Shem's First Ironman

Ironman, March 03, 2008

I remember my first copy of Triathlete magazine- NOV 2005, Faris had just won Kona in his speedos and beard. I thought he looked dead cool. Since that moment, I have always been mystified by Ironman racing.

I remember my first copy of Triathlete magazine- NOV 2005, Faris had just won Kona in his speedos and beard. I thought he looked dead cool. Since that moment, I have always been mystified by Ironman racing. I had just begun my triathlon career with 3 sprint races under my belt and was training hard for my 1st OD.

I used to hang on to every word as I listened to tri-famers at the pool recount their epic tales of racing 226km. I had so much respect for them. There was something slightly untouchable about this band of “Ironmen”. They had been to places, physically and mentally, that few would ever go. In my awestruck eyes, there were only 2 groups of people, Ironmen and Non-Ironmen. Those 226 kms set them apart from everyone else I knew.

Every night, I would fall asleep staring at Peter Reid’s aerodynamic tuck, reading Scott Tinley’s column or highlighting some training tip or another. I loved this sport and IM racing exemplified the pinnacle of this sport for me.

Fast forward a few years, and I’ve had small successes in my age group, worked my way down to a respectable 70.3 time, learnt about periodization, done my first marathon and helped unite a bunch of Amateur Asian Athletes. I’ve seen my swimming, riding and running improve and I’ve matured as an athlete but there was always one burning question left unanswered.

I’ve fantasized about it so much that I actually cannot believe I’m 500 meters into the swim leg of Ironman Malaysia 2008. I’m sighting red flags, looking for a good draft- I’m actually in the process of racing an Ironman! It’s crazy because all this was decided hastily 3 weeks ago.

“Damn- Is this guy is going a bit slow? Better see if I can catch a quicker ride”. I pull up from out of his draft and surge forward to the next white and red rubber cap. I follow the trail of bubbles coming from the big white feet in front of me and finally understand what an experienced Ironman once told me- “Bubbles are relaxing….” Ahhhh, that’s better J

I leave the water 1hr 11 mins after the start and I’m feeling fresh. I dash into the T1 change tent and there are naked men and tubs of vaseline everywhere. I keep my head down and busy myself with getting out of there as fast as I can. Cycling shorts, shoes, heart rate monitor, top, helmet, sunnies, quick layer of sun cream, and off we go.

I see Mel and smile. I see mum and smile again. I know that these 2 ladies will be out on the course with me for every second that I’m out there today. Thank you God for them!

“RIDE EASY!”- I can hear Elvia’s voice in my head, so I imagine I’m on a recovery ride with Mel and Pa- the only difference is that there’ll be no stopping for prata today. The first set of hills are a bit of a climb and I’m glad I only have to do them once. Descending, I chicken out at 70km/h and reach for the brakes. The bike feels lofty with these fat wheels on and I remind myself to ride safe today. It’s a 3 loop course of mainly long rollers under the hot Malaysian sun. I am clam and I wait 20 minutes before munching on an Apricot Clif bar. I’m feeling fantastic and absolutely loving the fact that I’m doing an Ironman. I smile and wave at the school kids that have come out to cheer us on. It’s a long day in the saddle and I stay slow. After all, “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.”

I’m glad to see a racer who has “Powered by Jesus” proudly printed on his back, “Amen brother!”

The first 60ks pass in a tick. The cheersquad have parked themselves on a bridge halfway along the northbound section of the bike loop. Its a good place for them to be because this is a tough section of the course. The long and undulating village road make is hard to settle into a rhythm. On subsequent laps, this bridge will become a crucial highpoint of energy that keeps me going.

I’m extra vigilant about my nutritional state. All the long Saturday morning rides have paid off and I know that I have what it takes to finish this race- Its just a question of staying fuelled up with salts, water and calories in the right balance. I dread the bloated gastro-intestinal meltdown that has crippled me on at least 2 previous occasions. I’ve read up extensively about it and I hope that I’ve learnt my lesson. I’m feeling ok as my odometer tick over to 100ks… I think about a time when this would have been a big ride for me.

I pick up food, some bottles at the special needs station. The ice cold water is utterly refreshing and I use them on my head, neck and chest to keep my temperature down. So far so good, I’m eating regularly and still holding back. At the U turn, the crowd and their plastic clappers give me a boost as I pick up my second lap arm band. Faris passes me on a climb and I decide its wisest to let him go for now. We’ll race again another day.

From nowhere, as if I’ve cycled into a shadow, I hit a low energy phase. I don’t know why but my speed is dropping and I’m feeling flat at 120ks. The sun is hot and I’m wondering if I’m already out of gas. I can’t be… not with all that I’ve taken in. Doubt begins to set in as I realize that I am altogether 210 calories behind my 300 cal/hr eating plan. I’ve been in the sun for 4 hours now and my brain is rebelling. I get lazy and I miss pedaling down some nice rollers as my mind drifts to other things. I start to forget to eat.

