Sunday, February 4, 2018

Triathlon Training: The Value of a Coach

In 2016, despite having completed my fourth half IRONMAN, I didn’t believe I could do a full IRONMAN. The training load was just too demanding. I thought I would break under the pressure or burn out before I could even make it to the starting line. Injuries, work, family demands, travel. The list of excuses was long and real.

But for some reason, in late January of 2016, I decided it was time. I had done enough 70.3s, a few marathons, and an ultramarathon. And I still wasn’t an IRONMAN. So, I Googled triathlon coaches in Singapore and found one that was also a physiotherapist.

I was just recovering from a torn plantar fascia, and thought it would be ideal if I could be coached and be treated by the same guy. So, I emailed Bevan from Singapore Physio. He was at capacity, so he referred me to Colin O’Shea, who run COS Coaching. Check him out here:

I contacted Colin, not knowing what to expect. But after a quick conversation with him, I knew he’d be able to see me through my IRONMAN goal.

So, for the next 9 months and 394 workouts; 106 swims, 147 bike rides, and 141 runs, Colin dutifully prescribed me training sessions, advised me on strategy, and pushed me to my peak. On day one, I set three goals:

      1.       Break my half-marathon record (completed in April at the 2XU run)
      2.       Shatter my 70.3 personal best (done in August at Bintan)
      3.       Complete a full IRONMAN (read on)

My schedule looked approximately like this, with some variation:
  • Monday: Rest
  • Tuesday: Run and swim
  • Wednesday: Cycle
  • Thursday: Cycle then brick run
  • Friday: Cycle or run
  • Saturday: Swim and bike or run
  • Sunday: Swim and bike or run
We used TrainingPeaks to schedule and analyse the workouts. This allows for in-depth dissection of the metrics that matter. TrainingPeaks also his its own metrics that I couldn’t live without, even if I were training without a coach. Things like Intensity Factor, Pa:HR, and Pw:HR.

This led to me studying and learning more about the streams of numbers I was generating and developing much greater insight into the causes and effects of what I was doing.

And along the way, while following Colin’s schedules, I found myself getting faster and stronger. In March, my FTP was 222, and in July it reached 257. My half-marathon in April was accomplished in a personal best of 1:44.

And in August, I reached my second goal, obliterating my 5:35 70.3 time and replacing that record with a 5:14. And I can’t forget coming in 2nd in the bike split time for my age group in the 70.3 Cebu: 2:29. All I did was follow his orders, give feedback, and ask questions when needed.

Finally, I completed a full IRONMAN, minus the swim. It was cancelled due to sharks. Read about it here:
Here are the key benefits of having a coach:
      1.       Structured and “correct” training plans and workouts
      2.       Someone that can answer technical questions, help with race strategy, nutrition, and more
      3.       Having someone constantly monitor what you do and how you do it – great for discipline
      4.       Positive motivation
      5.       Knowledge sharing and social interaction with other athletes under that same coach

Drawbacks of having a coach:
      A.      There is a cost
      B.       See #3 above
      C.       Some athletes may benefit from learning how to build their own training plans

So, do I have a coach now? No, because I’ve committed to spending time with my kids in 2018 and entering them in races. Looks like I’m the coach now.

I’m still training for as many races this year as I did last year, but no full IRONMANs as it’s a bit too demanding. There’s no point having a coach when I’m only kind of training part-time. But when I do go back, I know which coach I’ll call.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Sunsmart IRONMAN Western Australia 2017 Race Report

This race report is meant to be as functional as it is entertaining. So, if you’re considering IRONMAN Western Australia it should give you a few pointers on logistics and practical concerns. If you’re not, it’s still a review of a first-timer’s full IRONMAN experience.

Clear, clean, and fast. What a place to swim.
Travel and Logistics
I registered for the full IRONMAN on August 28, three months before the race. That’s pretty late, but I don’t think the slots ever fully sold out. I know the half sold out, so if you’re considering the 70.3, register as soon as you can. The 70.3 relay sold out, too.

We flew in to Perth on 29 November, leaving plenty of time to set up the bike, check in, and get a few training sessions in. Flights from Singapore to Perth are frequent enough, and we found good fares on Singapore Airlines. I was traveling with my wife, two kids, and parents (my mom, Joby, was a runner in the relay of the 70.3).

I use a Scicon triathlon bike bag, so transporting the bike is easy. I don’t have to take the aero bars off, adjust the seat, or change any of my setup. The only things I have to do are remove the wheels and pedals.

I love the Scicon bag
Maybe the hardest issue for an overseas visitor to coordinate is the transport and lodging. We rented a 7-seater from Thrifty, and booked a house on Stayz. We picked up the car at the airport. It couldn’t have been easier, and the Thrifty rates were great. They gave us a Kia Carnival and it was great that my bike fit perfectly in the rear storage area, still in its bag. And I never thought I’d like a Kia, but this thing was incredibly functional and had a 3.3L 280hp engine!

Another thing you should do upon arrival is get a local SIM card. I think we only paid $30 AU for 12 GB of data or something like that. This helped us navigate from Perth to Busso with GPS and kept us connected to the world.

The drive from Perth to Busso is easy, on perfect roads, with clear signs. It took us around just about two and a half hours. Our GPS took us right to the front door of the place we rented, on Holgate Rd. It was a house within a gated development and had a shared pool and other facilities. It had a nice back yard (have to set up the bike somewhere), parking, washer and dryer, three bedrooms, and pretty much anything else you could want. I’d stay there again if I went back.

