Category: Fitness

Kakegawa Marathon Race Report

Shizuoka’s Kakegawa may be a small city, smaller than where I live, in fact, but it has a very nice castle, an exotic birds zoo, and of course, the Kakegawa “New Tea” Marathon.

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I originally decided to run Kakegawa because I wanted to run a 3 hour, 30 minute marathon and couldn’t do that in last December’s Nara Marathon because I was injured. Kakegawa was not so far from home and the course didn’t look as hard as Nara.

Another reason for choosing Kakegawa was that race numbers and are sent out in advance by mail, so there’s no need to go down the day before to check in at an expo. I had intended to drive down in the early hours of the morning, but in the end we made it a family weekend away and booked a hotel anyway!

On the Saturday, we rode the Oigawa Steam Railway, taking in some beautiful views of the tea fields and rivers. The train was like nothing I had ever ridden on before. All the passengers were tourists and the staff entertained us with music, singing, photo shoots and commentary. The atmosphere was like a party! We finished the day with pasta and pizza at an Italian restaurant, just as we had done before the Nara Marathon.

I took an early bus to the marathon start and whiled away a couple of hours looking at the food stalls, sports shops and watching the acts on stage. The event was very well put together, but it lacked the epic-ness of Nara. Maybe because it was my second marathon and the excitement wasn’t quite there.

The day started with some cloud, but the sun was strong and things warmed up quickly. I wore a sleeveless shirt, a hat and sunglasses. I regret not putting on sunscreen as I would later get sunburn.

My strategy was to start off slowly so I tucked in behind an older, gray-haired guy who looked like he knew what he was doing. He was wearing a racing bib, short shorts and had those little round energy patches stuck on his neck. Without earphones or a watch, I figured he must be so experienced that he just knew how fast to run. For the first few kilometers we moved along at a little over 5:00/km pace which was just perfect. From the 5km mark, he seemed to be slowing a little and everyone was passing us. I figured this was experience in action and stayed with him, thinking everyone else would burn themselves out early on while we had lots in reserve.

By 9km, my running app told me that I was about 2 minutes behind my target pace and that gap was growing. I didn’t want to, but it was time to leave my pacer and find another one. For the next three kilometers I followed another runner going at about 4:55/km pace. That felt comfortable and would allow me to slowly claw back the lost time… until I needed the toilet. I knew I’d have to go at some point, and I decided to go early to give myself more time to catch up.

I lost about a minute and a half at the portaloo which put me over three minutes behind schedule. And this was where I made a bad decision, one which I’d pay for later on. Coming out of the toilet, having had a 90-second standing rest and now relieved of bladder concerns, I grabbed a cup of water and felt amazing. I knew that the next 10km were almost flat and that this would be my best chance to get back on pace before the hills that were to come later, and so I took off. I flew past packs of runners, logging kilometers as fast as 4:32 and 4:24. I quickly reeled in the lost time, bringing the difference down to about one minute behind, and then I settled in at 5:00 pace behind another “pacer”.

All this time I had been so focused on time and pacers that I had missed the first couple of fruit stations that lined the course, and I hadn’t taken in much of the scenery, either. Not that there was much to look at though. Trees, rice fields, the usual Japanese countryside. Before the half-way mark, there was one long stretch along a big river and then we ran right under a massive, and I really mean monstrously massive, wind turbine. That was extremely cool. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

As soon as we crossed the half-way point, my pacer suddenly sped up. I wasn’t too keen, but since I was still behind schedule and the hills were getting closer, I tried to go with him. I kept up for about three kilometers, running around 4:50 pace, but decided to back off at 24km. It was becoming very clear to me that even though I was close to a 3:30 marathon pace, I wouldn’t be able to maintain it over the hills that were to come. In fact, knowing that there was a very up and down stretch for 10K at the end of the race was really depressing. The official pacers had told us before it all began that we should consider the marathon as two races. One up to 30km, and then a second one after that. They described the hill section as very, very hard, and although the elevation chart didn’t show it to be as bad as Nara, it was still a daunting prospect.

The first big hill started at the 27K mark and continued for three very long kilometers. My pace slowed to 5:18, 5:24 and 5:44 as I ran past the first batch of walkers. I was pretty happy to have made it to the top of the hill without stopping, but I was starting to physically suffer and for the next two kilometers downhill I could only manage 5:24 and 5:36. By the 33km point, I had to resort to walk breaks. From that point on, I moved between 6:00 and 7:00 pace.

There were a lot of walkers. As the day went on, the sun rose higher and it got warmer and warmer, up to around 20C, and I was getting very thirsty. Even though there was a water station every 3 or 4km, I was run/walking up and down hills for around 20 minutes between drinks. That’s a long time when your body is gradually shutting down.

The tea farms that covered the hills around the latter part of the course were indeed beautiful, but I, along with dozens of other 3:30 marathon hopefuls were walking wounded, literally hobbling along together, disappointed that we couldn’t fulfill our ambitions.

As much as I wanted to lay down, close my eyes and sleep, I knew that my wife and son would be waiting for me and would be frustrated if I took too long! As another incentive, I was still well on schedule to beat my Nara Marathon time of 3:57. In fact, from the 36km mark, I was calculating in my head whether I could just walk to the finish and still set a new PR!

The last fruit station at 39km was very welcome. I had oranges, kiwi fruit and a banana, washed down with a delicious cup of cold water. From that point, I knew that I’d beat my PR even if I just walked so I was able to relax and enjoy the finish. I felt really lazy walking up the final hill towards the finish line. People lined the road cheering and I started to look out for my family. I didn’t expect them to come as they had spent the day at the exotic bird zoo, and parking the car at the marathon ground would be difficult… but then I heard that familiar call, “Daddy! Daddy!” and sure enough Mami and Riku were waiting for me just before the finish line! I ran over to them, stopped and gave them both a big kiss, then trotted off to the finish.

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I finished in 3:47:42 and was 758th out of 5,723 runners. Riku came under the fence to join me at the finish line where the runners were treated to one last fruit station. I gave Riku a strawberry. There was no medal or finisher’s towel, but a few minutes to lay down and then eat a snow cone was enough for me.

I got a lot of encouragement and congratulations on Facebook and Twitter before and after the race, which was really nice. There are a lot of lovely people out there! Thanks everyone!

I will need a long time to recover and get over my laundry list of injuries before my next race, which is the Mount Norikura Marathon in June. Since that includes an 18km uphill stretch, I won’t be going for any records that day so can just take it easy and enjoy it.

 

Race Plan for the Kakegawa Marathon

With just four days to go until the Kakegawa Marathon, I’ve been thinking about race strategy.

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First of all, I’m following the advice of a friend who told me to set three time goals so if you miss the first you can still aim for the second and third. My goals are: sub-3:30, 3:45 and 3:57:26, the last being my current PR which I set in the Nara Marathon last December.

What I’m up against

The biggest challenges I’ll face are undoubtedly the heat – the forecast is 21C and sunny, and whether the foot and knee injuries I’ve been hampered by reveal themselves early or late in the race.

To combat the heat, I’ll dress in a sleeveless white shirt and cap. I’ll make sure I drink water regularly in the days leading up to the race and at every water station on the course (every 3 or 4 kilometers). That should keep me hydrated. Also electrolytes in sports drinks are supposed to keep cramping at bay so I’ll drink some of them, too.

As for the injuries, well, I’m resting this week, but will go for a very short test run on Friday. There’s not much I can do about the pain in my second metatarsal joint (base of the second toe). My Nike Lunarspider LT+2 shoes are reasonably well cushioned so I will just cross my fingers.

I’ve been doing leg raises and planks all week to strengthen my hips and glutes in the hope of relieving the stress on my right knee, which feels similar to the IT band syndrome I suffered in my other leg last year. The possible hamstring pull that made last Saturday’s run so painful has subsided a bit, but is likely to haunt me late in the race. I must be careful to take small steps and not overextend my stride.

