Races are all about testing yourself. But amidst the evaluation, there are lessons to be taken away. There is discovery: of weaknesses to address; of successful strategies to adopt and build on; or of simply how far one can push oneself to the limits of human performance. At the second edition of the Aviva Singapore Ironman 70.3 – held on September 7, 2008 – I learnt a few things indeed.
 
The Lessons
By Wilson Low
Races are all about testing yourself. But amidst the evaluation, there are lessons to be taken away. There is discovery: of weaknesses to address; of successful strategies to adopt and build on; or of simply how far one can push oneself to the limits of human performance. At the second edition of the Aviva Singapore Ironman 70.3 – held on September 7, 2008 – I learnt a few things indeed.

Lesson One: The spectator’s perspective can be valuable
Although not a gifted swimmer, I can appreciate open-water swimming as the most fun part of any triathlon. Still, it is a royal pain to be victim as well as perpetrator of the underwater pummeling, groping and kicking that defines a triathlon swim. On the first lap of the 1.9 km swim at East Coast Park, I sought open water some distance away from the lane marker that defined the 950-metre swim loop. I purposely navigated away from the frenzied splashing closer in so I could find my own rhythm, but would I end up spending more time by swimming that extra distance?

After the race, my dad – who had been a spectator on the beach – told me I had made the first lap in 20 minutes; but my second lap was done in only 15 minutes. I was initially surprised at this revelation. I thought I had gone slower on the second lap because I had stayed closer to the lane lines and had engaged in several underwater punch-ups with swimmers on the later waves.

So, I had made a mess of the first lap – by swimming too wide on the long side of the course – then somehow cranked out a negative split (a faster second lap) the second time round. Navigation and increased confidence was clearly something I had to fine-tune… if only I had stuck close all the way on the first lap.

I know triathletes can become caught up with number-crunching – here I am doing exactly that!

Lesson Two: Control only what you can control

The alarms bell had already sounded on Saturday, as I was checking in my bike: the bike computer was giving off faulty readings! Swapping over to a borrowed racing wheelset that day, I noted with dismay that the speedometer function was way off. It displayed 24 km/h when I was barely staying upright at 4 km/h trying to weave between the rows of bikes lining the transition area that had been set up on the cycling track of East Coast Park. Whatever the cause of this electromagnetic interference, the implications were clear for race day. With no heart-rate monitor or power meter, the only way I could regulate my exertion levels would be by recalling the specific gear ratios and cadences I was capable of turning them at.

The bike leg consisted of three 30-km loops. Starting from the Big Splash, we had to ride up the Benjamin Sheares Bridge, past the Singapore Flyer and the glistening CBD skyline, through Tanjong Pagar, then onwards to Vivocity and Pasir Panjang before making a turnaround – sticking most of the way on the Keppel flyover. An extremely fast route, albeit narrow. These included a one-lane left-hand downhill just past the Tanjong Pagar railway station and the Fort Road roundabout. Carrying too much speed through these sections proved the undoing of many participants’ efforts in the form of damaged bikes and road rash.

I have a distinct impression of a huge peloton surging up a right-hand climb on the first lap, leaving me no option but to ease off and let them pass. Let them go – better to ride at a pace I can sustain equally on each lap, I told myself. And all the while, the computer was going crazy. I was greatly relived that I had insisted on sticking my own 12-25 cassette – the same gear ratio I used in training – onto those race wheels, and steadfastly ignored the ridiculous speeds that my computer was displaying.

The payoff was apparent only on the second half of the final lap, when I started passing folks who had zipped past me in the opening kilometers. An even splitting (50 minutes for each of the three laps) of the bike course was the result, and I hoped that this would bring greater rewards for the run.

Lesson Three: Attitude is everything

On to the 21 km run, third and final act of the 70.3 play! Off the bike, and the weather was hot and muggy, with the sun out in full force. The first three kilometers on foot were just about reintroducing the legs to the familiar rhythm of running – well, not so familiar if you throw in cramping inner quadriceps. Easing up a bit and getting an energy gel down my throat helped me get over the threat of full-blown cramps, and soon I was settled in with my ideal form that would eventually produce a 1:36 run split.

Even though I suspected I was quite far down in terms of age group rankings, I made sure I acknowledged any fellow athletes whom I recognized. High fives, chatting, or just a few words of encouragement to training partners and acquaintances were – I felt – important in motivating not only them but also myself. I just knew I had to keep a manageable pace, plus save up my focus for the last lap of the run – so I might as well feel loose and relaxed now, and pay forward the positive attitude to others. Passing my fellow age groupers? I thought of that only when I could recognize their numbers – apart from that, I was in a world of my own.

A steady supply of ice-cold water, electrolyte drinks, and wet sponges helped suppress the effects of humidity and high temperature; but even these became somewhat warm to the touch as the ice supplies dwindled amidst the sweltering heat late in the race.

It does not take an Einstein to figure out that time is relative: triathletes can figure that out too, and in just one race! The first two kilometers of my run were painful, but went by in the blink of an eye; the last two kilometers were painful too, but they seemed like an eternity. According to friends who saw me on the last lap of the run that day, gone was my chatty demeanour – replaced only by a desperate mask of pain. I could not guarantee that my positive attitude would remain always, but I was sure that when the crunch time came, I could hold myself together all the way to the line mentally and emotionally.

More to come?

My eyes were straining to see the yellow finish arch, and when I finally did see it, my tiredness evaporated. Physically, I could not have been running any faster at that point, but I could allow myself to think about things on the other side of the arch – friends, family, a big feed at KFC, a massage, and a good night’s sleep in a warm bed.

I finished with a big smile (grimace?) on my face, perhaps not so much already thinking about my next race as much as looking forward to some rest and recovery. Are there future lessons in store? As long as I am racing, I’ll always be learning.

Wilson Low finished the Aviva Singapore Ironman 70.3 2008 in a time of 4:45:33, taking 4th place in the 25-29 male age group and earning one of six available slots to the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Clearwater, Florida.