It’s Tuesday morning, precisely 6:33am. Exactly 48 hours ago, I queued up on the beach in Da Nang with over 1,000 fellow triathletes, all sharing the same goal. That in 8 hours or less, we would be taking our final few steps down the IronMan 70.3 Vietnam finishers chute and collecting our finishers medal. We just had the small matter of an open water 1.9km swim; a 90km bike ride and a 21.1km run to contend with. In equal parts nerves and excitement, I waited for the signal to enter the water and begin my quest to finish the job that started many many months ago.
I recall entering the shallow waters and having to wade through for what seemed like an eternity until it felt deep enough to dive in and begin the swim leg of the course. With my heart rate elevated from the initial running in water, I quickly found my rhythm and found myself passing many people within my group.
A quick note on the swim groups; at registration we were required to note down our predicted finishing times on the swim, so we could be grouped accordingly. Rather cautiously I opted to predict a finish of between 36 and 40 minutes. I knew from training that I was more than capable of this, but siding with caution for me always takes off any unnecessary pressure and I certainly wouldn’t wish to slow down any faster competitors.
I made a conscious decision to sacrifice time and a shorter swim path in favour of taking a slightly wider berth, this was done with the intention to avoid the melee. Take the path less travelled I reminded myself, and although I ended up swimming an additional 300m, I for the best part avoided any major flying elbows or legs.
Having said that, fairly early on, I did momentarily get winded with an unintentional jab to my side. I let out a gasp, but it only reaffirmed the importance of following my race strategy, and I pushed on, with a surge of adrenaline, I swam past more competitors.
In positive psychology, I’ve read a lot about flow state.
In positive psychology, flow, also known as the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.
I can safely say I felt like I was cruising through the water. This was in stark contrast to my last half triathlon in Nha Trang, September 2016. I had major digestive problems and spent large parts of the swim trying my absolute hardest to hold back both retching and avoiding soiling myself.
With confidence growing, I noticed some of the swim hats around me displaying B. It’s rather cliché to say the race is long but it’s only with yourself, but of course this is completely true. But during endurance events, you have to attach to anything that helps you increase your personal belief. This was one of those moments that left me feeling confident, and I have found this to be of upmost importance. It’s inevitable within a race of many hours that you’re going to have to battle negative thoughts and a tired mind, but to withstand this for as long as possible cannot be underestimated. My daily meditation practice and mindfulness has certainly helped me recognize my thoughts and feelings with separation and lack of attachment. I had confidence that when the time came for the negative and self-defeating thoughts, I’d be able to brush them off… Only time would tell when that battle would take place.
My confidence in the water and swimming performance, with major thanks to my good friend and swim coach Rob West, has dramatically improved in recent months, and my average pace 1:40 per 100m reflected this.
Exiting the water, I took a moment to give thanks for my safe return, to whip the goggles and swim cap from my head, whilst trying to readjust to terra firma. Having steadied myself I placed one foot in front of the other and slowly but surely made my way to the first of two transitions.
SWIM DISTANCE = 2.25km/ TIME = 00:37:42 / 1:40/100m
I’ll take this moment to mention the incredible volunteers and event organisers. Ultimately, I could lace this entire report with complimentary remarks about this group of individuals who gave up their free time to ensure the smooth running of the day.
In a rather frantic manner, I mistakenly grabbed my running bag from the transition area and before I could even rectify the error, a volunteer noticed I was clutching the wrong bag. This was just one example of many that stood out for me and deserved a special mention.
The rest of the transition was pretty smooth sailing albeit a little slow, as I grabbed my bike, having remembered its location in relation to the third palm tree which lined the bike area. I gulped down an energy gel, secured my helmet in place and ran with bike in hand to the start of the bike leg.
TRANSITION TIME = 5:03
My specific training for the event was secondary to one or rather both eyes being focused on the full IronMan in Taiwan on 1st October. My training has largely been centred on building an aerobic base with plenty of zone 2 training. This has meant some big rides. A recent holiday in Phuket meant some big climbing and time in the saddle. This definitely served to help me when it came to the 90km ride.
Cycling is the one discipline that causes me quite a bit of angst. Recognising the bicycle is between solid ground and myself and the many variables that are beyond my control means its not always a joyful experience. Perhaps it’s fair to say, the thought of cycling and the possibilities of things going wrong is always where the fear lies. Once I am mounted and pedalling away, this fear is usually pretty quick to evaporate. Isn’t this pretty much the case with all of fear, the thought rather than the action being what mentally and physically paralyses us.
