Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Strongman Japan 2012

Race History
The Strongman Japan All-Japan Triathlon was first run in 1985, inspired by the success of the Ironman triathlon series at the time.  The race is held on the island of Miyakojima in Okinawa Prefecture, 400 kilometres east of Taiwan.  At the time the Japanese government was striving to establish Miyakojima as a destination for sportsmen, with this race being a cornerstone of their sporting strategy.  

Past champions include some legends of the sport, including the following Ironman champions: Paul Huddle of the USA, Lisa Bentley of Canada, Lothar Leder of Germany, Yoko Hori of Japan, Peter Kropko of Hungary, Yoko Okuda of Japan, Byung-Hoon Park of South Korea, Naomi Imaizumi of Japan, Marcus Forster of Germany, Mitch Anderson of Australia, and Yoshinori Tamura of Japan.

I first heard of Strongman after an Ontario pro, Wolfgang Guembel, won the race and Triathlon Magazine Canada had an interview with him where he mentioned it.  After racing Hawaii in October, I wrote a blog for the Morning Glory Cycling Club, and was lucky enough to have the Strongman international athlete coordinator, Gary Sato, comment on the blog and mention the race.  Gary does a great job seeking out athletes to come represent their countries and share the Strongman experience with the Miyakojima locals, and I was excited to be invited to participate in such an amazing event.  
One of Canada's two representatives on the Strongman Champions Monument
Training through the Canadian winter for an almost-Iron distance race isn't ideal, but I was happy with my preparation.  Swimming and running went well with solid volumes, cycling volume was lower than what would normally be thrown down for a race of this distance.  I'm not a fan of long trainer rides so in January and February I was riding 4-5 times as week on the trainer, but nothing longer than 2.5 hours.  The gorgeous weather in Toronto during March allowed for a good amount of outdoor riding, though my longest ride was only 120K, and there were only a handful of 100+K rides, making the 155K ride in Japan a little daunting.

Race Morning
Awake at 4AM, breakfast was two bottles of Boost+, a banana, one piece of break with 'peanut cream' (think peanut butter but...different), a multivitamin, colostrum, saltstick tab and a bottle of iced coffee.  We stayed at the host hotel, with the swim start right outside my window and T1 a two minute walk away.  I watched the series finale of 'Luck' while eating breakfast, then headed over to transition at 5AM when it opened to stock the bike and drop off race bags.  Then it was back to the room until 6:30 to relax and stay off my feet until race time.  One Roctane gel at 6:30 plus a bit of water, a short warm-up swim, and we were ready to rock.
With Tim Hola at the swim start - photo by Nikki Hola
Swim - 40:39, 4th Overall
A little disappointed with the swim time - as 'life' got busy in March, swimming suffered a bit after two great months in January and February.  I swam the whole 3K with Andre and six other athletes.  The entire course is roped off between the buoys, so no sighting is required if you're next to the rope, which was my strategy.  What I hadn't considered before the start was that when the other guys start to drift, I had nowhere to go to my right, and got slammed into the rope dozens of times over the course of the 40 minutes.  Luckily the wetsuit prevented any rope burn, but it was definitely annoying.  As was the guy directly behind me who tapped my feet for the entire swim.

T1 - 2:28, 2nd Overall
Very smooth transition, with shoes and helmet on the bike all I had in my bag was a gel flask and a bag of salt pills that went in my suit, sunglasses on, a moderately fast strip of the wetsuit, and was on the bike. 
Wanna go for a ride? Photo by Nikki Hola
Bike - 4:07:05, 6th Overall
Cycling has been feeling great all week, and my power numbers through the winter have been up so I was super excited for this bike ride.  3K into the ride I hit a bump and lost my 300 calorie bottle of Infinit.  At an Ironman event this wouldn't concern me too much, but at this race, the sports drink they serve on the course is called Aquarius, and has only 44 calories per bottle (compared to 240 calories in Ironman Perform).  We'd also been given the heads-up by Gary pre-race that the bottle hand-ups on the course are usually only half-filled bidons, and with the language barrier you may not get what you want at each station.  So, after blitzing transition and storming out onto the course hoping to catch up to Tim who was only 85 seconds ahead after T1, I had to stop, turn around, and go pick up the bottle.  In the process, five guys I'd dropped leaving transition all stormed by.

The next 30K were uneventful, fast with a tailwind, and we ended up crossing a long bridge to Ikema Island.  As soon as I hit the bridge, my other (full) Infinit bottle got launched, and for the second time in under an hour I'm stopping to go back.  After looping Ikema and heading back, in the exact same spot I hold my bottles tightly going over the bump, but lose my gel flask complete with four gels in the process.  This time I just let it go and was super frustrated, resigned to drinking half-filled bottles of Coke as my main fuel source for the rest of the ride.

