The volunteers bow as you ride by on the bike course. They clap when you accept water or sports drink from their aid station. They are respectful, formal, and passionate. This is Ironman Japan.
Lake Toya is the site of the 2.4 mile swim. There are floating mountains. (At least, that’s what they look like. But they are really islands, shrouded in mist, and located on the isle of Hokkaido).
It’s not hot here. But it is humid. The temperature is 75 degrees, and the humidity is 89%, producing a “real feel” of something much warmer than you’d find articulated in a tourist pamphlet.
The water in Lake Toya is clean. It’s clear. And it’s wetsuit legal.
Swim to the ferry (thinly disguised as a castle). Then sight off of the hotel. And then swim to the exit. Then do a second loop until you surface at the arch, the one that reads “Goal”.
It requires careful wording to articulate the following sentiment without diminishing the achievements of others. A full iron-distance triathlon is hard. Period. Swim 2.4 miles. Bike 112 miles. Run 26.2 miles. Do it all as quickly as you can within the 17-hour time limit. Anyone who’d tell you it’s easy probably hasn’t done one.
Still, while a full iron-distance triathlon is hard, some are more challenging than others. As an example, the typical male pro often finishes Ironman races in the low 8 hours. An 8:10 Ironman is fairly common for a top male pro. The top male pro at Ironman Japan finished in 9:22!
This was going to be a tough day at the office.
It began with the flight to Tokyo. The long flight from Los Angeles provided me with plenty of time for reflection.
Doubt and insecurity drove me to this race. I began the year with a puncture during the bike portion of Puerto Rico 70.3.
Then I endured my first ever DNF (Did Not Finish) at Ironman Texas when my handlebars broke after hitting a separation in the pavement at just the right angle to render my bike inoperable.
I was also injured.
(It took me over a month before I could admit it to anyone but my wife). So here it was— the third week of August—and thus far I’d placed 1st at a sprint tri, performed poorly at a 70.3, DNF’d an Ironman, and hadn’t much in terms of 2015 results to suggest that I’d be of much value to my sponsors. Frankly, I wasn’t sure I’d be of much value to a triathlon except, perhaps, to provide the race-support folk with something to do should I encounter another problem on my bike.
This may be one of the reasons why I haven’t posted anything here since the Boston Marathon (in April). I have trouble imagining that people want to read something written by a guy who is struggling with his self-worth as a triathlete. I felt a bit like a perfectly fresh box of vegetables that mysteriously, over night, had gone bad.
I took nine weeks off from running (to let my ankle recover). Then I started building run volume, slowly and carefully. Meanwhile, I was doing a fairly large amount of bike and swim training. So while I was plagued by doubt and insecurity, I was also quietly hopeful as I boarded my flight from Los Angeles to Hokkaido, Japan.
Of course, my fears going into the race revolved around two things: can I make it through the bike portion without a puncture or a mechanical issue? And can I run the entire 26.2 even though I don’t have full range of motion in my ankle?
I’d love to say that my fears were unfounded. However, upon arrival to Tokyo-Narita, the staff at ANA Airline kindly asked me to open my bike case so that they could inspect it before allowing it onto the flight to Chitose Airport. This is my bike case:
(I feel a bit like Forrest Gump, saying “That’s my boat!”)
When I opened my case, I was mortified. Without getting too technical, let’s just say that what I saw was a complete disaster. It seems likely that TSA (at LAX) found it necessary to disassemble most of my bike. By the time I opened my bike case in Tokyo-Narita, the rear cluster was rolling around at the bottom of the case, my Di2 wires had been disconnected, the washers above my fork were grossly misaligned, and my headset appeared to have been jerked upward. In all, my shiny, sleek, and fast Cervelo P5 looked disfigured and broken.
In preparation for this race, Eric at East West Bikes did a ton of work on my P5 to ensure that I wouldn’t suffer an IM Texas handlebar debacle again. I started to fear that his work had been quickly undone by the TSA gorillas, and of course I continued to fear that I might not make it through the bike portion of IM Japan.
This should be among the many cautionary tales that compel people to avoid letting TSA anywhere near their bikes. I typically ship my bike via TriBike Transport, and whether they drive my bike to Los Cabos, fly it to Kailua-Kona, or float it to Cozumel, it always arrives good to go and ready to roll. (Feel free to email me for a coupon code if you’ve not ever used TBT and are hoping to do so soon).
