’m glad I did the race – I got a good time – but I can’t imagine doing it again anytime soon. There again, a year is a long time in which to eliminate the negative!
Well, enough of the preamble, now for the race. It is based around Central Japan International Airport (Centrair) on the west coast of the Chita Peninsula which runs south from Nagoya. I decided to drive which is easy on the Tomei Expressway, especially now that long sections of the Shin-Tomei are open. Having a car means it is easier to drop the bike off at T1 on Saturday afternoon (you can’t check it in on Sunday morning), and it speeds up your escape from the airport if you need to leave on Sunday. There is loads of free parking within walking distance of the race HQ which is surreally located right in the middle of the airport building, with arrivals and departures going on all around. The gear expo is small, but you can get hold of most race essentials. The briefing was held in a cavernous glass-roofed hall, and presented by a cheerful Aussie compere who seems to be the Ironman voice for Asia. The briefing was pretty well done, despite the usual disconnect between the compere and the local JTU officials. Every time he answered a question with a logical Ironman-type answer, a JTU official countermanded it from the wings. At times he looked even more perplexed than the athletes – at least the ones not used to racing in Japan. The main focus of the briefing was the ‘challenging’ bike course. The narrowed sections with no passing, and the dangers of the many tight bends were explained, but of course it was hard to know whether those dangers are real, or the officials were just covering their backs. As it turned out later, the dangers were very real. It is worth noting here that Ironman were not so forthcoming about the course on their website. Much was made about the new point-to-point bike course running down to a new T2, but the course map was just a vague line running down the Chita Peninsula. It looked great on this map, but once registration was closed, a more detailed map showing numerous hairpins and turns appeared on the website. Even that map didn’t do justice to the intestinal middle section. If the course had been honestly described, we could have at least chosen whether or not to tackle it. Instead, I registered with dreams of a scenic time trial down long winding roads, something very far from the truth.
Race briefing was very much compulsory, but they didn’t check names or race numbers, instead they just handed out a generic wrist band on entering the briefing area. After the briefing, we headed up to registration, where a one-hour plus queue snaked down the hall, down the stairs, and half way back to the briefing area on the next floor down. As we were asking how long this would take, a very nice young man rushed up and escorted us up to the ‘international athletes queue’ which had three or four people in it. For registration, you need to show a photocopy of your health insurance, sign a waiver form, and produce evidence that you have completed a middle-distance race. Judging by the number of people who raised their hands to say it was their first half-Ironman race, the latter evidence can be bypassed.
You what? I’ll need a mountain bike?
Next, we headed north to drop our bikes off at T1. Fortunately, I had met up with Paul and Shizu at the briefing, and they knew the location – a reclaimed island 30 minutes’ drive north up the coast. There seemed to be bags of space on this lump of land, but for some reason they squeezed the bike racks into a long thin car park, with barely space to get your bike out along the side of the racks to the exit point. To make things worse, you had to wheel your bike out along a narrow corridor split by the concrete kerbstones which you back your car wheels on to. My bike was 1418 away from the transition exit, which on race day meant a very long and ankle-threatening run through the maze of kerbstones and racers tottering in cleated shoes.
At T1, we dropped off our T2 transition bags, which were later taken south down the peninsula to a school on a hill in the middle of nowhere. Very character-forming for the students, I am sure, but for us its location proved more character-destroying at the end of the brutal bike course. More of that later. After dropping off our bikes, we headed slowly back through the traffic to our hotels, which were unfortunately in different locations. There is probably no ideal place to stay, as the race is spread out in so many locations: race HQ in the airport, T1 up the coast, T2 down the peninsula, the finish on some wasteland in Tokoname, and the bike pick-up in the car park on a wind-swept corner of the airport island. I had chosen to stay in the Toyoko Inn as it was on the airport island, but it was also separated from the restaurants of Tokoname by a toll bridge which you can’t walk or cycle over. I ended up eating alone in a sterile Italian Tomato restaurant 2-minutes’ walk from the Toyoko. As I left the hotel, a long queue had formed at reception, which was even longer when I returned from my meal. In the meantime, I had eaten next to an American family who didn’t seem aware that their hyperactive child was screaming loudly into my ear the whole time, and that maybe they might want to take his shoes off if he is going to spend mealtime running up and down the bench seats.
