When I signed up for my first triathlon in Feb 2016, I set myself two goals:
#1 – Learn how to run properly, for long distances and injury-free.
#2 – Swim free style 1500m in 30 minutes.
A year and a half later, I can safely say I’ve (mostly achieved) the first goal, but I’m still nowhere near achieving my second goal. My monthly Strava reports provide the reason for this: I spent way too little time working on my swimming compared to cycling and running. Stats don’t lie.
During my physio-imposed days of normality, I had ample time to consider why I’d invested so little into my swimming. From a racing viewpoint, swimming is the shortest leg in a tri. I’ve seen the least improvement in my swimming even though I’ve swam almost all my life. Besides, none of the cycling or running training vaguely simulates or transfers to swimming, so the only way to train is to physically get to a pool which takes time and requires forward planning. Sigh…
I don’t hate swimming but I do hate training in the pool, especially when it’s super crowded which is often the case in Beijing. Having done a few sessions with a swim coach, I realised I hadn’t the faintest clue about free style. I’ve had to learn everything from scratch from breathing, kicking to strokes. Then there’s the anti-social aspect of swimming. Even when I used to do swim training with my old triathlon club, it was pretty difficult getting to know the other swimmers when we all had our heads underwater most of the time.
I realised that if I was serious about improving my swimming time, I had to rely on pure self-discipline to get myself to the pool two to three times a week just to do drills and swim laps. The other thing is finding a new swim coach as my previous coach has left Beijing, which is turning out to be much tougher than I originally anticipated.
As an answer to my prayers, Specialized has started providing triathlon training, including swimming. I’ve signed up for a session on Sunday. I’m looking forward to the training but am not keen to watch a video of myself swimming. It’s one thing to know that I have poor technique, quite another to be confronted with visual proof of it. But if I don’t do all I can to achieve my swimming goal, I’ll be plagued by the belief that I’m not cut out for swimming and never bother to improve. And that can’t be good for my long-term psyche.
I read a saying somewhere that goes something like this, it’s always easy to do a lot of the things we’re naturally good at, but it’s how we approach those things we find difficult that will build our character. How do you deal with something you’re not naturally good at?
A couple of Sundays back, I did the Sanfo Jinhai Lake triathlon for the second time. Having done a sprint and two Olympic distance races last year, I was feeling good about this year’s race. I’d trained with a swim coach for a few months, and I was going to do the race in my brand new dhb one-piece tri suit and my new Shimano cleat shoes, hoping all these would help with improving my race time.
As you can see from the title of this post, things didn’t go as planned on race day, despite my familiarity with the race course, prior experience and advanced prepping (training, nutrition, sleep, tapering). Bear with me as I reflect on what and how things didn’t quite go as planned on race day.
A bad night’ssleep
After sleeping like a champ for months, I took for granted that Saturday night would be no different, apart from sleeping in a hotel bed and having to wake up at 4 am on Sunday morning. I got into bed a little after 10 pm and pretty much tossed and turned until the alarm went off at 4 am. As I laid awake struggling to fall asleep, I regretted the late afternoon coffee and the beer I had at dinner, realising these were probably the reasons why I was having trouble falling into deep sleep.
Bad swim strategy
Swimming has never been my strong suit in a tri, and I haven’t trained swimming freestyle as much as I’d like to, so my freestyle swimming speed is often slower than my breaststroke. I was determined to swim freestyle as much as possible for this tri, and I did end up doing so. But for one reason or another, I ended swimming too close to the buoys and was often squashed between two or more other swimmers. This year’s swim took me two minutes longer than last year, which I wasn’t too happy about. I took comfort in the fact that my friends who did the race also found the swim tough going, though they’re all faster in the water than me.
I’d originally planned to wear my Nikes to run, as I’ve already put elastic lock laces on them. I decided on Friday night to wear my Mizunos instead, as they matched my new tri suit (oh vanity). I went out, bought a new pair of laces and put them on my Mizunos. They worked fine all of Saturday and looked ok on Sunday morning when I was setting up my transition area.
So imagine my horror when I found out during T2 that the ‘lock laces’ on my left shoe had come undone. The only option left for me was to tie it up the best I could and pray they don’t come off. The point of lock laces is that they don’t need to be tied up, which meant they didn’t remain tied for too long. I stopped four times just to tie my laces over the course of the 10k run, which was super frustrating.
Despite this, I still finished the run 13 mins faster than last year. I’d been most worried about running when I first started doing triathlons a year ago and have invested considerable time and effort getting coaching, training and doing marathons and trail runs. To see that my hard work paid off gives me great joy and satisfaction.
With that, I hope that my swimming speed will eventually improve. I’ve been taking swimming lessons to correct and improve my technique for a few months. Progress is slower than I like as the pool I train at has been getting more crowded and I’ve been cutting down my swimming volume.
What is your most memorable race day mishap? How did you deal with it?
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Over the Dragon Boat public holidays, I travelled to Wuxi in Jiangsu province to take part in my first sprint distance triathlon race.
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.
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.
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.
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