In my favor

My 3:57:26 PR in the Nara Marathon came after a two month period of injury, where I could hardly run at all. In fact, I was just two weeks into the Couch to 10K program I was using for rehabilitation! I think the last C210K workout I did before Nara was a run/walk which consisted of just 9 minutes of running… with walk breaks! I’ll be going into the Kakegawa Marathon with a few long runs in my legs including a new, half-marathon PR.

Because of that injury, I ran Nara with my left knee wrapped in a compression sock, a heavy-duty knee brace with steel springs in it, and I had an ITBS strap above that. Japan video blogger, BusanKevin, affectionately referred to me as the “roborunner”! In Kakegawa, I won’t be weighed down by any knee braces.

The Nara Marathon was extremely hilly. Kakegawa, on the other hand, has a long stretch of mostly flat road, and although the last section is hilly, the elevation graph shows it’s not as bad as Nara. In fact, the biggest hill is only a 60m climb, which is smaller than some of the hills I train on. Of course, I realize that in the last 10K of a marathon, even small hills feel like mountains.

Setting the pace

While I ran Nara at 5:30/km pace, I’ll need to run Kakegawa at 5:00/km pace to get close to 3 hours, 30 minutes. Although that looks like a big jump, considering I ran the Kakamigahara Half-Marathon at 4:30/km pace in warm weather, it shouldn’t be too much of a stretch.

I’ll take the advice of Osaka-based runner and friend, Scott Brown:

I’d start just a tad slower than your marathon pace and build to just a bit over. Let the speed/race come to you.

And who would argue with a 2:45 marathoner?!

Ramsay’s Round Up – April 9, 2013

I was feeling pretty sore after last week’s 32K run, during which I hurt my knee and made the pain in my foot much worse. I didn’t realize how sore my foot was until I went for a 4km walk the next day.

I took the rest of the week off from running, but went swimming twice and did two 20km bike rides at night, the second of which I finished in under an hour, which is pretty fast for me on my mountain bike.

When Saturday came around again, I was ready for my final long run before the Kakegawa Marathon. 20km, while sensible, didn’t sound enough so I cycled 37km immediately before the run, turning it into a “brick workout”.

I made it through the run, but at a cost. I had a really bad strain behind the knee (maybe a slightly pulled hamstring), and while not as bad as the previous week, my foot was hurting again. I was also troubled by the knee pain from the week before. All of this, of course, was on the same leg which makes me think there’s some kind of domino effect going on, where one injury causes the next.

Anyway, this final week before Kakegawa is one of complete rest. At most, I’ll take a walk and do a very short, easy run a couple of days before the race to see how I’ve recovered. I’m using the RICE method of rest, ice, compression and elevation, and already I’m feeling a lot better.

I’ll write up my Kakegawa race plan very soon.

I’m Doing the Utsukushigahara 70K!

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For a long while I’ve been intrigued by a 70 kilometer trail run in the Utsukushigahara highlands in Nagano prefecture. The whole race is run at over 1,500m above sea level. That not only makes for some spectacular views (I may be running above the clouds!), but it also means it will be much cooler up there on August 31st than down here in Kakamigahara.

Only 400 people get to do the full 70K loop around the mountains so I was quick to sign up immediately when registration opened this week. I learned a harsh lesson last year when the Ibigawa Marathon filled up in just 8 hours and I missed out.

One of the attractions of Utsukushigahara, besides the beautiful location, was that only 30% of last year’s competitors finished within the 12-hour time limit. What a challenge! This year, though, the cutoff has been extended to 15 hours after the other 70% understandably complained. I’ll probably be grateful for the additional time when I’m struggling along the course myself this summer.

70K is a long, long way, but I’d rather not think of it in terms of distance. It’s better, and not so daunting (for me anyway) to think in terms of time. While my longest run to date is only 46km (on the roads), I have done some pretty long challenges. Last year’s homemade 113km triathlon in Shizuoka took 12 hours, my 37km run over the Kakamigahara Alps took 10 and a half hours, my first (failed) attempt at the same Alps took 7 hours and a 110km bike ride I did last summer also took 7 hours. By the time this race comes around, I should have another handful of all-day challenges under my belt.

Utsukushigahara will be the first step towards a goal even greater than doing an Ironman. You need to have completed two 70K+ trail races in order to qualify for the UTMF, that’s the Ultra Trail Mount Fuji, a mind-blowing 160km run around Japan’s most magnificent mountain. It seems odd planning so far in advance, but at my age, the years are passing quicker and quicker. It doesn’t seem too far fetched to aim for Ironman Hokkaido in 2014 and the UTMF in 2015. After that, maybe I’ll hang up my running shoes and return to a life of beer and computer games!

Ramsay’s Round Up – April 3, 2013

Here’s a quick round up of my recent training:

On Monday, the day after the Kakamigahara Half-Marathon, I cycled 33km.

On Tuesday, I hiked and ran my way across a mountain range in Inuyama. Over 9km, I scaled Mt. Hatobuki and Mt. Nishi, both for the first time.

On Wednesday I went swimming.

On Thursday I ran twice; 5K in the morning and 10K in the afternoon.

On Friday I went for a bike ride. It was short, but included three big climbs up Mt. Donguri.

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I finished the week on Saturday with a 32km long run in the beautiful area of Hichiso in Gifu. I tried to run at my target marathon pace, but was struck down with foot and knee pain towards the end. With less than two weeks to go to the Kakegawa Marathon, I’m resting, icing my foot, and doing loads of leg raises to strengthen my hips and hopefully stave off any more knee injuries.

I got a few things in the mail, too. First, I got the bike pedals and shoes I ordered from Wiggle UK. The shoes were too small, as expected. I actually realized they’d be too small a minute after ordering them and tried to cancel, but Wiggle had already started processing the order. Anyway, I’ve been in touch with them now and a larger size are currently on a plane over Siberia.

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I got my Japan Triathlon Union membership card which looks very fancy. It gives me discounts at a couple of sports clubs that I’ve never heard of before!

I also got my race information for the Imizu Triathlon in July. Sure enough, it’s had the name changed from “Ebie Triathlon” because the bike course crosses the new suspension bridge, taking in more of the city than just the Ebie marine park. I look forward to riding on that!

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Finally, I got my bib number and race package for next week’s Kakegawa Marathon in Shizuoka. One of the reasons I chose Kakegawa was because I wouldn’t have to go the day before to check-in since they mail you your bib number in advance. As it turns out, Mami and Rikuto are coming with me and we’re going the day before anyway! There’s a steam train in Kakegawa which Rikuto wants to ride on. You’d think they might want to cheer me on while I race to go sub-3:30, but no, they’re going to a flower park instead. Oh well, I guess standing around watching people run isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. Does your family cheer you on?

Kakamigahara Half-Marathon Race Recap

I live in Kakamigahara so this was my local race. The first race I ever did was the Kakamigahara 10K, back in 2011. This year they added a half-marathon to the already popular 10K and 3K.

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One month earlier I set a 1:30:07 PB on a freezing, snowy day in Inuyama. To beat that, and go sub-30, I prepared an ambitious plan of progressively faster intervals starting at 4:25/km pace and finishing at 4:00/km. The running app on my phone gave me feedback so I knew exactly how I was doing.

This was the first race I’ve ever done that started in the afternoon. In fact, it started at 1:00pm with the sun beating down upon us. Temperatures soared to 19C and the cloud that was forecast never came. The only reprieve was a cool breeze.

I lined up nearish the front, but the start was crowded and slow. I did the first kilometer in 4:58, which already put me 33 seconds off pace. The next 9 kilometers fluctuated between 4:16 and 4:23, giving me a 43:53 first 10K. Not bad, only 20 seconds behind schedule, but I wasn’t comfortable at all. My mouth was dry and I really didn’t feel like I could go much faster. So much for running a negative split!

