Tuesday, August 30, 2016

2016 Cobra Energy Drink IRONMAN 70.3 Asia-Pacific Championship in Cebu Philippines: Race Report

In a way, no race report for Cebu is even needed: The race sells out in mere hours of registration opening, and most people who race it one year return the next. However, if for whatever reason you're on the fence, or would just like some practical tips, read on.

In addition, I'd like to offer some practical advice on the event - like where to stay, how to get around, and tips about the course.

With slots filling up the same morning the registration opens, you'll have to be quick with your mouse. Apparently, there were 2,500 slots sold in four hours with 500 people on the waiting list.

All this for just a few hours?

The day it opened, I waited until after lunch to register, and to my disappointment, it was full. But I found a few other ways to get in:
  1. I managed to register by buying the charity entry, which means that I paid double, but half the fee went to a local charity.
  2. Refresh the site and keep trying - slots can open up if people's sessions time out.
  3. Email the organizer and ask if you can get in. I'm not sure if this will work but it's worth trying.
In the meantime, keep checking back on the Ironman site to see when the registration opens. Or become a fan of the event here on Facebook.

Update: Registration opens for 2017 on 1 October at 8am (GMT +8). See official announcement here.

If you have kids, this is a great even to bring them to. You might be going for your race, but they can look forward to the beaches and treat it more like a vacation. I brought my wife and two kids. A friend of mine, Masri, did the same, but he (wisely) left a few days in advance and was already there.

We flew from Singapore to Cebu on Silkair. It was on a direct flight that left at about 9am on Saturday. This was really cutting it too close for me, as it only left me a few hours to get to the hotel, get my race pack, organize my bike and gear, and get to sleep for the race the next morning. Not even enough time to eat!

With Masri's kids in the airport
Upon arrival, there was someone from our hotel waiting for us, with a van. We emailed them in advance to request this airport transfer, specifying that we had a bike and seven people (we gave Masri's family a lift to their hotel, the Shangri-La), to make sure there was space. We had to pay for this van (not included in the hotel). I forgot how much it was - maybe about SG $30, but it was worth it. The ride from the airport to the race site is only about 20-30 minutes.

The official hotel is Shangri-La Cebu, which had supposedly-discounted packages for the participants. But if you want one of those packages, you have to stay during their specific dates, which are not flexible. I asked if I could arrive a bit later (I was arriving Saturday, but the package included Thursday-Sunday or Monday) and pay the same rate, and they said no.

The suite is nice, with a sea view
Instead, we booked a room (suite, actually) at Movenpick, which is just 700m up the road. This is a nice hotel with excellent service, but quite a bit less convenient than the Shangri-La, as I had to lug my stuff back and forth on a narrow and busy road (with two little kids). It may have been cheaper, though, but next year it's the Shang all the way for us.

Race Pack Collection
I almost missed the deadline of 4pm on Saturday, but picked up my race pack and walked through the expo. This was one of the busiest expos I'd ever seen - I could barely walk through the crowd it was so packed.

Right after having picked up the race pack
This is where you pick up your 'loot bag' which is really the sponsor part of the race pack - this year it was a yellow waterproof backpack with a shirt, a Cobra energy drink, a Cobra water bottle, some junk food (this didn't make sense to me), Rock Tape, lots of other little samples, and the usual spam/flyers plus the race program.

Checking out the finish line.

I made it back to the hotel in time to organize my stuff and eat a big plate of pasta in the Movenpick restaurant, before going to sleep as early as possible (about 9:30pm). Since I'm a light sleeper I brought ear plugs, and asked for a separate bed. I let my wife and kids sleep in the room and I slept in the outside room of our suite where it would be quieter, and I could wake up without disturbing them.

Race Day: Setup
After a decent sleep - not perfect though as I'm always nervous the night before - I woke up at 4:15 with no alarm. I had asked for a wake-up call from the front desk at 4:30, but it never came. Good thing I was already awake.

I felt pretty unprepared. I had totally stopped training my running due to a ruptured plantar fascia back in October 2015. Funny - this happened only a few weeks after registering for Cebu. But at the time I thought by August 2016 (race day) it would have been healed. So did my doctor. Even after a dozen doctor appointments, an x-ray, an MRI, physiotherapy, many podiatrist visits, custom insoles, and lots of very slow, methodical training, I could only work my way up to 14km without the pain coming back.

In April, the pain became so bad I almost lost hope, and completely gave up running. I still cycled, and swam just a little bit (less than once a week). But I knew my run condition was poor. I figured I'd go in with a decent swim and cycle, and then just walk/hobble along on the run, and not risk injury.

