Sunday, November 10, 2013

RACE REPORT: Ironman World Championships 2013 (Part 2)

12 October: I was up at 3.30am with about six hours of darting sleep. First thing I did, was attach my timing-chip onto my right-ankle. I did the needful, clearing my system after a mug of strong coffee chased down with a mug of Perpeteum. Then, we walked down the slope to the Pier, to have my body marking done, as well as set up my bike.
Check-In Area: Thankfully, my front tyre was firm, and I needed to inflate it slightly to 100PSI. An elderly female volunteer passed me a pump, which I used. I did my drill of fixing my spare-tyre, screwing in my two CO2 cannisters and inflator-valve onto my X-Lab, and racking my bidons of water and Perpeteum mixture. After that, I wore my AquaSphere speed-suit over my two-piece BlueSeventy tri-suit.
SWIM: The professionals were flagged off from Kailua Bay at 6.30am and 6.35am, for Men and Women respectively. For us age-groupers, it was a deep-water start (also) at 7.00am. True to tradition, the small canon pronounced assertively the flag-off. I elected to swim at the farthest left end, to avoid the ‘washing machine’, frothy, and dangerous swim-start. As I boasted no speed or aggressiveness on my weakest discipline, my strategy was conservative and safe – avoid physical contact, sight regularly, breathe deep (my cough was intermittent, triggered by the cold and a persistent, wet-throat), and go with the flow.
 I emerged from the water about 1:47, feeling relieved and fresh. My shoulder was sore from my tendinitis, but it did not matter. I was running sad images of previous races where swimmers, painfully and traumatically, missed the 2:20 cutoff by seconds. The sea current that met us upon my return did consume additional time (and calories); I was 45 minutes at the U-turn point (marked by a prominent boat). I was still stoked from swimming with the school of dolphins after the halfway mark. I recall sitting at the feet of a Physically-Challenged (PC) athlete for some time. I respect PC-athletes for one of my major inspirations is PC world-champion, Dr Hannes Koeppen. We spent time (with he and his wife, Grace) earlier this year, where he shared wonderful stories of his Kona experiences over two years. When I swam, I focused on the economy of my strokes, and an acute awareness of my surroundings. I did not want to be kicked or swam over, without my permission. I was stoked that I was actually swimming in the Kailua Bay.
Transition 1: As I arrived near the carpeted steps, I was running my drills for T1. I removed my goggles as I ascended from the steps, and unzipped my speed-suit. I spent a few necessary seconds, rinsing my body down with fresh water from the suspended hoses. I entered the change-tent, then got into my riding-shoes, helmet, shades, and stuck all else into the bag. A volunteer assured me he would handle it. I thanked him, and jogged out to my racked bike.
RIDE: The ride was everything and nothing I expected. It is a personal voyage of self-discovery, as hours of solo rides dials in the physical and mental discomfort. Yet, as the day unfurled and unfolded, challenges sneak in. I started conservatively on the relatively flat Kuakini Highway. I took the first climb (on Palani Road) in low gear, and aimed to work out the discomfort of a wet tri-suit. I looked at my watch so I could feed myself regularly, knowing that, however long it would take me, I would ensure adequate calories. It was exciting to finally see the lava fields of Kona, en-route to the Keahole-Kona Airport.
The ride is unpredictable when it comes to the winds (front, side and back). I was apprehensive of the infamous winds of Kona. It can rip your senses and sensibility apart if it is a bad year. Thankfully, the winds were mild (according to most commentaries, including a volunteer who completed Kona four times). Once, I hit Hawi (on Highway 250), I was relieved as I was on-target for a 5:45 ride. However, on my return from that halfway point, the winds started to pick up slightly, albeit erratically. I noticed that the view of the sea (on my right) showed white caps on the water. I gritted my teeth and plowed on, hoping to ride it out and aim for a reasonable completion time. It was, essentially, keep pedaling and keep feeding my body, and overtake as many as I could (of those left on the highway).
With two pee-stops at a portable-toilet (I did not fulfill Chrissy's 6-on-the-ride), I was pleased to complete the ride in about 6:30, as 112 miles seated, pushing pedals, against the face-ward wind was energy-sapping, and I may have expended one, too-many, matches in my box (in the stretch from Kawaihae to Waikoloa Road.).  
Transition 2: I was glad to know I made a reasonable cut into T2. I was disappointed to miss a sub-6 hour ride, and I was delighted I survived the headwind on my return leg. Thankfully, this year’s wind was mild compared to previous years. On some years, the ferocious side-winds were known to fling riders off the road, or even unhinge tyres from their rims. My bike was valet-parked by a volunteer, who I thanked. I had much to be grateful for, and I used this energy and emotion to drive me through to the race-bag racks, where a volunteer handed me my Run-Bag.

In the Changing-Tent, an elderly volunteer encouraged me on with small talk. He reminded me to take my time, and ensure I had everything I needed.  I loaded my helmet and riding-shoes, and put on my running shoes (On Cloudracer), Ironman 70.3 World’s Championships cap (so I could load ice under it), strapped on my Fuel-Belt (with Perpeteum powder in the two front gel-bottles), and rotated my race-bib around (don't want to be penalised for the smallest error).

