Tuesday, May 29, 2018

IRONMAN 70.3 Vietnam Race Report, 2018

From finishing a full IRONMAN in December of 2017 until this race started in Danang, Vietnam on 13 May, 2018 I really didn't follow any training plan. I had no set workouts or training schedule - I just did whatever I wanted, however I wanted, whenever I wanted.

This meant I typically did two long rides a week (social rides on weekends with friends from 80-100k), maybe one short and easy ride in the week (30k), and maybe 2-3 runs per week, never more than 21k. Some of my running was on the track, as intervals.

Swimming? Ha. I did maybe 3-5 swims of 1k in those six months. And I have a 55m pool at my condo. 😀

All of this resulted in a very relaxed attitude, a loose race plan, and little to no goal setting or targets for my swim, bike, or run. Somehow, it brought a whole new angle to racing for me. In a way, I had more fun this way, just taking things easy. The stakes were low and I had nothing to lose.

But in fact when I went into the race I didn't realize it, but I had a lot to gain. That thing I gained - more on this later -  actually manifested itself in a shocking and sudden way. What a thrill.

Anyway, as with all my other race reports, this should cover three things. This report should be:

1. Functional and practical - it should cover all the logistical issues you may have and help you plan if you're traveling from overseas and you want to do the same race another year

2. Technical and analytical - it should reveal some insights to racing through data, observations of the course, and the best strategy given the course and its conditions

3. Entertaining and fun - hopefully it'll be an enjoyable read

Last year, after seeing some friends finish Vietnam, I felt it was a good race to sign up for. Not too far from Singapore, somewhat exotic, and supposedly a fairly flat course. I had just heard it was really hot - but how could it be much hotter than Singapore?

When I registered I opted for the official hotel, the Hyatt Regency, as it's right there at the check-in and transition. If you can afford it, always go for the official hotel because it just makes things so much easier: Registration, racking your bike, getting to transition, are all things you don't want to have to worry about the morning of the race.

This was organized by Sunrise, the Filipino company that runs races like Cebu and I believe Davao. They know what they are doing, so registering for a Sunrise event gave me the confidence that there would be no issues, and that proved to be true. I'm always worried about safety, especially on the roads, and how the organizers close off traffic and plan the smoothest routes really matters.

A few weeks before the event, Sunrise emailed me asking me for my name and flight number to ensure they had a van to pick us up from the airport.

Arrival, Visa, Airport Pickup
If you're an American, Aussie, or probably European, you'll need a visa. I applied online through https://vietnamvisa.govt.vn/, one of the shady-looking Vietnam visa application websites, but it was indeed legit.

Seems legit 😳

After applying and paying a small fee online, you will receive a letter plus another application form. Print those, complete the application with photos, and bring it to the counter in the airport after you land. Once you're there, you have to submit it all along with your passport.

There's no proper queue and they process them in what appears to be a random order. So you may be lucky and have nearly no wait, or they may make you stand around for 45 minutes while they give visas to people who arrived later than you. Apparently this is how they queue in Vietnam. You have to pay cash ($25 USD), so make sure you bring a few greenbacks.

Tip: If you need a visa, apply online well in advance and print and fill out everything you need, including photos of yourself.

Danang is a small airport, and baggage collection is right after immigration. Immediately beyond the baggage belts are the doors leading outside where there are dozens of drivers waiting with signs from hotels to pick up guests.

When we arrived, I searched for Hyatt Regency signs, but could find none. Then, I spotted two women dressed in traditional Vietnamese dress with the conical hats, holding up IRONMAN signs. I asked them if they knew how to get to the hotel (it was the official race hotel) but they didn't even seem to understand English.

Eventually, after asking around, I found the Sunrise organizer. She wasn't holding up a sign or easy to identify, so I don't know how we were supposed to find her. She put us in a bus and took us to the hotel. The point is: If you booked your airport/hotel shuttle via Sunrise to Hyatt, don't look for the Hyatt transport. Ask around for Sunrise.