So after waking up I put some KT tape under the sole of my foot to support the arch, with one strip stretching up my ankle, on both sides, like a stirrup. This was to hold the arch up and hopefully minimize any injury.

With that in place, at about 4:30am on race day I went down to the Movenpick restaurant for the breakfast. Who wants a full buffet before a race? Not I.

You know the advice: Just eat what you normally eat before a long ride - don't try anything different - and don't risk upsetting your stomach. Following this, I just had my normal cereal and a bit of bread, and a few extra glasses of water.

Next, it was out the door with my bike and bag and on to the Shangri-La. There was supposed to be a bus that would take us there, but I heard some pros saying that last year there was a traffic jam and it would be faster just to walk. So I followed them in the dark, down the narrow and dusty road to the Shang. This would be the only time I'd be able to keep up with the pros!

I couldn't resist a photo of this huge sign of all the pros
The transition area was huge - the biggest I had ever seen - with many bikes already racked. But to get in, we had to queue up and have our bikes photographed, including the race number on the seat post, and our faces. This was to match the riders with the bikes as a security measure. This took a good 10 minutes of waiting.

Racked and ready
Once in, I set up my transition spot as the music played. I could feel the energy in the air - the anticipation, excitement, and maybe a bit of fear from the crowd. As always, I was early, and didn't have much to do, besides carefully arrange my running shoes, visor, glasses, cycling shoes, race belt, helmet, bike Garmin, water, nutrition, and anything else. And re-arrange it. And check it. And re-check it.

Soon, the sun started rising and I made my way to the beach. Still, we had more than an hour to go, so this was a good time to check the water. On the way to the beach there were plenty of drink stations, so I picked up a few waters and energy drinks - no way I'm dehydrating.

The water was very nice, and I entered, just one of hundreds of others warming up. I stepped on coral a few times, cutting my leg and foot, but it didn't really hurt. In a way, I liked it - it was almost a distraction from the real pain I was about to experience.

This is the part where I like to feel the current by observing boats and buoys and by floating and seeing where the water takes me. I picked out major landmarks on the shore to aid in sighting later, and even tasted and smelled the water. This little bit of familiarity helps plan, prepare, and even reduce tension.

Back on the beach, I waited among the thousands of others, for my group to swim. It was a beach start, with two swimmers entering the water about every 15 or 30 seconds. This is a pretty good way of starting the swim, as it avoids the huge crowds common with a mass start. Still, though, the beginning was very crowded, but it could have been worse.

The water was clean and clear, and for much of the swim I could see the bottom. But it was choppy, and some swells were so big I couldn't even see any of the buoys. Sighting was hard. Then my goggles started leaking. I tried ignoring it - I really don't mind getting saltwater in my eyes - but eventually it became so bad I couldn't see. But this meant I had to clear my googles at least 5-6 times, each requiring me to break my flow and dramatically slow down.

I finished in a slow 45 minutes, and ran up the shore, over the first timing mat and into the transition area. I saw my friend Masri who had just finished right before me, and he was getting his bike out. Normally my T1 is around 2-3 minutes, but I could tell this would take longer: There was actually a queue to get out! This was pretty frustrating, but I patiently waited, and 9 minutes later, was in the saddle.

Feeling glad the swim is done - now here comes the fun part!
View my swim on Strava here.

The second I was over the timing mat and on the bike all I could see was people. Crowds and crowds of smiling locals, cheering us on. It was insane. They were cheering - screaming actually. And so I reciprocated: I yelled back at them, "Yeah!!" "Let's go!" were some of the things I yelled. In return, their cheers became even louder and more enthusiastic. This was going to be fun.

The course was flat, and the roads were ok. Not perfect, but totally acceptable - no pot holes or gravel, but some minor bumps and seams where the road had been repaired. I heard they even patched some of it up just for our race. Furthermore, the roads were totally closed off to traffic, which was nice.

Soon, we had to cross from Mactan to Mandaue, over a huge bridge. This was supposed to be the only uphill. No sweat - I mashed to the top and then flew down, as fast as possible. I had to be a bit careful, though, because there were some very slow cyclists (and they don't necessarily go in straight lines). A quick glance at the Garmin showed 55 km/h at the bottom.

Since this was a double-out-and-back course, soon, I started seeing the pros coming back for a second loop, complete with police escorts. No way I could catch up with them, but I had to keep my head down and try to keep my average speed above 32. I was hoping to finish the cycle in below 2:46 (my time for Bintan 10 months beforehand).

