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.
After running my first trail half-marathon in Inner Mongolia last year, I’ve been looking forward to running another race for a while. I signed up for the Guishui River Women Half-Marathon while I was in Washington D.C. for work and feeling very sorry for myself that I’d missed out on the Beijing Run. I also needed motivation to work on my running in preparation for two triathlons (one Sprint and one Olympic distance) in June.
I was really looking forward to this race for a number of reasons. Since March this year, I’ve been training with a triathlon club in Beijing, learning new running techniques, and upping my running mileage, so I was keen to put it all to the test. After cycling in the mountains of Yanqing on many previous occasions, I wanted to experience what it’s like to run in a park situated at the foot of these mountains.
On race day, I woke up a little after 5 am and cycled over to the bus stop to take #919 express to the starting point of the race, Xiadu Park. After an hour and a half, I got off the bus and walked for 20 minutes, following the signs to the starting point. The park was awash in various shades of bright pink and other neon colours and there were queues in front of both the fixed and mobile female toilets. The race organisers had set aside a number of spots for male runners accompanying their partners on the race, and they were kept very busy taking pictures and minding bags before the race.
At 9 am sharp, the gunshot sounded, and we were off! I made a conscious effort to run at a slower pace than usual, heeding the advice of both my running coach and a colleague who’s an avid marathon runner. I had no intention of repeating my mistake last year by running too fast in the beginning and bonking at the 15-km mark, right when I needed to speed up. It took all of my self-control to maintain my pace and let the other participants overtake me. I kept reminding myself to run my own race and trust my training and strategy. I checked my heart rate almost religiously to make sure I wasn’t pushing myself too hard for the first half of the race.
The almost completely flat course turned out to be as pretty and pleasant as I’d expected, with half of it along the river and the other half through the forest. I enjoyed the scenery so much I hardly paid attention to my heart rate or my pace for the first 10 km, as long as I was still breathing comfortably. My plan was to gradually pick up my speed from the 15-km mark and hopefully go as fast as I can for the last 4 km.
Hydration and fueling
As forecast, it was a very warm day with the highest temperature hitting 27 degrees Celsius. Instead of carrying my own water bottle (like I did for my first half marathon), I decided to drink as much water as I could stomach before checking in my water bottle with my bag, and rely on the water stations, the first being at the 5k mark and the latter stations about every 2 km afterwards. The race pamphlet indicated they would provide some beverage in addition to water from 7.5 km onwards, which I’d assumed would be a sports drink. To my dismay, it turned out to be Vitamin Water. I began worrying I might get cramps, and drank at every water station, whether or not I felt thirsty. Fortunately the leg cramps only came after I finished the race. I told myself never again will I run a race without my own bottle and electrolyte powder/tablets.
After seeing Vitamin Water being served, I was relieved I’d made the last-minute decision to bring an energy gel (secured on my race belt) and an Oaty Slice (in the back pocket of my brand new Adidas running shorts) for the race. I’d had my breakfast of a homemade muesli bar and three peanut butter Rice Crispy treats on the bus ride up. Even though I didn’t feel hungry, I decided to heed my coach’s advice and took my energy gel after running for 45 minutes. The first fueling station was at the 10-km mark. The table was laden with trays of cut-up bananas, cucumbers and cherry tomatoes. Not a piece of energy bar or chocolate in sight. *Cue dismay* I took half a banana even though I wasn’t hungry or tired and continued running. As I passed the 15-km mark, I debated briefly whether or not I should take my Oaty Slice. I still felt full from all the liquids I drank but I knew better than to wait til I was hungry to eat something. I took a couple of bites of the Oaty Slice, shoved it into my back pocket and upped my pace, determined to hit my goal of finishing within 2:30.
Despite my best intentions, my legs seemed to have a mind of their own after running 15 km. I hunkered down, increased my speed gradually, and ran as fast as my legs would take me for the last 4 km.