The first of four water stations wasn’t until about 9km. I took two gulps and poured the rest on my head. I was way behind my teammate Sako-san, who even when taking it slowly after a 6-hour trail race the previous week could easily cruise through a half in under 1:30. At the turn around, I was about two minutes ahead of Nathaniel, and Keith was a few minutes behind him.

The second 10K took me about 46:30. I felt heavy legged, and while the massage insoles I had put in my shoes were doing a remarkable job of preventing my usual ball-of-foot pain, I was getting nasty blisters on my toes. My calves, too were starting to fail me, and I really felt like I was plodding along. I even found myself in a mid-race chat with Tsubouchi-san, who runs in a Pikachu hat. He knew me from YouTube and actually appeared in one of my other race videos.

I wasn’t at all surprised that I had fallen so far behind pace, but I became increasing concerned about how I will fair in next month’s full marathon in Kakegawa. I will need to average 4:59 to go sub-3:30 there, and here I was running 4:45s at the end of a mostly flat half-marathon!

The one big hill in kilometer 20 agonizingly put me over 5:00/km pace, but I had just enough in reserve to run a 4:28 final kilometer. That burst of speed, although not quite the 4-minute kilometer I had planned, was enough to get me in under 1:35:00. I ran 1:34:53 to be exact, my fourth fastest half-marathon time.

Nathaniel and Keith also struggled, but kudos to another teammate, Mariko, for knocking 5 minutes off her 10K PB.

I will be hoping for a cool, cloudy day in Kakegawa next month. I will conjure up a more realistic race plan for that one and share it with you here in advance.

Ramsay’s Round Up – March 22, 2013

Lots to talk about this week, so let’s jump in with the big stuff first.

JTU Membership and Imizu Triathlon

Last year I did the Ebie Triathlon in Toyama prefecture and had such a great time that I wanted to do it again. This time around, I wanted to step up from the beginner’s “Challenge” race to the Olympic-distance “Standard”, but that required registering with the JTU (Japan Triathlon Union). I managed to do that online and then signed up for one of the 450 spots available in the race. Interestingly, they’ve renamed the triathlon from “Ebie” to “Imizu” which is the city in which it’s held. I guess that means the race won’t just be around the Ebie marine park, but will cover more of the city, maybe including the new suspension bridge they were building last year. That would be cool.

Hokkaido Ironman

Now this is really exciting. There used to be a full, official Ironman event in Japan, but it was moved to Korea, I think because of Mad Cow’s disease here, or was it Foot and Mouth? Anyway, until this year, there has only been a half-Ironman in Japan. It’s by the Chubu International Airport in Tokoname, just south of Nagoya. I know that area and it doesn’t appeal to me at all, especially for the 42,000 yen asking price.

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Hokkaido, on the other hand, is somewhere I have never been and would dearly love to visit. Mami, my wife, would love to go there, too, so I’m tentatively penciling in Ironman Hokkaido in August 2014 as the goal for this whole “Long Countdown” journey. I’d love to say “I WILL DO IT!”, but the 2013 event sold out in three days so there’s no guarantee I’ll be able to get in next year, no matter how much I want to. But, I’ll give it a go! Entry looks likely to open in February 2014.

300km in 7 days Challenge

Chris (@Cicirunner) challenged me to run, bike, swim, hike or walk 300km in one week when I get 300 subscribers on my YouTube channel. I foolishly agreed, but then it isn’t something I should shy away from because when I do a full Ironman, I’ll have to do 226km in a single day! Doing 300km in seven days will be a good test. I’ll have to plan it out carefully so you can expect another blog post on that nearer the time. I’m at 259 subscribers as I type this.

Kakamigahara Half-Marathon

This Sunday is the 1st Kakamigahara half-marathon. Until now they’ve only gone up to 10K, but this year they’ve extended it over a new bridge which we get to run on before it’s even opened to cars! I’ve been thinking about my race strategy and think it’ll be wise to attempt a negative split – something I haven’t done in my last three races. Because of the heat (it’s an afternoon start!) I’ll start off at around 4:30/km pace and try to step it up 5 seconds every 4 kilometers. That should get me to the finish very close to 1:30, if I can follow the plan strictly and last the distance.

Injury-wise, I’m okay except for what feels like bruising on the ball of my right foot. It could prove a problem on Sunday, but I’ll probably just run through the pain and worry about it afterwards.

A Week in Training

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With so many races in February and March, it’s hard to get any kind of routine going, so I’ve just been trying to do something active everyday. I felt good enough after last Sunday’s 10K race in Seki to go for a 3.6km walk on Monday. On Tuesday I hiked up Mt. Gongen (2.6km, ~250m ascent) followed by a fantastic 2,000m in the pool. On Wednesday, I went on a 70km round-trip bike ride with a friend to Gujo Castle. The return trip was in the rain! I ran a slow 11km on Thursday with a big hill climb at the end, and cycled 32km to the Mt. Kinka Driveway on Friday (pictured above). I’ve skipped swimming this evening and will take Saturday off before Sunday’s race.

Seki 10K Race Recap

On Sunday, I ran my second 10K race of the year, one month after setting a surprising 40:40 PB in Kani.

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I originally hoped to challenge that PB because the course wasn’t nearly as hilly, and I was coming off the back of a strong half-marathon three weeks earlier.

My expectations fell somewhat when I got bad hay fever and the forecast predicted a warm day, over 10 degrees higher than we had in Kani. Still, I held out a glimmer of hope and ran as hard as I could.

What went wrong

Firstly, I forgot my wallet. That meant I didn’t have a pre-race drink, other than a small bottle of an unknown Japanese energy drink. I was also without my usual tuna rice ball. All I had was a banana and a vitamin jelly a friend gave me. I was parched before the race even started.

I then made the mistake of going out too hard. The first couple of kilometers were downhill and I started near the front so I was pulled along at around 3:50/km pace out of the gate. This happens to me often with downhill starts, and this time I paid for it. When the road evened out there was a huge gap in front of me. I must have been 80m behind the guy in front and the gap was widening. I’d much rather be sitting on someone’s shoulder than running on my own.

A few guys went past me, but I had already used my turbo boost at the start and wasn’t able to go with them. Instead, it was a bit disheartening to have so little to give so early in the race. The water station at 6km was a welcome sight and a mouthful of water made a big difference. I felt more in control and ran well for a bit before a long uphill drained me of my new found energy.

By this stage, I was zigzagging, trying to find holes in the large groups of tail-enders running the half-marathon, who had started 15 minutes before us. Had I been on target for a PB I would have been cursing the race schedule. It should have been obvious to the planners that the fastest 10K runners would catch up and have to run through the slowest half-marathoners, sharing a single lane!

I did get through, though, and battled with all I had left up the last hill to the race track where we started. Unlike the previous year where I got a big high five from Olympic gold medalist and former world-record holder Naoko Takahashi, she was busy cheering on the kids doing the 3K. When she saw me, arm out-stretched, she reached and our fingertips touched just before I crossed the line. It was rather symbolic of my race – close, but not close enough.

I finished in 42:19, my fourth best time for a 10K. I did learn some lessons that should help in next week’s half-marathon, but I’ll save them for another blog post.

Bikes, Boars and Hay Fever

Saturday was the day I got my first ever road bike, a Giant Defy 1, and she’s a beauty.

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I’ve taken her out for a couple of rides when the weather has been good and I look forward to some long journeys later in the year.

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On Sunday, I got myself a headlamp and took to the mountains for my first ever nighttime trail run. Despite the darkness, it took me just 31 minutes to run from my house up to the top of Mt. Gongen and back. If I ever qualify for the UTMF (Ultra Trail Mount Fuji), I’ll need to run through the night as I tackle the 160km course around Japan’s most famous mountain.

