Date: August 24 2014
Location: Lake Toya, Hokkaido, Japan
Distance: 3.8 / 180.2 / 42.2
From the moment I crossed the finish line at Ironman Japan last year, unexpectedy winning my age group and qualifying for a slot to race the 2014 Ironman World Championships in Hawaii, the 2014 edition of IMJ was NOT going to be part of my race scheduled for this season. The main reason to skip IMJ was the fear that if I raced this year, with only 7 weeks between the race and Kona, I wouldn’t recover in time.
I spoke at length about it with my great mate and coach Bevan Colless, and one comment stuck with me. Bevan said “you can race IMJ with a good chance of a result, or go to Kona and finish poofteenth in your age group”. My bike sponsor CEEPO also suggested that IMJ was the best chance for me to have a chance of qualifying for Kona in 2015. The seed had been sown, but I still wasn’t sure. I raised the idea with my wife Yuumi, who has been so patient with me and this hobby of mine. I wouldn’t have been surprised if her response was along the lines of “not another (bloody expensive) triathlon to train for…”. But before I could even finish my first sentence, she perked up and said to “go for it”! Man, I have an amazing wife!!! So with that seal of approval, I was straight online and entered – boom, it’s on!
Rated as the third hardest Ironman triathlon out of the 39 races held around the world each year, after Ironman Hawaii and Ironman Lanzarote, the key to Ironman Japan is to remain strong on the bike, as there’s about 1,900 meters of climbing to conquer, whilst leaving enough in the tank to run a solid marathon on the flat run course. The course is as honest as they come, and there’s no way to fake your way to a result – as one friend told me, “when it’s gets tough, you just gotta suck it up buttercup”!
Swim (3.8 km)
59:24 (5th in Age Group)
The clarity of Lake Toya never ceases to blow me away. and I always look forward to a chance to swim in the lake. I’ve been struggling to find my swim mojo every time I race this year – training has been good, but during a race, I feel often sluggish and unable to settle into a comfortable rhythm. I’d had some strong open water sessions in our local Lake Hangetsu in Niseko, but for whatever reason (race week nerves??) I had a preemptive feeling that I was going to struggle with the 3.8km in Lake Toya on race day.
After faffing around in the transition area setting up our bikes, Bevan and I moseyed the 500m or so over to the swim start to don wetsuits and get ready to go to war. There didn’t appear to be any time allowed for a proper swim warm up this year, and I looked out to see my wave group (first wave after the pros 10 mins earlier) already in the water. I sped through the crowds of later waves starters, and as I entered the water, heard legendary race announcer Whit Raymond mention my name, and last year’s result over the loud speaker – Whit’s support is so motivating to hear all day long!
With zero chance for a warm up, I waded through to the front of the group, and a couple of minutes later, the horn blasted and we were off. I made a point to swim very hard the first 300-400 meters, to keep as clear as possible of any scrum happening behind me, and also with the hope of easily finding the feet of a swimmer(s) who’s pace I could stick with, as last year I spent the whole swim alone.
I was able to slot into a group of 4 or 5 swimmers for the entire swim, and although mostly uneventful, I still felt like I was swimming slower than I wanted, yet if I picked up my tempo, I felt it unsustainable to hold for any length of time, and I found myself slowing down to the same speed as the guys around me. I can’t quite put my finger on the problem – possibly needed to warm up before the start, or just need to suck it up, but the feeling of sluggishness persisted. As with last year, my right calf cramped again at almost the exact same point (3km). Not as bad as last year, but it forced me to slow and try and frog kick it out for a few seconds, unsuccessfully.
Whilst a sub-60min Ironman swim is more than acceptable, I was hoping to exit the water in around 57 minutes. The coach was quick to notice my slow swim time too, and now has opened a can of whoop-ass on me in the lead up to Kona this year – will it pay off…?
5:12:58 (1st in Age Group)
After tip-toeing through the mud pit transition area, I felt ok jumping on the bike. Usually I’m out of breath with a peaking heart rate for the first few kilometres – so either my swim fitness has gone up a notch in that I can now recover form a 3.8km swim faster, or I didn’t swim hard enough – I’m betting on the latter…
The first 30km of the bike course is flat and very fast around the shores of Lake Toya. I stuffed some nutrition down my throat early, then focussed on staying as aero as possible and pushing hard for this first section – riding scared from the Bevanator who I knew would storming around the lake too! I’d passed quite a few athletes around the lake, including several professionals – was feeling good.
