In every race there is a turning point.
There is only one word to adequately describe the Challenge Laguna Phuket 70.3 race this year, ‘hot’.
Temperature kept steadily climbing throughout the race week to reach a very unforgiving 42 degrees Celsius on the race day. Aside from the merciless sun beating down on the competitors, the race itself was glorious, a wonderful ocean and lagoon swim followed by a very demanding bike course and a pretty and flat run to finish off the proceedings.
I knew it was going to be hot in Phuket, at least a lot more hot than England in the end of November. I was rather pleased of our decision to spend a bit of time in Malaysia at the in-laws prior to the race.
We arrived in Kuala Lumpur near the end of October, and I set to acclimatising as soon as possible. The first couple of weeks were tough, in terms of trying to maintain intensity and speed in training, the longest I managed to cycle or run was 1 hour. After a couple of weeks I was able to resume normal session lengths, yet at lesser intensity than in a cooler climate. Still, I was unperturbed. I was optimistic and set my goal to finishing in or around five and a half hours, which is a decent time for a half ironman novice. I got a bit worried when I found out a bit more about the hills on the bike course; however, I decided to stick to my guns and go for it.
Events kind of followed the normal course during the race week. Mainly in terms of a good taper and poor recovery. Our youngest daughter was a little disturbed most nights leading up to the race, maybe in response to my nervous vibes, which led to me struggling to get enough sleep at night. We arrived in Phuket on Thursday and spent the rest of the day swimming with the kids and acquainting ourselves with our surroundings. I managed to steal away for a quick 30 minute tempo run and assembled my bike, which arrived unmolested – thank goodness.
Friday I managed a quick bike ride to check the bike, and luckily for me I decided to pop into see the bike mechanics at transition as something just felt wrong. Turns out that the front gear mech cable was almost completely sheared and it was about to snap! The chap replaced the cable and adjusted my gears and the bike felt much better as a result. It would have been a disaster to be stuck on the big chain ring during the race. Saturday, I did the registration and racked my bike, it was already absolutely scorching and the race officials advised us to deflate our tires to prevent them exploding.
The rest of Saturday I spent phaffing with my kit and sporadically eating a bit and tried to stay out of the sun. I managed to burn my whole back swimming in the sea on Friday, which was not very pleasant, but a decent helping of coconut oil soothed it right down and I felt ready to rock.
I woke at 3:50 am after a night spent attending to my daughter. I fixed her a bottle of milk, left her with my wife and headed downstairs for breakfast, coffee and my normal race morning routine. I left the flat around 4:45 on the hotel shuttle bus to transition, that was to open at 5 am. Some gluten-free muesli with extra nuts, drenched in coconut milk and rice milk, as well as a glass full of soaked chia seeds with coconut milk tends to set me up on the right foot, providing oodles of energy and still leaving me feeling light.
As I arrived in transition it was a bustling beehive of activity, everyone was getting ready inflating tires, applying sun block, getting into race clothes and swim skins, and generally bustling about. I felt very calm and easy. Just before 6am I made my way over to the ferry boats to get to the swim start. It was still pitch black and very quiet. As I got out onto the beach dawn suddenly broke. Sun rise revealed a lovely seaside vista with calm seas, there was hardly any breeze at all.
The MC kept a running commentary throughout the day along with nice pumping music, jamming on the beach with all the other competitors felt a bit surreal. He then introduced the male pros and all of a sudden things got real, it was time for the biggest race of my life.
My wave was herded into the start pen in anticipation of the running beach start, and I felt ready – everything that could have been done was done. All I could do at that point was to pull the trigger and keep going until I reached the finishing line.
Swim: 1900m 00:38:05
The swim course was divided into two distinct segments. First was the ocean loop of about 1300m with some currents, but very little choppiness. This was followed by a dash over a sandy isthmus of about 100 meters until we further dove into the waters of the fresh water lagoon to complete the swim distance of 1900m.
The swim was uneventful, apart from one chap who insisted on trying to drown me by splashing water into my mouth with each stroke (as I turned to breathe) there was really nothing to complain about. The sea swim was great, the water temperature was just right and there wasn’t too much traffic at the buoys either. The water in the lagoon was a bit murky and there were some weeds near the exit. The better part of the swim was in an eastern direction, which made sighting a bit tricky since the rising sun was directly in my eyes. My choice of swim wear was tri shorts only, not top, since I had decided to race in a short sleeve top and the race rules explicitly mentioned that all swim wear must leave shoulders bare. This rule obviously didn’t apply to a local tri-club, who all turned out in their yellow and black short sleeve tops…
I ran out of the water and into transition. It felt a bit funny to not be peeling off a wetsuit as I was running. I found my bike easily, partially aided by my lucky towel to mark my place. HR belt and race top on, helmet and bike shoes to follow, grab the bike and off I went. I even remembered my race belt! I still felt good and in control.