RUN: This was the final piece in my Kona puzzle that I had to endure and expand on. I learnt from countless views of the Kona Ironman DVDs that the make-or-break section tended to be the marathon. After the 3.8km swim and 180km of riding beside the lava fields, the 42.195km of running was guaranteed to drain my reserves. Psychologically, it plays on you when you see the elite age-groupers (plentiful) coming in, many destined for the 9-hour mark. These competitive athletes inspired me, as they looked so determined and graceful in their run. I could only imagine the hundreds of hours spent by them to prepare for this prestigious race. It was like watching a running clinic, in full motion and momentum. Despite my fatigue, I was still lucid and aware of my surroundings.
Once I hit my first slope, I walked. I was annoyed for doing it as I had a good 10km run, with confident posture and carriage. My first 21km was achieved in 1:54, so I was on-target. But my split-time was horrendous for the second-half, as I succumbed to more walking and enjoying my conversations at aid-stations. I decided that since I fulfilled my own prophecy of having a hard run (and in the twilight) that I might as well enjoy my moments of serendipity and serenity (incidentally, these were the names of two Ballantine whiskies I used to promote in the year 2000 in a worldwide marketing promotion (beginning from Hawaii through to S.E. Asia).

At the 17-mile mark, the volunteers at the aid-station asked me if I knew Gordon Ramsey. I replied that I did, but the chef did not know me. We laughed. They told me that Ramsey was not far ahead, and I took heed in pursuit. Before I departed thankfully, I suggested saying ‘Donkey!’ which they cheekily echoed loudly into the distant. I took chase. I made the U-turn at the Natural Energy Lab Hawaii Authority, but there was no dread, as it was dark. Many have ben sapped by the heat off the lava-field and the searing sunshine (I suffered sunburn without feeling it), but it was not to be for me, for I had my own share of ‘tests by the Island Gods’. I took a luminous loop and hung it around my need, for I almost collided into a runner in the dark. Better to be safe than sorry, than with a pronounced bump on the ribs or face. I deliberately kept to the right side of the run route to avoid any 'spanners'.

Not too far off, I passed him. I did not stare at him, but looked forward, focused on my goal to complete my Big Dance. My peripheral vision indicated to me that he was tired and looked gnarled and sinewy (he lost 28 pounds since training in August 2012). Once I passed him – he walked! I took this as a positive sign. I used a strategy of run and walk to ward off any potential cramps that may slow me down. I did not catch sight of Hines Ward, who was obviously having a splendid day as the Ambassador of Kona-Inspired and Chocolate Milk.
Crossing the finisher-chute was a magical experience. It certainly felt different than my perception formed from watching the DVDs on Kona. I was giving the spectators – on my right and left – high-fives, and I missed many extended arms. I knew I was smiling from ear-to-ear, and I had some more in my tank to run another kilometer fast. I felt the power of my idols who crossed before me: Dave Scott, Mark Allen, Paula-Newby, Natasha Badmann, Peter Reid, Macca, Crowie, Chrissy, and many more. My Welchie at the end was my icing on the cake, as I must have jumped at least two feet off the ground after all that pounding on the asphalt.
Upon crossing the end-point, I was ushered and accompanied by two volunteers who placed a lei around my neck (my first garland ever), my Finisher’s Medal (it was as large as Sheila Taormina’s Olympic Medal) and a Finisher’s towel around me. They led me to the photographer’s billboard, where I posed for my remembrance. 
Thereafter, after ensuring I was all ready and steady, they excused themselves to entertain another finisher. I helped myself to the post-race nourishment where I enjoyed a Meadow Gold Chocolate Milk drink (for recovery), and regaled the marketing team that handed out these tasty drinks with my stories with the Chef. I could not take much solid food other than a slice of Hawaiian pizza (as in ham and pineapple). Before I left, I introduced myself to Ironman Hall-of-Famer, Bob Babbitt, who interviewed me briefly. I believed he was compiling Kona-Inspired stories to share at the Awards Dinner the next evening.
As I emerged from the Transition zone (after collecting my bike and race-bags) to meet Mel (who was snapping pictures of me the entire day as well as trip), a family enquired me about the cost of our bikes. I found it amusing as I was tripping on cloud nine (for having Kona-ed, finally) and feeling like a celebrity – not that I know how it feels like. Arnaud (who did a 9:42!) said I looked stoked, and that was how I felt for achieving my dream event.

After a few more photos at the entrance of the hotel (for my sponsors, and my journal), I returned to my room for a well-deserved shower, massive wash-up, and then rolled onto bed for a much-need nap. My body was tightening up – signs of the fading effects of adrenaline and cortisol – but all was well. I could take any spanner or surprises at this point, for all was well.
Epilogue: The next day, I attended the Awards Dinner that I had to attend with Mel. It was an amazing experience to enjoy the Hawaiian cultural show, as it was symbolic in all sense of the word. I enjoyed the presentations by the organisers, emcees and (fast!) winners of this year’s race. I was stoked that 2-time Ironman Champion, Rinnie Carfrae won in record time. I was touched that, despite a tough day, 2012 World Champion, Pete ‘PJ’ Jacobs walked part of the marathon to finish in 77th place. He did not quit, smiled on, and he inspired me with his positive attitude (hallmarks of a true champion). There’s always another race, next year to achieve another milestone.

I experienced Kupau: I arrived and ended in a full circle. The Big Island and the Big Dance weaved its magic on me, and I am forever grateful to have completed this race.

Appreciation and Acknowledgements: Thank you my sponsors: Jabra, On shoes, CrampFix and Swim Bike Run Singapore. I also thank my friends in the triathlon community and Triathlon Family Singapore. Most of all, I am grateful and in gratitude to my family and Iron-Mate!

Photo-Credits: Mel. C. & FinisherPix.


K3vski said...

Well done Enrico! I'm getting goosebumps reading this. What an experience. Hope to re-live it some day.

Enrico Varella said...

Thank YOU, Kevin. It was a deeply rewarding and powerful experience. I was lucky to be selected for this opportunity. I hope you will enjoy your Big Dance soon. You are shaping well for IMWA, and I wish you a memorable and enriching race experience. Mahalo!