Sunday, September 10, 2017

Cobra Energy Drink - IRONMAN 70.3 Philippines - Race Report

They call it the Kona of Asia. The climate, the crowd, and the atmosphere all create an environment similar to Kona. It’s by far the most popular 70.3 in Asia, and probably one of the most popular in the world. With registration closing mere hours after it opening, it’s a hard one to get into. The flights and hotels also fill up quickly.

If you need pointers on where to stay and the general logistics of the event, refer to my Cebu race report from last year (2016). But for this race report, I’ll focus on my race performance, supported with some technical analyses.

This race was a B race for me, just one of a few leading up to my A event, the full IRONMAN in Busselton, Western Australia in December. I had been training regularly since early March, putting in 12-16 hours a week, spread out over about 10 sessions per week. So while I was not specifically training for Cebu, I was in pretty good shape.

I stayed at the Shangri-La, which is the official event hotel. The swim and the transition are both on the hotel premises just like previous years. And although other hotels nearby are great (like the Movenpick) I promised myself last year I’d stay at the Shang for its convenience.

The kids and I checking out the finish line the day before
My coach Colin had me down for a short recce ride, run, and swim the day before, so I went out with Mitch, who also is coached by Colin. On the bike, we followed what I remembered the route to be the previous year, including going over the big Marcelo Fernan Bridge, which is just about the only uphill on the course (besides a tunnel).

Mitch and I happy we made it back unscathed
The roads aren’t great – but passable if you’re careful and keep your eyes open. On the way down the bridge, however, Mitch lost one of his bottles. Just a few minutes later, one of mine launched, too. But I was using one of the Cobra Energy Drink bottles given to us in the race pack, and I had not proven them to be secure in my cages behind my saddle. I had left my better Canyon bottles in Singapore, a mistake I would later regret.

Racked & ready to rock & roll
With the race on Sunday, we had to rack our bikes on Saturday. I carried all my gear down and starting setting it up. I noticed nobody seemed to want to leave their shoes, helmets, or anything else – just their bikes. But why not? I didn’t want to have to deal with this stuff later, so I just left everything in transition, protected from any rain in plastic bags.

I mixed my Hammer Perpetuem and Precision Hydration 1500 into two Cobra bottles in a formula I had previously calculated in Excel. I needed 800mg, 300 calories, 60 carbs, and 1.0 litre of water per hour. Along with this I had two Hammer gels, but I’d bring about four, just in case. I would take my nutrition down to the bike in the morning.

I slept well that night, but only after envisioning the entire race in my mind. I had done it before, so knew how to recollect the start on the beach, the swim, T1, the bike, T2, the run, and the finish. I believe that this is an effective way to mentally prepare and get in the right mindset.

I woke up at 3:30, plenty early to get a light breakfast of toast, coffee, and some cereal, and then set up my nutrition and Garmin on the bike. From there, I headed down to the beach, looking for the right start pen for my swim pace. But beforehand, I was lucky enough to stumble across my group (Terai Melayu) taking a photo.

From there, on the beach, we proceeded to funnel into the start pens based on self-declared swim times. The first was sub-30, then there was a sub-45 I think, and a sub-60 or 70. Something like that. But everyone was crowding to the sub-30, including people with white swim caps. White meant that they were not confident in the water. The organizers would pay special attention to them on the swim in case they needed rescuing. Yet these guys (and everyone else) were pushing their way to the front of the sub-30 pen. The entire system broke down, but whatever.

Like the year before, we started in 2s, about every 10-15 seconds. The guy whose job it was to release the athletes had his heels dug into the sand and was physically having to force people back with his arms. The pushing was truly ridiculous. I think by the end of the swim start he'd be more shattered than any of us after the race!

As I was approaching the water, a fighter jet flew over. That was very cool. I knew it was from the nearby airport but wanted to think it was in celebration of our race.

My swim started OK. I was both relaxed and excited and appreciated the warm, clear water. We had to do a long rectangle, clockwise. The segment out to the first corner was not too bad. I could see the bottom most of the time, which was rather pleasant, and the punching and kicking was kept to a minimum. I smiled to myself, in recollection of how happy I was during my first 70.3 swim ever (Putrajaya, 2015), trying to keep spirits up in the most challenging (for me) segment of the race.

