One fine day, a little over half a year ago my friend, Pamela Fletcher, invited me for a yam-cha session. She arrived fully equipped with a notebook and a laptop like a journalist. Gave me quite a surprise, she did. She was seeking my advice on racing the Ironman in Langkawi, and I spent a good hour or so sharing with her what I knew about the Ironman. The truth is that I'm not an expert; but if you are just an average person with a full-time job, attempting your first Ironman race, it's not such a bad idea to seek advice from a person like me.
The advice that I can offer will most probably suit people like Pam, because I myself am not a professional triathlete—I have a full-time job and constantly struggle to juggle between work commitments, family and social life and my training programme. Way too often professional coaches come up with the kind of training programmes that are just impossible to adhere to for ordinary folks like us. But I have always been a firm believer of the fact that any average person can finish an Ironman race within the cutoff time of 17 hours. The two main ingredients are 1) time and discipline to carry out the training; and 2) mental strength on the race day.
I've known Pam for many years now, and I must admit that I had my doubts of her making the cut for the Ironman. I had no doubt of her mental strength, of course, but I wasn't sure about her discipline when it comes to the training. I somehow had the impression that she's perpetually full of interruptions when it comes to her training, but I guess that's all she could do.
We arrived at the start line of the Ironman Malaysia race in Langkawi, i.e. the swim of 3.8km comprising 2 loops of triangular-shaped course. I met Pam shortly before the flag off. Mia was also racing, although she was only racing the half distance, 70.3. I've never been a very good swimmer, and I took about 1:35 minutes to finish the swim. But about 500m before the finish, there was a storm, and the sea became very rough, and it was much more of a struggle to reach the shore.
Another friend, Marzuki Nasir, was racing his first Ironman, and before the race, every now and then he'd ask me about this and that. He trained very hard for the race, losing perhaps over 10kg within 4 months. He improved his swim substantially. But of course, as in the case of most triathletes, there is always insufficient run training, I don't know why.
Marzuki was asking me about Transition 1 (after the swim), and I told him that it's just a huge enclosed tent where the whole crowd would be. Yes, some people would change into fresh dry clothes after the swim, and there is no privacy; they will just strip off everything in full view of everybody else. I told Marzuki not to look, of course, because otherwise he would lose his appetite for weeks after that.
As I was putting on my shoes, Quentin was there shouting something about me not telling the truth. But it was a noisy crowd, and I didn't bother to find out what he was saying. I calmly put on a cycling jersey and ran out to my bike. There, my heart sank as I saw most of the bikes were already gone, thus indicating that I had a lot of catching up to do.
Shortly after I left T1, I arrived at the hilly Datai section of the bike course. It was still raining cats and dogs. I remained true to my game plan, which was to pedal uphill slowly. Just about halfway up the first hill, I saw Anslem coming down from the opposite direction. I'd estimate he was probably about half an hour ahead of me by then.
Later that morning, the rain stopped and then the sun came back with a vengeance—it was scorching hot until I could feel the heat biting into my skin. After a long sector of mainly flat and mildly undulating roads, I finally arrived at the 3 hills. From the foot of that hill, I saw the procession of cyclists pushing their bikes uphill. I merely shifted to my lightest gear, and took my time pedalling up the slope. Then there was another hill, and another. As I was just reaching the top of the third hill, I saw Samantha Lee pushing her bike. Just a quick "Hi" and then I was enjoying the downhill portion. But then we had to repeat the entire loop to make the 180km.
As I progressed further and further into the bike leg, I felt increasingly tired. But I had expected that anyway. You see, before this race, I did the 70.3 Bintan; and then Ironman Taiwan. These were tough races to me, and they're just weeks apart. I felt like I had insufficient time to recover. Accordingly, I felt my bike getting heavier and heavier all the time. But actually, little did I know, I was losing air pressure in my front tyre. I didn't realise that there was a very tiny puncture.
At Transition 2, as I was changing my shoes, Quentin was there again. I had the shrewd suspicion that his main reason for joining the race was just to stalk me, not to finish the race; I should hire some thugs to beat him up one of these days! He was shouting from across the changing tent, "Why so slow?". I was waiting for him mah!
