At 10am Sunday, June 17, 288 swimmers setting off from Miyajima’s famous “floating” torii gate made for an impressive sight as they embarked on the first leg of the inaugural Hatsukaichi triathlon. Ahead of them was a 2.5km swim past oyster rafts and over to the mainland, where they would swap their wetsuits for bikes and ride 55km through the suburbs, into the rice fields and up and down some of the area’s steepest mountain roads. Finally, they faced a 20km run which would take them to Mominoki Forest Park’s highest point before running down to the finish back in Yoshiwa. One veteran of many, much longer, Ironman events recently commented of the race, “That’s not a triathlon, that’s an adventure race!”.
After a scarily hot Saturday, weather conditions were perfect for Sunday’s race. Being the first running of the event, organizers were very cautious and meticulous in their planning. There was a mind-boggling number of rules, infractions of which would result in time penalties or disqualification. On Saturday, competitors grumbled that they felt a lot of the fun and excitement was being drained by being constantly told not to do this and not to do that. On reflection, however, I can understand the caution. Getting police approval for this event took a long time and a huge amount of effort. The organisers were very aware that even a small incident on the course might put paid to any chance of the race being taking place again in the future.
This race stretched over 70km from the far south of the recently incorporated, expansive city of Hatsukaichi to its northern boundary. From the Seto Inland Sea to the mountains; all along small rural roads. Without strong community support a race like this has no chance of success. Also, although very picturesque, I had doubts as to how many people would turn out to support the athletes along the long, tough course.
Organizers amassed around 2000 volunteers to staff aid stations and shout encouragement on some of toughest sections. Though it was a bit odd to hear volunteers on the bike course shout, “ganbatte!” while holding signs saying “¸ºÂ®” or “slow down”, they did a fantastic job. I’m sure there were more than a few first time volunteers who had a restless night worrying about handing off bottles to cyclists flying by at 30-50km/hr. Local residents, people staying in their holiday homes, and local tri club members made sure that there was hardly a stretch were people weren’t shouting and banging things in encouragement.
262 entrants finished the course within the 7 hour time limit, including one guy who lost a leg twenty years ago in a traffic accident. I have seen triathletes make great time in with hand cycles and specially designed prosthetics, but this guy completed the entire run section on crutches! The cool weather surely helped such a high percentage of finishers, but on such a tough course it’s an achievement of which they should all be very proud.
This race has the potential to become something of a classic. The competitors, volunteers and supporters showed great spirit and ensured it got it off to a fantastic start. I hope the energy and the political will exists to see the race continue and grow.