I first heard about Nojiriko Triathlon from friend and fellow triathlete John Boardman. It sounded like just my kind of race – hilly, scenic, challenging – but it was off the main JTU circuit, and not part of the age group ranking system. This changed in 2016, as it became the venue for the Japan National U19 and U23 Championships, as well as a “B Race” in the age group rankings.
Lake Nojiriko with Mt. Kurohime
The ranking system is complicated, counter-intuitive, and ever-changing. Just when I think I have got a grip on it, I find there is another tricky rule to defeat me. I have come second in the overall ranking four years in a row, one of these years being in the long distance ranking when I focused on my first Ironman in Hokkaido. Over this period, I have gone from being unaware of the ranking system, through indifferent, to being determined to finally get first place. 2016 seemed like my last real chance, as in 2017 Mike Trees would enter the 55-59 AG, as well as the unbeatable Hirata who has always won our age group in Yokohama by several painful minutes. Getting older does not seem to whittle down the competition in Japan; it just loads the age group with faster and faster people.
In front of Riki’s; pre-race round of golf; view of Nojiriko
So back at the start of the year, I had a plan. I would enter four A Races, win them all, and get maximum points. In 2012, an earlier plan to win the ranking came unstuck when I discovered that they only count your best 3 races towards overall ranking. I had done well in 6 races, but Hirata had won 3 higher-ranked races to pip me at the post. Two years ago, they changed it to your best 4 races, so this year I would not make the same mistake. Things started well with a win in Hatsukaichi, followed by another win in Yokohama. It was there that I learned of yet another new rule from my long-term rival Misu. Apparently, only two A Races count towards your ranking; the other two races must be B or C Rank. Even if I won Murakami and Miyazaki, the points wouldn’t count. I needed two B Races. And Nojiriko was one of these races.
Relaxing in Riki’s lodge
The location is magnificent: a deep lake with an island, surrounded by a ring of forested hills, with bigger mountains in the distance. It is 40 minutes on a local train north of Nagano, and just 5 kilometres from Kurohime station. I was fortunate enough to be staying at the lodge of a friend of Paul Riddle’s, Riki, whose wonderful place is part of the Nojiriko Lake Association. The lodge looks down on the lake where all the action would take place. On Saturday evening, a group of triathletes, including Paul, Stephano, Youri, Jack, and myself met for a meal with family and friends at the atmospheric Lamp restaurant. It is a meat-eaters delight, but they do have grilled vegetables for those who have discovered that you can race faster without meat. One of the topics of conversation was the hilly, technical bike course, and what it would be like with rain on it. We would find out.
Dinner at Lamp
The race started at a civilised 8:50 for wave 1 (Youri), 8:53 for wave 2 (Paul, Stephano, and Jean-Marc), and 8:56 (Jack and I). It is a lovely scenic location by the lake, with real grass to sit on, lots of toilets, and restaurants all around. Transition is right next to the lake, in a long, narrow strip of tarmac. However, it was super straightforward. From the swim you entered transition from the west, and exited from the east. From the bike you entered from the east and exited from the west. Fast and beautifully simple. The day had started dry, but as we got ready to enter the water, the heavens opened. This had the advantage of keeping the pre-race speeches short, and then after some half-hearted calisthenics in the water, we were off.
Start of the swim
As usual, I started off to the far left so I could see everyone else as I breathed to the right. For the first 200 metres, the person I saw was Hirata who looked comfortable and strong. He was. I found myself unable to keep up with him, and by the first buoy he was well ahead. I turned left and headed for the second buoy, already having to weave through the previous wave. At the second buoy, I turned left again and headed back towards the start. It looked much further than we’d come, and it was hard to spot the buoy tied to the shore. But all was going well, if a little slowly. The anti-fog in my new Arena goggles seems much better than in my old Speedos, and swimming in a lake is much easier than in a broiling ocean. At the shore, I got out, rounded the buoy, and then jumped back in for the second lap. My swim times have been poor this year, but I hoped for a time closer to 25 minutes in the easy waters of a lake. This was not to be. Somehow I just couldn’t find enough power. I felt lethargic and settled in to a pace that kept my breathing regular and my stress levels manageable. In the back of my mind was the time I could make up on the bike course which should suit me down to the ground. Hopefully not literally.
Youri, Paul, Mark, Jack, Riki all running to T1 (Clockwise from top left)
I ran into T1 with Stephano just ahead, but exited transition a little ahead of him. One of the things I have learnt over the last couple of years is that it’s much easier cutting time in transition than out on the course. I was soon climbing the first long hill up from the lake and discovering the joy of a proper bike course. Indeed, it’s a cyclist’s dream. Three circuits of the lake on a winding, climbing, descending, technical course. I’d opted for my road bike with shallow section wheels and clip-on aero bars. It turned out to be the right choice. You can get aero for maybe half the time, but for the rest you are either climbing steeply, negotiating tight bends, or descending at speed. It rained the whole time, so some of the bends were a bit hairy, and once I overran and nearly hit one of the padded barriers they had put down at the worst corners. Several people fell, including one guy who was covered from head to toe in mud, and another with road rash down one side. All this meant the times were slow, but this did not detract from the pure fun of it all.
Riding past transition
On the second lap, I passed Hirata who had earlier told me he was not comfortable on the hills. Shortly after, I passed Misu who was concentrating so hard he didn’t appear to see me. I had hoped to get close to Youri and Paul on the bike, but they both had great rides, so I didn’t see them until the out and back run. I did see Stephano, though, or rather I heard him coming up behind me. He makes a distinctive sound, as I have discovered in other races. It is the sound of speed. He passed me, but I could keep him in sight for the next couple of ks, and then I had a chance to pass him on a particularly winding section. I knew it wouldn’t last, but at least I showed myself it was possible. He then repassed me, and shortly after that I lost my chain dropping down to the small chainring. This is one of the disadvantages of having a small inner ring on a compact chainset. For a moment I thought the chain would jam, but fortunately I manage to force it back on to the big ring, and then struggled up the rest of the climbs on that ring.
Preparing for T2
I had made the mistake of not checking the way into T2 on the first two laps – something I always try to do – so I ended up getting out of my shoes way too early. But the last stretch along the lake front is fast and easy, so I was able to ride with my feet on top of the pedals for the last 500 metres. My section of T2 was empty of bikes, so I started the run fairly confident of winning my age group.
Starting out on the run
Painfully steep bridge over the bike course
I pushed hard on the way out to the turnaround, at least until the big climb up from the lake. There I started to get cramp in the middle of my thigh, which forced me to slow right down until the summit, which was marked by a steep temporary bridge arching over the run course. And then down the other side to the motorway and on to the town hall. Before I got there, I gradually caught up with Paul who was moving well, and saw Youri coming the other way at speed. On the return, I saw Misu and Hirata close to each other, but at least a couple of minutes back from me. To my shame, I started to ease off up the hill, no longer having to push myself to the limit. It was only when I got a couple of kilometres from the finish, and a younger athlete passed me, that I stepped up my pace again until the finish.
Paul and myself finishing
It had been a solid race, but I was disappointed that I hadn’t pushed myself properly on the run. Two weeks earlier I had run well in Miyagi, but this time I felt sluggish. I think the bike course took a lot out of everyone, as we all found the bike leg tough. Everyone except for Youri, that is, who rediscovered his running form. Despite times being slow, it had been a fine race all round, and it ranks up there with the best races in Japan.
Photos courtesy of Paul & Shizu