I planned to get up at 4 a.m., but after falling asleep at an impressive 8:30 the previous night, I was up at 3 and raring to go. The breakfast bar at the Toyoko had a special race day opening of 4 a.m., but I had taken my usual muesli for breakfast. In my experience, what you eat the evening and morning before a race is far less important than it being something your stomach is familiar with. There is a reason Grand Tour cyclists stick to pasta, despite all the efforts of their nutritionists: it is familiar. For me, muesli is familiar and predictable so part of my race kit is a Ziploc with muesli, a bowl and a spoon.
I got a 5:30 shuttle from the Toyoko to the windswept parking, and transferred to another shuttle bus which took us to T1. There were no lines at that time, but 30 minutes later Paul and Shizu had a longer wait. Instead, I had lots of time to spare at T1, which I put to good use by joining the long line for the toilets. There were 3 sets of 5 Portaloos for 2000 athletes, as well as numerous officials, volunteers and supporters. One set was closed within an hour. I think someone needs to explain some triathlon basics to the person in charge of ablutions.
The long, narrow transition
I decided to clip in my bike shoes to the pedals which turned out to be a very good decision. At Yokohama, I had noticed that some elite racers manage to jump on their bikes and slip their feet straight into their shoes without riding a ways before doing this. I have been practising this, and once again I found it quick and easy. In fact, I think I saved at least a minute getting out of transition shoeless which proved handy later on. Apart from clipping in shoes, you are not allowed to hang any gear on the bike, and 5-minute penalties were dished out to some people who had hung their helmet or shoes to the handlebars. After the shoes, all that was left to do was load up the bike with a gel and two 700 ml bottles of tailwind.
Elena, Ricky, Paul, me – Ricky stoically fighting food poisoning…
The swim leg is very good. There are a sensible number of waves, an easy beach start, and enough time out to the first turn buoy to spread out a bit. The elites tore off at 7:30, but I had an hour to wait till my wave which gave me time to learn that the oldest competitor was a slightly-built and very fit looking 83-year-old man. I later learnt that he had won his age group of one! As my wave was for everyone over 55, and I was only 2 days into this age group, I figured I should start at the front of the group. For once, I was first round the buoy, but this meant that I had no one to follow. Unfortunately, my goggles started to fog up – perhaps with the excitement of being at the front of my wave for the first time – and I started to weave uncertainly in the vague direction of the distant, blurry turn buoy. Fortunately, initial route finding is helped by the fact that you swim under the bridge linking the island to the mainland, and someone had thoughtfully draped three huge arrows pointing down at the place you pass under the bridge. Soon the fogging got worse and I considered stopping and clearing my goggles, but at that point a fellow blue-cap swimmer pulled past me, so for the rest of the race I kept his bobbing blue head in my sights. He seemed to have a knack for finding clear water through earlier waves, which meant I could focus on swimming. For once I felt really strong in the swim, with none of my usual nerves or mild panic.
Rounding the first buoy
Exiting the swim
You exit the water at the top end of the beach and run up a steep sandy slope to pick up your transition bag. My watch said under 30 minutes, which couldn’t be right, but it also said 1.83 km which must have been about right. How on earth could I swim that fast? No time to think about it. I stripped off my wetsuit, aided by the fancy tear-apart zip that I had recently discovered Huub use, put on my bike helmet, and hurtled off to pick up my bike. Getting out of transition was crazy, but I managed to do so without twisting an ankle. Once on the bike, you negotiate a hairpin, a chicane, a bridge, and then there is a long, flat, straight which made me start to wonder what all the fuss was about the bike course. OK, it was a bit crowded, but I was cruising at 40+ km/h which was very nice. Sadly, the fuss soon became clear. The course narrowed, no overtaking signs appeared, and sharp bends rushed up at you. It seemed that the course designer had added every possible obstacle in homage to the nearby OD course at Gamagori. At one point, we had to do a quick circuit of a Lixil factory where the asphalt made the Yokoyama road surface look like a billiard table.
