Sunday, October 1, 2017

2017 Bintan IRONMAN 70.3 Race Report

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

See that race report here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With no shade.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The numbers don’t lie. Here they are:

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

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

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

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


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