Bike: 90Km 02:52:49
The bike course was great. It was everything I hoped for, and more. The scenery was stunning in places, some of the hills were absolute killers, a few victims were claimed by the quick and technical descents, and the weather was gorgeous.
I quickly found my rhythm on the bike and the legs felt good. The first section of the bike course, of about 16Km, until the famous pedestrian bridge crossing was dominated by riding through villages. The route was very twisty with a lot of tight bends, thus maintaining momentum was tricky and there was lots of accelerating out of corners.
After the walking bridge the course opened to a section of highway and plantation scenery and this also signalled the onset of the rolling undulations. The first big hill came about 40km out, and it was tough. In places, I am guestimating, that the gradient was reaching nearer to 20%. It was super steep. Luckily it was dry, since in the wet it would have been too slippery to climb. I managed to get up to the top of this one, and overtook a lot of cyclists in the process. The legs still felt good and my heart rate was under control. I bombed it down the descent and the following flat. The middle part of the bike course followed a scenic bit of coast line and I found my thoughts drifting a bit, but I was soon reminded of the job at hand by a succession of a few less vicious hills. I kept steadily hydrating with water and a bit of sports drink, but didn’t feel hungry at all. I fought down a nut bar, and kept burping for a while afterwards.
At the foot of the second major hill I experienced something very strange. Both of my quads went into an all mighty spasm at the same time. I was really unable to move my legs too much. Now, if I was left to just coast gently down a slight gradient I think I would have been ok.
I had to get off my bike – but how? I resorted to unclipping both my shoes off the pedals and hitting the brakes so that I slid off the front of the saddle and planted my feet on the deck as the bike stopped. A big mistake! I avoided crashing, but my legs were howling all sorts of abuse at me and my quads felt like they were going to explode. So there I was – well and truly stuck. I know that cramp has nothing to do with dehydration of running out of energy. It simply occurs when one sets off too fast and too hard.
In hindsight, I think I got suckered into attacking the course a bit too hard. Since cramp is pretty much “all in your head” I decided to apply the mind over matter principle and simply walk it off. With the tiniest, wobbliest, the most stiff legged baby steps to begin with I managed to get moving again. I slowly pushed my bike up the hill and bit by bit the cramp eased and I was able to walk freely. A few of the cyclist I passed earlier came past me, but I knew I would catch them again later. At the top of the hill I remounted and rode off at top speed.
The second bout of cramp occurred at the last major climb, after a few warning stabs. The last major hill comes after about 80Km and is probably the steepest of the lot. I had another all mighty bilateral quad spasm about 300m into that climb but managed to jump off the bike before complete seizure of all leg movement. Once again I was reduced to walking up the hill, which actually was not much slower than the guys riding in zigzags. I was recommended to get a bigger cassette for the climbs, since I only had a 25, but in all fairness I can’t blame the equipment for letting me down. I don’t think a big enough cassette exists that would have propelled me up those last two climbs. Instead, I have to blame the inadequate training that led to me overcooking my legs on the first big climb.
The last part of the ride was a return to the resort through villages, and I was able to pursue again at good speed. In places the road surfaces were atrocious, almost as bad as they are in Surrey. I saw some nice colourful birds, some water buffaloes with their curved horns, butterflies fluttered by and even a spider somehow found his way to sit on my arm. There were a lot of local school kids cheering on the road sides and that was a very nice touch.
I hopped off my bike and got into my running gear, it was absolutely blazing hot by now. It was just after 10am and the sun was rapidly climbing higher and higher, wiping out any of shade that might have been there earlier. Running shoes on and sun specs on, off I trotted to face the 21Km.
Run: 21.1Km 02:17:49
The run was divided into two laps, I set off at a decent pace, roughly 5 minutes per Km, but it soon became apparent that this was way too fast for me. There was no way I could sustain that. I decided to keep going as best as I could and see when the wheels came off. I had to take my first walking break after about 45 minutes of running. There were regular aid stations along the route, with ample drinks, gels etc. at hand, but by far the most sought after commodity by all athletes were the ice water sponges – absolutely heavenly.
The first walking break lasted for about 15 minutes, I simply over heated and had to recover. Subsequently, I was able to continue running/shuffling between aid stations and wound my way back to transition to start the second lap.