The first climb is a 9 minute grind (av. 5%) up and out of the Lake Toya area. About one-third of the way up I saw elite level Hokkaido speedster Kazuki Kubono cheering from the side of the road – he said that the leading age grouper was only about 1 minute ahead. As I climbed a little higher, I came upon age group weapon Alex Price, who’d I had been introduced to by common friend Bevan via email during the lead up to the race. Alex is a top level age group athlete (went 9:10 in IM Melbourne earlier this year) and physiotherapist to the Australian Olympic tri team. Alex jumped onto my tail, keeping the legal 7 meters behind, and with that we set off to power through the rest of the bike course.
The remaining 150km was difficult in the strong headwind, but quite a lonely ride, with only the odd professional to catch and pass – the roads at this end of the field were a quiet place to be. Alex and I spoke a few times, usually him calling out asking how far the current climb we were on had to go – I think I gave him a pretty nice guided tour! Mainly I focussed on keeping my head down, staying as aero as possible in the stiff head/cross winds, and pushing my own pace – my power meter went haywire after about 80km, so most of the ride I did based on feel – possibly this (pushing too hard??) came back to bite me on the run later.
Maybe it was the wind, but as with the swim, I felt like I wasn’t able to efficiently and sustainably maximise my effort output, like being stuck in 4th gear of a car. Although riding hard, at times just felt like I wasn’t moving as fast as I should be. My Garmin alarm beeped ever 30mins to remind me to eat something and swallow a couple of salt capsules, so I knew I was staying fuelled – although a couple of times I did regurgitate the sickly sweet gel concentrate (a mix of 12 gels + water) I had in the bottle on my down tube – won’t be trying that again in a long race.
The wind was an animal for most of the 180km, and there were times when I would look down to see my power numbers above 350 watts, way past my red zone, but my speed was much lower than would be in the same place on a normal training ride.
The last 30km back around the lake to complete the bike course was another hard effort, with Alex pushing me all the way. With less than 1km to go on the bike, I was almost killed by a random car cutting sharply in front of me as I pedalled at 35kph – that’s another story filled with expletives, but after a minor heart attack, it was nice to be first non-professional off the bike again, like last year, and to hear Whit going off on the mic as usual, as well as the cheers from my support crew!
Overall I rode 1 minute slower than last year, but expelled much more energy in doing so – the term “cooked” comes to mind…
3:30:48 (4th in Age Group)
The run section of an Ironman is like nothing you can really articulate. The highs and lows of both physical and emotional states which you experience over the course of a 42.2km after, after a 180km bike ride, is something which peels back all layers of any pre-race confidence, excitement, bravado, fear, or nervousness, to touch a place deep deep inside, and leave a completely raw reality of the fact that it’s just you, the road, and the task ahead – there’s actually nothing simpler in life – just keep moving forward.
Running out of the transition area I was spurred on by cheers from family and friends, and noticed that I was feeling quite good. My watch told me I was running between 4:10-4:20/km for the first 3 km – NOT GOOD. This was way too fast, and although I knew it, I was feeling good so just went with it – MISTAKE.
After about 4km I stopped for a ‘natural break’. Alex was a few meters back, and acknowledged it as a “f$#kin’ good idea”, and joined me. It was at that point that I suddenly realised how
tired cooked I was – understatement! My lower back started spasming, and I had to take some extra time to stretch it out, as I watched Alex bound off into the distance. What followed for the next 22km was an intense battle of body vs. mind. My pace slowed considerably,although although I was managing to stay under 5:00/km for the most part, I was in trouble.
The Ironman Japan run course is very beautiful, but also so visually tough, because you can see the finish area virtually the whole way. The course is two 10.5km out & back laps along the lake shore, and from the far turnaround point, visually that 10.5 kilometres back to the finish area (or start of lap 2) looks like about 50km – so so far away…
At around the 16km point, Kiwi pro Jon Woods caught and passed me, but not before offering an incredibly therapeutic deep push in the lower lumbar, which released a lot of tension. I battled on, and as I neared the transition area, could hear Whit announce that Alex Price was running through, and “where was Jess Ripper? Have we missed him? He and Alex were side-by-side at the start of the run (now 20km ago)”… No Whit you haven’t missed me, I thought, I’m almost a kilometre back up the road mate, and in a bad way!
