After Miyagi, I was hoping for a scenic race in Toyama. From the map, it looked like a promising course, running from the Japan Sea up to Tateyama Ski Resort. But you can never tell. Gamagori, the final word in ‘never again’ races, looks to be full of rural charm in photographs posted on the race website. The reality is a swim course in a boat racing dock, a bike through factories and waste processing works, and a run along a shadeless concrete strip. In contrast, Nanki Shirahama looked like any other overdeveloped onsen resort on the map, but turned out to be a gem. How would Toyama turn out?
The city of Toyama is much like any other large Japanese city, except that there are trams and canals. Ancient ratting streetcars and sleek modern trams come out from the central station and run down wide streets, giving the city a vaguely European air. The canals are lined in places with old buildings which would be cafes and shops in other countries, but here they are lost in the urban tangle. As usual, we were in a hurry to get to the race briefing, so we only glimpsed these things on our way north to the swim start, along a wide river which took us almost directly there.
Riding to the race briefing
The briefing was a curious event, held in a fish warehouse hosed down especially for the event. We sat cross-legged on blue picnic sheets, crammed like sardines into the cluttered building, listening to welcome speeches and irrelevant advice on the dangers of slipping on wet leaves. Most curiously, there was a delegation of four racers from Taiwan together with their entourage. Speech after speech was made to welcome these international guests from ‘Chinese Taipei’ wherever that might be. The main news in the briefing was that the swim would probably be held as the imminent typhoon seemed to be fizzling out.
We left our bikes in transition and took a tram back to Toyama where finally the Toyoko hotel staff allowed us into our rooms. We’d tried to swap rooms among ourselves as Stan had booked two nights, but had to check out on Sunday morning and check back in on Sunday afternoon. Dave decided to book an extra night for his room so we could shower after the race and head home. The obvious solution was for Stan and Dave to swap rooms; well, obvious to us but not to the tangled brains of corporate automatons.
Checking in bikes to transition
The hotel was probably in the wrong part of town for restaurants, but we found a Capricciosa in the Marie station building. They were full, but then changed their minds when they saw the size of our appetites and miraculously found a large empty table. As usual, we discussed the health problems of high-carb diets as we shovelled pasta down our throats.
Next morning, the five of us – Dave, Stan, Youri, Asako, me – took a taxi to the start. The sea was smooth and the air warm and still. I walked around transition trying to avoid the mistakes of previous races; everything was very straightforward. Soon we were pacing back and forth on the beach, trying to hide our nervousness, waiting for the gun.
And then we were in the water, heading out to the first buoy, 300 metres offshore. The swim is a straightforward elongated triangle, 300 metres out, turn right, 150 metres, turn right, 300 metres back to the beach. Out and repeat. The over-40 wave was only 3 minutes after the younger wave, so I got tangled up in slower swimmers well before the first buoy. It was a slow start, so I knew I would have to put in some serious effort later in the swim. Coming out of the water after the first lap, I still felt lethargic, but halfway round lap two, everything kicked in and I finally started to make up time. 25:04 was okay, but way behind Dave who clocked an impressive 22:55 and Youri at 24:56.
End of lap one
Transition is right by the beach, so it is a quick change to the bike and then out across a patch of dirt on some plastic mats. The first two kilometres of the ride follow a bike path along the coast. The path is narrow, winding, and has plants encroaching from the sides. It is like a slalom course, with the added entertainment of slower riders weaving one way and then the other. It didn’t last long; soon the course turns north and follows a river up towards the distant mountains. For the most part, we followed a wide footpath along the flood dyke, with rice fields spread out below. For ten kilometres we gradually climbed, always into a slight headwind, but gentle enough to allow us to stay the whole way in the aero position.
Leaving the river, we struggled up a short steep climb to the road which heads up to Tateyama ski resort. This road follows a beautiful broad valley, climbing steadily, sometimes dropping into villages, and all the while offering splendid views of the valley and approaching mountains. It has to be one of the best bike courses I’ve ridden in Japan.
A railway line runs up the valley to Tateyama, and in four places we had to negotiate level crossings. At each crossing, an official demanded that we stop and put down one foot. How wobbling across railway lines while trying to get your cleats back into pedals can possibly improve safety is beyond me; it is one of those irrational rules which no one knows how to change. The last level crossing marks the start of the most brutal climb – a 1.2 km 10% climb to the ski resort. It isn’t long, but after 38 km of full-gas time-trialling, it hurts an awful lot.
The final climb
A local resident we’d met at the swim told us there were two steep climbs just before T2, so when I summited the first, I got ready to empty my water bottles for the second. However, instead of another climb, I was greeted by T2, which took me completely by surprise. I almost fell off my bike trying to get my feet out of the pedals, and ended up hopping into transition, one shoe on, one shoe off.
The run course continues the brutality of the last part of the bike. From transition, there is an immediate climb up behind the main ski building, and from there we climbed up an agonisingly steep tarmac trail to the gorgeous shade of some trees. That first part of the run course pushed me to the very limit, but just in time it levels out a bit before rearing up once again.
Despite the severity of the course, there is much to distract you from the pain. The wonderful views of the mountains are complemented by youths skiing down dry slopes and somersaulting into a lake. At the next piste, paragliders sailed in over us and landed next to an aid station. It was great to see a ski resort being properly used in the summer. And it was great to arrive each time at the aid station where they were handing out not just paper cups of water, but also full bottles. Most people were tipping the water over their heads, so you wondered why they didn’t have sponges or hoses set up. I guess it is something for future races.
On my first lap, I was overtaken on the downhill section back to the finish area by the dashing form of one of the Taiwanese athletes. He turned out to be a 15-year-old super-athlete who took the first prize. On my second lap, I slowly passed one of the female Taiwanese on one of the uphill sections. On my third lap, I passed, got passed, and then passed again the other male athlete from Taiwan. I felt a bit sorry for him; it was a long way to come to be passed by a grizzled 55-year-old.
The finishing straight was a very welcome site. I had had enough of the impossibly steep slopes, and didn’t think I could persuade myself to keep running up a fourth time. All I wanted to do was fill my body with water and find somewhere to cool off. At the finish line, Asako greeted me which was nice, as everyone else was still applauding the magnificent 15-year-old from Taiwan who looked ready to do it all again.
The next person in was Youri who looked like he’d also had enough of running uphill in 30 degree heat, followed by Dave who looked close to meltdown. Stan followed a while later after having punctured on the bike.
After a great race what you really need are great refreshments. Toyama didn’t disappoint. There was an ice bath full of beers, river trout sushi, nabe, somen, everything you could hope for to speed up your recovery. As a warm down, we cycled the 30 km back to Toyama, spending time to enjoy the views that we had only glimpsed on the way up. As we approached the city, the clouds opened, which somehow added to an already brilliant day.