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Little did I know that on the previous day, a wild boar (bizarrely kept as a pet) had escaped from its cage and disappeared into the Kakamigahara Alps. The beast reportedly charged a 72-year-old hiker, injuring his left leg, and terrorized the locals who put schools on alert. The police had it surrounded, but watched it disappear again into the mountains where hunters are attempting to track it.

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Although I’ve kept up my daily workouts, I’ve been struck down with hay fever for the first time since coming to Japan. Strong winds have blown sands from Mongolian deserts, air pollution from Beijing, and pollen from Cedar trees over my neighborhood and I’m really struggling to get through my classes.

I hope I get over it before the Seki 10K this coming Sunday. It’s extremely unlikely I can PB in it, but I have no excuse for not trying. Unless hay fever counts!

How I Get Motivated To Work Out

An old school friend of mine has decided to undertake a triathlon, and she’s just been given a rather grueling training schedule.

I feel exhausted just looking at it. I think I need a lie down to recover!

I’m not one for training programs. Without a doubt, they push you to work out and be ready for whatever competition you’re entering, and I’ve followed programs in the past with good results.

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However, I wonder what percentage of those people who start a training program actually complete it. I would assume, for all manner of reasons, that it’s actually very low.

It’s one thing to be excited about and motivated by an upcoming race, but it’s not so likely you’d get excited about and motivated by each workout in a training schedule. In order to complete a full program, you need absolute commitment to seeing it through.

I don’t have that commitment. I couldn’t possibly run intervals on a treadmill or ride a turbo in the basement. I do swim lengths in the pool, but given an ocean and warm weather, I would much rather swim in the sea.

Wherever possible, I try to make my workouts exciting and motivating. First, I give myself choice. Depending on how I feel, and the weather, I can choose from any of the following:

  • Walking
  • Hiking
  • Running
  • Trail running
  • Cycling
  • Mountain biking
  • Swimming

For all but the swimming, I can then decide where to go. I am surrounded by beautiful countryside here in Japan’s Gifu prefecture. There are hills and mountains for more aggressive training, and acres of rice fields to run around, and rivers to run or cycle beside.

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Every workout is an adventure. I like to choose different places each time so I can take photos or video to share with my friends on social networks, and that itself makes each workout something to look forward to.

Whether such random training will see me through to the finish line of an Ironman triathlon, I can’t be sure. I know I won’t be standing on the podium, but if I can cover the distances in training that an Ironman demands, and do it within the time limits of a real event, I don’t see why I can’t reach my goal.

What I can be sure of, however, is that every workout leading up to that Ironman is itself an adventure and awesome experience.

Over Three Hours and Five Mountains

You often don’t realize how far you’ve come until you pause for a moment and look back over your journey.

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Today I led three other members of my Facebook “Gifu Runners” group on a 19km run which included almost 10K of trail running on some very rugged terrain. Over three and half hours, we clambered over five mountains, ascending almost 800m and descending just as far.

I can’t feel my legs, but other than that I couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful course.

The Kakamigahara Alps are my playground. It takes me just 21 minutes to run from my front door to the top of the 317m Mount Gongen that looms large behind my house. I don’t always run, but I do venture up into the mountains a lot. I’ve pretty much memorized the entire 20km route between Akutami and Sakahogi, and have discovered plenty of other trails off the main hiking course.

With all this hiking and trail running in my legs, I’ve learned how to navigate the rocky paths, scale the steep climbs and hurtle down the other side as quickly as possible without twisting an ankle or tumbling to my death.

But it wasn’t always like that. During my first few climbs into the Alps, I remember how my thighs and calves would burn from the steep slopes and staircases, and how my knees and lower back would scream from coming back down. It was very similar to how you feel after going to the gym and lifting weights for the first time in a decade. Very sore.

Now the guys I went with today can run. Really run. They can all run a full marathon in under four hours, and regularly bang out sub-45 minute 10Ks. So I thought nothing of plotting a 19K run on my favorite route and asking them to join me. Of course I told them to wear trail shoes and bring something to eat, but I didn’t really explain just how up and down this run was going to be.

I’m amazed how easily you and Hideaki ran some of those downhills. I was doing my hardest not to spill and you guys were flying down.

Running itself is not much of a strength builder. It’s obviously a weight-bearing exercise and will develop muscle, but you’re only going to strengthen the muscles that are specific to running. If you run on pavement all the time, your body will adapt very well to running on pavement. Likewise, if you want to be strong at running up hills, you need to incorporate hill training into your workouts. Trail running goes even further.

Running on uneven trails requires balance. Your body calls into action all the little stabilizer muscles that work to keep you upright. And as your body adapts and you find it easier to maintain balance, you grow in confidence. Coupled with the experience gained from tripping and slipping on hidden or loose rocks, you learn to trust the trail and let yourself go.

Even though I whined and moaned, it was fun.

It should have occurred to me that running over five mountains with little practice beforehand might result in a Monday morning limping around the office, and I’m sorry those guys will be hobbling for a day or two. But, once the pain subsides and the agony is forgotten, I’m pretty sure they’ll remember today as an awesome day of running through forests, over mountains, along streams and taking in some fantastic views along the way.

Today’s course was great. Not quite what I expected and maybe a little tougher than needed before the Kyoto marathon, but I’m in for round two!

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Standing at the top of Mt. Meiou and looking back over the mountain range we had just run across, I turned to my fellow runners and pointed out how far we had come. That journey didn’t begin today, but years ago when we first laced up our running shoes. Now we’re running over frickin’ mountains!

Why Do You Swim?

I’ve seen articles recently attempting to explain why people run, because to non-runners, running looks like hard-work and couldn’t possibly be enjoyable.

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What about swimming, though? Does swimming look like a fun activity? Is it something that non-swimmers would like to do? I know a lot of people who have no interest at all. Some of them can’t swim and therefore won’t attempt to. Other people are too embarrassed by their physique to be seen in speedos. Others say they would like to go swimming, but don’t have the time, money or access to a pool.

Tonight I returned to Kakamigahara pool which had been closed for four months for repairs. Over the winter, I did my swimming at the pool in neighboring Seki, and Friday nights were usually pretty quiet. I often had a lane to myself there. In Kakamigahara, on the other hand, the pool was full, and not with elderly people or school kids. No, every lane was taken by athletic young men, like me! Haha!

It made me wonder what would motivate a man to go swimming on a Friday night? When I was in my twenties I was out drinking every weekend. I would never even contemplate going to a pool to grind out 1500m of freestyle.

Back and forth, back and forth, just 25 meters at a time, with no music and a lifeguard watching your every move. It’s not very appealing, is it?

Or is it?

The actual process of gliding through the water is somewhat therapeutic. Once you’re proficient enough that you don’t have to worry constantly about your breathing or your form, you can relax and zone-out, much like you can on a long run. With both vision and hearing impaired by the water, and songs from your car stereo still playing in your head, the feeling could be compared to how you might feel on the dance floor in a nightclub.

It takes a fair bit of effort to get yourself to the pool, changed and into the water, but I make every effort to include swimming in my training schedule. Not only because it’s a component of triathlon, but because, along with cycling, it allows me to work out without running. In other words, I no longer run on consecutive days. Running has been hard-going on my now 37-year-old body, and I feel that running every other day will reduce the likelihood of injury. Swimming is a fine alternative because it’s a low impact sport, still develops endurance, and gives my upper-body a workout, too.

It’s also good fun, and I’m sure none of the guys at the pool tonight would have been there if they didn’t enjoy it as well.

Do you swim? Why or why not?