Nice back yard. After setting up the bike it was time for a ride.
 Although we booked our house months in advance, it seemed like there were quite a lot of lodging options. If you have a rental car, your options are much wider, as you can stay far from the check-in, as we did. If you are not renting a car, you should be able to find a hotel (more like motel) near the event.

Test ride the day before the race.
A friend of mine stayed in Ithaca Motel. It’s pretty basic but within walking distance of the event. Another stayed in Restawile Motel, but it was about 5km from check-in. Too far to walk home to after the race. Our choice was on Holgate Rd, about 7km away from the Jetty.

Joby and I went to check in the next day (30 November). It was great to not be rushing, like what I’m normally used to. There were no queues and the venue was still being set up. There was plenty of time to check out the transition area and get our bearings.

Right on the run course, by the jetty
 The race expo was pretty big with all the usual overpriced IRONMAN items plus local vendors’ products. A few days before the race I had my dad buy me XLab Gorilla bottle cages in the US, as my bottles had been launching, and it was a bit of a hassle to do so in such short time.

Ready to roll
Turns out I could have bought them here – there was a booth that was basically a bike shop with pretty much all triathlon hardware you could want, from nutrition to tools. And the XLab Gorilla cages they had were very well-priced, too.

Race Day
Joby and I went to the starting point together on Sunday morning. She was in the 70.3 relay, which actually started before the full, so her swim teammate, Kenny Pina, was at the beach all ready to swim. Interestingly, the jetty is exactly 1.9 km long, so for the full it’s simply out the right side of the jetty, around the end of it, and back on the left side.

A shot of the pier from the underwater observatory at the end of it. Totally worth the visit.
 For the half, which Kenny was doing, it was simply halfway out, under the jetty, and then back. Before the race started, the announcer called out the name of the youngest (age 18 or 19) and oldest 70.3 participants. The oldest was Joby, at 75. That was very cool to hear.

The "Swim"
Then the air horn sounded and the first swimmers were off. They were letting two out every 10 seconds. First out where the mobility impaired. Right after that the pros went, then the different age groups. Kenny was somewhere in there but I couldn’t tell who was who so I couldn’t spot him in the crowd. The wetsuit, googles, and swimcap make a pretty good disguise.

I had done two practice swims the days before, and was really impressed with the conditions. This was a wetsuit swim but the water was really not bad. Initially, it felt a bit cold, but after 30 seconds that went away.

What a pleasant surprise to find that the conditions afforded me a 1:50/100m pace.
The water temperature ranged from 21 to 23 over those two swims. My best swim pace in a wetsuit in saltwater for 4,000m had been 2:17/100m; but in Busselton I did one 1,800 swim at 2:02 and a 900m swim at 1:50. I had never swam that fast before.

About 10-15 minutes after the 70.3 swimmers had set out I started seeing them climbing up the ladders along the pier and running back towards the beach. This was odd. Boats were corralling the swimmers to the ladders with some swimmers obviously unaware of what was happening. A helicopter was circling a few hundred metres beyond the jetty and that’s when everybody knew what was wrong: Sharks.

Immediately I knew none of us in the full would be swimming and this was a real disappointment. An IRONMAN with no swim wasn’t going to be an IRONMAN. Not even a duathlon. Just a super long bike ride with a marathon at the end.

I peeled the wet suit off and waited by my bike for further instructions. Along with another thousand dejected athletes. I think we waited more than an hour. Or two.

This gave me time to slather on tons of sunscreen. My paranoia of sunburn was very real as I seem to get burned in every one of my races, despite applying sunscreen. And the day before, my dad, Jim, had just had his skin checked at the Melanoma WA tent – and they found what looked like skin cancer! Luckily, there was time for him to get it sorted out if he went to his doctor in the US when he returned home at the end of the year.

So, after using up all my tiny amount of sunscreen, I found a few volunteers with a few litres of sunscreen and put as much of it as I could on. Hopefully the harsh Australian sun would not fry me over the next 10-12 hours.

The Bike
They started the bike an hour and a half after the swim for the full was supposed to have started. This was a beach start as though we were just coming out of the swim. So, in a big giant mess, we all crowded together on the beach, queued up.

Every 10 seconds they released two athletes. We were to run off the beach and into T1. I was probably in the middle or a bit towards the front and I waited more than an hour. I think this was more tiring and taxing than the swim would have been!

Bike gear bag packed and racked
The chute corralled us into the T1 tent where we grabbed our bike bags, put our shoes and helmets on, and stuffed our wet suits into the bags. Two volunteers there laughed when I asked for sunscreen – they were the two that had already covered me in sunscreen a few hours prior but they graciously did it again.

The driest IRONMAN swimmers on Earth
Soon I was on the bike. Finally. It was about time. The perfectly-paved roads with virtually no cracks, potholes, or irregularities was just what we needed. It was a comfortable 27 degrees at the start, and soon dropped to a cool 23 near the water.

Somehow, a few kilometers out, I realized I hadn’t started my Garmin. Not a big deal but it would make estimating my finish time a bit less accurate.

