The moment is finally here. After a year of training, I am about to compete in an Ironman!
I woke up at 0510 h this morning and had a large bowl of porridge and some sports drink. Once I finished breakfast I put on my tri suit, heart rate monitor, GPS watch, timing tag, and my race tattoos. Things are running like clockwork and I’m making sure I’ve completed all the tasks on a check list I prepared earlier. I stopped, collected my thoughts in a few moments of solitude, and then headed out.
It’s dark but unusually warm outside. Several people are also out and about. They too must be other Ironman athletes. I head to the bike transition area and do one last pre-race inspection. From yesterday’s gentle ride I know my bike is in tip top condition. I’ve borrowed a pump from someone else and inflate my bike’s tires to 120 psi. I also check my brakes and that my wheels spin freely.
0630 h. The bike transition is closing shortly. It is still dark but there are still a good number of people doing last minute checks on their bikes. I stand under a flood light and put my wetsuit on. I slap generous amounts of Vaseline on my neck. Otherwise I’ll get chaffing.
The race officials signal that the bike transition is about to close. I’m good to go and join the others making their way down to the lakefront. Already athletes are in the water. Since the lake is a balmy 20C, why not? I too test the water but I only get my feet wet. There is an energy gel in my hand which I am just about to take, exactly 15 minutes prior to the race start. All of a sudden I hear a large boom. It startles some and comes from blank round cannon fire. It’s 0645 h and the pros are off!
Just 15 minutes remain until the start for me and the other age groupers. I down the gel and put the wrapper in a bin. I put on my goggles followed by my swim cap, head into the water and do some warm up strokes. I check my watch and it’s 0655 h. Everyone is lining up in between the start buoys. The faster swimmers are on the right while the slower ones stick to the left. I think I’ll complete the swim slightly slower than the average time so I line up somewhere in the middle. You can tell everyone is really keen to get going. The race officials on kayaks tell people to get behind the start line and threaten not to start the race until this happens. The remaining infringers get back in line and we are now counting down the final minutes.
A few motivational words are blasted through the speakers. It’s Mike Reilly! He yells: “Let me hear you say, you will be an Ironman today!” Everyone yells “YES” and a state of euphoria overcomes each and every athlete! And before I know it, I hear cannon fire again. It’s 0700 h and the 2013 Taupo Ironman age group race has just begun!
With more than 1300 athletes starting at the same time, it is like being in a washing machine. The water becomes churned. Swimmers are left, right, centre, and behind. My race plan for the swim is simple: ease into it, go at my own pace, and save it for the bike and run. The first few hundred metres of the swim are quite abrupt and it’s difficult to get into a rhythm. Athletes are still jostling for spots but fortunately the pack soon sorts itself out. I make my way towards the right side of the course. It’s a lot calmer out here and it allows me my own swimming space. I maintain my usual swim speed and sight every so often.
I make it to the turnaround buoy in good stead. I don’t bother looking at my watch as I’ll just impede other swimmers. I don’t even look to see how many swimmers are ahead and behind me to gauge where I am in the pack. I stick to the plan. Just keep swimming at my own pace. I chip away at the remaining 1.9 km but find the last 500 m to take an eternity. The end of the swim is in sight, but it takes a while to get there. The water is now shallow enough to get up and start running. I complete the swim in 1 hour 12 minutes, slightly faster than the 1:15 I had anticipated.
I’m out of the water now and on foot towards the bike transition. There are quite a number of supporters cheering us all on. It’s quite an experience. I manage to remove the top half of my wetsuit with ease while in motion. I’m surprised. Usually I have struggled to do this. Must have brought my A-game to the race! I boost it up the staircase and a race volunteer gives me my bike bag. I head into the changing tent and remove my wetsuit. Underneath is my tri suit which I’ll continue to wear until the end of the race. It put on sun glasses, arm warmers, and cycling gloves. As I exit the tent I asked a volunteer to sun block me. I put on my bike shoes and helmet and push my bike out of the transition for a time of 7 minutes. I clip in and start pedalling.
