Tuesday, November 27, 2018

2018 IRONMAN Malaysia Race Report

Here goes another race report. This is for IRONMAN Malaysia, held on 17 November, 2018 in Langkawi, Malaysia. This race report is almost as long as the race, so you've been warned!

Why I raced Langkawi
Last year, 2017, was a great year of racing for me, and it all culminated in a full IRONMAN at Busselton, Australia, in December. However, the swim ended up being canceled, so I couldn't really claim to be a full-fledged IRONMAN (despite receiving a medal and finisher shirt - however they never proclaimed those few words, "Andrew Patterson - You are an IRONMAN!" - because I wasn't).

Read that race report here.

And then when 2018 started, I wanted to take a rest and maybe race a few 70.3s casually. And so began my slippery slope of training, unintentionally leading up to Langkawi.

In May, I competed in Danang, and did OK, though didn't put much effort into training, but as luck would have it, at rolldown, I managed to grab a spot to the World Championship in South Africa. Cool. All that meant was I'd call up my coach Colin again, and get onto his plan until September. Simple.

Checking the kids in for IRONKIDS in Langkawi

But along the way, I did Bintan, just because it's nearby and an easy one logistically, and I was already trained up. And what do you know? I inadvertently qualified again, but this time for Nice, in 2019.

And two weeks after that, I went to South Africa for the 2018 World Championship. But by then it was mid-September, so why not do Langkawi in November? There's a half and a full at Langkawi.

Might as well redeem myself with a full IRONMAN, and just go off the good fitness I had been building all year, right?

So this is how doing one little half in May snowballed into a full in November. And I still have to build to Nice in September 2019. And who knows what further race peregrinations will come up before then?

The Swim
If you know me, you know my swim is my weakest segment. I've always been a strong and confident swimmer, but never a fast one. I'm very content in the open water (thanks to my parents - note: make kids snorkel early) and with the knowledge that many others are not so comfortable - hence a tiny relative advantage to me. But I was still slow.

And then my coach Colin gave me a 1:20 goal for this race. 1:20? That really seemed too fast. It was based on the training I had been doing and what he thought I was capable of. Yet based on those same figures, I forecast a 1:40 for myself. Back of the pack.

Just chomping at the bit. Photo: IRONMAN Malaysia

Like every race, I was in the water and racing before I knew it. It's like the moment the official lets you in, your run down through the surf, and your first strokes are a blur. And whoever you were talking to - whoever you left mid-sentence on the beach - is totally gone, in another place, time and dimension, and all you can see is the murky sea, bubbles, and a whole lot of heels in front of you.

It's just you, your thoughts, and a giant body of water that's infinitely stronger than you.

I thought of The Old Man and the Sea and how the Old Man, though an experienced fisherman, was pulled around for days by a fish that was stronger than he was. And when he finally pulled it aboard, sharks ate it, making his trip a failure. I wondered, if, like the Old Man, I'd be at the mercy of the sea or if my training would prevail. Or, if somehow, luck would conquer all.
“Luck is a thing that comes in many forms and who can recognize her?”
Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea 
To me, luck, would be hitting 1:20 or better.

It was more civilized than it looks here. Photo: IRONMAN Malaysia

"Is my Garmin on?" I asked myself. I pulled it close to my eyes, peering though the turbid water, sacrificing a left-arm stroke, to see that it read 1 min 40 seconds. It was indeed on. Yet I didn't remember pushing "START."

Second guessing myself, I looked again. Did I misread it? I better check again. 1 min 44 seconds. "OK, it's on. Now focus," I thought.

The swim buoys in this race were connected by a rope littered with smaller buoys that each had red flags on them. They had a white thing in the middle. They looked like Swiss flags.

These little red buoys were spaced a few metres apart, making sighting exceptionally easy. And since this was a counter-clockwise course, it was perfect for people like me who prefer to breathe on the right.

In other courses, the buoys may be huge (3-4 metres tall and 2-3 metres wide) but when they're far away you can't see them as your eyes are at water level. Even the smallest wave blocks you. And despite our waters being super calm, those corner buoys were invisible here, too.

Exceptionally well-marked, and only two corners made this a great course.

The route had us circumnavigate a large triangle, twice: Out 400m, a right for 700m, then a sharp right to the last straight of 800m. It is in a calm harbor, protected by two small islands. But overhead, the sky was exploding in flashes of lightning. However, they seemed to be far away, and there was no wind or rain (yet). Despite the tempestuous sky, the conditions were very nice.

Except the water was not clear at all. Worse than Bintan but not as bad as the East Coast in Singapore (which isn't saying much). So don't expect Cebu clarity, but don't expect Cebu currents, either. There was little to no current in Langkawi.

From the start through the first 400m and almost to the end of the 700m stretch it was all very civilized. No kicks, no punches, no wrestling. And I felt smooth and fast as I was passing people most of the way and really focused on my stroke and my sighting. And still wondering why they used Swiss flags as markers...

But somewhere near that second corner I received a few kicks and claws and administered a few myself, too. All unintentional. Never get mad if you get a foot to the face, or if somebody keeps tapping on your toes. It's unavoidable, and should not be taken personally.

Until one guy actually grabbed my shoulder and pushed down. This made me mad because it was deliberate and malicious, not part of the stroke. So I did the same to him, as I was not going to put up with such aggression. Turns out, a few guys were clumped together near the outside of a very acute angle and some must have panicked. I got out of there as fast as possible, kicking vigorously, and all calm was restored. For me, at least.

That last 800m of the first lap seemed to go really fast. All the while I was sighting forward, keeping a bead on the red roofs of The Danna. Finally, a tiny wisp of wind must have passed around one of those Swiss flags, just when I was looking to the right, to reveal the m-dot logo in the middle. Of course, IRONMAN logos, not Helvetican flags.

Swiss flags! HA! Photo: IRONMAN Malaysia

But I needed forward landmarks to assess how much farther I had to go. Even the massive red IRONMAN arch on the beach was not a reliable landmark, being so far away, just a blip on the bobbing horizon. Until it was. Which meant I was near the beach.

I could see guys standing up prematurely and running out of the surf but I kept on stroking until my fingers could dig into the sand, pulling me forward faster than I could probably walk, and my face was almost eating beach. Then I could wade through only puddle-deep waves onto the beach.

Swim out, run in.

A quick glance down at the watch revealed a beautiful sight: 38:20. And I only had a second to adjust my goggles and go in for another lap before I could really appreciate that 1.9 km split.

"38 times two is 76; 76 minus 60 is 17. What, I could be on pace for a 1:17?"

My face contorted into an involuntary smile, the same as the one I cracked in the beginning of the Putrajaya 70.3 three-and-a-half years ago, content with the premise that I was about to do - and finish - a half IRONMAN. Except then I had zero goals or targets.

Time for another lap. With a goal.

Again, that first 400 was pretty easy. But about halfway into the second stretch, I caught myself getting lazy. My stroke was becoming sloppy. Then I could feel my heart start racing. I don't know why, but I think I psyched myself out. Once I realized my technique was degrading I think I got scared that I'd stuff it all up.

But a few deep breaths and focused pulls and I was back on, eyeing the second buoy. I was a bit too far to the left of the rope line, and was going to have to turn hard to make the corner. I wasn't about to go wide and do extra distance. So I took a risk and cut the corner, potentially t-boning anybody behind me, and I swam right under the bulge of the buoy, my right arm brushing its taut rope underwater. Luckily nobody was in my way.

