looking back & ahead

421683602169078819

2016 has been an incredible year for me. I only realised what I’ve achieved when I emailed my life coach a much delayed update of my life. I’ve decided to post my email here (rather than repurposing it) since it quite perfectly sums up my 2016.

‘…I’m not sure if I told you but I broke my left forearm in Oct 2015. Since it healed up in Jan, I’ve thrown myself into training and did a sprint and two Olympic distance triathlons, two full marathons (in Beijing and Qingdao), two trail half marathons and one 30km trail run. I’ve been regularly coming in 7/8th place in my age group for triathlons and in the top 30 (women’s ranking) for trail runs.  For someone who’s never thought I’d even do any of these sporting feats, I’m incredibly happy with what I achieved last year, and hope to continue and improve on my performance this year, starting with the Nagoya Women’s Marathon on 12 March….’
I’ve gained so much from doing sports last year, its effects have seeped into other aspects of my life. As a result of regularly exercising 3-4 times a week (as religiously recorded on Strava), my overall sense of well-being has improved immensely. My head is clearer, I suffer from less anxiety and depression and feel genuinely optimistic and cheerful most of the time. I’ve learnt to let go of things that tie me down, focus on the important things and make do with less, and in the process, I’ve learnt to be a better manager of my time and finances and become more creative.
But the most important lesson I learnt in 2016 has to be this…
anything can happen.
And I’d be stupid to think otherwise or take things for granted, especially in light of world events as it stands at the end of 2016.
The world at the start of 2017 is a very different place from anything I’ve seen or heard before. I’ve decided not to make any resolutions for 2017. Instead, I’m going to remind myself to be a little wiser, grow a little stronger, push myself a little harder, go a little further, swim/cycle/run a little faster, learn something new and do a little better everyday. If there’s anything the past has taught me, it’s that I work better with small, attainable short-term goals than grandiose, idealistic long-term ones. At the end of the day, the devil is in the details and the details are worked out every second->minute->hour->day-> week-> month of our lives.
2017, here I come!

 

training through winter

551425667645446847
Bare trees along the road to Tianjin

Now that central heating has been turned on in Beijing, winter has well and truly arrived.

After completing the Beijing International Marathon and going on a two-week holiday in Brisbane, I had zero motivation to return to my racing season training regimen. As the days got shorter, colder and greyer, getting out of bed early in the morning to cycle or run outdoors became a struggle.

The strange thing is, I’ve been plagued by two opposing voices in my head. The rational voice reminds me I’ve worked really hard over most of 2016, did way more races than I’d initially planned to, ended the racing season with an overuse injury and so I should spend winter recuperating. Besides, I broke my left arm this time last year, didn’t ride my road bike throughout winter and my cycling performance didn’t suffer much as a result. Since October, Beijing’s been having more bad AQI days, and this trend looks likely to continue through winter, which means working out in a gym. Though not completely averse to training in a gym (no excuse not to build some much-needed muscles), I just don’t look forward to running on a treadmill as much as running outside.

The less rational voice in my head appeals to my ego and Type A tendencies. It reminds me of my goals to go under 3:30 for Olympic distance triathlon and do my first Ironman 70.3 in May. It reminds me of my goal to get a sub-5:00 result for the Nagoya Women’s Marathon in March. Most importantly, it reminds me of how dramatically my life has changed since I started training to do races and how I felt every time I crossed the finish line.  I’ve been eating better, sleeping sounder, thinking clearer and feeling happier. The weight loss is a bonus though I hardly pay attention to the number on the scales anymore. There’s been days when the last thing I felt like doing was working out indoors, be it the gym, the pool or on the trainer, but I’ve always felt better when I overcame my laziness and did the workouts.  Like my brother said, I’ve become addicted to endorphins.  To which I respond with a wry grin, There are worse things to be addicted to in life.

498772798008080411
All bundled up for our ride around Miyun reservoir

For better or worse, I’ve been giving in to the egotistical voice most of the time for the past two months, completing most of my workouts at the gym and cycling and running outside occasionally when the AQI levels were acceptable and the temperatures were well over sub-zero.

