Murakami Triathlon 2013
On September 29th, I competed in Murakami International Triathlon in Niigata Prefecture and it was everything I could have hoped for and more. This race report is a loose, chronological account of my race day weekend. At the end are bonus sections about my training and gear.
Friday afternoon - Getting ready
On Friday evening, I packed my gear into an old 30L backpack. Paranoid that I’d forget a vital piece of equipment, I’d obsessed over a packing list for weeks.
As a result, the packing only took half an hour. I was jumping out of my skin, so I decided to put in an hour of mental training. This consists of lying in bed and watching YouTube videos of race day footage and coaching. I excel at this type of training…
After a good eight hours of sleep, it was time to go!
Saturday morning - Leaving Tokyo
There’s a spot in front of my train station where cyclists put their bikes together. I’ve lived here for a few years but only noticed this particular spot after getting my own road bike. It’s just a bit of sidewalk; curved so that you can lay out the bike without getting in the way of pedestrians, and close enough to the station so you’re not wasting energy.
I met my new friend Ying on the bullet train. The two hour ride to Niigata passed by very quickly, as we swapped notes about our training. We were excited.
Saturday afternoon - Checking in
At Niigata Station, we joined a wave of people carrying big bike bags and got on a local train to Murakami Station. I chatted with an older lady with an Ironman backpack. She said this was her last race of the season and that she didn’t usually do “the shorter races”. Haha! She must have been in her 60s. Respect!
Upon arrival, we popped the tires back onto our bikes and biked a few kilos down to the local community center. The air was clean and crisp.
There were a few stalls outside selling gear and apparel, and inside were registration desks per age group. The atmosphere was a mix of local matsuri and swim meets that I’d participated in when I was in grade school. The men’s 45-49 group had the longest line!
We received a race bag with a bib, t-shirt, cap, and some pamphlets. I was lucky number 123. There was also an extra plastic drawstring bag inside, which came in handy the next day.
There was to be no race day registration. We were asked to keep the ID bracelet on, and show it the next day to receive the anklet with the electronic chip.
Next, we found the race mechanic to get a quick check-up before heading to the mandatory athlete briefing.
The head judge gave a Powerpoint presentation of what to expect the next day. I kept looking around. The auditorium was packed to the brim with lean, tan people.
Accommodations in Murakami City sell out fast but I’d lucked out with a triathlon-only deal at a hotel only a few minutes from the starting line. They put up some dividers in the tatami-floor banquet hall and rolled out futons. A brilliant idea!
I had been expecting to see lots of futons side-by-side, mountain hut style, but it turned out that there were no other female guests, so we had the whole “room” to ourselves.
After unpacking our bags, we biked to the beach where the sun was starting to set. The beach was absolutely gorgeous. The water was clear and warm.
Sunday - Race day!
I got up around 6:30 from a surprisingly restful sleep, no doubt helped by the delicious local seafood and very hot onsen bath from the night before. Our breakfast was bananas, hard boiled eggs, and cartons of fruit smoothies. They were all from a nearby combini, picked up the night before.
I hadn’t forgotten anything and there were no last minute scrambles, thanks to the meticulous packing list
A little before 8:00, we hopped on our bikes, now adorned with race stickers, and headed towards the startling line. Fit people on all kinds of bikes were there! It was a very festive atmosphere.
I was glad we’d checked out the venue beforehand. It’s easy for anxiety to build in crowds like these, when it feels like everyone else knows exactly what they’re doing. We split off to our respective stations and I went about my business setting up my bike and gear, going over the transitions in my head while listening to the pre-race chatter with one ear.
Next to the start line was a little table for your glasses. Very considerate of the organizers, isn’t it? The table was even included in the race map so I knew where it would be.
Ohhh, the ocean water felt so good. There was enough visibility to see about half a meter ahead. The buoy that marked the turnaround seemed quite far but it didn’t matter. I was ecstatic to keep swimming, instead of back and forth in the 25m pool.
We stretched and talked about the waves, not paying much attention to the opening ceremony. I heard them mention that Murakami had the most number of female participants of any triathlon in the country, though. Didn’t know that!
The transition area closes down before the race, so I sucked down a protein shake and joined everyone on the beach. All of the women were in the fifth and final wave, so we had quite a wait. I chatted with some of the girls and we watched the elite athletes race across the water.
The start signal went off without any fanfare whatsoever and the crowd slowly surged into the water. I had a three second bout of nerves – what have I gotten myself into – but there was no time for that. Ying helped me laugh it off and I was enveloped by kicking arms and legs in the next second. We were 150 athletes, maybe ten across, and the sharp turn immediately to the left of the start line compounded the flailing of bodies.