Was this an IRONMAN or a water park? Photo: IRONMAN Malaysia

Because by this time, the field had thinned considerably. Most of the 70.3-ers were out of the water, the fastest swimmers were well ahead of me, and most of the breast strokers and slower guys were far behind me. It was nice to not be crowded.

But then a glance to my left revealed the telltale sign of another Terai Melayu athlete: The distinctive purple and blue Purpose suit. It was Masri! We swam together in Bintan in 2017, too, pretty much the entire 1.9km. A feeble underwater wave on my part was my only attempt at greeting him. You would have had to look hard to notice it was a wave and not just a clumsy fumble mid-stroke, but hey, I can't just ignore the guy.

Then I suddenly remembered I hadn't turned my heart rate monitor on. I use a Scoche, which requires you to hit a button, but it will record swimming heart rate. And then it also occurred to me that I had better remember to take my swim skin off. I wasn't about to cycle 180 km in that thing.

I had already made that mistake once (in Cebu, but it was only a half). Also, I could feel the abrasive Velcro of the race chip strap digging into my left ankle, and a bit of Vaseline would cure that. Finally, I knew I needed to get my bike Garmin running early so it could grab a signal before I started.

So I came up with a chant, "Scoche, suit, Vaseline, Garmin."

"Scoche, suit, Vaseline, Garmin."

"Scoche, suit, Vaseline, Garmin."

"Scoche, suit, Vaseline, Garmin."

I repeated it in my head dozens of times.

Within minutes I was approaching the beach again. I knew my second lap had been quite a bit slower, and was going to be over the moon with a 1:20 time. I hit STOP before looking at the time. What did it read? 1:22. Still awesome!

One of the many highs you feel in a tri is exiting the swim. Photo: IRONMAN Malaysia

Up the beach. High-fives from people I didn't know and from people I did know. Cheers all around. Total elation.

"Scoche, suit, Vaseline, Garmin."

I grabbed bag 918 off the hanger where we had racked them the day before and rushed into the tent. Hit the button on the Scoche. Realized I had already unzipped the suit, but then pulled it off. Scooped up about 10 kilos of Vaseline and slathered it all over places that typically chafe. Spread a ton of sunscreen across my Saxon-Teutonic nose, and pranced over to my bike.

"Scoche, suit, Vaseline, Garmin."

Started the bike Garmin and popped three salt tablets, (750 mg of sodium, enough to last me a paltry 30 min). Looked around. Most of the bikes were gone considering all the 70.3 guys were out of here, and many of the full racers, too. Looked up. Dark clouds, and no sun to be seen anywhere.

T1, the day before, when skies were clear.

And then drip. Drop. Big, fat raindrops started falling. The kind that tell you that you're about to get totally soaked in about 10 seconds.

Before I could even get out of T1 a torrent of rain was pouring down, soaking fans that lined the bike-out exit of T1. This was good news for me because it would mean a cooler ride. And unlike others, I don't dislike the rain while I ride. I am not uncomfortable in wet conditions and I believe I have a comparative advantage as I don't really tend to slow down so much on wet downhills as many others.

I was 56th, in my division, putting me in the 40th percentile.

The Bike
I hit start on my Garmin the moment I stepped over the "Mount here" line coming out of T1. My focus at this time was to hold around 190-195 watts the entire ride. On a hilly course such as this, there will be huge fluctuations. 400 watts up hills and zero watts down wouldn't be unusual, but this doesn't bode well for the run afterwards.

Thanks to whoever took this picture of me coming out of T1. Updated: Credit goes to Mariah Ali!

You'll only be able to afford to do a few such huge power spikes before you burn all your "matches." Once all those matches are gone, you have nothing left, and are pretty much guaranteed a deathmarch of a run (walk). This isn't a time trial or a one-sport race where you are expected to exhaust all your energy in that single event; rather a tactically-complex series of races, the performance of each contingent on the performance of the prior.

Within the first 5-10k, the course pulled us up a series of fairly steep hills towards Datai - a road notorious for its lung-busting hills. Before the first big hill, there were two guys on the side of the road, cheering madly. Neither had shirts on, and one was wearing a trail running vest with water bottles in it. He had a beard and looked Japanese to me. They were jumping up and down like teenage girls at a concert.

I returned their cheering with exaggerated, over-enthusiastic (but genuine) cheers back to them. The one with the beard accelerated his hopping and ran alongside me for a few seconds, compatriot in tow. He was living in the moment and so was I. Nothing else mattered. Not the hills ahead for me, the walk home for him, or what he'd do next. It's these feelings of pure, raw, undiluted human joy that we live for.

And if I could replicate them, not thinking about the irrelevant past or the largely-uncontrollable future, I could command my own destiny in this race and live to enjoy it, and perform to my full potential. A sort of existential purity.

But then the hill came. I had to shift down to granny to make it up without spiking my power too high. Coming down the other side of this and the others, I'd keep the power up unless I went much over 45 or 50 km/h.

But in the heavy rain the downhills were a bit more of a challenge. Not because the roads were slippery or because our brakes didn't work as well but because so many people went so slowly that it was scary to pass them. I always imagined them veering out into my line as I passed, causing an accident. On one particularly fast downhill, the rain felt like thousands of needles hitting my face all at once, and that made it harder to see. Tricky conditions for high-speed downhill passing.

Speaking of accidents, there were many. Later on I would see bloodied gauze on the ground. And at least half a dozen guys who looked like they had gotten in fights with belt sanders, and lost.

The road meandered up and down, through a rock tunnel, and u-turned, looping back. Returning, I noticed a tow truck stopped in the middle of the road with an athlete in front of her bike lunging at the tow truck driver. Screaming, she grabbed his shirt by the collar and appeared to be getting violent.

"Did you see that?" I asked a guy who happened to be next to me.

"Whatever." He shrugged his shoulders and looked away. I was a bit disturbed to see an athlete fighting but he didn't seem to care.

The road flattened out and took us through kampungs and small towns. It meandered along rural roads, mostly well-paved but not pristine. The bike route reminded me quite a bit of Bintan in terms of road quality, hills, and the bucolic scenery.

Just out of Datai, I began drinking my bottle which consisted of:
  • 6 Precision Hydration 1500s
  • 6 scoops of Hammer Perpetuem, strawberry flavor
  • Water
On top of that I had six Hammer gels and six Precision Hydration SweatSalt Electrolyte tablets, three of which I had already taken.

In total, I was carrying:
  • 1,716 calories
  • 6,780 mg of sodium
  • 387 g of carbohydrate
  • 2.4 litres of water

This would be enough nutrition to last me on the bike. All I'd have to do is top-up water at aid stations, but I wouldn't need to take any food or isotonic drinks.

Photo: IRONMAN Malaysia

This artisinal nutrition sludge was hand crafted by the one-and-only Eda Patterson in our hotel room the night before, using hot water, a plastic Berjaya coffee stirrer, and a lot of patience. To cram all that powder into one bottle and still make it liquid takes a certain type of culinary panache, one that I certainly don't possess. How it did not have the viscosity of drying cement is beyond me.