My eyes were never far from a meter or two in front of me. Constantly scanning the ground for foreign objects that could potentially cause a flat tyre. One of my biggest fears on the bike is a flat tyre, silly I know. I am well aware that if a flat tyre were to occur, I’d be thrown into the present and I’d likely deal with it accordingly, but it’s that irrational fear that keeps my eyes peeled.
The ride went by without any major hiccups. I recently had a speedometer fitted to my handle bars. This helped me try and retain above 30kph throughout the ride. The only times I slipped below was on the Thuan Phuoc Bridge climb. There were times when I’d aggressively overtake competitors, always fearful of being penalised for drafting if I didn’t make the move quickly enough and with the sufficient distance between us. At times I clocked over 40kph during these short sprints. The only other time I recorded such a high speed was when I was engulfed with the worst smell of dried shrimp I have ever smelt. I can still smell it now!
My last half distance triathlon was with a bike 6 sizes too small for me, so it felt good to be on a bike that was suited to my body. I accepted before that this would be the part of the race where I may be passed by a lot of participants on their TT bikes, and it seemed to be the case. I’ve only been cycling for a year, and having worked hard during this time, I both appreciated and accepted the likelihood of losing a few places. This acceptance ensured I remained positive without any major negative thoughts entering my headspace for most of the ride. I just kept focused on the grand scheme of things and tried to remain present with the experience.
I hated seeing cyclists at the side of the road with mechanical difficulties, whether a flat tyre or something worse, I felt a deep sense of compassion and empathy.
I first noticed fatigue mentally on the home straight of the bike course. The only major headwind during the entire ride was on the beach front heading back towards the Hyatt Regency. I noticed my speed was dropping inevitably, but the hardest part was passing the finish on the left to extend the ride to ensure we met the 90km distance. I kept thinking, ‘surely the turn is soon, surely the turn is soon’. Having received a big smile and encouraging words from my dad who was waiting at the finish, briefly upped my spirits, but the headwind was doing more than slowing me down physically. It was chipping into my mental resilience and for the first time, I admit to getting frustrated with the final 10km, which felt like an eternity.
As I dismounted the bike, I felt a huge sense of relief to finish the ride unscathed, and what has become a ritual the past year or so, I was quick to thank those externals beyond my control of which were laced in good fortune. At this moment my attention moved quickly onto the run.
A thought that seemed to replay in my mind during the latter stages of the bike ride was ‘what if the lady volunteer didn’t return my running bag to my transition peg?’ For a few moments I found myself beating myself up over this very real possibility. Soon enough I was able to negatively visualise this scenario, and I visualised it what felt like a dozen times.
Telling myself I would head to the transition area to be without my running shoes and my required race bib helped me digest the worst case scenario and be okay with such. If this was the case, I made a pledge I would be accepting and simply run barefoot, with socks on to avoid burning my feet.
BIKE DISTANCE = 90.88km/ TIME = 2:56:47 / AVERAGE PACE: 30.9 km/h
You might be wondering why I perform negative visualisation and for someone who promotes positivity with Smilinggg and seeing things as half full, I would understand such perceived cynical questioning.
Well, right here is the reason why. Imagine if I had been confident that the lady volunteer would correctly return my running bag on my peg, only to get there and find it missing. THE HORROR! My mood would drop, I’d likely panic and think ‘what can I do’. Shit shit shit!!!
Instead, by telling myself the bag would be missing, imagine the delight I experienced when I made my way to the transition peg to find my bag there. I remember my tired mind instantly lifting and I recall letting out a ‘YES!!! GET IN!!! Thank you, thank you, thank you!’
Two down and with one to go, I started to feel as though I was fast approaching IronMan success. I’ve been running consistently since May 2015, so I felt my confidence was fairly justified. Anyway, this feeling was pretty quick to subside once I had replaced my bike cleats with my running shoes and made my way out of transition ready for the out and back loop.
TRANSITION TIME = 4:33
You don’t quite realise the temperatures when you are swimming (for obvious reasons), and cycling (all hail the pleasant breeze). Well, when you start running, you realise pretty damn quickly. The time was 10:22am as I began trotting down the road. Trotting, who am I kidding… Almost immediately I was shuffling… My cadence was noticeably low, and my Forest Gump style running technique wasn’t in action.
The temperature was mid thirties, with a feel of low forties. It was a furnace. To be fair this didn’t really come as a surprise. I intentionally drank big quantities of water and electrolyte laced water on the bike. This strategy kept me feeling hydrated on the bike, but immediately on the run it came back to bite me in the backside.