With the early arrival of the first snowfall last week, December and January will probably be very cold and icy. The 21-km trail run I’d signed up to do in Miaofengshan this coming Sunday had to be postponed as the trails were still covered in ice and deemed unsafe by the organisers. Needless to say, I was quite disappointed when I received this sms notification, even though I was expecting it. On the same day, I saw an ad for a full marathon in Qingdao, Shandong province, a little local race limited to 150 participants with a closing time of 8 hours. I was enticed by the idea of running 42 km along the shoreline with views of the sea, without having to worry about bad air or cold weather, and getting out of Beijing for the weekend. Luckily for me, it didn’t take much to persuade my buddies to do the race, so I’ll have some company too!

It’s tough staying motivated to train regularly over the colder months, and it’s frustrating when training plans and races are thwarted by factors outside of our control. But with a little patience, creativity, research and forward planning, I’m hoping I’ll do better than just maintaining my general fitness over the coming winter months.

My first full marathon – Beijing Marathon 17 September

001
On the final 2 km.

Winning the lottery

I wasn’t planning on running a full marathon this year, so I haven’t been training specifically for it. I applied for a spot to run the Beijing Marathon without actually believing I’d get one, as it was one of the most popular events in China. The organisers upped the bar this year and only allowed runners who have completed certified full marathons in the last two years and half-marathons in the last 18 months to apply. I was vying one of 30,000 spots with over 60,000 applicants and I could only provide my half marathon result from February this year, so I had serious doubts I’d get a spot.

So imagine my surprise when I received confirmation that I’d won a spot to run the marathon in early August. Many of my local colleagues who loved running more than I did missed out.  I later found out foreign passport-holders were subject to a different quota than the locals (read: it’s easier to get a spot if you’re a foreigner).

I knew the Beijing International Triathlon (BIT) was exactly six days before the Beijing Marathon even before I applied, and there was no way I could devote as much time to training for the marathon as I’d like, as I was doing a 9-day cycling trip around Taiwan in late August. When I told my triathlete friends about this, they warned me about potentially getting injured doing two races almost back-to-back. So I wasn’t even sure if I was pleased about winning the lottery, let alone excited to be running my first full marathon.

Post-tri, pre-marathon

Completing BIT marked the last tri race of 2016 for me. I had so much fun racing with old and new friends, and was very happy to see many of them placed in their age groups. I came in 8th for my age group, having shaved 10 minutes off my run and 8 minutes off my total time, and was pleased with this little improvement I made from the last Olympic distance tri.

I only realised the next day when my inner left thigh felt stiff that I’d forgotten to stretch straight after the race. For the next six days, I foam-rolled, stretched and went on easy runs, testing out day by day if I was up to running 42 km. I’d swing from elation after completing a 14-km run to anxiety when my colleagues and friends noticed I walked with a slight limp. I still wasn’t sure if I was running even after I picked up my race pack.

402307699080578474
Pre-marathon gear check (promptly discovered I was missing sports bra and heart rate monitor)

Marathon day

I woke up bright and early on 17 September, having decided the night before I’d run the marathon for as long as my left leg allowed me to.

The good thing about doing a local race is that I could take the metro and be at the starting point in 20 minutes. There was an air of anticipation as I moved with the throng of other bib-wearing runners towards Tiananmen Square. This is the first time I was taking part in such a huge event, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Even though I knew people who were also doing the marathon, it was impossible to find them in a sea of 30,000.

747063632571940544
At the starting point

In the general chaos, I managed to find my starting zone, heard the gun go off and began shuffling my feet with the moving crowd. As I’ve already decided  I’d start at a conservative pace, I was happy to follow the 4:30 pace, and speed up later if I felt up to it.

Unfortunately for me, the race didn’t go as I planned, nor did I enjoy it. Even though there were rubbish bins, the locals threw paper cups, sponges and plastic bottles everywhere, so I could only walk when I got to the aid stations, fearing I’d trip and fall.  At the 7-km mark, I saw a middle-aged man shout and throw a 1-litre water bottle at a volunteer for running out of paper cups, even while the volunteer was telling him there were more cups 200 m ahead. That incident left a bad taste in my mouth, and it was at that point I put in my headphones and began listening to podcasts in a vain attempt to alleviate my mood.