My First Triathlon: The Road to Ebie

In July 2012, I took part in my first triathlon. Over the few days that followed, I wrote a short story about my adventure which I never made public. Here it is, in full. I hope you enjoy it.

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She just won’t give up! I thought to myself as the woman in purple overtook me for the second time. Having been passed by almost the entire field, I was in the unusual position of feeling fantastic, but battling to avoid last place.

FROM RUNNER TO TRIATHLETE-WANNABE

Four months earlier, off the back of half a dozen 10Ks and half-marathons, I set my sights on Ibigawa, the nearest full-marathon to my home here in Gifu, Japan. I started running longer and farther than I had ever gone before, covering 300km in April alone. And then it happened.

A sharp pain seared through my left foot as I neared the end of a 15km run, and that added to the soreness I had been feeling in my right foot for a while. It was time to take a break. A few days of rest turned into a week and then two weeks and the pain still hadn’t subsided. Worried that all my hard work had been for nothing, I talked my wife, Mami, into letting me buy a mountain bike so I could continue to work out.

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Getting a bike didn’t just give my feet time to get better; it allowed me to explore places I never even knew existed. It also meant that I was only one discipline short of becoming a triathlete. Even then, though, I didn’t really expect that I’d be swimming, cycling and running back-to-back any time soon.

Andy Holgate’s book “Can’t Swim, Can’t Ride, Can’t Run” planted the seeds of thought, but I wasn’t truly inspired until I finished reading Matt Long’s “The Long Run”. I figured that if this guy, who had been run over by a 20-ton bus, could do an Ironman triathlon then surely I could do a shorter one. And that was it. The very night I finished his book, I signed up for a “Challenge” triathlon. I’d worry about the swimming later.

LEARNING TO SWIM AGAIN

I’d love too, but I can’t swim. I mean I can swim, but not in a straight line and not for 750m….

That was a friend’s response when I asked him if he would join me, and I knew exactly how he felt. I had only been in a pool once in the last 15 years, and that ended disastrously when my goggles filled with water and washed my contact lenses out. This time, however, I absolutely had to succeed in the pool or risk death out in the ocean. And I had only six weeks to do it.

I’ve always been rather self-conscious, and being the only non-Japanese in the swimming pool doesn’t help much. The first few times in the water were especially tough as I battled to look at least somewhat competent. The prescription goggles I got did their job, but I often found myself crossing lanes, bumping into other swimmers and stopping for coughing fits when I frequently choked on water. Fortunately, another book, “Total Immersion”, gave me some great pointers on how to swim efficiently, and with two or three visits to the pool each week, I quickly gained in confidence and ability. Not enough to compete, but at least enough to survive.

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THE TRIP TO TOYAMA

The event I signed up for wasn’t exactly local. It was in the seaside town of Imizu in Japan’s Toyama prefecture, 200km away. Check-in was due to start at 6am so I had either the choice of getting a hotel the night before, or driving up overnight. I chose the latter.

On Saturday, July 14th, I got up early, packed my stuff for the triathlon and went back to bed in the afternoon, hoping to get some sleep before setting off that night. As is typical before any big event, sleep is nigh on impossible. I spent two hours asleep and three hours rolling around, half trying to sleep and half checking Twitter, Facebook, the weather, the news and photos of cats.

One plate of pasta and then I was driving my little Suzuki north towards the Japan Sea on what must be one of the most incredible expressways in the world. The Tokai-Hokuriku Expressway crosses the Japan Alps and despite being only 185km long, boasts about 200 bridges and 50 tunnels each way. Courtesy of Wikipedia, I can tell you that the 118m Washimi Bridge is the tallest in Japan, the 11km Hida Tunnel is the third longest in Japan, and the Matsunoki Pass, at 1,086m, is the highest point on any expressway in the country.

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THE WAIT

I arrived at Ebie Marine Park just before 2am, much earlier than I expected. I spent the first couple of hours sitting in my car, walking around the park and using the portaloo in the dark. I wasn’t the first to arrive, but when the sun came up at 4:30 and I got my bike out, I was surprised to see the other triathletes take fishing rods out of their cars. Either I was the first competitor to arrive, or they knew how to pass the time better than I did.

It was a cloudy, wet morning so I missed the chance to snap a photo of the sun rising behind the enormous Mount Tate. Instead, I hopped on my bike to check I had put the wheel back on properly and got the seat straight. Two minutes later, I crashed.

I had never fallen off my bike before, but the wet, wooden boardwalk along the harbor was like an ice rink and my rear wheel skidded out from under me as soon as I touched it. I landed on my side with my ankle trapped under the bike peddle. It hurt quite a bit, but fortunately was nothing more than a scratch and slight bruising. I was lucky.

I picked myself up, straightened my helmet and headed back along the seafront only to see that my cycle computer wasn’t working. Normally I wouldn’t be bothered, but this race required a computer so they could check you completed the full cycling distance. If I couldn’t fix it, I’d get a “DNF” (Did Not Finish) by my name. No amount of tapping the computer with my finger helped. I started to panic and did what all good technicians do; I pulled the thing off the wheel and stuck it back on again. Bingo.

Just before six o’clock, I joined the large group of volunteers in blue t-shirts who had gathered to hear directions from the event organizer. After that, I collected my race number, “287″, and stood around for two hours watching and learning as much as I could about triathlon: where the bike goes, which direction it faces, where to attach the number stickers, how transitions work, etc. etc. I also spent a good deal of time looking around at other people.

I was signed up for the “Challenge” class triathlon – a 750m swim, 24km bike ride and a 6km run. Despite the name and a shorter distance than the “Athlete” class, everyone seemed to know what they were doing. If there were other newbies, they disguised themselves well. To my left, Number 286 looked a seasoned professional despite forgetting his cycling shoes. To my right, Number 288 said it was his first time, but later told me the hardest part of triathlon was getting his wife’s permission to buy a $4,000 racing bike.

As the start loomed closer, I donned my borrowed wetsuit and sat on the grass to hear the race organizer give a nerve-calming, if not brilliant, speech:

If you’re not confident in the water, start at the back.

Don’t worry about time, just get around the swim course any way you can.

If you can’t complete the swim, don’t worry. You can still take part in the bike and run.

If you need assistance, raise both hands in the air, wave them around and scream for help.

THE SWIM

As instructed, I joined some other nervous people at the back of Wave 2. We had just watched the first wave enter the water and were relieved to see the tail-enders breaststroke and doggy-paddle their way from the beach.

Minutes later my wave raced into the water, followed tentatively by myself and others, casually tip-toeing forward and walking in as far as physically possible before treading water and leaning towards the first buoy.

At this point, I realized that the water wasn’t all that cold and I was quite comfortably floating in the wetsuit. We hadn’t been given the chance to warm-up in the water beforehand, and this was my first time in a wetsuit so was pleasantly surprised by the extra buoyancy.

Next I tried to swim properly, just as I had been practicing for six weeks in the pool. I put my face into the water and then withdrew it just as quickly. The water was foul. It was dark, murky green and impossible to see through. I knew I wouldn’t be gliding over colorful coral reefs teeming with aquatic life, but I thought the water might be at least blue. Worse than the color was the taste. The salt was so sickly I was very close to throwing up. I was looking forward to swimming in non-chlorinated waters, but at that moment, not so much.

Over 22 minutes and 18 seconds, I breaststroked my way around the buoys, occasionally putting my left ear in the water and doing about five strokes of front crawl. Surprisingly, even though I had abandoned my Total Immersion swimming skills in favor of keeping my head above water, those few bursts of makeshift freestyle pulled me closer to the next group of swimmers. I’d rest with some breaststroke and then go again. Much to my amazement, I passed quite a few people during the swim, including one poor guy without a wetsuit hanging onto a buoy for dear life.

