After a few months of roller-coaster training, my friend, John Kok, and I finally arrived at the start line of Ironman Taiwan in the island of Penghu last Sunday (7th October). Looking back now, I can't remember how I ended up registering for both Ironman Taiwan, as well as Ironman Malaysia this year.
John and I didn't train together prior to Ironman Taiwan, until just a few weeks before the race; and even then our joint training sessions were mainly during the long weekend bike rides. He spent quite a lot of time working on his swim, and as in the case for most people, he trained the least for his run. I'm not sure why, but most people just don't like running as much as cycling.
I'm not forgetting to mention here that we had a few days of insane carbo-loading sessions before the race. We had had beef noodles, beef rice, beef burgers, and more meals containing beef. The Taiwanese just love their beef, you see. Prices of food in Taiwan are perhaps at least 50% more than in Malaysia; and in some cases about double. However, each meal is generally big enough to make you feel like you're three months pregnant.
So anyway, let me get back to the race. Now, where was I? Ah yes, the start line of the race. Fate would have it that at about half an hour before the flag off, it was announced that the swim distance had been shortened to a mere 400m. Just in case you're wondering why that strange distance, let me quickly explain that the swim course was originally made of a start from within the lagoon and all the way out to the open sea. But because the wind condition was quite severe that day, the sea was deemed to be unsafe, and the organiser wasn't taking chances, thus opting for the safety of the participants. The swim was confined to within the lagoon only. Hence the 400m.
As soon as I heard the announcement of the shortened swim distance to 400m (it was supposed to have been 3.8km, by the way), I decided to take off my wetsuit. For the few days that I spent in Penghu before that, I haven't even tried swimming in the sea, and I was therefore unaware what was the water temperature like. But I have had several swimming sessions in our Likas Sports Complex here in KK, and the water there is ridiculously cold; it can cause a heart attack for the faint-hearted. Looking at the water from afar, I reckoned that it'd probably take me 15 minutes to complete the 400m. Since I'm a lousy swimmer, I was among the last few participants to enter the water. Although the swim was in the lagoon, it was still very rough; the current was also very strong. Once I was in the water, I sprang into action; the usual kicking and elbowing, and I was surprised to emerge on the other end in just about 10 minutes. In Malay, we have a short expression to sum up the 400m swim of this race—alang-alang!
And then the amusing run to T1, which was longer than the swim distance! I took my time, passing through the shower and I stopped a few seconds longer to pee while I rinsed off the salt water. Then, at T1, I took my time putting on a cycling jersey, applied sunblock lotion, drank a can of Red Bull. By the time I took my bike off the rack, I have spent about 10 minutes in T1.
Although John and I started the race at about the same time, I wasn't really paying attention on his whereabouts once we were flagged off. But I did catch a glimpse of him when I emerged from the swim, as it's easy to spot him in his pink trisuit. I'm thinking maybe one of these days I'd be brave enough to wear a pink trisuit too?
For a few months before we even set foot in Penghu, we spent a lot of time discussing about the wind condition in Penghu through our Whatsapp chat group. You see, Penghu has the reputation of strong winds all year round. Any cyclist will tell you that winds are the biggest enemy. The wind speed for this particular day was about 35kph-40kph; and they came from all directions. Those who're not so good in bike handling may find it extremely hard to ride in such a condition.
The 180km bike leg was essentially made of 2 loops that saw participants crossing bridges that linked a few islands together. The course was mainly undulating in nature, and at the back of my mind, if it were not for the wind, this would have been a fast course.
I saw John twice during the bike leg; in fact, I shouted out to him from across the road. On both occasions, I thought John looked very steady, and he did not seem to be overly tired. But of course 180km is a long distance, and one way or another, at the end of that ride, one is bound to be tired.
I noticed quite a fair number of participants drafting despite having been informed that this was a non-drafting event at the briefing the day before. I also saw several bike accidents along the way; and sounds of ambulance sirens along the way, transporting injured participants.
Transition 2 (T2)
After pedaling for about 6 hours 49 minutes, I finally arrived safely at T2. Although I was very careful to control my exertion levels during the entire bike leg, I was still quite tired when I eventually finished the bike leg. T2 was in a different location from T1. After racking up my bike, I grabbed my T2 bag and ran to the changing tent. There, I sat down on a plastic stool. The first thing I did was to down another can of Red Bull which I've left in my T2 bag earlier. Then I took off my cycling jersey, thus leaving just my sleeveless trisuit. Bike shoes off; running shoes on; and I spent a bit of time applying sunblock lotion. In the end I spent a total of about 11 minutes at T2.
And then, to my surprise, I saw my friend, Quentin a few feet away. He shouted out to me, asking me what was I still doing there at T2. Both of us visited the toilet and eventually started the run leg together.
The run leg of the Ironman has always been a big mystery to me. Although I can ordinarily run a 4-hour marathon, when I run the 42km in the Ironman, the best that I've achieved in my 5 previous Ironman races so far was about 5 hours 40 minutes. For the life of me, I just did not know where I went wrong. I was determined to at least run a sub-5hrs30mins for IM Taiwan.
Then a few months ago, I started working on my running efficiency. It's quite an irony that although I've been running long distance for over 10 years now, there's still something that I could learn to improve on my running efficiency. It's like learning how to run all over again!
The 42km run for this race was made up of 4 loops around the harbour area, and running the first loop was a bit confusing. It was still quite hot in the mid afternoon when I started my run, but it's nowhere near the kind of heat that we have back home in KK.
Although Quentin and I started the run together, he was lagging behind, and the distance between us began to grow almost immediately. Later, I saw John coming from the other direction when I was about 7km into my run, and he was perhaps about 3km into his run at that point. I called out to him, but he couldn't hear me.
Aid stations were located at regular intervals, so much so that I merely passed some of them without stopping. But in the later stages of the run leg, I found myself stopping at every station to fuel up. As a matter a fact, perhaps it's not really a matter of fueling up. Rather, it's a good excuse to rest my legs! There were an assortment of fuel choices, but I helped myself mainly on the chocolates and cola. I crossed paths with Quentin and John again a couple of times; and I saw Yee Tee and Felix Tan too.
By the time I had finished the third loop of the run, it was obvious to me that I'd be able to run a sub-5hrs30mins marathon. The only question was by what margin? It was also about sunset then and I was beginning to have a bit of trouble seeing beyond 30m-40m, as I don't have my powered glasses when I race.
My legs were becoming heavier with every step, and I began counting my steps some time around mid 30km of the run. It's just a little trick of mine whenever I run long distance—I just close my mind from my surroundings and just start to count "1, 2, 3....", and reward myself with 50 steps of walking rest after every 500 steps of running. Step by step, in the end I was approaching the finish line, and the excitement grew. Suddenly I could run sub-6min/km again!
After what seemed like an eternity of torture, I finally crossed the finish line in a total time of 12 hours 37 minutes and 41 seconds. Regretfully, however, there is no personal best for this race, as the swim was shortened to 400m. But I'm thrilled that I ran the 42km in about 5 hours 16 minutes, which was a huge improvement from all my previous Ironman marathons.
Well, the few months of training and the long day of torture in the Ironman Taiwan, eventually culminated to this medal which goes into the cabinet of hundreds of medals at home.