Alas, TBT wasn’t transporting bikes to IM Japan, so I was on my own. Once the mess—a.k.a. my once-brilliant steed—was confirmed safe for flight by ANA, it was time for the final connection to Hokkaido.
Upon arriving to Chitose Airport, Keish and I stayed at the airport hotel, as we’d not be able to get a shuttle to Toyako (the site of the race) until the next morning.
The airport hotel served an excellent breakfast:
We found superstar pro triathlete (and our friend) Bree Wee on the shuttle:
Once we arrived in Toyako, we sat through the athlete briefing, grabbed our gear, and then followed our noses to this restaurant:
Anthony Bourdain was once asked what he’d order if he could only have one final meal. He said just to drop him off in Tokyo.
Well, having been to Tokyo and many cities outside of Tokyo, I’d say just throw me out of a plane that’s flying anywhere over Japan, and I’ll skydive my way to a meal, which I’m confident will taste great.
We thoroughly enjoyed our soba, and upon finishing we checked into our hotel. It’s hard to see, but we had a great room overlooking Lake Toya.
Here’s the view from our balcony. You can see part of the run course, and of course the swim takes place in this lake:
It was approximately 36 hours until race start, so it was an optimal time for carbo-loading. First we ate at the Athlete’s Dinner:
And then we ate again at our hotel:
After dinner, I saw something really cool. The Japanese racers refused to bring their bikes into their hotel rooms. They left their bikes outside their doors (during the day and night), trusting that even though they’re not locked to anything, and even though some are worth over $10,000, everything will be alright.
I spent quite a lot of time working on my bike, and after meeting with one of the Shimano mechanics at the athletes’ village, my bike was finally given a clean bill of health. The next morning, Bree, Keish, Thiago (male pro), and I went for a ride.
Bree added some effects:
Next was bike drop off:
Then it was time for a practice swim:
Then there was time for one final meal at the hotel, just enough to sustain us until our 2:30 a.m. wake-up call.
Michelle wished us good luck!
(And she made me a card!)
Kona sent her love.
Race morning was stunning. Toyako is beautiful, and I really did feel like I was walking around in a postcard.
One thing I quite like about the Japanese is how, similar to the Swiss, they exhibit great precision. If Transition opens at 4:30 a.m., then it will open at 4:30 a.m. Not a second earlier . . . and not a second later.
So we waited for T1 to open:
And then the clock struck 4:30. We entered T1 to dry our trusted steeds (it rained the night before), lube chains, pump tires, fill bottles, tape gels to top tubes . . . and I deliberately had a quiet conversation with my bike, urging my tires to be tough and my headset unbreakable.
Then we were off to the swim start.
IM Japan did not begin with a mass swim start. Instead, it began in waves.
The 2.4 mile swim consisted of 2 laps. Once the cannon fired, I found myself swimming fluidly, competently, and swiftly. This was my first race sporting my new Blue Seventy Helix, and I must say, it’s fast! (Thank you Blue Seventy and Team TriBike Transport for the great wetsuit!). Below, I’m exiting the lake to begin my second lap, having opened a nice gap among most of the athletes in my wave:
When I finally finished the swim, I clocked a 58:08.
This was brilliant, as my swim fitness certainly wasn’t top-notch. I’d sacrificed some swim volume in the final weeks of training so that I could ramp up my run and bike volume. I attribute this swim split to my Blue Seventy Helix. Now it was onto the bike.
The IM Japan bike course is challenging. It was more challenging this year, however, as an essential bridge collapsed. This compelled the race organizers to be creative in finding a “way” around it. This creativity expressed itself in over 8,000 feet of climbing. Further, there was a section that required the racers to ride through soft sand for approximately a quarter of a mile. People were falling over, incessantly clipping/unclipping, and in sum, having a difficult time.
At one point I saw a fox. He was just watching the racers go by, not really supporting us but not really being bothered either. He seemed marginally curious but mainly indifferent.
A bit later I saw a snake. He seemed interested in slithering across the road, and of course he began his slither just as I was perpendicular to him. The alarm I experienced helped keep me amped up for the rest of the climb. But be it a fox, a snake, or one more sinister ascent, the IM Japan bike course seemed committed to keeping a surprise in wait around every bend.
One unfortunate surprise was not quite knowing where each aid station would be. Typically, there is an aid station every ten miles or so. In Japan, there was a rather wide variance. Further, the bottles of water and sports drink were only half full. Given the high humidity, and the speculative nature of an aid station’s next location, it was imperative that we load up on as much fluid as possible. Of course, unless you’re prepared to halt forward momentum in order to grab several bottles, you likely hoped to grab two (and hoped to stave off the onset of dehydration). Of course, as I’ve noted before, hope is a bad strategy.
