Cobra Ironman 70.3 Triathlon: Life lessons learned from the tail end | Inquirer Sports

Cobra Ironman 70.3 Triathlon: Life lessons learned from the tail end

/ 10:21 PM August 20, 2011

Triathlete. There’s a nice ring to it. Ironman? That sounds even better.

And so with numb and clammy hands, sore muscles, blistered soles, a tender crotch, a body sapped of all strength and a mind drained of all emotions—and barely a couple hours after the ordeal—I started writing this personal account from the tail end of the Cobra Ironman 70.3 Triathlon in Camarines Sur last Sunday.

I was given this writing assignment at the last minute—on the eve of what would be the toughest physical thing I’d ever do in my life. Which was both good and bad.

Bad because it had given me more things to worry about—as if swimming 1.9 kilometers in two stinking lakes, biking 90 kilometers in the driving rain and running 21 kilometers of concrete, dirt, mud and gravel within the required eight hours were not enough to worry about. A super human effort like this sometimes gets a writer’s metaphors all mixed up.

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Good because the mental notes I was taking for this article had given me distraction from the physical and mental pain of the effort. (I actually started composing this article while swimming, thought of the title on the bike ride, and decided on the lead when I was sprinting to the finish line.)

On a wet Sunday morning in the highways and back roads of Camarines Sur, I ticked a decades-old item off my bucket list and earned the right to be called an Ironman. Never mind that it would take me more than 30 years of wondering if I’d ever make it,  nine months of hard-core training, and twice the time it took the overall winner to finish the 113 kilometers of the Ironman 70.3 Triathlon.

An outrageous idea

Triathlon is a multi-disciplined sport—an outrageous idea of swimmers, cyclists and runners in the 70s to settle the question of who was the fittest of the three groups of athletes. They thought of combining a 2.4-mile (3.8-km) swim, a 112-mile (180-km) bike ride, and the full 26.2-mile (42.195-km) distance of the marathon and called it a triathlon.

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The three legs were considered long distance in each discipline so the triathlon was limited to a few hardy souls who did not have a life elsewhere. They thought of an even more presumptuous title—Ironman— and set up its headquarters in Kailua-Kona in Hawaii, the Mecca of triathlon.

Next they decided to cut the distances in half to make it within reach of people who had half a life. That’s the half-Ironman, the 70.3-mile event they held in CamSur.  They then went metric and reduced it further to a standard distance (1.5K swim, 40K bike and 10K run) and the sport made it to the Olympics in Sydney in 2000.

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Cutting the distances further to sprints and mini-sprints, they opened triathlon to anyone who could barely swim, bike and/or run—people who had jobs, homes, families, and friends and pets. People who had lives to live, the ones who paid taxes and qualified to be tallied in the census.

And almost four decades later, they still haven’t settled the issue of who’s the fittest of them all.

I had a life until I decided to put it on hold late last year. Having done a few triathlons of various shorter distances the past 12 months, I wasn’t going to stop until I got the title Ironman. So for almost eight hours last Sunday, I was going to get kicked in the butt, elbowed in the chops, heckled to my face, and scared s**t on the road. A triathlon, like life, is a very humbling experience. Also, I was going to be cheered on by kids, blown kisses by country girls, pampered by volunteers, and get hugged at the finish line.

SWIM

I didn’t know until I took the plunge into triathlons that swimming was a contact sport. Jostling, pushing, elbowing and kicking were par for the course. Part of the workouts imposed by head coach Jojo Macalintal and Andrew Limjoco on my 30-member TriMac Triathlon Team was to simulate the mass start in the event. But nothing prepared us for the hundreds that crowded the start of the 1.9 kilometer swim leg of the CamSur Ironman—an out-and-back swim on the big lake of the CamSur Watersports Complex and single loop around the smaller lake on the CWC cable park nearby.

Being a breaststroker in a field of freestylists,  I come from the shallow end of the gene pool, as a teammate would say. So I had always steered clear of the mayhem at the start of swim leg, hoping the faster freestylists would get out of my way soon and I’d be left alone in the slow lane to swim at my own pace. I learned long ago—and confirmed last Sunday—that life need not be a rat race.