One super fast part of the course was the tunnel. It goes down, where you can pick up some serious speed, then inside there's no wind. I was able to enter at 50 km/h and maintain above 40 all the way through.

I was doing my best to keep it at 34-35 but it was getting hard with the crowds. The road became narrower and in fact it was impossible not to draft. But these guys were at times going slower than 30, and there was no way to pass at times. Then, at the first u-turn (km 26 I believe), the bottleneck was so tight, the ground so wet, and the commotion so intense that behind me, I heard a terrible crash.

Lucky I was ahead of them and I had enough water on me to not need any. I'd really rather not deal with the crowds struggling to get a bottle until I really have to.

After the u-turn in Talisay, it was back towards Mandaue City where we'd do a second u-turn. Still, along the way, were thousands of spectators, standing on the sides of the roads and in the median. Many were asking us to throw them the yellow Cobra Energy Drink bottles handed out at the water stops. I wanted to, but didn't have one.

I rode on my Canyon Aeroad without aero bars - pure road setup
After the third u-turn, the wind really started picking up. It was pushing me all over the road (and I only have 62mm wheels). I wondered how the guys on full discs managed it. It was really hard riding, into the wind.

All that changed after the fourth and last u-turn. The tail wind pushed me above 40 most of the way and it was awesome. I picked up a few bottles, and chucked them to the kids. Then, it was over the bridge again, and back to transition.

I looked at my time, and it read 2:47 - a minute longer than I had wanted.

View my ride on Strava here.

I don't care how painful running can be, I love it. And somehow the jolt the body experiences moving from the cycle to the run just feels great to me. The stimulation and shock just reaffirm to me that I'm confronting, challenging, and defying my body and mind's limits. And that's living.

Problem is, I didn't train for the run. "It's ok," I told myself, "I've done a decent swim and bike and now I can walk or trot - doesn't matter - I'm here to have fun." And with the swim and bike behind me, it was just a matter of walking this thing out.

With one decent 70.3 behind me (Bintan 2015, 5:36) I had a lot less to prove to myself this time.

Shuffling out of T2, I considered my options:

  1. Just walk fast, at about 8 min/km, and not risk further damaging my plantar fascia (which hurt the day before). Finish the run in 2:50 or so.
  2. Walk-run. Try about 1 min of walking per km and increase my pace but risk injury.
  3. Run. It could be done, but without any real training it would be hard. Risk of injury would be high.

I like the solitude of running alone, but in races, I love talking to people. A guy appeared next to me, "How you feeling?" I asked. "OK but I need to keep my heart rate down," he replied. "Yep, I'm pacing myself too - I'll probably be walking soon." As we settled into a similar pace, still getting used to this odd sensation on our feet, we talked more. Turns out he was from Singapore too. Soon, he slowed down to walk, and I kept going.

I just ran. There was no pain, so I didn't slow down.

The crowds here were just as thick as on the ride, but since we were going slower and on just a two-lane road, it was easier to give/get high-5s and talk to the locals. Soon I heard some wild screaming and a loud bell ringing - it was my wife and two kids! I ran across the road to give them all high-5s and was on my way.

It was an odd course - not out and back like the ride, but out a bit and then two loops before coming back. So soon I saw the pros coming in, close to 4 hours after the race had started.

One of the pros, close to the end
Water stops were set up just about every kilometer I'd say. Most had water, Cobra, Coke, gels, and sponges in ice. I'd usually drink some water and Cobra, then put a frozen sponge down my suit and ask for them to pour water over my head.

Much of the run is shade (not all!) so it wasn't nearly as hot as Putrajaya or Bintan, which was nice. But even if it had been sunny, the support and encouragement of the crowd might have made up for it. Some teenage girls were chanting like cheerleaders, while some were helping give out water, even though they were not official volunteers.

Others were dancing to loud music, including one older lady-boy in a mini-skirt. It was at this point where I met my friend Paul Tan. To give him some encouragement, I pointed at the dancer, and at that moment he picked up the pace. (Read his race report here).

I gave lots of kids 5s. There was one, with no shirt on, who had to be no older than four. He gave me 5, and I yelled, "Yeah!" and then when I gave him 5 he responded with an appropriate and perfectly-timed, "FU*K YEAH!"

Others told me I was their idol. I thought I misheard them, or that maybe they were calling me something in the local language (Cebuano), but after checking with a few Filipino friends, I learned it was correct. Apparently, that's a common expression in the Philippines.