My mantra “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast” has morphed into “ Smooth is slow” and then finally “Slow is fast”! “SLOW IS NOT FAST!” My brain screams to my body as I look down at my sorry speed of 23km/h. My mind flashes back to a similar scene in Aviva 70.3 2007 as my average speed of 32.6km/h is rapidly and hopelessly being whittled away. Focus Shem! I think of the ladies on the bridge and it becomes my immediate goal to reach them in good condition. I reach them- barely, and manage a lame ass wave and smile. I’m beginning to really suffer. I pray for the strength. “Polished arrow…Polished arrow…” I repeat to myself. I reach the northern U turn feeling wasted and suck down a caffeinated chocolate Powergel. “Lord, help me! Strengthen my heart!” I am suddenly aware that life and feeling have returned to my legs.  I use a slight downhill gradient to get into a decent pedaling rhythm. My gas tank feels like it has just gone from empty to full in a matter of 5 mins!

On the third lap, I pass Mel and Mum in high spirits and in good shape “ See you on the run!”

I have a scare on the way back into the city towards T2. A massive electric bolt of cramp suddenly shoots through my left thigh and right there and then, I know exactly what kills Lin on the ride. Its scary because the cramp is so powerful that it almost knocks me off balance and onto the road below. I pedal easy but the cramp keeps threatening to paralyze my entire leg. Fortunately, I get to the top of a hill only 5 ks out from T2. I coast downhill, trying to stretch it out on the way, and pedal ever so gently into T2.

Inside the change tent, I compose myself in preparation for the run ahead. I remember the easy pace that Adrian Mok set at the beginning of the Standard Chartered Marathon last year and remind myself to do the same. Only one thing stands in between me and my 1st IM finish now… well… 42 things actually- 42kms of long smelly ks of running.

As I start the run, the heat sees my heart rate climb to 150 almost immediately. “Woah… Back it down, Shemboy… Pace yourself.” I increase my stride and slow my breathing rate down… 144… that’s a bit better. I’m feeling great for the 1st 18 ks of the run and I start believing that I can pull off a 3.45 marathon. I can’t believe how good I am going. But then something happens over the next 6 ks that sees my pace, motivation, and form deteriorate rapidly. By the 24 k marker, I’m again in a bad place.

I’m checking my watch with increasing dismay. Each time my pace is dropping and I feel even more unable to maintain it. I’m getting worried as I recall all those “so close yet so far” horror stories of people shutting down with only a few ks to go. I’ve still got 18K. Shit.

I walk through the next aid station and I keep walking……. and walking……. and walking. My thoughts drift to an interview of a pro that I read some time back. She shared that after a big race, she’s unable to walk for a week. Well, here I am, in the biggest race of my life- walking. I have a moment of clarity from the caffeine induced coma zombie state I’m in and I know what I must do.

“Run till you can’t walk for a week.” This is when I enter into Self Destruct Phase. “Don’t walk for a week… Don’t walk for a week… Don’t walk for a week…” becomes my new mantra as I ignore the numbing pain and plod along. I tell myself to trust in God’s provision alone to get me through the day and to be happy with that. I promise not look at my pace for the remainder of the run. “The last 16 ks of the run are run on heart…” Mark Allen’s words ring loud and clear.

With that, I shove a mushy bar into the corner of my mouth and suck on it till the carb-rich sludge crawls down my throat. I’ve had enough of these for the day but I know I must eat. “Don’t walk for a week… Don’t walk for a week…” I think about going to work in a wheelchair- how cool. The ks are ticking down now I’m on my 3rd lap out of 4. I’m finding my form again and have to resist the urge to check my watch. My plod has changed to a steady trot, and I’m feeling fine again, strong even. As I start the 4th and final lap, I realize that I’m gonna make it. I whack 3 gels in the last 10 ks just so I can finish strong. I’m passing people that look like their dying. I’m running, I’m high-fiving the kids again. I’m clipping along and I’m gonna make it! The last leg is peaceful and wonderful.

I run down the final chute waving, smiling and bowing. The supporters have been the real heroes of today. Braving upwards of 10 hours in the sun to see their loved ones safely through their crazy Ironman dreams. My Mum and Mel, my Grandmother and my Dad number among these supporters and I thank them for coming up. Without them, it would have been twice as hard.

All day, I’ve pictured this scene, these few seconds of crossing the tape. And it’s all over too soon. Picture taken, medal adorned, hugs from the family. Extra special hug from Mel. The music is blasting but I’m far away in a quiet place in my head. I’m aware that something deep inside me is changing and I relish every moment of that. I’ve just gone further than I’ve ever gone before. With the help of my team, my family and my Mel, I’ve done an Ironman in, what is to me is, a respectable time. I no longer have to fall asleep staring at those pictures wondering what it's like.

Now I fall asleep staring at those pictures, knowing what it's like.