|Shane Tighe takes the win of the paraglider race|
A couple of weeks ago, I took part in the 7th edition of the AmaxaX-Athlon (http://amaxa-xathlon.info/), a multi-outdoor-sports race situated here in my home area of Amakusa, Kumamoto, Japan. Loosely based on the famous Red Bull Dolomitenmann, the X-Athlon takes place in a rural south-west corner of Japan, and is definitely the biggest, if not the only, race of its kind in the country. Accordingly, many participants from major Japanese cities such as Tokyo, Osaka, Kobe, and Nagoya use a mid-summer long weekend to journey to Amakusa and enjoy this special event. This year, about 140 athletes, supported by more than 200 volunteers and blessed with ideal (if a little hot) weather, made the Amaxa X-Athlon 2018 another edition to remember.
|SUP athletes make an energetic start|
The competition features five outdoor sports: sea kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, mountain biking, trail running, and paragliding. The location, Kuratake Town in the Amakusa Islands, offers an environment well-suited for all of these sports. Participants are welcome to race in virtually any combination of disciplines, but of course, the Full-Entry category (Sea kayak or SUP, then MTB, trail run and paraglider) is cream of the top. This year 13 male and 3 female athletes, as well as 7 relay-style teams, competed in this category. I was also one of them.
|Seconds before race start|
Disclaimer: the location of this race is not entirely an accident. It's a race originally conceived by myself , my wife Leanne, and Urakawa-san, our Japanese friend. So, we are also race staff; in fact, I am actually the Race Director. If you think that is a conflict of interest, come and see the race (or better yet, race with us) next year!
|Leanne and Shane at the goal|
This year we were lucky enough to be joined by the young and up-and-coming Australian paraglider and adventure athlete Shane Tighe. Shane was one of my main supporters in the Red Bull X-Alps 2017, and plans to be my official supporter in 2019 (if I get selected!). He has spent much of the past year paragliding in places like the Alps and Nepal, and his cross-country technique has taken a quantum leap forward in that very short time. His top-notch performance in the this year's X-Athlon is therefore no accident.
|Kayaks and SUPs jostle for position leaving the beach|
The race itself starts at 7:00 AM at a place called Ebisu Beach, with a sea leg: sea kayaks and SUPs compete simultaneously along a 8.4km looping course, circumnavigating several uninhabited islands offshore. Race rules say that athletes must pass several checkpoints on the way to goal, but other route choices are up to them and all kinds of clever shortcuts (as well as mistakes) are possible. Experienced racers may also take advantage of locally strong tidal currents along the way. Kayaks are generally faster than SUPs, but this seems to be compensated by the top-notch condition of the Japanese SUP athletes. In fact, only a small handful of kayaks are able to get away from the frenetic SUPers.
|On the kayak course|
Determined to conserve my energy for the latter part of the race, I strapped on a heart rate meter and resolved not to exceed 150 bpm while paddling. This is more easily said than done, as it is very tempting to chase the faster athletes. I sneak in a shortcut just after the start, and only one kayaker seems to follow me. Soon it is obvious he is going to pass me, and I am surprised to see it is a 65 year-old repeat athlete known for his rigorous training regimen (he later told me he paddled over 700 km in preparation). One other ace kayaker is already way out in front, so I find myself established firmly in 3rd place. Several strong athletes are not far behind me but surprisingly, they are not catching up, so I focus on keeping pace and finishing the kayak race in under an hour with lots of extra energy left.
|Kayak finish: one down, three to go|
The next discipline is MTB (mountain bike). The mass start is at 8:00 AM, but as I am a full-entry athlete, I can start as soon as I arrive at the kayak goal. A couple of minutes for equipment change and re-hydration, and I am off. The 20-km course features a steady climb for 10 km on a twisty mountain road, followed by a steep descent which includes a technical single-track and a narrow and dangerous concrete-paved speed section. I settle into the rhythm of climbing the hill, knowing it will take about an hour. Several ace athletes who had started a few minutes behind me catch up and pass, but I am quite happy with my pace. It is important to conserve energy for the trail run, but I push a little harder than I did on the kayak. On the downhill I push it a little but do not take undue risks. I know am not within medal standing in MTB, but being 8th on the climb and 4th on the descent is respectable. A curiosity in this part of the race is an inconspicuous, slow-climbing athlete who then made a lightning-quick descent. Nearly a minute ahead of the next contender, he earns the prestigious "Dust Devil Award".