A small sip or two per 15-20 minutes would be all I needed to replenish my sodium, caloric, and carb needs. It's critical that you drink water immediately afterwards as this solution is very hypertonic, or much thicker or concentrated than human blood. Drinking that water should bring the tonicity or concentration down to a level closer to your blood, making it isotonic.

The guys over at Precision Hydration explain why hypertonic drinks can cause issues:
When a hypertonic drink lands in your gut from your stomach, the concentration of fluid in your intestine itself tends to becomes hypertonic. Your body then has to first move water out of the bloodstream back into the intestine to dilute the solutes in there down to a level that allows absorption of nutrients and fluids back across the gut wall into your body.

This net movement of water from the blood into the intestine is therefore technically ‘dehydrating’ you. It's moving water out of the blood into the gut when what you actually want to do is increase your blood fluid levels. Reference

So all I had to do was keep my front water tank full by picking up bottles at most aid stations. I had one extra bottle behind the saddle which I could use to refill the bottle between the bars, but never really needed it. In future races, I won't even carry that.

As long as I was halfway done with my sludge and gels at 90km I'd be good. Nutrition on the run is another game, but if you don't get it right on the bike first, run nutrition is moot.

On the beach, my friend Clarke (who guided me through my first 70.3, Putrajaya, in 2015) told me that after the highway there would be a fast downhill, and that I should not brake at all. Well, I had a feeling that was coming up, because I had just completed a highway-like stretch and was approaching a steep uphill. This was around 50-55 km in.

Surprisingly, there were still a number of 70.3 athletes out on the course. They started earlier than we did, so they were ahead of us, but even up to this point we were still seeing them. Most were very slow, and looked to be in a fair bit of pain.

I saw at least two or three, that with just a tiny bit of guidance could be doing a lot better. Their saddles were slammed and they had their knees up around their ears, spinning in granny gear on the flat, wearing running shoes. With just a few tiny adjustments they could be going like 50% faster, instantly.

Bovine scenery. Photo: IRONMAN Malaysia

Oh well, on I went, by this time averaging 187 watts and about 31-32 km/h. Problem was, my Garmin Edge 520, that had served me so faithfully for the past three years, decided to randomly pause every 30 seconds. Start, pause, start, pause.

My distance and speed figures were way off, and probably power figures too. I considered switching over to my watch but didn't want to drain the battery before the run and didn't want the hassle. Plus, the data wouldn't be complete if I were to start it now, anyway.

"The downhill Clarke was talking about must be after this climb," I thought to myself.

"Salamat pagi!" I yelled at a group of kids sitting in the grass watching us, wishing them a good morning. They giggled.

The slog up was slow. I shifted down to granny again. A cheering group of Singaporeans lined the right side of the road. A cheering group of Japanese lined the left. The hill was short, and I crested it alongside 4-5 other guys.

"OK, Clarke," I thought, "Here we go."

Out of granny. In to the fast gear in the back. Jump on the power for a few seconds to get some speed up. Tuck. Aero. Fly down.

At the bottom of the hill was a sweeping left and as I followed the straightest line from top to bottom I crossed the middle of this one-way, two-lane road. Immediately in my path was one of those raised metal reflectors. I leaned left, just missing it by inches.

Seeing the locals come out is always a highlight for me. Photo: IRONMAN Malaysia

Then, came the uphill. It was so steep, we only made it 20-30 metres before we were all in granny again mashing up.

"What a rip off!" a guy next to me yelled in a Filipino accent, laughing.

"Yeah, what the hell? I want my downhill back!" I replied.

"Do you think we can get a discount from the organizers because of that?" he joked.

"I think we paid extra for it," I answered. "Look at this guy," I gestured to a corpulent athlete walking up the hill in his socks, shoes still clipped in to the pedals, socks sloshing in the wet. "He's way smarter than we are!"

Another short downhill came but it was nowhere near as fast or as fun as the last. But the next uphill was way worse than the last two. The only thing we had going for us was that it was overcast and the ground was not scorching after the rain.

I can't say I dislike hill climbs. I'm skinny enough that I'm no worse than anybody else. And Colin had me do a bit of Mt Faber hill training. I liked the variety these hills gave us. Sure, flat is theoretically easier (Busselton?) but also harder in that you have to hold one single steady power 100% of the time. No coasting, no mashing, no rest, no speed, no fun.

This time, I was mashing with a Japanese guy on a new Cervelo P5x.

"Nice bike," I said cheerfully. "Yours too," he responded graciously, fully knowing that his was far nicer (and twice the price).

"How do you say, 'This is damn steep' in Japanese?"

"Do you know that guy?" I chin-pointed to a guy in front of us with a jersey that said "Fujimori" if I remember correctly.

Wasn't he the disgraced president of Peru? Or maybe this athlete's name was "Morifuji."

"No, too many Japanese here," he answered.

"How do you say, 'This is damn steep' in Japanese?" I asked. I glanced down at my Garmin only to see a reading of 424 watts. Not really good. Matches.

He told me, and I said it. "Hard to say," I responded.

"No, not hard to say. Try again. It's '[Japanese phrase].'"

This time I heard it differently, and tried again.

"Good," he encouraged. "Where are you from?"

"US. Oregon." He nodded with approval. "Have you been there?"

"Yes, I went to Portland for a year! Very nice!" he affirmed, in an animated voice. "Very nice to talk with you."

By then, that monster hill was almost over, and we were approaching its apogee. We got our minds off the pain of the climb and he knew this was likely where we'd part.

Through more kampungs, around roundabouts where I thanked the police and volunteers, through aid stations where I picked up water and chucked the empty bottles to kids, and on to a sign that read:


OK, great, we're around halfway. My Garmin wasn't reliable and only read 79 km. I continued straight.

The one guy I never talked to. Photo credit: Jack Ah Beh.
The course turned into a bigger road which I suddenly recognized. This was the way out of Datai. On our right were other cyclists, ahead of us, going the other direction. I estimated they were 120km into their rides. They all looked pretty elite, all aero on nice bikes, all young. Maybe some pros or some of the faster age-groupers.

Then ahead, I heard a series of loud chants, and looked up only to find the two shirtless Japanese guys. I returned the noise, to much excitement on their part. They were a good 10km from where I last saw them. They looked very fit and were jogging. They had been out there for at least three hours now. I wondered why they weren't racing. Maybe they were supposed to but couldn't for some reason? Maybe they were supporting friends?

There was a U-turn before the Datai climb again and and aid station had been set up. I crossed the timing line - 100k it had to have been - and wondered if the second lap would be as easy as the first.

"Your first lap should feel easy," Colin had told me. Those words echoed in my head. 

It had been pretty easy - definitely easier than a year ago when I raced Busselton. The sheer amount of training I had put in since then must have helped, despite Busso being flat, and this being hilly. All those long rides, all those cumulative miles, all that time in the saddle. It all added up.

But my power number was slipping. 186. Too low. I wanted closer to 190. But it was too late to do anything about it by now. And I couldn't tell if that was a problem or not as I couldn't accurately predict my average speed.

Had average speed been 33 I would have been OK, but my Garmin showed me a paltry 31. Should I believe it or not? Or just go by feel? That's not like me. I like my data.

The Echo Tunnel. Photo courtesy of IRONMAN Malaysia

"Echo!! Yeah!!" I screamed at the top of my lungs as I entered a small tunnel on top of Datai. Immediately behind me I heard another guy yell, too.

"Might as well have fun while we're out here," he said.

