Nagaragawa 102 is a middle distance race on the Nagaragawa river, 20 km west of Nagoya. It has a pleasingly symmetrical 2 km swim, 80 km bike, and 20 km run. The Nagaragawa was once famous for cormorant fishing, and traditional fishing communities still nestle around artificial lagoons and locks. The race is located around Kiso Misawa Park at the confluence of three wide rivers, the Ibigawa, the Kisogawa, and the Nagaragawa. Busy roads run along the tops of flood defences on all three rivers, but you barely notice the traffic as the race is down by river on the pancake-flat riverside paths.
This would be my first triathlon of the season, after Ishigaki was cancelled, and my first race over Olympic distance for three years. I had no idea how I would do as I hadn’t changed my training from my usual routine of swimming a bit, cycling to work, and running at an easy pace whenever I feel like it.
On Saturday morning, I took the train down to Kuwana station, 13 km south of the race, and went to check in at the Sanco Inn. As I left the station, my bike bag was nearly torn from my hands by a fierce wind. I took shelter in the Everest curry restaurant where I had a passable lunch set with the weakest chai I have ever left undrunk. After lunch, I left my bags at the hotel, and cycled to Kiso Misawa Park to register. The ride along the narrow spit of land that divides the Ibi and Kiso rivers would normally be very pleasant, but the strong winds turned it into an ordeal. My rear disc cover was not helping; fortunately, I had the tools to remove it before the race.
Race bag goodies
At reception, I met Ben and collected my race numbers and goodies from Kiriyo Suzuki, the Olympic triathlon manager. The last time I did the race was in 2014 with Stan and Jean-Marc. At that time, we received a nifty running backpack which I still use. This time we got the usual t-shirt, a top tube “bento box”, and some very useful arm warmers / sun protectors. And that was it – no race briefing, no rules, no waiting in line.
Ben looking aero
The wind was even stronger on my ride back to Kuwana along the top of the river bank. I kept worrying about getting blown into traffic, but in the end I got blown off the road and into some long grass – a new first for me. The next day’s race would be interesting. Back in the hotel, I met up with Keren and Makiko and joined them for a meal at an old-school Japanese-style Italian-ish restaurant, the curiously named “Depart”. The food was tasty, the salads huge, and the party at the next table was lively. They were celebrating an art prize for one of their members by opening numerous bottles of champagne which they drank from a hollowed-out melon. Keren got into the spirit of things by having a pre-race melonful of champagne – this could be a unique way to prepare for a triathlon.
I was up at 4:30 on race morning, and the first thing I did was look out the window to check the wind. It had died down a lot. I ate a bowl of muesli, half a bagel, and dropped my race bag with Keren who had a car. It was still windy on the ride up to the race, but at least I could stay on the road. I checked in my bike and inspected the swim course which ran upstream for 500 metres, around a buoy, and then back with the current for a second lap. A line of buoys divided the upstream and downstream sections of the course which was barely a few metres wide in places. Upstream was also into the wind which would make for challenging swimming.
Unlike every other JTU race, Nagaragawa doesn’t appear to have much in the way of rules. There was supposed to be a race briefing over the PA, but no one seemed to listen. The swim warm-up was relaxed, and lasted until a few minutes before the start. There were no group exercises, no entrance ceremony, and the transition was left open. As a result, nothing went wrong, and everyone was relaxed. I can see why Jean-Marc keeps coming back year after year.
Jean-Marc trying to walk on water
The first wave went off with Ben at 8:00, two minutes later Jean-Marc and Shin headed off, followed by Keren and I at 8:04. Within moments I was struggling. The combination of the current, the headwind and the lower buoyancy of freshwater made breathing hard and sighting impossible. A constant barrage of tiny waves bounced over my head, so it felt like was swimming under the water rather than through it. At least dehydration would not be a problem as I took in more water than air with each breath. I soon caught up with the previous wave, which meant I had to find a way through a hundred pairs of flailing arms.
At the turn buoy, it all got a lot worse. I trod water while waiting for a gap to emerge, and then had to keep changing direction to find a way through the crush of swimmers heading back to the start. However, it was much easier swimming with the wind and the current, so I soon found a pace I could settle into. The second lap was much the same as the first, although this time I was trying to find my way through the younger flailing arms of the first wave.
I was very relieved to climb out of the water, but less thrilled by the time showing on my Garmin – about 40 minutes. Still, there were not too many bikes in transition, so perhaps I was not the only one to have struggled in the swim. In transition, I pulled on socks to protect my feet on the rough asphalt and ran out for the 80 km bike leg. Normally, I would be reining in my enthusiasm on the first kilometres of the bike, trying to stay around 40 km/h, but here I was struggling to get above 35 km/h into the headwind. After 4 km of this, I got to the turn around, and was soon trying to hold myself below 42 km/h. Pacing was going to be tricky. The first lap was bliss as there were few riders on the perfectly smooth course, so I could gradually work my way into a rhythm. Before the downwind turn I saw Jean Marc battling back the other way into the wind, and was soon doing the same myself, a minute or so behind.
Jean-Marc leaving the 20 km/h transition zone
It would have been an uneventful bike leg had it not been for a small group of riders drafting ahead of me. Halfway round the second lap, I caught them, and then pushed myself into the red to open up a gap. Wishful thinking. A few minutes later, I got to the turn around, and there they were in a line behind me. It was the same old problem of how to deal with slightly slower rivals who are drafting in a non-drafting race. Again I tried to pull away, but all I managed to do was go back into the red and end up falling behind again. After several attempts, I gave up and stayed 20 metres behind the group. It was frustrating to see them up ahead in a bunch drafting each other, while I pedalled along on my own, but the alternative was to give them a free ride. On lap 4, I finally caught up with Jean-Marc who had the same problem disentangling himself from the pelaton. He had to ride out ahead, off to the side, or out back of them to keep away from their draft. In the end, I just rode my own race and tried to forget about this irritation.
I was in and out of T2 in a flash and soon running much too fast. My Garmin was showing a 3:45 pace which I would pay for sooner or later – sooner as it turned out. After five minutes my thighs were cramping and I had to slow right down. I passed someone who was doing the familiar straight-legged, cramped-thigh walk and slowed even more until my own muscles loosened a little. At the first turn around, I looked out for anyone else in my age group, but there was no one there. It was then just a case of trying to hold my pace as much as possible to the finish. On lap 3, I started to feel faint and realised I had had only two gels on the bike, but couldn’t face eating another. Instead, I just slowed a little each kilometre until I reached the finish at 4:40 pace.
In keeping with the laid back race organisation, there was no grand medal ceremony. Instead, I was immediately called up to the stage and given a bag of goodies. Soon after Jean-Marc crossed the finish line looking much the way I felt – contentedly exhausted. Ben came in soon after, followed by Shin and Keren.
It is easy to think of Nagaragawa as a run-of-the-mill training race, but actually it is a fine race in its own right. There is nothing to dislike about it, and the simplicity of the course gives you the chance to focus on your own strengths and weaknesses. Clearly, my swim is still a problem, especially in difficult conditions. At first, I felt that all my winter training in the ocean had gone to waste, but actually I was 40th in the swim which was okay. I was disappointed to have faded badly in the run, but it is so hard to know how to pace yourself after 80 km of cycling in strong winds. Perhaps it just makes sense to run as fast as you can at each moment of the race. The biggest plus was that my time of 4:21:39 was 6 minutes faster than four years previously in calmer conditions. Four years older and 6 minutes faster. At this rate, I will be on the overall podium by the time I am 70.