looking back & ahead

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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!

 

Race vacation weekend – Qingdao Huangdao Marathon

 

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My first sighting of the sea during the first half of the marathon

I’m still counting my blessings for choosing last weekend to run a marathon in Qingdao when Beijing’s AQI levels went way over 500 (read: crazy bad).

 

I registered to do this little race when I found out the Beijing trail run I signed up for was postponed to an unknown date in the future. I was enticed by the idea of running 42 km along the shoreline of Huangdao, an island about half an hour’s drive south from Qingdao city centre in a slightly warmer climate. Having talked two of my buddies into doing the race with me, we made a weekend out of it, since it’d be their first visit to Qingdao and I haven’t been back since my last visit 8 years ago.

Saturday shenanigans

After taking the overnight train, we arrived in Qingdao’s north station on Saturday morning and was whisked to the Crown Plaza . Reception kindly let us check into our rooms way earlier than the designated check-in time so those of us who didn’t sleep well on the train could catch up on some shut-eye.

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Laoshan

 

At my behest, we spent the first part of Saturday morning exploring Laoshan, a mountain range I didn’t get to see when I first visited Qingdao. Since we’re saving our legs for the marathon, we hiked the easiest route, the NeiJiuShui loop, which the signs said would take a maximum of 2 hours and 40 minutes to complete.

 

 

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The light fog added to Laoshan’s beauty

The good thing about traveling during off peak season (which in Qingdao starts on 1 November) was the noticeable lack of crowds. My first trip to Qingdao was in summer during the Beer Festival and the beaches and bars were so packed wtih crowds, it was impossible to take any pictures of just the scenery. As you can see from my pictures, we didn’t have this problem last weekend.

After a very pleasant hike and having our fill of mountain air, we made our way to Qingdao Beer Museum to quench our thirst and carb load with beer. I pre-bought admission tickets on Ctrip‘s app which included sausages and all-you-can-drink beer for an hour for the measly price of RMB55 (US$8) per person. After a whirlwind tour of the exhibits (origins, history, old brewing methods and a view of their current beer production facilities), we headed straight to the inhouse bar and proceeded to down 6 pints of beer in quick succession.

 

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Top: Old Chinese ads for Tsingtao Beer; Bottom: Beer brands from all over the world

After filling up on beer, we continued carb loading with seafood, squid dumplings and rice before heading back to the hotel to turn in for the night.

Race day

We woke up bright and early, checked out and took a cab to the starting point of the race which turned out to be the furniture store sponsoring the race. After doing races with thousands of participants in Beijing, this little race with 260 runners was an amusing and heartwarming experience. It took us all of half an hour to pick up and put on our bibs and timing chips. Everyone did their own warm-up exercises then gathered for a big group photo before the organiser shouted for everyone to start running.

 

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Still feeling good at the 14 km mark.

 

About half of the course was on roads lined with factories and ports while the other half ran along the shoreline of Huangdao. Traffic was light as it was Sunday and most drivers kindly let us pass when they saw us approaching. I found running on roads with nothing to see for the first 10 km mentally gruelling but didn’t give in to the temptation to speed up just to get to the shoreline.

When I finally caught sight of the sea, my spirits rose and I stopped a couple of times to take pictures. Listening and watching the waves as I ran was a real treat, and eased the pain of jogging up and down hills. The total elevation gain of the marathon was 299 m, something I only realised after looking at the race stats when I finished.

 

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Local ladies shelling clams at the 28 km mark

After running 25 km, my left leg began to feel the effects of the previous day’s hike. I contemplated DNF’ing countless times for the remainder of the race, especially when the medical aid volunteers drove slowly beside me as I ran to ask if I needed assistance. Each time, I turned down their kind offer, hunkered down and kept running, reminding myself this is my training run for next year’s Nagoya Women’s Marathon. The smell of pine trees and views of the shoreline kept me going. When I was about 2 km from the finish line, the race organiser ran alongside me to cheer me on, which I thought was a sweet gesture.