This was Jon, a Singaporean. On the way down Datai, I told him about the woman who was about to punch the tow truck driver. He said he heard that the tow truck crashed her, totally his fault, and that must have been why she was so mad.

We passed each other a good 5-6 times along the uphills and downhills of Datai.

From then on, the ride is kind of a blur to me. 30-40 more kilometers of village roads, past a cement factory, a stinky incinerator, the same loyal volunteers and police at the corners. A 10-year-old BMW, totally broken down in somebody's yard, algae growing on the inside of the windshield, wheels missing. A rotting dump truck permanently stuck in the dump position on the side of the road.

Lots of kids walking unsupervised on the busy streets. Some in groups, others alone. Many no older than five or six.

Photo: IRONMAN Malaysia

Selamat pagis, apa khabars, and terima kasihs all around.

But then, oh no. That horrible climb again. The kids in the grass were gone. The Singaporeans had packed up and left. But the Japanese were still there, this time blasting loud music. I gave them a thumbs-up in appreciation.

"Hey awesome bike," I announced to the guy on a Canyon Speedmax next to me. That seemed like the easiest ice-breaking line.

"Ha, you too," he responded, subtly acknowledging that we both had the same bike.

"Where you from," I inquired.

"KL." His name was Vig. Short for Vignesh, I guess. He told me how he sold IT systems for the medical industry and his company had an office in Texas.

Then, changing the subject, he said, "This climb is a bitch but watch how I bomb the downhill."

He pedaled hard and I followed suit. Careful not to draft him, I stayed on the right, minimizing the angle I'd have to take at the apex of the corner at the bottom. My eyes suddenly locked on the same reflector I almost nailed last time. I took a similar line, just missing it again. I wondered how many people hit it, and if anyone crashed. We were doing close to 70 km/h.

Again, we felt cheated as our speeds precipitously decreased to granny-velocities, front derailleur motors straining to align with the seldom-used cog-line. Shift too late and you'll fall over.

"Move over," I heard a perturbed Australian woman order, presumably to Vig and I. We were not hogging the road, but were in the middle. She could have made it by, or at least could have been a bit more polite.

"Why, are we too slow for you?" Vig challenged, in an ambiguous tone that could be interpreted as being either sincere or sarcastic.

"No, just make room for others to pass," she reasoned. She was right, but was also rude.

At that moment Vig and I must have had the same thought: Move over but don't let her catch us. So we both moved to the left, but then laid the watts down as we approached the next descent. 20-30 seconds later I looked back and she was nowhere to be found. In fact, I never once saw her, only heard her.

The ego of a male triathlete...

The road opened up to wide rice paddies with picturesque mountains in the background. It was flat and fast. A guy in front of me was wearing the race bib, which actually was not needed during the ride, only the run. His flag revealed he was Irish and the name read "Paul."

This Cervelo is a lot nicer than the one I saw you riding last weekend.

"Paul Walshe?" I asked. I had met him the weekend before on a ride in Singapore. He was on an old Cervelo then, splattered in mud, totally worn-out, but now he was on a brand new top-of-the-line P5x like the Japanese guy earlier.

"Yeah, Andrew! How are you?"

"Great," I answered. "Looking forward to the run!"

We only spoke for a few brief seconds. Vig and I kept going at our pace, continuing together, talking about everything. It reminded me of the rides I had done over the past 6-7 weekends with Jamie Meldrum, who also trains under Colin. I kept telling myself, "This is just another ride with Jamie."

Our rides had been so routine, they were not a big deal. There were mostly all 180 km (some shorter, some longer) and had a run afterwards. It was good to normalize this distance.

Unlike when I was at the end of the bike in my first two 70.3s, happy to have completed 90 km, I thought to myself both times, "I'll never be able to do a full! Even 90 kilometers is nearly impossible for me!" Ha.

Photo: IRONMAN Malaysia

Vig was still there.

"I stopped back there and ate some roti canai and had a kopi o kosong. Can you believe it was only 4 ringgit?" I joked.


"Not really but I would like to." Suddenly my joke didn't feel as funny as I thought it would. But any conversation was good conversation in times like these.

Vig would surge ahead, leaving me 50-100 metres behind before I'd catch him and do the same. We were in our own rhythms and soon we were just getting tired of talking and were both content to ride side-by-side without saying a thing. He was definitely a strong cyclist and I was expecting him to drop me, but somehow I hung on.

I knew we were close. We rounded a hairpin corner before filtering onto a bridge I had driven numerous times to get to my hotel. We were probably 1 km from T2.

My mind started playing what felt like a pre-recorded track:

"981, levers, sodium. 981, levers, sodium. 981, levers, sodium."
  • '981' was my race number, and I had to find that red bag in the rack.
  • 'Levers' was to remind me to dump my tire levers which I had in my jersey pocket, which thankfully I didn't need to use.
  • 'Sodium' was to remind me to take three PH SweatSalt tablets before running.
Into T1, a volunteer bike catcher grabbed my ride.

"Masuk kan belakan. Tak boleh depan!" I instructed. I told her she had to rack my bike from the rear, not the front, as the front hydration system was in the way. It could be done but it might break it.

Bewildered, she nodded, but clearly had no clue what I was saying. I don't blame her, I blame my broken Malay. Oh well, I tried.

981 is not so hard to find when it's the only bag there. I was the first to drop my bag in T2 the day before.

I scanned the aisles to figure out where 981 was. A sea of red. Bags upon bags upon bags. I quickly found mine and jumped to a chair inside the men's side.

 "981, levers, sodium."

"Levers, sodium."

Off with the shoes. Put the levers in a shoe.


Slid the running shoes on. Oh, that felt nice. Locked my race belt around my waist.


Popped three sodium pills out of the blister pack and devoured them at once, sans water. Cut my lip on the sharp blister pack. Didn't care.

Threw my bag in a pile where a volunteer collected them.

We were inside the exhibition center and the air con was wonderful.

I finished 15th in my division on the bike, putting me in the in the 9th percentile.

The Run
I felt like a million bucks. Capering about along the red carpet in the cool aircon with nice comfortable cushy Hoka One Ones, elated to have finished the bike in a decent time. On the other side of the steel dividers spectators lined the way, cheering, yelling, high-fiveing. I heard my name at least three times, but couldn't always tell where or who it came from.

The energy had me moving a bit too hot. Too fast. Too hyped. 

High-5 to whoever took this one of me.

Then, I saw the two shirtless Japanese guys. "I love you guys," I screamed. By now, I was more their fan than they were mine.

"Go, go, go," they yelled, running alongside me, grabbing my hand and raising it above our heads. We were laughing and smiling. Again, living like nothing else mattered. Enjoying the experience to the max.

I've done so many bricks that I don't really get that jelly-leg feeling anymore. Besides the finish, this part of a race is my favorite. The novelty of something new. The thought that the ride is done and dusted. All those insane 180-km training rides you did? They're all old news, now. Not relevant anymore. Distant memories.

Leaving the building, the crowds died down. The sun was glaring. No more clouds. Where was our storm now? This was real Malaysian heat. Unapologetic. Intense. Relentless.

I found myself alongside a guy wearing a Tritons kit, from Hong Kong. We had briefly chatted on the bike, and I said hi again, here. But this time he gave me the cold shoulder, totally ignoring me.