Tip: If you booked your transport via Sunrise, look for a Sunrise team at the airport pick-up, not your hotel's representative.

Immediately I was struck by how clean and smooth the roads were. I could tell this was going to be a nice ride. On one side was the sea, and on the other tall rocky cliffs. Danang looked like an excellent place to explore and I was wishing we had more time there.

Hyatt check-in was smooth and easy. The place is unlike other Hyatts I have stayed in. The design is very modern and clean, and the buildings are low. It's right on the beach - and the beach is great: Immaculate sand with nice waves. An excellent place for kids, but unfortunately, we left ours back home in Singapore. Next time.

Swim run test
The next morning, Saturday, I headed down to the beach to check the sea. It was about 6am and the sun was just rising. I love watching the sun rise while I swim, cycle, or run. Only one other person  was there, a Vietnamese, and he had the same idea I did. We waded out along the ropes that had already been set up for the swim. Apprehensively, we let one or two of the waves crest around our legs before we were deep enough to dive in and start paddling.

They might not look big here, but those waves are no joke.
These breakers continued for about 50m. As long as we dove under them we could make good progress out to calmer waters. After clearing all the waves the sea was quite calm, and there was only a small current pulling slightly to the right.

We swam together at just about the same pace. Soon, we were at the buoy that marked the 300m corner, where we'd head left. The overall shape of the swim was of a wide T. Without talking, we both turned around and swam back side-by-side. My pace was 2:13, which I was ok with. The sun had just risen and people were coming down to the beach. Turned out there was a sprint triathlon that morning, and they were starting to set up.

Tip: Do a swim the day before the race just to feel the water, the currents, and to avoid any surprises the next day.

I feel a definite serenity from training as the sun rises. I get to experience two profound and contrasting feelings: The intensity and discomfort of training hard and peacefulness and hope of the sun appearing. Both of these experiences are fulfilling and satisfying in their own ways. Especially as I know I'm one of the few to experience them as virtually everyone else is still asleep.

Even before I got out of the water, I knew I was comfortable with the swim, despite the waves and my poor pace. I knew all I had to do was float, bob, or somehow drift through this 1.9km of saltwater and I'd be in good shape. So with that out of the way, it was time for a nice run.

I headed out with two friends - fellow Terai Melayu - Masri and Alphian, and we did a quick 5km run along the course. I'm a firm believer that pre-race swims, rides, and runs are a great way to just understand the terrain and conditions and to get your mind in a content state to avoid any surprises the next day.

As expected, the roads were great - aside from the wild traffic going in insane directions at all times - so we stayed on the sidewalk. But I knew the race would be on the road so was happy with that - assuming they had good traffic support / marshals.

Masri, Alphian, Gasanova and I racked our bikes in transition. I like how Sunrise takes photos of you and your bike, noting down the brand, your brand of wheels, and even your helmet. This is for security reasons. After all, we would be leaving our bikes outside overnight.

As we queued (more like crowded) for the entry, I spotted Tim Reed and Tim Van Berkel in the line.

"Hey, Tim!" I yelled.

Both looked at me. I told Tim Reed that when I was leaving Cebu a year ago a customs officer asked me if I was him, and that I lied, saying I was.

"Apologies for that, but it's the closest I'll ever get to being pro," I conceded.

"No problem, mate, have a good day out there," he offered.

On the way from transition back to the hotel, we walked down the ramp we would have to run up from the swim. It was a wooden incline covered in red carpet. There was a rubber mat to prevent slipping. It had a giant IRONMAN logo on it. The guys laughed at me as I checked the slipperyness of the rubber. It looked like it could be slick and I wanted to know what to expect. After all, I'd be running up this thing. And down it, to the finish!