But after I rounded the second corner for the long stretch along the back of the course, I felt the current. The pace sure was slow, especially for a race. At one point a few guys hit each other and I hear some aggressive yelling. I thought a fight was going to start and I was in the middle of it. Not fun. At another point, there was a huge jam of swimmers, all kicking and climbing on each other. You know how a breast-stroker can sometimes annoy the hell out of you with his deadly kick to the side? Imagine eight of those guys all in one place, each confused about which way to go, all panicking at once.

Well, that sucked
Eventually, I made it to the beach, in a depressing 52 minutes and 29 seconds. I registered 2,199m, so if my Garmin was accurate, that’s an extra 300m. how was this possible? I was doing three swim sessions a week, totaling about 6-7km. Yet no improvement over last year. I’ll blame the conditions.

All that echoed in my mind was, "Did I not train?"

See my swim on Strava here.

Glad that swim is over
I jogged up to T1, my mind rewinding back to one year prior. Last year I was sloppy and missed my aisle. Dodging the sharp rocks and roots which were barely covered by the thin red carpet (some 'red carpet!'), I made it to my bike quickly.

Along the way I yanked the shoulders of my speedsuit apart to unzip it, and rolled it down to my hips. (See picture above.) I pulled my goggles and swim cap off.

Actually I had a little trick going. I found some blue tape along the carpet and moved it be be positioned right in line with my bike. So I just ran for that blue line and was at my bike. It's amazing how difficult it becomes to find your own bike in the sea of machines.

I reached the bike quickly and everything went smoothly. I threw my swim cap down, started the Garmin on the bike, saved my swim activity on my watch so it would synch with Strava then and there (my phone was right there in transition), pulled my socks and shoes on, helmet, race belt, and sunglasses were next. Last, I dumped sunscreen on my pale shoulders, worried about the inevitable burn I’d be subjecting myself to.

The night before I had secured one of the Cobra bottles to the bottle cage with two rubber bands to prevent it from launching: The recce ride showed me that was going to happen. The rubber band was still intact and I was ready to roll. But as I jogged down the transition, the race belt unstrung itself and fell. I had to take some time to re-thread it and clip it back on. OK. A few seconds lost but no issue.

Exiting T1, everybody was fumbling to clip in and climb the very bumpy, broken concrete surface. What a way to get a flat or slip and fall. I decided I’d jog all the way up that incline past the fumblers, and mount my bike later, where it was flat - in fact about to descend. This was a good choice as I got around the rough surface and swerving guys just getting their balance.

A quick mash down the hill and I started settling into an aero position. I put my left hand back to check on bottle 1; no problem; right hand to check on bottle two (which had been secured with a rubber band) and !! What? I was only 50m into the ride and the bottle was gone! This was my lifeline! My fuel, my nutrition, my food! Without this I’d bonk and never finish the run!

Quickly, I removed the other bottle, containing half my Hammer Perpetuem, and stuffed it into my tri suit. At least I’d guard that close to my chest with no chance of losing it. But would this be enough? Well, I had extra gel. Good move. And I could pick up some Gatorade, bananas, and more gel along the way if needed.

But then I also noticed that my speedsuit from the swim was still on, bunched up around my waist, flailing in the wind. Oh well, nothing I could do now, except roll it up a bit and tuck it into itself in an attempt to reduce drag. This was the first time I was using it and a race is no time to learn from your mistakes.
Here's how you protect your last bit of nutrition
So it was down the road I had ridden the day before with Mitch, between fanatic crowds of cheering kids, students, office workers, soldiers, shopkeepers, and ordinary Cebuanos just out for a good time.

My race plan stated that I had to keep my bike wattage at 200 even with a Variability Index (VI) of 1.05 or less. VI is a reference to how smooth the power is over the course of the ride. With a variation of more than 5%, I’d bust the VI, and place myself in a perilous position in the run. This is best achieved on a flat, smooth, and straight course not unlike the one I was on.

So when it was time to ride up the big bridge I paid close attention to my power reading. It is all-too easy to spike up to 5 or 600 watts on a hill like this, especially if you get caught up in racing the guy next to you. I managed to not exceed 300w on the climb despite my eagerness to reach the top.

Coasting down this bridge is always sketchy. You’ve got a sharp-edged expansion gap, just waiting to pop your tire, unpredictable guys in front of you on their brakes, and the prospect of bottles launching in any direction. All at 60 km/h. Nothing to do except get aero and narrow and coast.