Thinking of the time, I calculated to myself: “I started the race at 8:30. Alan (Joby’s bike teammate) must have started the bike at about 7. So, he’s going to finish at about 9:20 (yes, he’s that fast). Then Joby will do the run in 2:15-2:30, so they’ll be done before Noon. I’ll finish the bike in about six hours, so, say 2:30pm.”

We passed through a marshy area where a sign read something like, “Marshland of International Significance”. A few storky-like cranes were perched below the sign, perfectly still. They looked fake.

A guy on a green bike pulled up next to me and said hi. He was a Singaporean and he spotted me by my Terai Melayu shorts. Friendly guy and I don’t think I got his name.

The course: "Just always turn left."
Well, back to the race. It takes a lot of concentration to focus just on the wattage for six hours. I was shooting for a wattage target of 175-180 for the duration of the race. This was a two-loop course, which was pretty much totally flat. The only slight hills came about 16 – 18 km into the race. So after the marsh, we turned left (advice from Kenny echoed in my head: “Just always turn left.”)

This road led out to towards an area called Forest Beach. Not sure why because there was zero forest. But they got the beach part right. The road was parallel to the beach, with a few houses that must have amazing views. It was dry land with low shrubs and very few trees. It felt very Mediterranean and certainly had the heat to go along with it.

Over a narrow bridge, through some light rolling hills, and into the scrub land. The field was still pretty crowded with all the “swimmers” coming off the beach in a crowd. I was looking around for anyone I knew.

I like the social aspects of riding, even in in a race, but many triathletes are so focused on wattage and numbers they’d probably rather not talk. Plus, there’s always the fear of draft penalties. But I try to break the monotony of cycling (and running) by talking with others and maybe even making some friends.

“How are you feeling?” I asked a guy. A second later I saw a sticker on his bike with his name and the Singapore flag.

“Tired, man,” he replied. People are always so modest. He wasn’t tired. We were only 45 km in. If he was tired now, there’d be no way he’d finish the remaining 135 km and then a marathon.

“Well, you’ve got a nice bike,” I consoled. It was a new Giant Trinity.

“You’re from Singapore I see?” I continued. “Where do you ride?”

“Coastal, mainly,” he answered. It seems that all triathletes these days either do loops on the coastal road in Changi or Seletar.

Exiting T1
Soon, I had to stop at an aid station to use the toilet and he kept going. Stopping is no fun because you know you are losing time and your heart rate drops. I dumped my bike in the grass on top of a massive pile of water bottles. There were seriously no fewer than 100 of them littering the ground all in one place. This was where everyone chucked them after refilling their bike hydration. It was hard to walk and I had to be careful not to twist an ankle.

With that out of the way, I refilled my bottles, grabbed a banana half, and merged back onto the road. Into the pack. Looking at my average power, I was still on track. As long as my average power and normalized power didn’t differ by a few percent, I was OK.

If, by the end of the ride, there was a 5% increase, that meant I produced too many power spikes (sprints, or unnecessarily fast uphill efforts, for example). That would mean I’d be in pretty bad shape to run – it was the main metric I was looking at. Not speed, not time, not even heart rate, really.

The crowd was thinning out but I kept seeing bikes I had seen in the past. Everyone passes each other over and over again and you kind of get to know each other. I had been listening to an Aussie lament his lack of training (a common topic, whether true or not) and kind of making other small talk.

“Wow, what’s that smell?” We were in the middle of a huge eucalyptus forest. The smell was odd. It was sweet and leathery. I hadn’t spent that much time in Australian forests. Was it the trees? Or maybe some local pollen or crops? There were farms all over the place. The smell intensified and the guy with me answered, “There, mate!” and he pointed to the ditch.

There was a large, bloated kangaroo, ribs sticking through furry skin. It had been dead for a long time – a month probably, so it wasn’t really rancid. I was really hoping to see a ‘roo, and finally got my wish!

The ride continued on and on along the flat, smooth roads, through forest after forest, past farm after farm. I wasn’t as mindful or deliberate with my numbers as I had been in prior races. I sort of fell into a trance or a different state of consciousness. I was on autopilot, in my own world. Not counting kilometers or even really watching my numbers. Just riding steadily, on cruise control. It was all kind of a blur.

Roasting in the heat of Forest Beach
Soon enough, one lap was up. A glance at the Garmin showed 2 hour and 48 minutes. This had me on track for a comfortable sub-6 finish, until I realized I had started my Garmin a bit late.

Approaching the race venue, near the jetty, there were spectators on the sidewalks and in front of yards. They were cheering, holding up signs in support of friends, and otherwise out to see the spectacle. It was early and some were drinking coffee.

As I rounded a corner into the event area, approaching the timing mat, I heard the announcer over the booming audio, “Looking good, this guy’s helmet and shoes are in matching neon green!”

And then a second later, “GO ANDREW!” It was Alan who had already finished the bike leg obviously. I needed these cheers and this noise to shake me out of my trance and to break the monotony.

After crossing the timing mat, I saw a guy on the ground, in the dirt. He was lying on his back, propped up on an elbow, his bike leaned against a tree. He was crying. A woman was there trying to console him.

I wasn’t sure what had happened, but I had a pretty good idea. Clearly, he didn’t crash. But it was obvious that he had to quit. Either he had a massive cramp, severe stomach problems, or a major mechanical issue with his bike.