This steely response immediately told me he wanted to beat me, and created a bit of competitive tension. A red "M" on his right calf revealed he was in the same category I was. Clearly, he had seen my "M" and was all business.

My watch vibrated, and I looked down: 4:59 for this first kilometer. A bit too fast.

I let him go in front of me. It's always better to be the guy in back, unless you like someone breathing down your neck.

I was breathing down his neck. Each footstep a slight menace. The rhythmic crumpling of my bib synced with my cadence, yet another annoyance.

I remembered in the book The Lore of Running where Noakes describes how runners can easily experience a degradation of performance when their central governors (part of your brain that restricts your muscles from working when it thinks they're tired) become intimidated.

They can give up prematurely and progressively reduce the amount of muscle that can be recruited regardless of physical ability. This is how many races have been won and lost.

I wanted to make friends, but if he wasn't even willing to return my salutation, I'd mess with him a little bit.

Better take two bottles of water. Photo credit: Jack Ah Beh

Then I saw Mitch Vanhille, another athlete that trains under Colin. He was coming the other way, his gait more like an ice skater, sliding and gliding, elegantly and effortlessly. He did something like a 9:20 in Kona a month prior. He was in great shape and was certainly going to qualify again this year, here, today. We said hi and he was on his way.

The first few aid stations had bottles of water. Not just cups. This was great. I grabbed two bottles and kept moving.

I had a dozen PH SweatSalts I had to get down over the next 40 km or so. I was going to take about two every six kilometers, so I'd be done by about km 36...plus the three km I had already run equals 39. Perfect.

I was planning on taking 12 gels, and had already calculated the calories, carbs, and sodium the High-5 gels have, which is what was served on this course. I guess they chose High-5 because they're halal (except for the banana flavor). I like them because they're very liquidy and easy to get down. They basically taste like a shot of apple juice.

The run was three loops from the exhibition center, along the runway, into town, and through the Meritus hotel, by the beach.

For the first 5k, my pace had dropped down to about 5:30, close to where I should have been. But again, I knew I had gone out way too hot and was not happy with that rookie mistake.

Again, I did the math in my head:
Plus about 5:40 or so for the ride is...
Then another 4 hours for the run? 11 hours? Is it possible?

That was my goal all along. But that meant I couldn't let the pace slip any more.

I rounded the U-turn in town, past where we had eaten lunch the day before. Apparently, the addition of the town to the route was new. Then, into the resort, towards the finish chute.

"Andrew!" I heard, and looked to my right. It was my Italan-Swiss friend Enrico, lounging on a beach chair watching the race go by. We had met earlier in the year in Da Nang. He had just completed the half today, and was shirtless, drinking a beer I think. That was a nice boost. I waved back.

Then I heard another Italian yell my name. Matteo, a fellow COS disciple. He was racing in the half, too, but was now a spectator. Next, I saw Colin. We high-fived and I squeezed his hand above our heads and shook it in impending-victory and gratitude.

Continuing, I approached the chute, wishing I could veer right and become an IRONMAN. Get my medal. Towel. Pasta. Ice cream? Beer?

Nope, take a left.

Then silence. I was behind the finishing tent, alone. Schlepping along. Nervous but energized. My paces were now hovering around 6. Not good.

This airport road never seemed to end. Photo: IRONMAN Malaysia

Then I saw a guy walking near the course with a bloody left side. Shoulder, arm, hip, leg.

"You OK, man?" I sympathized. No answer. I don't blame him. A stupid question from an athlete who couldn't do anything for him. For all I know, he didn't finish.

 I walked most aid stations. It became a ritual. Sponge, water, gel, sodium.

"Ada asam pedas di sini?" I asked if they had a certain type of Malay food. Something my mother in law cooks, which I had just discovered I loved.

Shy laughs ensued. I doused myself with a giant plastic ladle full of cold water.

Split open a gel and sucked it.

Approaching the convention center, we ran along a few hundred metres of road shared with the cyclists, when suddenly I heard, "Andrew! I'm coming in!" It was roasting hot. 35 degrees.

Masri was just about to hit T1.

I entered the air con refuge, this time with slightly less enthusiasm than before. The crowds had thinned out and the cheering had died down a bit. I took it easy so as to try to cool off a bit. If I'm ever going to go slow it'll be in the AC, not the sun.

Leaving the building, I saw Mitch getting water at the first aid station. He must have been on his last lap. I caught him for a second but once he was back into the run he was out of there. He ran a 3:08 marathon in Port Elizabeth earlier this year. I wasn't about to try to chase him.

That's the road we ran, right along that chain link fence. The swim started at the base of that mountain in the distance.

But I did see the Triton guy again. He was doing a similar pace to me. The run went on, blurring from aid station to aid station. I heard a "Hey Andrew" from friend Andrew Schleis, going the other way. Turned out he did a remarkable 55 minutes in the swim. Assuming we had the same bike split (which we did, more or less) that put him a full half-hour ahead of me. And he got a Kona slot!

There's not a lot to say about the next few laps. I was getting tired. I was walking more. I could see my time slipping away. I wasn't going to do close to 4 hours. It was going to be close to 4:15. Then, 4:20. Who knows, maybe 4:30? Not cool.

It was dark by now. I was not in that much of a world of hurt as I have been in most other races. I kind of gave up. I kind of just settled that I'd do a 4:30 and walked, ran, walked, ran.

Normally I'll push through the pain. Make it hurt. Ignore the physical feedback telling me to stop. But this time, I was content to have made it this far. Not very ambitious, is it? To be honest, I lost some of my drive. I'm not proud of that.

At close to km 38 or so an ANZA guy came blasting past me. Wearing the new blue ANZA kit.

"You're flying!" I yelled. He gave me a thumbs up.

Coming home.
Then I heard the clamor of cowbells, and saw Eda, Ezio, and Elka on the corner cheering for me. I stretched out my hand and smacked whoever's was there. That gave me a real boost. My watch read 39.8 km.

Right after that I saw the ANZA guy again, this time, walking.

"Let's go, we're almost home!" I patted him on the back. Then I really picked up the pace. No more walking, no more BS. It didn't really hurt that much. I still had some legs. I had been through worse before, much, much worse.

Eda and the kids would be in the finish chute by now. And I'd be there soon, too. I rounded the corner into the Meritus, onto the sandy path. The blare of the music and the unmistakable voice of Pete Murray dominated.
I had no choice but to go! Photo credit: Colin O'Shea

Then I saw the kids and Eda, holding a big sign that said "Go, Papa, Go!" with a picture of me on the bike at the World Championships in South Africa. High-fives all around.

Just seconds away from finishing!

Nearing the chute, I slowed down, so as not to crowd the guy in front of me. Once he was clear, I entered, smiling, red carpet at my feet, painted with dancing lights of all colors. I slapped the closest outstretched hand, a smiling woman's, and jogged through, slowly. I suddenly felt the urge to spin around in celebration. A clumsy pirouette of triumph.

Then I heard, "Andrew Patterson, from the United States, coming in in style!"

The finish scene. Photo: IRONMAN Malaysia

I crossed the finish line and was given my medal. Somewhere in there, Pete must have uttered those words, "Andrew Patterson, you are an IRONMAN!" but to be honest, I didn't hear them.

But it's OK. I knew I was an IRONMAN, whether he said it or not.