Feeling good!
Halfway through the run, I felt great. Things were going fine: none of the telltale pain I was used to in the sole of my foot, a reasonably low heart rate, and decent splits. Screw it, it was time to increase the pace and bring it home.

I progressively sped up, and from km 11 to km 17 kept it at 6:35. Nothing like what I should have been doing had I trained, but a pace I was happy with. But it was getting hotter. And I was getting more anxious - anxious just to get it done, with no injury. The clock was ticking.

At times, I told myself it was ok to walk, and initially I did. But then at about km 15, in what's called, "The Microwave" due to its heat and lack of shade, I told myself walking would only slow me down. Now, indeed, it was a race against the clock. Could I finish the race in under 6 hours?

After the microwave, I picked up the pace. Only 4 km left? Might as well hammer it. This is where the real pain came. And I loved it. Defying the urge to walk, proving that my mind controls my body. My heart, lungs, legs are slaves to me. Slaves to what I decide I'm going to do. And I decided I was going to drop my times to below 6 min/km and hammer it home.

Forget high-5-ing kids. Forget water stops. Forget the sponges. Forget anything that didn't speed me up. At this point, even the slightest hill felt like a mountain. But I didn't care: This is what I had signed up for!

Then, suddenly, I heard the distinct Ironman cowbell ringing that I knew my kids had. I looked over and heard, "Papa! Papa! Go!" and without even a glance at them I focused on finishing hard.

How many people can I sprint past before the finish line?
I unleashed all the energy I had, and sprinted the last few hundred metres. I try this at every race, and it's a good measure of your fitness and fatigue. Sometimes, there's no energy left, and other times I have what feels like a large reservoir of power. Somehow, this time, I had that power, and accomplished a 5:18 pace for the last 800m.

At this point, I knew I'd be back next year, for a sub-6 finish.
See my run on Strava here.

The Finish
They gave me my medal, took my race chip off my leg, and I some how drifted with the crowd to where I was happy to see ice baths. They were more like freezing water baths, but were pretty much 0-degrees.
A 6:11 would have to do...
I sat down in the freezing tub, and soon enough the Singaporean I had run with in the beginning arrived. We talked about the race and just enjoyed a few minutes of relaxation. It felt great to lower my body temperature and just rest. Suddenly, somebody brought free beer - that was just perfect.

Not my fastest 70.3, but not my slowest

The support and services at the finish were awesome: Massages, beer, ice cream, Cobra, and more. I wanted to spend all day there but my family was waiting.

The medal is unlike any other I have ever seen. The finisher shirt is pretty wild, too!
One of the coolest things was the medals. These are really unique, designed be renowned Cebuano artist Kenneth Cobonpue.

Race Analysis

From this breakdown, you can see how slow my swim was, relative to the competition (#195 in my division). I jumped forward 105 places in the bike, then another 18 in the run. I fully expected my run to be my worst, but somehow it was kind of ok. This put my at a #72 division ranking.

But what really went wrong was my transitions. Both were far of what I'm used to, especially T1. However, a lot of others dealt with the same crowds, so I'm not the only one. I suppose it worsened over time, and only the fastest swimmers had no T1 bottlenecks.

After the race, we headed to the Movenpick restaurant where they had a really good buffet. It was pretty much empty because included in the event was a pretty nice lunch. But I skipped it because it was for athletes only, and my family was waiting.

Tri-themed buffet at the Movenpick - untouched
A few days later, we took an island-hopping boat out to some nearby islands where we snorkelled and they cooked an awesome seafood lunch for us.
We had the boat all to ourselves
Our boat crew cooked this on the island for us
We booked it through the hotel. It wasn't really cheap, but by booking it through the hotel, we knew we'd be safe and we could trust them.

  1. As with any such big event, don't arrive the day before - make it at least two days before.
  2. Movenpick is awesome, but the Shangri-La is better.
  3. Bring your family, if you have one. It's a great vacation, with plenty of other activities to do. We took a boat to some small islands and went snorkelling.
  4. Study the route well in advance as both the bike and the runs can be confusing.
  5. This year the sea was a bit choppy - last year (2015) it was much worse. Train in the sea as much as you can (the stormier the better) and try to learn to sight and fight through the waves.


Unknown said...

I liked your blog. I'm doing Cebu for this first time this year, but just bring my wife. kids stay at home in USA. I'm 40, and wife a Filipina. Sounds like a fun race, but I am hearing bike is bad in terms of the number of people one has to deal with and passing can be aweful.

Andrew Patterson said...

True, passing can be a mess. It was for me in about the first 1/3 of the event. Good luck and see you there!

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