I am standing once again on a beach looking out at the ocean and trying to calm my pre-race nerves. Seven hundred other triathletes sweat in their wetsuits as they wait for the klaxon. Ahead of me, a rope of buoys stretches out diagonally from the beach to the far-off promontory of Ebisu Point. Dozens and dozens of lifeguards – more than I’ve ever seen at race – sit on rescue boards and surfboards; there are no jet skis or fishing boats in this protected harbour, but the coastguard hovers further offshore. Hiwasa Umigame triathlon is about to begin.
Ebisu Point to the left
The klaxon sounds, and the first wave is off, quickly fanning out away from the rope. Two minutes to go, so I dip my goggles in the water and take up position on the far left. The second klaxon sounds and I wade in behind the first line of swimmers until it is deep enough to plunge in. I try to avoid the stress of the usual crazed dash out from the beach, instead holding a steady pace to keep my heart rate down and my breathing steady. With the whole bay to play with, there is little bunching, so I soon find a line straight to Ebisu Point. Someone pulls up alongside me and then matches me stroke for stroke. Soon he is hitting me on each stroke, so I pull up and immediately try to draft. As usual, I fail to find any benefit, and only manage to swallow the churning water. I let him pull away and then return to my own rhythm. As we draw further away from the beach, the water clears and soon fills with hundreds of harmless pink jellyfish. It is surprisingly cool – 25 degrees – and not too choppy. My sleeveless wetsuit feels much less restrictive than a full suit; it is definitely the way to go for summer swims.
I had decided to not push myself too hard on the swim as I knew the run would need every ounce of energy, but on the return to the beach I pick up the pace and feel like I am swimming well. As I leave the water, I glance at my watch and see 27:10 – over two minutes faster than 4 years previously. Not as fast as Osaka, but good for me in open water. I jog up the beach and then accelerate the short way towards transition. I run under the huge stone torii marking the entrance to Hachiman shrine, rip off my wetsuit, and am soon out the other end and on my bike.
The first 4 kilometres are fairly flat as I wind out through the town and along a river, passing numerous riders meandering more than the river itself. Soon the gradient steepens, and I am down on to the small chainring and up on to the tops of the bars. I had expected to steadily pass other riders, but instead I am the one getting passed by several people. This is going to be a very fast race. The road winds up beneath the welcome shade of cedars, through a long dark tunnel, and then out on to some sweeping curves which rise to the first small pass at 120 metres. For the next 15 kilometres the road climbs and falls, climbs and falls, as it twists and turns its way above the coast. One moment I am grinding up a steep climb, the next I am crouched low over the top tube as I lean into the next downhill bend. With my crash at Osaka still fresh in my mind (and my hip), I slow more than usual for the bends, and watch other riders pull away. It is hard to check for others in my age group on this technical course, but see Urayama-san struggling up a climb. I wonder if Horiyama-san is ahead, or perhaps my good swim has left him behind me.
The start of the first climb
The last kilometre or so before the turnaround at Mugi village is a long, straight descent. On the other side of the road, youthful riders grind back up the slope, past a group of school children handing out water and the ubiquitous Aquarius. I get up to 70 km/h and feel that is more than fast enough. I change gear just before the U-turn, and head back towards the start. Before each climb, I try to change gear carefully, but I still lose my chain at the foot of one slope. Fortunately, I changed to the small ring when I still had some momentum, and I can use the front derailleur to get the chain back on. Others are not so fortunate; I pass several people wrestling frantically with dropped chains and jammed derailleurs. I try to keep on the large chainring on the shorter climbs.
On the final climb, I pass Kiyomi Niwata, triple Olympian, and still going incredibly strong at 46 years of age. We exchange a smile before I start the long descent back towards Hiwasa. I put Osaka to the back of my mind and try to catch two more riders ahead on the road. I get close as the road levels out, but decide to save my legs for the run. Half the town is out to cheer us, which isn’t a lot of people, but they seem more energetic than I feel. I unstrap my shoes nice and early, get my feet on top, and mentally prepare for transition. Once again, it all goes smoothly. Most important, there are no other bikes in my part of transition. I run out with my cap in one hand and a High5 run bottle in the other. This is the first time I have carried water so I will see how it goes.
It is hot. There is no shade, little breeze, and the sun is burning down on the asphalt. I keep wondering how my body is going to behave. Will it be another meltdown like at Nagaragawa in 2015, or will I keep control of my core temperature? One runner passes me slowly, and then another more quickly. I hold on to the slower one for a while, but then let him go. My Garmin beeps, and I check the lap speed – 4:20 seems fast in this heat, so I ease off a little. I grab ice at an aid station and put it down the back of my tri-suit. I just manage to take some cold sponges too, which I squeeze over my face. I settle back in to a rhythm, my cap pulled low over my eyes to cut out the rest of the world. Niwata passes and manages to croak “nice run” before pulling steadily away. At each aid station, I grab more ice, which gradually slides down my back and out at one of my legs. I pass the 5 km mark, but there is still 200 metres to go to the turnaround. My watch beeps and shows yet another 4:20 lap. This is going to be okay.
The last 4.8 kilometres retraces most of the first half of the run, but cuts off one corner. Each aid station is a life-saver. Volunteers are ready with ice and sponges and cups of Aquarius. I see one runner tip Aquarius over his head, while another calls out for all the water they have to be poured over him. At the next aid station, they have piped up water from an irrigation channels, and a line of children is waiting with buckets. I raise my arms and get blissfully doused.
