Monday, February 17, 2014

Metasprint Aquathlon - The Way of the Samurai.

Aquathlon ~ the first of the Metasprint series of three races. 16 Feb 2014.

Crazy as can be

Some time back, roughly around 2-3 months ago, Gerard, in one of his many crazy spells, suddenly triggered an interest in Triathlons.  It was not long after our Tour de Bintan, when spirits were high, and every one was on the roll.
And naively a few of us signed up for the Metasprint series of three races: the Aquathlon, the Duathlon and the last, the Triathlon.

The only reason why I signed up together with the boys was, the races were the Sprint races, meaning, they are of a shorter distance.  But it was only later that I found out from some of the experienced triathletes that the Sprint series literally meant 'Sprint' as in the competitors just PIANG! right from the beginning.

"Never mind lah," reassured Gerard. "For the Aquathlon, the swim is only 750m, and the run a mere 5km.  We just aim for completion lah."
Ok lor.  So the stage was set.  And Gerard, myself, Ah Chua, Francis, Darric, Gabriel and Christopher Soh signed up for all three events.

The Swim...

Me doing just breast stroke at Toa Payoh
I have not swam for years.  Really years.  And I didn't know how to swim front crawl, aka free style.  Breast stroke was the only one that I could do.  And even at that, I was slow.  And I never had open sea experience. 
Didn't know how and what transpired between the boys and Steven Cheng, and it was only after Steven volunteered to give us a kick start in swimming that I found out that this man was a Water Polo player in his younger days of glory!  Man, what else do I not know of my friends?!
And a few sessions in Toa Payoh SAFRA of me struggling to breathe and to float convinced Steven and myself that I don't have the talent to do front crawl properly.  There was more work to be done.  But our time was limited.
"Just swim breast stroke for the event," advised Steven. "But you must be really relaxed.  Your thighs and legs are too heavy from all the muscles you have built up from cycling.  You need to relax them."
Easier said than done.

Steven: "Your legs are so heavy. You gotta relax them."
Swimming is not something that one can learn just overnight.  It really requires dedication, a lot of practice and a lot of confidence, all of which I didn't have.  Very soon after my initial swimming sessions I finally understood that for the events I would just keep to my breast strokes and try not to be too slow.
"Don't worry lah," said Darric. "I was also doing breast strokes when I was doing my triathlon races previously ah."
Ok lah, since the reassurance came thus, I shall just press on.

Open sea swimming practices..

Darric, Francis & I at
Tanjong Beach, Sentosa.
4th Feb 2014.
As some of the boys pursued a higher level of swimming technique with their personal coach at Jalan Besar, the remainder of us could only commit whatever little time we had after work or in between work to swim.  Gradually my confidence grew.
Gerard and Francis signed up for the Open water swimming clinic and found themselves so much enlightened that they urged the rest of the group to go for at least a session of open sea swim. 
Made sense.  Swimming in the sea poses several difficulties: firstly, everything is dark and you can't see clearly.  Secondly sighting is difficult as the current will keep moving you away from your target.  And finally on the day itself, the horde of swimmers around you will either kick you from the front or pull at you from the back.
Francis warned me: "Be prepared to drink plenty of sea water.  And be familiar with your goggle drill to clear sea-water that may have seeped in."
Jiaklat. With warnings like this, who dared to be complacent.
So Tanjong Beach, Sentosa, we went.
I learned quite a few things.  I learned to not rush into the water.
Francis showing me how to clear water from the goggle
I learned that no matter how fast the front swimmers raced into the water, a beginner like me should just keep at the back so as not to be kicked.  Darric reminded me how easy it was to float in the sea water as the buoyancy was higher than in the swimming pool, and I finally learned how to clear water in the goggles from Francis.
But the swim was still something I have to do on my own.

Me practising running into water
7 Feb 2014
My second open sea swim saw me with renewed confidence, and I was able to swim the 700 odd metres without much issues, aside from aching arms and aching thighs.  And I managed also to practise on my transition to running.. with my towel and shoes laid out.  On this second session, I learned from Ah Chua the trick of putting my Garmin Forerunner 910XT on my swimming cap right at the back of my head so that it could capture GPS data.   And my swimming pace on that day was 2:44min/100m.  Not bad, quite a good improvement from my previous swims.  Two sessions of open sea swim, and I knew I was ready to swim for my Aquathlon, albeit slowly. 