The first few kilometres of the bike are uphill. For this, I’m out of the aero position and riding on the hoods. At this point I’m overtaking people. Here is where I planned to recover time for my slower swim leg. I’m now at the Centennial / Broadlands Road junction. I’ve studied the map and know there is a fairly long downhill ride. I’ve only recently got accustomed to aerobar riding, and decide to ride on the drop down bars for the downhill portions of the course. Soon I’m 20 km into the bike leg and feeling great. In terms of nutrition, I’ve mostly finished my water bottle and am starting on the sports drink. I haven’t consumed anything else, but will pick up a banana at the next aid station.
It’s been a quite a nice and fast ride so far and I’m almost at the Reporoa turn around point. I’m averaging about 34 km/h and am happy with my ride so far. Unfortunately, the ride back proved to be different. It is hard to tell from the course profile, but it feels like there is slight uphill back to Taupo. Sure, there are dips here and there but it’s enough to make it difficult to bike fast. There’s no way I’ll be able to maintain my average speed on the way back. And sure enough my average speed drops and it’s saddening to see this each time I look at my speedometer.
I’m now at the big Broadlands Road hill and I’ve had to drop down a few gears. I’m still on the big ring and grinding my way up the hill. It seems to go on forever. Fortunately it doesn’t and after a few hills I’m speeding my way back to Taupo. I start mentally preparing myself for the second lap. There are heaps of supporters are lining the streets of Taupo and it creates a nice atmosphere which helps reignite my spirits. I’m now onto the second and final lap. 90 km down and 90 km more to go.
I don’t hit the hill towards Centennial / Broadlands Road junction as hard as I did in the first lap. I’m weary that I’ve still got a fair bit of biking to go, not to mention the 42.2 km run following that! At this stage my body is feeling ok and I’m still focused on the goal. I have, however, had a sore neck for a little while. I suspect that’s because of sun burn. Although I did get sun blocked up at the bike transition, I think the race helpers must have forgotten to spray the back of my neck. At the next aid station I hop off my bike and get sun block re-applied, particularly to the troublesome neck area. I’m not sure what’s in the stuff but the spray on lotion stings the back of my neck. But that is ok. It takes my mind off my sunburnt neck and lets me get on with it. While at the aid station I chomp on some biscuits and take a couple of caffeinated gels for the road.
For the next few stations towards the final Reporoa turn around, I consume a variety of gels and bananas while hydrating only on the sports drink. I can feel that my legs are getting tired but fortunately yet to hit the wall. I’m now past the turn around and am heading back to Taupo for the last time. I’ve just noticed that I must have been biking with my shoe not on properly. The heel tab has been folded over and has been digging into the back of my heel. I correct it but curse at myself for not noticing it earlier. Will I end up paying for this in the run I ask myself?
I’ve now biked about 140 km now and getting a little sick of it. Frequently my eyes glaze at my bike’s speedometer. From the first lap I’ve made the unfortunate discovery that the return leg is uphill. I’m at the big hill for the second and final time. Seeing my average bike speed slowly drop and go under 30 km/h is disheartening. But I’m sticking to my guns and know that I need to save it and my focus shifts to the marathon run that follows.
At last, I now find myself at the Centennial / Broadlands Road junction. I’ve been eagerly awaiting the downhill ride back into Taupo as it will give my legs a chance to recuperate for the marathon. I roll into the bike-run transition and a helper takes my bike. I’ve completed bike leg in 6 hours and 7 minutes. Disappointed I’ve missed my goal of under 6 hours, but happy that my body is in good shape. Inside the transition tent a medical officer asks me whether I am ok. I say yes, but would like my foot to be taped up. After this I put on my shoes, get another dose of spray on sun tan lotion, and dig in at the biscuit table because I felt like it. I’ve spent a leisurely 7 minutes in the T2 transition. After swapping my cycling footwear for running shoes and a helmet for a sun visor I’m ready to head out!
The first few kilometres go well. I know that it’s going to be a long run and aim to maintain a pedestrian 6 minutes per kilometre pace. It is very tempting to push myself and catch up with some of the other keen athletes but I resist the temptation. I suspect I’ll see and pass them later on.
Taupo’s run course consists of three laps of a circuit. Fortunately the circuit has only rolling hills and no serious ascents to contend with. I’m half way through the first lap and I’ve settled into a rhythm. My plan is simple. With the exceptions of drink stations, do not stop running! I’m also trying to maintain my stride rate. When going up hills my strides are shorter, while I take longer ones on the descents. At each drink station I take two cups of water. One is poured over my head. The other, along with a cup of Coke, goes down the hatch. The fizzy drink is flat and goes down without problems.
