Nanki Shirahama Triathlon is an Olympic distance race in a coastal resort in south-west Wakayama Prefecture. It is only in its second year, but already it has gained JTU ranking status. And there are good reasons for this. It combines easy access from Nanki Shirahama airport with a fantastic location, as well as excellent organisation and logistics. After all the problems and difficulties of the Centrair 70.3 race two weeks earlier, it was a breath of fresh sea air.
Youri and I took the first flight on Saturday morning. The small airport is perched on a hill above the resort, which is only 5 or 6 minutes away by taxi. Being one of Japan’s most popular onsen towns, there is a huge choice of accommodation, but we chose the relative luxury of Hotel Laforet which is walking distance from the swim start. It also has an excellent top floor onsen with great views. The hotel is obviously keen to attract triathletes, and they had even gone as far as to prepare a large room to store bikes and boxes, as well as buying bike racks and even a complete Park Tools tool kit.
Despite the inevitable architectural eyesores, Nanki Shirahama is a surprisingly attractive place. The beach has the whitest sand I have seen anywhere in Japan, and the sea is clear and blue. The rugged coastline, along which we raced, has numerous cliffs and stacks and arches, while wooded hills rise up from the sea. Tourist posters show the beaches cram-packed with people at the height of summer, but in mid-June the place is half empty. There are also lots of restaurants, as well as excellent beer made at the Shirahama’s very own Nagisa Brewery.
As we arrived so early, we had time for a ride and then a swim. We cycled one lap of the course which had been changed from 2014, when it was mostly along the undulating coast road. The new course is much more hilly course with a climb to about 80 metres above sea level, repeated four times. It all looked very nice on our practice ride, with some fantastic views along the coast, but during the race parts of the course did get very crowded. More of that later.
Youri took his TT bike…
After our practice ride, we ate at Nagisa Brewery restaurant, where Youri enjoyed their excellent India Pale Ale (I was in abstemious race mode). We then headed back to Shirahama beach for a swim. The water was about 23 or 24 degrees and the best I have found for a triathlon in Japan. We swam surrounded by fish, suspended above the white sand bottom. It was hard to get out of the water.
Race briefing was a few kilometres away at the Shirahama Kaikan, and it was as brief as it was uninformative. Painless but useless. The only thing I really learnt was that we couldn’t overtake on one section of the big downhill. This is a rarely enforced rule, but in this case there were JTU officials with cameras constantly taking pictures. We were also informed that the forecast was for thunderstorms, which sounded a bit ominous.
We had dinner in Shirahama’s very own Fisherman’s Wharf, at an Italian Restaurant, where we watched the sun set into the sea. The staff were as friendly as everyone we met over the weekend, which is one of the big attractions of these far away races. It reminded me a little of Hayama – the people there have deliberately chosen to live in a rather inconvenient place as quality of life is more important to them than convenience.
We woke up the next morning to clear skies and no sign of the promised torrential rain. Instead, the sea was flat and there wasn’t a breath of wind. T2 is up at the old airport, on a hill above the new airport, so we dropped off our run transition bags near the swim start, as well as our finish bags. Swim warm up was supposed to finish at 7:15, but in the end they allowed us in the water till the opening speeches. Youri and I were in the first wave at 8 a.m. which had about two hundred people. The course is an elongated triangle: about 350 metres to the first buoy, turn right and 50 metres to the second buoy, and then back to the start. Then out of the water, around a marker, and back for a second lap. It couldn’t be a better course.
The gun went off at 8 a.m. and two hundred pumped up triathletes ran into the sea. The course is rather narrow for the first 50 or so metres until we got out past the sea defences, and then we should have been able to spread out. Unfortunately, I got trapped between someone on my right and someone on my left, with another couple of people flapping at my ankles. I then realised that the person on my left was Youri, and I kept hoping he would sense my stress and fan out a bit. Unfortunately, he was also pinned in to the left, so there was nowhere for either of us to go but forward. In the past, I don’t think I would have been able to deal with this, but all the training with the two Lisas has strengthened my swimming and increased my confidence. After a few breathless moments, I managed to get into my stroke and finally find some space. The second lap was great. I got into my rhythm and started overtaking people from my wave and then the stragglers in the other two waves. This is a new experience for me – I am much more used to being overtaken in the swim. And then it was all over so quickly – in 24:22 to be precise – my first time under 25 minutes, and one of my three time goals in triathlon (I got under 40 minutes in the run ages ago, but my aim of under one hour on the bike is probably not going to happen unless I can find a suitable downhill course with a tail wind).
