There is a first time for everything. A marathon, an Ironman, racing in a wetsuit, peeing on my bike, and my first M-dot race. It all happened on the 8th of December, 2013, in a place I have fond memories of – Busselton.
On the days leading up to the Ironman, a well tapered athlete would be at the threshold of being his fittest and falling sick. Unfortunately, I was a little on the wrong side. A week before the race my family had fallen sick, and I was bothered by nasal congestion. Lots of fluids, rest and antioxidants probably helped mitigate my illness but all the pre-race anxiety did not help at all. But things could have been worse. Unfortunately for Ian, who was feverish from a full blown sinus infection, had to do a Chrissie Wellington on race day. I fully support his decision. It would have taken a lot more courage not to race. Racing at Busselton was nothing like any of the races I’ve done. I’ve always fared a little better in the heat. But Busselton presented a set of little challenges to me. I was uncertain about the swim. It was my first time swimming a whole 3.8 km in open water, first time racing in a wetsuit, which also meant my first time swimming in the cold. Its is also my first race in the southern hemisphere, just for the record. The pre-race swim was a bit of a shock to me. I left my swim cap in the car and was too lazy to retrieve it. The first five minutes I lost so much heat through my head I almost thought I would get a taste of hypothermia. Note to self: keep that head warm! Busselton is also a place known for brutal winds. A test ride soon confirmed that.
They say the the 2nd night before the race is when you want to get the best sleep, because come eve of race day one will be full of nerves.
Bike check in was a spectacle. For fear of sounding like an Ironman noob, I’ve never seen so many disc wheels at a race. Obviously they made a big difference, expecially on a flat course like this one. That is my little slice feeling a little shy among the sea of very very expensive equipment.
I was lucky to be able to catch a solid 5 hours of sleep on the night before. A quick breakfast: 1 huge banana, some strawberries, 3 slices of bread with almond butter, a mug of coffee, and a salt tablet and I was all ready to take a dump. A quick check on my street bag and on with my wetsuit. Made a mess of my race tattoo so I had to have my race number written on with a marker. Decided to wear my wetsuit to the race start because it was so cold and I thought I was being smart.
Transition. Pumped my tires and put my nutrition bottles on my bike. 1 20 oz bottle of gatorade, another 20 oz of water, a bottle of Perpetuem with 3 scoops of it. 3 gels on my top tube bag, another 2 to go in my jersey pockets 2 more gel bottles (one on top tube the other between the arms). 6 caffeinated Saltstick tabs. I had a good 1500+ calories with a mix of slow and fast release, and a fair amount of caffeine. Pretty much a rolling buffet of unsavoury gels and powders. And you’d be hard pressed to spot them on my bike. They key is to keep them out of the wind, and out of sight because it is so much cooler that way.
Just before heading out for my warm up swim I had to hit the loo again. As with any Iron distance race there will be a long queue for the toilets. So a tip for all, leave enough time to queue for a loo for last minute business. A quick warm up in the water and we jostled into the starting pen. Before we knew, the horn went off. The race had started and there was little time for pre race nerves. “May the force be with you!” were the last words Kelvin said to me before he dived in. I went right after him.
I had decided to play it safe for the swim. The last thing I wanted was to be overwhelmed by the cold and have other swimmers swimming over me. I started off further back, just ahead of most of the breaststrokers but behind the fast ones. Cold water seeped into my zipper seams. Embracing the cold, I swam hard for the first couple of minutes, letting the adrenaline do its job. Soon the churning subsided a little and I could see the end of the jetty. It looked awfully near. But I had to remind myself how deceptive that was.
Rounding the jetty and headed for the shore I found myself staring right into the rising sun. Finding it increasingly hard to sight, I decided to swim closer to the jetty piers. This was it, the home stretch of the swim. Soon it would be my favourite leg of the race. I had never swum that far in any of my training sessions before, not in a time trial. But perhaps when you added all the sets together. But that was what tapering for an ironman was about. You want to tease your body into yearning for a workout on race day.
Into the changing tent and out of my wetsuits. The moment the wetsuits came off I was defenceless against the cold. The cold seawater evaporating from my skin meant I was rapidly losing heat, bad for a tropical creature like me. Thankfully the volunteer who was liberally applying sunscreen on my arms and neck noticed my shivering, and started rubbing my back for heat. Kudos to him. I struggled to put on my socks and shoes, stuffed my back pockets with my two gels, sunnies and helmet and off I went, into the bike pen. Not a lot of bikes left, a painful sight. Note to self, as always, work on my swim.
The first km or so was an effort at not crashing. I was shivering so hard my teeth were chattering. I pedalled hard and furious to get my core temperature up. The wind was not helping. At this point I wondered if I should have packed arm warmers, which I later found out was not necessary. I just had to endure this portion.
Soon enough my shivering stopped. Time for nutrition. The key to fuelling in such a long race is to minimize the calorie deficit. I had not taken in any nutrition during my swim. Now it is paramount I get some calories in. I had an assortment of nutrition on my bike – a rolling buffet of sorts. I downed as much gatorade as I could, since they were quick calories and the last thing I wanted was a bloated stomach while my legs were still warming up.
