23 April 2012

Ishigakijima - Second Try

The second, chasing group in the women's ITU World Cup event at Ishigakijima
The leading men exit the water and head for their bikes
I arrived in Ishigakijima on Saturday afternoon, just in time to assemble my bike, to ride the first third of the bike course and then head over to the registration center to pick up my race number, bike stickers and minor swag (a little bag of white powder--Ishigakijima sea salt) and attend the race briefing. ... But I was not early enough to take an afternoon first swim in the wetsuit I purchased online earlier this year.  

My first impressions of Ishigakijima were decidedly mixed, as the town coming in from the airport and near the harbor seemed a bit run down, the sky was grey, and the humidity upon exiting the airplane door felt like getting hit with a brick.
Near my hotel, looking east
Near my hotel, looking west
I felt much better after a quick ride out of town and up the west coast, a stop for a pineapple "frappe" at an almost deserted outdoor country cafe overlooking the ocean.  I shared the cafe with only the older lady in the kitchen, a sleeping dog under a table and a beautiful white winged butterfly that evaded my camera.

The other customer -- dog sleeping under a table.
Taketomi Island nearby.  These islands are much closer to Taiwan than even to Okinawa.
And then there was a pleasant, simple dinner of traditional island style food (goya, チャンプル, soba with pork, etc.).   The town seemed friendly after dark, with lots of little restaurants and with people of all ages wandering around, including the very young and very old.  

For the dinner, I joined a group of Tokyo-based (and former Tokyo-based) foreigners who do these events regularly and compete at the highest amateur level, including Eric H., who used to ride every once in awhile with Jerome, Thierry D. and me.  Eric placed 3rd in the "age" triathlon here 2 years ago.  This year he was 7th.  Olaf, who also joined dinner and is now based in Hong Kong, placed 4th on Sunday.  Also, Jean-Marc and Shin (both fast racers), and Kobayashi-san ("the Captain") who started back with me in the next to last  wave, joined the dinner.  These guys all seem to see each other regularly at triathlons.  Others had been planning to join us, but  the group split into two before dinner.  There were two Alex's and TCC's Astroman, (Keren M.) who on Sunday placed 2nd in the 50-54 age group.  He told me that he had started doing triathlons when he was 28 years old.  On the other hand, Mark Shrosbree, who won the 50-54 group by a decent margin over Astroman, just started doing these a few years ago.  So I guess being "late to the party" is not really an excuse.

In any event, I was pleased with my result.  David placed first.  And David placed second.  

Oops, I must be reading the results of the ITU World Cup Men's event held in the afternoon, rather than the morning's event.  That would be David Hauss of France and Davide Uccellari of Italy, with times of 1:50:06 and 1:50:11. 

I (known to many at this weekend's festivities as "the third David" ... or, in deference to David S. who finished 33 minutes ahead of me, "the fourth David", or maybe just "big David" for my extra kilograms) joined the "Age" group event in the morning, and placed 328 out of over 1000 finishers (there were 1257 registered starters ... not sure how many DNS), with a time of 2:49:37.   I also managed 25th out of 81 finishers in the Men's 50-54 age group.  I'm not 50 yet, but the ITU and JTU measure age as at 12/31 of the year in which the race occurs, so I am in the older group for statistical purposes.  Not that it makes much difference in terms of average times.
Eric, Miu Hiraide, Keren and Jean-Marc at the closing party
The woman's victor in the "Age" event was Miu Hiraide of Okinawa.  She has won the event the past 6 years running.  As you can see from the photo of her standing next to Eric H., this feat is all the more remarkable due to her small size and her youth.  Since judging from the photo she cannot be any older than 17, she must have only been 12 at the time of her first victory.*   And the Mighty Mini Miu must take 2 strokes swimming and two strides running for each one by Eric.  Eric was especially pleased that he beat her to the finish this year by over 3 minutes (2:09:59 vs 2:13:18), to bring his lifetime Ishigaki record against the Mighty Mini Miu to 3 wins and 3 losses.

As for my race, the swim was unlike anything I have ever done.  I can remember swimming alone across a lake as a child -- behind a row boat acting as spotter.  But this was my first time in a wet suit -- with full length sleeves it was very bulky, constraining and too hot for this water.  But it was really nice to have all the buoyancy of a floating cork when I needed to rest, or to try to get through a crowd.  

It was chaotic.  I started swim with 140 people, 1 minute behind 140 others and 1 minute ahead of a third group of 137.  Then as we rounded the first buoy after 250 meters or so, we merged with hundreds of others who had started 10-20 minutes earlier and were already on the second lap.  I got out ahead with the first 10 or 20 people in my wave, and so avoided most of the chaos for a blissful first couple of minutes.  But soon I found I would swim for 10 or 20 strokes then come into a crowd, get sandwiched or blocked and need to take evasive action.  Or I would outpace my cardiovascular system and need to rest to get more air or work a bit less (i.e. switch to back stroke or breast stroke) to get back on track.  There were people everywhere.  I had no idea if I was going fast or slow.  People kept cutting across me at odd angles.

Then on the longest straightaway of the second lap, all of a sudden it was me who was cutting across the course, disoriented.  At least 3 swimmers made me realize my error as I headed diagonally and blocked their way, and they rammed me with their arms simultaneously.  I did the same thing at least once more on the long return leg.

