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The late, late report... 3 years late - Tour de Okinawa 2017 (140km)

WhiteGiant

Maximum Pace
Nov 4, 2006
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*Apology in advance: This blog is all "me, me, me!" Pardon my narcissism - Or feel free to skip this one (it's pretty long).

Tour de Okinawa 2017 – 140km Men's Road Race

This is the late, late report… 3 years late!
The following is a tale of the longest and hardest I have ever ridden. Of course, I've done longer rides, but not with as much effort. Of course I've ridden at higher intensities, but not for such a distance.
At the beginning of 2017, I received the entry form for the Tour de Okinawa in the mail (the regular post) – One receives them after entering previous years. I had entered before, in 2015, but circumstances dictated that I forego the race that year. I was determined that 2017 would finally see me there.
When I had planned to race in 2015, I had a small taste of what it was like to train for a specific event – I signed up for a Trainerroad subscription, and bought myself a cheap "wheel-on" indoor trainer and a Powertap rear wheel. In that initial training experiment though, I didn't have much idea about how to train, and ended up over-training. Or to be more specific, I never allowed myself enough recovery time – I later learned about the 3-weeks-hard / 1-week-easy method of block training – and hence I was almost constantly fatigued. I did make progress, but it was painfully slow.

THE TRAINING

In 2017 though, I was more methodical about giving myself time to recuperate within those training blocks, and I was much more consistent all the way through. I started in February, weighing 72kg with an FTP of around 220. For those without a calculator, that's just a smidge over 3W/kg, which is not great. But it's a decent place to start, and I set myself the arbitrary goal of 300 – Something to aim for (spoiler alert: I never made it… but I did get close). In the first two months I saw tremendous improvements, and by mid-April, my FTP was up to around 250. With 7 months until the race (it's held in mid-November, by the way), I was sure to hit my 300W target, or so I thought. It turns out that that initial spurt of gains was just my returning to a previous mean. You see, I'd been riding for over 12 years by then, and when I'm in fairly good shape, I suppose I hover around the 3.6~3.7W/kg range anyway. That quick initial improvement was just my body returning to a previous median level. What I didn't realize at the time was that any gains beyond that were not going to come so easily.

My progress went something like this:
Mid-April: 250.
Mid-May: 258.
Mid-June: 266.
Mid-July: 272.
Mid-August: Too hot to ride.
Mid-September: 265.
Mid-October: 272.
Mid-November: (race-day) 278.

Let's call it 280, and I weighed right on 70kg, so 4W/kg – That would have to be enough.

So far, all I've mentioned is the Trainerroad sessions, but I also added other upper-body and core exercises to the mix. Two to 3 times a week, I was doing push-ups, weighted sit-ups, weighted-lunges, and dumbbell (shoulder) presses. I would have to say that by far the most beneficial exercise was the weighted sit-ups. Recently, sit-ups have gotten a bad rap for being ineffectual. But that's only if your purpose is to get six-pack abs; apparently, there are much better exercises for that. Where the sit-ups shine is for hip-flexor strength - Something that would benefit me greatly during the race – more on that later. As race-day drew nearer, I was doing 5 sets of 40 sit-ups with 2 x 7kg dumbbells (one on each shoulder).

With the training over, it was time to race. I had gone from 3W/kg to 4W/kg in around 9 months. Although perhaps I could have done more, I was probably the fittest I had been in quite a few years, since at least 2011. Now the real question was, would 4W/kg be enough for a decent place?

GETTING THERE

I had decided that, even before registering for the race, I would go with my girlfriend at the time, Satoko – She's now my wife, so taking her was probably the right thing to do.
We flew down to Naha airport on the Friday (Nov. 10th​) before the race, which was to be held on Sunday (Nov. 12th​). We took the courtesy bus from the airport to the car rental place, which seemed to take forever, and we were finally on our way to the hotel around dusk. Our hotel was located on Sesoko Island, about 5km south of the Churaumi Aquarium – It's also about 45km from where I would have to start racing on Sunday.

On Saturday, I decided to reconnoiter a part of the course that I wasn't so familiar with. I had actually spent the last few months watching Youtube videos of previous years' races, even doing some of my Trainerroad workouts while watching them, to get a sense of the course. I felt pretty confident that I knew the course well enough, but I wanted to see how tough some of those smaller-looking climbs might be in the latter half of the race. So I chose a 20km section along the east coast of the island heading south on Rte.70 that I wanted to check out a bit more, and had Satoko drive me there and drop me off with my bike. She drove on ahead (snapping some pictures along the way) to pick me up at a preselected point, and I got in one last little pre-race muscle-activation ride. We had a big meal that night (carb-loading) and went to bed early.

