Monday, March 22, 2010

Ironman China - Race Report

(Photos courtesy of Bryan, Tip/Sofian

It was a desperately disappointing day so I haven't fallen over myself to write the race report. However, there is a balance between starting to forget the pain & disappointment and starting to forget the details of the day. So here it is while I still have a vivid memory.

I was up and about doing my usual pre-race routine, sit-down, coffee, sit-down, coffee (repeat as needed). I'd had a great night's sleep but I wasn't as "Up" and excited as I was the morning of IMMY. Maybe overconfidence or simply the edge had been taken off by doing two Ironmans in two weeks.

I got down to the bus at my scheduled time and set up the bike very quickly without too much fuss. Then hit the portaloos for the last "unload". Now this is where the day really began to go south - when there aren't enough portaloos to go around coupled with too many "Non-Asianised" Westerners (i.e. no idea [or aim] when it comes to "squat" portaloos then we're talking about a big mess, LITERALLY). It was so disgusting people were vomiting as they entered AND departed the little plastic houses of fun.

I've backpacked in Nepal (twice) so I've seen worse (not much worse though). I decided against a second visit which would have been optimal! Anyway, let's move on - the subject ain't fun and the memories of this part of the day are starting to get too vivid.

I bumped into one of the "Icons" of the race and one of my personal sporting heroes - Sofian Ismail. If you ever need a "hit" of positive energy then go and seek this guy out before a race. We had a quick photo op. Then I saw Bryan who was looking OK considering having had chronic food poisoning and purging pretty much non-stop for the last 36hrs. Another positive guy and another great competitor to draw strength from pre-race.

I made my apologies as I needed a good 10-15 minute warm up - I don't believe in warming up when the gun goes - it may be a long race but why give away time right from the get go. Also if you're not properly warmed up then there is a much higher likelihood of going anaerobic within the first few hundred metres of the race. Not to mention breathing issues in a wetsuit race (see my Alpe d'Huez race report).

SWIM - 1hr 5mins 44secs
The swim was 4 laps of 950 metres, with athletes going off in groups of 5 every 5 seconds - a recipe for disaster I thought but credit where credit is due, it worked extremely well and went very smoothly. It was all chip timed so even if you started out of sync then your time was still 100% accurate.

I had an outstanding swim , an Ironman PB no less (the highlight of my day - not often I report that in a triathlon - of any sort!).

T1 - 4mins 6secs
Measured, not fast and not rushed. I am very good at transitions in Sprints, Olympic Distance races and duathlons but in Ironman I am off the pace here - part of it is due to experience. Experience has taught me that forgetting something in T1 or T2 can mean your race coming apart later - forgetting sunblock, Vaseline, picking up your nutrition, salt tablets, putting socks on right etc... All imperative but there is a solution to each one and I am committed to getting transitions in Ironmans down to the top percentile without the cock ups - a work in progress.

BIKE - 5hrs 13mins 50secs
I knew this was going to be tough and had no illusions about the sub 5hr time I'd achieved two weeks earlier in IMMY here. The wind was howling and the temperature was already close to 30C. We were straight into a headwind and my heart rate was 10 beats per minute higher than IMMY which in itself was 10 beats per minute higher than my target rate (so I was 20 beats higher than what it needed to be). It stayed there for far too long but I just didn't have the discipline or the courage to back off to get it down.

My legs didn't have the zip or the power that they had in IMMY but they were pretty darn close and I doubted many people would pass me. (Two guys did later in the race but not in my age-group and I happily let them go).

After about 10k we turned a corner onto a fabulous and smooth hwy and spent the next goodness knows how long being buffeted by a side wind from hell. It was a white knuckled ride and being blown off was a constant possibility (especially with my TTX aero frame, deep rim tri-spoke front wheel and disc rear wheel). I'm a strong cyclist so it wasn't ever going to be a real issue (and is the fastest set up in wind despite what people think but provided you can handle it). It was still scary as hell though.

The downside where the set up is questionable though, is in being able to drink enough. If you're hanging on for dear life, it really doesn't matter how fast your powering along if you can't let go of the handlebars to drink then at some point you'll lose time and power due to dehydration.