According to Joe Friel, in The Power Meter Handbook, the 50-40-30-20-10 rule says:

If your goal power for the race is expected to produce an average speed of about 30 KPH, then…

With this in mind, I had nothing to do except get aero and narrow and coast. Oh yeah, and bunny hop that gnarly metal-toothed expansion gap (but not in an aero position - I wish!). And watch for flying bottles. And avoid swervers. And get back on the power when I slowed down to about 40.

Soon, I settled into a nice pace, fluctuating between 33 and 36 km/h. Watching the numbers intently. Wondering why nobody was passing me. But then I felt my race belt slide against my hip and snake itself down to the street. Again, the strap became unraveled. Everybody who has ever run a 10k knows the first rule of racing: Never use new equipment on race day. And I had violated this rule three times so far, and it bit back promptly and viciously each time. (New bottles, speedsuit, race belt.)

As I tucked down, I was amazed at how many people I was passing. It was like all those faster swimmers were slow cyclists. All the while I was focused on my numbers, intently monitoring my power, average power, averaged normalized power, speed, average speed, distance, elapsed time, heart rate, and cadence with obsession.

I try to do everything with deliberate intent while on the bike. I do not want to let my mind wander. I try to monitor each figure as often as possible. Is my power ok? Speed looking normal? Heart rate fine?

This mindfulness can be obsessive and draining but it almost guarantees I will meet my target figures. If you want to perform your best, ignore the crowds, the scenery, the novelty of a new place. Focus, obsess, worry. Count, calculate, add, divide, multiply, subtract, average, estimate. Repeat.

Write your race plan and commit it to memory
Soon, the pros were coming the other way on part of the leg in. The course was shaped like a giant M and they were in the middle point of that M. I was averaging 34.7km at the first U-turn, and I knew I was on track. I was a bit over my target speed and my power was a bit low, but I figured I’d just maintain that: A power reading of 180-something and 34.7 kmh. And as long as my NP was less than 5% above my Avg P I was in business.

Before I knew it, I was more than halfway in, and still, not a soul had passed me. I'm not such a great cyclists but have trained religiously for the past 6 months, and my biggest improvements were clearly on the bike.

Things were going well, and I was nicely rationing my 2-scoop bottle, supplementing my nutrition with my emergency gels. I didn’t feel a need to waste time stopping at aid stations to pick anything up. A few times, I flew through and grabbed bottles from the awesome volunteers at speed. I dropped some but managed to snag a few.

At least one thing to feel good about
See my ride on Strava here.

Rolling into T2, I was looking forward to the run, which in Cebu is more like just a big party. Little did I know, I was to tie for 2nd place for the bike leg in my age group: 2:29:58.

After racking the bike, saving the file on the Garmin, and switching shoes, I was off. Again, my mind rewound to last year: an all-too-high heart rate coming out of T2 and severe plantar fasciitis worries.

But I had kind of beaten that injury, and I had more pressing things to worry about: the nascent twitch on the left (inner) side of my right knee. I had never had an inner-knee cramp. I figured I’d take it easy and just hope for the best.

Was it my lack of nutrition? How come I had such a cramp so suddenly? That’s not normal for me. I was shooting for a 5:25 pace with my heart rate below 156 and a finish time of 1:54. But that wasn’t to be the case.

See my run on Strava here.

The cramps worsened, and my pace deteriorated. Things got really bad at km 14, and I had to schlep through the stations, keeping cool with ice and water. The only thing that kept me happy was the amazing spirit of the Cebuano crowds, but somehow, I had higher expectations of myself.

My loyal fan club
I crossed the finish line at a disappointing 5:46:56. But one amazing thing was that my wife and two kids were in the stands at the finish – my daughter’s shrill voice desperately screeching “Papa!!”. Not unlike this same little girl had done for me in the Gold Coast, Seoul, Putrajaya, Bintan, and even Cebu last year.

Reflecting on this, I consoled myself by acknowledging that the swim conditions were hard, I put in an exceptional ride, and, well, not much to say about the run. But this was not my A race, and it was only one in a series of preps for December. In fact, I had the Bintan 70.3 coming up just a short two weeks later.

After crossing the finish line, knew what I’d do next: Cool off in the ice bath, get my free massage, drink some beer, eat some ice cream, pizza, and other junk. Then I’d head back to transition and get my bike and other stuff ASAP and bring it all back to the room. By then, the family would be ready to pig out at the hotel restaurant.

At least that part of the day worked out as planned.


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