There can’t be too many international sporting events where the organisers have never organised an event, and none of the participants have ever participated in one. Okay, I use “international” rather loosely, but they did announce the foreign runners at the start of the race. Little did we know at that point, that most of us would not reach the finish.
The race started with a jovial atmosphere and lots of excitement at the prospect of a few hours running and swimming down this beautiful stretch of coastline. We all counted down in unison from 10 and then set off for the first few kilometres in the welcome shade of pine trees. Our first swim section was actually a shallow river through which we waded, but one part was deep enough to take a dip and relieve the heat already building inside our wetsuits. Youri and I had actually made the wise decision to peel off the top half of our wetsuits before the start, which proved fortuitous given the unexpectedly long, tough run we were about to face.
We left the coast where a marshal pointed us up a hiking path which twisted and turned its way to a small peak. We were soon caught by two more pairs, but as it got steeper, we all walked together, chatting, to the summit. We then raced down the other side, through a small village, and then back up another track to the next peak. The rest is a bit of a blur. We followed the hiking trails up and down, right and left, sometimes running, sometimes walking up steep steps, hot in our wetsuits, trying to hold on to swim paddles and maps and buoys, but enjoying the whole daft experience. That was until we unexpectedly caught up with Keren and Alisa. It took a few moments for this to sink in. If we were in the lead, how were we catching up with them? At first I thought they had taken a short cut and bypassed the top of the peak. We waved goodbye and leapt down the mountain to the next valley…which started to look familiar. By the time we got to the next peak, it was definitely a bad case of Groundhog Day. We had climbed the mountain three times, but couldn’t work out how to get out of this maze. We then had a bit of luck. As we were discussing the way with another group, a man in a green bib appeared and led us up a narrow, unlikely-looking track through the forest. We were back on course. We soon passed Aleisha and Matt on the steep climb, and then met Marat and Ludmilla at the first proper swim crossing.
It was a great relief to escape the heat of the forest, but soon we were in another forest – one of dense seaweed with clouds of jellyfish. It was beautiful swimming through the jellyfish, especially when it became clear they were not stinging much. We clawed through them as they bounced off our hands and feet and occasionally our faces, but there was no time to think too much about it. We swam across the river estuary, out on to the beach, around a marker, and back into the water for a long swim upriver. It was hard going, but Youri led strongly much of the way. At the end, we scrambled out on to cloying mud flats and back to the road.
After another short run, we were shown back into the sea by a marshal, and we crossed a small bay. We were neck and neck with one of the teams that had led with us up the first peak, but back on land we pulled away. For the next kilometre, we had to find our way through a boulder-strewn coastline, leaping from rock to wobbling rock. Next up, we caught Jean-Marc and Dante who told us that there were three teams up ahead. The rocks gave wave to sand, and it felt good to be running properly once again.
At the end of the beach, a marshal pointed us out into the surf where we could see the three teams making their way slowly through the waves. It was really hard going, especially for Youri who was once again taking the lead. We passed one team and then the next, and soon we were on our own swimming out to a group of islands. We clambered out on to one of them, where we were told that there were still two teams ahead, with neither in sight. We had to accept defeat.
The last swim section returns to a lovely stretch of rocky, pine-fringed coastline. Hanae, one of the race organisers, and a few others cheered us out of the water, and then we ran up the final small peak and down to the finish. I felt surprisingly fresh on the last few hundred metres to the finish and enjoyed the cheers at the finish. Another surprise awaited us there. Three of our teams – Alisa & Keren, Aleisha & Matt, and Ludmilla & Marat – were already there. For a moment, I thought we had somehow lost a wodge of time, but it turned out that they had all missed one of the cut-off times. In the end, only Jean-Marc & Dante, had finished with us.
Apart from getting lost in the hills, everything went pretty well for Youri and I. We swam consistently and seemed to run well on every terrain. However, we really did get lost! According to my Garmin data, we ran up and down Atago-san three times, instead of once, and we somehow managed to do two separate loops through the forest. This lost us 27 minutes which proved impossible to make up. However, at least we managed to make the cut off times and finish.
Overall, there were lots of good points about the organisation, with only the navigation problems souring things somewhat. Here is my list of good points and suggestions for improving the next race:
Location: pine trees cling to a string of rocks and small islands along the coast – it is a beautiful place.
Course: we were taken by bus to the start point, and then ran and swam 20 km to the finish. The course has a great mix of rivers, ocean, forests, hills, boulder-strewn coast, and sandy beaches.
Atmosphere: everyone was very enthusiastic and supportive – organisers, volunteers, competitors. Competitors talked to one another and helped each other on difficult rocky sections.
Prizes: there were some great prizes for the winners, including wetsuits and swimrun shoes.
Map: we were given a map with very little helpful detail – few of the paths were marked, so it was not possible to navigate. The map should be a proper 1:25,000 hiking map, which could be laminated (the large race numbers for the kayak race were laminated). This website has hiking maps of the area.
Course marking: there were several paths in the forest, but only one marked on the map. Since the map is lacking detail, the correct path should be marked. There were signs later on the course, but only in places were the route was obvious!
Marshals and testing course: Since nearly everyone missed the correct path, there should have been a marshal there. During the planning stage, the organisers should give the course map to a number of people who do not know the course, and ask them to do the whole course. They can then find out the problems before the race.
No route: an alternative to all this would be to have several compulsory checkpoints along the course, and then allow competitors to take whichever route they like. Again, this would require proper detailed maps.
Aid stations: there was only one aid station with very sweet sports drink. The course needed a couple of more aid stations with water. It would be possible just to have a big water container from which competitors fill their own bottles.