It was still very hot when I embarked on the 42.2km run. It wasn't really a run; more like a very slow jog. At roughly 6km into my run, I saw Anslem coming from the opposite direction. At that point, he was perhaps about an hour ahead of me. Since the beginning of the race, I haven't seen Marzuki and the rest of my Sabahan friends. But later I saw Bonaventure. He was at that point fast catching up with Anslem.
As I was approaching the turning point at Cenang, I finally saw Marzuki coming from the other direction. But it took me perhaps another half an hour before I finally overtook him along the road leading back to the MIEC. My legs felt very heavy, and I was getting very exhausted. Somewhere along that stretch of road, I saw Pam running, evidently she has survived the bike leg of the race!
Before long, it was already nightfall, and on the second visit to Cenang, I finally caught up with Anslem. He was already walking then, and I slowed down to a walk too. We walked together for some distance, and he suggested that we should just keep walking for the rest of the distance. But doing some rough calculations in the head, I was horrified by the thought that we would have to walk for 2.5 hours to reach the finish line. Accordingly I resumed my slow jog again. Counting in my head, 1-2-3-4-5....I kept going up to 500, before I rewarded myself with a walking rest of 60-70 steps. Then I repeated the whole cycle again and again.
The last few kilometres of the race was the most punishing. I felt like there was nothing left in my legs. By then even a slow jog of a mere 50m needed a Herculean effort. I began to wonder if I would even reach the finish line.
Ordinarily, I would run the last homestretch to the finish line. But on this occasion, I was just too exhausted, I could hardly walk, let alone run the final few metres. I merely walked unsteadily; I looked down to the ground and had to struggle to stay on my feet.
It was the ugliest finish of all my Ironman races, but my main priority then was just to cross the forsaken finish line. In the end I did it in 14:47. After receiving my finisher medal and towel, I sat on a plastic chair to catch my breath. And oh boy, I felt like I was having a heart attack—my heart rate was over the roof, and my legs felt like jelly. It was just pathetic, I tell you!
After a long time, Anslem arrived at the finish line with his brother Victor. It was then that I found out from Anslem that Quentin had abandoned the race after the bike leg. I must admit that the thought of quitting did cross my mind too, because of the extreme exhaustion. Marzuki did it in 15:10, a very respectable time for a first timer, especially in a course like Langkawi. I was overwhelmed by exhaustion that I didn't have the appetite to eat. After a long rest, I had some soup and an icepop. Then I collected my street bag and finisher T-shirt. 10 minutes later, I reached the hotel room.
Mia had hours ago finished her race, and actually achieved a huge PB. She would usually struggle to beat the cutoff time of 8:30, and she's had several DNFs too. Even if she did beat the cutoff, it would be just by a matter of less than 5 minutes. But today she finished in 7:50, an improvement of more than half an hour!
I had a shower and got ready for bed. It was way past midnight, and I was dead tired. And then it suddenly occurred to me, what has happened to Pam? Accordingly I grabbed my cellphone and launched the tracking app. Pam was still racing out there and she had a few kilometres left to run in the dying minutes of the race. As the minutes ticked away, my sleepiness disappeared, and my heart rate began to shoot through the roof again. Come on Pam, you can do it!
The tracking app kept loading new estimated finishing times for Pam. At first, the estimated finish was a DNF (did not finish). God dammit, run faster lah Pam! Then the estimate changed to just barely making the cutoff. Then it changed back again to DNF. And again to making the cutoff. Oh for heaven's sake, don't do this to me, Pam! At long last, the official result was that Pam did it within the 17 hours cutoff with a little shy of 4 minutes to spare. For the second time that night, I almost died of a heart attack; all my finger nails were gone by then. I had the right mind to run to the finish line to strangle Pam to death, maybe at least break her leg or bite her nose, but unfortunately I was just too exhausted to do all those.
Speaking of the devil...
In the end, all Sabahan participants in both the full and half distances finished within their respective cutoff times. Congratulations y'all, especially to the first-timers. It was in that sense a victorious day for Sabahans, and I bet this will spur on many other Ironman wannabes to attempt the Langkawi race next year.
After all the months of training and race day excitement, it all boiled down to this medal.
I have done 3 Langkawi Ironman races, and I shall keep the option open for next year. It's been such an exhausting year from me. Time to take a 2-week break before resuming training for my next race.