After crossing the finish line and picking up my finisher medal, I checked my mobile phone. As I was checking my time on Strava, I received an sms from the race organisers, informing me my chip time was 2:26:38. I finished my second half-marathon 4 minutes within my goal! Yay! I also achieved a 10k PR of 1:06:06. Later, I was pleasantly surprised when I saw on my certificate I was ranked #560 out of 2019 participants. Not bad for a newbie runner.
It felt good to see that my hard work and prep over the last 4 months had paid off. I felt especially grateful for my running coach’s training and advice on race strategy and fuelling.
Armed with this very positive experience, I feel ready for the next challenge — my first Sprint distance triathlon on 10 June.
I’ve always been a bit of a daredevil (at least in my family) when it comes to adventure and sports. I’ve never done a bungee-jump or sky-dive before but I’ve paraglided a couple of times, wakeboarded once, rock-climbed once, done over 30 scuba-dives, and snowboarded (badly) for about five winters. And of course I’ve hiked and cycled my fair share of mud trails.
With doing any sports (adventure or otherwise), it’s inevitable that one will get injured at some point in time. I’ve had my share of major and minor injuries in my lifetime, and I’m thankful none of them have stopped me from pursuing or put me off the sports I love.
To exercise or not to exercise post injury?
I’ve heard as many theories as the people I’ve spoken to about exercising through injury/illness. Of course, it’s all a matter of degree, circumstances, pain tolerance, knowledge of what your body can take and wisdom.
A couple of years back, I fell facedown when I skidded on icy snow while snowboarding and bruised my ribs. It hurt when I fell but I managed to snowboard the rest of the way down, albeit slowly and in some pain. I was motivated to continue snowboarding through my injury because the other option was to wait in the freezing cold for the emergency snowmobile to come pick me up and risk catching a nasty cold. That was definitely the last run of the day, because I could barely bend over to take off my snowboard afterwards. My ribs hurt every time I got into and out of bed for the next four weeks. That was the first time in my life I hated the saying, ‘Time heals everything.’
In early February, I fell off my MTB when riding on bumpy mud trails to the pier in Xingping. Before the fall, we’d cycled up and down the hills north of Yangshuo, and hiked up and down a hill pushing our MTBs, so I was most definitely knackered. I tore my brand new Castelli winter cycling pants and my windbreaker, bruised my left knee, shoulder and arm badly and scraped both kneecaps. My left forearm was thankfully fortified by titanium plates. Even though I wore a helmet, I was momentarily dazed when my head hit the ground. My riding buddy, S, told me afterwards I looked like I’d rolled around on the dust road after I fell. When I finally got up, I felt so shaken that I had to push my bike for the next 1-2 km, only riding when the road was smooth and flattish. Instead of riding a bamboo raft across to the other side and cycling 30 km back to Yangshuo, we ended up taking the raft all the way back as I wasn’t sure if my left knee could cope.
It’s been over six weeks since I bruised my left knee. I’ve been commuting by bike almost everyday since I’ve been back in Beijing, and my left knee gives me no trouble most of the time. But it gets quite sore after 50-70 km rides with climbs in the hills. Thankfully the soreness recedes after stretching, going for a massage and resting for a day or two (read: no cycling).
The hardest thing for me after I get injured is not so much dealing with the pain, discomfort and inconvenience, but the frustration of being forced to rest, not exercise and/or miss out on days of training. When I fell off the MTB in February, I was already a third of the way to achieving Serk’s Firecracker 400 Challenge. The pain in my left knee and bad weather in Beijing hindered me from actually riding the remaining 200+ km. I was more upset about this than the fact that I was hobbling around in pain.
After breaking my arm trying on cleat shoes in October and the fall in February, I noticed I haven’t been as gung ho as I used to be when I’m cycling. In the city, I stay as far away from curbs as I possibly can, and I stop and slow down more often than I used to. When riding in the hills, I go downhill as slow as I possibly can. Once I even walked and pushed my bike downhill when I was too scared to ride my road bike down a gravelly downhill concrete road, as it brought back memories of my recent fall. Other cyclists chided me as they flew down the hill at over 50 km/h, but I cared more for my own safety and peace of mind than what they thought. It helped that there were other experienced cyclists who were similarly daunted by the descent and did the same thing as me.