As I neared the end of the swim, my neck was killing me. I guess there’s a limit to how long you can hold your head out of the water. I staggered up onto the beach, delighted at having completed the swim, but feeling somewhat queasy. I stopped still, looked at the official and mustered the Japanese for “disgusting.” Of course, I meant the taste of the water, but he thought I meant my swim performance.

THE BIKE

I dried myself down with the free bath towel they handed me, put my glasses on and readied myself for the bike stage. Although I really enjoy cycling, I knew this stage would be extremely tough as I had never done 20km in one hour on my mountain bike, let alone 24km, and if I didn’t go quickly I’d miss the 10:00 cut-off time and be disqualified. Fortunately, I was out of the water much earlier than expected, giving me about 75 minutes to cover the distance.

I burst out of transition and put everything I had into pushing down on the pedals, forcing my speed up and over 30km/hour on the relatively flat course. I got to the first turnaround, took it nice and slow to avoid falling off again, and powered back along the road for the longest stretch of the three-lap course.

I couldn’t have been going for very long before the first bike passed me, and then another, and another, and yet another. Even when back up to top speed, they just kept coming and coming, coasting past me with relative ease. I tried reassuring myself that they weren’t all this fast, and that most of them were real triathletes, probably on their last lap already, but then another guy overtook me, only he was hardly pedaling at all! He seemed to be stretching his back out, while I was breaking my back just turning the pedals as fast as I could in the highest gear.

It took me a few minutes to calm down, realize that road bikes are indeed much faster than a mountain bike, and that I wasn’t racing them, I was racing to beat that 10am cut-off time. Physically, my back, abs and thighs were burning like crazy, but mentally I was feeling settled and focused on getting the job done. I had already finished the swim and was going fast enough to finish the bike with time to spare. What more could I wish for?

Before the race, I had walked through the transition area checking out the bikes. Some were high-end, time-trial bikes designed for triathlon. Others were less fancy, but nonetheless made for racing. Besides mine, I spotted one other mountain bike hanging on the racks, but there was one bike that didn’t catch my eye until now.

Ahead of me, pedaling furiously, and looking thoroughly dejected was a young guy on a bike with really small wheels; the kind of bike you can fold in half and carry on a train. Not realizing the irony, the voice in my head was shouting “You fool! Why would you bring a bike like that to a race like this?!” and I pushed even harder on the pedals as I caught him up and overtook him. The shine was taken off my moment of glory by another racer passing me as I passed him. That would have made a great photo.

My speed dropped a bit during the second lap as rain started to fall and I started to tire, but as the third and final lap began, I found a new source of energy. I slowed down to take a few swigs from my water bottle and was passed again. This time, however, since it was the final lap, I knew that everyone left on the course was in direct competition with me, and that those overtaking me had finished the swim behind me. Was I willing to let the whole field beat me? Heck no.

It was then that she first passed me. The woman in purple was going quickly, but if I could get my water bottle back in its holder I’d have a chance to catch her up. Typically, I fumbled with my bottle and was passed again before I could get back in the race. I stood up on the pedals and picked up speed quickly. Feeling good after the drink, I saw both cyclists ahead of me and started to chase them down. I surprisingly managed to catch them quite quickly and went passed feeling mightily proud of myself.

That wasn’t the end of the race, though. I still had about six kilometers to go, and looking over my shoulder I saw the woman in purple wasn’t so willing to be beaten by a guy on a mountain bike.

With the added motivation to finish ahead, I passed a couple more cyclists and was getting excited at the prospect of running more people down once I got off my bike. There would be one more twist, however, as I was slow out of a turnaround and the woman in purple overtook me again! There couldn’t have been more than one kilometer to the finish and I was absolutely determined to catch her. Everything I had went into reeling her in and passing her before the finish line, and then…

Stop! Stop here! Dismount here, please.

The bike was over. I had overtaken the woman in purple, but our head-to-head suddenly seemed rather trivial as we both prepared for the run on opposite sides of the bike rack. She hurriedly took off her pedal-clip cycling shoes, while I, already in my running shoes, downed a can of Mad Croc energy drink.

THE RUN

We left the transition area together, her slightly ahead with me on her shoulder. It wasn’t long before I realized she wasn’t nearly as fast without her bike so I moved ahead and got into my stride.

I love running. Of the three events in triathlon, running is my forte. It’s not something I’ve always been good at, but something I started just a couple of years ago and really enjoyed. I’m not especially fast, either, but not too shabby for a 36-year-old. I haven’t run an official full-marathon yet, but happily jogged 46km along a river once, and spent over 10 hours trail running across a mountain range on another day off.

I typically take small steps, lean forward slightly and let gravity do the rest, and that’s what I did with three laps of the Ebie Marine Park ahead of me. I didn’t wear a watch or use the running app on my phone to tell me how fast I was going. I just went as quickly as my body would allow. The sun had come out and people were slowing. I couldn’t believe how many of them I passed. And not one passed me!

The course was wonderful. It was a simple, mostly flat two kilometer loop around the park, with a detour out to the end of the stone pier and back. The sea breeze was refreshing and people cheered along much of the course. Despite the short distance, there were two drink stations with both sports drinks and water, and officials stood at the end of each lap, stretching out rubber bands through which to insert an arm. Three rubber bands and you can run to the finish line.

I’M A TRIATHLETE!

I crossed the finish line with the biggest smile on my face. Of the 110 starters, I came 64th in the swim, 91st in the bike stage and 22nd in the run. Overall I was 66th in a time of 1:45:59.

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Crossing the finish line caps off months of hard work and sacrifice. I remember all the evenings I went to the pool when my son didn’t want me to go. I remember the days I’d be out on my bike, knowing my wife was worried sick I’d get hit by a car. I remember the times I’d run around the rice fields, wishing my friend was running with me again instead of lying in a hospital bed on chemotherapy.

Then I think of how proud of me they will be. Whether they know it or not, my close friends and family drive me to work that little bit harder and go that little bit farther with every workout I do. I can only hope that I, in turn, motivate them to achieve their goals.

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Thanks for reading! I also made a video while I was at the triathlon. You can watch it here on YouTube.

Have you ever done a triathlon. Is it something you’d like to try? Leave a comment here, or shoot me a message on Twitter or Facebook. I look forward to hearing from you.

My Half-Marathon Masterpiece

Before yesterday’s Inuyama Yomiuri Half-Marathon, I said I’d set out at PB pace and just see how I felt. But there was much more to my strategy than that.

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Months earlier when choosing which races to run in the new year, I deliberately chose to run a 10K before each half-marathon. Last week’s 10K in Kani City was the perfect tune-up race for yesterday’s Half because, despite the longer distance, I’d be running slower than the week before and it would therefore feel easier.

When registering for the Half, all those months ago, we had to pick which wave to start in, depending on our goal. Since my PB was 1:31:54, I picked the first wave, filled with people aiming for a sub 1:28 time. Yes, that was perhaps overambitious, but I knew from last year’s race that if I didn’t start up front I’d get caught up among thousands of people squeezed into a single lane. When race day came, my wave set off with the elite runners and four minutes before the second wave. I was immediately moved into running faster than I did when I PB’d in the 10K a week earlier!

Had it been a warm day, I would have overheated and died by the 4km mark, but in the bitter cold and freezing wind, I was able to keep up before coming to my senses and realizing that even though I had been going as fast as 4:03/km pace and felt good, I absolutely would not be able to hold that for 21km. It was then that I put on the brakes and tucked in behind a big guy running at just under 4:20 pace, perfect for blocking the wind and pacing me to a PB!

When my pacer pulled over at the first water station I found another guy to keep me going. He was only half my height, and not nearly as good at blocking the wind – I had to put my cap on backwards so it wouldn’t blow off! I stuck to my new pacer like glue until the 16km mark when I felt I was fairing better than he was and so moved past him.

