“You are only as good as your last race” is one of Coach’s favorite sayings. As the youngest of the TBB ironchicks (until LC or Angela step up to the distance…soon enough!), I consider Ironman to be my distance, and so up until this past weekend, I was only as good as the 12:44 I struggled through last April at the inaugural Ironman China. That was a 1:28 swim, a 6:08 bike ride, and a very painful 5:01 run in blazing hot conditions. I was still working full-time doing my prosthetics residency this time last year, and had not yet gone to any of the team training camps.
I was very eager to test out my newfound fitness and mental toughness after two training camps in Subic. I also knew the heat acclimitization would help so much more. On the especially hot days in the Philippines, I would tell myself “China is hotter.” I slept with the air conditioning off. Towards the end of camp I knew I was ready for the heat when I got back from one of our last long rides and told Scott, “it wasn’t so bad today, was it? That didn’t feel very hot at all.” He thought I was being sarcastic and when he realized I was serious, he looked like he wanted to shoot me. It turned out to be one of the hottest days in Subic that day.
It was relatively cool when we arrived in Haikou and the day before the race, it thunderstormed and the forecast for race day quickly rose, but “only” to about the low 30′s C (86-92 F). My generic race strategy was something like “race happy.” This would be my sixth Ironman and second one as a pro, and I was familiar with the highs and lows you go through when racing this distance. Coach has gotten to know my personality well enough to figure out that if I’m not happy, then I don’t go so well. And since my swimming is currently at a level far behind all the other pros, I was expected to lose some time to everyone in the swim, but was instructed to not let that bother me. “Damage control,” he said.
What I didn’t expect was to be so far behind in the swim. The new swim course was in the Nandu River, which had a 2km/hr current going towards the left. We swam a loop going counter-clockwise, so we would have to battle the current on the way back. They even shortened the swim course on the “upstream” return leg so that we got to exit the water early and run about 300 meters along the shore. A lot of the stronger swimmers thought that was bullshit, but I was pretty stoked–hey, maybe I would get that one-hour swim!
Being a typical Chinese girl who got all A’s in math, I was very good at geometry and calculus (vectors!) and figured that would help me navigate the current successfully. My miscalculations probably arose from underestimating the strength of the current and overestimating my strength as a swimmer. I was aiming in the proper directions, but it wasn’t enough. The current was so fast that it was visible just standing on the shore, and it was very confusing once I was on the swim course because it looked like the buoys marking the corners of the course were moving.
The pros weren’t allowed to wear wetsuits, but age-groupers were. I lined up in the front of our mass start crowd with the other pros in my BlueSeventy PointZero3+ speedsuit (the next best non-wetsuit option) and immediately got swam over by many wetsuit-clad amateurs. I thought at least I would have someone to swim with, but after the first buoy, everyone had different ideas on how to navigate the course, and the “mass start” was only 350 strong. The current smashed me up against the first two buoys as I tried to go around them and I remember being mad that they hadn’t tied down the buoys properly, I was very frustrated that I seemed more incompetent at swimming than usual and it took me most of the swim to figure out that the buoys really weren’t moving, it was the stupid current.
I got shot down the downstream leg quickly but seemed forever stuck once I had to fight directly against the current. I wasn’t going anywhere, and if I got tired and decreased my effort at all, I would get swept further downstream. Finally I made the decision to aim toward the shore instead of toward the finish, and was able to head into shallower water where the current was a bit weaker. When I finally made it out of the water the first time, I hit what would be the lowest point of my whole day: my watch read 47 minutes and Tereza had apparently lapped me as she was finishing the swim and heading to her bike while I still had one lap to go!
The volunteers knew I was a pro (I got a special green cap) and at first directed me back towards transition (we were all confused) and tempting as that would be, I didn’t want to be DQ’d and sadly announced “I still have to swim my second lap!” I dragged my feet a little getting back into the water, I really didn’t want to go back in again but took the plunge. The second time was not much different, I at least had learned to navigate a little better, I still thought the buoys were moving, and the current was even stronger the second time. I was shot down the backstretch so fast that I was disoriented because I couldn’t believe I swam that fast. I remembered to direct myself all the way to the shore and was able to take some time off the second lap, it only took me 43 minutes. What was discouraging was to see so many swimmers cutting the swim course short, skipping some of the buoys.