The Run...

What about running?  Now that is a totally different piece of pandan kway.
Our Vibram Fiver Fingers
No joke.  I haven't run for don't know how many years already.  And over the years, my increasing weight has made my knees suffered a great deal whenever I attempted to hit the roads.  Thus, it was with a note of finality that I hung up my running shoes years ago, thinking that my days of running were over.
But recent research into forefoot and midfoot running brought new hopes into my running training.  I finally could try to run again without too much risk of further injuring my knees.
And how true!  My first foray into forefoot/midfoot strike was with a pair of Vibram Fiver Fingers.  They were good and novel, for a first timer.  And I really could feel so much less pressure on my knees.  But unfortunately my ankles and calves together with the Archilles tendons took the brunt of the stress.  These eventually got better as I continued running.
Asics Gel-Kinsei 5
Our running training got into a higher key when Gerard organised the first running clinic at McRitchie reservoir on New Years day.  But trail running was tough on the feet.  A few runs down the road, and I begun to developed left ankle Peroneal tendinitis that threatened to stop me from running.  Very bothered by it, and upon strong encouragement from Gerard and Francis, I took the leap and got myself a pair of Asics Gel-Kinsei 5, and was pleasantly surprised to find so much support for my slightly supinating feet, my ankles and knees. 
This was the last hurdle.  I was good to go for the Aquathlon.  What was left was for myself to devote time into consistent training.  But alas, I still failed miserably on that.
The week before the Aquathlon, I struggled to pump in the miles.  A little late it was, I knew.  But I couldn't let it go without a fight.  I dropped cycling completely and just focussed on running.  Advice from a good website dictated that I just concentrate on running the prescribed race distance, but slowly increase my pace.  Well, with the Aquathlon looming, I just had to bank in the runs... for what they were worth.

As the Aquathlon approached...

I scrutinised Strava on a daily basis as the Aquathlon approached and began to be impressed by all my friends' increasing distances and increasing speed. Gerard, Darric and Francis were putting in their weekly Wednesday coaching sessions and Ah Chua was happily plonking in ad hoc swims in combination with his runs like an athlete gone totally mad.  Their running paces were hitting early 5 mins/km and they were doing 16km, 18km and 21km distances. 
But in retrospect I understood as their training were merely part of the bigger picture, and not specifically for this Aquathlon.
My job was simply.  I just needed to train for this Aquathlon first. The rest can come later.

The last week before the Aquathlon, I ran 5km almost daily. And I monitored my weight daily.  I managed to bring it down by about 2kg which I thought was good enough.  In theory, one should start to tail off before the event.  But my training schedule had been so haphazard that there wasn't much tailing off to be done.  So I just ran.
My left ankle's peroneal tendinitis held fortunately, and I was able to continue training.  Three days before the event, I started doing carbohydrate loading.  And two days before, I did a final 6.6km run but at a really slow recovery pace to oxygenate my muscles and to clear whatever remaining lactate inside.
In my mind, I remembered what my friend Gary Wang said: "For the Sprint series, you don't really need to train very hard.  It's not that tough to complete.  But for those seasoned triathletes, the Sprint series is for them to PIAH really hard to get their timings."

The D-Day

The buoys marking the swim route.
Photo: Steven Cheng
Our official photographer Steven &
Wai Kit.
The 16th Feb 2014 saw us waking up real early, and gathering at The Beach Car Park at Sentosa at 7am.  Some of us struggled to court sleep the night before while others snored.  It was quite a big thing, as the sight that welcomed us was really carnival-like.  Tents were up and clearly labelled 'Water Station', 'Information', 'Marking'.. and 'Swim-in' routes, 'Run-out' routes with signage were
indicated.  Of course the Transition area and the Holding areas were already designated.

Our good friends Wai Kit and Steven were readied with their cameras and long lenses to capture this event, and Serene, Debbie and Chris with Paige were also there to give support.
Photo: Steven Cheng

A couple of days before the Aquathlon, Wai Kit posted an article about the Japanese Samurai warriors who trained hard in preparation for their battles, but meditated and expected the worst scenario (death in their cases), and as a result remained totally calm throughout their fight because of all their preparation physically and mentally.  I strongly believed the reinforcement helped me, for I was really quite relaxed. 

