Date: April 19 2014
Location: Taitung, Taiwan
Distance: 1.9 / 90 / 21.1
I have wanted to race in Taiwan for the past couple of years at the Taiwan 70.3, which takes place in November – however for whatever reason, have never been able to make it happen. After hearing great reviews of the inaugural Challenge Taiwan event in 2013, I committed to adding the half distance race (they also run a full iron distance race simultaneously) to my schedule for this year. The race is held in Taitung, on the southeast coast of Taiwan. The area is quite spectacular, with a range of jagged mountains jutting up into the sky along a pristine tropical coastline lined with farms, rice fields and small villages.
Having never raced so early in the year, I headed into Challenge Taiwan Half telling myself that it was to be a training race, and the real beginning of the long buildup to Kona in October, with the primary goal being to come out the other side a little fitter, firming up the launching pad to jump into the next level of training. I knew it would be a long shot after coming straight out of the long Hokkaido winter, but realistically the competitive side of me wanted to perform well and aim to achieve a solid result. Training throughout the winter had steadily progressed since late January, and up until 5 weeks ago I had felt like the fitness was progressing to a satisfactory level, when I was hit with three different colds over three consecutive weeks. Not ideal, and really only left me with one relatively moderate volume training week (17 hours), before I scaled the effort back about 6 days pre-race to freshen up.
Arriving in Taitung was fun, and as soon as I walked into the race hotel I saw a group of pros mingling in the lobby including Chris McCormack, Belinda & Justin Granger, Hillary Biscay, Dylan McNeice, Guy Crawford, Kate Bevilaqua, Jason Shortis, and Petr Vabrousek to name a few… The cool thing about triathlon is just how close you can actually get to the pros, unlike almost any other sport, and the ‘fan’ in me always gets excited!
The day before the race is always busy – registration, bike building, transition bag and other gear organization, bike check-in, try to get some rest/time off feet (if at all possible) and an early night. As I built my bike the issues began – firstly when a bolt snapped clean in half as I evidently over-tightened it while attaching my aerobar to the stem – I guess the torque wrench is broken?! Next, and more stressful was when I noticed an issue with my rear brake (i) not stopping the wheel when fully closed, and (ii) not releasing after braking, thus staying in contact with the rim, and the rim not being able to spin freely.
I took the bike to the mechanic at the race expo who took a quick look and told me to come back in an hour. Upon my return the news wasn’t what I wanted to hear – the rear brake is broken and you’ll need to find a bike shop who sells the same parts, otherwise you can’t race. Panic struck! I bumped into the Grangers (both Ceepo sponsored pros) in he hotel lobby and took a shot in the dark by asking if they happened to have any spare brakes (who travels with spare brake parts?!). As expected, their answer was no, but Belinda directed me to a bike shop downtown. It was now getting late in the afternoon, and I just wanted to be checked-in and have my feet up.
Long story short, but after a panic and stress filled 90 minutes, the mechanic at the bike shop was amazing. He discovered that the brake had not been correctly installed (among a few other potentially serious issues stemming from the bike build a month ago). The hidden rear TPR bakes, whilst very aero, are super tricky to access and perform maintenance on, and with the brake entirely disassembled, as well as the chain rings removed, the legend mechanic methodically reinstalled the entire brake system and had everything back in one piece just in time for me to pedal furiously to the bike check-in (my pre-race training ride!) just in time. He only wanted to charge me 200 Taiwan Dollars (about 700 yen) to save my life – too cheap, I couldn’t believe it. I slipped him a 500 TWD bill, which he hesitantly accepted. What a champ!
Finally, late in the afternoon, my guts started rumbling in a strange way, and without going into the unpleasant details, from that point on, all night, and all the way up until 1 hour before the race I was on the toilet every 2-3 hours to let whatever it was hurriedly escape from my system, dehydrating myself in the process. Not ideal with around 30 degrees forecast for race day.
Leading into the race, my coach Bevan Colless had been trying to stir up a bit of a rivalry between myself and gun Hong Kong/Slovakia expat Michal Bucek. Bucek is a weapon, and I’m glad he’s actually in the 30-34 age group – he was first age grouper overall in the 2013 race.