Or maybe he hammered the first half, and was totally bonking now, not ready to go on. But I doubt it, because he was crying, which meant that he had put in months and months of training, so I don’t think he’d be so poor at pacing. I shuddered to think that could happen to me, after 36 hard weeks of work.

Then, on my right, was the special needs bag collection area. “1082!” I blurted out my bib number and slammed on my brakes. They handed me a red plastic bag. I stuffed its contents into my bento box and my bib pockets and started spinning again.

I unwrapped a plastic bag, and pulled out three green balls covered in coconut. Ondeh-ondeh, a popular Malay snack. The doughy deserts, filled with gula Malacca (sugar) were a needed blast of energy. My wife, Eda, had so nicely cooked these the night before, along with my favorite: tempeh. This fermented and fried tofu, seasoned with tamarind powder and salt really hit the spot. Protein and salt were even better than sugar.

It must have been right about this point, when Team Busso must have been coming in. L-R: Kenny (Venezuela), Joby (USA), and Alan (Australia). Photo credit: Focused Ninja Photography
After the marsh and towards Forest Beach, there was a harsh headwind. My speed dropped to below 30. I was in a group of 5-6 guys and a few women. We looked pathetic. We complained about the wind. We made sarcastic comments about the ride. We tried not to draft each other. We collectively bemoaned and groaned as we all quietly feared the rest of the ride could be this bad.

But I actually felt OK. My coach, Colin (get him as your coach here), had advised me that the first 90 should “feel easy”. And it did. But then at 100km or so, I noticed my heart rate was climbing. I the plan was to keep it between 133 and 139. While keeping the power between 175 and 180. I knew I’d have to lay off the power if I was to keep the heart rate below 140.

I had learned in previous races (Cebu back in August) that a high heart rate would fry me for the run. The heart rate had priority over wattage or even finish time. I could easily finish within the wattage or within 5:45, but then good luck on the run! Not worth it.

So, my attention went away from watts and solely to heart rate. This was bad. I was losing control. Previously, I could control how much power I put out and not really worry about anything else. Now, I was beholden to that number. 139. If it got hotter, or if my nutrition was off, it could spike, and I’d slow to a glacial crawl. But that would be better than hammering it back home and then doing a deathmarch run/walk/crawl…

The second lap was rather uneventful, and the novelty of the course had worn off. It wasn’t that hard, or painful, just a bit boring. And hot. The temp went from 32 to 38 degrees in the second lap. (For comparison, it went from a pleasant 23 to 32 in the first lap).

The aid stations were still kicking ass. Cold water. Plenty of Endura. Gels. Tons of bananas. And even sunscreen. I kept piling it on my back and arms, my dad’s melanoma scare in the forefront of my mind.

At about 130 km I felt a twitch in my left calf. Yep, the beginnings of a cramp. Then at 140 or so I smelled smoke, and eventually saw a huge black column of it rising to the sky, not far from the course.

Turned out that this fire came close to the road and they had to end the bike course later on. Luckily, after I had passed by.

Soon enough, I passed a sign marking 70 and 160km. Only 20 to go? Not bad. I still felt OK. The long 180km rides I had done over the past few months put me in good shape. But I was not ready for this heat. I thought it was supposed to be cool here now? Not hotter than Singapore! And all my training had been mostly pre-dawn in Singapore, when it was cooler.

Rolling into town, the same guys on the sidewalks and curbs were still there, with the same encouraging signs and cheers, but this time drinking beer, not coffee. After all, it was 2:30pm.

Six hours on the bike was not what I had planned, and certainly not at such a low wattage with such a high heart rate. I was a bit disappointed. But more than anything, I was concerned. Concerned that the calf cramp would return with a vengeance.

The run bag: Running shoes, belt with bib, and hat
Timing mat. Yellow line. Jump off the bike. Stop the Garmin. Unbuckle the helmet. Ghost ride the bike to the bike catcher (not really, but I wanted to). Trot to the tent. Find bag #1082. Rip the race belt/bib out and put it on. Shoes off. Helmet in the bag. Hat out and on. Running shoes on. Pump a pound of sunscreen and plaster it on. And oh yeah, chuck those tire levers into the bag – you won’t want those rubbing your kidneys for 42 km. Start the other Garmin. Run out.

I heard someone once say, “Nobody ever really loves a brick.” But I actually do.
All your worries about the bike? Watts? Speed? Pace? Getting a flat? Crashing? Purge them from your mind. It’s over.

All that training for the bike? Those 140, 150, 180 km rides? They’re done! It has all paid off, and it’s in the past. You have done it!

The Run
Now, on to the fun part. The run, where you can see more people you know, have supporters probably almost the entire course, and come down that finish chute where your family and the beer will be waiting.

The rush of coming out of T2, between the yellow steel barriers with IRONMAN and sponsor logos all over them, through the crowds upon crowds of cheering people. Families, athletes, supporters 10-deep.

4 laps of this? Looks easy.
“GO ANDREW!” A huge smile crossed my face when I heard it again from Alan. His wife, Kim, was also racing. I was dying to know how he and the rest of the team did. “HOW’D YOU DO?” I screamed.

“DON’T WORRY ABOUT IT! KEEP GOING!” he replied. The beach and calm ocean were there, to my right, and they sure looked inviting in this heat.

“JOBY!” I yelled, calling for my mom. I thought she must also be there, waiting, but I couldn’t find her.

