I headed to Japan for a hectic three days of organised chaos and somewhere in there a race was set to take place. I had contemplated racing in Japan for over a year and by the time I was actually sitting on the plane I could barely believe the time had come. It’s no secret that the race doesn’t often produce a deep field. However, with Chris McCormack, Cameron Brown, and James Hodge having won the title over the previous four years, it isn’t to be taken lightly at the pointy end. I picked Japan 70.3 in the hope that I could be competitive for the win and return to the podium after my professional debut in November 2014. It would be a nice way to bookend my rookie season. The start list reflected the history of the event, not deep but with enough talented guys to make a podium finish the coveted accolade that it should be. Before delving into the race itself, I think it’s important to address the somewhat unique and confusing experience the whole event was. If you are seeking the race report itself I’d skip the next three paragraphs.
Japan 70.3 is sponsored by the Lixil corporation which has a major manufacturing plant in the area. It would appear to be a Japanese alternative to IKEA. It is also supported by the International Airport built on a manmade island where the expo, registration, briefing, and presentation were set to take place. Don’t be fooled into thinking that this was perhaps a misunderstanding. Surely it means that these things will take place near the airport? No communication errors there, the events were held between the international departures and arrivals (laughably, so are weddings). With my reliance on free WiFi to Skype loved ones, I found myself spending a lot of time at the airport, everyone’s favourite holiday destination.
The race hotel was all but connected to the airport which made getting to key events very convenient. However, being marooned at the airport made accessing the mainland a unique challenge. On arrival at the race hotel you are greeted and promptly handed an information sheet that informs you that any athlete caught riding on the bridge to the mainland will be disqualified, arrested, and prosecuted for violating Japanese law. Fantastic. Without a vehicle this means that your way to the mainland is via a cute little red train that chugs along and seemingly materialises within 60 seconds of you arriving at the platform. This is the sort of efficiency I associate with Japan. For the keen tourist this is perfect, but for the athlete there is a catch 22. Japanese law forbids bicycles to be carried on a train unless they are boxed. So for someone looking to get across to the mainland to ride some of the course, you must disassemble and re-pack your bike to get there. There was a legal grey area where you could cover your bike in plastic sheets but these were not to be found on the airport island. All of this is beside the fact that you are strongly discouraged by the organisers from riding the course anyway. With the fear of Japanese authorities pulsing through my body I assembled my bike mid Friday and confined my 30 kilometre pre-race ride to a 500m stretch of road inside the airport grounds. I rationalised this hour of excitement by thinking that it would be good practice for a course seemingly littered with U-turns.
I feel as though I’m presenting this event in a negative light and I don’t want to dwell on this. While my sentiments are consistent with other English blogger reviews, it isn’t entirely fair. In short, there were also instances of apparent misinformation which came down to language barriers. If you spoke Japanese, everything would have been clear; not an unfair prospect given the venue. It’s a fantastic way to run an event for busy locals looking to pop over to Nagoya on Saturday morning and leave after racing on Sunday afternoon. However, if you are travelling in order to experience a different culture whilst tying in a race, this is not your event. Outside of race day, I barely stepped on Japanese soil. I spent my days at the hotel, airport terminal, or running around the man-made island. Airport terminals around the world do a great job of being culturally neutral. The only reason I knew I was in Japan was because the PA announcements were in a foreign language. Race day itself caused its own logistic headaches with the swim, bike and run finishing in different locations. However, the race organisers provided quality service and event management to get everything sorted for us the day prior. So while you still didn’t know exactly where the bus to the race venue was going to leave at four thirty on Sunday morning, it all worked out. Again, this would be resolved by having a grasp of the language. But enough background, with no further ado let’s leap into the similarly unique race experience.
Standing on the beach prior to the start I couldn’t help feeling that I had a shot at winning. It is the first time I’ve thought this and I still didn’t entirely believe it, but it occurred to me. On paper I had no business on the podium and wouldn’t claim to be a better athlete than those who were there. But I knew my ability put me in the ballpark and, heck, anything can happen in triathlon. That’s why we race. With transition requiring more detail than usual given the separate locations, I had thoroughly thought through T1. This is where I have let races get away from me in the past. In Busselton I failed to capitalise on my great swim by messing up the bike mount. If I were to swim with the main group I was not going to blow it in T1 again. I’ve made that promise to my regular readers many times now!