Fortunately/unfortunately this problem was taken out of my hands by the organisers. I drank every drop of liquid I could get my hands on. Unfortunately the aid stations were only every 15K and should have been every 10K (as in IMMY). The drinks often were hot and NONE of them served in cycling bidens. In fact the water was in such flimsy bottles that when you grabbed them the bottle collapsed spilling 50% of the water. If you ever put the 500ml bottle in you bottle cage then the chances were that it would bounce out at the slightest bump. DISGRACEFUL is all I can say especially as they'd been told these three points last year and had done nothing about any of them.

So 3/4 of the way through the bike as we hit the medieval Chinese villages for the second time (amazing experience, although horrible concrete roads) I felt my power drain from my legs and never regain it on the bike. I'd been eating well and drinking as much as I could get hold of so I assumed that this was the effect of IMMY haunting me from 2 weeks before. With the benefit of hindsight and a clear mind I suspect that this was solely a result of dehydration at this stage of the race given all of the circumstances.

A couple of guys I'd passed earlier came past me again and simply rode away from me. I can't begin to express my relief when I got to the last 10k with the only tailwind of the day.

T2 - 4mins 19secs
Again not fast but measured. I knew I was in trouble but I'd had a fast swim (for me I mean) and probably one of the better bike splits of the day considering the conditions, therefore I chose to ignore my physical frailty. I'd eaten well, I'd taken my salt tablets, I drank everything that was available (considerably less than there should have been) so I chose to work on my favourite state of mind in such circumstances - DENIAL and get on with the job at hand - QUALIFYING. Surely everyone was in a similar physical state????

RUN - 5hrs 20mins 57secs
Through my 7 months of training I'd had two training speeds when running - 1)fast and 2)in trouble. I was immediately running at option 2 pace. The plan was to get to the first turnaround (4.9k) whereby hopefully the body would start to find some sort of equilibrium and who knows maybe a second wind.

The temperature sored and my body responded as it always does in such circumstances - my kidney's closed down, my stomach was being filled up with liquid from the aid stations but that's where it stayed and my blood became thicker. The dreaded "Ironman Walk" was inevitable and kicked in at around 7k - much sooner than expected due to my already dehydrated condition. (I also have to state that the aid stations were 2k apart rather than the 1k they should have been and most of the drinks were about 40C - once again the organisers had been told about this the year before and the fact that they allowed this to happen again is not only dangerous but bordering on criminal if you ask me).

I'd trained so hard and reached a level of fitness that few people can even dream of because they don't even know it exists. I say this not to brag but to emphasise the mental trauma that goes with having to walk in a race that you expected not only to run fast but run very fast - add to that a uncompromising belief that I was going to qualify for Hawaii and you will start to grasp how unwound mentally I became over the next few hours.

I'd long believed that the "Ironman Shuffle" was a thing of the past, the hunched shoulders, the dropping head, the shuffling, barely running feet; yet here I was, not even able to do that but forced to do the Ironman Walk with still 30+km to go. I tried oh so hard to get going again but the pain was debilitating, the dehydration was probably at very dangerous levels but I pressed on. My mood moved from DENIAL to realisation that the dream was over, this then became self pity. I'm not one much for self pity even at the worst of times so this didn't last long but it was there for a while.

The next emotion was the worst and although illogical, unfounded and thankfully fading is still with me today - it was the feeling of letting down my friends and supporters who'd followed me on this crusade to qualify for Hawaii - many I'd never even met but had cheered me on through this blog, via Facebook and Twitter. I felt that I had failed them.

I knew that not a single one of them would be anything other than disappointed FOR ME but emotions are not necessarily founded on reality or logic. I'm not ashamed to say that a flood of tears came over me more than once when thinking of failing so many people that had unerringly believed in me.

As a trudged, oh ever so slowly, towards the distant turnaround I saw Bryan heading in the opposite direction. I could not believe that he was still in the race, he was running/marching along with his captain's cap on (very cool). A big smile on his face and positive words to say (although I was too messed up to remember what was said the gist of the meeting really boosted me). It was a miracle that he was still there after his food poisoning, I had doubted he'd finish the swim let alone the bike. It just goes to show what a hard MoFo he is. (Sadly due to extreme pain and kidney failure he had to drop out at the turnaround by the finish line - a valiant and fighting performance nonetheless).

