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Gardner, Bucher win XTERRA Japan Championship
Gardner First Men's Brit to Claim XTERRA Championship Victory
Four hours away from the bustling urban sprawl of Tokyo and its 35 million residents sits the Kanko So Resort – a traditional Japanese inn remotely situated in the protected natural preserve of Nikko National Forest 4,000 feet above sea level where nobody lives year round (The resort gets snowed in during the winter months). On Saturday here, in what has been referred to as “Samurai Country,” more than 200 athletes representing Australia, England, Mexico, Saipan, America, and the home country gathered for the fifth running of the XTERRA Japan Championship at Oku-Nikko Marunuma in the Gunma prefecture.
Heavy rain had pounded the surrounding mountains for weeks and the night before the race thunder echoed through the forest and lightening lit up the dark night keeping competitors and organizers alike awake in their beds wondering what it would look like in the morning. At first light it was still gray and race director Taro Shirato – one of the country’s triathlon legends – contemplated revising the bike course to keep competitors safe from possible landslides and the slippery, muddy single track trails that ran perilously close to steep drop offs in the middle of the jungle.
Alas the sun came out at 9am, and following a pre-ride to test conditions and the land owners’ approval the full 30-kilometer course was put back in play to the delight of all involved and the race went off in calm conditions at noon. First-up was the two-lap 1.5-kilometer swim in the ultra clean 65-degree waters of Marunuma Lake. Among the first pack out of the water was Sam Gardner from the UK, female pro Maiko Ohta and Takahiro Ogasawara from Japan. Gardner had the quickest transition of the bunch and hit the trails first.
“I had the best swim of my life, knowing that one of my main competitors would be an ex-Japanese mountain bike champion and teammate to British Olympian Liam Killeen,” said Gardner, referring to Ogasawara who was 2nd here last year in just his first-ever XTERRA.
“I exited the water in third position and with a swift transition I was in the lead at the start of the bike. With the chance of a clear track I attacked the good old British muddy conditions. In a day where I could do little wrong I had a great bike leg and built up a comfortable lead.”
Gardner, who by trade is a firefighter in his hometown of Surrey in Great Britain, comes from a mountain biking background and nearly made the Olympic team years ago. Those skills came in handy as he tackled what all pros that have done this race consider “the toughest and most technical mountain bike course on the entire XTERRA Global Tour”.
With nearly 10 minutes on “Oga-san” heading into T2 Gardner simply had to hang on during the run, no easy task considering the nature of the scramble which heads along the rocky shoreline of the lake before literally climbing straight up rocky streams and moss-covered rocks before tackling sections of thick mud in the all-green, fern-strewn forest trails.
Without so much as a scratch on his body Gardner (who is currently 7th in the XTERRA European Tour standings following four straight top 10 finishes) jogged happily through the flurry of bubbles blown by the local kids with a winning time of 2:20:16 to claim his first-ever XTERRA Championship, proclaiming this was the “most incredible race on one of the most beautiful and challenging courses” he’d ever done.
Ogasawara finished a strong second in 2:27:55 followed by 2006 men’s champion Yasuo Takahashi in third (2:33:07). Forty-two year old former Japan National Mountain Bike team member Mitsuro Ohara finished fifth overall and top amateur in 2:43:51.
On the women’s side Swiss standout and two-time XTERRA European Tour champ Renata Bucher quickly caught up to Ohta and Mieko Carey from Saipan to build an insurmountable lead on the bike and pull in her second championship title of the year (she also won XTERRA France on July 6). Her winning time of 2:51:29 was good for 4th overall.
“This is such an amazing place, I really love it,” said Bucher. “The people are so friendly, and the food is great, and the course is hard, but beautiful.”
Akiro Sato from Hyogo placed second female and was the women’s amateur champ in 3:32:15. Ohta turned in a stellar run, fastest of the day, but as a relative newcomer on the mountain bike could not make up for the time spent walking the many technical sections of the course and was a full two hours off the pace set by Bucher.
Sam Gardner (GBR) 2:20:16
After the race athletes soaked in the “onsen” bath - a natural hot spring with extremely hot and cleansing volcanic water that the Kanko So Resort is famous for. Then came the feast – complete with curry and noodles and sautéed beef, succulent pork, hot corn on the cob and ice cold beer – followed by Taiko drummers and a Japanese tribe jamming out African drum beats and ritual dances for everyone to enjoy.
This part of Japan is certainly one of Mother Nature’s finest pieces of work, and she gave competitors all they could handle. In the end, however, nobody was injured and one-by-one competitors crossed the finish line exhausted but with beaming smiles and that unmistakably look of accomplishment. Truly, it was their time to “Live More.”
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