Race Day
Later that evening, the organizers announced that they may cancel the swim. AGAIN? This happened to me in my IRONMAN in Western Australia back in December, and I wasn't thrilled with this idea. Apparently, in the Sprint that morning, too many racers couldn't hack it with the waves and dropped out or even had panic attacks.

Whatever. I went to sleep early as I was going to wake up at 3:40 in order to get to breakfast at 5.

Breakfast was what I expected, with toast, coffee, and fruit making up the bulk of my meal. Just a few tables over were Tim Reed and Tim van Berkel, both strong contenders for this race. We had just met them the day before, on the way to rack our bikes, and they were friendly enough. They seemed relaxed too, but I guess you have to be when this is your job.

My usual pre-race jitters were nowhere to be found, either, considering I had invested next to nothing for this race. Since my IRONMAN in early-December 2017, I hadn't put in the hard hours in the pool at all, did a fair amount of hard but low-stress social riding, and had done just a bit of running.
Racked and roaded

I would rather be eating than sleeping so I took an hour to consume that toast. By 5, I was in transition pumping up my tires and lining up my stuff. Out of the corner of my eye I saw somebody touching the rear wheel of my tire. Then he rubbed the seat stay.

"I'm blessing your bike!" he joked. "So you'll go faster!"

It was Masri, as always ready for a good laugh. We hung out for a while and he introduced me to an Italian guy whose bike was racked just next to his. Then we looked at Masri's bike and transition area: It was the first bike in his row, so he could use the end of the rack - the entire width of it - to place his gear.

"That's like getting a bulkhead seat on a plane," I said.

"Or business class," his Italian neighbor added.
Look at all these guys wearing Purpose suits

We hung out down at the beach for the next 45 minutes or so. There were the usual groups taking pictures together. The Filipinos, the Malaysians, Singaporeans, and of course the locals. The waves were looking pretty gnarly. It was fine for me but I'm not sure if everybody was comfortable with it. I was just glad they hadn't canceled the swim.

Gasanova and I trying to pretend we are not nervous. Well, I don't think he was.
We self-seeded in the pens and somehow I ended up a bit farther towards the front than I should have been. I bumped into Gasanova who was right by the start. The air horn was off and we watched the pros go for it. They swam furiously through the waves and it did not look easy. The waves were bigger than ever.

A few minutes later, I found myself right under the start arch. Two guys in front of me waved me past them in the queue - no idea why. This meant I was up! GO!

I started my Garmin and ran. The first wave came and I raised a knee and let it crash into my legs. I pranced forward next to another guy. We went surprisingly far - it was knee-deep for longer than I expected.

"This is awesome!" the guy yelled. "But how long will it last?"

I focused on a few of the tips the pros gave for swimming in waves at the AWA breakfast the morning before:
  1. Dive under the waves before they crest
  2. Claw the ground with your fingers if you have to, to get all the forward momentum you can
  3. And then two tips I saw on Tim Reed's Instagram:

Once I had cleared 4-5 breakers I realized I was in calm waters. That wasn't so bad. Then I realized there was nobody around me at all. Where did everybody go? Normally this kind of scene was more of a kickboxing match than a the civilized swim I was getting. I hadn't had a single heel to my eye, elbow to my ear, or foot to the nose. Was I racing? The sounds of the crowds had disappeared and I was in my own underwater world.

I was brought back to reality by the glimmer of a gold AWA cap on my right.

More fun than anything. Was this the gold AWA guy I tailed? Maybe.
 "OK. I'm on course and I'm racing," I told myself. "Let me draft this dude and see how far he can pull me."

I latched onto his heels, paying close attention not to let him know I was there - I didn't want him to shake me and I could use all the help I could get. I mimicked his rhythm and felt things get easier. He was breaking the way for me and it was great. But after a few minutes I lost him - I just couldn't hang with his pace. But by then, we were at the first buoy, where we had to turn left and swim into the current. I felt good.