At the 27-km, I did trip and fall, scraping my right knee and hands. Some runners kindly helped me up and directed me to the medical aid station to get my wounds cleaned up. My left leg was beginning to feel weak at that point, and now my right knee and left hand were bleeding. Most importantly, I wasn’t having fun. I had every reason to quit and go home. The medical volunteer told me I could continue running but if I didn’t feel like continuing, there was a shuttle just around the corner. It felt like everything was conspiring to make me quit and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel tempted to do so. But before I realised, I said to the medical volunteer as I pushed myself up that I’d like to continue for a little while longer. With that, I hobbled/walked/jogged to join the throng of remaining runners.

As I put one foot in front of the other, I kept asking myself why I was doing this, especially when my legs got heavier and heavier. I reminded myself:

  • I’m no quitter, and I always finished what I set out to do, regardless of the end result.
  • If I didn’t finish this race, I’d be put off doing full marathons in the future.
  • I definitely didn’t want to run the Beijing Marathon again after such an unpleasant experience, so why not get it done and over with?

When I finally caught up with the 5:30 pacer, a surge of confidence welled up within me as I realised I could very well finish this race before closing time. I jogged/walked as fast as my legs could take me and crossed the finish line with a time of 5:28.

For days after the race, I nursed conflicting emotions about this whole experience. I was relieved to have completed my first full marathon, but not happy with my time and how things worked out. After talking to several of my friends who’d done marathons and triathlons, it became apparent I’d underestimated the difficulty of running a full marathon, especially so soon after completing the BIT.  I prayed for another chance to redeem myself and God has kindly blessed me with a spot to run next year’s Nagoya Women’s Marathon. Winter marathon training, here I come!

 

My first Olympic distance tri – Beijing Sanfo International Triathlon

 

IMG_4708
All lined up, waiting for the race to start. The guys got white caps, gals pink and relays orange.

A week after my first Sprint distance tri, I did my first Olympic distance tri race at the very scenic Jinhai lake in the outskirts of Bejing. With lessons freshly learnt from doing the Wuxi tri, I threw myself into the preparations for the Sanfo tri, which I perceived to be harder not just from the perspective of distance, but also elevation of the ride and run courses.

302285084897857695
Unlike P, I wasn’t looking forward to this much elevation straight after swimming 1.5k.

On Friday evening, my tri girl friends and I drove up to the race venue straight after work to pick up our race bags and check out the race course. My hopes of cutting my swim-bike transition time were dashed when I saw the long transition area and the long flight of steps we had to climb straight after swimming 1500 m.

On Saturday morning, we woke up at 4 am to get ready (while grumbling about why we do this to ourselves) and got to the race venue at 5 am to set up our transition area. I was surprised to see nothing set up around quite a few of the bikes before the transition area closing time of 6 am. I later found out we’d get 5 minutes to go back to the transition area before the start of the race, and that’s when the others will be doing their set-up. I take my hat off to them.

JAY_0347
The organisers required all racers to wear orange buoys for ‘safety’ reasons.

After waiting for what seemed like ages, we were finally sent off in waves for the swim. All the men were sent off in age group waves, then all the women were sent off in one wave (there were only 55 of us in total) and then the relay guys went in. Compared to Wuxi, swimming in Jinhai Lake was a dream. The water was cool and clear, the swim course was a simple out-and-back, and there were practically no waves. I enjoyed the swim so much, I was a little sad when I got to the deck and was pulled out of the water.

I surprised myself by recovering from the swim within 30 seconds of getting out of the water, and jogged at a steady pace up  the steps (past others who could only manage to walk) and along the long transition path to where my bike was parked.

Sanfo tri t1
Helmet – check. Sunnies -check. Shoes – check. Ready to ride.

The cycling route was a 20-km loop that we had to do twice over. It was fun riding up to friends, calling out their names and riding parts of the way with them. I found it even more amusing passing racers with TT bikes on slopes, who obviously thought just riding a fast bike will make up for minimal or no time spent in training. My assumptions were confirmed when I read fellow racers’ WeChat posts about their experience doing this triathlon. More on that later.

After completing my favourite parts of the race, it was time for the run, an activity I neither enjoyed nor looked forward to. For the first 3 km, I ran in the company of a rather loud, talkative American man who kept asking me questions on physics and biochemistry in between huffing and puffing up the slopes. After humouring him with my thoughtless answers, I told him I had to push ahead and did just that, thankful that I could focus all my energy on running.

