September 2, 2012


Shinan_IM_Race_Report Download as pdf

The crimson sunrise on race morning tells me very early on that it’s going to be another scorcher of a day. Typhoon Bolaven, a raging spiral of natural destruction, is spinning north and meteorologists predict a hit to the South-West Korean coastline sometime tonight or early tomorrow morning. Accordingly, in the eerie pre-race silence of dawn, the denseness of the air thickens and curls upon itself. These are not ideal conditions for 140.6 miles of swimming, biking and running. But game day is no time to ponder hypotheticals, and the possible calamitous effects of prolonged exposure to an intense heat/humidity assault for as long as it takes to journey from start to finish line.
Positive thinking, race visualization, mantras; all the catch-cries in the manuals talk of a positive mindset, and so with masked apprehension under growing beads of sweat I make my way to the start line.
Equipment in place, bikes racked in transition, wetsuits and goggles on, the gun sounds. I wade into pristine water that tickles my skin, the salt thick and inviting, I dolphin dive a few times in a clumsy neoprene imitation of grace, and then begin to sway my body and roll my arms. 3.8 kilometres, spread out over two triangular loops, beckons.
Mass-start swims can be very daunting with the washing machine effect of limbs and bobbing heads, but thankfully this is a little different. Athlete numbers are relatively low for this event and Koreans are not known to be aggressive swimmers. Their strength really is on the run, and sheer tenacity to push on when the going gets tough late in a race.
Despite my less than ideal swim build-up, I feel comfortable in the water and settle in for a good draft behind a pair of feet a few inches ahead of me. We may not be swimming at a blistering pace but I am thankful we are swimming straight and hugging the course ropes. At the halfway point we exit the water and run onto the sand, grab a drink of iced water, and begin the second lap. I am in about 12th position at around 35 minutes.
The second lap is time to conserve energy and appreciate the real beauty of this part of Korea. These, without question, are the most beautiful swim conditions I have encountered since last swimming in my homeland of Australia.
I exit the water in around 1 hour and 11 minutes, in 14th position.
In transition, I strip my wetsuit and go through the usual routine while a local television cameraman stands two-feet away recording the whole procedure. A communication glitch sees a volunteer hand me my running gear, though I tell him I don’t need that at this moment, pointing to my helmet, bike shoes, sunglasses and other goods next to my bike. It is already hot and I just want to get rolling.
One hundred metres down the road a bee flies directly into my partially unzipped tri suit and lands on my chest. Allergic to bees, I try to avoid panic and flick it out before it stings and possibly goes deeper down into my tri suit, but it gets me good before I clear it away. My chest throbs. At precisely this moment my profile bottle drink sponge exits itself from the top of the bottle and I don’t realize until a little further up the road. I should stop, turn around and collect it, one minute will not mean much throughout the course of an Ironman, but I opt to push on and when my bike rattles against a pothole as I make a right-hand turn and PowerAde showers my face and bike, I realize I have made a bad mistake. Too late now, the race is on.
The first 55kms is an out and back to the bottom of a string of islands, crossing high bridges overlooking meandering waterways and on roads passing through agricultural pastures. It is undulating but the road surface is decent and the air clean and time passes relatively quickly. I pass the front riders coming in the opposite direction and realize that I am near the top 10, though I don’t feel as if I am pushing hard at all.
At 55kms the course changes quite dramatically. Now 5 loops confront us, each with numerous savage climbs and a 400 metre gravel section of road under construction. The loop seems to barely have a flat section in it, it is rolling then dotted with short steep climbs which see riders zigzagging and walking, then the descents and more undulations ahead. On fresh legs I maintain an average of around 30kmh but that number is slowly dwindling as my heart rate rises.
After about 90kms my training partner, who is riding just ahead of me, hits a pothole and nosedives into the asphalt. He has road rash all over and a bent rear derailleur and is pretty certain the end of his day has arrived early.
I push on. I drink as much as I can, alternating water with PowerAde and try to get as many gels down as possible. I switch flavours for variety, but something is amiss. My body is not reacting well to them, I am burping and vomiting a little and my minds baulks each time I try to ingest one. I try to eat instead but my body doesn’t like that so much either. Even my Snickers Bar, a special on course treat, is unappealing.
Meanwhile, the sun reaches higher in the sky, the temperature soars past 30 degrees Celsius and the humidity begins to suffocate all around it. The Typhoon must be drawing nearer.
I continue the loops and each is significantly more difficult than the last. The climbs sting my quads more and more and my stomach complains. The sun roars into my calves and the exposed part of my quads, and my arms too, but it is the back of my neck that I feel it most. It is unrelenting. I see riders with riding caps on backwards under their helmets to protect their necks and I make a mental note to try this next time. I vow to stop and reapply suncream when I get a chance.
At numerous junctions on the course, riders are stopped to sit in the shade for a time, all the while drinking and stretching and pouring iced-water over their bodies. Despite the obvious benefits of this, and the growing allure, I find it odd that so many are willing to stop mid-race to do this. I have never seen so many racers happy to give away minutes without any real cause for concern.
But, as the miles pass, I realize that they know more about this race, about this climate, about this game, than I do.
In addition to a deep awareness of my own vulnerability, I feel an empty loneliness. I yearn to catch sight of my family who I know are on course somewhere. Finally, I see them. My cycle computer tells me I have ridden close to 150kms. I stop and click out of my pedals, get handed a can of coke and some more water, and for the first time I realize my body is shaking and the questions being asked of me are taking longer than usual to compute. I give up on providing answers, I drink, and take a deep breath and push on. Only 30kms to go to transition.
I begin the last loop and my mind is wandering into the negative thought zone, and staying there too long. I skip my gels and try to drink as much as I can, but it isn’t enough. I feel the sun dig deeper still into my skin. My stomach is weak and I feel discomfort in my kidneys. Every climb brings with it an instantaneous desire to puke. I am sitting upright on my bike now and people are passing me easily. The numbers on my computer are not offering solace. I am agitated. My helmet is too tight, it’s bothering me. My sunglasses will not sit straight. The bee sting throbs. And I’m still getting splashed with PowerAde and water whenever I hit a bump in the road. Right now I seem to be finding every last one of them.
I approach a particularly mean little climb. I give myself permission to walk if I have to, but the music blaring from speakers at the top drives me on and I reach the summit on my lowest gear, quads heavy and heart hurting. I need to puke, but don’t. Then the descent opens up before me, 70kmh down the line but for some reason the road ahead is blurry and I find myself yelling at myself to focus, concentrate. I have never, ever yelled on a bike like this before.
At the bottom I realize I am wobbling on my bike. And still talking to myself in a kind of stupor. 15kms to go. A young rider passes me looking remarkably fresh so I hug his back wheel and draft, illegally but I no longer care, and I stay there for as long as I can until he pedals off hard up a slight incline.
The road blurs and the sun hurts me.
At 170kms I am not longer in control of my bike or body. I see my family once more. I see their eyes widen when they see my shit state. I clip out, get off my bike, refuse a cold drink, sit down, then ask to lie down in the shade. There are a lot of voices around me. Too many. Someone takes my shoes and socks off and pours cool water on me. It is nice but I want to yell to stop it but I don’t. I lie there defeated until an ambulance man arrives and asks me some questions and decides to take me to the hospital.
I ride in the back of an ambulance for the first time and quickly arrive at the hospital where a young doctor and nurse take my pulse and blood pressure. It is too low they say. They ask if I am nauseous, have a headache, or pain in the kidney region. I answer yes to all of them. In goes the saline IV drip and there, stretched out on a metal hospital bed on a small island off the Korean coast, I close my eyes.