Gurye IronMan. Korea 10 September 2017
After all the issues of injury and recovery, motivation and “lack there-of” over the last 12 months, at long last race day had arrived. The previous few days had been a whirl of activity, involving constant travelling the 8km between our hotel on the outskirts of Gurye Town to the main “race central” situated in the National Park for registration, briefing, swim practice, bike check et al, so was nice to finally focus on the reason I was in Korea – to participate in my 6th Iron distance race.
I woke at 3am and started the process of preparation – eating as much as I could, constant trips to the toilet to lighten the load and checking and rechecking my gear. Our group of 10 had all decided to take the 5am shuttle bus, so we ventured out into the still dark night at about 4:30 to walk to the pick-up point. The bus arrived on time (much to everyone’s relief) and we were on our way.
After arrival half our group headed to the toilets near transition. There was an alarming lack of portaloos, so felt it better to be safe than sorry and joined the queue. A gap between female athletes meant I could nip in and use the Ladies loos, unfortuntaley the stalI I entered reminded me that the fairer sex can be as bad as their male counterparts in their toilet manners… yuck!
I escaped the stink and mess of the toilets and walked into transition where the anticipation of race day morning was building. It always is an amazing atmosphere, as the morning light grows and everyone goes about their preparation, the nervousness and quiet determination creating a real buzz of excitement. My own preparations were almost thrown in to total disarray when I discovered to my horror that I had left my goggles at the hotel – I had added anti fog the night before and hung them on the back of the door to dry… where they were still hanging. As luck would have it, the only thing I had purchased at the expo had been a pair of new goggles and I had put them in the bag “just in case” my others had broken. I was safe but also furious with myself, such a rookie mistake didn’t bode well for the rest of the day.
I slipped out of my street clothes, (like many athletes I am stupidly superstitious, so I have basically worn the same street clothes for every race I have ever done), and began the strenuous activity of putting on my wet suit, again employing all my Mr Bean type tricks to look as far as possible from a svelte triathlete and persuade anyone watching I wasn’t a competitor worth worrying about. Eventually I was all done, and after handing in my street bag, I found a quiet patch of grass to sit down and focus. I was not confident at all especially after my worst ever Half IronMan in July, so all I really hoped for was to be able to finish.
After calming my nerves, I lathered thick dollops of Vaseline under my arms and around my neck to stop the chaffing, and joined the queue of swimmers waiting for the off. The swim was a rolling start with several swimmers being released at 8 second intervals to jump off the pontoon into the lake. We were supposed to “self-seed”, choosing a point in the queue which tallied with your expected swim time, fastest at the front slowest at the back, but with no signs to let you know the time in each area, it was pure guess work. I choose a place near the back and waited
The Swim – 3.8km, lake, one continuous loop
At 6:40 the horn went and we were off. A big TV monitor showed the first swimmers funnelling down the pontoon and diving in the water. We slowly shuffled forward and after around 19 minutes it was my turn. I decided to slip into the water feet first rather than dive, but misjudged and ended up doing a half belly flop flat on my face, not the most auspicious start. The water was calm, clear and remarkably warm, so after a quick readjustment I was on my way.
I had expected a smooth swim, as there was a rope with buoys every 20 meters or so marking the whole route meaning no getting off course. Also, we had self-seeded therefore in thery would be with athletes at the same ability and as the course was one continuous single loop, there should be no need for any of the aggressive over taking or ”swimming over top“ that normally happens at the start.
Unfortunately, my hopes were quickly shattered as I realized that many people had put themselves way to far forward on the seeding and were basically blocking the line for everyone else, causing conflict between faster swimmers trying to get through small gaps. Added to which the more aggressive nature of the Korean/Chinese meant I got some real punches and kicks, so ended up taking a very wide line.
Other than the punches, the blockages and the rather alarming number of swimmers hanging onto the rope and resting, the swim was uneventful, almost boring. After seeming to go on for ever, the finish arrived suddenly and I made my way up the slope back onto the pontoon. I remembered to look at my Garmin and it showed 1:30, which was a record for me (later my official time was given as 1:31, but still was my best swim ever). To be honest I think the ease of navigation was the main reason for this more than any big improvement on my part, but I was happy to take it!
OK, I am always slow in transition, my mantra is that it’s better to take my time and be comfortable over the bike or run, rather than try to save a few minutes. I prefer to swim in just my undershorts beneath my wet suit, so I can strip off the suit, dry off and then put fresh clean dry clothes on for the bike. Not quite blow drying my hair but making sure I am comfortable and as ready as possible to start the next section. However, the transition this time was long even for me, not quite sure why, this is one area I definitely need to work on. It was nice however to meet up with Ken, one for my Tokyo team mates and have a quick chat as we changed before rushing out.