A hundred meters into the lake, I found out I was not at the bottom of the food chain. There were many slower breaststrokers and a few freestylists to be swallowed up. You need not be in the fast lane to be eaten alive.

As I held on to the rope for the first of many stops in the water, a freestylist hit his head into a nearby buoy and as he struggled to stay afloat, he elbowed me in the rib cage and hit me in the back of the head. “Oops, sorry,” he said shortly before inhaling a gulp of the murky water. Part of the game, I shrugged.

Farther down the lake, I caught up with another swimmer. I didn’t see his stroke but I was sure it was breaststroke, judging from the tenacity of his frog kick as it hit the side of my butt. Can’t trust fellow breaststrokers anymore. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there.

Breaststroke vs freestyle

There’s a cold war, waged only in whispers, between freestylists and breaststrokers in this ever growing multi sport. Breaststroke, by nature, is slow and breaststrokers have this inferiority complex that keeps them in the back of the pack. The faster freestylists look at them as a nuisance, mainly because they occupy a bigger lane in the water and their wide strokes and vigorous frogkicks pose a hazard to the smooth-stroking, flutter-kicking freestylists. But breaststrokers often get a big kick out of beating slower freestylists during the race. Once in a while, the Davids of this world manage a few surprises on the Goliaths.

Soon, the big turnaround buoy in the big lake—which had seemed so far away from the swim start—came into focus. Up close, the big buoy looked like an iceberg and, if there was any doubt about it, the sign said ICEBERG. What a sight for fogged and goggled eyes.

It was a trouble-free glide back to shore and I was on dry land in 39 minutes—a minute faster than planned. In high spirits, I jogged the short distance to the small lake and quickly dove into it. Immediately, I noticed, nay smelled, the difference between the two lakes. Water in the big lake was cleaner and clearer. That of the smaller—and shallower—lake had a nasty smell and was murky. And it tasted funny.

But this was no time to be squeamish. I got more and more confident with every stroke as I got closer and closer to the end of the swim.

I had a big smile on my face as I hit terra firma once more with my teammate, freestylist George Pile, an ophthalmologist who had problems with sighting—many times, he veered off course and that meant he had to cover more distance.

Into the changing tent I went to put on my compression tights, which would keep my leg muscles and blood vessels in place in the bike and run portions.

Mr. Bean in CamSur

I soon discovered why they were called “tights.” What took me just a minute to practice putting them on took me 10 minutes longer in the transition. I didn’t realize it would be so hard to put the tights on a dripping wet body. I had pulled down my swimming trunks and was struggling with the tights when I realized I was naked from the waist down, in full view of the spectators outside the tent, which had no flaps at all.

Frantically keeping my legs together to minimize the public exposure made the task of getting into the tights even harder. It was a hilarious slapstick scene worthy of Mr. Bean. Had I been a lover caught with his pants down when the husband came home, there would have been no escape. I’d be dead by now.

When I was done finally, I casually jogged 50 meters to my bike, hands covering the body markings on both biceps to hide my identity, with my tail between my legs and my head bowed in shame. Doc George had, by then, pedaled away, probably in embarrassment.

As I always do in the bike transition, I counted the number of bikes still in the rack and decided there were still 50 to 60 people still in the water. I put on my bike gear—shades, helmet, gloves, bike socks and shoes, race belt—and loaded up on performance enhancing substances—Power gels, Power Bar, Gatorade, M&Ms and water. Then I was on the saddle for a 90-kilometer Sunday ride, the transition snafu finally behind me.

BIKE

It had been an overcast morning and rain finally came in torrents six kilometers into my bike run. The slippery asphalt and the rain that pelted my face like a sand blast became an excuse to slow down. I was going to make it an easy ride to the town of Goa 45 kilometers away, and back. At kilometer 20, through the blinding rain, I could make out blinking red lights coming at me.  The image became clearer and clearer until I realized it was the pace car.  About a hundred meters behind it was the leading biker, Pete Jacobs, riding like the wind and breezing past me toward the CWC at 40 kilometers per hour uphill while I was going downhill at a cautious 25 kph. That meant the Aussie sonomagun was 50 kilometers ahead of me and still pulling away.

