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.

 

My first tri race – Wuxi Tai Lake UltraS

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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

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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.

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(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.

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My idea of striking a pose

 

 

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

How cycling changed my life

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Left picture taken in April 2015. Right picture taken last week in Yangshuo (阳朔) in Guangxi province.

While on a cycling holiday in Yangshuo over Chinese New Year, my German cycling buddy, S, told me how her life had changed dramatically after she bought a road bike and took on cycling as a serious hobby. Incidentally I met S on a summer bike ride in the outskirts of Beijing organised by Serk.

Her comment got me thinking about how my life has changed since I took on cycling as a serious hobby about two years ago, riding in the outskirts of Beijing almost every weekend initially on my Merida mountain bike, and later on my Giant road bike.  I’d weighed myself at the hotel a couple of days before and was surprised to discover I lost another 4 kg since last September (i.e. throughout winter when I’d typically pile on the kilos). In total, I’d lost 7 kg over the last 12 months. This explains why my winter pants have all been slipping off my hips.

Being an avid reader of health and fitness blogs, I’m fully aware that sustained weight loss can’t just be attributed to doing one form of exercise. Here’s a list of changes I made to my lifestyle over the last 12 months that, I believe, contributed to me achieving and maintaining my target weight:

Getting a Garmin vivofit

I began wearing a Garmin vivofit activity tracker since last January after hearing several of my friends sing the praises of wearing activity trackers. I was on medication to get my hyperthyroidism under control, and one of its side effects was weight gain. Despite exercising regularly and eating sensibly (or so I thought), I was piling on the kilos.

After the first sync with Garmin Connect, the app suggested I record my food intake on MyFitnessPal (MFP). I was initially resistant to the idea of using MFP, thinking there’s no way an app could accurately calculate my calories intake, especially since I live in Beijing and eat out quite often. How can MFP possibly know the number of calories contained in a a bowl of Malatang (麻辣烫)?

After using the app for a year, I’m still not convinced the calorie count for most foods (especially exotic Chinese dishes) are even vaguely accurate in MFP, but I also learnt that’s not the point of using the app. The point of using MFP is about recording and tracking rather than counting. Before using MFP, I’d never paid much attention to the calories in my daily Starbucks coffee habit, a slice of marble cake, my favourite Kettle chips, an 11-inch Hawaiian pizza or a fruit smoothie. I remember my mind being blown when I saw that my tall soy hazelnut latte contained a whopping 190 calories! I immediately changed my regular order at Starbucks to plain soy latte, and eventually reduced my visits so I’m not tempted to order the sweets as well.

Recording my food intake has kept me mindful of not only how much I was eating but also what I was eating everyday. Over the course of 2015, I’ve cut down on my intake of carbs (especially after 7 pm), alcohol, coffee, junk food, sugary drinks and desserts without specifically setting out to do so and my body has responded well to these innocuous adjustments in my diet.

Exercising with others

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All smiles after a 57-km ride in Changping

Since my university days, I’ve always been quite disciplined when it comes to exercise, making sure I either hit the gym, attend an aerobics or yoga class, swim, cycle or jog. The primary difference between my exercise regime in 2015 and that of previous decades was company. For almost every weekend last year, I rode with other cyclists in the mountains surrounding Beijing, who cheered me on when I was out of breath and contemplating if I should do the next climb. Riding with stronger, seasoned cyclists also motivated me to improve my technique and increase training so I could ride faster and longer. But most importantly, I’d gotten out of bed at ungodly hours on the weekends when I knew my cycling buddies were counting on me to show up for rides.

For someone who enjoys solitude as much as I do, I grudgingly admit that exercising with a community has made a huge difference to my exercise regime. And to make sure I keep at this habit as well as train for the Beijing International Triathlon (BIT), I’ve invested in a Serk ride pass.

Training for a race

Having always been quite average at every sport attempted, I’d never dreamed of signing up to do anything more difficult than a 5k fun run. The idea to do a triathlon was put into my head by a cycling buddy who wanted to try it last year. The Sprint race was already full by the time I checked the BIT website, and there were only spaces left  for the Olympic race, which looked daunting for us novices. I began training, ran the Genghis Khan Grassland half-marathon to get a taste for racing and talked to others who’s done triathlons before. In the end, my buddy and I both chickened out of doing the triathlon last year.

Breaking my arm made me realise life is short and I should fulfil my dreams when I’m still able to do so.