Heaven is a bucket of water
I enjoy the last half-a-kilometre, spurred on by cheers of encouragement, and sprayed with water from hosepipes. I look round with 200 metres to go and am surprised to see someone coming up fast. I search for the last meagre reserves of speed left in my legs and manage to stay ahead till the finish line. I grab more ice, some water, and sit down on the spreading bole of a giant camphor tree. And let that wonderful post-race feeling spread through my body.
The Best JTU Olympic Distance Race?
I had really enjoyed the Hiwasa OD race back in 2013 and wanted to return, but had been put off by the heat of the run and the long journey to southern Tokushima. This time I enjoyed it so much that it goes near the very top of my list of best triathlons in Japan. It is one of those rare races where each of the three legs is excellent in its own way, and where the organisation and local support is so good that it is hard to give the race anything but praise. The journey down is the one negative, as you need to fly to Tokushima, take the JAL limousine bus to Tokushima Station, and then the train down to Hiwasa. However, once you are in Hiwasa, everything goes very smoothly.
Hiwasa is famous for the sea turtles which come to its beach every year to lay eggs. For this reason, swimming is not allowed for the rest of the year, which makes the race a little special. Amazingly, two turtles came on the night of the race, so clearly we hadn’t disturbed them too much.
Hotel Shiroi Todai overlooks the bay
The swim course is simple: a line of buoys stretches out from the beach for 750 metres to the far side of the bay. You swim out on one side of the rope, turn, and return on the other side. Every hundred metres there is a large orange buoy with the distance painted on it. The bike course is also magnificent: 20 kilometres along the coast and then back on the same road. It is hilly, technical, and has great views of the ocean. It is like Murakami in the hills. The run is basically 5 kilometres out through rice fields and back, with only the blazing sun for company.
This is an understandably popular race which sells out within hours of entries opening. All the decent accommodation also sells out immediately, and in fact I learnt that Hotel Shiroi Todai fills up on January 5th when bookings are first taken. In 2013, I had stayed in an ancient, dingy minshuku far from the race, and this year it looked like I would be staying in a similar place, despite reserving months in advance. However, on the Wednesday before the race my wife phoned around and found cancellations at several places. I ended up with a small smoking room in the Shiroi Todai which turned out to be perfect. I have stayed in many non-smoking rooms which smell more of smoke, and few places with such a stunning view. My part of the hotel was perched over the cliff, so I slept with the window open and the sound of the sea susurrating against the cliffs below.
The view from the roof of Hotel Shiroi Todai
I also struck it lucky with the evening meal, a rather good “Viking” spread with a range of local fish dishes. Kiriyo Suzuki invited me to her table, where I met the new Age Group officer, Saito-san. He is a really great guy who has been very helpful with all my questions about the Worlds in Rotterdam. Also on the table was the race MC, who promised to shout encouragement to me the next day, and a former elite triathlete who does the NHK commentaries.
Awa-odori at the opening ceremony
The organisation is the best of any race I have done in Japan. The reception and briefing is done near the start area, and is completely painless. The briefing takes only 20 minutes, although I was asked to attend the rather longer opening ceremony along with the other “age group champions” from 2016. The ceremony started off with a splendid awa-odori dance performance, and finished with the usual speeches. The sheer number of brief speeches from all kinds of group leaders reflects the breadth of support for the race in the area. The next day, there was a police patrol car on the bike course (which caused me to slow down as I always assume I am doing something wrong), fire vehicles, and even a Japanese Coastguard ship in the bay.
The wise organisation extends to every element of the race. Transition is beautifully located in the shade of an avenue of trees leading up to Hachiman Shrine. The swim warm-up ends only 15 minutes from the start, and there are no speeches in the searing heat. On the water, there are no jet skis polluting the water, just countless lifeguards on boards. The bike course has safety nets on tight bends, and open culverts are boarded over. They even have volunteers at some corners warning of inspection covers. The heat of the run course is tempered by the aid stations every kilometre handing out cold sponges and bags of ice.
As with many other races in remote corners of Japan, the atmosphere is very welcoming and the local support strong. All three legs have beautiful scenery, and the finish area inside Hachiman Shrine is very special. Unfortunately, I had to leave before the post-race banquet, but I am sure it must be as good as the rest of the race. Hopefully, Hiwasa can become a template and an inspiration for other JTU races.
The biggest factor with a race like Hiwasa is how to manage the heat. This is how I dealt with it:
Swim: I wore a sleeveless wetsuit which makes a huge difference in warm water. Unlike most races, we could stay in the water until 15 minutes before the race. There were several drinks tables around the start area, so I kept well hydrated.
Bike: I used my road bike with clip-on aero bars. Unless you are Tony Martin, a TT bike would be a waste of time on a course like this. I choose Continental Grand Prix II 25C tyres for handling on the bends. In terms of hydration and nutrition, I have found that I can never drink more than 750 ml of liquid on a 40 km time trial. I had one large water bottle with 3 Ultra Mineral Tablets. I didn’t touch my second bottle, so that is the last time I am going to carry two bottles up and down a hilly bike course. I also had one PowerBar ume gel which is as much as I can get down. Due to the heat, I removed my helmet visor and used sunglasses.
Run: I started off slow and just stuck to a steady pace the whole race. I took two bags of ice at every kilometre aid station, and sipped regularly from my water bottle (again with Ultra Mineral Tablets in the water).