Final little thing that lifted my spirits was when I handed in my change bag before leaving, I noticed the person who took it from me was the owner of the little Chicken/Rice soup place we had been to twice, she and I recognised each other at same time, with her giving me a fist pump and a smile to send me on my way.
Bike 180k 3 loops.
The course started with an initial 30k which lead into 3 loops then a final 20k back to the finish. Once out of transition the road quickly began to climb for 8k with a U-turn at the top then back down the hill. As I climbed up I noticed the bikes were coming back down pretty fast and I saw several bikes way too close hurtling down at speed. Just after they passed me, I heard an almighty noise although I couldn’t see what happened as I had to focus on pushing up the hill, but the ensuing commotion made it obvious someone had crashed and probably brought others down in the process. After I turned around and came back down I saw two people still fixing their bikes in the side of the road, such a tough way to start their bike leg.
Another 20k or so and into the loops, they were pretty flat with one major climb of about 5k half way through, which we had to do 3 times. The roads were smooth and wide with minimal turns so it immediately felt like a fast time was possible. I took advantage of the bananas and drinks offered at the aid stations and tried to keep down on the aerobars as much as possible. There was very little in the way of spectators out on the roads, so was fairly quiet, however the Koreans athletes (or Chinese?) have a habit of shouting out loud guttural phrases regularly, although I haven’t the slightest idea why.
One issue that annoyed me was seeing the number of riders littering. Ironman rules specifically ban throwing rubbish outside of the designated areas, but I saw many people chucking their gel wrappers, water bottles, banana skins etc anywhere they wanted. Another frustrating thing was the amount of drafting going on, another definite no-no, and I shouted out and gave a mouthful of abuse to someone I caught sitting on my tail.
Other than that, it was all rather uneventful. It was beautiful countryside and I enjoyed the warm sun and slight breeze, which was just about perfect temperature. I saw lots of people sitting on the side of the road fixing flats which surprised me as the roads were much smoother than either Japan or UK, I could only guess they were racing on light racing tyres which can puncture easily. I always fit stronger tyres, believing the 5 minutes or so lost due to using the heavier material is worth the risk compared to potential the 10-20 minutes lost with a puncture.
I felt strong for the first 100k, and realised I could go under 7hrs on the bike for the first time. When I began to slow down around the 120k mark I did the maths and realised I could stop for 10 mins at special needs, fuel up on something other than gel and bananas and stretch my legs, preparing me better for the run. I did exactly that, enjoying some rice crackers, mochi cakes and tangerines and taking the chance to have a pee standing up (I had peed on the bike earlier but it isn’t easy, your brain realises you’re outside sitting on a bike and doesn’t want to allow it to happen no matter how much you try. I found I have to trick myself and wait for a good downhill, stand up on the pedals while pretending I’m only stretching, then as I feel my bladder relax, suddenly push hard and squeeze the pee out!).
Suitably refreshed I jumped back in the bike and powered through the final segment, happy to reach the end of the course.
There was an awful lot of bikes already racked and I felt disappointed to know my fastest time ever still left me a long way back. I racked my bike, grabbed my bag and headed into the change tent.
I like to completely change between bike and run, right down to fresh pair of underwear and socks, but as the tent was open both ends I moved to the side wall to be as discreet as possible. I turned my back to the world and pulled my shorts down, leaving me naked and as I looked up I realised I was staring through a gap in the tent into the ladies changing area, and a pair of breasts were staring straight back at me. I’m not sure if the stout lady who they belonged to saw my rather shrunken ” meat and two veg” (believe me, after being encased in tight lyra and sitting on a pencil slim hard seat peddling for over 6 hrs, even Dirk Diggler would need tweezers), but we locked eyes for a second before quickly getting on with the change.
Run 42k – 3 loops
I had realised out on the bike that I was in with a chance of breaking 14hrs for the first time, but my experience let me know that anything can happen on the run. I had just over 5 hours to make it to the hallowed land of 13hrs racers, my slowest ever IronMan marathon was 4:50, so I should be able to do it, but I wasn’t going to take any chances. I quickly calculated backwards, trying to work out how long I would need if I ended up walking, and decided that if I could hit the 30k mark within 3:10 minutes then I could safely walk the rest. As a regular marathoner, I am only too aware that “the wall” generally appears after 30k and can be a total killer, so this plan seemed to tick all the boxes and became my new aim.