Swim (1.9km) – 29:24
The usually early (4:30am this time) wake up, a quick breakfast to replenish some of what had been lost overnight, I jumped on the bus to head to the start area at Flowing Lake. After one last ‘pit stop’ at the port-a-loo (pretty disgusting, and should have been avoided at all costs, but when you gotta go…), all that was left to do was one final bike check, and slide into the wetsuit ready for the start.
The swim was in a long rectangular shaped man made freshwater reservoir – kind of like a huge pool about one kilometer long. The course was a simple out and back route. As announcer Whit Raymond announced the pros, I overheard him also mention my name as a ‘contender to watch out for’ – not sure where he pulled that from, but pretty cool all the same!
As the cannon blasted to start the race, I swam hard to stay in clean water and avoid any kicks to the head. By about 200m however I knew something wasn’t right, and slowed my tempo to what felt more manageable, and told myself just to get the swim done as best you can, and see how you feel. Struggling to find a rhythm, I was able to find a set of feet to sit behind, and just followed the broken water & bubbles, making things a bit easier. Looking further ahead I could see a group of maybe 10-15 athletes about 30 meters ahead, and although the guy I was sitting behind was maybe swimming a bit slower than I may have been able to sustain, I knew there was no chance of me being able to bridge the gap to the pack ahead. I sat on the same guy until just before the half-way turnaround at, and although still feeling like a brick, I made the decision to pass him and find my own pace, with him then jumping onto my feet. My time in the lead was short lived, and about 300m later I eased up to let my buddy pass me so I could hold his draft and let him lead me home into T1, where I was happy to get out of the water – although the 600m run to the change tent was rough with my heart rate in overdrive.
My Garmin calculated the course as 2,080m, and also heard others mention that they thought the course was a bit long.
Bike (90km) – 2:23:36 (fastest in age group, 4th fastest overall)
As soon as I jumped on the bike, I immediately felt good. The course was certainly not flat like many had said pre-race, but rather a rolling route on fast roads skirting a stunning coastline. I had to refocus a few times, as I caught myself checking the waves rolling through a few nice little reef setups.
Nutrition for the bike was 2x Bonk Breaker bars, a mix of water & 8x High-5 gels in my down tube aero bottle, a pack of Clif Shot Bloks (margarita flavour) to chew on, and 2x salt capsules every 30 minutes. BTA (between-the-arms) water bottles were replaced at each aid station.
After the horrible night before and lethargic swim, I was surprised how good I felt on two wheels, and jumped into a very positive mindset as I began picking off and passing the athletes in front of me. I caught up with Michal Bucek at the 10km mark and as I passed him I indicated forward with my index finger as a way to say “lets hit the gas and get up the road together”. Bucek’s bike split last year was 2:15, which is very quick, so to be passing him so early was a good sign for my race. As it turned out, he was having an off day, was vomiting on the bike, and eventually retired from the race.
Training and racing with a power meter is very new to me, and I’m still figuring it out. The aim was to sit at around 80-85% of my FTP (functional threshold power – or the power one should be able to sustain for an extended period of exertion – geeky, I know!). For me, this meant holding between 225-245 Watts for the whole 90km.
As I continued to pass riders, I caught up to and passed professionals Justin Granger (Australia) and Zsombor Deak (Romania). I noticed right away that they jumped straight on to my pace, and after a few kms, Zsombor passed me and suggested that the 3 of us ride together, each taking 5-10mins on the front, with the others sitting legally (no closer than 7 meters) behind one another. This worked well – although not so sure Justin did his fair share on the front 😉 – and before I knew it we were at the 45km turnaround point. I didn’t check the split time, but recall hearing my watch alert beep at 60mins just a few minutes earlier, so we were flying!!
The day then began unravelling from that point. At 47km my chain suddenly dropped off while I was leading our little pace group. As I slowed to pull over and fix it, I saw Justin and Zsombor roar past – nice riding with ya! (Although I lost Justin and Zsombor, it was interesting to see my bike time was still faster overall than their times!).