One of the other surprises that made me marvel in disbelief was the climb at about Mile 108.
At this point, my average speed had plummeted from 24 mph to 18 mph. I was hoping to make up some time in the last few miles. Unfortunately, right around Mile 108 was a climb I can only compare to Glendora Mountain Road or, perhaps, to parts of The Death Ride in Markleeville. It wasn’t the climb as much as it was the placement of the climb at Mile 108 of the course. At this point, you’re already thinking of the marathon you still need to run. And while your legs are shredded and rubbery, you’re already thinking about finding your run-form soon. But on this course, there was no such luck.
The 112 mile bike ended at Transition 2. There were about 30 bikes already there when I arrived. That means I was hovering around 30th overall. While many of the pros were already in, the guys I’m competing with are specific to my Age Group (40-44), and there were 5 bikes that’d gotten there before me. So I was in 6th.
That’s me, attempting to run in bike shoes.
Here’s Keish beginning the run.
A few words about the run. The first 5 miles took me an hour. Typically I’ll knock out the first 5 miles in 35-38 minutes. But the first 5 miles of IM Japan were, for better or for worse, uphill. Parts were on trails so steep (visualize the Mt. SAC Cross Country Course) that unless you were part billy goat, chances were strong that you were walking.
The run, though, has often been the place where I can maintain my position in the race while overtaking a few of my competitors in the later stages.
So all was good once I crested the final climb at right around Mile 5, and as I descended I overtook two guys in my AG, putting me in 4th place, and putting me in the hunt for a position on the podium. But then something curious happened.
And I suppose it’s one of the best things about this race. It helped me answer the question that I get fairly often: Why do you do it?
While I normally just say something trite—”I like to torture myself”—for instance, the real answer has many layers. One of those layers was exposed on Sunday, during the run, when right around Mile 9, I wanted to stop running. I wanted to walk. To quit. To never do this again. To hide and just stew in my own failure.
But I didn’t. I decided to get to Mile 10 and reevaluate. Unfortunately, I was running so badly that I couldn’t focus on reaching Mile 10. So it was the next cone, the next light post, the next tree. And when that was too far to fathom, I just counted steps. Surely I could make it another four steps. And so I counted steps . . . 1, 2, 3, 4 . . . 1, 2, 3, 4 . . . . And then the nausea set in. I haven’t thrown up in a race in awhile, as my nutrition has been fairly spot-on. But in Japan the humidity, coupled with the half-filled bottles and the sub-optimal number of aid stations, compromised my body. My temple was in ruins. My aquarium was overrun with algae and angry fish. The result might be best described as a vomit dance. I’d run half a mile and then suddenly veer left to throw up on a poor bush or a patch of grass. At one point this became so frequent that I didn’t bother veering left. I just threw up on myself. Specifically, I threw up on my left shoulder, not having the energy or the wherewithal to project it farther, and of course, I did this while continuing to run.
So there I am, counting steps, vomiting on myself, and just trying to get to Special Needs, where I’ve stashed a Coke in my bag. Anybody who’s been in this situation, where your body is shutting down, where the exercise is more mental than physical, well you know what the basic, fundamental, primordial goal is: just survive.
So I kept going. And along the way I saw Bree. She looked so strong.
I didn’t look strong. But I was able to get my Coke.
Bree finished in 2nd place!
When I reached Mile 25.5, I could hear the announcer. The run course was lined with spectators. My face opened up into the biggest, dopiest smile.
At this point I knew I’d finish. I’d been overtaken by two guys in my AG, so I was now racing for 7th in my AG and 37th overall. (There were just over 1,600 athletes in the race).
My run form was ugly. Offensive. But once I reached the finishing chute, none of that mattered. I was inspired by all of the spectators with their hands out, reaching for high-fives. I became a human windmill, running from one side of the finishing chute to the other. On this day, everyone gets a high-five!
And the truth is this: I’ve rarely known the lows I experienced on that run. But I’ve rarely known the highs I found when I finished.
Here we are (with Keish’s parents) after Keish crossed the line. (Many of the photos in this post are courtesy of Keish’s parents).
After the race, I spent some time in the med tent. I was a mess. And I needed an IV.
The next morning, we went to the awards gala.
Bree was the 2nd place Female Pro!