I felt a little dodgy the first 5km, but slowly my legs seemed to get looser, and by the start of the 3x 12k loops I was running freely. I love that feeling of going faster than anyone else, constantly overtaking streams of people with no one over taking me. I was looking at the arms of everyone, trying to see if they had any wrist bands on, a yellow denoting they had competed one lap and were on the second, pink denoting they had completed the second and were now on their final lap. The envy I had for those with both colours was intense, and I set myself to get through the laps as quickly as possible.
The sun was still warm and the run took us on a flat straight road out into the fields. There were aid stations every couple of km well stocked with water, coke and sports drink, plus biscuits, banana, gel and heavenly water melon. I always stop and walk through aid stations, and I mixed up what I took, quickly giving up on gels and bars as they seemed to be just staying in the bottom of my stomach swilling around and making me feel sick.
One nice thing about the laps and the daylight was I could see many of my fellow TiTs (Triathletes in Tokyo), as we ran in opposite directions and we were calling out to each other every time we passed. The first person I recognised was David, who I had the pleasure of hanging out with since we met up at Pusan airport, and he was already on his last lap. He shouted that they had soup at the next aid station. I first came across soup on the run at Hokkaido Ironman, when it was pitch black and cold, and at the time the simple Chicken soup had an amazing effect on me, warming me up, giving me energy and the salt and the meaty flavour tasting like the best thing on earth after a day’s diet of sweet gels and stodgy bars. I talked about this experience to David and had also asked at the briefing if they would have soup but was told no, so the news they had some was music to my ears. Unfortunately, it was a very thick white soup, almost sweet so wasn’t quite as uplifting as before, but I still enjoyed and stopped to drink on all three laps.
I continued to see various people I knew and was always nice to shout out a greeting. It started to get dark on the second lap, and I could feel tiredness seeping in but I was determined to make my target before I walked. I slowed a bit but kept on going and was so relieved when I passed the magic 30k and I realised I was well within the time to get under 14.
The last lap seemed to be full of people walking, throwing up, resting… I felt like doing all three. At the final turn around, with 6k left, I decided enough was enough. I didn’t have anything to aim for as I was going to hit a PB of under 14k but no way I could get under 13, so I relaxed and basically walked for almost an hour, letting my stomach settle and gaining a bit of energy to run the final part.
After 5k of walking and with only 1k left, I rallied for the final time, and started to run. There weren’t too many people left either on the course or watching so was a bit surreal, but I pushed on and gratefully took the right-hand fork into the stadium, a wiggle around the track and headed to the finish line. I heard Whit Raymond announce my name as I passed through the finishers arch, pressing stop on my watch quickly to ensure I could take the iconic finishers pose of hand in the air and head looking to the sky!
I was quickly pushed (literally pushed) through by the volunteers and found myself standing in line for the beer. Damn, I was so tempted, but having not touched a drop for over 5 years was not going to start now. The organization wasn’t too hot, but somehow, I got my medal, t-shirt and towel, before heading for the food… which was also not too hot, actually not hot at all as it consisted of cold squashed burgers that must have been made and piled high for many hours ago, accompanied by cold soggy chips. I grabbed a coke and found a place to sit down, munching on the burger (even cold soggy squashed burger tastes good enough after an Ironman), and only then thought to look at my watch to see my time… yay, was a world record for me of 13 hours, 39 minutes, 58 seconds. A full 22 minutes faster than my previous best.
Over all time 13:39:58
Swim – 1:31:17
T1 – 13:44
Bike – 6:52:33
T2 – 14:49
Run – 4:47:35
Over all position 630/1431
All in all, I was very happy with my time, I had fought the mental demons during the previous 12 months and persisted through the training even when injuries, operations and personal circumstances stopped me from following my normal schedules. I know I did not train enough and I know what I need to do next time, but somehow, I managed to get myself back on track.
I really appreciated the Tokyo crew, made a real difference having others around as opposed to my normal thing of hiding myself away, and certainly added to the experience. Note to self – triathlon is so much more fun when part of a group so make effort to be more social!
I also enjoyed my 5 days in Korea, it was fun but very different, it felt like a real adventure (the adventure continued through the next two days with all sorts of issues with logistics ensuring I couldn’t really relax until I was on the plane home.) But I would recommend this race to others, even if with certain caveats.
So, my triathlon season done, I can now take a couple of weeks rest before starting the much simpler training for marathon…. I had been looking forward to packing my bike away for the winter, hanging up my swim goggles and cutting training back to just running… well that was before I started having other thoughts… maybe if I keep training for tall three disciplines, then maybe I could actually…… [to be continued]