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Reconnaissance ride pics - Courtesy of Satoko
 
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RACE-DAY

The cook who ran the kitchen at the place we were staying lent us a portable gas burner / stove-top and a saucepan, so I was able to get up early and cook myself a huge bowl of porridge – As long as I could get my oats that morning, I would at least feel like nothing was left to chance. This truly was a huge mental boost; knowing that you're properly fuelled for what's about to come is so reassuring. My girlfriend (wife-to-be), bless her soul, was fine with waking up at 5am to drive me to the starting point – We were told to be there by 6:30am, and to be ready to start between 7:30~8:00.

For anyone who doesn't know, there are 3 main race categories: 210km, 140km and 100km (not including the family-oriented 50km fun-ride the day before). The 210km race starts in Nago (which is also the finish), and those riders start 2 hours before us. Once the majority of 210km-racers have come past us, we are allowed to start. So we end up at the tail end of the main "210km" group. Similarly for the 100km-racers; they have to wait for the majority of our "140km" group to go past them before they can start, and then they will have to chase us. By the end of the race, there are often groups with a mix of riders from the different categories (race lengths).

We arrived at the 140km Starting point just before 6:30am. I set up my bike and tried to get a good position near the front. Thinking I was well within the first 50 or so, I came back a bit later to find that many of the latecomers were jumping the queue anyway, and ended up being in front of me (so much for following the rules). In the end, I suppose I started about 100th​ in a field of 400, so not too bad.

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The nerves were starting to build, and a lot of guys took the opportunity for one final journey to the restroom. Before long, we could see the TV helicopter as it followed the front of the 210km peloton that was quickly making its way toward us from the south. The first group was a breakaway of about 7 riders, followed soon after by a chasing group of about 30. These were a group of Japanese and international semi-pros out to make a name for themselves. They were really flying, with the top 15 finishers of this category coming in with a time of 5hr:28min:48sec - That's just a tiny bit under 40km/h.

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The 210km "main field" going by...

We had to wait for the majority of the other 210km riders to pass by before we could start, then we made our way onto the road proper and waited for the gun to go off. Did I say gun? I meant starting pistol… or siren. Possibly there was just a quiet countdown, and someone said, "Go!"

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The last time I would smile for the next 4 1/2 hours - Ha ha!
 
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MY RACE

While we were waiting for the start, I looked around to see a rare Caucasian face. I'd met my first local American – Brian, who works on the US base there. We chatted for a bit, and it turns out we had both done the same Trainerroad workout plan; the "Rolling Road Race" – Mid volume.

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The calm before the storm..

After the gun, as is typical of races in Japan, everybody goes full-gas straight out of the gate (I still don't know why they do that). All one can do is try to keep up and not crash. There was a tunnel about 1km after the start, and with everybody bunched up so tightly, the sudden shouts of「ブレーキ!ブレーキ!」had us all panicky and weary of crashes. At 6km in came the start of the first climb (we would climb this same hill again in about 50km) – The "Fungawa dam climb (普久川ダム)" is 7.26km long with an average gradient of 4.5%, although the first 6km is closer to 6%. I really thought 4W/kg would be enough to keep me at the front of the pack, but I learned very early on that this was not to be. I could see the front group just up ahead, but ever so slowly they were gradually pulling away. My heart rate was uncomfortably high during those first few kilometers, and the wattage output clearly unsustainable, so I had to settle into a less-aggressive cadence, and then the front group was gone – out of sight. Still, I averaged over 300W for the first 5 minutes (1.5km) of the climb, and 278W average for 21 minutes to get to the top (these numbers still represent some of my highest power outputs – at least since buying a power meter). My feeling when I got to the top was that there were 3 separate groups on the road – The first group of the top-30 finishers, a second group of about 40 who just couldn't quite latch onto the first, and the third group of 30 or 40 not too far behind them. I felt I was just behind that third group as we went over the top. I didn't know it until afterwards when I checked Strava FlyBys, but Brian was just behind me all the way up the climb. It was there that we would part company though. My downhill game was really on point that day, and I passed a lot of other guys who had also missed the "third group" train. It's not a continuous downhill either; there are many roller-like undulations, short sharp little upturns to break the monotony. Now, this is where those weighted sit-ups came into play – I found that on those little rises when I got out of the saddle, the pedal action is like "kneeing one's handlebars" and the main muscles used for that are the abs and hip-flexors. I was able to put out many more watts that way with very little rise in heart rate, albeit for a limited time (anything longer than 300~400m, and my HR would start climbing to the point where I'd have to sit back down). But it was almost like having a secret super power, and it wasn't long before I saw the tail end of the third group just up ahead. With each of those short uphill sections I would gain an extra 10 or 20m, and before I knew it, I was in the middle of the group. I could finally sit up and relax a bit as we rounded the top of the island on Rte.58. Finding myself in this relatively fast-moving group meant that I could concentrate on conserving energy and making sure I refueled properly (I took the time to eat a few of the coconut-covered chocolate date-balls I had made – delicious and nutritious).

