This was my third visit to Nanki Shirahama for their Olympic Distance triathlon. Due to the beautiful setting, I managed to persuade my wife, Miki, to make a rare journey to a triathlon race. We spent the Saturday swimming, snorkelling and wandering along the coast. If only the race could offer such straightforward pleasures. Instead, it was less a physical challenge than a battle against the laws of physics. The start of the swim went unusually well, but soon I found myself searching for a path through the mass of thrashing, zigzagging swimmers who blocked the course from beginning to end. Being in the last wave, the faster among the over-50s had several hundred people to get around on their way to the finish. There is something about the physics of crowds that makes jams inevitable, not just at the turn buoys, but also at random spots along the course. Time and time again I would see a gap ahead, accelerate into it, and then four strokes later it was filled with arms and legs and writhing torsos. My Garmin showed 1.8 km on the swim, which was partly due to a longer-than-usual course, and partly due to my indirect route through it.
I also don’t understand the physics of drafting. I tried in vain to get into the wake of fast swimmers, but rather than their draft pulling me along, it seemed to slow me down. I tried swimming at one side, then the next, and finally directly behind, but each time I would lose contact as they sped off. Once I was back in relatively calm water, I would gradually catch up and the whole process would be repeated. Is my body uniquely incapable of drafting?
I had hoped for a faster time after focusing on my swimming for several months. I have been getting up once or twice a week at 4:50 a.m. throughout the winter months to join the punishing Shonan Bellmare swim lessons in Hon Atsugi. I have subjected my poor body to endless drills which leave me gasping for breath – surely all this suffering must have made me faster. On top of this, we have braved the chilly Hayama waters all through the winter, swimming in wind and rain and rough seas. Sadly, after all this effort, I came out of Shirahama Bay three minutes slower than last year. I felt good in the swim, but only until I looked at my watch as I exited the water. Is it possible to train harder, have lots of advice on form, but still get slower?
I was similarly confounded by the laws of physics on the bicycle leg. It was a Groundhog-Day rerun of last year’s race. I joined the 5-lap circuit just as a pack of youths from the first wave were starting their second lap. I pedalled like mad up the first slope, but all I managed to do was pull a trail of bicycles up behind me. As soon as I reached the flat, they left my slipstream and pulled ahead in a peleton. I dropped back, caught my breath, and then accelerated past the pack. Once again, the peleton formed behind me, drafting shamelessly. A minute later, I tired, slowed, and watched then sprint off ahead of me. It was last year all over again. And like last year, there is nothing I could do about it. I spent the next hour alternately racing ahead, being drafted, tiring, and pulling back. The only thing that broke this cycle was the periodic large groups of slower riders that prevented anyone getting past. It was even worse at the turn arounds where it would have been quicker to get off and run with the bike.
There was one difference to last year, though: I didn’t get angry. If you put 600 people on a narrow, winding, undulating 5-kilometre circuit, crowding is inevitable. It also seemed inevitable that there would be crashes, which there were. One woman fell badly and was treated by a doctor by the side of the road as they waited for an ambulance to work its way to her. We slowly passed in single file as she was put in the ambulance. It was a great relief to learn at the awards ceremony that her injuries had not been too serious. It could have been much worse.
The steep climb up to T2 on the old airport runway was my only chance to get away from the pack. In an instant, the drafting was over, and it was each person for him or herself. If only the climb were longer. I also enjoyed the single circuit of the runway which has more than enough space for everyone. Surely they could cut one lap from the coastal circuit and add a few loops of the airport.
I enjoyed the run from start to finish. I got off my bike and put it in an empty rack, which could only mean that I was ahead in my age group. The whole course is familiar to me now, so I could look forward to each section: first the long, hot drag along the runway, then the up and down section on gravel beneath the shade of cherry trees, next the long winding descent to the sea, followed by the run past the string of spas leading into Shirahama. After this, I enjoyed running atop the path which curves along the whiter-than-white sand beach, before the final fantastic stretch along the coast and past the famous arched sea rocks. Best of all, my Miki was there at the finish to cheer my age-group win. The time was a disappointing 2:19, but I think everyone was slower on the day. Well, everyone apart from Youri who seems to get faster every day.
Shirahama is a truly excellent place for a triathlon. The sea is clear and calm, the beach painfully beautiful, and there are hot baths all over the place. We visited shrines, walked through fields, and bathed our feet in the many foot spas that dot the area. We watched the sun set over the sea as we ate delicious Italian food at Scarpetta in Fisherman’s Wharf, and twice had perfect udon and oden at the marvellous Shirahama UDON.
The setting is perfect, but it really needs someone to redesign the triathlon course. First, they need to decide the starting waves by proven swim times. Putting large numbers of slow swimmers in the first wave is simply madness. It scares the slower swimmers, and frustrates the faster ones in later waves. Second, they should move the course ropes away from the sea wall to give more space at the start. Third, they really need to understand that making everyone wait for 45 minutes in wetsuits beneath the blazing sun is ludicrous and unprofessional. The bike course also needs to be changed. Five circuits are dangerous and frustrating. The organisers are going for the easy, convenient option, but playing with our safety. There doesn’t seem to be any excuse for this. I think it was only luck that prevented a more serious accident. Finally, the run is, well, perfect. One out of three is a start, I suppose.
Craft beer at Jinriki