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I took advantage of the last water station and did that trick where you pinch the top of the paper cup together and drink from one corner. This meant that I didn’t throw water all over my face which would have been hell in the freezing wind and I didn’t lose much time, either.

Over the the last few kilometers, I ran all over the place ducking behind different people as the wind seemed to pummel you no matter what direction you ran in, and I continued to hold back until about 2km out when I started to push. At this point, I was fairly sure I’d PB and even when I could have easily gone past one guy with 1km to go, I braked again and ran behind him to shelter myself from the wind knowing that I’d still beat my personal best. Little did I know that that moment of laziness cost me a sub-1:30 finish as I had done much better than expected, finishing in 1:30:07.

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All in all, it was a well run race. The strategy of starting with faster runners and then tucking in behind unknowing pacers going a touch slower was, I think, quite masterful. I’m certainly capable of breaking 1:30, given a cold day and a nice flat course like this one, but will I get another opportunity like this? Maybe in Kakamigahara in late March…

My Race Schedule for 2013

Mid-February is a bit late to be announcing my race schedule for the year, but I think I’ve got it planned out now. I’ve said before that although my goal is to complete an Ironman triathlon, it’s more important to me to enjoy the journey. So I’ve chosen at least one major activity to complete in each month of the year, and here they are.

JANUARY: Minokamo Showamura Half-Marathon

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In 2012, this was my first half-marathon and I really went for it. In 2013, I had just recovered from IT band syndrome and wasn’t ready to race. Instead, I took along my GoPro camera and filmed the run. Watch it here on YouTube.

FEBRUARY: Kani 10K and Inuyama Half-Marathon

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The Kani City Hana Festa 10K was last week and I raced to a 40:40 PB, but setting a new PB in the Inuyama Half-Marathon this weekend will be a far greater challenge. My 1:31:54 from the Seki Half last year will be very tough to beat, and I haven’t really done much training lately over the longer distances. I’ll start off at PB pace and just see how I feel.

MARCH: Seki 10K and Kakamigahara Half-Marathon

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In 2012 I ran the Seki Half and the Kakamigahara 10K. This time around, both cities have changed their courses, with the latter adding a new half-marathon, including a run across the brand new, not-yet-opened Kakamigahara Bridge. Since Seki city is hosting first this year, I’ll do a tune-up 10K there and then the Kakamigahara Half-Marathon the following weekend.

APRIL: Kakegawa Marathon

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In April I’ll drive down to Shizuoka prefecture for my second official full marathon. The Kakegawa Marathon is known for the tea fields that we’ll run between. I’m also looking forward to the “fruit stations” along the course, serving such delights as melon, kiwi fruit and strawberries! It won’t all be fun and fruit, though, as I’ll be aiming to break the 3:30 marathon barrier. That’s quite a jump over my Nara Marathon time (3:57), but I won’t have my leg wrapped in a heavy knee brace, nor will I have such brutal hills to contend with.

MAY: Kakamigahara Alps Trail Run

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The Kakamigahara Alps is a range of mountains with about 12 peaks between 250m and 380m high. It’s not a race, just a personal challenge, and one that makes a full marathon feel easy by comparison! The full course is about 35km and takes a full day of running and hiking. The first time I did it I abandoned the effort with two mountains remaining. The second time I tried was last June and although I made it to the end, I was really suffering. I had run out of water and literally staggered out of the woods, barely able to stand up. Since then I’ve bought a running backpack with hydration reservoir, and I’ve finally figured out the complete route so there’s no chance of getting lost and having to run even further to get back on course like last time!

JUNE: Norikura Tenkuu Marathon

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This will be an amazing weekend in Nagano prefecture. On the Saturday, I’ll be one of only 300 people who registered fast enough to run a 12km trail run course through the forests around the base of Mount Norikura. Then on the Sunday, I’ll take part in the Norikura “Heavenly” Marathon, a 30km run up the 3,000m mountain on roads lined by walls of snow… in June! It looks incredible. The only problem is the course includes 18km of straight uphill! Yikes!

JULY: Ebie Triathlon

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In 2012, I drove up to Toyama prefecture to take part in my first triathlon. I was really nervous since I had only been swimming for six weeks and had never swam in the sea before. However, I had an absolutely brilliant time and can’t wait to go back again in July. This time I’ll be signing up for the Olympic-distance race, which is a 1.5km swim, a 40km bike ride and a 10km run. That’s double the “challenger” distance I did last year.

AUGUST: Utsukushigahara 70km Trail Run

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Only 700 people get to do this 70K ultra-marathon over the beautiful Utsukushigahara Highlands so I’ll be clicking away on my mouse as soon as registration opens. If I get in, I’ll be in for a very challenging run. In fact, only 35% of participants last year completed the course in the 12-hour time limit. I will have my work cut out!

SEPTEMBER: KC Shimoda Triathlon

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In the autumn, I’ll be returning to the Izu peninsula in Shizuoka to join my friend, Shun, as we once again tackle a grueling, homemade, half-Ironman triathlon. We’ll be swimming 1.9km in the sea, riding our mountain bikes over 90km of back-breaking hills, and finishing with a 21.1km run along the Shimoda coastline. We will name and dedicate it to our friend, Keith Crotty, who organized the event last year, but lost his battle with cancer a few weeks after. Watch the footage that Keith filmed here on YouTube.

OCTOBER: Kisogawa Triathlon

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I’d really like to squeeze in a third triathlon this year, and October is as good a month as any. This one will be a solo effort, probably another half-Ironman-distance triathlon on both the Gifu and Aichi sides of the Kiso River. Since I’d be doing it alone, I’ll do the swim portion of the event in Kakamigahara Pool, then cycle and run along the banks of the Kiso River with Inuyama Castle as the backdrop. The course itself is flat, with dedicated cycling and running lanes. My goal would be to complete the 113 kilometers in under 8 hours. This will give me an idea of whether or not I am capable of doing a full Ironman in 2014.

NOVEMBER: Fukube Hill Climb and Ibigawa Marathon

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I’m very keen to put my cycling ability to the test, and I found a local bike race up Mount Fukube in Mino City. If I’m quick to register, I’ll be lining up against Gifu’s best cycling teams in a race up 600m. I’ve ridden up that road by myself on my mountain bike before and it has some very steep sections!

Just one week later will be the breathtakingly beautiful Ibigawa Marathon. To be honest, I’m in two minds about doing it because last year was such an amazing experience – I just don’t think it can be bettered, even though last time I ran the course by myself! If I do decide to take part, I’ll have to register quick because all 10,000 spots filled up in just 8 hours last time! You can watch the footage I filmed of my Ibigawa run here on YouTube.

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DECEMBER: Kakamigahara Alps Trail Run

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I’ll wrap up the year with another attempt at running across the Kakamigahara Alps. It doesn’t cost anything, and having these mountains right outside my front door is incredibly convenient! But that doesn’t make it any less epic. The sheer scale of a 35km trail run over very steep terrain makes it no less satisfying than completing a marathon or triathlon. Standing at the top of Mt. Atago, the last peak on the course, reflecting on all I will have accomplished in 2013, will be a moment I look forward to.

 

Kani Hana Festa 10K: How I Set a Personal Best

I broke my PB, smashed it actually, but how could I knock 1:21 off my previous best when I’ve spent most of the last four months struggling with knee problems and using the couch to 10K program to rehabilitate myself?

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I have some theories. My 10K PB until this race was 42:01, which I managed in March 2011. At that time, running was all I did and a half-marathon was my longest race. A lot has happened since then.

I bought a mountain bike and spent whole days cycling around Gifu. I learned to swim and went to the pool every week. I started hiking and trail running. The mountains here in Gifu and around Mino are beautiful and I’m sure the steep climbs have done wonders for my leg strength, stability and endurance.

