Having really enjoyed Nanki-Shirahama Olympic distance triathlon last year, I decided to enter again. This year it was to be held one month earlier, so hopefully it would be a little cooler. My glowing report of the 2015 race attracted Keren, Dave, Jean-Marc, Hoël and Ken to also make the trip to Wakayama; I was a bit nervous that I had overdone my tales of white sand and turquoise waters, but fortunately it was all as I remembered it. The beach is so ridiculously pretty that we spent the weekend debating the rumour that the sand was imported from Australia – it seems like an awful lot of sand to bring an awfully long way, especially as the whole bay is filled with the stuff. Whatever, it makes for a stunning setting for a race.
The swim and run were just the same as last year. The swim is fantastic: two laps of a very elongated triangle in the calm waters of the bay, and then you leave the water to the palm-fringed transition strip. It has to be one of the most scenic transitions in Japan. The run is a point to point course starting over a hundred metres up at the old airport, passing through some woods, and then three kilometres down to the coast road. From there it goes around a dramatic coastline of pretty beaches and numerous rocky islets to Shirahama public hall.
The only change from last year was the bike course, and it turned out to be a change for the worse. Last year, it was three laps of a T-shaped circuit. This year, they had cut out one part of the “T”, which had involved a steep climb and return descent, and replaced this with two extra circuits. I guess the thinking was that the steep descent was dangerous, but they had added greater danger by cramming 600 people on to a narrow, undulating, curving 6 km circuit.
On Sunday, at 8 am, we lined up at the start. There were three waves arranged with the youngest age groups and the female triathletes in wave 1, the middle age groups in wave 2, and the older groups in wave 3. If you can work out a logical reason for this, I’d like to hear it. Hoël headed out in wave 1, Dave and Ken in wave 2, and Jean-Marc, Keren and I in wave 3. I was apprehensive after my terrible swim leg in Yokohama, but as soon as the gun went off, I felt good. Keren was just ahead and to the right, where he stayed most of the race. The reason I knew this was because the water was so clear and calm that I could see everything around me. It makes the swim so much easier. There was a bit of crowding at the buoys, but nothing like the craziness of Hiroshima a few weeks back, and by the second lap I had found a good rhythm. So good that I left the water in 24:02, nearly 6 minutes faster than Yokohama, but still 36 seconds slower than the flying Keren.
I had a quick transition and was soon on the bike shouting like a maniac at all the cyclists blocking the lane. The course takes you a couple of kilometres on the undulating coast road before joining the 5-lap circuit which simply runs 3 km out along the coast road and back. I got to the circuit section at just the wrong time. A 12 or 15-strong peleton of riders – mostly university students – were drafting wheel to wheel in a pack. I had to slow down to get out of their slipstream and then hung back there hoping they would ride away. Instead they slowed down to about 35 km/h, which meant I had to pass them. And there started three circuits of utter frustration as I repeatedly surged forward at full gas, got drafted by the peleton for a couple of minutes, which saved them enough energy to get past me agin. Without me to draft, they promptly slowed back down to 34 or 35 km/h, formed a new clump, and blocked me once more. Time and time again. I tried everything to break out of this – shouting, gesticulating, calling their names out as we passed marshals – but they just continued in their pack. Several times a marshal on a motorbike rode up alongside and gestured them to break up, but they simply ignored him. I have never seen such blatant drafting or such ineffectual marshalling. It would have been easier for me to let it go had they not been blocking the whole road and slowing me down.
Finally, on the fourth circuit, I got right in the face of one rider and told him in no uncertain terms to stop drafting me. He pulled back, lost my slipstream, and within a couple of minutes the whole peleton were out of sight behind me. I finally had some open road to play with and enjoyed a fast final circuit. At the end of this last circuit, you take a sharp left and climb a kilometre or so up a painfully steep narrow lane to the airport. I usually enjoy such climbs, but this time I didn’t have the legs for it. One kilometre felt like ten.
At the top of the climb you drop down steeply to the new airport, and then immediately climb steeply to the old runway. For the last kilometre you have the whole width of the runway to ride on which feels great after the narrow coast road below. I got into transition and was pleased to see empty racks in my section. I just needed a solid run to secure my age group.
Nanki-Shirahama from the top of the run course
There aren’t many point-to-point run courses in Japanese triathlon and for me this one is just about perfect. You start off running the length of the old runway, and then head steeply up into the shade of an avenue of cherry trees. There are a couple of uphill sections and then you come out on a long winding road down to the coast. All my running around the hills of Hayama has prepared me for this kind of descent; I tried to keep a spring in every step and use gravity to hurl me down the slope. I was soon overtaking one runner after another and counting down the kilometres to the finish. Down on the coast road I got into a nice rhythm, took a few glances behind, and realised there was no need to push too hard. I caught up with Dave in the grounds of a temple, and enjoyed the last couple of kilometres by the water. I got a brief shock when I heard someone running up behind, but he was in a much younger age group. I got an even bigger shock when he pulled level and apologised in English for drafting me earlier. It was hard to know how to respond.
The finish was just like last year: a group of cheerleaders and a noisy welcome on the blue finish chute. The big difference was that a lot of people had already finished. Clearly my overall position was much lower than last year. Soon the other TiTers ran in over the finish line with little time between them. We all had complaints of the dangerously crowded bike course, the blatant drafting, and the near misses with swerving slower riders, but already the good memories were pushing out the bad.
My time was a bit faster than last year, but with a less hilly, but slightly longer bike course, it is hard to compare. My swim was the biggest surprise – 20 seconds faster than last year – which made me feel there must have been some favourable currents. My run was remarkably similar to last year – just 2 seconds faster. One year older and 2 seconds faster; not a bad formula. Everyone else had good times in their strong events. Jean-Marc was 7 seconds ahead of me in the swim, Dave 6 seconds ahead on the bike. The only disappointment was that Hoël had missed a lap on the bike and been DNFed; but at least he was the fastest DNFer!
The awards ceremony and party were a bit of a damp squib. The food was a little lame, and there were no awards at all for age groupers. Since Keren and I had taken the two top spots in our age group, we were hoping to pack out the podium with TiTers. Not to worry. We soon found a great little beach bar overlooking the white-sand crescent of Shirahama where we sat drinking local craft beer in front of a blooming hibiscus. A fine end to a fine weekend. All we need to do now is persuade the organisers to sort out the bike course. Anyone out there with some influence in the JTU? Nanki-Shirahama could be an absolutely stellar race with a bit of tweaking.
Post-race beer on the beach
Panda ramen at the airport