One of countless tight turns…
Being in the penultimate wave I repeatedly got frustrated by congestion and swerving bikes and rued the lost seconds every time I had to slow right down in the ‘no overtaking’ sections. If only I had known what was ahead, I would have enjoyed the relative speed of these flat sections. After two laps of this tortuous circuit, I prepared to head out for the open roads of the Chita Peninsula. Only I couldn’t see how to leave the circuit. The course seemed to come to a dead end, so I rolled to a stop and frantically looked around for an official. There was no one to be seen, but there were lots of spectators shouting ‘abunai’ which wasn’t very helpful. I then spotted some cyclists ahead and saw that I had to ride up on to the pavement and over the bridge. Of course, this had been mentioned in race briefing, but things are never quite so clear in the heat of the race. For the next kilometre or so we did a sort of obstacle course over the bridge, right along a narrow footpath, up a wooden ramp to the sea defences, and then an extraordinary weave and wiggle through bollards and along concrete walkways. If the organisers were prepared to close a highway down the middle of the peninsula, surely they could have closed one or two minor roads in Tokoname. I strongly suspect that the course designer had been one of those children who played with toy cars in his sandpit and made intricate courses to challenge his imaginary friends.
And then the bike course gets worse. For the next 40 kilometres you enter a netherworld of hairpins, potholes, gravel and switchbacks. You go up and down and round and round so many times that in the end I felt like I had entered Murakami’s End of the World. One time, I was so confused that I thought I had missed a turn and was repeating the whole course again. I kept looking for new landmarks, but everything looked the same. In the end I just pedalled and pedalled and thought that pure effort alone could free me from this misery.
Pace lines formed everywhere…but for slower riders, it was hard to avoid drafting
Apart from the constant stop and start riding, this section was plain dangerous. It is one thing to ride a tortuous course on a mountain bike, or even on a road bike, but on a TT bike it is at times frightening. Some of the hairpins and right-angle bends were gentle enough to allow 30 km/h; others required you to almost stop to negotiate them. But it was impossible to know how tight the bend was before entering it. Twice I very nearly came off as I fishtailed to a near stop, and managed to avoid a pothole at one bend and gravel at another. Others were not so lucky. A student at my university came off at one of these bends and was lucky to escape with a few grazes. At another bend, the rider ahead of me crashed into a railing and went over the top.
Making the most of a straight section
My mind kept darting ahead to the promised highway where, according to the race briefing, we would be able to let rip. I thought I had heard mention of 30 km of this time-trialling nirvana, but we went well past the 70 km mark before the promised motorway fell into view. But first we had to ride up a steep, overgrown footpath and on to an equally overgrown cycle path running alongside the motorway. I had had enough of ‘no overtaking’ by this time, so I squeezed past the slower bikes ahead, and managed to brake in time to do a spot of mountain biking over another temporary wooden ramp between a removed section of crash barrier.
At last, the final 18 km to the end. It would surely flash past in a blur of high-cadence pedalling. Except that it was undulating to put it mildly, more up than down, and all into a fierce headwind. I found myself grinding up some of the hills in first gear, and barely managed over 40 km/h on the downhills. The only compensation was that there was at last plenty of room to overtake, which was made even easier by the fact that most of my fellow competitors seemed dead on their pedals. All except one bloke who overtook me on a descent, and for the next few kilometres we yo-yoed towards the finish, me on the left side of the road, him over on the right, smiling each time we managed to pass each other. It was good to see someone else who abhors drafting, especially after having seen more drafting than any other race I’ve done. I also caught sight of Ricky, grimly powering up one of the long hills. I was surprised he’d managed to keep going despite suffering food poisoning. Triathletes can be a tough bunch.