"Hey the marking station is opened. Let's go and have our arms marked," said Gerard.  The time was  about 7:35am, and a hustle of activities was warming up the location at Palawan Beach.  We were the first few to get our body marked with our race numbers.. And the young workers were a little garang-gabok and it took him a few times and several mistakes to finally got my marking done correctly.
Me and Gerard with our
body markings.
Photo: Serene Gan.

Darric showing me
how to prepare our
transition area.
Photo: Serene Gan
Darric: "Ok the Transition area is ready. Come let's go prepare our transition area."
Little did I know that each of our transition area is a small little
rectangular area not bigger than a foot wide and about two feet long.  Just enough to squeeze a pair of running shoes and my
towel on top of which I would place my sunglasses, socks, racing belt with the race number and a couple of gels.  The time drew closer to 8:15am. Ok, half an hour more to go.  We got to get to the Holding area to prepare for set off. 

Serene and me.
Photo: Debbie Ng
And wow, the rhythmic music blasting from the speakers, the tone of the MC, the sheer number of competitors in each waves.. All added up to the excitement.  I was really like a little boy waiting for the carnival performance to start.  But just that this time we were the performers.  Serene, Wai Kit, Steven and Debbie were all over the place shooting pictures.  And waves after waves of competitors came and went and they captured the mood of the competition in their photos.

Francis, me, Gerard, Gabriel, Darric & Ah Chua.
Photo: Debbie Ng

Ah Chua, Gerard and Francis were in the Green-capped Wave 4, Gabriel was in the
Yellow-capped Wave 5, and Darric and myself were in the Purple-capped Wave 6.  The waves were all allocated time to flag off, and the interval was 5-10 minutes each wave.  This was to ensure that the start off was not too congested and there would be a minimal of jostling for positions. 

For newbies like myself, the oft-emphasized advice was  to remain at the back of the wave and not to fight with the front contenders for space in front.  "The excitement of the race,

The blue cap wave flagged off.
Photo: Steven Cheng.
and the crowd, all these will make your heart race," warned Gerard way back then. "The most important thing that I learned from the Open Sea clinic was to keep absolutely calm.  And unless you are an experienced triathlete, don't go all out right from the beginning.  This would only tire you out.  Conserve your energy.  And enjoy the race."
This I remembered very very well.  And I kept to the advice.  As I stood there behind Darric, all stretching done and well hydrated, I suddenly felt a pang of hunger.
"Jiaklat.  At this time suddenly feel hungry?" I thought to myself. "And despite my going to pee a few times, I feel like pee-ing again." Shucks.  Though many are able to pass urine in the sea as they swim, I am one who cannot do that.  Sigh.. bo bian. Looks like I gotta hold my urine for the next one hour.

The 750 Swim leg

So it turned out that our Purpe-capped wave was the smallest.  Darric was so delighted. "Very good! Our wave is so small," he exclaimed.
Me taking my time walking down while the rest ran.
Photo: Steven Cheng
I looked left and right.  All around me were beautiful sculptured V-shaped bodies rippling with muscles.  A transient sense of inferiority complex descended upon me, looking down at the paunch I bore.  I made a mental note to improve my physique the next time I stand at the starting line.  But at this point, there was more important things to concentrate on.
In my mind, I could picture myself breast-stroking the 750m and panting my lungs out.. followed by a mad run up the 200m to the transition area, and then finally the painful run.  But at that moment, strangely my mind was quite relaxed.
"Booooorrrr!" off went the horn.  And my wave was flagged off.  I smiled and took my own sweet time walking down. 

