Friday, December 10, 2010

With A LIttle Help From My "Friends" - The Busselton Report

In the four years we've been going to Langkawi, we've always enjoyed the support of our friends, who would take the trouble to travel all the way there to cheer us on. They would cheer, motivate, run along with us in those moments when we've hit the wall or when we've abandoned hope. They encourage us to go on when we're about to give up, they help keep our sanity while we're doing something completely insane.

Pre-race: The whole town gets ready for the Ironman. 

Going to Busselton to race in Ironman Western Australia, I knew we weren't going to get that level of support. It was too much to ask of our friends to come along for the ride. So, we just had to make do with what was out there; watching people cheer for others. It was going to be a lonely race for us with no one to cheer us on, no one to motivate us.

I was wrong.

The 1500 volunteers and the supporters lining up the run course were great. They cheered everybody on, regardless of whether they knew them or not. They called you out by name. They kept you motivated. They kept you going. In the absence of our friends, this was the next best thing.

Pre-race: Sofian and I goofing around. 12 meter draft zone is looong.

If it wasn't for the great crowd support, I'm not sure I would have been able to finish this race. It was a tough race, for sure. I had known from about 100k on the bike that the target I had set would not be met. From then on it was a case of damage limitation and just finishing in the shortest time possible. In fact, even a PB looked out of the question. When it mattered most, my legs didn't have it.

I had a decent swim. It was the first time swimming in a wetsuit so it felt a bit weird. I think I didn't put it on properly because it felt tight around the shoulders. Ezer helped to hike it up a bit in an attempt to loosen the shoulders, but only the right side loosened up. The left side still felt a bit constricted. Sure enough, 100m into the swim, my left arm went dead. It was just so tiring to try and move the left arm. At one point, I was even swimming with just my right arm toe give the left one a rest! Not funny.

Pre-race: The famous jetty we had to swim around. It was a long way to the end. 

We got to the turnaround and I was afraid to check my time. Didn't want to cause myself any unnecessary panic if I were too far behind. I looked around and there were quite a few heads bobbing around me so I knew I was ok. By now the left arm was already numb from tiredness and didn't put up much of a fight. Water was a bit rough on the way back and at one point it didnt look like I was making any forward progress. But since the water was sooooo clear, I could see the floor and that assured me that I was, indeed, moving forward.

Race: This wetsuit makes me look fat!

Finally got out or the water in 1h34m. Now comes the difficult part: getting the suit off! Luckily, I had practiced this the day before and got out of the top part relatively easily. A quick run through the showers, grabbed my T1 bag and I was met by helpers in the change tent. These guys are great. They helped take the rest of the suit off, emptied your bag, and set about putting your stuff on. Before I knew what was going on, my race belt, helmet and shoes were already on! One guy was putting sun screen on, and another one was packing my swim stuff into the bag. And just like that, I was ready to go riding!

Out on the bike, I was going at a good clip. Within the first few kilometres, I was already passing people. I was averaging about 32-34km/h without exerting myself too much. With such a flat course doing a 6 hour bike shouldn't be a problem, right?


As I approached the 15km turnaround, I was pedaling along at about 35km/h. Hit the brakes for the very narrow u-turn, turned and suddenly my helmet was filled with the sound of the wind. I got out of the saddle to power on the pedals and the bike just didn't move. This must be the nastiest headwind I've ever encountered! I was pushing on the pedals like I was doing 40km/h but the speedo said, "Sorry, it's only 25!"

Race: Heading out towards the first turnaround, before facing the headwinds.

And that really was the story of my bike leg. Nice tailwinds heading east and north, nasty headwinds heading west and south. And the more I tried to pedal through the winds, the more tired my legs were getting. It was the same for everyone, but my legs just couldn't cope. The worse part is, the winds got stronger and stronger with each passing loop.

Race: End of first loop, can still smile.

At 100km, my legs cramped up. At this point, I was on pace to do a 6:30-6:40 bike. But now, I could no longer push the big gears without my my legs seizing up. I took salt tablets but it didn't seem to help. I had to just get through the next 80km and hope the legs don't completely seize up.

Race: Starting the second loop

The last 10k was probably the longest 10k I've ever had the pleasure of cycling. The headwinds heading back to town had really picked up and I was pushing on the pedals to just do 20km/h. I swear if I stopped pedaling, the wind would push me backwards! But it was difficult to keep pedaling because then my legs would seize up. I put the chain in the small ring and tried to spin all the way back. Anything to get home.

Arrived at T2 after 7h01m on the bike, and I couldn't even manage a flying dismount. As it was I couldn't even lift my legs over the saddle! Again, the helpers were wonderful. They held my bike while I slowly tried to get off. In the change tent, same thing. The helpers unpacked my bag, put my stuff on, repacked my bag and sent me off.

Race: First loop of the run leg, when I can still run!

Now this is where it gets exciting. I ran the first km ok then my legs cramped up again. That was the story of the run: run, cramp, walk, repeat. But throughout the 42k journey, the supporters lining the streets kept me going. At the beginning of every loop, you have to go into the town centre, right next to the finish line where they've erected grand stands and a large screen. The atmosphere here is electric! You hear the Voice of Ironman, Mike Reilly, announcing the finishers, you hear and see the crowd in the grandstands cheering on all the athletes, calling your name like they know you!

Race: Start of the last loop, reduced to a walk. 

I wondered how this was possible: how did they know my name? Did I meet them during these past few days and, in my delirium at the time, forget who they were? Then it dawned on me: my name was on my bib! So I responded back, slapped their outstretched hands, joked around with them a bit. And this happened all throughout the 42k, save for that lonely 4k stretch by the beach. When we ran (or walked, in my case) past the houses, the residents would come out and give us more of the same. On my last loop, one family even took out a string of coloured lights to mimic the finishing arch. I crossed it like I crossed the finish line and high-fived the whole family. Another household was blaring music and encouraged us to sing along. And when they saw you walking, they offered words of encouragement: "keep going", "you're going in the right direction", "you're still moving, that's all that matters". Here, the crowd would probably tell you to get on the bus!

Race: The finish line. Finally!

And so it was, with the help of my newfound friends, all of whom I don't know their names (though they certainly knew mine!), I finished the Ironman Western Australia in 15h20m, a personal best by 5 minutes but nowhere near the 13h32m target I had set for myself. I ran down that finishing chute, slapping high fives to every outstretched hand as I heard Mike Reilly yell, "Nik. Arif. Sidek. You. Are. An. Ironman!" over the PA system. I crossed the line and let out a primal roar. This was probably the hardest Ironman I've ever completed. The cold weather, the strong winds, the cramps didn't make things any easier.

Race: The finisher picture

But it was certainly one of the ones I enjoyed the most. The only thing that would have made it better was to have all my friends there to support as well. To the 1500 volunteers and countless supporters that day, this one's for you!

Post-race: All that money and effort for a towel, a t-shirt and a medal!

Post-race: The medal I worked so hard for

Post-race: "WE DID IT!" The Malaysian contingent

Photos courtesy of Claris and Finisherpix