The current was weak enough that I hardly felt it but strong enough that it would be a nice boost around the 600m back straight. The swim to that point was uneventful. Nobody in my way, nothing to see, and for once I was charting a pretty straight course.

On the beginning of the back straight, however, I saw a basketball-sized jellyfish bobbing my way. I was in no danger of it hitting me, but it was a sign that maybe more lay ahead. I hoped not. I couldn't tell if that thing would sting but I assumed so, and didn't want to find out.

Before I knew it, the big red buoy was in my sights and I was rounding it, coming back along the home stretch.

"Will I be below 45 minutes?"

That was sort of my informal goal. A good benchmark for me. My personal best was around 41 minutes but that was on glass-like water in Bintan. Not these tsunamis.

I was touching the ground and got up and tried to run. A guy next to me did the same, except he had removed his googles. Just then, a wave came in and turned the sea 2 feet deep to 6 feet deep. Except he wasn't dead, underground in a coffin, just floundering, underwater, with no goggles. I stroked hard, trying to catch the crest and ride it in.

Tip: In wavy conditions, don't remove your googles until you are totally out of the water.

Soon I was afoot and running up the beach. A quick glance down at my arm and I had a reading of 43 minutes and some seconds. Good. I was happy.

"Andrew!" I heard, and looked to my left to see Masri's wife shooting a photo of me exiting the water. 👇

Here I am, exiting the swim.

"Andrew!" I heard, the unmistakable sound of my wife's voice, from a few meters down the sidelines. It looked like she was shooting a video of me. I was really happy to see her at the swim, this early in the morning.

Transition 1
I stopped my watch, careful to do so as close to the timing mat as possible. Ripped the goggles and swim cap off. Grabbed a cup of water and trotted to an arch of showers to rinse the saltwater off the athletes.

Sorry. Was I blocking the way? I just need to check what I'm drinking here...

But standing in that shower arch, contemplating what was in that little paper cup, wasn't going to see me move up very far in the placings. I snapped out of it and sprinted up that grippy red ramp towards T1.

From here on out, I was intent on passing everybody that passed me in the swim. I had approximately 4.5 hours to do so.

Over to the bike. Last row, look for the all the neon green. Chuck those googles and that swim cap down. You won't be needing those anymore. They're junk now, as far as I'm concerned.

Tip: Put something distinctive at your spot in transition. In Cebu, I marked my area with a piece of blue electrical tape. In Bintan, I used a palm leaf once. Now, I just buy fluorescent green gear.

Hit the floor and pull on the socks, then shoes. Squeeze a huge squirt of SPF 90 in the left hand and smear it on the right arm. Repeat with the other hand. Wipe both hands on face.

Grab the helmet and race belt and clip them both. Glasses go on last. Start rolling and turn the Garmin on before reaching the timing mat to let it acquire a signal.

Leg over, awkward pedal stroke, clip in. Don't fall, watch the sand in the rough spots before the main road, and glance at the Garmin 520. GPS? Check. Speed? Check. Heart rate? Check. Cadence? Check. Power? No! Huh?

The most important metric - gone? Missing? I'd be riding blind, and all plans would be rendered useless (I didn't plan anyway but that just sounds cool)!

I laughed. Laughed at the odds of this happening. Hundreds of training rides and this has never happened. I've never not had a power reading. This power meter was as reliable as ever, and it would be insane to see it conk out on me in a race. Two weeks prior, I had just changed the battery and tested the new battery, specifically to avoid this kind of crap! But I wasn't even mad.

OK. Clip out of the left pedal. Kick the crap out of that PowerTap pedal to spin it and wake its lazy ass up! Yes! We have power!

OK now. Take a deep breath. Now, the race really starts. All that splashing around down at the beach was just overgrown type-A kids playing in the waves. Most of them may be ahead of me now, but it's my job to pick them off one-by-one over the next 111.1 kilometers.