At the end of lap one, after 22km of running I had my darkest moment – hands on my head, almost in tears, I was hating everything about the day. Another 20km of running was suddenly such a heavy mental burden, and almost too much to bare. With friends and family just around the corner, I pulled myself together and shuffled along. Things stayed pretty gloomy, and I decided just to focus on getting from aid station to aid station, each approximately 2km apart. I walked each aid station, and made sure to drink a full cup of Coke and a full cup of water at each station.
By the time I was at about 27km, surprisingly I noticed that I was starting to run comfortably again, or was it for the first time ? I stayed focused on reaching each aid station – get to 29km, then 31km, then 33km, then 35km, and so forth. My pace had picked up back close to my target pace of 4:40/km, and suddenly I was feeling much more positive about the day – exhausted, but happy! Just before the 36km marker, I looked ahead and saw that Alex was just in front of me – this surprised me because when we passed each other at the far turning point at 32km, I timed on my watch that he had at least 2 minutes or so on me, and was pretty sure I wouldn’t see him again until the finish. As I plodded past, I knew I was back in front as the leading age-grouper.
The last 6km were actually somewhat enjoyable. Although well and truly deep in the hurt box, it’s amazing how much a positive mental state can affect, even enhance performance. Running the final 2km along the shore to the finish line, where most of the spectators were was a real treat and I lapped it up. Entering the finish chute, I saw my friends and family, enjoyed the high-5’s. and crossed the finish line to be done and dusted!
The physical training is one part of this sport, but this race has shown me just how mentally tough you also need to be, and that’s the side I definitely need to focus on more – new mantra for 2015 will be NO MORE MELTDOWN!
Total time: 9:50:08
Placing: 1st M35-39 | 9th Overall | 1st Non-professional
To be honest I didn’t believe that such a good result wold be possible before the race. Only entering the race about 7 weeks before race day didn’t leave a lot of time for a focussed training build. The training itself was much different this year in that last year Yuumi was pregnant with out twins, and in hospital in Asahikawa from mid-July, which meant I was living alone in Niseko, doing nothing but working and training hard. Adding 3 kids under 3 years old into the mix this year made for a lot less rest & recovery, and although I wouldn’t change a thing, much more energy expended when not training. Still, I feel that the training I did do was all good quality, and I made the most of the hand I had to play.
I still haven’t raced enough of these things (this was only my third full Iron distance race), and I still feel very inexperienced in the whole game, which I think affects my confidence level pre-race. Still, to have now won my age group for the past 3 years in a row – Ironman Japan 2014, Ironman Japan 2013, and the Baramon King Goto International Triathlon (formerly Ironman Japan) in 2012, as well as the half Ironman distance 70.3 Japan this year, is a record I’m so stoked with – so must be doing something right!
Super happy to gave clinched the slot in Kona 2015, and am already looking forward to the return trip next year!
None of this would be possible without the endless support I have from my amazing wife Yuumi, and our beautiful kids Levi, Skye and Jasmine. Those guys have to put up with so much – me coming and going, being tired and sometimes grumpy, disappearing for 5 hour bike rides, and being annoyingly particular about my training schedule (i.e our family’s life schedule) etc… but to see them on the sideline, and now hearing Levi cheering for Daddy is worth so much, and pushed me forward.
My mate, coach and mentor, Bevan Colless has been with me since the beginning too, and I’m indebted to the energy he puts into helping me reach my goals. A special mention to say that I’m soooo stoked for Bevan, who finished second on the M40-44 age group, and has now stamped his 2015 Kona golden ticket more than a year out from the race. I don’t know anyone who invests so much emotionally, physically and financially into what is just such a difficult goal to achieve. Well done brother!!
Huge congratulations to good fiends and Niseko Multisport athletes Shigeru Uehara, Keisuke Nitanda, and Patrick Gorta, who all achieved personal milestones in reaching the finish line – inspiring to watch you guys put the hours of commitment and training in over the past year!
Credit also to Alex Price on a great performance, for the company on the bike, and for keeping me honest and pushing me ahead – glad I’m not in your age group, and well done on the AG win! See you in Kona next year mate!
Thanks to all the people who came out to support on race day, particularly my dad Barry, and sister Megan who flew all the way from Australia to cheer! Also the many folks who came out on race day, or followed online – too many to mention, but your positive energy is felt all day long.
I’m very lucky to have the support of great sponsors CEEPO and ZOOT JAPAN, and appreciate having such top quality equipment & gear to train and race with.
Next up, the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii on October 11. Recover or not, I can’t wait!!!