Race Report – Ironman Japan

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!

hellava place to race!

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”!

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Ready to fly!

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!

Pristine swim conditions

Pristine swim conditions

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…?

Bike (180.2km)

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.

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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!

Tough last 30k

Tough last 30k

Overall I rode 1 minute slower than last year, but expelled much more energy in doing so – the term “cooked” comes to mind…

Run (42.2km)

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.

Cowboy mode - SLOW DOWN!

Cowboy mode – SLOW DOWN!

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!

Dark times call for dark sunglasses - to hide the pain.

Dark times call for dark sunglasses – to hide the pain.

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!

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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!

G-O-N-E with the Bevanator!

G-O-N-E with the Bevanator!

Result

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!

Lock it in Eddie!

Lock it in Eddie!

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!!!

Winners are grinners at Niseko Multisport!

Hardware

Race Report – Ironman 70.3 Japan

Date: June 1 2014

Location: Tokoname, Aichi, Japan

Distance: 1.9 / 90 / 21.1

 Pre-race

As one of the major races in Japan, I’ve been keen to check out the Ironman 70.3 Japan for a few years. Although having not heard too many favourable reports, the proximity to home (a short flight from Chitose to Centrair Airport in Nagoya) and convenient access (race is based around Centrair Airport) made it worth adding to the race schedule. The timing of the race also fit well into the overall training calendar as the Kona build starts to ramp-up. Also, having raced Challenge Taiwan six weeks earlier, I was keen to get into another half Ironman soon for a shot at redemption after the poor performance in Taiwan.

We made this a family affair, and it was awesome to have Yuumi and the kids come along to cheer form the sidelines, although I underestimated the amount of luggage one triathlete, one wife, one toddler and twin babies can require, let alone fitting it all into one room in a business hotel!

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Luggage for 5. Where are the munchkins??!

Since Taiwan, my swim has been suffering for some reason. I can’t put my finger on it, but just seem to be swimming slower – I recovered well from Challenge, and energy levels have been fine – a mystery to me… Bike and run have both been going well, and I definitely felt fitter overall than I was in mid-April.

Ironman 70.3 Japan is an interesting location for a race. Situated in Tokoname, just south of Nagoya, and right by the Centrair International Airport, built on a man-made island. The race expo, race registration, pre-race meeting, and post-race awards party are all held within the main airport terminal itself. It’s a very industrial part of Japan, and a bit of a concrete jungle.

The weather for race day was forecast to reach a maximum of 34°C, which made me very nervous after my meltdown in the heat of Taiwan, where it was only 29°-30°C. With the industrial aspect, and amount of concrete surrounding the course, the whole place just felt HOT.

An aerial view shows the newest international airport in central Japan called Centrair, off the city of Tokoname,

The most picturesque triathlon course in Japan

 

 Swim (1.9km)

32:01 (4th in Age Group)

My swimming had been sub-par since the Taiwan race – I’m not really sure why, but everything has just been feeling slow & heavy. Energy levels were fine, and had completing most sessions without any trouble, I just can’t seem to complete intervals at the same speed as in March/early April.

The swim course was a simple rectangular out-and-back route in the ocean inlet, semi-protected by a man-made island that was a touristy beach area, which was home to the start/transition area.

The race was a wave-start format – professionals started at 8:30am, then M30-34 at 8:31, then my group (M35-39) at 8:35. I lined up at the front of about 200 athletes in my age group, and felt relaxed as the cannon fired.

There was a short 150m straight line out from the beach before turning left onto the long rectangular course, and I was able to stay in front of the pack and turn the first buoy in the lead.

Looking ahead, I could already see we would soon catch the slower swimmers at the back of the first age group wave. The next 800m was a busy period, zigzagging slower swimmers from the group in front, avoiding being kicked in the face by those suddenly switching to a breaststroke frog kick, and keeping an eye out for anyone wearing a light blue swim cap (signifying my age group) who I might be able to sit behind and save a bit of energy.

After making the turn at the far end of the course, it became apparent the we were suddenly swimming ‘upstream’ against a strong current, and quite a bit of incoming ocean chop. Everyone was affected, and I could feel the pace slow, as the effort increased. I just kept my head down, focused on turning over the arms, sighting regularly so as not to get dragged off course by the current, and staying strong until the swim exit.

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Swimming against the tide made for slow going

Based on my recent swim form, I had expected a slow swim, but still thought I would be able to reach the swim finish in under 30 minutes, so was surprised to see 32 minutes displaying on my watch as I got to my feet on the sand. In hindsight, it was slow for everyone, even most pros (who would normally average around 21-23 minutes) were swimming around 27 minutes.

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Bike (90.1km)

2:19:12 (1st in Age Group)

After a long 600m run from the changing tent, I found my bike and sprinted out of transition 1 (T1) and onto the 90km bike course.

The bike course is renowned as the ‘ugly’ side of this race. 4 laps of a 22.5km loop through a very industrial factory/wharf area. The course is filled with U-turns and sharp 90° corners, which makes it difficult to find a steady rhythm, as well as using up lots of energy each time you have to stand up and power out of each corner to get back up to speed. It’s also extremely dangerous in parts, with some very narrow sections where athlete traffic heading in both directions had to share one single lane of road – this made it scary on the later laps when the course was full with 1600 athletes, and we were lapping/passing slow back-markers.

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Sharp corners were plentiful

I’m loving my new bike, the CEEPO Katana, and am starting to ride well on it after taking some time to dial in my position and get used to the bike’s geometry and Rotor Q-Ring cranks. I was quickly able to start catching riders in front, and passed a dozen or so riders in the first couple of km. For the most part, the bike was quite uneventful – Raynard Picard, a 30-34 age grouper from Mexico, and I rode together virtually the whole 90km – keeping the legal 7 meters apart, whilst keeping the pace solid and pushing each other down the road.