Chain fixed, I was now solo, and the headwind on the way back was much stronger than I had expected – I knew it would be a battle from this point. Apart from the few noticeable undulations, it also felt like the whole final 45km was an uphill false flat, making it an energy-sapping grind. Although hurting, I focused on staying low and aero, and keeping the pedals turning. Battling against the wind and hills, I noticed my power output was high (300W+) for extended periods, while my real speed seemed slow – not a good equation.
Hurting, with the bike coming to a close, and the half marathon run fast approaching, I noticed how hot the temperature had become under the blazing sun. I was struggling, and free-wheeled down a couple of the final slight downhill sections in an effort to freshen up my energy-depleted legs before entering T2.
Run (21.1km) – 2:00:06
All-star race MC Whit was still keeping the crowd pumped up as I entered T2. It was cool hearing him point out to the crowd how I had been training in the snow before this hot race! After taking a minute to compose myself privately in the change tent, I hit the run in 1st place in my age group.
My run training has been going really well, better than my swim and biking, and I was confident of a strong half marathon. My target was to start the run at a pace of 4:15/km, and hold the pace as long as possible – how deluded THAT expectation turned out to be!! I managed to hold my target pace for about 300m before immediately hitting a wall and walking – oh no, still 20.8km to go! My legs were completely empty, at that brief moment (things would soon take a turn for the worst) the mind was very willing, but for whatever reason I just couldn’t get moving, the engine had stalled.
I think I walked about 4 times in the first 3km, walking for well over one minute each time, the rest of the time stumbling through a low-footed shuffle, and barely holding onto a pace of 5:30/km. At 4km, the guts decided enough was enough, and sent out a mouthful of foul sickly sweet gel/cola tasting liquid onto the pavement. With over 15km still to run, it was almost too mentally unbearable to fathom, and everything inside me wanted to stop, lay down and go to sleep. For whatever reason, I kept moving forward with a mix of slow jogging and walking, and at one stage took some respite on a park bench at the 9km mark.
I claimed a small victory once I passed the 10.5km half-way point, and committed to making it home. I broke the rest of the run down into 2km portions, limping from aid station to aid station, where although not being able to stomach anything other than the odd mouthful of water, I tried keeping cool by dumping cups of water over my head and taking as many cold sponges as I could. I was passed at random intervals by several athletes having better days, although to be honest I felt like I was moving so slowly that runners would be passing me en mass, which really wasn’t the case. Women’s winner Kate Rutherford (HK) passed me at around 15km, followed closely by another HK friend and fast guy Olivier Courret. Although parting with the contents of my digestive system twice more on the run, the last 4 or 5km actually felt better than the first half, albeit at a snail’s pace.
With 1km to go I focused on filling my head with positive thoughts – my wife & kids mostly, and actually noticed myself enjoying the last few hundred meters as the noise of the finish area was suddenly so close! Crossing the finish line with Whit Raymond once again going ballistic on the mic was very satisfying, as 90minutes earlier I was ready to give up.
Awesome service by the Challenge staff and volunteers in helping me to a chair and running around to grab cold towels, bags of ice and cold drinks for me! Funnily enough, Macca pulled up a chair next to me for some treatment by the medical staff too – he looked pretty beat up as well, and we traded war stories for a good half hour!
Total time: 5:01:07
Placing: 3rd M35-39 Age Group | 16th Overall
Mixed feelings after the toughest day I can remember. Although only half distance, the combination of being early in the season, a very hot race straight out of winter, being sick for several week leading up to the race, being sick the night before the race, bike mechanical stress, and not enough HTFU pills, definitely made this one to remember, or forget, depending on how you look at it. Not quite sure how I managed to hang on for a podium finish, and not so sure the performance deserves it.
The biggest positive I can take away is that I hung tough mentally for those 2 brutal hours on the run, when the demons were screaming to quit. A very humbling day, and it’s probably good to get beat up once in a while. Hopefully the body absorbs Challenge Taiwan well, and I can now launch into the next phase of training feeling all the stronger for it. Now looking at the calendar to plan some redemption.
A big thanks to my sponsors Zoot Japan and Ceepo for the fantastic support and high performance equipment. Special thanks to Megan and Sam at Ceepo Taiwan for coming to my rescue multiple times, and helping me get the bike on the road to race – loving the Katana!