I finished 14th in the run for my division, putting me in the 8th percentile.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

70.3 Run Analysis Chart

I was pretty happy to set a personal best for the run at the 70.3 World Champs in South Africa.

Previously, my standalone-half marathon personal best was 1:43. This was done in the tropical heat of Singapore. I had tried to beat it a few times in similar conditions but both times only achieved 1:44s.

So how did I hit a 1:38 after the swim and ride? The obvious answer was that I benefited from the cooler weather and of course more training.

But to be sure, I did an analysis of my past five 70.3 runs.

Determine why my WC run was so much faster than my previous personal best.

The run was fast due to the cool weather and my bigger base of training, which included speed work.

Items to look for
  1. Do the VIs from the bike leg prior have any affect on the run?
  2. Was there any correlation with heart rate?
  3. How did the CTL, ATL, and TSB affect the run, if at all?
  4. Did nutrition play a role?

In the chart above (broken up into two for easier reading) it is clear that the variable contributing most to the faster run, is indeed the weather.

I can't find any correlation between other items (see list above).

RPE: Rate of Perceived Exertion, on a scale of 1-20. 20 = being so hard that you leave nothing in the tank. Basically, you are in a world of hurt.

HR: Heart rate

VI: Variability Index. This shows the smoothness of your power output on the bike. It is calculated by dividing Normalized Power by Average Power. A VI of 1.05 is considered the highest acceptable for the ride segment of a triathlon. Anything higher shows that you 'burned too many matches' or made too many power spikes, which will detract from your run.

CTL: Cumulative training efforts over the last 42 days. The higher this is, the more trained you are.

ATL: Fatigue over the past week.

TSB: Form. TSB = yesterday's fitness - yesterday's fatigue. The higher this is, the more rested you are.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

2018 IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship Race Report - Port Elizabeth, South Africa

Back in May 2018 I inadvertently qualified for the IRONMAN World Championship. I raced hard but I really wasn't expecting to be able to qualify. So when it happened, I jumped on the opportunity. Fast forward 13 weeks, and after a lot of training and planning I was ready to race.

After having just raced Bintan two weeks earlier, setting a PB, and then seriously reflecting about the ingredients that make a fun or not-so-fun race (see my post on pressure vs performance), I went into the World Champs pretty relaxed. As my friend Andrew S. put it, consider this a celebration of all the training and racing you've done over the year, and don't stress it.

There's not a lot more we can achieve - no World Champs spots to take (except for the first finisher in each age group - they automatically get one for Nice in 2019 - but I'd be very far off from that level - anyway I had already earned one for 2019!), no special ranking we can expect to earn as we're up against the best in the world, and no real reason to be uptight.

We were excited to race alongside Jan Frodeno, Javier Gomez, Alistair Brownlee, and Daniela Ryf - world champions and Olympic gold medalists.

Friday, Andrew S. and I did a short ride around the area, just to get a feel for the roads and the conditions. We were impressed with the scenery and knew we'd have a scenic ride.

Impressive scenery
Saturday, 1 September the women raced. I went down to the beach and watch them start. They fired a big cannon Kona-style, which was cool. I met Arturo there whom I ran with in Danang. Watching the women the first day gave us a chance to see them on the course a bit and get a feel for what to expect. The sky was clear and by the time the women were into the bike it had started to warm up. They may have had a bit of wind on the course, but overall, it was great weather.

Cheering for Charlene on Saturday
By the time they were running it was actually pretty warm. We sat at a restaurant and cheered them on from our table. Ideal spectator conditions! The weather for the next day, however, wasn't supposed to be so good. So when I was down at the beach on Sunday with Andrew S., and the announcer stated that the water had warmed up so much that wet suits were optional, it was a bit of a surprise.

The day before, when we had done a short swim, the water was freezing. My cheeks, fingers, and toes were numb. But suddenly today it's warmer? Odd, because the weather wasn't. It was drizzling and windy, and considerably cooler than 24 hours beforehand.

Swim to the beat
The energy at the start was electric. Andrew S. and I stood around and watched the other age-groupers set off while we nervously waited until 9:30. At least we have some cool African drumming to keep the energy up.

And to my left: The Swim Reaper.
A 9:30 am swim? I had never started so late, and had never started in the last wave. The only good thing about this I could think of was that it would be easy to find our bikes in T1 as most of the others would already be gone. The thing is, I'm not quite the fastest swimmer, and I really didn't want to be last out of the water...

That's me, yelling and cheering to nobody
Going in was fine. The temperature today was so much warmer than yesterday. Absolutely zero discomfort. I was looking forward to this. Still, I was glad to have the neoprene swim cap for warmth, given to me by fellow-Oregonian Bryce. He had just used it in British Columbia, full IRONMAN.

The water was clean, despite the large port nearby. I could sometimes see the sandy bottom. But it was overcast and visibility was low.

Once past a few big waves, I tried to find my rhythm. I wanted to hit sub-40. That's good for me, but in the very bottom of the pack, I expected, at the World Championships. Still, I was living my dream, and how I finished really didn't matter.
“We live as we dream - alone...”
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

As I swam, it seemed to get more and more lonely. No packs of faster guys coming up from behind. Nobody nipping at my heels or cramming me against the rope. In fact, there was no rope. Just buoys.

Being in the ocean alone is bad enough to begin with. But was I really alone?

I started imagining I was the last one. Indeed, I did go out towards the back of my wave, which was the last wave, so there was hardly anybody behind me. I wanted to stop and look behind to see if there was anybody there, but I knew that was pointless. And it would be really demoralizing if it were true.

But then I passed a guy. And a few others. I even found a breast-stroker. Maybe I wasn't as slow as I thought. Anyway, it was OK. I just had to press on to the best of my ability.

The swim went out 800m, to the left for 300, and back another 800m. At the first corner I started smelling exhaust. There was what looked like a rescue boat with red flashing lights. I wondered if anybody quit during the swim. It happens all the time in normal 70.3 races. But at the World Champs?

At the end of the race, the announcer said we had a 97% finish rate. I checked online and found that 30 of the DNFs were in the swim. That's surprising to me.

Feeling great coming out of the water. The guy behind me has two swim caps (for warmth).
Like two weeks prior, coming out of the water, I glanced down at my watch to see a reading of 39 minutes and some seconds. Cool. Segment 1 complete...if I could only get this wet suit off.

There were pairs of guys lined up along the exit. One told me to lie down on my back in front of him. I had already unzipped my wet suit and pulled the arms out and shoulders off. These guys grabbed the suit and in one swift yank stripped it off of me.

I stood up, jogging towards transition. Another local guy cheered for me, and I yelled back. As I got closer to him he leaned in to me and hugged me! It was totally appropriate and aligned with how I felt: I was grateful for his support and volunteer work, and he was feeding off my and the other athletes' energy.

This transition was different than others. More like the full IRONMAN in Busselton. We had our blue (bike) bags hanging up in a giant rack. It was easy to find mine, as most of the others were gone. I pulled it down, and started clawing open the drawstring. It had rained overnight and it was a good thing I tied it tightly or else my shoes and helmet would have been wet. I came back before the swim start to loosen the knot.

I sat on one of the many dozen plastic white chairs. A woman practically did my transition for me: She took my shoes out while I put my helmet on. She gathered my wet suit, swim caps, and googles, and put them in the bag. This was real race support!