The dynamic in the group was a bit strange at first, there were around 25~30 guys and initially when I had caught them, it was a bit of a jumbled mess – But we were still in that rolling up/down (mostly down) section, and some weren't coping as well with the ups as others (including myself) were. This was my favorite section, as I would often find myself at the front of the bunch by the time we got to the top of these short mini-climbs. The longer climbs though, were a different story. I would have to be very careful not to get dropped on the longer climbs – Remember, this was a group that was well ahead of me at the top of the first climb. But for now, I could just sit-in and enjoy the draft as we made our way around the top of the island (counter-clockwise) and then headed south on Rte.58, back towards the start of the first climb again – yes, we had to go over that thing twice. It was mostly flat along the western coast, and the pace was pretty high – well over 40km/h the whole way. Drafting made this a breeze. There was, however, a serious looking crash in one of the groups ahead of us – By the time we passed, a number of other cyclists had stopped to help divert riders around the carnage. At least one rider needed an ambulance.

We were approaching the "big climb" for the second time, and my strategy was simple – Start the climb as close to the front of our group as possible, and with any luck, by the time we get to the top, I'll still be in touch with the tail end of the group, as one-by-one, everybody passed me on the way up. 22 minutes and 42 seconds later (according to Strava), I'd averaged 259W on the way up, and it was just barely enough to stay with everyone. Most of our group was now stretched out well ahead of me, but thankfully we had another long descent on which I was able to claw back some ground and make my way back into the group as it coalesced near the bottom. The next few climbs covered the area I had reconnoitered the day before. They weren't as long as the main climb we had just gone over twice, but they were too long (between 1.5km ~ 3.5km) to use my stand-up hip-flexor super move. The whole way down the hilly east coast on Rte.70, I would have to use the same strategy as before; start the climb at the front of the group, hope I'm still in contact with the rear by the time we get to the top, and if necessary make up any ground on the downhills – rinse and repeat.

My greatest fear along this section, as we were now almost 3 hours into the race, was that my legs would suddenly give out unexpectedly without warning. I had been forcing myself to eat at every opportunity, whenever it was flat enough to coast behind someone's wheel – Before the race, I had decided specific places where I was to eat something, every 20km or so. Even so, I kept wondering when my legs might just suddenly decide enough is enough and give up on me.

So far though, I was still surrounded by the now familiar faces/jerseys/numbers I had seen when I first caught the group – There were maybe 8 or so guys still left from the original group of 30. As we followed the coastal road down Rte.331, we had one last long-ish flat section before the final climb. I took that opportunity to sink a caffeine gel, and my plan was to empty the tank on this last climb. The "Haneji dam climb (羽地ダム)" is about a mile long, and even this late in the race I was able to sustain 260W for the 6min:45sec it took to climb it. Just after the tunnel at the top is where I had arranged for Satoko to wait for me as I passed.

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It is only 13.4km to the finish from that point, about 23 minutes of racing to go. Even after that tunnel though, there were still two more "little" short, steep bumps to contend with. These hurt a lot, with the last one being 5km from the finish. I was caught up to by one of the guys from our original bunch (I had managed to get in front of him on the Haneji dam climb). We exchanged greetings, and I jumped onto his wheel. He basically towed me the final few kilometers, and with one final sprint to the line, we had made it.

THE AFTERMATH

After crossing the finish line, all the riders were herded toward the "chip return area", and then to a rest area replete with food-stalls, local bike-shop stalls, people selling various cycling-related wares… I just wanted to sit down. I had told Satoko to meet me there, near the main hall. She had to drive from where she had seen me near the tunnel, and get back to the finish area all within 23~24 minutes. Apparently, she had arrived at about the same time as I had, but then she went to the finish to "watch me cross the line", while I was already in the rest area. I didn't have my phone, so I just had to sit on the grass and wait for her to come and find me. THROBBING PAIN EVERYWHERE… that's what I remember. My entire body was a bundle of aches, a conglomeration of agony. I couldn't find a comfortable position. Every part of my body hurt. Satoko found me after about 15 minutes, and we went into the main hall to pick up my "Finisher's Certificate", and to buy the obligatory souvenir T-shirt. Post-race nutrition was a mighty hamburger at "Captain Kangaroo". After I had eaten, I started feeling much better. Although my body was drained, my mind was on a high after having completed such an ordeal.

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In the end, I finished 108th.

I didn't get the "Top-10" position that I had secretly been hoping for – I'm pretty sure that at least 5W/kg is necessary for that kind of placing. But considering almost half of the starters finished outside the 5-hour cut-off time limit, I felt I did OK – It just goes to show how hard this race actually is. My time of 4hr:25min:12sec was 31 minutes behind the overall winner, but well within the cut off time.

Will I do it again? Hmm… Yes, I probably will! I will definitely try to go there with a higher FTP next time though.

 
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