I am privileged to have represented Singapore in the ITU Triathlon Premium Cup 2013. This was held on 31 March 2013 in Palembang, the capital of South Sumatra, Indonesia. Here is my little narrative, and some thoughts.
On race day I woke at 4 am to face the day. When I left the hotel about an hour later, I thought I was running a little late for the 6 am race; thankfully I was operating on Singaporean time whereas Indonesian time was one hour slower. Imagine my surprise when I reached a quiet and empty race site. That not only gave me ample time to do my warm up (running drills and strides; and a swim) but also presented me with a few precious moments to simply breathe and feel an almost magical sense of peace.
Then the race neared and with that the pre-race jitters. The race was to begin with a plunge off a two-metre tall pontoon into my weakest leg at ITU races (they all swim like fishes; me perhaps a whale). The anticipation of both the plunge (what if my goggles come off?) and getting dropped on the swim filled me with something that neared fear. At that moment I thought that this was what the race meant – the courage to take that plunge and do my best no matter how the race played out. This was the culmination three months of the best training I have done in the last 1 or 2 years; to the best of my ability, I was as ready as can be and there was no backing down now or holding back – it was time for me to push on and go.
And when the whistle went, I dived in and you know what, it was beautiful. In my heart, I love the water where this whole love affair with endurance and competitive sports started and that moment encapsulated it all. I felt strong and kept with the pack which I rarely do. Well, almost and for all of 200 metres. Before I could finish thinking “wow, maybe today is my day”, they left me to swim alone in the South China Sea. I can’t say that was the most fun, and the course was curvy, strange and confusing. I fell back on my pre-race mantra, pushed on no matter what, and soon exited the water and headed to T1.
The bike portion consisted of 3 loops of 12 km plus two 2-km rides between the loop and T1. Here I attacked as much as I could throughout. I was alone, it was painful and there was no draft; I just kept my legs churning the way I would during those painful threshold and hill intervals in Athlete Lab. To some extent, I felt like that hard work paid off as I slowly closed the distance between myself and the next person.
Mishap 1 happened: I made a wrong left turn and wasted 30 s; this one may have been my bad.
Mishap 2 then came: The previously closed roads were opened by mistake before I finished my ride and I was introduced to the classic Indonesian traffic (jam) – which does not move. All the drivers and motorcyclists who for the past three hours had been deprived of use of the roads attacked them with vengeance. The officials made a laudable attempt to arrange for me to have space to ride and I was simply stuck there for a while in the meantime. I have always wanted to commute by bike when travelling, alongside with the local traffic to truly experience local life; but not in a race!
That was eventually resolved and I finally headed back to T2. At T2, I saw my Malaysian counterpart Irene Chong (whom I have raced with several times and am friends with) head off for her run. I made a quick transition and dedicated the next 1 km to catching Irene. That was done (yay) and thereafter I was largely alone; the deal was to race myself and keep pushing on.
Then came mishap 3: As the course was a little confusing for me, I had to ask for directions from time to time and at one point, the road marshals gave me a wrong direction and had me running down a particular path in a random corner of Palembang for about 500 m, before one of the race crew came by on a motor bike and told me I needed to head back on course. To my surprise he next asked me to get on his bike and ferried me back onto the course, after which I was back on my own two trusty feet. Riding pillion on foreign land is yet another item on my to-do list. But at that point, when I was exhausted after 2 hours of racing in the hot sun, running 500 m more and losing more than 2 minutes did not amuse me. By the time I got back on course, Irene had passed me. It felt a little like a cat-and-mouse game. It was tiring but I managed to pass her again. (She told me afterwards she felt a little confused why I kept passing her, haha.)
I kept my fingers crossed throughout the run that there would be no more mishaps, and also hoped for strength to complete the race to the best of my ability. With that, I plodded along and finished strong.
And that was my experience of the race, complete with the little escapades. I did a total time of 2:29:29. I can’t say the time was the best; I am still nowhere close to my previous personal best of 2:19:48 done at the Valencia World University Triathlon Championships in 2010 – which incidentally was done in almost perfect conditions with draft and very good weather. But I know what needs doing and will work hard on it.
To me, a race is only meaningful because of what it represents. For me, this race represents the past 3 months of hard work and more. I remember how at the end of January, I first got back to Athlete Lab after 2 months of complete non-riding and struggled with every ride. I simply could not meet the power requirements (based on my target rather than real functional threshold power) but simply had to mash and trudge through each ride. At some points, I asked if I was kidding myself in thinking that I could ever meet those loads. And every round island ride with the AL boys was like jumping into the high sea without knowing if I could make it back to shore. Then that day came, when suddenly, I completed my first lab ride without dying on the week of Lake Kenyir Triathlon (a very special race for me, which I thankfully went on to win; perhaps I will write about that another day) and from then my season fell into place. Likewise on the swim and run, almost every day was painful and we made small steps forward every day. There were spanners thrown in. One was a loved one falling ill and finding myself in the role of a care giver day and night; starting work (which has been very good so far – another story for another day) also made keeping up with training so much more difficult. I leave my house at 5 every day and return at 10 (if I am lucky) but sometimes still feel like I have not done enough. Bit by bit we moved and still move along.
Back to the race, the race week was a little difficult – I was in a nervous wreck; work was busy/engaging. The race trip in Palembang was not the most cushy of the ones I have had. The race was painful both physically and mentally – I am barely a competitor at ITU races and being at the back is so much more difficult than being in front. When the Indonesian traffic descended upon me, I wondered whether that was it and we were done for the day. I answered my own question negatively. After the extra 500 m run and having to chase Irene again, I thought to myself that if the organisers directed me wrongly and I had to chase again, maybe that was it for the day. But before I even completed that thought, I knew that if it really happened, I would chase again, and again.
Here is one of my all-time favourite excerpts, that somewhat encapsulates what all these mean to me:
“Que lindo es sonar despierto, Gil says. How lovely it is to dream while you are awake. Dream while you’re awake, Andre. Anybody can dream while they’re asleep, but you need to dream all the time, and say your dreams out loud, and believe in them. In other words, when in the final of a slam I must dream. I must play to win. But dreams, I tell Gil, are so damned tiring. He laughs. I can’t promise you that you won’t be tired, he says. But please know this. There’s a lot of good waiting for you on the other side of tired. Get yourself tired, Andre. Thats when you’re going to know yourself. On the other side of tired.” –Adapted from Open, An Autobiography by Andre Agassi
What the Palembang race, the season, and the past 3 months mean to me, is the ability to dream when awake; to put my heart, soul, blood, sweat, tears in; to get tired; to get on that other side of tired. It is a constant work in progress and I have just had one of my best attempts. I am also humbled by the race and season and reminded that there is much more work to do and I need to keep making better attempts.
Last but not least, I am thankful for the support I have. My dad keeps the same hours I do, sending me to training before 6 am in the morning, and picking me up as late as training or work requires. The support of Athlete Lab, which is located one secret stairway (Ann Siang Hill Park, haha) 5 minutes away from my office has been instrumental in me being able to maintain quality workouts almost daily before work, not to mention the camaderie of the squad I swim, bike and run with whenever I can and the understanding of Athlete Lab and Eduardo with this rather difficult athlete. Thanks all, and I hope to do more in the rest of 2013.
Before I go, here is my first paycheck from an elite ITU race which, quite apart from the money, means a lot to me!