The blue capped wave swimmers flapping in the water.
Photo: Serene Gan
Me coming round the second lap of the swim
Photo: Serene Gan
Those who were experienced in Triathlon would advocate doing the front crawl as it is the most efficient stroke to glide through the sea water and to conserve most energy for the subsequent legs.  But for me, I had no choice.  Breast stroke was my only option.  I was swimming closely behind the last four swimmers in my wave.  They were all front crawl swimmers.  Darric was already way ahead in the water and could not be seen.  At some point, the current came pushing us from the side.  But my advantage was that I could see the target and could swim straight towards it. 
As I made the first turn after the first lap, I suddenly felt waves behind me and two red-capped swimmers zoomed past me.  Wow, it was the next wave swimmers.  These guys were fast! Then again, someone's hand touched my feet as I kicked.  Another one of the fast swimmers who was about to over take me.  Poor thing, he must have been kicked hard by me. 
More red caps overtook me.  Some veered into my line as they overtook me and my pulling hand must have yanked a couple of feet in front.  Poor boys, I thought to myself.  Sometimes it's good to be a breast-stroke swimmers because we are the more aggressive ones when it comes to bodily contact in water. Haha..
Running up to the T zone.
Photo: Cheah Wai Kit
Thankfully I was swimming pretty relaxly.  I kept holding back the urge to stroke too forcefully.  But still I swam as fast as I could, without panting too much.  The twice practice in the open sea really helped for I managed to keep my cool. 
The distance seemed un-ending.  And I struggled to finish the second lap and to walk/run up the shore.  Rounded the flag and again I ran back in to the water for the second half of the.  I felt that the run up to the shore half way into the swim tired me more than if it were to be a continuous swim.  On the last lap, the front three swimmers in front of me exploded forth.  I tried chasing but found that I
couldn't bridge the distance.  So I had to guai guai just swim my own pace.   Finally, I saw sand beneath me under the water and I knew it was time to stand up and run.

Transition area...

The run up to the transition was good sand. Luckily no debris to be embedded onto my feet.  Further more there was a trough of water at the start of the carpet-paved path to the T zone.  Great. 
I half expected myself to be panting heavily at the T zone.  I was surprised I wasn't.  I could even smile to Serene and Wai Kit who were at the side shooting, as I ran up to the T zone.  Once there, it took me little time to find my square and sat down.
People have mentioned that transition is the forth leg in a triathlon.  Certainly those who are fast in transition gain a great advantage.
Me at transition.
Photo: Serene Gan
Me, I still took my time.  Just that I did every thing one proper step at a time.   Took off my swimming cap.  Twisted my Garmin Forerunner onto my wrist band.  Put on my sunglasses.  Wiped my feet dry with the towel, put on the socks followed by the shoes.  Then clipped on my racing belt and swung the number tag to the front.  Finally I grabbed the gel and squeeze everything into my mouth, and took a few good gulps of water.
Ok, I was good to go.

The Run out was clearly pointed out.  It was only that I didn't know when the actual run started to I had to just aga-aga press the 'Lap' Button on my Forerunner when I made the turn out.

The Run leg...

The first 1km was really tough, because my running muscles were not exactly ready yet.  I was breathing quite hard as I tried to grind and push on, to quickly get my hamstrings, calves and medial thighs pumped up for the run.

The Forerunner was good.  It kept giving me vibration alert with each 1km lap so that I knew how I was doing.  The first person I saw running in the opposite direction was Darric.  We gave each other a thumbsup, as I didn't have enough breath to shout out to him.  My normal pace during training was about 7mins/km.  On this day, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself doing 6mins plus pretty early in the run.  Must be the adrenaline rush.  Talking about the adrenaline rush, I was also suitably impressed by the fact that I did not feel any pain in my left ankle's peroneal tendon.  Like Wai Kit said, the adrenaline would mask all pain.  Indeed it did.  My 'second wind' also came very quickly.  After the 1km mark, I started settling down into a very steady 6+min pace. 
I wasn't a fast runner.  And I trail behind one or two runners who were about the same pace as I, making no effort to over-take them.
Many times as I ran, I heard heavy panting behind me followed by slim, lean runners over-taking me from the right side.  These long-legged athletes were so impressive.  They were pushing themselves very hard despite themselves already being very fit.  They were also taking long strides.
"That was what Gary Wang was talking about," I thought quietly to myself. "These experienced triathletes were out to push themselves really hard for the Sprint event.  Never mind, hopefully one day I would be like this."