Then there’s the issue of cleats. Will I ever overcome my phobia and cycle with cleats? Right now, my answer to this question is still a firm ‘no’. As I’m training to do my first triathlon in June, I naturally want to increase my cycling speed, and I’m well aware cycling with cleats will increase my speed by at least 10%. My cycling buddies have been offering all kinds of advice on how I can overcome my phobia of cleats, like getting MTB cleat shoes and using cleats on a trainer. But whenever I exert force on my left forearm and feel strain or stiffness, memories of my accident, operation and recuperation flood back and I park the urge to try on cleats again.
I’m seriously envious of my athletic friends who can ride 70-80 km in the mountains in the morning and go for a 10+ km run or swim training in the afternoon. My legs are normally so sore after a bike ride in the mountains, I have to stretch and rest for the remainder of the day, maybe get a massage if my finances allow, so I can ride 10 km on my city bike to church the next day. I rode 76 km last Saturday, then went for a 7-km jog in Chaoyang Park yesterday and my legs cramped in the evening. The cramps went away before bedtime after I drank lots of coconut water and took a magnesium supplement. Reminder to self: must get used to taking energy gels/salts/electrolyte supplements when running the Amway Nutrilite Beijing half-marathon on 17 April.
Dear readers, how have you dealt with your sports injuries in the past?
Ever since the birth of my eldest nephew over six years ago, I’ve been visiting my brother’s family in Sydney every year. Typically I’d spend my entire holiday babysitting my nephews (there’s two of them now), and taking occasional breaks to catch up with friends and uni mates who have moved to Sydney over the years. As an ex-gym bunny, a trip to Sydney also meant a break from exercise. What’s the point when I seemed to (still) be the slimmest adult in my family and my parents keep insisting I shouldn’t lose more weight? It’s hardly surprising that boredom typically sets in three days into my previous holidays in Sydney, since all I do is stuff my face with good food, watch (mostly the same) cartoons with my nephews and doing little else besides.
This year’s trip home was quite different from my previous trips in quite a few aspects. For one, I flew up to Brisbane with the specific purpose to renew my driver’s licence and visited my mother, relatives and friends while I was there. Having known for quite some time my aunt, uncle and cousins in Brisbane were keen cyclists, I decided to bring back my cycling jersey and pants, hoping to borrow one of their bikes and go for a ride while I’m there. While packing my cycling clothes, I decided to throw in my running gear so I’d be motivated to go jogging and put my brand new Nike LunarGlide 7 to the test.
Little did I know that this spur-of-the-moment decision would end up drastically improving the quality of my holiday. Even though I only managed to go jogging once in Brisbane and twice in Sydney, each time for no more than 45 minutes, they made a positive difference not just to my physical body but also my mental and emotional health. I felt energised, slept much better at night, got some ‘me’ time, and discovered different sides to the suburbs where my family live. It made me wonder why I hadn’t thought of doing this on my previous trips home.
First up, since April this year, I’ve been training towards a definite goal, namely, to do the Beijing triathlon sprint or Olympic race in 2016. In the past, I used to exercise to maintain general health and fitness without working towards any specific goals. Since I decided to train for the triathlon, I’ve become more purposeful about working out and mindful of how I exercise. I signed up and ran my first half-marathon in July to motivate myself to start running again. With a hard deadline in mind, I stopped making excuses and began making time to go jogging at least once a week to prepare for the race. After completing the half-marathon, I continued jogging regularly, and saw my holiday Down Under as an opportunity to run on different terrains.
Secondly, I had to take a break from cycling after suffering a tendinopathy relapse in my left hamstring during a tough ride in the mountains in mid September. A two-week holiday in Australia away from my road bike was perfect for this purpose and doing other exercises that put less pressure on my hamstring, like swimming and jogging, became a sensible way to maintain my general fitness.