I got to the bottom turnaround, about 14k from the finish, I'd been walking for several hours but the temperature was dropping as the sun was going down so I promised myself I'd try to bring this sorry effort to a swifter end by finding some way to run at least a little. I started by running one lamppost/walking one lamppost. This worked and soon it was run two lampposts/walk one lamppost. Then run three lampposts. With about 8k to go I was keeping pace with an Aussie guy who kept catching me during my walking lamppost and expressed how amazed he was that I could keep this routine up. "It's the only way I can keep going" I replied. "I hope it's not annoying you, it would bug me senseless" I apologised.

He was very generous in his reply and said something along the lines of "Whatever it takes just keep it up" and he meant it - whoever you were - THANKS. I soon decided to see how long a non-stop run could be sustained. It was excruciatingly painful, my kidneys and stomach were screaming stop, my shins had long since gone numb other than the periodic shots of terrible pain akin to being electrocuted - not pleasant but I was running and at last the weather was cool enough for me to keep it up.

Somewhere between 4-6k to go I realised that 5 minute ks would see me just break 12 hours. I had no idea what 5 minute pace was anymore so I just nailed it as hard as I could, maximum pace that my little legs could muster. I knew I was running fast not only by the number of people I was overtaking but by the looks of surprise/disbelief on not only their faces but the spectators too. As it turned out I was over 10 minutes inside 12 hours and my pace must have been around 4 minute ks. Surprising and unlikely at the end of a Ironman but when you consider my months of preparation and fitness coupled with the fact that I hadn't run but just walked for several hours then it wasn't so special. Mentally it was a nice achievement but athletically nothing compared to the guys that had knocked out sub 4 hour marathons in these extreme conditions.

I crossed the line strongly, got my medal (a cool medal actually - made of coconut, although I note one or two people weren't impressed but after 16 Ironmans something original is kinda cool!), my finishers T-shirt (cheap and a disgrace actually). I grabbed some pizza and soup, caught up with Sam and Carmen (Carmen, sadly had to pull out at the end of the first run loop due to illness - no shame in that, she's a tough cookie that's for sure). I then headed back to transition and although you could have got your bike the next morning I felt fine so decided to get everything sorted.

Nothing much more to report - I had a good night's sleep other than the multiple pee visits due to the copious quantity of liquid in my stomach gradually finding it's way through my kidneys as they started working properly again. The next morning I was one of the few people not hobbling about - nothing to brag about, I hadn't exactly taxed my legs for the vast majority of the run.

The slow realisation of my failure was starting dawn on me (again) as time was passing - there were going to be dark days ahead.

But I will say this - To achieve success then you must taste failure. Without failure it is impossible to really know success let alone savour it. The greater the failures and the more hard fought the successes the sweeter they become.

Yes there have been dark days since the race and probably darker days to come, I invested a lot physically and emotionally into IMMY and IMChina. I achieved more than I set out to achieve at the beginning but somehow I've banked all that and my expectations and goals shifted to greater heights. I'll get over it and move on but I WILL SUCCEED and when I do the sweetness will be unparalleled and intoxicating.


Cheong said...

Hey Simon, do keep the flame burning (Kona). I have faith that you will succeed soon :)

Brybrarobry said...

Great race report Simon. I felt like I could visualize you the entire way. Awesome job finishing in tough, tough conditions. 16 Ironman's, incredible. Great work you tough MF.

dev said...

Hey Simon,

You are always an inspiration to me....The way you are so damn punctual with your training and a big salute to your determination. I am sure you will succeed and that too very soon. Keep up the training and blogging. Good Luck and best wishes!!


sofiantriathlete said...

congratulations Simon

Simon said...

Thanks guys - I shall keep on fighting the good fight. Just as you do too.

yipwt said...

I think you've shown that the fight is tough, and sometimes we can't get what we aim for, try as much as we wanted it.

But if we keep on doing it, we might hit the jackpot sometime in the future.

plee said...

Great report Simon! Glad to know you moving forward already..and always inspired by your journey (the highs and the lows)! Thanx for sharing with us!

yipwt said...

You had showed the rest of us tri guys what needs to be done to get kona. It ain't pretty with 25+ hours p/week. But you've went 7 months through it and that's very consistent.

I believe you'll nail it next year.