At the end of the first running lap I was at the low point of the race, I felt like I was roasting from the inside. My legs didn’t really bother me (I wasn’t going fast enough), but I was simply struggling to even breathe properly. They said it well in the film ‘Hot Shots’: “my ego was writing cheques that the body couldn’t cash”.
In every race there is a turning point. A point at which the discomfort eases off and the home straight begins. This time it happened at the run turnaround.
My wife was there, she cheered, she hooted and hollered. We high fived and all of a sudden the remaining 10.5km didn’t seem too bad anymore – I knew that I would finish.
I said to her that I would be another hour, That hour was bloody tough. I was more conservative with my strategy this time and took more frequent short walking breaks, and kept applying the icy water. I also had sips of Cola at the aid stations, which seemed to help.
I slowly made my way around the second lap under the cruel sun, beating down upon us directly from its zenith. I had a look at my watch and realised that I still had a chance of getting in under six hours, so I decided to go for broke. The last 2 Km actually felt relatively OK, my wife was there to see me home and I had the finishing shute all for myself. The MC announced my name and I punched the air as I crossed the line. I felt emotional. I felt relieved. I felt euphoric. I felt no pain. I had survived and I had arrived knowing that I want more!
A little side note about my weight. I started the race at 70kg according to the hotel weight scales. After the race, as I got back to the hotel I hopped on the scales again and they read 66Kg, this was after about 2 hours after finishing, and having drunk 1.5 litres of water and eating. It is likely that my total fluid loss during the race was considerably more, but it was kept partially in check by constantly sipping fluids.
Total Time: 05:52:48, Overall position: 157 Age Group: 21
The race went very quickly, I am actually amazed how the kilometres seemed to fly by on the bike. The run was slow and painful, but not overpoweringly so. I am really happy with the way I was able to stay in the present moment and not worry about my time or speed per se, instead I focused on trying to find something to enjoy all the time.
On the bike the descents were exhilarating and the scenery very beautiful, on the run I latched onto small comforts, such as a mild breeze along the golf course or a glimpse of the sea between the trees on the coastal stretch. Also a bit of friendly banter with my co-sufferers helped ease the tension. I managed to finish in under 6 hours, which was good, yet I cannot help but think that I was easily on target for finishing in five and half hours after the bike, even despite walking up the hills. Or maybe if I was able to ride faster in general, due to walking up those hills? Who knows? Anyway, those were choices made out of necessity. Like I said before, it was the heat that killed me on the run, for which unfortunately I could not prepare for any better than I did.
So overall, I summary, it was one heck of a race. Filled with joy and wonder as well as pain and moments of dark introspection. Would I do it again – without any hesitation. I have a bone to pick with those hills anyway…
Lessons Learned – What I must improve for next time
1. Bike shoes are not good for walking, at least wear socks in the bike shoes if you think of walking. I managed to get small blisters on my heels and they actually rubbed a bit of achilles so raw that it bled. Wearing socks for races with lots of debris on the course is also a good idea since stuff gets into your shoes and will cause chafing. Tightening the timing chip strap enough will prevent it from rubbing your left ankle. All of this will reduce the discomfort during a race. You will want to control all these minor details as they will slowly gnaw at you during a long race.
2. Spend more time acclimatising. For us cool climate dwellers these hot races are poison. They will cause us to overheat and to slowly implode. If you are unable to migrate somewhere warm for a few weeks prior to a race, then training in the Sauna might work… pop out to the local leisure centre and use their facilities.
3. Recce the course – Know what you are letting yourself in for. It is important to know the profile of the course and try and mimic the conditions as best as possible in your training. Specificity in training is really to only way to really prepare for the big day. If it’s a hilly course, you have to go a ride/run up hills. Working on the flat is good but not quite good enough. Also when the going gets tough, being familiar with the course can be very helpful mentally in terms of reducing anxiety.
4. Hill work on the bike and when running is the best way to build sport specific strength, which will help you maintain intensity and speed. Vary the duration, speed and gradient of the climbs so as to stress the system across a wide range, which will provide good overall gains. For middle distance and Iron distance the brick sessions have to be long. For short course racing a short quick run after bike will do, but long races require long bricks.
5. Sort out the pacing. Setting out with a clear idea of your goal pace will take the guess work out of the race and hopefully prevent cramp and other unpleasantness. I think it looks pretty amateurish when you are shaking on the side of the road desperately holding onto your bike to try and not fall over as your legs are convulsing.
6. Spend more time getting quality recovery time during race week and stay out of the sun. Sounds simple, right? Add kids and family and various other stressors into the equation and all of a sudden it’s not that simple. Try as best as you can to reduce stress and keep things simple, emotionally and physically.