|Speeding to the MTB finish line|
Next comes the trail run, and it is my nemesis. After two-and-a-half hours of hard exertion in the 30+ degree heat, this 5.5 km run-up from the beach to the paraglider launch is not to be taken lightly. Indeed, while I had felt good on the bike, as I tread upon the village's hot sidewalks my legs feel rather leaden. But the real worry are the cramps, which tend to attack me mid-course to the point where in past races I was nearly defeated by them. To alleviate these I carry a can of Japanese spray-on potion called "Salonpas" that works well if used correctly. My pace is now seems limited by the heat and my heavy legs; I seem to slowly shuffle forward, but a glance at my heart rate shows it is already maxed out. I expect some relief at the 3 km mark where the route finally leaves the hot pavement and enters the thickly forested mountain and welcome shade takes the edge off the heat. Here the uphill climbing begins in earnest - good for me since I am a lot better at it than running. But just here, my hamstrings are suddenly quite ready to cramp. I spray on a modicum of the magic potion and proceed cautiously, lifting my legs awkwardly over obstacles and not bending the knees which would surely make my muscles seize up.
|Trail run mass start at 9 AM|
Many other runners have mass-started some 15 minutes before me, while I was still on the MTB course. Now I begin to catch the slower ones as they struggle on the steep uphill trail. But, a slightly faster athlete catches up to me; looking at his number tag I realize he is also a full-entry racer! So for the first time in my X-Athlon racing career, I am passed by another full-entry athlete. This floods me with motivation and endorphins, curing my exhaustion as well as the cramps. Determined not to let this young, fit athlete open up a big gap, I pick up the pace, passing other climbers one after another. In the end, although my performance on the flat part of the course was truly pathetic, 16th place for the climb (where all but two of the athletes ahead of me were fresh off the start) is not bad at all.
|On the punishing 'trail run' climb|
The race timer stops at the trail run's goal line. Unlike the Dolomitenmann, the X-Athlon paraglider race is not timed; instead, one collects pylons (up to 18 of them) by overflying specified coordinates. In addition, if one makes it back to the official goal at the beach, there is a chance to score up to 3 more points by hitting a target accurately. The total paraglider score is then subtracted from the race time as a percentage. A perfect score of 21 points had never been achieved so far in the history of the race. Today, the conditions seem difficult but possible for collecting all the pylons. But to do so, one must negotiate a long transition over a flat, wide valley, collect pylons over a remote mountain ridge on the other side, then re-cross the valley again without sinking out. With today's relatively low cloud base and weak lift, the chances of doing this are marginal. At the paraglider launch, the racer who just passed me quizzes me on local flying knowledge. I tell him all I know, taking into account the expected conditions as well. I fly here about 260 days a year, whereas this is his first time, so it is only sportsmanlike to reduce my home advantage. Even so, he is only 2 paragliding points ahead of me. To win, he will have to maintain this advantage tenaciously!
|Changeover between disciplines|
I take some time to change my sweat-soaked clothes and to hydrate, and since other gliders are already taking off and soaring away, I promptly set up my gear and get airborne. The air race is all over the place: some high-aspect gliders are soaring over the mountaintops, even at cloud base, whereas many of the lower-rated wings are going straight down, not even reaching the beach. I gradually gain some altitude and slowly and gingerly begin ticking off the easier pylons, taking care not to get low. I am joined on the radio by Shane, who has reached the trail run goal and taken off about 20 minutes after me. I find a good thermal, get high and strike out for a few harder pylons out along the flats. Shane follows my lead. Halfway through yet another excursion, with all but two pylons on this side already collected, I suddenly realize it makes sense to risk it and cross all the way to the other mountain range. I make a low save there and proceed to take five more pylons. Shane makes the crossing too and we cooperate to take the final and hardest pylon on this side, getting low but finding a climb just in time. By now several other gliders have also crossed over but they are having great difficulty staying up. Shane and I part ways, taking different routes back toward the main mountain and the beach. An unusual convergence forms over the sea coast and is discovered by Shane who glides on right over the beach, tagging his final pylon 2 km beyond and returning to goal with height to spare. I spend 20 minutes scratching the mountain before I am able to do the same. As it turns out, we both tread on the 20-cm inverted flower pot that marks the target center, earning ourselves perfect scores of 21 points each. But because Shane's flight took less time, he takes first place in the paraglider category.
|Shane on course to win the paraglider race|
Several more pilots get respectable scores, though no one else is able to tag all 18 pylons. In fact, the scores seem evenly distributed between full and no points, showing that the race conditions were in fact ideal. My main rival ends up with 10 points, a nice score but not enough to stay in first place. Shane's great flight bumps him up to 3rd place in the full entry category; sharing the podium with him twice shows that we are a great team ready to tackle the Red Bull X-Alps 2019 head on!
It was a really fun race for me, maybe the best one yet! But I am even happier as an organizer, that the whole, complicated event went off rather smoothly from start to finish. Considering that 350 people are involved, the organizers are all volunteers, and that the success of the race depends critically on their coordinated work and movement, I think it is amazing that it all works out every time. We organizers work for half the year to put this event together, and we are very proud of it! W
And, we hope to see you too at the starting line next year!