“Coming in, from Malaysia, is Richard LEE. YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!”.
Those were the words announced by the emcee once I took the last step and crossed the finishing line in 16:54:21 in Langkawi, Malaysia after a 3.8km swim, 180km cycle and 42km run. How did I end up doing it? I don’t know what gave me the idea that doing a full Ironman distance was fun and to swim 3.8km, cycle 180km then run 42.2km which already sounds daunting, and gruelling as well.
The full Ironman is no joke, yet work commitments left me with barely two months to train. Having completed four half Ironman distances in six months, I still did not sign up for my maiden Ironman until six weeks before Race Day. Triathlons are very gear and equipment intensive, with time consumed in swimming pools and on the roads.
My strategy for a first timer like me is fairly simple. Go easy on the swim, save energy for my bike and run. I also believe I’d rather be undertrained but injury-free and not sick on the starting line.
The excitement started right at the airport when I spotted a few Ironmans on the same flight bound for Langkawi, you could sport their physique a mile away besides their bike bag. Athlete check-in was imminent upon arrival with a compulsory weigh-in session to check dehydration throughout the race. Sadly, the race expo was somewhat of a small affair compared to Half-Ironman in Putrajaya lacking vendors and sponsor booths. Many familiar faces including Garmin Malaysia’s Ambassador Rupert Chen were spotted with athletes from around the world and Malaysians making up around 30% of the total participants, majority first timers like me.
Ironman triathlon inspires the best out of people from all walks of life and age. This was a resonating reason within me to take up this challenge. The oldest participant at this edition of Ironman Malaysia was a 74 year old Japanese who was gunning to qualify for the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii.
I happened to meet Ultraman Kannan, an Ironman multiple times over, who gave valuable advice on breaking down the distance into smaller portions and always remember that the race only starts at km120 of the bike leg. Prior to that, it’s all just warming up.
Come race morning, this time around at the Transition Area, I felt nervous and was not quite my usual cheerful self, keeping to myself before dropping off my special needs and street gear bags. I waited till the last minute, before heading for my swim start pen and into the zone of no return. By then, I felt calmer and ready for a long day in the office.
Most importantly, I pressed start on my Garmin Forerunner 735XT on the triathlon route. I’ve been using this multi-sports GPS tracking watch during my triathlon races which can switch from swim, to cycle and run throughout the course.
The 3.8km swim course was two loops, clockwise in a protected bay at Pantai (Beach) Kok. With many safety buoys around, it was easy to mentally break the race down to one buoy flag at a time. Since the swim course is completely protected by islands around, it was warm and as calm as swimming in a lake or pool. I kept a steady pace on the swim and zoomed the last 500m to complete my 3.8km swim in 1hrs 50mins, on schedule.
Transition 1 (Swim to Bike)
I ran a good 100m from the beach and showered along the way. I knew I need to take my time in T1, wiping myself dry and ensure no sand were left on my feet and beneath my pants. Not forgetting to put on sunscreen and lots of Vaseline around my you-know-where area.
Bike Course – 180km
The bike course ran 2 loops around the island, and was much hillier than expected, especially at the Datai and Gunung Raya area. Entering KM10, I started the steep climb up Datai and but dreaded coming back again at KM110 on the second loop. Friends and families came out in full force to cheer us along the race, including local villagers and travellers.
Being a Malaysian with a Malaysian flag on my trisuit helped a lot, as the volunteers all served me first at the aid stations. “Malaysia, ini budak kita, cepat bagi air!’ and shouts of ‘Malaysia Boleh’ filled the air as I left the aid station.
The next huge climb came as we left Kuah town with three hills in succession so I kept my cadence steady and spinned up the hill, zig-zagging. A few dismounted to push their bikes, preferring to keep their strength for the run, I reckon.
Hitting the second loop, every pedal stroke seemed tougher while I realized my average speed was dropping due to the hot weather and long climbs. I kept drinking and eating without fail to ensure I did not cramp up and also followed Kannan’s advice to spray myself with ice cold water and it worked wonders on the thighs and head. At KM140, the unthinkable happened when heavy rain descended and I picked up my pace to hammer my way back in 8 hours without any punctures or mechanical failures.
Transition 2 (Bike to Run)
I came into transition feeling good and excited, knowing that this was the last leg and all I have to do was just to run 42.2km before 12:15 midnight. Wiping dry and lubing up areas where I’d get chaffing, I headed out to cheering supporters inside the MIEC hall, and gave my wife a quick kiss before heading out onto the run.
Run Course – 42.2km
The run leg required a lot more strategy to complete the final 42km within 6.5 hours, looping around the airport and 100% flat with no elevations at all around Pantai Cenang. The run has always not been my strongest leg but my plan was just to maintain a 8~9 mins/km pace, aided by my Garmin and run as long as I can before hitting the psychological barrier wall at KM30. One note, I had stopped my Garmin in the bike leg, as the battery would not last the 17 hours I would spend on the whole course, so unfortunately, I only used it on the swim and run legs.