The return leg of the first lap goes slowly but the second lap goes quickly. I‘m on autopilot. Put one foot in front of another and resist the enticement to walk like several of the other competitors. Just like the first lap, I continue passing people who had steamed past at the start of the run. I’ll confess. It is quite satisfying. Sure, running at 6 min/km won’t win the race or yield an amazing time, but this speed is quite sustainable. Especially considering I’ve swam 3.8 km, biked 180 km, and ran 20 km already.
I’ve completed the second lap and receive my third run arm band indicating I’m on my final lap. Hooray! Much of the same so far on my last lap. I continue the ritual of water and Coke at every drink station, maintain the 6 min/km pace and visualise crossing the finish line. More supporters than ever line the streets of the course. It is 1800 h and still roasting. Fortunately the locals are still kindly offering to dose you with water in between drink stations. The water helps to keep you cool.
I’ve now completed all but two kilometres of the Ironman! In the last run lap I’ve been keeping a close eye of my total time. It looks like I’ll be able to finish in less than 12 hours, which was a goal I set myself a while ago. But it will be close at my current pace. So for the remaining run I dig it in and give it my all. The finish line is out of sight but is nearing.
The last drink station for the race comes up. It’s less than 500 metres to the finish line and you can people cheer as Ironman competitors cross it. This is the only drink station that I run through and power my way to the finish line.
I’m now on the red carpet. An influx of adrenaline begins to flow through my veins. A moment of epiphany overcomes me. All the training and preparation. Rain or shine. Hot or miserably cold. I’d be out there exercising. All of the things I could have done instead spent either in the pool, on the bike, or out on a run. It has all been for this. Mike Reilly, the voice of Ironman, yells out, “Robert Tang, you are now an Ironman!”
It was all worth it!
The second I cross the finish line a race official greets me and I proudly receive my finishers medal as well as my finishers towel. I’m sure there is also a finishers t-shirt waiting for me inside which I’ll be flaunting for the next few days.
After indulging in my moment of glory at the finish line I’m ushered to the recovery tent. In side I’m weighed and enjoy having a rest after 12 hours of non-stop exercise. My legs are a little wobbly and I ask for the assistance of an event volunteer when moving about. Over the next hour in the recovery tent I eat food, chat to other Ironman finishers and get a massage.
An hour later I’m out of the tent and keen get back and have a shower. The sun is starting to go down which makes it a hard to get good post-race photos. Dad drove up from Wellington early this morning and has watched the entire race outside in the sun at Taupo’s lakefront. He must be just as exhausted as I am! Dad’s always keen on taking a lot of pictures. This can be annoying, but just for tonight I’ll let him off and happily let him snap away! My mum and my brother would have liked to come up but they were double booked today. A bit of a shame, but no doubt they’ll hear all about it!
I’ve just had a really, long, hot shower. My legs are shattered and I have a headache. The roof of my mouth is also peculiarly sore. Covering 226 km by swimming, cycling and running, dehydration and the “meals” I’ve had throughout the day will be the causes. I’ve already feasted on muffins, ice cream, soup, and pasta (not all on one plate or in that order!) when I was in recovery but know that after the race I’ll need to continue eating to aid my recovery. Dad has already strongly suggested that my lean 8.3 % fat self needs fattening up and wants us to get K-Fry (aka KFC). I rest for a bit then we head out and settle on having McDonalds instead. Fast food burgers have never tasted so good!
It is well into the night and it’s only then that it sinks in how great of an achievement today has been for me. It’s been a long year since I have started preparing for the Ironman, which unusually enough has been my first triathlon. It’s been eight months since I had surgery to fix up a troublesome right lung. The road to the Taupo Ironman has been anything but smooth. Undoubtedly, in the years to come I’ll continue to reminisce on today’s achievement. The urge to do another Ironman will resurface. For now, I’ll try do something that is just as challenging for me: kicking my feet up and enjoying a well deserved break!
Swim 3.8 kilometres! Bike 180 kilometres! Run 42.2 kilometres! And brag for the rest of my life!