But there are three rules, on the bike:
1. Keep the average power between a conservative 180 and 185 watts
2. Keep the normalized power within 5% of the average power (189 - 194, depending)
3. Don't ever let the heart rate average exceed 140 - if it does, drop the power

So this is a game. Stare at those numbers, watch them, monitor them, memorize them, and don't let them get out of control. But have fun, too, and talk to anyone you know, make friends with those you don't, and remember that to be here is a privilege.

Woosh, woosh, woosh.

Each pedal stroke sounded like ripping canvas. A guy in white with a rear disc passed me. He had a GoPro-type camera mounted on the back of his saddle, pointing right at my face. I contorted my mug and gesticulated wildly with one hand. Then I rolled up next to him, both of us aero as ever.

"Nice draft cam. I promise I didn't just flip you off." He laughed. "And I definitely didn't draft you."

We started talking. His name was Dom. Previously he had been injured badly and didn't train much at all for this race. And that he had just signed up a few days ago! Even worse, he had just done the sprint race the day before, and came in second. Not bad.

We drifted past each other numerous times, both going about the same pace. Later I'd find out he was a lawyer living in Hong Kong. He said his run was not his strength but he'd go on to do a 1:39. I guess "strength" was an understatement.

I read that this ride was really scenic. But to me, it honestly wasn't that impressive. We were just on a city street near the shore but there wasn't a lot to see. Except dead rats. I swerved around at least three of the flattened rodents. Huge pelts, pancake flat, ironed to the hot asphalt. But the tails always seemed to be intact.

"I like that frame," I said, to a guy next to me on a nice Argon 18.

"Thanks. I was about to buy yours, ready to click 'buy' on the Canyon website, until my coach told me the Speedmax wouldn't fit me."

His name was Anthony, and he was from Singapore, too. He must have been the only guy on the entire course wearing a peach-colored jersey.
Me from behind.

My power and heart rate both looked good, but I was out of water. My nutrition consisted of three scoops of Hammer Perpetuem plus one packet of Precision Hydration 1500, all mixed on one bottle, and gels, stored on the bike. I only needed three gels but brought five in case I lost my bottle (it's happened before)!

Tip: Plan your nutrition in advance, and test different fuels in training rides. The race is no time to test.

As long as my bottle was halfway empty at the halfway point, I was rationing it fine. I was almost at halfway and needed water. At the upcoming aid station, I yelled, "Water!" and they held out a bottle for me. I wanted water, not the Revive energy drink. I grabbed for it, at speed, but it went flying out of the volunteer's hand. I coasted to the next volunteer, shouted "Water!" again and reached for the second bottle. I got it.

I took a sip only to discover it was Revive, not water.

"I asked for water and they gave me Revive," I complained to Anthony, who was next to me.

"You have to grab the one with the white cap, not red," he answered.

I figured I'd drink it anyway, for the calories and electrolytes. I'm lucky that pretty much nothing I eat or drink or a ride or a run will hurt my stomach. I chucked the bottle in the bushes next to some kids. They scrambled over to it. Free water bottle.

The course was an out-and-back but with two loops at the end, where we'd double back on ourselves. As I was on my first loop out, the fastest age-groupers were just ending their second, on the way back in to the run.

A few kilometers after I did the first U-turn, I heard a woman's voice from behind. I was on the left side of the road, mainly passing people, and there were not many cyclists approaching me from behind. But clearly, this woman was.

"Move to the right!" I heard her scream.

I instantly got over. A few seconds later a woman on a red Cervelo came cursing past. Pro Caroline Steffen. 5-10 meters behind her was competitor Dimity Lee Duke, in hot pursuit.

"Go Dimity!" an Aussie yelled, cheering on his compatriot.

I glanced over my shoulder and made eye contact with Anthony. He smiled, and gave an approving nod towards the pros.

"Let's chase them," his nod said.