This year, I signed up for the BIT Olympic race once registration commenced and persuaded the guys in a local cycling club to register as well, so I wouldn’t have an excuse to back out. I’d originally planned to sign up for the Sprint which would be well within my comfort zone, but since all my cycling buddies signed up for the Olympic, I followed suit with an awkward mixture of excitement and trepidation. I’m excited by the prospect of going way out of my comfort zone while fearful that I might not have enough time to train and prepare well for the race. Most of all, I’m grateful for the looming deadline, because I no longer have an excuse not to exercise.

Dear readers, did you hit a fitness or life goal you set for yourself in 2015? If you did, I’d love to hear how you did it and be inspired.

 

 

 

 

 

 

my forearm fracture adventure in Beijing – Day 1

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First X-ray taken of my left forearm fracture – Courtesy of International SOS Clinic

Two Sundays back, while trying on my brand new clip shoes on my road bike in an alley near my apartment, I managed to fall off my bike in such a way that my left forearm hit the edge of a curb. I remember hearing a crack as I went down and screaming in pain afterwards. I’m still not sure how I got up on my own, pushed my bike home with my right hand, found my mobile and called N to come help me get to a clinic. It’s incredible the lengths desperation and adrenaline can drive someone to.

First port of call

While N and I were trying to hail down a cab, N asked me which hospital/clinic I’d like to go to. N and I rattled off the names of a number of nearby major local hospitals, before N convinced me to go to International SOS Clinic. She used to work there and had a high opinion of the foreign doctors who worked there. I decided to go along with her suggestion. In hindsight, it turned out to be a very good decision.

I was allocated to Dr Sonia, a Taihitian who spoke English with a strong French accent and wore the funkiest Desigual dress I’ve ever seen on a medical doctor. I immediately took to her no-nonsense, straightforward, firm yet gentle approach. Before taking an X-ray, she told me there were two possibilities: I either sustained a hairline fracture, which meant I’ll have to wear a cast for three months, or a displaced fracture, which meant I required surgery so plates and screws can be inserted to set my bone/s.

After looking at my X-ray, she informed me that unfortunately I’d sustained the latter fracture and that meant I needed surgery. With the help of a nurse, she put a partial cast on my left forearm and elevated it in an ottobock sling. The nurse then dissolved a sachet of Ibuprofen painkiller in warm water and gave it to me to sip.

Next steps

Since SOS didn’t have inpatient facilities, Dr Sonia offered to refer me to orthopaedic surgeons at either Beijing United Hospital or Oasis International Hospital. Having been to Oasis to visit a friend who delivered her baby there, I had a good impression of the facilities (clean, bright and airy) and the attitudes of nurses (kind and patient), so I asked to for her recommendation at Oasis.  Dr Sonia was obviously pleased with my decision since she used to work at Oasis and personally knew the orthopaedic surgeon there. She went on to list the things I needed to attend to before admitting myself to the hospital the next morning (thank God for N who wrote everything down for me):

  • Send an email to the hospital with a copy of my passport information page and my medical insurance card so they can prepare for my admission the next day.
  • Have a good dinner and take a painkiller before I go to bed. Make sure my left remained in a sling and elevated across my chest while I slept.
  • I was not to eat or drink anything from midnight onwards until I’ve had surgery.

While in the cab back to my place, N said I’d been very brave considering what I was going through. Initially I thought it was shock and adrenaline that blocked my tears from flowing, but they didn’t come even when I was alone at home, packing my bag for hospital, talking to the staff at Oasis on the phone and drifting in and out of sleep as the pain came and went.  Whenever I had difficulty falling asleep, I just prayed and asked God to heal my arm and for help getting back to sleep. I didn’t wake up with an intact left forearm in the morning, but I felt rested and sufficiently energised for the day ahead.

To be continued….

to gym or not to gym

Autumn is here and winter is coming. This reality literally hit me in the face when I was cycling in the mountains of Pinggu last Saturday, where the temperature fluctuated between 10 and 18 degrees Celsius. Even wearing a long-sleeve cycling jersey, a yoga jacket and autumn cycling pants did little to protect me from the cold. The only time I didn’t feel the chill was when I was climbing  (read: huffing and puffing) and when I rode where the sun rays shone.

After enjoying months of cycling and jogging in the great Beijing outdoors, I’m now forced  to consider alternative arrangements for the freezing winter months ahead. It doesn’t help that the cost difference of the two options I’m contemplating is minimal: gym membership and bike trainer. So here’s my reasoning and analysis about the pros and cons of each option.

gym pros cons

Trainer pros & cons

Here’s a video that explains what a bicycle trainer is for the non-cycling enthusiast:

Why do I have this sneaky feeling that I’ve always known all along which option I was going to pick?