I got out of the water right under 1:30, not my worst swim ever but pretty close (I swam a 1:32 in my very first Ironman 7 years ago), and pretty damn awful for being in by far the best swim fitness of my life. One of the 70.3 competitors called out “It’s ok, Jocelyn! We understand!!” I couldn’t help but smile and laugh, shrugging my shoulders; I remembered “damage control” from Coach and also found it amusing that my superstar status was starting to get me recognized at races. Plus I was just so happy to be DONE with the swim, my day could only get BETTER!
I ran through transition and got swarmed by eager volunteers in the change tent. As I rolled on my special Wongstar socks, they slathered me all over with too much sunblock before I could protest…my first thought was “crap, this is going to mess up my race photos!” (Scroll down to see, I was right!!) And I wasn’t sure I’d be able to sweat properly with so much sunblock. Over to the pro rack to a very patient Khan the Warrior Horse, it is never hard getting your bike out when it is the last one left on the rack.
By now I was all smiles, at least the most disastrous portion of the whole race was behind me, better to get it over with at the beginning, and at least it’s the smallest portion of the whole race too. I headed out on the bike and took the first 40k relatively easy, there was a bit of a headwind and I was going to play it smart. Ironman is a long day and I didn’t want to blow up on the bike like last year. This year I went sans aero helmet and Khan was without race wheels (I had a disc wheel cover and Hed3 front last year). In case it got hot, I didn’t want to cook my brain again, and Coach has told me I first need to demonstrate a bike split worthy of race wheels. I grabbed a bottle of Gatorade at every aid station (about every half hour) and munched on the Hello Panda cookies in my bento box.
How to Become an Asian Triathlon Superstar, Step #19: Bike the fastest you’ve ever biked while munching on a very Asian snack stamped with a very Asian mascot.
“The bike is a restaurant,” were my instructions. My Hello Pandas were my happy snack: they are bite-sized chocolate filled biscuits with cute little pandas printed on them. I had practiced with them on my long rides in training–the only time I get to eat chocolate during training–and the pandas and chocolate always made me happy. I knew they would help keep me both emotionally and nutritionally stable during the race! Plus ever since the Beijing Olympics, the pandas stamped on the cookies were now athletic little pandas that played various sports. We were meant to be.
The two villages of Shi Shan and Dao Tang were about midway through the 90k bike loop, and my favorite part of the bike course. It was great passing by the locals, with many kids cheering “Jai yo! Jai yo!” Sometimes I would yell back “Jai yo!” or “Xie xie!” or “Ni hao!” I got a tailwind on the way back and hit about 2:50 for my first bike loop. This was about the same halfway split I got last year, but this time I figured I wouldn’t have my brain cooked and could maintain the pace for a 5:40 instead of dropping to a 6:08.
When I started the next loop, I anticipated a small headwind again and was surprised I didn’t really feel one. I was going faster, so I thought maybe I was lucky enough to have a perpetual tailwind, or maybe my legs had just needed to warm up. Recently I seem to go faster the second half (like in Singapore) so I think I am just getting better at pacing. The second loop really did go quicker (by 5mins), although the second time through the villages, the locals were not as enthusiastic as they had been the first time. I also started feeling a headache come on, which I found unusual as that never happened in training, and it didn’t feel very hot. Turns out my sense of temperature is just warped now, by the end of the bike apparently it was already hitting the 100′s (40′s in C). I ended chugging extra bottles of Gatorade and pouring some water over my head through the (NON-AERO) helmet. I passed a ton of age group men during the last hour, many who seemed genuinely surprised to hear a girl yelling “passing on the left!” I secretly laughed at all the race wheels that I had been so envious of at bike check-in the previous day. My trusty but uber heavy $120 set of training wheels from Performance will do for now. I think only one amateur guy passed me on the whole bike course, but I figured all the faster cyclists had totally outswam me and I just never saw them. The extra Gatorade seemed to help stave off the headache (I must have had at least a dozen bottles) and when I got off the bike, I felt pretty good, especially seeing that I went under 5:40 on the bike, my first time under 6 hours by over 30mins!
I was pretty excited at this point because I knew I could still have a fast overall time today. I had told my mom I hoped to be done by around 3am California time, which was 6pm China time or 11 hours race clock time. This was a very general estimate as I knew I was fitter and due for a PR, but I just didn’t know how much by. This estimate was also a “normal weather” estimate and not an “extreme heat” estimate. I didn’t make a separate “extreme heat” estimate, it was just classified as slightly slower. The twisted part was as I was biking (and even the first half of the marathon) I thought “good thing it’s not as hot today, I think I can still get my 11 hours even though my swim stank.”