I leaned forward and put some power down, just enough to spool up to their 37 or 38 km/h. Anthony followed. We rolled with them for a while, but then I realized I was blowing my power and probably heart up. Anyway, who did we think we were? We're just average age-groupers, they're doing their jobs. We eased off, and let them go. Anyway, it was fun while it lasted.

Caroline ended up finishing third (female pro) in 4:29, and a bike of 2:25. Dimity came in second with 4:25 and a bike of 2:21.

On the way back, up the bridge, I came up behind a guy with the name "Caballero" on his bib which means cowboy in Spanish.

"Cool name," I remarked.

We talked as we climbed that bridge. Anthony was right ahead of us. He went on to explain that his wife is a pro, Cindy Lewis-Caballero. They were from Toronto. We sped down the hill, hitting 56 km/h. We were 64km into the race and I was looking forward to the run.

Not far ahead of me was Dom, and for the remaining 25km he and Anthony and I rode together, almost forming a paceline. Being careful not to draft, I preferred side-by-side cycling. I wasn't going to sit in the penalty pen.

We passed the transition entrance and the mileage only read 78 km. This meant that we still had do six out and then six back. The out leg was fine, but there was a headwind coming back on the last six.

No biggie, it's just six km and my power and heart were all dialed into their zones nicely. Even a bit of fluctuation now wouldn't move those averages much. But still, I had to be fresh for that run.

Transition 2
T2 is always faster because all you have to do is dump your bike and helmet (don't forget to stop your Garmin), and change your shoes. Put a hat on, flip your bib around, and go.

I was kind of alarmed to see that most of the spots around me were already occupied with racked bikes. The 2 hours and 33 minute reading I had on my watch wasn't bad - wasn't great either - but with all the bikes in T2 I felt like this must have been a competitive field.

Feeling good coming out of T2.
 As I ran towards the timing mat I switched my Garmin to run mode. It grabbed a signal right away. I started it right on the mat, took a deep breath, and hoped the best - mainly that the cramps I so-often get in the run wouldn't rear their ugly heads.

I love the rubber legs feeling of that first kilometer. And the change to a new sport breaks the monotony and introduces some novelty. A new environment, new tactics, new numbers to watch.

As mentioned, the real test right now would be to not cramp. Quads, calves, and those muscles on the insides of my legs, right above my knees - all felt good. And even better? My plantar fascia wasn't hurting. Usually I'd know within the first few k if I was headed for trouble. And for me, it seems to be a 50-50 thing. Half my races end in run cramps, half don't.

No greater satisfaction than a good run after the bike.

Dom blasted past me.

My first km was 4:42, a bit fast, but at least I knew I was in for a decent finish now. I did the math in my head:

45 min for the swim...
let's say 2:35 for the bike...
let's go with 1:50 hours for the run, that's 5:10...
plus a few minutes for transitions.


My original goal was even slower than that so I was happy.

"Hurry up, Cowboy," I teased, as I approached the Canadian from behind. I guessed he must have passed me in transition. But he ended up passing me sometime later, finishing in a respectable 5:06.

Then I met a guy wearing a green Love the Pain suit, aviator glasses, and a black hat. He hadn't shaved in about 4 days. We ran side-by-side at just about exactly the same pace.

I learned that he was a Mexican pilot for Air Asia and he lived in Kuching, East Malaysia. His name was Arturo. I practiced a bit of my Spanish with him, honed my vulgarities, and finally got clarity on whether or not órale and apúrate both meant the same thing (apparently they do) and whether or not either is really rude or not (apparently not, among friends).

Stuff like that. We went on and on. Which coast of Mexico is nicer (east)...whether or not AirAsia or the ground staff is to blame for damaging those bikes on the way to IRONMAN 70.3 in Taiwan (AirAsia is), how Spanish speakers pronounce words that start with "S" and how many words in Spanish actually start with that letter.