The first few minutes were spent fighting for space while trying to move in the right direction. I propelled forward any time I saw open water but didn’t go out of my way to avoid side collision. I have a tendency to veer strongly to the left and I wasn’t sighting – the upward lift of the head to check direction – at all because I could see other swimmers nearby. After a while, I found myself on the left-most edge of the pack and just stayed there.
I was really starting to enjoy the swim when I saw the buoy ahead. It was already time to turn around and finish off the second half. We were passing people in different colored caps and I realized they were the slower men from the previous wave.
The shout of a staffer on a kayak interrupted my blissful stroking. A big gesture to the right accompanied the poking of his oar – I was swimming the wrong way. Oops. I’d forgotten what the goal buoy looked like, so a bit of energy was wasted on extra sighting. I was sorry to see the swim ending. Asides from the sheer enjoyment of moving through these lovely waters, this portion of the race was going to be my best. A few hours of uphill battle awaited.
You see, I was also dreading the transition. The one time I managed to train in open water, the waves made me nauseas and I staggered to the sand like an unhappy drunk at the end of the session. The coach pulled me aside and advised that I use the run to the bike wisely; shake off any dizziness before getting on the bike to avoid falling off. Sound advice, for sure.
Still, all these thoughts disappeared as my legs cooperated and the cheering crowd came into sight. Riding high from the swim, I found myself literally laughing as I sprinted out of the beach. This was awesome!
After taking my sweet time getting ready – in hindsight, much too long – I looked up to see streams of people hustling past. Shaking off the cobwebs, I pushed my bike and trotted up the steep hill that marked the beginning of the course. It was time to start the second leg of the race.
The first few kilometers were riding through the residential area of Murakami City. Every few blocks were folks sitting outside their homes in small groups, watching and cheering. What fun! I waved and shouted back some thank yous.
Cruising along the coastline in the quiet stretches outside of town, I felt so blessed. Bathed in sunshine, the endless sea to my left, and alone but not alone, in such good health. It wasn’t simply just the fruits of the past few weeks of training, but also a year and half of CrossFit, which was already in itself so rewarding. When was the last time I felt so present in the moment?
I was surprised to see the cycling computer indicating 30km/hr. Because of the weather and road conditions, my pace throughout the race would be 4-5km/hr faster than when training along the Arakawa.
That was my newbie self with just two months of experience on the road bike, though. Plenty of people zipped past, disappearing from sight in a few dozen zwwwwoooops. Ah, well. The important thing was to keep my pace and make it to the run feeling strong. I was already happy that the ride wouldn’t take two full hours.
Around the 30km mark, my energy started to flag and my thoughts turned to the gel pack that I’d left behind in the transition area. The first and last 10kms felt so different. I don’t really remember how the last few kilos went, except that someone shouted “Nice pink shoes!” to me. I must have been a little disoriented because I forgot to pull off my bike gloves before starting the run.
Unlike the bike, there were no pleasant surprises with running. It still sucked. Physically, I felt strong enough but it felt silly pottering about on my two legs after having the bike feel like a part of my body for almost two hours. An inefficient application of energy!
I’d planned for a slow, steady 6.5-7km/hr pace but I didn’t want to waste energy maneuvering out my iPhone from the back pocket of my pants, especially with a gel pack and gloves also stuffed in nearby pockets. It felt like a long time before the 1km sign came into sight.
Now that we were in the central part of the city, there were more people cheering on the athletes. People in their uniforms standing outside of their storefronts, young families with kids running around, all making an event of it. I wanted a way to tell them I was so happy to be in their town but settled for breathy arigatous and the occasional whoop. Some people call out my bib number, which turned into injections of little power bursts. I knew #123 was a lucky number!
Friends who’ve run marathons always talk about how much the crowds helped them on, and it proved to be the case for me in this 10km as well. In this little corner of the world, everyone was cheering for us… so much that a sign for “かばん” (bags) looked like “がんば” (“do your best”) at one point. Too funny. I kept going, slowly ticking off the kilometers.
You could tell by the confidence in the stride, who was a runner and who wasn’t. They passed by, seemingly in their element, but I also managed to pass a few people at well. I tapped the walkers on the back and offered words of encouragement. They seemed almost flabbergasted… not used to CrossFitters, I guess!