Trotting to my bike, I was reassured to see there were a few dozen other bikes still racked. I pulled mine out and rolled it to the mount line, pushed start on my Garmin, and was off.

Remember before how it just felt lonely? Now I was cold and lonely. My toes were ice. Nevertheless, the race officials, police, and volunteers lined the curbs, blocking all traffic and side streets. I thanked almost all of them. And many of them cheered, equally alone, in the rain.

Coming out of a very quiet T1.      Photo: Marianne

And to rub the loneliness in, I even saw the pros running. Yes, that's right, some of the pros were even off their bikes and had started the run. And I wasn't even 100m into my ride.

The first 10k of the ride took us through the city of Port Elizabeth. The road was good, smooth and straight, with no potholes. There were plenty of newly-repaired sections that had been patched up just for us. I was still cold, and mostly alone.

After we made it past the robots (that's 'traffic light' for you non-locals) and towards the outskirts of town, the roads turned into rolling hills. This was very pleasant riding, as the ascents were easy, and the descents were a nice break. It didn't cause any power fluctuations that would throw off my numbers. I was trying to maintain a Normalized Power average of 215 watts and an Average Power of 205. So far so good.

At the 15th kilometer, we met oncoming cyclists who had started much earlier than we did. They were at their 60th. I wanted to keep my eyes peeled for friends or any of the few others I knew, but was way too captivated by the scenery. And way too focused on my numbers.

The hills were rolling, almost like a combination of the California and Western Australia coasts. Low, dry scrub, but also lots of green. At a latitude of -33.9, Pt. Elizabeth is very close to Busselton, which is -33.6. For reference, Los Angeles is at a latitude of 33.9.

Those are robots behind me (traffic lights)

A few guys rolled past me, clearly stronger cyclists that I. One was French, but lived in Malaysia. He said he'd be at Langkawi. I would always seem to catch him on the downhills, but he'd pass me on the ups. There were others that I passed multiple times, too. A Japanese guy, some Americans (there were 500 Americans), and others. But I never really fell into a pace alongside anybody else that I could ride with for more than a few minutes, due to the hills.

It was slow going and the only thing that looked good was my power. That, and the wind. Or lack of it! This was a notoriously windy place and it was pretty much guaranteed that we'd have strong gusts from any or all directions, but nope. That was good news. But my average speed was just not cutting it. I was holding right at 30, sometimes 29, when I should have been doing closer to 34.

All that went out the window when I approached one of the longest ascents ever. That's not saying much, with me coming from Singapore, where the longest hill is like 300m. What was scary was less the uphill and more the downhill. There were guys four-deep barreling down at breakneck speed. When one guy is trying to overtake another, and the front guy doesn't see the guy behind, you have the recipe for disaster. On top of that the roads were kind of rough.

Almost all were in aero positions, hands away from brakes, necks craned. One was even doing the Froome. On a tri bike. Pure insanity.

Don't do this on a tri bike in a group, please. Even if you're Froome.

There were water bottles all over the place. I even saw a guy stop his bike on a downhill section to pick up a bottle cage. Well, it was the $100 X-Lab cage that never launches bottles. But if it's not fastened down properly, the whole thing will go.

A Garmin mount in the middle of the road. Weird bits of plastic. Various aero hydration systems, in pieces, strewn across the road. Basically, whatever is not bolted down is flying off.

Suddenly a strange phrase popped into my mind:
CDGW: Carnage from Descents Gone Wrong
This was not really a welcome thought, for I would be hitting that very same downhill soon after. After I went up it the other way, of course.

As I crested the summit, I was greeted with a stunning sight. In front of me, a vast expanse of sand dunes unfolded. The end of the beach and the beginning of the dunes was indistinguishable - they were one and the same. But how this bleached white sand - powder really - was so plentiful and powerful that it could overrun all vegetation and even the land until it WAS the land, was astonishing.

And not a scrap of garbage of man-made eyesore to tarnish the view.

This is very close to the view that greeted us on the ride (actual location is Sardinia Bay)
The sheer striking beauty of it distracted me from the concentrated focus I was trying to dedicate to my ride: watts, speed, heart rate, time. In that moment of visual shock I very well may have stopped pedaling, and taken my eyes off the road, awestruck.

But equally welcome was the stretch of road (downhill I may add) that suddenly revealed itself to me. Out of granny, I shifted the front chain ring, and into a smaller gear in the rear, ready to pick up speed. One or two guys coming from the other direction neared the summit, probably relieved to be finishing a long climb, too.

Spray painted on the ground were three white capital letters: KOM.

"KING OF THE MOUNTAIN!" I screamed, with a bit too much enthusiasm. Nobody heard me.

There was one guy 100 or 150m ahead of me, enjoying the downhill.

"OK," I thought, "Enough screwing around. Let's make some time back."

I love downhills. And as much as it's fun to fly down them, I know I can never make up time lost on the ascents, in the descents. This is a lesson I learned while mountain bike racing in Malaysia. I'd always get dropped on the uphills, and despite being a faster downhiller, could never catch them.

If a 500m long uphill takes you 6 minutes (22.5 km/h), and your planned pace is 30 km/h, you will lose two minutes. To gain those two minutes back on the downhill, assuming it's the same distance, you have to do it in two minutes flat, or at an average of 60 km/h. Not impossible, but certainly a challenge.

Still, I tried to do it, without creating too much of a power spike or burning a match. Ironic, isn't it? Imagine you save all your energy ascending a steep hill, in granny, heart rate low, power nice and flat, only to blow it all up going down, in an attempt to make up time...

As I got on the pedals and felt the cadence increase, the bike started vibrating. The road surface was weathered and rough, battered and worn by shifting dunes and ocean salt and spray. The gap between me and the guy in front started closing. I was really picking up speed. The road was curving to the right, vanishing behind the corner, yet still descending.

I looked down at my Garmin to check my speed but everything was vibrating so violently it was all a blur. It reminded me of Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff when he broke the sound barrier. He was going so fast and his plane was vibrating so much that one of the gauges just shattered under pressure.

Remember this scene?
I had just had my bike serviced at the shop next to my hotel (Wayne Phieffer) and I had to trust they had tightened anything that might have been loose. All I could do was hope.

I briefly imagined my front skewer rattling open and losing the entire wheel at speed. My fork would shatter into the rough chipseal tarmac, splintering into a million pieces, my aero body and weight, directly above it, pushing down in the armrests. The wheel would probably trundle down the road at full speed, peacefully and silently ignorant of the 80kg of carbon and corporeity it had just disconnected from. The road a cheese grater, my body street-meat. Perish the thought.


I passed the guy in the downhill with enough momentum to carry me almost all the way up the next ridge. Two or three more of these and I had reached a turnaround point. Volunteers with a pick-up - sorry, I mean a bakkie - were stationed at then end, directing our u-turns. It appeared that the road had been just recently paved extra-wide to accommodate u-turns.

One of the volunteers yelled, "Good work, you're halfway!"

A glance down at my Garmin and it read 1:17. This mean that if I was halfway, I'd do the ride in 2:34. Wow, I was making good time. I knew I had a good swim, and I was sure my run would be a PB in this cool weather, and now I see that my bike will be ahead of schedule? Would this be a sub-5 race?

Couldn't be...my pace was only 29.x km/h. I checked the numbers again, only to find I had only just done 40 km.

Never believe the spectators.