Sanfo tri finish

The run was the hardest part for me not just because of the elevation but also the relentless heat. Kudos to the organisers who had drinks and cooling stations every 2 km. For such a short distance, I went through my own packet of coconut water, drank water and Pocari at every second station and took a cold sponge at every station I passed. I was thankful for volunteers who sprayed water on us along the way and the organisers who put out an ice bath at the finish line, especially after reading about a 37-year-old female relay runner who collapsed and later died from heatstroke about 50 meters from the finish line. Discussing this incident with my friends who did the race, it made me realise how fortunate I’ve been to have athlete friends who’s generously offered advice on how to prep and survive a triathlon in different weather conditions, and helped me the newbie enjoy the process of racing.

As an added bonus, I came in 8th in my tiny age group, smack bang in the middle of the pack. I’m happy with this result for my first Olympic distance race, but am motivated to work hard on improving my performance for the Beijing International Triathlon in September.

 

My first tri race – Wuxi Tai Lake UltraS

691124000141944248

Over the Dragon Boat public holidays, I travelled to Wuxi in Jiangsu province to take part in my first sprint distance triathlon race.

Pre-race shenanigans

323388837020184964
I felt so blessed to do my first triathlon in these surroundings

The race venue was the scenic Ling Mountain and Tai Lake area in Wuxi. After checking into my hotel room, I had a quick lunch and made my way to the race hotel conference centre to go through registration procedures and pick up my race pack. The race hotel conference centre was a hive of activity when I arrived. As this was my first tri, the organisers required that I showed them my most recent health check-up report and do a test swim in the hotel pool to prove that I can actually swim in open water. Imagine my surprise when I bumped into my triathlon club swim coach at the hotel pool who’s just finished her test swim. She was part of a relay team (who eventually finished second). The volunteers manning the test swim desk told me to swim 400 m in the 25-metre long, 1-metre deep indoor pool which was partially filled with families with small children who were guests at the hotel, to ‘prove’ I can swim in open water. After living in China for a long time, I knew better than to question the organisers’ rationale and just got on with it.

After picking up my race pack, I went to the transition zone to pick up and test my rental road bike and familiarise myself with the whole area. I was very happy with the Argon Krypton road bike I was allocated, apparently one of the best rental bikes available for this race.

458497292753724772
(Clockwise from top left) My lovely rental race bike; the red carpet leading to the start of the swim; the Wuxi Taihu triathlon race banner; laying out everything I need for the race.

By the time my Beijing friends and I finished checking out the transition zone, it was time for dinner. After hungrily gobbling down Taiwanese beef noodles, we all made our respective ways back to our hotels to prep and turn in early for the night so we could get up early next morning and meet at the transition area at 5:30 am. I was so exhausted, I fell fast asleep at a quarter to 10 after putting my bib number on my race gear.

Race Day musings

Here’s the official video of the race which shows the actual race course and how the day unfolded. I make a very brief appearance at the 2:45 mark.

I’ve decided to lay out my reflection and thoughts from the race in this way so I can easily refer to it when I prepare for my first Olympic triathlon this coming Saturday. Even after four months of regular training, I still don’t feel ready. I know I should aim higher, but in all honesty, I’d be happy to finish the race before the closing time of four hours.

race stats musings

In hindsight, I’m very glad and grateful that the Wuxi Taihu triathlon was my first race. I gained some much needed experience, tested out my race strategies, mental and physical strength, and watched and learnt from top triathletes. Most importantly, I had a lot of fun. That’s all that matters for now.

40383415324882763
My idea of striking a pose

 

 

My very first cycling race: Beijing Sportive 200 Liuhong Rd race

163065024882605004
One of the participants racing on his city bike

On Saturday 7 May, I took part in my very first cycling race, the Beijing Sportive 200 – Liuhong Road.  I wanted to do the last Sportive race in Pinggu last year but couldn’t get a spot. It turned out that Beijing Sportive races are super popular here and registration spots are gone within a day or two after registration opens. I only managed to sign up this year because Serk secured 30 spots for its members.