The guy in front of us heard us and told us that sal (salt) is one. Of course there are many words in Spanish that start with the letter S. The things you talk about when you run, just to distance yourself from the pain you're experiencing. That guy's name was Tolga, is Turkish, but lives in Switzerland and had spent years in Seattle.

Good conversation can make time fly and that's exactly what you want when you are racing a half-marathon after a 90km bike ride and a 1.9km swim.
The Turk, The American, The Mexican

"¡Apúrate!" I demanded, as we exited an aid station. That means 'hurry up.'

Aid station after aid station came and went. Before I knew it, we were at the turn-around, and had done half the run. My watch read 54:14.

"Let's, see, that's 108 minutes and 30 seconds, or 1:48," I thought to myself. "If I can finish this thing in 1:50 or less I'll be happy."

Arturo spoke, "Do you know where we're going?" he asked. "No, where?"

"We're going home!" he yelled, with a big smile.

This continued, kilometer after kilometer, aid station after aid station. We'd each grab a few glasses of water and share any remaining drinks with each other. Throw a few big ice cubes down your jersey, stash one in the hat, and chew on another.

Tip: If you ever have to walk at all, do it in the aid stations. And at the same time get some drinks and energy.

Arturo, Tolga and I were all doing this together.

It must have been at km 16 or 17 when Tolga took off. He broke away from us and was disappearing in the distance. We kept our pace. I was conscious of the time, striving for a 1:50. Then, after coming out of an aid station, Arturo seemed to be gone. I looked back and saw him still grabbing drinks.

Should I wait? We kind of agreed to stick together. But if I wait, I may lose a few minutes. I kept running, looking back for my new friend. Maybe he'd catch me.

"¡Órale!" I yelled, hoping that would give him the boost to catch me. But I don't even think he heard me.

Km 19. The pain started to set in. I did a check: My heart rate was ok, my fitness was there, it wasn't THAT hot, I didn't have any cramps, my plantar fascitis didn't hurt.

So no excuses. Just run. But the absence of a friend, the inability to share this agony with someone else, the lack of encouragement from another guy just like me...meant I gave up. Just for a few seconds.

I walked.

"You'll regret this," my rational voice told me.

"Yeah, but I have to walk if I'm going to finish this alive," my emotional voice responded. Even before my rational voice could retort, I jumped into a trot, and began running again.

The Finish
Up ahead I could see the traffic light where we'd turn in. If I could just make it there, I'd be home free and this would all be over. It'll all be done in mere minutes.

But then when that stupid traffic light came, I realized I still had 500 more meters to go. I turned in, over the sandy junction, and ran past transition. It was bare and the sun was blazing. Zero shade. And as if the triathlon gods wanted to torture us, there was a gigantic inflatable arch, pretending to be the finish line.

I was absolutely barreling through. My whole body, from my toes to my face were searing in pain. My head was pounding, skin burning, mouth salivating like a rabid dog, nose running like a toddler. The blister I could feel on the inner arch of my foot was laughable and insignificant, paling in comparison to the overall beating I was taking.

My legs defied my nerves. They turned over at what felt like an astonishingly high rate, beyond my control. They were on autopilot, totally unstoppable. The data show that my heart rate was at 175. I go anaerobic at 171. My pace for that last 500m was 4 minutes-something.

There was nobody in front of me. Spectators and race officials lined the sides. I was headed straight towards the beach, about ready to descend the red ramp and enter the chute. Would I collapse before the end and have to crawl over the line? Would my wife be there? Would they have an ice bath?
The picture may be crooked and blurry, but that reflects exactly how I felt at this moment.

I hammered it down that damn ramp, and envisioned myself doing a hard faceplant at the bottom of it. I was ok with it. I wasn't going to slow down just to avoid that. My body felt like it was leaning forward at a 45-degree angle. It was painful and dangerous. But fast.

Into the chute. Don't let up now. Sand danced on the wet, crimson carpet with every pounding impact of my step. Cowbells and noisemakers clanged, and the announcer's voice boomed. Loud music slammed in the background.