As the spectators thinned, my mind got thinking. Am I really about to run a marathon? Like, a full marathon? “Do you realize how big of a deal a full marathon is?” I thought to myself. The preparation and planning I had put into my prior marathons was huge. I did not take it lightly. But here, in this IRONMAN, it was just another segment of the race. It didn’t command that presence or impose so much of that nervous fear you get before a normal marathon. That meant that mentally, I was ready.

And physically, I was, too. I had put in the training. The hard hours. The pre-dawn runs. The 28 km long runs before work. That one brilliant 6 km brick I did after a 180 km ride. But what about that cramp? What about the heat? How about my nutrition?

My watch vibrated and showed me 5:45 time for my first kilometer. Too fast. A minute too fast. Don’t blow this up. I slowed down. Both calves took this as their cues to cramp. I walked for a second. Then jogged. They went away. Then came back.

This cycle was to continue for the next 41 km. And it would spread from my calves to my inner knees/quads, just like in Cebu.

I kept this image in my head for most of the run.
But despite the pain and pace, I knew all I had to do was carry on. Four laps? That’s not very many. It can’t be very hard. I can do the run-walk thing and get through this. Aussies are nice. They’ll talk to me. Everybody’s friendly. Everybody’s in pain, too. Plus, there are aid stations. With food! Ice! Snacks, drinks. And what a view!

Well, this is the kind of line I fed myself, but I wasn’t fooling anybody. I knew the pain would only increase. I did lap #1 in about 1:08. Not too bad, but I knew it would degrade from there. It felt great to get one of four laps done.

Towards the end of each lap we had to run through one of four arches to get a wristband: A different color for each lap. This made it easy to see who had done how many, but more importantly, allowed us to keep track of our own.

I looked again for Joby and my wife and kids at the lap point, but didn’t see them. I trudged on.
Walk. Shuffle. Jog. Run. Repeat. There were a few others doing the same approach, also afflicted with various forms of cramps, bonks, and stomach trouble.

I am lucky that I have never had stomach problems. I can eat whatever and still feel fine. And I drank a good amount of water at the aid stations, a habit from Singapore where it’s so humid. I took sips of Endura, but it tasted horrible. That disgusting flavor only intensified the more fatigued I became.
The pretzels were good. So was the watermelon. The gummy candies they had were OK, probably good for the sugar. But I mostly just drank water.

The seagulls don't care how much pain you're in. Actually, nobody does.
The satisfaction of finishing the second lap, this time in a slow 1:17, was there, despite my pace. Normally I’d be tallying up the hours and calculating my finish time in my head throughout the race, but I just kind of gave that up considering the swim was cancelled.

That kind of took some of the stress out of the entire event for me, totally rendering any finish time I had in mind irrelevant. All expectations were off. So a bomb of a bike or a ruin of a run could just be chalked up to experience.

That said, I did hope to finish the marathon in about 4:45. I was halfway through and was at 2:25, and I couldn’t hold this pace and not cramp.

This slow run wasn’t due to lack of training, heart rate, or mental state, but purely due to the cramps. Ironic that now heart rate was a non-issue. My goal was to keep it below 156. The average ended up being a comfortable – sorry – easy – 123. My max only went to 147!

It was a weird feeling running with a low heart rate. But each time I tried to turn up the pace, the cramps came in.

On the third lap, I saw my parents, wife, and kids. That gave me a real boost. I stopped for a second – my kids hugged me, and encouraged me to run on.

Only 10k more to go!
The sun was going down and it was actually cooling off. And by the fourth lap, it was getting old. I wasn’t really hurting that much – nothing like my first marathon, or my 50k almost exactly a year beforehand. But I was mentally fatigued, and ready to see that finisher chute.

Finally, I was approaching the end, and had about 2 km to go. I picked up the pace a bit, pretty much ignoring the cramps. I grabbed my fourth lap bracelet, and put it on. I rounded the corner into the race village where the crowd was thickest. A huge smile on my face, the spectators could see I was coming home. I saw others with just two or three bracelets on and was thankful I was not in their positions, and grateful for mine, however mediocre it may have been.

About to high-5 the announcer
The finish chute was in sight. Two guys were in front of me. I surged ahead with excitement, making sure I’d pass both of them before I entered the chute. The chute was lit up. Nobody was ahead of me. I’ve always heard people say to take this moment slowly, enjoy it, and savor each step, but I sprinted. Ran right down the middle, as fast as I could.

Congratulations! You are not an IRONMAN!
I waited for those six coveted words from the announcer, “Andrew Patterson, you are an IRONMAN!” but they never came. He called my name and country, but saved that sacred induction for next time.

For a race that really was an IRONMAN. One that included a swim of 3.8km, a bike of 180, and a run of 42.

I was not an IRONMAN.

Now where's my massage, pizza, and beer?
And then, before I knew it, my wife and kids presented me with the finisher’s medal and towel right there at the finish line. They had VIP tickets – my parents included – so they were allowed down to the finish line.

I grabbed some hot pizza, had the obligatory massage, and stumbled into the VIP tent for some cold, local microbrew and a bit of rest before heading back to the house.

The VIP experience is worth it just for the all-you-can-drink IPA.
Overall, it was an excellent experience, but I probably will not go back to race in Busselton again due to the threat of sharks ruining the swim. It happened in May with the 70.3 as well. So that’s two in a row.