I took part in the short course race, which was 118 km with an elevation of 1000 m, with seven others from Serk. The other 20+ cyclists (including two women) from Serk did the long course, which was 186 km with an elevation of 2000 m, in three teams.

My Saturday started at 4:30 am when my alarm went off. I heated up my breakfast of oats, raisins and cashews, packed my bag, changed into my cycling gear and headed to Serk HQ. Bikes were loaded onto vans and we set off for the starting point of the race. Heeding my coaches’ advice, I ate my breakfast at 6 am in the van, two hours before the start of the race.

We arrived at the starting point at around 6:30 am. We then took turns pumping up our tyres, put on sunscreen, loaded our jerseys with energy bars, gels and other essentials, picked up our race numbers and chips and took pictures. We couldn’t have asked for a more glorious day for the race — sunny, blue, cloudless skies with a mild breeze.

851638702669752343
Serk teams getting ready for battle

The long route racers took off right on 7:15 am. S and I thought we had another hour before our race started so we went for a toilet break. On our way back, we saw a queue had formed behind the starting line. By the time we got to the queue, the race had already started. There was no gunshot, no announcement. All we saw was the dust left behind by the other cyclists who had gone before us. I helped S fix her phone to her handlebar so she could follow the course and fired up my Garmin Edge 510 before I started riding. This was to be the first of a number of annoyances I’d experience over the course of the race.

As my sinuses were still clogged up due to my allergy to willow catkins, I rode at a comfortable pace in the beginning, and didn’t stress about keeping up with S and the other riders. I kept my eye on my watch and made sure I ate at least half a muesli bar every 45 minutes or so, regardless if I was hungry. The uphill climb I dreaded turned out to be almost flat. Before I knew it, I’d reached the halfway mark. I was surprised at how quickly and easily I’d completed half the race. The organisers took a reading of my chip and handed me a banana, a bottle of water and three energy bars. I took the banana and the water but turned down the energy bars, as I didn’t recognise the brand and still had my own bars. After a quick chat with one of the Serk riders doing the short route, I went for a quick toilet break and got back on my bike to finish the race.

553731675453338857
Just one of many scenic spots I rode past on Saturday

Over the course of the race, I’d encountered fellow participants on MTBs and hybrids with baskets in the front or back of their bikes. I only worked out they were doing the Sportive when I saw their participant number stickers on their helmets. While I admired their spirits, I also found them a curious sight, especially as the racers on their super fancy roadbikes whizzed past them at double or triple their speed.

At about the 90-km mark, I witnessed the second thing that annoyed me at this race. A heavy-set cyclist, obviously unable to carry on, hired a local villager who took him and his bike on his motorised cart up the hill. As I rode past the tractor, I felt some sympathy for the cyclist, having had to get on a support van or some other vehicle in the past because I couldn’t carry on. I’d initially thought this guy had given up on finishing the race and was sitting in the tractor all the way to the end. Instead, to my horror and disgust, as I was huffing and puffing up the hill at around the 110-km mark, this guy got off the tractor and continued riding! I was so pissed, I was going to stop and take a picture of the guy just so I could show it to the organisers. That’s when I noticed none of the other cyclists seemed to care and I decided it was more important I finish my own race than to do the organisers’ job for them. Others who’s done the Sportive races in the past had told me stories of similar incidents, but it was quite another thing to actually see it with my own eyes.

613540789420400198.jpg
My first cycling race finisher medal

Before I knew it, I rode past the finish line. When I went to hand in my chip and get my time, I was handed a slip of paper with the name ‘Fred’ printed on it and told my time was 4:40. Thankfully, before I pointed out my name wasn’t Fred, the kid told me to write my actual name on the slip of paper and typed it into the computer. By this time, I’d seen enough and was pretty certain whatever time the organisers had me down as finishing the race was probably going to be wrong. When the official times came out on Monday, I was ‘allocated’ another participant number and my official time was 4:57. A few of the other cyclists had the same issues, and some didn’t even have an official record of their time. It’s a good thing almost all of us used either Strava or Garmin to record our rides.