I got through the change tent again, telling the volunteers I didn’t want any sunblock. “Bu yao!!” The nice part was they threw all these ice bags over my back, shoulders, and neck as I put on my running shoes, magic running sticks, and visor. I also strapped on my secret weapon: my Camelbak hydration system. I was the only one in the change tent again (but this time for being one of the first on the run and not one of the last out of the swim) and the volunteer girls were so excited to help out. “Xie xie!” I yelled as they cheered me out of transition.
I was all smiles heading out of transition and got the official TV camera in my face. “How are you feeling?” the camera man asked. I had actually been interviewed before the race by the TV crew and I was one of the athletes they would try to follow on race day. “I’m feeling pretty good!” I happily declared. “I had a great bike and it didn’t feel so hot, but I see a lot of people walking. But I have my Camelbak and I’m going to start catching people!” As I bounced along, Donna passed me going the opposite way and cautioned me “Control it, Jocelyn!” Oh, right. I dialed it back and told myself to take the first 10 to 14k pretty easy. This was the first place where I could gauge where I was in relation to the other pro women, it was a 10k loop out of transition so I knew Donna was almost 10k in front of me. Which was 45mins to an hour maybe? That wasn’t so bad, I was about 45mins behind Tereza out of the water, so maybe I didn’t lose much time on the bike.
I saw a lot of my TBB teammates on that first 10k and nobody looked very good. Ok, nobody TBB or otherwise looked good. I probably looked like a psycho out there, I had a huge grin on my face because I was so happy to be out there. I feel good, I’m racing in China, and I’m going to have a big PR today! And it’s not nearly as hot as last year! Ok, that last statement was perception. Heat camp obviously worked since it was reported that the temperatures were 113*F or 45*C, even hotter than last year. The first few swigs of my Camelbak Gatorade tasted like soap (eww) and it was a little warm, but at least it was the lemon flavor that I still like even if it’s not cold. The best part about having your own aid station on your back is that you can breeze through the real aid stations. I would just grab a cold bottle of water (“bing shui!”) and pour it over my head and body as I ran, then chuck it to the side. I sipped on the Camelbak every 2k or so and was definitely hydrated, I had to pee throughout the whole marathon but didn’t stop. And I have yet to master peeing on myself so I had the internal debate whether to stop or not for quite a way.
When I hit the 14k mark (one-third done), my watch read “1:18″ so I knew I just had to hold that pace to go under 4 hours. I also anticipated speeding up (which I actually did, believe it or not) so I wasn’t worried. My next 14k took me through a section of the city by the finish line, and there was a great line-up of volunteers, spectators, and policemen. This was very favorite part, being Chinese I definitely had superstar status and since I may very well have been the ONLY person smiling in the entire race, I got so much crowd support! They cheered for me EXTRA and that in turn gave me a huge boost. I definitely had a bigger bounce in my step (well, my shuffle) and my pace picked up without any increase in effort.
One highlight was approaching that shaded aid station when I heard a lot of cheering. I looked up, and four Chinese boys were standing on the overpass way over our heads yelling for me. I smiled and waved, eliciting even more cheers…and that pretty much sums up my marathon. Shuffle shuffle, sip, sip, smile and wave. Every now and then I would sing out “Ni hao!” or “Xie xie!” and if the crowds were too quiet I would say “hey, where’s my jai yo?!”
I hit the special needs a little past halfway, and grabbed my defizzed bottle of rocket fuel to refill my Camelbak. As the volunteer tried to help me, there was a bit of spillage and like a truly authentic Chinese girl, the first word out of my mouth was “Aiyaaa!!” The Coke mix was pretty warm by then, but I knew the caffeine and sugar would be magic for me, so sip-sip-sip it was. Since I ran through the aid stations only grabbing water to dump on my head, I think that is where I made up so much time on people. I ran probably 99% of the entire marathon.