The race started uncharacteristically with men and women heading out together. It was the classic beach start, which I’m not fond of, but am coming to accept as a professional reality (and it looks good on camera). In we plunged and after a bit of effort in the opening stages things settled down and I found myself fourth in a long line. Feeling very comfortable and excited by the prospect of being in the lead group I decided to move my way closer to the front to ensure a good T1. Clearly I had forgotten the very first thing I learnt in professional racing, moving up and expecting to be simply let in during the swim is not going to happen. I didn’t have any great ambitions of being the swim leader either, so after losing some time around the outside of a turn buoy I settled back into about seventh. The swim wound up in a predictable manner and coming into the beach I hit the shore in fifth but most importantly with the lead group, the race was on. Buoyed by this minor victory and memories of the past I attacked T1 and found myself first on the bike. It wasn’t overly fast or pretty but I got on and got going without having to chase hard out of transition. I was suddenly with the group and keeping the dream of being competitive alive.
We rocketed down an industrial road towards the Lixil factory where the course wound through the premises (yes, we actually rode through the factory!) before returning to the swim start. Lap one was okay but lap two was getting busy. I’m glad there was not a third. Bike handling has never been my forte although I am always working to improve. I simply would not have coped on this course a year ago. We had a lead group of six after having eight in the swim so the numbers were slowly coming down. Both times through the Lixil factory I lost ground to Mitch Robins and Alex Reithmeier in the corners and was left to chase hard. While there were moments when it looked like they might ride away, fellow Australian Derek Cross and German Swen Sundberg helped bring us back together. We had one of the Japanese athletes riding with us, however, he fell victim to the stochastic power output caused by my technical deficiency. Brake hard, corner slow, accelerate like crazy to catch up. For this, I feel a touch bad, however, I knew he was a good runner and I had to be fairly happy with the way it worked out. Leaving the industrial area after 32k the average was over 41kph and I thought the worst of the technical riding was behind us. How wrong I was. By the 40k mark I couldn’t believe we were less than half done, my head was spinning, my legs saturated with lactic acid and I was fighting through every corner to stay in contention.
After 32k in the industrial area to start the bike, the organisers had permission to finish the leg on 18k of motorway running south into the peninsula. But this left a deficit of 40k in the middle with very few roads available. It had to come from somewhere and they did it with the most convoluted route imaginable. Everything was well signed but you never knew where you were. After the speed of the opening 32k I expected a fast bike leg but this idea was dashed with what came next. Previously, I was bemoaning the lack of an opportunity to experience Japan, well, this course gave you a little taste of it.
We exited the industrial section on a footpath that took us over a bridge and along a sea wall. Generally used for walking there were various sections with steep stairs. Clearly this did not concern the race organisers who solved it by wedging long plywood boards against the stairs to make them rideable. We then returned to the road that wound us through the backstreets and into the rice fields. Yes, into the rice fields. Not one rice field either, seas of them. Picture an aerial view of Japan and you’ll imagine thousands of rectangular rice fields bordered by narrow retaining walls. With a little effort, you might imagine local farmers walking these metre wide walls. They are a roughly cemented grid work holding in each submerged rice crop whilst allowing access by foot. Not bike. This is where we were riding for kilometres on end. Every corner was tight with sand and gravel through the apex. I don’t actually think I’m terrible at cornering but there is nothing that shakes my confidence more than litter on the road. Whilst the four ahead ducked and weaved through the fields I had my own private race where I’d be braking harder, cornering slower, and accelerating with everything I had to keep them in sight. With corners thick and fast, often less than fifty meters apart, I was in a world of pain. Thankfully the madness abated after some very slow zig-zagging kilometres. Whilst the technical element remained very much a part of the course, it lessened in frequency and allowed me to regain some sort of composure. The profile of the course is not hilly. For this reason I assumed it would be pretty quick despite the U-turns but it’s simply not. I have included a graph of my cadence throughout the ride to try and get across how stop start it was. You were endlessly screaming up to tight technical corners to find that just ‘round the bend they went up short but very steep hills. Locked in a gear that was too big no matter how much you thought you’d pre-empted sure made the bumps that were there feel like mountains.