My strategy on the bike leg was to conserve. The coach’s advice was to take it easy any time attempting a new distance. Enjoy it and complete the race. With that I resisted the urge to go faster. The throngs of pros and fast age groupers overtaking me with their disc wheels whooshing was not the most helpful. Good thing they were so much faster any thought of chasing them would seem foolish.
The course at IMWA was pancake flat. Race day conditions were mild, although it would have been to my advantage if it was hotter. My only foes were the wind and myself. Layman Road was where the winds were their most ferocious, with little vegetation to shield riders from it. Tuart Road and Forrest Beach Road were where the smooth tarmac gave way to chip and tar. It was rough, not quite like in Singapore where our idea of a less than smooth surface is one dotted with potholes and badly patched roadwork. The constant vibration was not only caused fatigue, it dramatically reduced rolling resistance. I reckoned I could have dropped a couple of psi off my usual tire pressures. I was told that it once unravelled someone’s aerobars, which I am not surprised to hear. This begets the argument for the use of torque wrenches.
The rough surfaces covered more than half of each lap, in a bike leg that consisted of three laps. At the end of the first lap my bladder was well and full from the nutrition. I had been consuming plenty of fluids to aid the digestion of my calories, which had protein from the perpeteum. That, coupled with a lower perspiration rate, meant that a porta-loo trip was imminent. But I was not going to waste precious minutes stopping for a leak. Hitting the rough surfaces on Forrest Beach Road I could not longer bear with the discomfort. I got off the saddle, checked my rear for any unlucky souls and gave it a good squeeze. It wasn’t easy mind you. A few of us have tried and given up, resorting the the porta-loo. For me, it was both horror and relief. Warm urine flowed down my leg, into my shoes, onto my saddle, into my seat tube, over my get bottle and the bottle on my downtube. Whatever splashed off the saddle ended up on my behind the seat bottles. Essentially only the front half of my bike was spared.
This went on for another four times on the bike leg. After each dump I would give my bike and gave everything a good splash with my bottle. Thank goodness for aid stations, which I must say were abundantly supplied. On one occasion a gentleman passed me and told me my bottles were leaking. I smiled and said it’s pee, not water, but thanks anyway.
Midway through the bike leg I was overwhelmed by sleepiness, which was something I never encountered before. Kelvin Kwek, our race travel buddy also recounted the same feeling. I was so bad I almost dozed off. Having used my only caffeinated get I was craving for a coke. What resulted was a slow careful ride to the next aid station where I found myself shouting “coke! coke!”. Note to self – more caffeinated gels on the bike, not the run.
The highlight of every loop was coming back into town for the turnaround. Little had we known that our holiday home was along the bike course. What better thing to do than to set up a couch in one’s front lawn?
Towards the last lap the cramps started. I eased off on the power and increased my nutrition intake. Thankfully the feeling went away and soon I was pedalling strong again. Heading back towards town I felt a sense of achievement. I had overcome 180 km of riding. The marathon was of little worry to me. But soon, I would find out how much a monster it was.
In an Ironman, the end of a 3.9 km swim and 180 km bike heralds the start of a marathon, which so happened to be my first. Prior to this I had not run anything more than 25 km. This, while I reckon was perfectly fine for elite athletes like Julie Dibens, did not quite work out for me. The marathon started out easy. The transition from bike to run was not so much of a “brick” as in my previous races. I believed the more disciplined brick sessions and cooler temperatures helped. Within a kilometre or so my legs felt ok, but my run was more of a shuffle than the usual gait.
They say one usually hits the wall around 30+ km. For me it happened at the halfway point. My left ITB started tightening up and causing some discomfort. It was an all too familiar feel that had me walk the rest of the race at the Desaru 2 years ago. Fearing the inevitable, I stopped, massaged my ITB and resumed. I tried running with my usual gait, which increased my pace and took the pain away a little but soon proved all too costly. Soon I was wasted, and thereon I started my walk/run routine.
And then there were the flies. These protein deficient female bushflies would swarm around every orifice on your face, feeding any mucus or source of protein they could find. After a while I just succumbed to them – simply too tired to do anything about them. I looked down and my shorts and they were caked in white salt crystals.
If one could separate agony and pain I guess I had both. The pain in my legs, and the agony of knowing I could not meet my illustrious target of 12:30. Soon it dawned upon me that even 13:00 was beyond me. Seeing a woman beside me doing the same run/walk routine, I shared a joke with her on how we are still trying so desperately to meet the 13th hour.
13:05 – I was less than a km from the finish. But I only wanted to finish the race. At this point the sun was setting and the only respite was that I would be safe from the humiliation of having to wear glowsticks. Entering the chute, I took a moment to soak in the atmosphere and remind myself that it was my first Ironman, and completing it was a feat already.
Sitting down at the finishers’ area I was overwhelmed with emotion. After 226 km how could one not be?
This day of firsts was not perfect. But aside from missing my target and grotesquely underestimating the marathon, I had executed the bike and the swim well, and nutrition was almost spot on. Next stop -Ironman Frankfurt.