 

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Still can’t believe I made it to the finish line

Even though I didn’t reach my goal of finishing within 5:00 (I finished in 5:39 according to my Garmin), I enjoyed this race immensely, not just for the views but also for the warmth and kindness of the local runners and volunteers. For a last-minute race (advertised only two weeks before) with the cheapest registration fee I’ve ever paid (RMB31/US$4.50), it was surprisingly well organised and executed. Doing this race also revived in me a desire to revisit cities in China I’ve been to before to see and experience how these cities and their people have changed over the years (hopefully for the better).

 

 

 

 

 

training through winter

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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.

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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.

Post-recovery racing: Sanfo Colourful Beijing International Trail Marathon

I’d almost convinced myself that racing season is over for me after the Beijing International Marathon in September. My left leg gave me so much trouble, I’d limp through my pre-run warm-up. I eventually went to see a sports physio about it and he prescribed me exercises and a limit of only two runs a week. This gave me the perfect excuse not to train when I went back to Brisbane for holidays. For two weeks, I cycled with my aunt, uncle and cousins, went on a couple of slow 5-6 km runs and swam a little in the sea at Noosa Heads.

It was bliss.

After 6 months of training and obsessing about metrics, it was nice to just do sports for fun and with family, without having to worry about air quality and traffic congestion.

Alas, I had to return to Beijing to work in mid October. When I exited from Beijing airport around midnight, I saw the smog and tasted it in my mouth. I wished I was back in Australia right then and there. The smog (which enveloped Beijing for 10 days prior) hung around for the next 7 days, which meant I couldn’t work out outdoors. In a vain attempt to feel better and hopefully alleviate my depression, I set up my trainer and joined a gym so I’d at least be able to do some exercise. With winter coming and more central heating coming on, the forecast is more cold smoggy days in Beijing for the next 3 months. Not a prospect I’m looking forward to.

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All wrapped up while waiting for the race to start

Probably out of desperation to run outdoors and against my better judgement, I decided to do a 21-km trail race in the northeast hills of Beijing with some friends on the last Sunday of October. (There were also 42 km and 10 km options.) It’d be a great way to enjoy the autumn scenery without enduring the crowds at Fragrant Hills. My left leg was feeling stronger after resting for close to two months. I just had to make sure I don’t push myself too hard on the run.

After doing two trail runs making do with a cycling camel backpack, I decided to finally invest in a running hydration pack. To make sure I got one that fit me, I went to a shop to try on several before deciding on the Ultimate Direction Women’s vest. It was so comfortable and worked so well during the race, I wondered how I survived without it in the past.

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glorious autumn colours along the trail made the pain worthwhile

The 21-km and 42-km racers started together at 8:30 am. The first 9 km was along a flat concrete road while the next 12 km comprised of 5 hills with a total elevation of almost 600 m.

I was very careful to maintain my negative split for the first 9 km, conserving energy for the later part of the run. Looking at my metrics from the organiser’s app, I’m pleased to see that I’d executed my plan quite well. The climbing wasn’t necessarily easier but passing people on the uphill climbs was a confidence-boosting and satisfying experience.

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The trail was even more beautiful than what I’d seen in the advertisements, adding to my enjoyment of the race. Scaling an almost vertical part of the hills past CP2 was particularly tough past the 15-km. I had to hug the wall while gingerly inching my way up step by step. That was when I fully appreciated my brand new running hydration vest which sat snugly on my back.

I finished the race in 4:39:45 in 30th place among the women. I could’ve pushed myself and run a little faster, but I decided not to risk it. I still have to train for the Nagoya Women’s Marathon in March, and I’d like to do more and longer trail runs in the future.

My first full marathon – Beijing Marathon 17 September

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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.

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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.