Still, I was thankful that at least the first two waves were already well into their second lap by the time my group (9th out of 10 waves) started. So I did not need to worry about the really strong and competitive guys pushing me under.  Eric had told me about this -- if you get in the way of a big guy in the first wave (like him), he will just swim over you, sending you down under the waves with one hand on your shoulder to clear the way.

Several people had told me that Ishigakijima is the best triathlon in Japan for amateurs, in part because of the clear water -- indeed, you could see the bottom of the harbor during the entire swim.  This was really nice, given the otherwise total disorientation.  The swim would be worse in murky water, or in a deep sea without the bottom visible.  I can now understand why fear of the swim is the main limiting factor on who actually is willing to do these events.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that only 30 minutes had passed as I exited the water, pulled off the arms and top part of the hotsuit and began the 300+ meter barefoot run over concrete toward my bike in the transition area.  I was 5 minutes ahead of my target.  When I got to the transition area, the bike rows for my 9th wave (and the 8th and 10th) were pretty much full.  Almost no one was there yet.  As usual, I had gone out too fast.

I made decent time on the bike, and enjoyed it as I had at Tateyama, passing several hundred people over the hour and ten minutes or so that it took me to complete the 40 kilometer course, including plenty of little hills in the middle half.  Just about anyone who would be faster than me on the bike started the event 10-23 minutes ahead in the earlier waves, so I never saw them.  That was great psychologically, but not so great in terms of a competitive time.  There is still work to do.
A cooling rain started about half way through the bike leg, and continued through the first half of the run.  This saved me from dehydration or any serious heat issues.  I started the run very slowly, and after a few kilometers was picking up something at each aid station -- a cup of water or sports drink, a banana or just a sponge soaked in ice water -- using that as an excuse to walk for 15 seconds or so before starting to run again.   Only over the last 3 kilometers did I accelerate.  A healthy share of those I passed on the bike passed me back during the run.  Lots and lots of room for improvement.  If I could shave 10 minutes off of the run, bike and transitions, then that would pull me from 328 to 175.  15 minutes faster ... would put me at 115, close to the top 10%.

It was a great feeling to finish my first triathlon.

I had planned to take a leisurely afternoon ride over to Kabira Bay, which is said to be beautiful.  Instead, I watched most of the ITU World Cup Women's and then Men's events, then took a short nap before heading to the closing party.

Triathlons are much bigger productions than bicycle races.  The need for a swimming area and a big transition set up (numbered racks for over a thousand bikes, massive ground coverings), plus lots of officials along the route to enforce the rules, not to mention a large group of people in diving gear underwater or on jet skis monitoring and standing by in case of a need to rescue swimmers.  This is expensive, even with volunteers.  Entry fees are steep.
The transition area, ready to receive bikes and gear.
And people want go to somewhere for a triathlon with nice water, palm trees and flowers.  In Japan, a week ago Miyakojima; this week Ishigakijima; next month Niijima.  Even Tateyama in Chiba had rows of palm trees.  Overseas, Hawaii and Sydney are popular tri destinations.  Triathlon requires plane flights, hotels, dragging your bike with you or shipping it ahead.  It is best done as an event for a couple combined with a mini-vacation, or with a group of close friends.  

I shipped my bike ahead 10 days before the event as recommended by HIS Travel, which offered a warning that if I tried to take it on the plane ... there might not be room and I might not get it in time for the race ("no guarantees").  Of course, everyone who took their bikes by plane seemed to manage to get it on their flight, and if not then on the next one in time for the race.  My flight from Naha to Ishigaki was delayed for 10 minutes as they worked to fit all the bikes in the cargo bay.  For the return bike shipment I was warned that it would take AT LEAST 10 and perhaps as many as 19 days -- not in time for Golden Week.

Since I only got a spot in this event because of a cancellation 3+ weeks after the main entry closed, I had booked a flight and hotel "triathlon package" via HIS Travel, one of the event sponsors.  In comparing notes, this cost me at least two-thirds more than the flight and hotel that Jean Marc booked for Eric and himself (plus I paid another 17,000 yen using the HIS-recommended service to ship my bike, insured, to Ishigakijima ... whereas my hotel shipped it back, insured, for less than 5000 yen).  And Eric, Olaf and Jean-Marc'sr hotel was right at the start/goal/transition area, instead of a mile away.  If I do this again ... lesson learned.  HIS, you ripped me off!.  Given any options, I will avoid HIS in the future.  But in any event, this is not a sport for starving students.

Also, to be any good at triathlon requires constant training.  And of course, it requires careful diet/food/alcohol intake control.  Eric called triathlon a "social life killer".  So I can see plenty of reasons to make this both the start and finish of my triathlon career.

This is far too long a post, and I really need to sign off.  I've got to check the JTU website and see when the sign-up opens for the race that Shin, Jean-Marc and Eric recommended later in the year in Niigata (no palm trees, no plane flight needed).  And tonight I've got to check Wiggle's tri goods section and see if I can find a sleeveless wet-suit at a decent price.

*According to the official results, Miu Hiraide will actually be 24 years old at 12/31/2012.

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