Dave and I headed down for the ASTC Asian Triathlon Championships held on the weekend of April 29th to May 1st in Hatsukaichi, just south of Hiroshima. We stayed in Hiroshima Sun Plaza which is one of those ostentatious wedding venues you hope you’ll never be invited to. Apart from the church organ and fake Romeo and Juliet balcony in the foyer, it was a good place to stay, mainly because it was only a 5 km ride to the race start.
Start of elite women’s swim
We had dreaded seeing the course, as the map suggested it would be rather similar to Gamagori, the one race I have vowed never to do again. The Asian Championships were indeed sponsored by a boat race circuit and held in a timber docks, but fortunately the similarity with Gamagori ends there. The water in Hatsukaichi docks is open to the inland sea, and we could get a spectacular view of the elite racers as they swam under a high arching bridge. The bike course was 7 out-and-back laps along a recently resurfaced straight, two-lane road followed by a narrower section with several ninety-degree bends; overall a fast course on an immaculate smooth surface. The run followed a tree-lined footpath along a canal before doing three circuits of a park next to a shopping centre.
Elite women head under bridge
The race location is a bit odd. It was split into two areas, with the start next to one shopping centre while the finish was at another. The finish was particularly surreal as the finish line was in the car park of the shopping centre which was cram packed with Golden Week shoppers. It was hard to feel that you were at the Asian Triathlon Championships when there was so much else going on around. Despite this, the backdrop of mountains, inland sea and islands is fantastic. And we had three days of perfect weather.
On the Saturday, we watched the women’s elite race which was an Olympic qualifier. Despite teams from all over Asia, and particularly strong Korean and Chinese teams, the Japanese women swept the board. Ueda powered away on the run and finished in a comfortable first place. This was despite racing in Cape Town just a week before. In the men’s race, Japan was not so dominant. Hosoda faded badly in the run, with only Tayama from the Japanese team able to hold off two Koreans and two Chinese to take first place. Clearly I had to keep up this good work in the Age Group Championships the next day.
The women’s elite race was won by Ai Ueda
Elite men on the bike course
On Sunday, we cycled to transition and checked in our bikes at 6:45. We were immediately hit with bad news when they announced that the swim had been reduced to one lap of just 500 metres due to the low water temperature. I didn’t talk to a single competitor who agreed with this; it seemed an absolutely ridiculous decision. The sun was out, there was no wind, and the water was dead calm. As it was three laps, anyone getting cold could easily exit the water. We all agreed it was a totally indefensible decision. It also meant that everyone would be going mad to get to the first buoy 150 metres out.
Dave enjoying the atmosphere of the You & Me shopping centre car park
The race started at 8:10 after some cheery group exercises. As predicted, everyone went off madly to get to the first buoy. Everyone except for me, that is. I positioned myself over at the far left behind the lead group of swimmers, and took it very easy until the buoy. My aim was to keep my heart rate as low as possible and just try to stay relaxed. It then got a bit mad at the buoy as it was a left turn and I was on the inside. I got mashed and smashed, but got around in one piece. I looked up to sight the second buoy and could see a line of swimmers stretched out far into the distance. Time to push myself. I set my sights on one swimmer a short way ahead, passed him, and then targeted the next. I started to make up some of the time I had lost from my slow start, but far too soon we were at the second buoy and the fighting started all over again. It was then a short splash to the third buoy and up the exit ramp. It had only been 500 metres, but I left the water drained and woozy. My time was 9:30 which left me way down in 102nd place.
Geraldine marshalling T2
We had to run all the way round the shopping centre to get to transition which gave me time to shake the shock of the swim out of my system. I suffered an unusually slow transition as my hands were too cold to do up my helmet. I tried over and over again to do up the clip but to no avail. All around me people were coming into transition and leaving, while I was numbly trying to put two pieces of plastic together. I now know what I want for my birthday: a Specialized S-Works Evade triathlon-specific helmet with the natty magnetic buckle.
Out on the bike course, it soon became clear that the race was not only full of good swimmers but also great cyclists. The pace was amazing. I am used to coming out of the swim and then steadily passing slower riders. This race was different. I would pass one or two, lose power, and then get repassed. Over and over. At first there was not too much drafting, but as the second wave came on to the course, and then the later non-championship waves entered, it became the usual draft-fest. This was understandable at the narrower far end of the course, with several right-angle turns in short succession, but on the long two-lane straights it was unforgivable. Despite the usual promises at the race briefing, I didn’t see anyone pulled up for drafting. Same old story.