T1 is right on the sea front, which is a bit incongruous as there were holidaymakers ambling down to the beach in swimming costumes and flip-flops, while we were rushing out on our bikes. I had a great T1 spot near the exit, but others were not so lucky as the transition is a convoluted shape. The first part of the bike course is around the coast and past the thick sulphurous steam of a beachside onsen, and then quickly up and down a couple of steepish hills, before plunging down a 60 km/h descent with a tight right hander at the bottom. It was fine on the first lap, but on the next three laps I was really glad to have my road bike so I could stay safely down on the drops. Next there followed the steep zig-zagging climb inland which was heavily marshalled by stern-faced JTU officials. On the second lap it was completely packed with people from the second and third wave, which made riding very tricky. As I bellowed ‘migi e’ at people weaving across the road, I got some very dirty stares from an official, and I thought for a moment that I was going to get a penalty for….well, I guess he realised that shouting isn’t against the rules, even if it is a bit unfriendly.
Unlike Centrair, the turnaround points are well located, so it was easy enough to U-turn safely and accelerate away quickly. After the controlled descent back to the coast road, there follows a few kilometres of undulating road with generally enough space for passing, and reasonably good lane discipline. Near each U-turn I caught sight of Youri who seemed to be gradually closing the gap. He was having an incredible bike leg on his new Argon TT bike; had I made the wrong decision to use my road bike? In the second half of the bike, I got into a bit of a battle with numbers 45 and 171 who took turns to surge ahead, but then ran out of steam and fell behind again. They both kept the required 10 metres distance which is quite a rarity in the races I’ve been in.
On the last lap of the bike leg you take a sharp left at the final turnaround point and head up a very steep country road – probably the steepest I have experienced in a triathlon – up to hill above the airport. At last my road bike came into its own as I passed several people gasping for breath on their TT bikes. The hill is less than a kilometre, but I reckon I gained at least a minute over some of the people around me. We then descended to the new airport and straight up another steep but thankfully short slope to the old airport. Suddenly I found myself in the surreal situation of riding down the middle of the runway! I got to transition, starting unclipping my shoes, and then heard from behind the voice of number 45 shouting at me to come back! It turned out that we had to ride all the way back to the far end of the runway and then come back again to transition to make up the 40k. Another bike course error; when will I ever learn?
Being one of the first into transition, there were lots of volunteers to guide me to my transition bag and then out on to the run. This is equally surreal, as we ran all the way down the runway to the far end again which made me feel like Cary Grant in North by Northwest. As I was starting my run, Youri was flying in towards transition, so there wasn’t much between us. I then got into the serious business of running up a runway beneath a blazing hot summer solstice sun. The huge scale of the runway made it feel like I was running painfully slowly, a feeling which was reinforced by the fact that I was overtaken by a chap wearing a JPN tri-suit and a straw trilby….I kid you not!
The next part of the course follows some hiking trails and then goes through a pleasant hilltop park, before starting to drop down on roads to the sea. In all, we ran downhill for about 4 kilometres which starts to hurt the thighs after a while. But then what doesn’t hurt in a triathlon? It might as well be the thighs as the lungs. Halfway down the hill spectators started calling out ‘roku-i’ – sixth place – which was a bit of a shock. I started to catch up with a person who was clearly hurting on the downhill slope. As I passed him, he let out a loud groan. I know the feeling having too often suffered a similar fate at the hands, or rather the heels, of Messrs Whiteoak and Misu.
Views from the run course
The second part of the run passes the swim transition and then hugs the coast northwards and eastwards to the finish at Shirahama Kaikan. It is a really scenic road with splendid views across the bay to an arched rock island. Now I was hearing ‘go-i, go-i’ – fifth place – as I passed each group of spectators. These welcome sights and sounds should have been enough to take the edge off most pain. But I wasn’t feeling ‘most’ pain, so I had to resort to my usual trick of staring at a point on the road just a metre ahead, the asphalt rushing beneath my feet cauterising negative thoughts about slowing down. I felt a moment of sympathy as I passed one more person whose suffering put mine in perspective, and then felt that great moment of joy as the finish appeared around the last corner. As I approached the red carpet, I glanced over my shoulder at an empty road, and allowed myself the luxury of easing off so I could enjoy my first top 6 in a JTU race. I did a bit of an Alastair Brownlee walk to the finish tape as if I was winning and not just coming fourth. But at my age, it’s probably about as good as it gets. My time was slow – 2:16:57 – but it was a hilly course.
The finish area was as well organised as the rest of the race, with a row of cold showers and even a makeshift bath fed by a large tanker full of real onsen water. Youri came in a few minutes later, slowed on the run by blisters, but still a very fast time on the course – 2:27:10. We then took the shuttle bus back to T2 to get our bikes, and still had plenty of time to pack the bikes and get back to the finish for the awards party. There was a really warm atmosphere, loads of food, and the mayor even came round to every table to shake hands and thank us for participating. I received a stuffed panda for my efforts, which I hope to put to good use in my next race, and Youri took second place in his age group – his first ever podium place.
This is a great race. Apart from the crowding on parts of the bike course, the organisers have got just about everything right. And it is worth flying to Shirahama for the swim alone. It would make the perfect location for a 70.3 if Ironman or Challenge were looking for a new venue. I guess that is not going to happen, but I’ll definitely be back for the OD race. In the meantime, I need to find other Nanki Shirahamas elsewhere in Japan.