I got stronger as the ride went on, moving up from 8th at the 30K checkpoint to 7th at 70K, 5th at 130K, then coming into transition in 4th, 11:30 behind Anton who was leading but only 4:00 out of second.  I was happy to average the highest watts I've ever put out for that long of a ride (219 watts, inclusive of those two dead-stop-and-starts) and despite being a bit fatigued in the last 25K, I was feeling ready for a marathon.  Ride data:

Nutrition is a bit of a guess - I did drink three full bottles of Infinit (300 calories each), five Roctane gels (of my planned nine), probably had 4 half-bidons of Coke, and 3 SaltStick tabs.  A few mouthfuls of water and Aquarius in there as well.

T2 - 4:02, ?? Overall
T2 wasn't measured, I calculated it as the difference between my Garmin bike split and the recorded bike split.  Pretty slow-going here, knowing my legs would be beat up due to a lack of cycling durability, I took the time to put on my Compressport full compression socks for the run and lathered up in sunscreen since at this point the cloud cover was gone and the sun was blazing down.
Sunscreen chapeau leaving T2 - photo by Nigel Ngan
Run - 3:20.04, 8th Overall
Hot.  So hot.  My Garmin 500 on the bike recorded a temperature of 29c at the end of the ride, but with rain in the morning humidity was hovering around 100% and the sun, which had been hidden by clouds for parts of the bike ride, was now blazing down with zero shade on the open road.  I found it substantially hotter than Hawaii, and it was slow going out of the gate as I was trying to load up on drinks, sponges and ice at each aid station.  The aid stations here are scattered sporadically, with nothing closer than 1.9K between stations, and many being 3K apart.  When it's this hot out, 3K is a LONG time to go without drinks or any chance to cool yourself off.
These kids were great, we just needed a few more stations! - Photo by Nikki Hola
Despite the really tough conditions, the run was really fun as it was super tactical - leaving transition with Hiro Nishiuchi of TeamTBB in 4th and 5th, I was dropped at the first aid station when I stopped and he kept going.  Over the next 10K I'd fallen to 10th as I knew running 6:50 miles (my goal pace) just wasn't going to happen on this hot day.  I ran by feel, making sure it felt sustainable even though it wasn't comfortable.  Around 17K some of the early starters were fading badly, and I finally felt like I could actually run a steady pace, so I started to move through the field, hitting the turnaround in 3rd place behind Anton who was still way out in front, and Tim who was 2.5 minutes up the road.

I caught Tim at 27K to move into second, but Hiro re-passed me for good this time and I was alone in third, feeling very rough, until 38K.  Hiro's wife, Maki, had been giving me splits since about 35K letting me know that 4th place was closing.  What I didn't realize is that it wasn't just 4th place, but 5,6,7 and 8 were all right there as well, making the last 4K completely frantic, with guys attacking and counter-attacking all the way to the Miyakojima city stadium.  After falling to 6th I was able to pull one spot back and finish in 5th place, only 40 seconds from third and 88 seconds from second place.  Run data:

Nutrition is a total guess here as it was a yard sale, just grabbing cup after cup at each aid station - a lot of Coke, a good amount of Aquarius, lots of water, a huge cup of cold green tea, and saltstick caps every mile.
Smiling or teeth-gritting?  T-1 minute from being carted off to medical - photo by Nigel Ngan
Total: 8:14:18, 5th overall
Hiro has raced here the last ten years, and said this was hands-down the hottest Strongman he's experienced.  This was reflected in the race times as every year in the last ten there have been multiple run splits under 3:00 for the marathon; this year there were only two under 3:10 with one of those being from an athlete that tanked the swim and bike in order to win the run prime (he was 57 minutes behind after the bike).

The race was won by two of my invited athlete teammates, Anton winning for the men and Beate winning the women's race in a dominating performance, with Verena claiming second for a German 1-2.  Anton is heading to the US to race this spring, look for him at the Boise 70.3 and Ironman Coeur D'Alene if you're at those races. Beate is going to take Challenge Roth by storm in July, I'm super excited to see her performance there (with a significantly faster T1 than her iron-distance debut on the same course).
Men's podium - photo by Andre Stuebs
Women's podium
This race is a truly unique triathlon experience - the race committee spends the entire year getting ready for this one event, and their passion for triathlon and Miyakojima comes through from the Mayor's opening speech on Friday until the Kuicha dance concludes the Waido party on Monday night.

Many thanks to Gary for his tireless work in sourcing the invited athletes and providing us with an amazing experience in a low-stress environment (for us, probably not low stress for him!).  Thanks to our incredible interpreter team, led by the super-helpful Yoko Miyamoto, who guided us through everything from press conferences, newspaper and television interviews to simple interactions with hotel staff and restaurant orders.  Thanks to the Strongman race committee, especially race director Matsumi, for seeing the value in bringing an international element to the race.  Mostly, thanks to the beautiful people of Miyakojima who put on a truly class event in their little piece of paradise, and who welcomed us so warmly and made the whole week an experience of a lifetime - domo arigato!
Where else in the world does triathlon get immortalized on a manhole cover?
We celebrated the race at a local restaurant after the Waido party, and the live band gave us a final rendition of the Kuicha before we scattered back around the globe - thanks to Nikki Hola for the video!  My next race is the Eagleman 70.3 in Maryland in June - two weeks of low volume/low intensity recovery then back at it!

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