I am? Really?
However, I will do another full IRONMAN – several in fact – so I do get to finally hear that coveted proclamation: “Andrew Patterson, you are an IRONMAN!”

Sunday, October 1, 2017

2017 Bintan IRONMAN 70.3 Race Report

If you live in Singapore and want to do a half Ironman, Bintan is the easiest and closest. It’s just a ferry ride away, and probably doesn’t require you to take time off work. There are plenty of hotels but they do seem to get booked early. I raced Bintan in 2015 and it gave me a then-personal best of 5:36, largely due to the calm waters and the flat run.

See that race report here.

This year, 2017, we stayed at the Angsana. It was only ok. Not great value, but decent rooms, and about 30 minutes away from the race start. It was one of the official hotels, so the regular shuttle bus was part of the package, making things considerably easier. I would recommend Angsana but don’t expect a 5-star experience.

Travel on the ferry was easy and fast, and I’ve always been impressed by how well the staff handle our expensive bikes. Given that my Canyon Speedmax was just about a month old, I was concerned that it may get scratched or damaged, but I remembered back in 2015 how gentle they were. I flung a bit of bubble wrap around it and left it in the ferry staff’s hands, and hoped for the best. It was great that they promised they’d take it all the way from the ferry terminal to the hotel.

Martin at I at the ferry terminal
I was very relaxed having just raced Cebu a short two weeks ago. Almost no anxiety and no real expectations. Sure, I had a race plan, but I was totally at ease with the knowledge that I’d complete in a respectable time and that this was just another B race on the road to my full IRONMAN in December, in Busselton, Western Australia.

The obligatory race bracelet photo
I was content knowing that I could do a 2:30 bike (as shown in Cebu) and I knew that if I didn’t cramp in the run, that last critical leg could be accomplished in under 2. Confident and relaxed, but not overconfident. If I’ve learned one thing in this sport it’s that anything can happen at any time.

As mentioned, just like in Cebu, I had a race plan. This is a single-page document that outlines my mindset, nutrition targets, and time goals for the swim, bike, run, and both transitions.

A race plan is such a basic document that I don’t know why we all don’t use them. It gives you something tangible to reflect upon; provides you with focus; keeps you honest. If done over the course of a season, the various race plans will create clear trends; excellent for fine-tuning your training and future goals over time, and for finding insight into your progress.

Each season's race plan should get progressively more accurate
If based off of past races, targets, and experience, your race plan should be accurate. Even better if you have input from a coach or trusted endurance athlete that knows you and your abilities. 

Anyway, the race plan I had was adapted from my Cebu plan, but with a few modifications. I increased the goal time for the bike, considering it was to be on a moderately hilly course (I added four minutes) and I increased the goal time for the run, adding five. The nutrition stayed largely the same.

One significant thing that did change, however, was the max heart rate for the bike. My coach Colin O’Shea suggested I keep it below 140. He had identified my high heart rate in Cebu as likely being the factor that frazzled me for the run, despite keeping the power well under control.

The first thing I did when we arrived in Angsana was plug the Di2 into the wall. I haven’t had my Di2 die on me yet and don’t intend on it happening in a race. Then I unpacked everything I’d need for check in, separating all my swim, bike, and run gear into different bags. We had two nights before the race so the first night we had a decent dinner in the hotel restaurant before an early night to bed.

The next morning, I met a few other athletes Colin coaches and we did a quick recce ride. Delvin Goh had studied the GPS files and figured out a route that would take us from our hotel to the highest point of the course. It was great to get a feel for how big the hills would be, even though I had done it before.

Observing the road conditions (cracks, gravel, shoulder width), getting acquainted with the length and inclines of the hills, seeing how much shade there would be, and generally getting comfortable with things is always worthwhile.
4Ms: Martin, Masri, Me, Muzzamir at the expo

Later in the day, I’d do a run and a swim, as well.

Delvin signing the wall
After the ride, we went to the check-in where we picked up our race packs and signed the wall. I queued up to buy an event shirt, in what had to be the slowest queue on Earth. They had to process each credit card manually, requiring you to fill out a paper form.

It was incredibly inefficient and I think I lost more weight in sweat in that queue than I ever had in any 70.3. 40 minutes later, I walked out with an overpriced shirt and made my way to transition.

One of the first racked
Then I racked the bike and dumped my bags. Just like in Cebu, nobody wanted to leave their stinky shoes or gear in transition except me. I wrapped it up in bags to prevent it from getting wet in case of any rain.

I took the free bus back to the hotel, my race plan clear in my head, the numbers looming large.

That night in the room, I mixed my Hammer and Precision Hydration powders into my bottles and put them in the hotel fridge, like I always do. I packed a few gels in the Speedmax’s bento box (I learned the hard way at Cebu – keep extra gel in case you lose your bottles). And if you've made it this far, you'll see how I had more to learn the next day...

I had a nice nap, waking up easily at 4:30 with no alarm (that’s later than on my training days!). Nervously, I headed down to the restaurant for my usual coffee, toast, cereal, and muffins. I downed about a litre of water after adding a bit of Precision Hydration 1500, and tried to ignore the anxiety that persists no matter how prepared I am.