My bike leg was solid but unspectacular. The course was flat and fast and almost windless, with any advantage gained on the straights immediately lost with the crowding at the bends. With so many strong riders, I spent much of my time just trying to find 10 metres of space to avoid drafting. I would much rather a hilly, single-circuit where I can just get into the zone and ride away.
I entered transition and saw a huge load of bikes already racked up. Fortunately they were mostly in the younger age groups; only one bike – an old Lightspeed road bike was in my section; he must be one hell of a rider. I got out of T2 much faster than T1 and soon got into my stride very nicely. Too nicely, in fact. As my watch buzzed the first kilometre, I looked at it to discover I had run a 3:34 km. I soon passed 5502, the owner of the Lightspeed and felt I could slow down a bit. However, I still covered the second kilometre in 3:43 which I knew I would pay for later. That ‘later’ came very soon as my thighs started cramping and I eased off further. I knew I was ahead in my age group so I sort of drifted into a zoned-out jogging speed over the next couple of kilometres. I enjoyed the tree-lined avenue, the river, the park, and the experience of being in the race. It then dawned on me that I hadn’t even looked for other people in my age group at the last two turns, and someone could easily be just behind. At the next turn, I looked behind and immediately spotted 5506. How could he be so close? Was he one lap of the run behind? I looked out for 5501, Kawamura, who was ranked first in our age group last year, but couldn’t spot him. Where was he? It was time to enter the pain zone. I was passed by several young runners and tried to hold on to each one for as long as possible. At each turn I caught sight of 5506, and tried to work out if the gap was narrowing. I managed to get back up to sub-4 min/km pace and decided that would be enough to hold the lead, assuming Kawamura hadn’t somehow slipped past me in my earlier zoned-out state. I turned the last corner and ran up the blue plastic matting to the finish. I decided that as I might be the age group champion I should throw up my arms in an appropriate way, but sadly the young women holding the finish tape had got in a bit of a tangle. The tape caught between my legs, I sailed across the finish line horizontally and landed on my face in front of the row of photographers. I hope they post the pictures.
Moments before I took a dive
Inside the cooling off tent I could only see youthful faces, so I felt optimistic about winning. 5506, Yamano-san, came in 23 seconds later, followed by Kawamura two-and-a-half minutes behind. I rushed round to the finish straight to see Dave racing to the line, pain written all over his face. There was just two minutes between us.
After the race, we walked the thirty minutes back to the start, picked up our bikes, and then cycled back to the finish to have lunch at the shopping centre. Being Golden Week, every restaurant had a long line of people waiting to be seated; didn’t they realise they were missing top athletic action outside? We had a quick burger and a sandwich and headed off to the awards ceremony. The results were posted and I was happy to discover that I had indeed won my age group, and even the age group below. It is hard to know if my time of 1:57:25 was fast or not given the shortened swim, the long bike course (41.7 km) and run course (10.1 km). We were just in time for the awards ceremony, which started with the oldest racer in the 80-84 age group. This put things nicely into perspective. I was soon up on the stage with Yamano and Kawamura, and I received my first prize as age group champion of Asia: two sachets of yakisoba sauce and a wooden spoon. I don’t like to grumble, but the 100 yen shop does decent trophies.
Thanks to Lynda Coggins for the photograph
So it was a good weekend. A pretty good course, great weather, lots of fun. There were plenty of positives about the organisation: the courses were all clearly signed and logically laid out, the briefing was succinct, and the volunteers were great as always. But it is worth saying that some things were very strange. This was the Asian Age Group Championships, but there were no t-shirts for competitors. At the finish, there was just water available; no bananas, no snacks, no energy gels – none of what you get at most races. There was nowhere to relax as we were in a crowded shopping centre car park. And handing out wooden spoons and yakisoba sauce at an international awards ceremony is curious to say the least. We talked to one bloke who had ridden up from Yamaguchi-ken to do his first race. He couldn’t understand why there was no proper race base. By splitting the race venue between two crowded shopping centres, there was no big race atmosphere. It reminded me of Ironman 70.3 Japan which is located in an airport terminal building. It is a shame when there are so many great races held in small, beautiful parts of Japan – Ainan-cho, Nanki-Shirahama, Murakami – that the JTU can’t put on something similar for an international showcase event.
I was 53rd overall, Dave 68th