Alastair Brownlee pulled out of the Hamburg leg of the ITU triathlon series in order to focus on the Olympic qualifier two weeks later in Rio. He must have been disappointed with his 10th place, blaming the high temperatures on race day for his poor performance. It was 25 degrees centrigrade. I wonder how he would have fared in Nagaragawa last Sunday, where the official temperature was 37 degrees, but unofficially it was 40 degrees in the shade. Unfortunately, shade is something that Nagaragawa doesn’t have a lot of; the spectators huddled under canopies to escape the burning midday sun, while the age groupers staggered along the river path to shouts of “survival pace, survival pace!” It is the first race I have participated in when the aim wasn’t to go as fast as possible, but to go as slow as necessary to avoid serious injury. The Junior National Championships had been held two hours earlier in the relative “cool” of the morning, but the constant stream of ambulances made us all aware of the ordeal awaiting us.
The course should be suited to personal bests – a simple swim up and down the river, a pancake-flat, straight 10 km out and back bike course on super smooth tarmac, and a similarly flat and straight run. But in this ferocious heat, few people could have been thinking much about their placing, let alone their time. At the last minute, the compulsory wetsuit ruling was waived, and the course shortened – bike to 30 km, run to 7.5 km. I should have heeded Mike Trees’ advice to swim without a wetsuit, not appreciating how quickly you can overheat in 28 degree water. I certainly did appreciate this 5 minutes into the swim, as I started feeling dizzy and sick and had to switch to breaststroke for a while. A new lesson learned: don’t swim in a wetsuit if a former pro triathlete advises you not to! I wonder how warm the water has to be for a wetsuit to be a serious disadvantage. Perhaps over 26 degrees, I don’t know. The problem was not mine alone; I talked to an Aussie after the race who had overheated so badly that he threw up in the water.
After three or four races at around 25 minutes in the swim, I only managed 27:49, and exited the water feeling very unsteady. The bike was a bit better, at least at first. I managed to hold 40 km/h on the first outward lap, but on the way back I realised it was due to a slight tailwind. Into the wind, I struggled to keep at 34 km/h and soon realised that my bike leg was not going to get me back into the race. By now, the sun was high in the sky, and the wind rushing past was too hot and humid to have any cooling effect. It reminded me of my experience 25 years ago cycling in the Indus Valley in Pakistan; no water, no shade, nowhere to escape the burning sun.
I passed through transition quickly, but that was about the highlight of the day. Within minutes I was slowing down incrementally, taking two mineral waters at each aid station and tipping them over me. Each lap was only 2.5 km and there were 3 aid stations, a row of warm showers, plus buckets manned by volunteers who tried to douse each person as they passed. The organisers were doing their best to help us deal with the heat, but without a proper water supply, they were reduced to tipping 500 ml water bottles into buckets, and then ladling the water over the runners. The area became awash with mineral water; I hope lessons were learned.
Yamamoto winning the U19 Junior Championship
Before the race, I had met Kawamura-san, who was ranked third in our age group, for the first time. I asked him about the heat, but he simply said he likes it hot. And how true that was. He was faster than me in the swim, the bike and the run. Each lap I saluted him as he increased his lead more and more. How anyone can race at that pace in that heat is beyond me. Each lap I gradually slowed as the officials and spectators shouted at us to take it easy, rather than the usual shouts of ‘fight’ and ‘gambatte’. By the time I crossed the finish line my body had switched to survival mode, and my mind was numbed by the folly of the previous couple of hours. However, I must thank the ranks of volunteers rushing around in the blazing heat trying their best to help us keep cool. The massage tent was crammed with people flapping fans at everyone and rubbing ice over the more distressed looking finishers. Perhaps the answer to the inevitable question of “Why?” is that it brings us all closer together, which can’t be a bad thing.