Back in December, myself and two friends (my athlete Kylie and Caleb from Freedom Sports Medicine) decided to head over to Malaysia in April to try our hands at the 70.3 race in Putrajaya, a new, planned government city just south of Kuala Lumpur. None of us had visited Malaysia before, and only Caleb had raced in the tropics before. While I’ve done a bit of long course racing over the years, this would be the first 70.3 for my travelling companions and my first long course race in over 2 years.
My goal for this race was different to past long-course campaigns. While I wanted to have a good race, my primary goal was to use the race and the training as a way to develop some base fitness going into the Australian winter, to set me up for a solid preparation for the 2016 ITU World Cross Triathlon Championships in November. Through injury, illness and work/study pressures my training hasn’t really gotten out of second gear since I suffered my motorcycle accident and ‘medical mishap’ in spring 2014. That said, most of my best training and racing have been completed in the 6-12 months following a block of long course racing, due to the large fitness base I’ve been able to accumulate in these periods. A solid race with good execution was the goal.
My preparation for this race was relatively short coming from virtually zero fitness around Christmas, and while I had an ‘okay’ preparation through early 2016 it was still a bit inconsistent and I knew going in that I wasn’t as fit as I had previously been for other long course races. The plan was to race conservatively and try to get as many of the little things right as possible, especially preparing for unfamiliar, extreme conditions.
Luckily (or so we thought), summer in south-eastern Australia lingered on well into March providing us with some long periods of hot mid-30s weather to train in. Kylie and I took full advantage of this and scheduled long brick sessions each weekend. Caleb lives in Melbourne and also took advantage of the warm weather. Many long rides and runs were completed in the height of baking Australian summer days to acclimate our bodies.
However even at 35+ degrees, the dry heat in south-eastern Australia is completely different to the oppressive humidity of south-east Asia. High humidity prevents sweat from evaporating as efficiently, which limits the body’s evaporative cooling capacity. To compensate, the body’s sweat rate increases, which speeds up the rate of dehydration and depletion of sodium and other minerals. In a long race this significantly increases hydration and sodium needs, which are difficult to fully replace at the best of times. The gut can only absorb fluid at a finite rate, which means you can be sweating out more fluid than your body can physically replace. Lack of sodium in the bloodstream inhibits muscle function (read: cramping and reduced power) and many other biological processes including neural function, and can be extremely dangerous at extreme levels (hyponatremia). Dehydration at its simplest level thickens the blood, forcing the heart to work much harder to pump it around the body to deliver nutrients and effect cooling and restricting muscle output.
Spending significant amounts of time in tropical conditions to acclimate is the key to performing well in these conditions. The body adapts to the conditions and reduces sweating, utilising more efficient cooling processes – this is evident when one observes that the locals never seem to be sweating as much as the tourists! A couple of weeks is usually required as a minimum to acclimate. Unfortunately we only arrived in Malaysia on the Wednesday night before the race, giving us three full days. While I’d planned to use a few sports science ‘tricks’ to assist with acclimation, the weeks leading up to the race were hectic and we simply ran out of time to implement these to any great effect.
After seeing a few of the sights of KL on Thursday and Friday and a chilled-out preparation day on Saturday, race day Sunday brought with it an overnight low of 26 degrees and a predicted top of 34, with humidity rising to over 80%. The water was like a hot bath at over 30 degrees, so Kylie and I opted for the excellent Zone3 swim skins for the non-wetsuit swim. The race had a rolling start – a format I’m not a fan of, but it was what it was.
With a crowded starting ramp and around 1,300 competitors we lined up as far up the front as possible and entered the water around 2 minutes after the first age groupers were released into the water. I set about picking-off people in front, but it was very crowded for the first half of the swim and it was clear that many people had ‘overstated’ their swimming ability in order to start in the first wave and give more time to make the cut-off. I found some clear water at the turnaround and had a fast return to transition, clocking a 29:20 swim which was 3rd fastest in my age group and the 11th fastest age group swim outright. The swim skin was comfortable, felt fast, and really made a difference.
After shedding the swim skin and tearing through transition, I made my way out onto the two lap, rolling bike course. The course is interesting and scenic, with a good surface for the most part (apart from a few dodgy bits). While there are no steep climbs on the course, it is constantly rolling and has one long (around 3km) but shallow incline per lap at around 10km/55km.
I was fairly isolated for the first 20-30km as I settled into my rhythm and started taking in nutrition, apart from a few of the other good swimmers. While I was following my plan to the letter and even taking in a bit of extra electrolyte drink, I started to feel quite uncomfortable around the 35km mark as a big, powerful group caught me from behind. I stayed with them for a while but there were two main protagonists at the front who were surging on the climbs and I was having to push very hard on the descents to keep on the back. Around the turnaround point, I started to feel the first signs of cramping in my right quad.
I let the group go at the base of the main climb as there was no way I would be able to stay on. My focus shifted to survival as I knew my body was complaining and the cramping getting worse. My power output dropped significantly on the second lap and at the 85km mark the sharp spasms began. At the final left-hand corner prior to transition I almost binned it as a lapped competitor I was overtaking swerved into my path causing me to lock up my rear wheel and go into a full speedway drift, accompanied by another sharp spasm of my right quad. I got off the bike in around 2:31 not looking forward to the torture to come.
After applying arm coolers and socks in T2 I eased my way out onto the run course and immediately found my heart rate headed sky-high. I wasn’t able to control its ascent except by walking, and even at a walk my heart rate was settling around where it normally does for my long runs at sub 5min/km pace. To combat the very strong desire at this point to pull the pin, I derived a strategy of ‘run until your HR hits 160, then walk until it drops to 140’, which worked well for keeping me moving forward but at an average pace slower than 6min/km. At each aid station I drenched my hat and arm coolers in icy water, put ice in my suit, and took in as much cold ‘isotonic’ drink (100 Plus) as my gut could handle.
My vain hope was that by keeping my temperature down and smashing down the electrolyte, I’d be able to shift the hydration balance back far enough to be able to return to a continuous run and make up some time on the second lap. While I was able to increase the run:walk ratio on the second lap, this was at the expense of speed and the second lap split was pretty similar to the first.
I crossed the finish line in 5:16:09 for 23rd in my age group and 131st outright. While this was my slowest half Iron-distance race ever by nearly 20 minutes and a disappointing execution, I’m proud that I managed to finish in such tough conditions and I’ve learnt a host of lessons which will benefit both myself and my athletes in the future.
Caleb unfortunately suffered punctures out on the bike course and spent time waiting for tech support, but ran well in the heat to finish in 5:35:04. Kylie had the best race of the three of us in her debut 70.3. Despite losing her gel flask early in the bike, she adapted her strategy brilliantly and knocked out a steady, consistent race to finish in 5:39:41. This was her longest run in 12 months as she has been dealing with a range of foot injuries including a stress fracture due to an anatomical anomaly. She loved the experience and is looking forward to tearing it up at another half Iron-distance race soon.
Race winner Craig Alexander clocked a 3:55:22, but was quoted after the race as saying it was ‘like racing under a blow torch’.
As always, special thanks must go to Ride 365, Zone3, Freedom Sports Medicine and Willpower Personal Training for the ongoing and much appreciated support. Without your encouragement and fantastic products and services this journey would be so much more challenging.