I noted with a sense of relief that the run route was pretty flat, and had none of the feared slopes that I originally thought it included.
Ah Chua pacing me the last 700m
Photo: Debbie Ng
Out of the water, I could finally see all the shapes and sizes the athletes came in.  Many were lean and muscular.  However, equally many were bulging and overweight individuals like myself, huffing and puffing away.  The Forerunner allowed me to check my cadence, which I kept to a pretty constant one at 90/min.  I found myself glancing at the watch repeatedly to check my pace.  This was one of the most constant-paced run I had ever had.  Being able to pace runners in front was one of the reasons I felt I could keep that constant speed.
I made my way towards Tanjong Beach.  The path was full of runners at various phases of their runs.  Ang Mohs, locals, ladies and men.  Soon after I passed the 1km mark, I saw Gerard Tan running on his final leg back.  Again, a thumbsup and a nod.  "Wow, this fellow is fast," I thought.
Some distances down, I saw Ah Chua and Francis coming in the opposite direction.  "4km more!" shouted Ah Chua to me.  I nodded an acknowledgement.  Terrible lah, this Ah Chua.  '4km more' wasn't really a great encouragement. Haha..

Francis & Ah Chua
Photo: Cheah Wai Kit

Water point was strategically located.  I was a little disappointed that there was only cold water but no isotonic drinks.  I would love some isotonic beverages. At about 2km mark, I pulled out my last pack of gel and gulped everything down.  This was to be my last burst of energy.

The mid-point came up and soon after that the U-turn at Tanjong Beach at a water point.  I was breathing rhythmically and my legs were already in auto-pilot mode.  Good.  I smiled at a volunteer and grabbed another cup of ice water, finishing only half before I discard the cup.
Darric on his last sprint
Photo: Steven Cheng
My pace increased slightly on the return leg.  Inside my heart, I really wanted to push harder.  But strangely my body kept that urge in control, constantly wary of hitting the wall.
With 700m left, I suddenly heard a call from my right.  It was Ah Chua.  He had completed his run and was standing at the side waiting for me.   "I pace you!" he shouted.
Gabriel coming in fast
Photo: Steven Cheng
As reluctant as I was, I had no choice but to follow him closely.  It was a 5min plus pace that he took me.  "Finishing soon! Last part!" continued his encouragement.
I read my Forerunner.  Yes, almost there.  I should be sprinting from this point onwards.  Now that I was ready to sprint, I could gather no energy to do so.  My body was simply moving forward at the constant pace.
No choice, I might have not much more reserve left in me to give me the last burst of fire.
Breathing heavily I saw the Beach Car Park on the right, and the arrow pointed left.
This was it.  The last 100m sprint.  I opened up, and kept blowing hard to keep that pace.  On my left I could see Wai Kit and Serene at the sideline getting ready to take my picture.

Gerard making his way to the
finishing line.
Photo: Cheah Wai Kit

The blue carpet came up. 'Beep' went the timer.  And the MC called out my name. "Wee How Lim!" he shouted.
Yeah, this was it.  The finishing line.

At the end point, I walked to our gathering tent.  Gerard was there.  "Hey come," he said. "Let's go and get a print out of our timing.
And the printout showed my timing.  "Wow," said Gerard. "The timing actually corresponds very closely to my Garmin."
Certainly it did.
Me hitting the blue carpet.
Photo: Cheah Wai Kit

"Very good ah!" encouraged Gerard. "Hey not bad leh. We all managed within one hour.  That was our target, right?"

Yes, I was quite pleased with my result.  My swimming was a pace of 2:52min/100m. One of my better swims.  And my running pace of 6:17min/km also was one of my better runs.  A transition time of 2:59min was quite respectable for a newbie.

In conclusion...

 It was a really good experience.  I was glad to have the chance to do the Aquathlon because now that I looked back, I understood how the experience prepared me for the subsequent events, namely the Sprint Duathlon and the Sprint Triathlon.
I also understood the importance of being calm, like the Way of the Samurai.
This event allowed me to dig deep to see my weakness, so that I could improve upon them in the months to come.
I was pretty pleased with my own results.  Although I sincerely believe I could have done better, it was simply good enough.  There would always be a tomorrow for a better swim and a better run.
What was most inspiring was how all my good friends performed.
Participating in an event like this with a group of good friends was one of the many reasons why I went ahead to join in.  Because training with these good friends was very motivating.  As I always say: 'When we suffer together, we stick together."
Was the Sprint Aquathlon suffering? Well, honestly no.  Well-prepared, I could have done a better timing.  But this was only the beginning.  There would definitely be more to come.
And I hope more of my friends would join in and bask in the camaraderie.

For now, what lie ahead are the Sprint Duathlon and the Sprint Triathlone, two events that I am hoping to do better.
Till then, continue to train harder I must.  And hopefully, with more consistency.