The bike ground on relentlessly and with the amount of rubbish we were riding over my fears of a flat tyre grew. After one particular U-Turn I noticed Swen standing up whilst eyeing off his rear wheel. The course had claimed a victim, or so I thought. Swen was actually being hamstrung by his seat post which had rattled loose on the rough roads and collapsed. He dropped back in order to fix it and never caught up. Shortly after this incident, and perhaps because of it, Mitch attacked on a steep slope. I immediately responded but lacked the commitment to follow him. I was also not unhappy for him to ride off on his own. With these thoughts in my head, and a fair degree of pain in my legs, I watched him disappear up the road. Thirty seconds later Alex leapt off the front in pursuit. This time I had no energy to follow and simply watched him go. After the long drawn out saga that the ride had been there was now a real sense of urgency to keep those ahead in check and those behind right where they were. The highway and the promise of a high speed run to the finish line also beckoned. Sadly the northerly that had been blowing every day was not to be found when the highway finally materialised. This was a junction where we were merged from a bike path onto the highway through a narrow gap in the fence and courtesy of a few makeshift plywood ramps. It really was insane. The run into T2 was long and drawn out with the unexpected headwind making life difficult. I simply focused on keeping Alex in sight but Mitch was someway further up the road. The relief of hitting T2 was overwhelming and getting off the bike already in a podium position (despite the fact that Derek was hot on my heels) was incredibly positive. With a point to point run course there would be no time splits and no way of knowing who was where. With shattered legs, I wobbled out onto the course almost falling face first whilst stepping into my race belt. With 13k of rolling hills mixed in with trails before a flat run to the finish it didn’t feel like a fast run was on the cards.
With the lack of information on the course there isn’t a whole lot to say about the run. It was however, quite memorable. Winding through little villages, rural Japan and over hill and dale you got some appreciation of what the country was like. There were kids sitting on their porch to whom I waved as I ran by. Their gaze followed me with mouths wide open although I received no wave in return. It was as though they had never seen a foreigner run through their village, let alone one in tightly clad green and rainbow lycra. I caught Alex by the midpoint of the run and managed to come within what I’d estimate as a minute behind Mitch. At this point I did briefly wonder if today was going to be my day. Having run through the hills quite strongly I was looking forward to the flat. Whilst the final portion of the run was mostly flat, it was punctuated by numerous steep stair climbs and even more terrifying descents. With legs screaming and just a mile to go, I did mull over the fact that after four hours of racing, I could still see Mitch leading me up ahead and Alex a similar distance behind. It was a close fought race and I was happy with how it had played out. With Mitch having the strongest credentials on the run it took great fortitude to break away on the bike. I’ve only got respect for that method of racing and he deserved the win. And, hey, it was pretty special to be part of an Aussie 1-2-3 at a major international event.
We finished on a marina just a short hobble from the train station, which would return you to the airport. There was some fanfare with a group of cheerleaders at the finish line, however, food was scant. The Japanese consider eating outdoors impolite so it was another cultural anomaly that added to the oddities of the race. The local spectator numbers were limited but those that were there were well informed and enthusiastic. I even had a guy ask me to sign his shirt and cap. That is a first!
The awards ceremony went off with the Japanese really getting into the swing of things. There was more alcohol on tap than I’ve ever seen at these events and many competitors took advantage of that. Towards the end of the evening the top five male and female professionals were acknowledged and presented with their awards. It vaguely reminded me of how I felt when I stood second on the podium at the 20-24 world long distance title in 2011. I was very proud of what I’d achieved whilst also thinking that it was so close to something so much more. I eventually got my win at that level and I know it can and should happen as a professional. The future holds some exciting times. For now, I’m happy to bookend my rookie professional season with podiums at both Challenge and Ironman events.