They probably don't know that to us "half" means exactly 45 km. To them, since this is the turnaround point, it's half.

Oh well, I was fine with it.

A few hundred meters down, the waves were crashing against the rocky shore to my right. They were pounding against dark brown rock which protruded from the sand in hundreds of parallel lines angled at 45-degree angles. Each wave break chipping away at the rock, creating sand. Millions of them ceaselessly eroding the hard stone, over millennia.

The water seems so weak against the stone, but in the end it prevails. Not too different than our pedal strokes. One stroke is so minute, so small, across 90 kilometers, but collectively, they beat the hills, they push through the weather, they make sand of this course. All 15,000 of them. But like the waves, they must be consistent and concentrated.

Like the waves beside me, stay consistent and concentrated
I counted myself lucky to be able to do that scary downhill where four guys were aero-ing abreast alone. Far safer this way. I hit 75.5 km/h here, probably the fastest I've ever gone on a bike, and it felt fine. No wind, no other cyclists, no rough road, and no hazards. Again, this quick descent would not make up for the slow spin up it.

It was a largely uneventful ride back to the town. I did see one guy that had crashed out who was being loaded into an ambulance, and another sitting on the grass with some locals who were cheering, presumably down with a mechanical issue. Three to four others had flat tires - quite a lot I'd say - and others were just spinning very slowly, taking their time.

Some of the locals were cheering with tin boxes full of rocks. They sure beat those cowbells! I waved at every single one of them.

I was looking for Andrew S. I knew he was at least 12-13 minutes ahead of me coming out of the swim, so it would be hard to catch him on the bike. I would probably see him on the run.

Rolling in to T2 made me anxious as our course overlapped with some of the run. Hundreds of athletes were already off the bike - thousands really - and many were already crossing the finish line.

Bike catchers grabbed my bars as I hopped off before the red line. They'd take care of the bike from there. The red run bags were hanging, this time more of them than when I had come out of the swim. A swap of the shoes and start of the other Garmin and I was out of there.

A 2:51 was really pretty far from what I was shooting for, but it would have to do. I was happy knowing that I stuck to my watt plan perfectly, something that's always been hard for me to achieve with such precision.

Coming into the run I felt fantastic. I was hoping to break my standalone half marathon PB of 1:43. I ran the first kilometer by feel, not really aware of my pace. I just wanted to see what a baseline pace that would feel comfortable would be like. It was 4:50.

Before the rain really started. Notice the cyclists on the left and the runners on the right.
I had my watch's Virtual Partner set at 4:55 which would give me a 1:43:43. But when the next few splits came around and I was doing them in the 4:40s and even 4:30s at times, and I still felt good, I knew I'd blow that 1:43 away. Forget about my 70.3 run PB of 1:46:22, set just two weeks prior.

I had a lot going for me:
  1. A flat course (mostly)
  2. Cool weather (ok, rain)
  3. No plantar fascists pain
  4. A heart rate that while high, didn't bother me one bit (it didn't feel high)
  5. Good nutrition on the bike and no signs of cramping
  6. A ride with a VI of only 1.03 (meaning I didn't burn any matches)
I was not about to let up. On the other hand, I wasn't going to kill myself obliterating that 1:43. Somewhere in the middle sounded right - no need to get greedy.

Cool = fast
As I approached the restaurant where we had been cheering the day before, I scanned the crowd for my wife and kids. I saw them, loyally out in the middle of the road, braving the rain and cold. Andrew S's girlfriend was there, too, taking pictures.

Great picture, Mariane
And then I saw Andrew. He had done the first of two u-turns on the run already, and was easily 20 minutes ahead of me. He must have had a good bike segment after what would have certainly been a fast swim.

I like out-and-back courses because you can see your friends and competitors when you double-back. And add to that, this was two loops.

Lap two couldn't come soon enough for me. The streets were lined with fans, flags of all nations waving, cheers of various languages erupting from the sides. Flags from Chile, Costa Rica, Argentina, Brazil, and Taiwan stuck out.

"Chile! Chile es el mas fuerte!" I screamed, while passing some wildly energized Chilean fans.

"I want one of those beers," I announced to a few guys sitting under a tent, drinking Castle Lager. They laughed and told me I could have one, but of course I kept running. I gave kids 5. I gave old men 5. I acknowledged all volunteers.

Then there was a Red Bull truck, with a counter of that sugary drink. It looked like they set up up guerilla-style, on their own. They just invited themselves. I didn't take any. I didn't want any. Nobody took any. Kind of sad. In fact, I didn't want to drink anything.

I kind of wanted to run faster - I could - but what for? I was already set for a big run PB. Why tread too deep beyond PB territory into uncharted land? What dangers lay in that wild frontier? What would happen?

It usually hurts a lot worse than this

I started calculating my likely finish time. "Let's see..." I thought to myself. "I started at 9:30 and now it's somewhere around 2:15 pm, so I must be 4 hours and 45 minutes in. Can I finish in another 15 minutes? Depends on what time it is."

"What's the time of day?" I barked, at a guy standing on the side of the road. "2pm!" he answered.

"Never believe the spectators." I reminded myself.

If it was really 2pm I'd easily finish within 5 hours, but as I did the math I didn't think it was possible. Anyway, I pressed on. Saw Andrew S. again, and he was coming in for his final stretch. Then I did the other u-turn, and a guy yelled out to me.

"Sorry, I got the time wrong. Now it's 2:30!" I thanked him, and realized Andrew would be in for a 5-hour finish. I still had about 3-4 km to go.

I managed to keep the pace up, and headed toward the finish chute. There was a guy about 50 meters in front of me. It looked like I'd have a nice, clean finish photo. But then I heard footsteps from behind. I should have crossed the timing mat and then just let this guy go. But I thought the timing mat was at the very end, so I increased the pace.

This is no place to sprint
Now I don't really think it's good etiquette to race in the chute. Let each guy have his own glory running down that coveted carpet, one by one. But I wasn't going to have this guy beat me at the last second or jump in front of me and ruin my picture.

I'm really not happy about what happened next. I ran up behind the guy in front of me, probably ruining HIS finish. He had opened the Kazakh flag and was set for a beautiful crossing. I ran around him on his right, and the guy behind me ran around him on his left.

We both crossed the line at the same time.


I felt terrible and I immediately apologized to the Kazakh guy. He seemed OK with it.

But I learned a lesson, and that is not to race in the chute. If anyone wants to pass you, let them do so, and you should take your own time. After all, we had already crossed the timing mat.

Shot from the TV finish
Nevertheless, we were presented with the biggest and heaviest medals I had ever seen. Then we were given a finisher hat, shirt, and towel, along with a space blanket.
By now, the rain was really coming down
Right there at the finish, but on the spectator side, were Andrew S. and Mariane. Andrew had done an awesome 5:01. I think he was a bit disappointed he didn't go sub-five, but that's just one more [very attainable] goal for him to shoot for at his next race.

I headed over to the massage tent - I never pass that up - and then went out to meet Eda and the kids who had hopefully found some shelter.

Post-race snack. I didn't eat it all though, only about 2/3 of it!
Overall, I'd say this was my most memorable race yet. We found South Africa to be a fascinating country with friendly people, incredible scenery, and great food. We are definitely going to come back to South Africa, not to race, but to see more of the country.

Not a PB in terms of time, but a PB in terms of fun