I hadn’t studied the course map closely enough beforehand and the triple loop around the final block was confusing. I must have missed the big cone at some point. Nothing hurt and my breathing was fine so the body pushed forward almost automatically but I felt tired, mentally.
I’d lost sense of time and distance and kept delaying what should have been a final push in the last kilometer because I couldn’t focus long enough. After rounding a few corners, I saw a crowd ahead. A booming voice announced “And here comes number 123, Sasaki Tomomi san” and suddenly, there was the goal line.
My body still had some some energy left and I burst past the banner, arms raised high. It was finished.
A volunteer wrapped me up in a big towel with the word MURAKAMI while another removed my anklet. I found a spot of grass, sat down, then laid down. It felt surreal. It was really finished.
I started contacting friends and family while I waited for Ying. When she found me, I gave her a big hug. There were tears in her eyes from both exertion and triumph and somehow that pulled me out of my stupor. We’d done it.
Just a few more thoughts before I wrap up.
When an old colleague sent her congratulations, she recalled that I’d mentioned an interest in triathlons years ago. Five, to be exact. We must have been working 80 hour weeks at that time and the very idea was simply absurd. I realize now that it was actually a long-time wish of mine. Not a burning desire or even a low-simmering one, just wisps of hope that were so faint that it had gone mostly forgotten, then completely buried once adulthood caught up to me.
There were many, many people that helped me along the way but in particular I am deeply thankful for the support and encouragement from my coaches and friends at Chikara CrossFit, my team mates at AQ, and the three special people that fall in both groups – Paul, Ryan and Ironman Gueorgui.
Total time: 03:12:04
- Swim (1,500m) – 00:30:56
- Bike (40km) – 01:43:17
- Run (10km) – 00:57:51
Bonus - Training
Six weeks before the race, I started the second half of Runner World’s Perfect 10: Olympic Distance Training Schedule. I had searched online for the simplest plan with the lowest volume of work. No heart rate zones or any special equipment. No brick sessions because that would be difficult to coordinate. I liked this one because the programming was based on a combination of time, distance, and speed, and changed it up every 2-3 weeks.
Then, I dumped the plan into Google Calendar and did what I could while still going to CrossFit one or two times a week. I also cycled to work on a semi-regular basis to get used to riding my shiny new road bike and the glaring sun. And I consumed every online article and video about training and competing in triathlons that I could find.
And that was the entirety of the master plan!
Disclaimer: Don’t follow my plan. I mean, it’s not a plan. Also, note that I CrossFitted very consistently for 3-4 times a week x 20 months prior to these six weeks. Here is the total mileage during this time:
- Swimming: 13400m (7 trips to the pool, 1 to the ocean)
- Cycling: 162km (5 sessions along Arakawa River)
- Running: 47km (7 runs)
- CrossFit: 10 times
- Bike commute (25km): 16 days
I imagine the work that I put in is shockingly low compared to that of other first-time triathletes. Actually, now that I’ve tallied everything, it feels low. Even though it felt like a substantial volume and intensity at the time!
The typical plan has the newbie training for three months, and the one I (kind of) followed was no different, but I felt comfortable skipping the first few weeks because the first phase of any beginner plan is to get your body used to exercise. Then it was summer and just too darn hot…
- “CF” – CrossFit
- Blue – swimming
- Orange – cycling
- Green – running
Okay, so I skipped half the runs and bikes, put in the occasional multiple, and tapered by going to CrossFit. The creator of the plan would probably refuse to be associated with me.
In spite of all that, I’m really pleased with how I planned and executed my training.
Six weeks turned out to be just long enough to get into a good rhythm while being short enough to keep the attention and enthusiasm levels sky-high. The intensity was also high enough to unveil visible gains so the training never got boring. I was learning so much with every training session.
In hindsight, that was most important. My training felt like it was working and that was super motivating. It helped that I was noticing a difference in my CrossFit workouts – specifically in the metcons. I could keep going on the longer WODs and improved especially on the ones that involved running, something I never imagined happening, as previously mentioned.
If I were to do it again, I would have gotten up early on weekdays for proper riding sessions instead of counting the commute as training. The commuting required skills that took a few weeks to obtain. Any time on the saddle is valuable but obviously, quality is important. I was concerned with learning how to ride next to cars, not getting lost, and showering before work. This ended up mostly being a distraction, in terms of training for the triathlon.
For those with Strava accounts – and too much time on your hands – you can log in and see all of my logs. Most of the swimming and some of the running is interval-based.
Bonus, Part Two - Gear
More geekiness: how I shopped for my first triathlon.