But one voice stood out.


Unmistakably, it was my wife Eda's voice! I was home, and she was there. I raised my arms in personal victory and broke through the finisher tape they try to raise for each athlete.

Stopped the Garmin. 1:50:13.

OK. Not below 1:50, but pretty close. I did it. I guess.

It's amazing to be greeted by your wife at the finish!
 A short guy in a conical Vietnamese hat grabbed me, basically holding me up. He removed my race chip and escorted me to the exit. Eda was right there. What a feeling.

Gross: Just a few feet away was a huge ice chest full of Budweiser beer. Who still drinks that crap? Nobody, apparently, especially when you have a guy serving draft ale from a local microbrew right next to it.
One of the best beers I've ever tasted.

I grabbed two cold draft ales, one for me and one for Arturo, whom I knew was about to finish. Indeed, he was right there when I turned around. I apologized to him for finishing without him, and gave him the cold cup of beer as a concession. He was cool.

We sat in the ice bath for a few minutes and drank our beers, both elated, albeit not sure of our times or placings. We went our own ways when I queued for the massage and he probably grabbed mas cerveza.

15-min post-race leg massage.
The Rolldown
Preliminary results showed that I had finished 16th. Later it changed to 15th. This was not really good enough to qualify for the World Championships to be held in Nelson Mandela Bay in South Africa, but I figured it was worth attending the rolldown anyway, just to watch.

This will have to do.

"I'll be up on that stage someday," I remarked to Eda, as I ate some of the free noodles they offered.
They were calling out the names of the 45-59 age-groupers and I was just waiting for it to get to the lower age group, and see if I had a chance. Two guys were on stage but when they called out third, fourth, and fifth place nobody responded.

"Anyone in the 45-49 age group that wants a shot, please come up to the stage," the announcer offered.

Eda said, "Are you sure this isn't your age group?"

"No, I'm still 44," I answered.

But just then, I remembered that they don't base the ages on your actual age necessarily, but if you turn that age this year (before Dec. 31). My birthday is Dec. 6. I frantically opened the app and checked my age. It read, "M45-49".

I looked at the stage, back at Eda, and did a double-take back to the stage. I hesitated, kind of shy to go up there. There were eight guys huddled frantically looking at a sheet of paper. They all looked the same. Mostly white guys with shaved heads.

I sheepishly ran over and the official asked me what my placing was. Before I could even answer, a guy there somehow knew my time and placing and stretched out his hand.

Seriously? There were two other guys on stage? I was to shocked, overwhelmed, and excited to see anybody.
"You got it, mate!" He was gracious and friendly, but certainly disappointed.

I quickly shoved my hand in my pocket to check that my credit card was still there. I'd be paying up just minutes from now.

The official handed me the coin and I went up on stage. Photos reveal that there were two other guys on stage, too, but I didn't see them. The whole thing was totally unexpected and overwhelming.

I looked over at Eda for her approval and she was smiling, clearly excited. We had been planning on going to South Africa this year, anyway. I wanted to do an ultramarathon there in December, but was still on the fence and hadn't actually registered.

This solved our problem. We'd be going in late-August now!
I couldn't believe it.
But I kind of felt guilty. A few friends who had been vying for this spot all year had not been successful. They had been training hard and going to all the rolldowns. I hardly trained and didn't even have this as a goal.

Did I really deserve it? It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for guys like me that are not elite level, so I did want it. But finishing 15th place? That's not quite the caliber of athlete that goes to the World Championships. And this race wasn't even a personal best.

On the other hand, I got it fair and square. It is late in the season (I think the last slots are given away in August) so most of the faster guys that are going have already earned theirs in other races.

With that in mind, along with the support of my wife, I had only one mission: To perform at my very best possible for this awesome event. To do that, I'd need my coach Colin again, and I'd need a lot of swimming, biking, and running over the next 14 weeks.


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