After having done two track marathons in training, I can honestly say that this is the shortest the marathon has ever seemed to me in an Ironman. But I could tell I was getting tired the last third. I had split the run into thirds: 14k/28k… then when I hit 30k I thought about my first track marathon. For that session, Coach had told me to hold an easy pace the first 30k. If I felt good then, I could pick it up, but I had to wait til #30. And if I didn’t feel so good, just maintain the pace. The marathon in China was a maintenance pace by then. When I hit 32k, my watch said something like 2:56 run time and 10:09 total time. And I thought, how long does it take me to run 10k? 6.2 miles? 1 hour at the slowest! I know I can do it in an hour for sure. Which would mean I can actually finish in under 11:10? Even with a horrendous swim? Ok, cool, let’s do this. This was during a short but very lonely stretch of the race that was pretty devoid of any spectators or aid stations, and at last I lost my winning smile as I focused on getting through the heat…which I was finally feeling the effects of. But I tried to keep my spirits up, if I was racing happy I would be racing well.
Still, I was really in disbelief that the marathon was going by so quickly as the 30-something kilometer marks ticked by. I was sure that it should be taking longer and didn’t really believe the 36k, the 38k marks painted on the ground because I knew there had been some last minute course changes. I thought: how cruel it must be to let a competitor think they are almost done when they have more than 8k, 6k to go. But at last I saw the final sign, 40k, in black and white and my face lit up like… a Chinese firecracker (sorry, how corny is that, I couldn’t think of anything else). So it’s really true! I really only have 2k to go!!
At 40k to go, the superstar inside of me came alive. I had the hugest smile in the world as I nearly sprinted through the city and the masses. I couldn’t believe I was going to get such a massive PR, that I would be finishing as 8th place pro woman amidst a much more competitive field than last year, that I would finally break my 4-hour marathon on top of my 5:30-something bike. I didn’t even know at that point that I was only the 3rd woman to break 4 hours on the run (there were only 4 of us). And that I would get to do all of this in China, where everyone was cheering their little hearts out for me, where everyone looked like I did and where I was practically one of their own.
I still didn’t believe I was that close to the finish line until I actually crossed the final hump–the little bridge leading up and over to the finish banner. Donna later asked “well didn’t you remember it from last year?” Well no, of course I didn’t remember it from last year. Things look A LOT different in the dark than they do in broad daylight, and I was pretty much fried and delirious trying to finish a year ago.
It is hard to describe the feeling of going through that finish chute with what was honestly my very first solid Ironman finish; it was something I had thought about and dreamt about throughout most of my training in Subic and at home. But as modern technology is so wonderful, you can see the finish videos for yourself, and if a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video is worth a billion. Here’s 4,000 words:
How to Become an Asian Triathlon Superstar: Step #20: Psych out the competition by smiling your whole damn way to a huge new Ironman PR… in 113*F heat!
I’m sorry if the other competitors want to shoot me at this point, but I really didn’t think it was that hot. It is amazing what physical and mental adaptions one can make. Coach’s last email to me was to get my mind ready for a tough day, and if I didn’t need it, then it would be a bonus. As I raced I honestly thought, “well he said to prepare for a tough day, but it’s not as tough as last year, so that’s good. Now I have some extra mental toughness prepared in my bonus bag for next time.”
And now I believe more than ever that I have what it takes to become an Asian Triathlon Superstar. It may take 50 steps, or more than 100, but I know I will get there.
I wish to thank:
* BlueSeventy for my PointZero3+ speedsuit. I wish I could’ve used the Helix instead but rules are rules! and I cringe to think how much slower I would’ve gone if I didn’t even have a speedsuit!!
* Cervelo, Oval Concepts, and ISM for the fastest bike on training wheels, Khan the Warrior Horse!
* Avia for the bomb-proof Avi-Rhythms that helped carry me to the 3rd fastest women’s run split.
* My travel sponsor Mark Cathcart for helping me get to and from Asia for the second time now, and for truly believing in me.
* Jeju for the financial support.
* Scody for the cool looking race kits with (most importantly) the matching sports bras that double as ice-holders.
* TeamTBB: Alex and Brett for believing in me, a scrappy and hardly talented age grouper with big dreams that some may call delusional, and for guiding me on the path to athletic success; and to all my teammates who have become genuinely supportive of me. I know that some of you thought “WTF is she doing here” during my first week of camp, and it’s ok, I thought the same thing, but I hope I’ve shown that I’ve worked really hard and really belong here. I hope I’ve made all of you really proud and have no fear, I will only get better from here.