THE FALL OF THE RUSSIAN EMPIRE IN THE LAND OF THE RISING SUN
There I was sitting in a Japanese grand bath swigging from a 750ml bottle of Sapporo Black label lager when a thought entered my beer-soaked, heavily fatigued brain.
Had I just completed the longest duathlon in multi-sport history?
It sure as hell felt like it, but let me wind back a few days. I arrived in Tokyo as Australia’s representative and a guest of the Japanese Triathlon Federation (JTF) to compete in the Japan Cup Ironman Triathlon on the island of Sado in the Japan Sea.
Each year the JTF issues invites to many of the international Triathlon Federations to send selected athletes to several races throughout the Japanese season. These races range from sprint and Olympic distances to Ironman. The Japanese are excellent competitors and they love to hurt themselves. They would rather finish with two broken legs than drop from a race. There are always more spectators watching the last finisher than the first place.
I had competed previously in this race and this year the international field comprised heavy hitters like Todd Jacobs from the USA (top 10 Hawaii Ironman and defending champion), Canadian Peter Reid (would go on to win three Hawaii Ironmans) and the current Russian Ironman Champion Alexander Merzlov. The Russian was an interesting character. Over 6’ tall and totally ripped; completely shaved and with zero body fat - he looked like the world’s great ever athlete and, according to his coach/manager, he was.
‘Alexander will crush this field’ he said. ‘He is the new breed of triathlete; he was bred for this sport. He will win here and then he will go on to Hawaii and win there. He will dominate this sport for years to come’.
Who was I to argue with that?
Alexander, funnily enough, was also quite cross-eyed. I hope the swim course is well marked, I thought, the poor bastard will be lucky to swim a straight line. God help him if his goggles fog up.
Ever since our arrival, we had been warned of an impending Typhoon, and it struck late on Friday night. None of the Japanese seemed remotely concerned about it but at one stage through the night I thought the roof of our hotel was going to lift off.
We woke on race morning with gale-force winds and sideways rain. I was excited to see the swim course as the wind was directly onshore and with a 3.8k out and back swim leg it really suited me with the very rough water conditions. I was concerned though, of my decision to bring a rear disc wheel as in these conditions it was going to be difficult to control in the wind.
One hour before the start an announcement was made that due to the water conditions the swim leg would be replaced by a nine-kilometre run. The large Japanese contingent stood as one with that news and I could understand why, as half of them swim like house bricks.
When I worked the beach at Manly they were by far our best customers.
So, 9-kilometre run followed by 185-kilometre bike then 42-kilometre marathon. This was not ideal but regardless it was a better scenario than cancelling the event.
My tactics were simple, with 51km of running ahead of me, I very much eased my way through the first leg that wound its way through rice paddies and small Japanese villages. I waltzed into the transition area and got lost amongst the 1,600 bikes, located mine and rolled out onto the bike course, which was essentially around the island (185km). The roads were winding country lanes with many long, steep climbs (Sado gets snow in winter months) and due to the typhoon, the roads were littered with debris. Coming down a steep descent, I failed to negotiate a large rock that had rolled onto the road and is slammed into my rear wheel causing it to buckle. This was a problem as it was now rubbing on the frame quite badly. I had covered 120km of the 185km but unlike other international triathlons there was no service vehicle at the Japan Cup, so I had to roll on. The downs and the flats were bearable but, on the steep climbs, the wheel basically came to a stop. I was severely frustrated and on many of the climbs, I had to get off and carry my bike. This was freaking me out and at one stage I got off the bike, picked it up and threw it into the bushes along the side of the road. I quickly realised this was pretty stupid as I had only two options available to me; either climb in and get it back out or walk back to the transition area. With 20km still to go, I decided that retrieving the bike was probably a better idea than walking.
You get a wonderful view of life dragging a bicycle around a Japanese island for about six hours. I eventually wobbled into transition, racked my bike amongst the hundreds already in there and began the marathon. Strangely, I was feeling strong and the out and back course would give me a clear idea of what was happening in the ‘real’ race.
As they headed back into town, Peter Reid led from Todd Jacobs, a string of Japanese competitors and then the greatest Russian athlete of all time. I got a good look at the Russians face and from where I was, it looked like he was in a universe of hurt.
This pumped me up and I was ready for the battle. The extra run distance coupled with the now 100% humidity and the unforgiving hilly run was taking its toll on everyone. I had started the run thinking / hoping that I could get a top 20 finish but my split at the turnaround of just over 90 minutes was solid and I was looking forward to the return journey.
With five kilometres remaining, the coach of a Korean athlete yelled to me ‘The Russian is 40 seconds up the road’.
I was on a mission now.
With one kilometre remaining, I turned onto the oceanfront where we started many hours ago and there in front of me was the Russian.
Looking like he had just left the pub after an all-nighter with the lads, the big, fully shaven, ripped-up, cross-eyed, super-athlete had crumpled and dismantled himself like no other before him. Showing no respect and just wanting the scalp of this dude I slid by and down the finish chute. I had finished 6th overall and salvaged something out of nothing.
I was so stoked: Stoked that I had hung in there when I wanted to quit a thousand times; stoked that I had mentally dealt with the run after a disastrous bike ride and stoked I had taken down the big Russian.
As I took another long swig of my beer, I convinced myself that indeed it was the longest Duathlon of all time and sitting there, a guest of a traditional Japanese Inn, in a traditional Japanese garden, relaxing in a massive grand bath, life was good.
PS: Alexander did not get to Hawaii that year, or the year after, or the year after. In fact, I never heard his name again.