It’s a good thing I finished breakfast early, as the bus I tried boarding seemed to be full. I believe it was another 20 minutes before the next bus came, and the wait only heightened the nerves. Finally, I found a place on the bus standing in the aisle. It took well over 30 minutes to reach the race start. There was hardly any time left to set things up in the transition.

After pumping up my tires, lining up my shoes, and setting the rest up, I grabbed my swim cap and goggles and walked to the beach. The sun was still down but the music was blaring and everybody was wide awake.

The atmosphere was electric with athletes with different cap colors scrambling in all different directions: Some in and out of the water for pre-race warm-ups, others running back and forth to the bathrooms, and still more just joking and chatting, trying to hide their anxiety.

The requisite Terai beach photo
I did all of those things before finding myself with the usual crew: Terai Melayu. Masri and I joked as usual and we both felt good. Before I knew it, it was my group’s turn to set off, well behind the pros and younger athletes who had broken the tofu-flat water surface, almost in a defiant effort against the sea to aggravate it into a fury of waves and currents. But you can’t fight the sea. In our case, this was a good thing.

Unlike in Cebu, the Metasport starts are based on race cap color, so cheaters can’t inch in front of you. But these groups are based on age, not swim times. And since Masri and I are the same age, we were standing side-by-side on the beach, much like we did in Cebu 2016.

“I hope the whole swim is like this!” I yelled, as we waded out into the water. The race was on and our wades were more like awkward jogs. The water was inching up around our knees, getting higher with every stride.

“It’s the only way I’ll finish the swim in under an hour!” someone replied, hesitant about what lay ahead. Masri dove in and started his crawl, splash from a strong kick flying straight up. I did the same, just a few meters to his left.

We could see the bottom, and soon it transitioned from dull sand mixed with mud to large patches of coral. “Smile” I told myself. That’s what I do in swim starts, homage to my first 70.3 where, despite being able to swim competently, I grinned the whole time, satisfied to even be there.

Fish darted about, unphased by our awkward splashing and noise.

I noticed that the sun was slowly rising as we rounded the first buoy. It glittered off the surface ahead of us, shining from behind. It also illuminated the bright green tri suit on the guy next to me. One look over and I could see that it was Masri. We swam cheek by jowl for quite a while, his deadly kick fountaining up over me every few beats.

Once we rounded the third buoy to turn back, the sun was in our eyes. It was 100% impossible to spot the next buoy. From the shore, the courses always appear to be so well-marked and simple. How could a swimmer not see the next buoy? This was how.

I just followed the sun. Swam right to it. That was an excellent and unmissable reference, and it seemed to work. Once I saw the finish arch ahead, I moved over to the breast stroke to get the circulation in my legs going. I swam as far as the depth (or shallowness) would let me, and clawed my fingers into the sand and was soon running up the beach. Masri was just in front of me, baby blue swim cap bobbing with his gait.

After clearing the rinse bath, I ripped the cap off and sprinted up to my bike. Past the pro rack, empty, Past the relay rack, full. Up to the 200s, 300, 400s. 553, there, on the right. Masri was just ahead of me, putting his shoes on.

I did the usual routine to get going, and then suddenly noticed I had no bottle! No nutrition! WHAT?! I had a sinking feeling. I had left my bottles back in the hotel fridge!

“It’s ok,” I told myself. “I still have plenty of gel on my bike and they’ll have nutrition on the course. No biggie, I did this same thing two weeks ago in Cebu when I lost my bottle within 100m of the race starting. And I set a bike personal best.”

At least I had 700ml in my Canyon hydration container and two bottle cages, ready to accept whatever they were handing out later.

Before mounting the bike I saw a sunscreen boy. “Put it on my shoulders!” I yelled. Startled, he just stared at me. “Sunscreen please!” I encouraged. “Here!” I said, a bit quieter, worried I was intimidating the kid. He slowly put some on my shoulders. I always get burned. Not this time.

Just as I was getting on the bike, merely inches before the red line, I saw a Garmin 510, just like mine. It was on, clock running. Somebody lost it before they even got on their bike. Even worse luck than forgetting your nutrition, I guess.

"Garmin on the ground!" I exclaimed, as loud as I could. I looked back over my shoulder and sunscreen boy had a dazed look on his face, clearly shocked by my screaming. As I clipped in and mashed the first of about 14,000 crank rotations, I realized he wouldn't have known what I meant by "Garmin". He already thought I was crazy. Let's ride.

I love the Speedmax. But with no bottles?
The familiarity of the course was reassuring. The start, on that concrete surface brought back memories two years old. Suddenly I felt I was going to get another PB. My swim was an acceptable 41, much better than two weeks prior in Cebu. Yes, the Bintan swim is fast.

How would I deal with the hills of Bintan? Would I clock another 2:30? Or would they blow up my power to a point that I’d bonk, especially with an untried and untrusted nutrition solution?

In the first 10-20 km I saw a lot of familiar faces. David Laurent, who is also coached by Colin, Clarke Wan, who showed me the ropes at my first 70.3, a French guy named Clement whom I befriended at Cebu but who lives in Hong Kong, and Martin Mader from Austria, the other Terai Matsalleh.

The course took us up the steep-ish hill Delvin brought us on the day before early, which was nice. Nice to get that out of the way. Then the descents were truly awesome, twisty and curvy, with great road conditions.