Then we did some sight-seeing. We saw a volcano. (That’s our friend Don in the photo).
Then we saw some bears.
And then it was time to eat again (lots of eating).
It was time to pack our bags and fly home. And for me, it was time for some introspection.
I suppose short-term memory is essential for long-course triathlon. If you remember how much the last race hurt, it’s less likely that you’ll enter another. I was reminded of this hurt at IM Japan, and it wasn’t subtle. In fact, it hid in the shadows during the swim and the bike. It feigned absence during the first 8 miles of the run. And then, when I felt great, when everything was moving like I wanted it to . . . that’s when it tackled me. And it squeezed. Until I successfully went from one extreme (feeling great) to another.
I’ve read accounts from the suicidal and the manically depressed. The feeling I had at Mile 9 of the run was not as consistent with thoughts of suicide as it was with manic depression. Wanting to kill yourself requires at least some energy. Not only was I seemingly devoid of energy, but I also went from feeling like something (feeling like an unstoppable, gliding runner) to feeling like nothing (I was overcome by a sense of emptiness).
It’s such a wild ride to swing from life’s extremes in a matter of minutes. And it’s also scary. It helps reinforce how precious every moment is. I suppose the lesson is, if you feel great, enjoy it—truly enjoy it—because at some point, it will go away.
But another lesson is not to give up. You must keep going. And this is never more difficult than when you believe you have no reason to keep going.
But when you emerge from that awful funk, when you endure the lows and make it back to the highs, and you realize that you’re stronger as a result of simply choosing to step outside of your comfort zone . . . that is a defining moment.
Recently, my wife enrolled in a Pilates Reformer class. This requires not only a time and financial commitment, but it also requires her to embrace uncertainty, to embrace the frustration that comes with not knowing how to do what the other people in the class seem to do quite fluidly. Beginning something like this, and then refusing to quit when things get hard . . . that is courageous.
Of course, we are reminded of this whenever we embrace uncertainty. I wasn’t especially keen to swim, bike, and run 140.6 miles. In fact, I have a tendency to hyperventilate during the swim. (It’s one of the reasons why I know water-boarding likely makes an effective interrogative tactic). To feel like you’re going to drown is enough to induce panic. And an opportunity to panic is not something that very many go looking for.
But you remind yourself that you came to Japan for a reason. You remind yourself that it’s supposed to be hard. It’s like that scene in The Town, when the two main characters are planning to steal millions of dollars from Fenway Park. Doug MacRay intimates that this is going to be hard. And James Coughlin says: “Well if it were easy, kid, everybody’d do it.”
So you do what people have done since the beginning of time: you find the courage to start something. And when things get tough—and you know they will—you keep pushing.
The magic, though, is in the uncertainty. You don’t know what’s going to happen in that water. Sure, you can count on getting punched, kicked, swum over, but what about the other things? How will you handle it when that little voice says, “Let’s quit. Let’s go eat some sushi. And maybe some tonkatsu. Just swim over to that kayak. Grab the rail of that paddle board. You’ve done plenty of races. There’s nothing to prove today.” You know these challenges will present themselves. An Ironman is one long conversation with yourself. It demands introspection. Atonement. Suppression. Denial. Love. Respect.
But it’s not just in Ironman. It’s in anything worth doing. It’s starting a business. It’s beginning a relationship. It’s becoming a parent. It’s taking a trip. It’s stepping outside of your comfort zone. It’s showing up to life’s starting line, waiting for the cannon to fire.
So you go out there, you begin something new, you shoot for the stars, and you reach for greatness. And when all the dust settles, and you fall short, you can’t quit. You get back up. You stick your chin out. You say, “Hit me again!”
Sure, you’re dizzy, you’re bleeding, and you just got punched so hard in the gut that you can’t breathe. But you steady yourself. You rise. You stand up tall. And you know that no matter how many times you go down, you’ll find the strength to get back up . . . and to throw a few punches of your own.
Big thanks to TriBike Transport, Mdrive, MuscleAidTape, and East West Bikes.
Next race: Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona.
Great photos and “journey”. No ,I’m just a regular cyclist. I’m car-free last 30 yrs. here in Canada.
Wow. AmaZing race report. Way to dig deep and finish this race. I think I am going to experience a little of those unknowns in November myself.
Thanks John! And yes, IMAZ will be the great unknown for you, as you’ll not quite know if your body has fully recovered from your crash until you test it. And Ironman Arizona is a proper test. Recover well, John. See you soon!