My triathlon swim school, Shonan Bellmare, has an annual Open Water Swim ekiden in Hiratsuka each October. Having never joined such an event, 6 of us formed two teams – Red Tape and Amato Aquanauts – and entered ten days prior to the race, just before the deadline. Red Tape was an all-male team with Youri, Ben, and Bruno; Amato Aquanauts was a mixed team consisting of Aleisha (who came up with the splendid team name), Anna, and myself.
The race is in front of Bellmare’s beach house which means there are toilets and outdoor showers right by the race. There were a surprising number of people down by sea, registering, stretching, warming up, and sitting around in the piles of rubbish thrown up by the previous week’s typhoon. We received our ankle bands and an explanatory map, but somehow we couldn’t work out the system. Our best guess was that everyone had to set off together and do a 1500-metre swim, and then our total times would be calculated for a team time. The fastest teams would then go through to round 2 which would be a 500-metre relay. The fastest teams in the relay would go through to the 1000-metre finals. Well, we got things a bit wrong.
The course was simple enough – a 500-metre elongated rectangle running parallel to the beach, with protection offered by a line of tetrapods. Another typhoon was on its way, and this was pushing waves up on to the start area, threatening the timing and registration tents which were perilously close to the water. At least the main part of the course was protected from the waves.
The start time of 11 a.m. came and went in a most un-Japanese fashion. Five minutes later, teams were sent off at roughly 5-second intervals. Before I even started swimming, the team behind us had overtaken me which suggested there were some keen people out there. I vaguely hoped that Amato Aquathon could stick together, but as I got hit by the first wave, I realised that would be impossible.
My race went very well. Once I was round the first buoy, I got into a good rhythm in the lee of the tetrapods. The staggered start meant there was little crowding, even at the buoys. And open water swimmers seem a more civilised bunch than triathletes. Sighting was tricky at times with the slight swell and chop, but I always seemed to have someone to follow. Despite a lack of training since Murakami, I felt surprisingly strong.
I came out of the water after three laps and checked my watch – 24:24. That would be a new PB if it was right. Anna soon finished, followed by Aleisha. Red Tape had been led out of the water, unsurprisingly, by Ben who came in at 22 minutes and change.
There were already lots of people out of the water so we assumed we were well down the field which we were. We showered, got dressed, and ate lunch while waiting for the successful teams to do the ekiden. Then my swim coach came up to us and asked why we had retired. It turned out that both teams had got through to the ekiden and they were all waiting for us! I still don’t know if all teams go through to the final or just the faster ones, but anyway, we decided to go for it. Anna, who had barely finished her huge packed lunch, pulled on her swimsuit and rushed to the start. Aleisha dashed off to the changing rooms, while I enjoyed the sensation of pulling on a cold, wet, sandy wetsuit.
The ekiden was a lot of fun. We knew we were one of the slower teams, so we enjoy the moment. Aleisha set off the wrong way round the course, but someone managed to stop her. I leapt into the surf just as the biggest wave of the day came crashing in. My ribcage creaked in protest. Still, as there was only one 500-metre lap to do, I tried to give it everything. My average time was slower than the first round, but that included passing on the ankle band between team members.
This time we waited around to see who would go through to the second round. The fastest teams were swimming at an 18-minute pace for 1500 metres – seriously fast university students and swim club members. The top ten lined up for the final 1000-metre relay round. We had missed it by one place – we were 11th in the second round. I don’t think I was the only one who was quietly relieved. As we packed our stuff and left the beach, the rain started to fall properly. All-round nice timing.