With a full bladder, I immediately felt as though I had hit the wall. This was within a couple of hundred meters. I continued to struggle for a fair few kilometres.
During these dark moments, I battled the thoughts of being unable to finish the race. The prospect of 19km in this situation only compounded the issues. Here’s where I have meditation to thank, alongside particularly my love for Buddhist and Stoic teachings. I was able to detach sufficiently from my thoughts and then went about rationally telling myself this pain is temporary and I had the reasoned choice to not allow the pain to snowball into suffering. My mantra at this stage was one step, one smile at a time.
It was at this time that I also turned outwards. I was in pretty desperate need of somehow raising my spirits. The Smilinggg philosophy of helping others came to light. I did whatever I could to help others. With the out and back loop, it meant the pro’s and age group elite were on second half of the run returning home.
Something I was famous for at Watergate 16 hour Ultra-Marathon in January 2016 was smiling at passers by and offering words of encouragement. I went with this strategy as I struggled myself. I appreciated the likelihood of those out on the course also struggling, and thought ‘what would lift my spirits right now?’
At each refreshment station I grabbed two saturated sponges and placed them strategically down my tri suit on top of my chest. For some time, I resorted to squeezing these sponges, resulting in not only a refreshing release of cold water, but also a rather amusing sight for the runners passing me by in the opposite direction. When times are tough, sometimes it’s best to resort to humour right?
With the stitch still present, at some point my rational mind finally kicked in and told me the problem was perhaps the amount of water sloshing around my tummy. Not fancying wazzing down my leg, I waited until I found a portable toilet to relieve myself. It was at this very moment I felt an immediate sense of ‘game time’.
My pace increased, as did my cadence and I finally found myself in that magical flow state. The KM’s continued to tick off, with my Garmin vibrating at each milestone.
For the next few kilometres I felt pretty strong. Passing other runners on the course and the refreshment tents offering everything from water, fruit, gels, ice, sponges and coke added to my renewed sense of optimism.
If you’ve worked with me as your coach, you’ll know I despise soft drinks. Well, I have to say thank you to the many cola’s I sank on the run. This super sweet drink gave me short bursts of energy just when I needed it. There’s a time and a place for soft drinks… endurance events!
Hitting the turn around point is always motivating. To know I was over half way on the run was a much needed boost. It also meant I would now be passing those behind me, and my sense of positively making a difference in their running experience further rejuvenated me.
To say it was a simple second half of the run with no obstacles would be a lie. However, recognising with each step and smile, the finish line was getting closer served to keep me going.
As I made my way down the finishers chute, I saw my number one supporter, dad; with phone in hand ready to capture the moment I smiled and clenched my fist. At this point I was just relieved to make it to the finish, and that sense of relief turned to joy as I collected my medal and gave dad a big hug.
Last time out in Nha Trang, I broke down in tears. On this occasion I was just elated.
RUN DISTANCE = 21.42km/ TIME = 2:02:34 / AVERAGE PACE: 5:48/km
OVERALL FINISHING TIME: 5:46:37 – AGE GROUP: 26th of 129 – GENDER GROUP: 172nd of 777 – OVERALL PLACE: 200 of 917
I often say goals are not necessarily formed with the intention to be achieved. If a goal propels oneself to embark on a positive endeavour that improves behaviours and habits, then that’s the real win. The journey. I had set out with the ambitious goal of achieving a sub 5:30 race. Although I didn’t achieve this goal, I tried my best and with the extreme conditions I couldn’t be more proud of myself.
I’m like a broken record when I mention how endurance sport serves as a life in a day. The notion it serves as a time-lapse of life is something that draws me to the pursuit. I’m an avid reader and whilst obtaining knowledge is cool, wisdom can only be obtained through experiences. By throwing myself into voluntary adversity, I am able to apply philosophical teachings to process challenges and cultivate greater sense of mental resilience. Does it guarantee I’m going to be strong during involuntary adversity? Of course not, only time will tell when inevitable life challenges occur, but I can say right now that I am a stronger person both physically and particularly mentally for endurance. It’s what keeps me coming back for more.
I’d like to thank you for reading to the end. I’m bloody impressed. You are now an endurance athlete because I’m sure at times the read was tedious, but you kept at it… go you! You must feel stronger already, haha!
Finally I’d like to say thank you to everyone connected with IronMan. The event organisers and the volunteers are the real champions of the day. I’d like to extend big congratulations to everyone who participated too. The people I meet at these events forever inspire me. There’s never ever a guarantee of finishing an event like this and this vulnerability is a character trait I admire massively.
Until the next one, keep Smilinggg.