Big events like this always bring out the best—and sometimes the worst— in people. A tailender like me always gets a lot of both. Hecklers were aplenty, some nastier than the others. But the heckling were drowned out by the unadulterated enthusiasm of the younger Bicolanos who came out in full force, many of them students in school uniforms on a Sunday morning. They cheered the frontrunners and tailenders with the same amount of exuberance.

Bands played, cadets saluted and dancers swayed. The kids waved with innocent excitement. I tried once to wave back, but my bike wobbled and nearly crashed into a marching band in full military regalia, interrupting the John Philip Sousa piece they were playing “Good morning, sir.” “Thank you for coming, sir.” “I love you, sir.”’ These were the greetings I got from the longest reception line I’ve ever seen.  But what gave me the biggest push was the incessant cheering of kids throughout the bike and run course. IRONMAN! IRONMAN! IRONMAN!  (Most people elsewhere know Ironman as Robert Downey Jr., not the triathlete. When I told my little Danna that I was doing the Ironman, she thought I was going to see a movie).

The cheering crowds got thicker and louder as we entered town centers. In Tigaon town, the cheering was deafening and I was very touched. Not even the New Yorkers on Marathon Day give tailenders this loud a reception. Then it hit me. The people were looking the other way—Richard Gutierrez, who was doing the bike portion of the triathlon relay, was coming the opposite way.

Reality hit me harder a few hundred meters ahead. A river had swollen from the rains in the outskirts of the town and had overflowed its banks, flooding a small portion of the bridge, and forcing bikers to slow down to cross a veritable stream. Another stretch had turned perilously muddy after the flooding receded. Both were grim reminders of the flooding that had devastated the region weeks earlier.

Tigaon is in another congressional district of the province. The town is to be the capital of the proposed Nueva Camarines, the new province to be carved out of Camarines Sur. Gov. LRay Villafuerte, host of the Cobra Ironman Triathlon, was fighting the partition of his province as proposed by his own father, Rep. Luis Villafuerte, and a former ally, Rep. Noli Fuentebella.

While the people and the political leaders of the province had been divided on the partition issue, on this Sunday morning, they were all united behind the Ironman 70.3 Triathlon.

And the triathletes couldn’t care less. We had enough worries of our own. As I passed the arch welcoming the cyclists to the town of Goa, I knew I was close to the halfway point.

I made the 45-km halfway turnaround in Goa well within my target time—3:30. I dismounted at the triathlete’s equivalent of a golfer’s halfway house to get a refill of all my rehydration bottles. I gagged on a big piece of Power Bar. What a shame it would have been had I been listed as the first casualty of asphyxiation in a triathlon.

On the ride back, the heavy rains had eased up to an occasional drizzle.  Cruising at slow 25 kph I ticked off one kilometer after another. In the town of Ocampo, some 20 kilometers from the finish, I told myself I was nearing the end of the hardest portion of the Ironman. Or so I thought.

I was in my best aero position (Coach Jomac would have been proud), leaning down on my aero bar to cut through the head wind and enjoying the countryside scenery. I was flanked by the foothills of the two lesser known but no less majestic volcanoes in the Bicol region—Mount Iriga to my left and Mount Isarog to my right.

Suddenly, from out of the blue, a big fat goat slipped through the crowd and crossed the road. Another one followed. And then a third one—the blackest and the heftiest of the herd—stepped in and stayed on my path, staring at me and refusing to budge. I had nowhere to go.

Very quickly I hit my rear brake, aware that it was still wet and had little friction. It slowed me a little bit, but it was not enough.  Panicking, I gripped my front brake. With a loud screech, I nearly flipped over. I came to a sudden hairy stop just a couple of inches from the big black goat, who was still staring at me as if preparing to do battle.

Whew! That was very, very close. I don’t remember anymore how I disengaged my cleats from the pedals. Thank God my Gatorade had been dripping on my front brake. Earlier, not wanting to lose any more time, I had jettisoned some fluids from my bladder while on the saddle (professional cyclists are known to do other yucky things). I don’t know if Gatorade or urea could substitute for brake fluid but I know they provided enough friction to finally stop the bike.