All this, plus running my first marathon and completing a homemade half-Ironman triathlon has helped my mind and body adapt to stress and long-periods of sustained activity. So even though my workouts were less intense over the winter because of IT band syndrome and whatnot, I think I still had a good base to push for a 10K PB. The cold weather and my new, super fast running shoes might have helped a bit, too.

Saying that, running a hilly course at a fast pace (for me!) is not a fun experience. My eyes glazed over, the Red Bull shaking around in my stomach made me feel a bit sick and my chest started to hurt towards the end. The thought of pulling out crossed my mind, but I’m glad I didn’t because when I saw that time of 40:40 I realized why it was so hard!

Next week I’m running the Inuyama Half-Marathon. My PB for the half is 1:31:54, which means I’ll be especially hard pressed to beat it, but I’ll set out with that intention!

Running Mad

After a full year of lifting weights and drinking gallons of milk, I eventually hurt my back. Nothing too serious, but bad enough to keep me from squatting for a while.

Since then, I’ve got back into running. Last year I ran in the Kakamigahara 10km and finished in a respectable 48 minutes. Now, I’ve ramped up my training, lost 5 of my hard-earned 20kgs, and am in the mood to race.

My goal this season is a sub-45 minute 10km. That will will take a lot of work so I’ve taken some steps to help me reach that goal:

Learning How to Run

This time around, I’ve armed myself with knowledge.

The first book I got was Run Faster. I was hoping it would teach me how to run, but instead it lays out how to make a training plan, including strides, hill-sprints, fartlek runs, progression runs, etc. etc. I’ve adapted a sample 10km plan from the book which I’m working through now.

Since I still didn’t know the proper technique for running, the second book I got was the Pose Method of Running. This has been brilliant. I’ve changed my running style completely because of it, which has enabled me to run over 20 times a month without injury!

A Portable Running Coach

As an iPhone owner, I can choose from a number of excellent running apps. My current app of choice is iSmoothRun. As I run, my location, speed, pace, cadence, distance, etc. is spoken to me through the phone’s earphones. I can customize workouts and even run against my previous runs. It’s more than awesome, it’s revolutionary! “Faster, steady, slower, 10 seconds behind… 5 seconds ahead…” – brilliant!

Running Accessories

I’ve got my ladies running cap*, my five-toed running socks, a belt bag to carry a water bottle and a sports armband to hold my phone. I’ve even got a reflective sash for my runs in the dark.

* I didn’t realize it was a ladies cap until after I bought it. It fit my head perfectly!

Great for preventing blisters between the toes

I’m still not sure whether to splash out on some Vibram FiveFingers, or just go with some of the newer, super lightweight running shoes. My current shoes are alright, but a lighter pair might help me shave another minute off my time. If I stick with laces, this trick my wife showed me is great!

My wife's trick for long laces

Motivation

Currently, I’m really motivated by my running stats on RunKeeper, and the running community on Daily Mile. There’s nothing lonely about running when you’ve got a team of people watching and cheering on your progress, even if it’s on the Internet. Of course, I don’t have to manually type in the results of each run on those sites, that’s done automatically by iSmoothRun.

Finally, I’m motivated to run more races. I’ll definitely do Kakamigahara again, but will probably add runs at Showa-mura, Inuyama and Seki. I might stretch to a half-marathon this season, and then maybe apply for one or more full marathons next time round.

I’ve only been running for a year. Before that I didn’t do any exercise for over a decade. I hope, with posts like this, I can motivate others to find as much enjoyment in sport as I have.

Can you see me? I'm holding up my hand

Gaining Weight – Six Weeks of GOMAD

I’ve always been skinny, and I’ve always been bothered about it. At various stages of my life I’ve embarked on some kind of program to gain weight, none of which has ever lasted beyond three months, and all of which failed to add any noticeable pounds to my 6ft frame. My mother always said I’d fill out when I reached 30, just like Grandad Jack! Funny now that I’m 35 she says I’ll fill out when I reach 40, just like Grandad Jack!

Six weeks ago, I decided to embark on the GOMAD program (Gallon of Milk A Day) in another attempt to break out of my lanky self. This post is intended for others like me who would like to gain some extra pounds.

At my wedding in 2005, I weighed 56kgs and was 183cm tall. Five years of home-cooked Japanese meals later and self-employment that had me sitting in front of a computer all day grew me to 63kgs. And that’s where I started GOMAD, with a goal of reaching an ambitious 80kgs.

How I’m gaining weight

I typically drink 3-4 liters of milk a day, with Weider Weight Up in it at breakfast, lunch and dinner. I’ve been going to the gym twice a week, focusing mostly on compound exercises: squats, deadlifts, bench press and bent-over rows. I’ve been running a lot. I realize this burns off some calories, but it’s good for my overall fitness and I enjoy it. Besides the milk, my diet hasn’t really changed, except that I snack on peanuts and raisins a lot.

After six weeks, I’ve gained 9 kilos, but it hasn’t come easily.

Side-effects of GOMAD

At the beginning, the milk made me feel bloated and spoiled my appetite. It’s really hard to eat a proper meal when your stomach is full of milk. Of course, when you’re always full of liquid, you tend to go to the toilet a lot, too. I had diarrhea for a while there, if you can call it that. It was more like weeing out of your bum (apologies to those of you offended by my frankness… it gets worse).

The next issue was an itchy bum. It turns out that my body couldn’t digest all the extra lactose in the milk, resulting in a very uncomfortable itch that had me showering below three or four times a day with cold water. After a week of that I went to the pharmacy to find some medicine to stick in my rear – quite a challenge in a Japanese drug store. Eventually one of the shop staff came over and asked what I was looking for. I explained I had an itchy bum and she asked if it was internal or external to which I replied it was internal. She then gave me a choice of cream or pellets, and I picked the latter. I had bottom infection back in 2000 which ended in a doctor sticking a knife in my butt while I bit on a wooden stick. After that experience, sticking some anti-itch pellets in one’s rear is a walk in the park.

Another problem is spots. I’m used to spots and they’re used to me, but I’ve never had so many on my arms before, especially on the inside of the upper arms. I blame the milk for that and expect it to clear up when I finish GOMAD.

The most recent issue has been body odor. I smell of ammonia, and my wife isn’t too happy about it. This is apparently caused by the body burning excess protein because it doesn’t have anything else to burn. To combat this, I’m trying to eat more carbohydrates to balance out my diet a bit, and drink more water so the ammonia gets flushed down the loo instead of me sweating it out.

The results so far…

During the first few weeks, I gained weight rapidly (for a skinny guy anyway), though most of it was and still is around my midriff. Apparently, while women store fat in their buttocks, men store it in their bellies. I also learned that my kind of fat is visceral, which means it’s packed around my internal organs as opposed to being under the skin. Doesn’t sound too healthy, eh? More recently, I’ve noticed my weight gain slowing down with each new kilo taking longer to manifest. On the bright side, I’m definitely more muscular than before, which is a great feeling. I feel like I could crush skulls between my pecs!

Continuing on from here…

I think it would be sensible to stop the excessive milk intake after two months. That seems to be the recommended limit for anyone doing GOMAD. That gives me just two more weeks before I face a new and probably more difficult challenge: retaining the weight. Though saying that, I’m hopeful that my body will have grown used to the extra calories and demand I eat more than I would have done pre-GOMAD. If that’s the case, then 80kgs is still on the cards…

UPDATE: I stopped GOMAD after two months, weighing 74kgs naked (!) with 18% body fat. So I gained a total of 11kgs – very successful!

UPDATE 2: I eventually reached 76kg.

UPDATE 3: After a year of weight lifting, I hurt my lower back and couldn’t lift anymore. I stopped counting calories and started running more instead, losing all that hard-earned weight as quickly as I gained it. However, I became passionate about running and although I’m back to 60kg, I look and feel fit and healthy.