I walked through all the aid stations sipping water/electrolytes (avoiding coke) and ate energy gels to keep me going, keeping to a good 7:30 pace (by my standards). After sunset, the route was completely dark due to airport regulations however, many cars were stationed to light up the path for the dwindling number of runners.
Passing Meritus Pelangi resort for the second time, I could see the finishing line bustling with spectators and finishers, celebrating with their medals but I still had 15km to go before I could join them. So close to the finishing arch yet so far, but it fuelled my motivation to complete.
According to my Garmin, my run cadence was dropping as fatigue set in and I did my fair share of shuffling and brisk walking. Checked my timing, as I passed KM35 and had a comfortable hour to finish the final 7km, with my legs experiencing some of the usual pain.
I was highly motivated to avoid DNF (Did Not Finish) at my first Ironman especially this race was gifted by my wife through collaboration with Tough Asia and Ironman Malaysia. The simplest thing to do, was to just keep moving forward.
My heart lit up as I took the final turn into Pantai Cenang and thanked the Tadonamo volunteers at their triclub tent. I wouldn’t have made it this far without their swim and triathlon simulations. I stopped to thanked the volunteers before making my last turn into the resort, towards the bright lights of the finish line. My heart sank for a moment when I saw the timer clicking at 17hrs 4mins, when I remembered that I had started after the pro triathletes and my Garmin showed I still had 10 minutes.
A huge relief swept over me when I heard my name, with emcee Adele announcing, “You are an IRONMAN!”. I sprinted towards the finish, and clocked 16 hours 54mins over 3.8km swim, 180km cycle and 42km run.
In Ironman tradition, perhaps I had plotted to finish late as I had the honour of receiving my Ironman finisher’s medal from the champion of the day, Fredrik Croneborg who finally won Ironman Malaysia. Nevertheless, I survived the challenge and am officially an Ironman. My legs were tired and sore but my mind was fully awake to soak in the celebrations with family and friends.
The euphoria continued into following day, bidding farewell to old and new friends while lamenting that our Ironman Langkawi journey has come to an end. At the Roll-down ceremony, the 74 year ‘young’ Japanese had indeed qualified for the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii by winning his age group, in a time of less than 14 hours, which is 2 hours faster than me! Boy, do I have some catching up to do.
All in all, Ironman Langkawi was the toughest race I’ve ever done and it’s ranked as the second toughest Ironman race in the world. Ironman triathlon is a day of pain, agony, ecstasy as well as spiritual, all wrapped in one long day depending on your finishing time especially for amateurs like me.
I’m already looking forward to plan my next Ironman race overseas, but my wife warned that I will have to finish in 14 hours, which is fair, considering the one waiting is also going through all the same physical and mental conditions as the one racing.
Analyzing my statistics from the Garmin FR735XT, perhaps I was too conservative on the swim and my average pace was slower than expected, although I kept to the same stroke rate. My running stats displays my stride length and running cadence besides the usual heart race and pace. According to Garmin, the running dynamics measurements are displayed in different colours, showing how your cadence compares to other runners. I will be using this to improve my running for my next race.
Garmin’s FR735XT has been proving to be a handing training buddy on my wrist, throughout my weekly swims, cycle and runs. Now all I need to do is finish the race before the battery runs out!
I will end my story with a quote which I found through reading:
“If you want to run, do a 10km event. If you want to challenge yourself, run a Marathon. But if you want to talk to God, just do the Ironman full distance!”
Last but not least, to all the race volunteers and organizers that helped to make Ironman Langkawi a success, and to all my families and friends that wished me well through my race weekend, thank you!
Race Timing Improvement
- To get a triathlon specific coach
- To improve my swimming.
- To build more endurance for a more powerful bike leg.
- Race nutrition was good as I didn’t cramp or dehydrate. However, stomach upset made me stop at T2 and second loop of the run. To try more food which is gently on my body.
- More LSD runs to seriously fix my running times.
- Perhaps yoga and pilates to strengthen my core and body.
- A wonderful race in a beautiful island, Langkawi. Many athletes stayed for a few days with friends and families to relax and enjoy the best tourism Langkawi has to offer.
- The Ironman competition being an international event, is highly expensive as the entrance fees are all in US dollars.
- Ironman Malaysia 2016, will be the last of it’s Malaysian edition, ending a 3 year contract since 2014. No signs yet if this event will be held again in Malaysia while the closest full Ironman events are in Taiwan and Australia.
More about the author
Richard Lee is on his life-changing journey from XXL to M. First dabbling into cycling, trail running and now triathlon, Richard sets out to inspire and improve himself and others along the way.