The infamous quote from Casey Stengel, the New York Yankees manager and king of malapropism, reminded me that it ain’t over till it’s over.  But my triathlon could have ended right then and there. No matter how well things are going, a triathlon, like life, can be over in a split second.

My knees still wobbly, I got back on the bike and started pedaling again. The rest of the ride was faster—I averaged two kilometers faster per hour on the second half of the 90-kilometer course—only because the road had dried up and the highway had widened. The crowds had thinned and I had the whole Maharlika Highway to myself.

Back at CWC and into the transition to the run, I saw the fleet-footed Monica Torres, the country’s best female triathlete, run the last few hundred meters to the finish line. Of course, the overall winner, Pete Jacobs, had by then been cooling his heels at the finish line. And I still had 21 kilometers to run!

RUN

Changing to my running shoes, I learned I had no fresh pair of socks in my transition bag.  Since my bike socks were dripping wet, I decided to run sockless, something I’ve done in triathlons past. Bad mistake.

Six kilometers into the run in the back roads of Pili, I felt the ball of each foot rubbing against the arch support in my insoles. With every step, I could feel the blisters building up. I knew that, down the road, it would be unbearable.

I asked—and later begged—the few people who had shoes to sell me their socks, but no one believed that I would pay top money for them. I had P700 in my triathlon suit, just in case I couldn’t finish the race and needed a ride back to ignominy, and I was willing to part with it for a pair of used socks. There were no takers.

Finally, with 13 kms left in the run, a volunteer took me to his medical tent and offered to bandage by blistered feet. It brought some relief, but I lost some 10 minutes in the process and it didn’t help me run any faster either.

Still I made good time at the halfway mark of the half marathon. I clocked an hour and 18 minutes, which was faster than I had planned. At that pace, I’d beat my target by 30 minutes. Wow!

My excitement was quickly dampened when I ran into what had been a dirt road. The rains had turned the dirt into mud and loose gravel and reduced the country road into a veritable slalom run on an off-road trail.

With six kilometers to go—after four kilometers of “mudness”—we hit concrete again. And just when we thought it would be trouble-free from that point, the sun came out of the clouds. We were in the handle of the frying fan-shaped course that had gained notoriety as the “rice cooker”—the long stretch of country roads with rice paddies on both sides and no shade. It was high noon.

Cooking under the merciless sun, part of me was begging to drop dead in the rice paddies. But a bigger part of me told me to get going. It was better to crawl to the finish line than wallow in the mud among the frogs.

It was a test of body and spirit for the few stragglers who were trying to beat the eight-hour cutoff. I had been beating—and sometimes missing—deadlines all my adult life, but this was the toughest deadline I ever had to make.

Knowing I was on target with plenty to spare, I  decided to keep an eye on my heart rate monitor, which said my heart was hitting 150 beats per minute, close to a 100 percent effort for my age. I dropped back to a walk-run strategy, running every time my heart rate dropped to 130 per minute and walking when it hit 150, as in interval training.

The strategy cost me at least 20 minutes, but it was well worth it– it ensured that I would cross the finish line alive in under eight hours.

Indeed I made it, even sprinting in the final 200 meters, past my cheering TriMac teammates, finishing strong in full stride and breasting the finish line tape for the first time in my life. I got my medal, a high five and a big hug from the country’s most celebrated female triathlete, Sen. Pia Cayetano.

It had taken me seven hours and 50 minutes to put an exclamation point to a 30-year dream. My much younger and faster teammates quickly took me to David’s massage tent, and there I pondered on the enormity of what I had just done. Not much as far the Pete Jacobses and the Monica Torreses of this world are concerned, but I had as much right as they did to call myself an Ironman. I emerged from that tent a new man—an Ironman—looking for new mountains to climb. Final lesson learned: Winning is not about finishing first. It’s about knowing your limits and having the grace and humility not to stretch that beyond breaking point.

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(The author is the Inquirer’s news editor)

TAGS: Camarines Sur, Camsur, IRONMAN, Philippines, Sports, Triathlon

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