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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 trail race – Beijing Xishan Cross-Country Running

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Our brief encounter with Jeff Galloway during the Beijing Cross-Country Running race in June

As part of my training for the Beijing International Triathlon, I signed up to do my first trail running race held at Beijing Xishan National Forest Park on the last Sunday of June. It was advertised as an introductory 21-km race for trail running virgins and Runners World‘s staff writer, Olympic 10K legend and the inventor of the Run-Walk-Run method, Jeff Galloway, would be there running with us. It sounded like the perfect way for me to get a taste of trail running. The only minus was, it was one week after the Beijing Sanfo Jinhai Lake Triathlon, and my third race in as many weekends in June. I figured I could always pull out if I was still knackered after the triathlon.

Then I made the unintentional mistake of mentioning this race to my friend, WD, who decided to do the trail run too. She wanted to use the race to motivate herself to restart running training after stopping for upwards of six months. I remembered telling her about elevation and the variety of running terrain, which were the reasons for the generous closing time of seven hours. But being a trail running virgin herself, she was confident about finishing the race by the closing time. As a result, I no longer had the option of not doing this trail run.

Race day turned out to be the hottest summer day in Beijing history, with a maximum temperature of 37 degrees Celsius. Still knackered from the tri, I rocked up reluctantly to Beijing Xishan National Forest Park with WD, pretty certain I was going to get my first DNF.

Things got off to a bad start. When we got to the park entrance about an hour before the start time, there was no race packet pick-up table to be seen.  Our race registration fee was meant to include park entry fee so many of us stood resolutely at the entrance waiting for the organisers to get us into the park, while the impatient ones coughed up the fee to get inside. Someone eventually came to get us into the park. Then the organisers couldn’t find WD’s race bib until 5 minutes before the race started. I began worrying how the rest of the day would pan out.

The runners started in two waves. I managed to go in the first and WD went in the second. I kept up with the middle of the pack, which turned out to be both a blessing and a curse. Due to the poorly marked trails, we all got lost 2 to 3 times over the course of the first 10 km, which meant retracing our steps and spending time finding our way. WD and I met up about 3 km into the run, as WD was catching her breath. I stopped to check up on her and she told me to go ahead and not wait for her, as she’ll need more time for the climb.

When I got to the 15-km mark, I received a call from WD saying she had lost her way as she couldn’t seem to find any trail markers and she couldn’t get through to the organiser’s emergency number. From her description, I worked out she was at the 8-9 km mark where multiple Tibetan prayer flags were strewn over almost every tree. I’d gotten lost with a group of runners at the exact same spot until some of them eventually found the well hidden trail marker. Knowing it was impossible for me to give her directions to get out of the area, I told her to stay where she was while I made my way to the next checkpoint or supply station and get help for her. Ten minutes after getting off the phone with WD, I climbed up the rest of the hill and saw the first aid volunteers. I told them about WD’s situation and stayed until they assured me the organiser was sending someone to go get WD.

By this time, I really believed I wasn’t going to finish the run by closing time since I still had 6 km to go and less than 45 minutes until closing time. I decided to finish what I started and do my best to complete the race anyway. It’s the journey that counts at the end of the day.

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Experiencing relief and joy when I crossed the finish line

It was with great relief and surprise when I crossed the finish line and found out I’d actually made it right on closing time (5:00:35 to be exact) and saw WD waiting for me there in one piece. It turned out the sweepers had removed the trail markers half an hour before she got to the spot where she called me. This made me so angry, I wrote a long complaint message on the race webpage, adding to a long string of complaints by other racers who were frustrated and pissed at the poor organisation of the race. To date, I still haven’t received a response from the organisers, who’s probably busy doing a bad job organising the next trail run.

When I downloaded my final result three days later,  I was pleasantly surprised to find out I came in 23rd among the women. This was a small race, with total registrations limited to 400. The exact number of participants and their genders were not published so there’s no way I’d ever know what my ranking actually meant. But this result gave me confidence to register for the next trail run — the Chongli 100 Ultra Sky Trail Challenge 30-km race.

To be continued….

My first Olympic distance tri – Beijing Sanfo International Triathlon

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.