Dutch soccer fans queuing to buy Japanese fitted kitchens
Inevitably, T2 finally arrived, but not before a bit more sidewalk madness and a couple of very steep slopes. The welcome of the cheering school children put a brief smile on my face, and then I was plunged into more punishment on the run course. It starts off downhill on a dirt trail before emerging among pretty rice fields. But soon we hit the hills. First, there was a brutally steep uphill which was really hard on the thighs, and then we joined a road running parallel with the undulating motorway we had recently cycled along. Only it was even more hilly than the bike course, as we rose up to bridges crossing the motorway, and then plunged back down to tunnels running beneath it. Over and over again. My only mantra was to keep running, keep running, don’t walk, don’t walk.
Negotiating the sea wall
After a seemingly interminable series of ups and downs, the course finally became gentler, and in parts it was rather pleasant running through farmland being cheered on by farmers working their fields or sat outside their houses. We gradually descended to the sea where we faced the last little sting in the tail – a series of steps up and down the sea defences. Climb up, run along, climb down, repeat. It is hard to imagine that the course designer had ever done one of these races. With thighs burning, the last thing you really need is to climb down steep, crumbling concrete steps.
200 metres to go
For most of the run, I had felt unusually strong – much more so than any race I can remember. Despite the hills, most of my kilometre splits were under 4:30, so I knew I was well under my target time of 5 hours. As I got to the last 5 km, I realised that I could maybe get under 4:45, so I decided to press on as hard as I could stand. I passed an American who immediately latched on to my shoulder, and after another kilometre, he found some reserves of energy and took off. This was just what I needed to carry me the last few ks. Soon I heard the familiar “mo sukoshi…faito” from spectators, and then the sweet sound of “ato go-hyaku mētoru”. A more surprising sound was Paul’s voice urging me on. He’d crushed the bike, but had suffered on the run. But we didn’t have much more suffering left. In the distance I could see lines of Lixil banners flapping in a desolate barren wasteland which seemed the most unlikely place for a race finish. But it was indeed the finish, so I squeezed out my last bit of energy to get to the finish with 10 seconds to spare for a very satisfying sub-4:45 time. Despite the barren landscape, the welcome was anything but. The finishing chute was lined with cheering spectators, as well as some extremely enthusiastic cheerleaders. And the kindness of the volunteers who welcome you over the finish line is always so special. There was not much in the way of nutrition available, but I must say the mochi I had complained about before the race went down a treat. And the post-race massage was the best I’ve ever had.
Post-race logistics were also good. A shuttle bus took us immediately to the airport car parking where our bikes and transition bags had just arrived. We then went to airport for a surprisingly pleasant bathe in the onsen on the fourth floor. The awards ceremony was not so convenient as it didn’t start till 6:30 and promised to go on till late. Reluctantly, I just picked up my trophy and headed home along the Tomei.
Overall, Centrair 70.3 seems to involve an awful lot of people working tirelessly to make the best of a location that just isn’t particularly suitable for a triathlon. The area is too densely populated, too industrial, and too hilly to ever work properly. However convenient the airport might be, the use of 5 separate race locations means that any benefit gained from being close to the arrivals lounge is soon lost in hours spent on shuttle buses and walking from one place to the next. On top of this, the social aspect is hopeless – it is hard to meet up with friends, and there is little of the local culture you get at many races in Japan. I guess a lot of this could be forgiven if the course had been at least okay, but the bike course mars the whole experience. It takes a lot to make me dislike being on a bike, but there were times on Sunday when I just wanted it all to stop. I guess the bottom line is that Lixil are a rich sponsor which wants the race located around its hometown, and Ironman are happy as long as people keep on signing up for the race. Perhaps the most realistic hope is for a second 70.3 race in a more amenable location.
Tokai UniversityTriathlon Team