Despite all my misgivings about the race, I’m still super pleased I did it and finished the race half an hour faster than I’d originally anticipated. At the end of the day, it’s about achieving my personal best and experiencing and learning new things in the process. I’d experienced the difference proper fueling at regular intervals made to my riding performance and learnt what my body was capable of even when I’m suffering from allergies and other minor ailments. S finished 50 minutes before me, proof that the extra two to three early-morning weekday 40-km rides with faster cyclists could really do wonders to improve one’s cycling performance. I can see myself sacrificing sleep in the coming weeks to join S on these rides, while training for my next race on 22 May — a half-marathon in the outskirts of Beijing.

prepping for my first Sportive

313154380612081569
The things we do to cope with Beijing’s crazy pollution and blanket of willow catkins

My German cycling buddy, S, and I still don’t quite agree on who initiated the idea of signing up to the second Beijing Sportive race on 7 May. I’m standing by my version of events — she asked me first.

Admittedly, I was already examining closely the long (186 km) and short (116 km) courses, and asking friends who’s done the previous Sportive race about their experience when S’s WeChat message popped up. S and I didn’t take long to convince each other to register for the short course. Before I could change my mind, I’ve filled in and submitted the online registration form and paid the fee.

That was when I realised I’d given myself less than two weeks to prepare and train for the race.  A particularly painful realisation especially when I hadn’t put in many cycling miles due to my overseas trips.

Cue *hair-pulling, nail-biting* anxiety.

Training

I took an extra day off, so I could get four consecutive days off for Labour Day public holidays and rack up some miles on my bike. My original training plan had looked like this:

Friday – Ride 40 km in the city and run 10 km in Chaoyang Park.

Saturday – Ride 130 km to the top of Miaofeng Mountain and back with S and a few others.

Sunday – Rest day (because I had to see The Prodigy at Strawberry Music Festival).

Monday – Join Serk‘s 70 km social ride.

As with all best laid plans, the execution is seldom perfect. I woke up Friday morning determined to ride, even after seeing the AQI was hovering closer to 200 than 150 (which is already three times higher than what’s considered healthy). I rode the short route from my home to Wenyu River and back, and forewent the run in the park after seeing that the AQI remained high. I comforted myself by saying at least I did my ride.

On Friday evening, we were exchanging screenshots of AQI, weather and wind forecasts, discussing if we should still proceed with the 130k-ride. The general consensus was if the AQI was uncomfortably close to 200, then some were definitely not doing the ride.

30aprrideSaturday morning arrived, but the projected wind and rain didn’t come the night before and AQI had shot past 200. Around 10 am, the diehards among us donned our anti-pollution masks and rode the long Wenyu River loop (68 km), determined to get some mileage under our belt. The AQI had dropped to below 200 by then but there was an obnoxious amount of willow catkins the closer we got to the river, and they got into our noses and mouths. We didn’t do any climbing, and this was our last opportunity to train our climbing stamina before the race. Sigh.

I woke up on Monday, looking forward to the Serk ride but was greeted with rain and strong winds instead. I sat on the fence about doing the ride all the way until 15 minutes before the ride started and decided not to do the ride, when it was clear the wind and rain was not stopping any time soon. I had no intention of catching a cold again after just recovering from one.

Nutrition

 

Immediately after the long weekend, I met up with my endocrinologist (for my hyperthyroid) and triathlon coaches. I found out I lost another 3 kg in the last month even after my condition had stabilised. The endocrinologist cautioned me against exercising too much, which left me in a funk for the rest of the day.

Then I met up with my coaches for triathlon prep training and found out I haven’t been eating enough or the right food when I’m cycling. In the past, I’d have a breakfast of a fruit smoothie and a peanut butter jelly sandwich or oats, then take a muesli bar or energy gel halfway through a three- or four-hour ride in the mountains. I told my coaches I’d often push myself to the limit riding uphill, only stopping when I’m out of breath or feel like I’m about to pass out. My coaches, with a look of mild horror, told me I haven’t been eating enough during my rides, that was why I had no energy on my climbs and that I needed to eat at least one energy bar after every hour, or two energy gels after every 30 minutes of exercise. They also advised me to load up on carbs in preparation for the Beijing Sportive this Saturday.

So for this week, I’ve gone against my inclination and eaten more carbs and meat than I normally would, hoping to build up reserves of fuel to burn on Saturday. I’ll know very soon if my last-minute carb loading strategy works.  Watch this space for a write-up of my first cycling race.