Last but not least, I admit I used to be a scenic route snob. I was spoilt after jogging along the Vltava River and up to Vysehrad when I lived in Prague six years ago, and subconsciously decided it was only worth my while jogging along scenic routes next to stretches of water, such as the Bondi to Coogee walk and the Brisbane Riverwalk. After making do with jogging along the running track at Beijing’s Workers’ Gymnasium for the past few months, my focus has shifted from the aesthetics of my jogging trail to to the health and fitness aspects of the exercise. The funny thing was, as I jogged along roads I’d previously only driven past, I saw things in the burbs I’d never noticed before, like the swarm of cockatoos, pigeons and other birds who visit the park everyday, the palm trees in a neighbour’s yard and the views of the city when I get to the top of a hill. But the best thing about a good hard jog up and down hills is the rush of endorphins and the great feeling of having done something good for myself.
It made me wonder: why aren’t there more locals exercising in the burbs and enjoying the blue skies and clean air in Australian cities….?
After years of being a coffee addict, I made a decision to quit drinking coffee.
The decision process started in late winter when I began getting excruciating cramps in my legs and hips every time I was working out. The pain from the cramps were so severe, I would writhe in pain on the sofa with tears in my eyes for a good five minutes. I’d never experienced anything like it all my life, so I was genuinely freaked out when these episodes repeated themselves for weeks afterwards. Apart from cycling to and from work and light workouts, I didn’t do any other forms of exercise, haunted by memories of the cramps.
As the weather warmed up and the possibility of going on long-distance cycling trips became more apparent, I fell into depression thinking I won’t be able to do another long-distance cycling trip if the leg cramps persisted. I confided in anyone I met about my bouts of pain. Most people had no clue as to why I had these cramps and suggested I should see a doctor about the problem. The one or two who’s had persistent health issues would suggest it was due to a lack of iron or a side effect of my thyroid meds.
During my next visit to the endocrinologist, I worked up the courage to ask if I was iron deficient. The endocrinologist glanced at my blood test and said that wasn’t the case. It was only then I decided I could discuss my cramps with the doctor. Without hesitation, she said it sounded like I was calcium deficient. I was taken aback by her answer because I’ve been taking calcium supplements everyday for the good part of a year. How could I be possibly calcium deficient?
Strangely enough, I recalled a conversation with my aunt years ago when she told me how her coffee addiction was making it difficult to retain calcium in her body. Normally I would’ve done research rather than take her word for it. But this time round, I made a snap decision there and then: I’m going to quit coffee and see if the cramps go away.
This was probably one of the biggest decisions I’ve ever made in my life. My family, friends and colleagues were well aware I couldn’t survive on less than 3 cups of coffee a day during the week — an espresso with breakfast, a soy latte late morning and an Americano late afternoon. Whenever I knew I was travelling to a Chinese town where I had no way of getting a decent cup of joe, I’d pack my own ground coffee and french press to make my own coffee. Even when I made the decision to quit coffee, I wasn’t sure if I’d actually carry through with it.
Since April, I’ve been limiting myself to one cup of coffee a day during the work week, and avoiding coffee altogether on the weekend. The good news is, I no longer get the debilitating leg cramps since I’ve drastically cut down my coffee intake. I’ve survived quite a few long-distance and uphill rides since late March without getting off and pushing my bike. And thankfully, I’ve learnt that I don’t need coffee to stay awake at work after lunch. A short nap on my desk can do wonders no amount of caffeine can. When desperate, drinking black tea works too.
The bad news is, I haven’t exactly quit coffee altogether. I’ve been convincing myself that indulging in the occasional espresso or soy latte during the week is okay as long as I drank none before a ride, ate bananas regularly and drank coconut water after an intense ride.
I often wonder if there’ll ever be enough incentive for me to quit coffee altogether, but these days, I’ve learnt to be content with whatever progress I make when it comes to resolutions, be it ever so small.
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