The key for the bike leg was to stay alert and concentrate on the course and other riders, and I noticed on the last lap that my concentration was starting to sway as I began to feel the toll of the heat and hot bike pace for the past 70km. On a couple of corners I braked too late, and also rode through a couple of deep potholes, luckily no puncture. I kept reminding myself to concentrate, and stay in the moment.

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Heating up!

With less than 1km to go on the bike, just as I was feeling happy to have survived the bike, I came to pass another back-marker. Although I called “passing” from behind, which he appeared to have heard initially, he suddenly veered straight out in front of me right at the moment I was about to go past him. Travelling at 40km/h, and with nowhere to go, my life flashed before my eyes as I had to avoid him quickly, and smashed straight into a large orange traffic cone, and through onto the wrong side of the road, into a stream of oncoming bike traffic!! The cone went flying into the air, both my feet came out of my pedals, and somehow, somehow, I (a) didn’t plow head-on into an athlete coming in the opposite direction, and (b) stayed upright on the bike! Quite a few expletives exited my mouth, and Raynard had witnessed it all from behind, pedalling up alongside me with a “dude, you are soooo lucky”!

Shaken, I actually rolled straight past the bike finish and entry into the transition area, and was suddenly 20 meters down the road before I realized, and had to quickly back-track, before finally making my way into T2, happy to be safely off that bike course.

 

Run (21.1km)

1:30:51 (5th in Age Group)

In the run changing tent, Raynard and I shared a joke about the near death experience, but then he was gone in a flash! I took a few extra seconds to recompose, and try to prepare mentally for the half marathon ahead – the day was now close to peak temperature at around 34°C.

The goal for this run was survival, and I really didn’t have any expectations other than that, as the experience in Taiwan 6 week prior has made me put some pretty big question marks over my running ability in the heat.

Although hot & tired, I actually felt pretty good right away and was able to trot along quite comfortably- although it was still early days and I was nervous to push the pace. I broke the run down into aid stations, situated every 2km – rather than thinking of the whole 21.1km distance to cover in the brutal conditions, I decided to focus on the eight-and-a-half to nine minutes it would likely take me to reach each aid station.

The run course entailed a loop of about 5km around the man-made island which the start/transition area was located on, before a 15km run south along the concrete coastline to the finish near Centrair International Airport. Point-to-point runs can be tough, because although you can see the destination in the distance, it just looks so far away, which can be quite challenging mentally.

At each aid station I made it a priority to grab as many cold wet sponges and dump as much cold water over my head and ZOOT IceFil Arm Cooler sleeves as possible, then grab a drink, and also force down some kind of calories (gel/Coke). Although I always have the intention of eating on the run, I always seem to fail to keep the nutrition uptake regular, which I think has been a problem in other races previously – this is something I really have to work on, so I forced myself to eat a bit more on this run.

I kept a regular check on my pacing, and although I didn’t want to overdo it, I was feeling quite comfortable at around 4:15-4:20/km pace. Before I knew it I was though 8km, and still feeling relatively good at this pace. Pre-race, although around 4:20/km was a pace I had set as an optimal target, realistically I had thought that if I could just hold 4:30-4:30/km for as long as possible in the heat, then just survive until the finish, it would be a good race.

As the aid stations ticked by, I stayed cool and hydrated, and stayed in the now. People talk about getting in the ‘zone’, and this was one period in time where I felt like I was able to zone-out of everything else, let the eyes glaze over, and almost be in a meditative state for the whole run. Uncomfortable, yet comfortable at the same time.

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Surviving at last!

At about the 16km point, I was passed by Singapore speedster James Middleditch (M40-44 age group), who was motoring, and went on to claim the honor of first age grouper. A cople of professionals had also passed me on the run, but otherwise I hadn’t seen many other athletes out there – I had expected to be passed by droves of faster runners!

To reach the finish in the tough conditions was a relief, and I knew I was possibly in a podium place in my age group – didn’t actually find out the result until back in the hotel a couple hours later. But the biggest success for me personally was that I had managed to put together a run which I really wasn’t sure I would be capable of. 90 minutes for a half marathon has always been a target that I didn’t know would be attainable or not, and to hit the mark spot-on, averaging 4:18/km in such difficult conditions was what I am happiest about from the race – a real confidence boost!

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Bank it!

 

Result

Total time: 4:28:01
Placing: 1st M35-39 Age Group | 9th Overall | 2nd Age Grouper

So, an unexpected success in Tokoname, which I’ll take away a lot of confidence from. Still need to regain my swim mojo, and there’s always work to do to improve in all three sports – but all-in-all very happy with where my fitness is currently at, and great to grab another age group win! Not really worth much, it’s kind of nice to be the 35-39 age group winner for both full and half distance Ironman races in Japan!


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Huge thanks, love and respect goes to my superstar wife Yuumi, who possibly had a tougher day out than I did. Waking at 5am, feeding and preparing a 2 year old, and 9month old twins, then a train to the start area, followed by a day in the heat, multiple baby feedings, lots of waiting, and more train travel between the start and finish areas – all while trying to stay cool and keep the kids comfortable and happy! It was awesome to have the family cheering from the sidelines, and a boost each time I saw them – rock star! Bonus thanks to our great friends who live in the area, Tristan and Naki for their huge support over the weekend!

Thanks also for the support to ZOOT Japan, and CEEPO triathlon bikes – I’m very fortunate to be able to use such high quality, comfortable, and technologically advanced gear!

Next up are a couple of short Olympic distance races in Hokkaido – the Hascup/Chubetsuko tri double over consecutive weekends in late July/early August. The focus from this point is to work solely towards being in peak condition for Kona in October – the next four months will fly by, and I’m looking forward to the journey!