Keeping the average and normalized power at 200 watts was going to be tough with all the ascents and descents. See, a 300-watt ascent and a 100-watt descent, even if over equal time periods are not the same a as a flat 200-watt average.

The 100-watt recovery does not alleviate the 100-watt load your body is subjected to. This is measured by something called Variability Index. It’s the percentage difference between Average Power and Normalized power, and if above 5%, you’ll be in for trouble in the run.

Aero and narrow
The aid stations quickly got me set up with new bottles of water and electrolytes (not sure which brand) along with Leppin gels and bananas. Each time I reached one I lost a bit of time, but at least I knew I wouldn’t bonk.

And my numbers looked good, too. Power, heart rate, speed. They were all where I wanted them. Going uphill, I’d simply switch to my granny chainring (not something I ever do in Singapore) in an effort to keep all figures down.

As advised by Colin, I controlled my heart rate, and tried to keep it below 140. My result was a Pw:Hr of only 1.58%, vs 5.23% at Cebu. Very nice.

The usual kids begged for bottles along the kampung roads and villagers watched from the sides of the streets. I chucked them what I could.

This race was clearly a major spectacle for them, even to the point of kids inching their way out onto the course to give us high-fives (more like low-fives). This was pretty scary and dangerous, and although I love that kind of thing, I kept to the center of the road to avoid as many hazards as possible.

Coming in to T2
2 hours, 35 minutes, and 57 seconds later I crossed the last bike timing mat. This was right on target. Now, I knew I had a shot at 5:26, which would be 10 minutes faster than my personal best.

After a quick transition, extra sunscreen, and a huge slug of warm water it was into my favorite leg: the run. Forget about coasting on your nice comfortable seat. No more cool wind in your face. And don’t even think about those nice fast downhills.

The bike was nice but the run is fun
Now, you are going into a very dark place.

With no shade.

“This year, we changed the run course to be two laps instead of three. It’s still on the golf course, but it’ll be so much nicer now.” That’s what they kept announcing and emailing. But I wasn’t buying it. How is two laps better than three when it’s all in direct sunlight anyway?

Who else loves the rubber brick feel after the bike? I used to hate it but now I relish it. It’s that life-affirming feeling that you’re doing something right. That you’re giving it all you’ve got, and have no intentions of leaving anything in the tank. Best part is that the guy behind you, who probably didn’t train as hard, is feeling it even worse. That's the idea at least (until he passes you).

Make it hurt
But in the back of my mind, a little voice reminded me that cramps could inch their way into my muscles at any second. I wondered if I ignored this possibility if I could suppress them. Rule them out as an option? Fail to acknowledge their existence?

“Hey my Kiwi friend!” I announced. I noticed the flag on the bib of the guy in front of me. “Callum.” He corrected me, stating his name in a seemingly-aggravated tone. Something had gone wrong for him and he was already suffering. But my mind was off the cramps.

One glace at my Garmin and I saw that my paces were around 5 min/km. A bit fast but it sure felt good. What felt even better was the cold water at the aid stations and the ice I kept putting under my hat. A few chips of it would last to the next aid station.

I had the virtual partner in my Garmin set for 5:39 per km in order to produce a run time of 1 hour and 59 minutes. I was consistently beating that pace, and that could have only meant two things:
  1. I’m kicking ass and will finish ahead of goal time
  2. I’m kicking ass and will blow up and whatever time I have in the bank will be a loan with interest so high I’ll never be able to pay it back

Concentrated defiance
Rounding the first lap, 10.5 km in, however I still felt great. I kept asking myself, “Is this thing in the bag? Am I home free?”

The reply was always a resounding, “No. Anything can happen. You can blow up any second. Your nutrition was poorly-planned and you’ve been overdoing the paces this far.”

A voice rang out to my right, “Smash your PB, Andrew! Go!” It was Masri, running the other way. Much of the course doubled back on itself, and it was two loops of the same thing, so there were many opportunities to see friends.

Soon, I fell into a trance-like state. Not in the most severe pain, but in serious determination. Salutations and jokes were done. No more high-fives, smiles, or even acknowledgements.

All focus would go into hammering it home and demolishing my goal. My personal best was already in the bag. But how much could I knock off my 5:26 goal?

5:14:54. I'll take it.
I finished the run in a 1:50, which included stops at almost every aid station. This was 9 minutes ahead of schedule, resulting in a PB of 5:14:54. 

Two loops of this shadeless and shameless course
I managed such a good run, I believe, by keeping my heart rate low in the bike.

The numbers don’t lie. Here they are:

I had a 7.55% Pa:Hr (lower than that at Cebu) yet I managed to maintain an even higher average heart rate and a much faster pace. This means my rate didn’t creep upwards as much as it did in Cebu.

However, towards the end of the run, as I knew I was going to beat my PB, I ignored HR and increased the pace, considerably contributing to higher averages and maximums.

My HR only increased (pace-adjusted) 7.55% between the first half of the run and the second, yet I went faster than in Cebu.
Ultimately, I was very happy with my time. But despite knocking 32 minutes off my Cebu time, I only came in 13th in my age group, as opposed to 14th in Cebu. This shows how competitive Bintan is, or that Cebu is more of a novelty race. Probably a mix.

Ezio, Eda, Elka Patterson. They always catch me at the finish.
 Next year, I’ll be back, and I WILL beat 5:14.