Words fail me when I try to sum up everything that happened at Challenge Philippines last February 22, 2014. I was there in many capacities: as a competing athlete, as a Challenge Philippines ambassador, as a blogger, and as a friend and teammate. So it was a very busy weekend for me! But I loved every minute of it. And this was the best part of it all:
To finish a race like this, which even the deep pro field couldn’t help describing as the toughest course they’ve ever done, that’s an achievement I’m proud to have under my belt. But I’m getting ahead of my story. Let me give you a peek of what those days were like. This is my Challenge Philippines race diary.
February 21 (Friday)
Short swim and bike today. The swim calms my nerves about the swim leg, and the bike reassures me that my bike is in good shape.
A strong wind is blowing up some waves, and the sea lice are out biting. But it helps knowing those are the conditions I could face tomorrow instead of being surprised by them. Again, I will store this positive thought in my head.
I ran into Jerry Santos, who distributes Ceepo bikes in the Philippines. He’s here observing the race and I’m glad to carry the brand especially because of how supportive he is.
I drove back down to Harbor Point for lunch and to pick up some necessities. Chris “Macca” McCormack asked me to pick up some gels and new goggles; luckily my lunch was with Gilbert Tang of Chris Sports, so he hooked Chris up with a pair of Zoggs Predator Flex goggles. Then I drove back to Camayan for my ride out, and after that, to check my bike in.
Before I rode out, I had my Ceepo serviced and tuned. Primo Cycles had sent their best mechanic, Ricky, to Subic and set up an outpost at the reception area in Camayan. When I delivered the gels and goggles to Chris, he asked if I knew any mechanic who could tune his bike. Well, duh. 🙂
I rode for about thirty minutes just to check if the gears were all shifting properly, and then as I rode back I noted where I could start slipping off my bike shoes as I rode toward transition. I’ve steadily gotten better at running mounts and dismounts and have found that this kind of recon is something I need to do to give myself enough time for the dismount.
My Mamba, Mako, has been set up as a road bike with clip-on aerobars, which suits the hilly course. It’s light enough to get up the climbs, and has wonderful handling on the twisting and technical descents.
My ENDURE teammates finally arrived just in time for the race briefing held at Ocean Adventure, which is next door to Camayan. Roman Floesser from Challenge Laguna Phuket has taken over heading the race, so he conducted the race briefing.
We had our fill at the carbo-loading party and the food was good and plentiful. We picked up a whole Yellow Cab pizza, ate about a third, and saved the rest for race-day breakfast. 🙂
Finally, it was back to our hotel to try on our new tri suits. We hadn’t had time to break them in, but with plenty of petroleum jelly they would be perfect for race day.
Now there’s only one thing left to do: race.
It’s great to be racing with my ENDURE teammates. There are three of us competing in the solo category, and another three have formed a relay team. My last two triathlons of 2013 were done in isolation, so having a few more people around dressed in my colors felt reassuring. With the word out that Challenge Philippines is one of the toughest half distance triathlons in the world, I was glad I wasn’t alone taking a crack at it. 🙂
I then went down to the swim start and tried to keep loose and relaxed. With a total field of about 700 participants, Challenge Philippines felt quite intimate and I found myself among friends as we warmed up.
With the gunstart fast approaching, we got out of the water and I wished Chris good luck as he lined up alongside the other male pros.
For our wave start, U2’s song “Vertigo” started playing over the sound system and it really pumped me up.
The swim was tough. Although the water was flat and clear as glass, the sea lice were a mental and physical challenge. Sighting was also complicated because of the direction the sun was shining (straight into right-breather’s eyes). I’m thankful I’d bought the TYR mirrored racing goggles, which helped screen out the worst of the glare.
I got caught in no-man’s land between the fast swimmers ahead that I couldn’t bridge the gap to, and the slower swimmers who were drafting on my hip and feet. I didn’t want to push on the swim because I knew the kind of bike leg I was facing, so I deliberately took it easy.
I got out of the water in 44 minutes, which is slow for me. I took some time to put gloves on in transition to aid my grip during the descents, and then it was time to get on the bike.
Nothing but hills on the horizon and nothing to do but grind up them and hope I’ve saved enough for the run. The recurring prayer in my head as I descended the hills was, “Lord, protect me from crashes!” I came away unscathed, but there were a few others whose races ended on those downhills.
truncated data because my watch paused at one point 🙁
One of the women in my age group kept leapfrogging me, egging me on to climb the hills out faster. I felt good, so I did. After the turnaround I realized my ego was getting ahead of me, so I moderated my pace and allowed her to overtake me. But the damage was done. I started feeling twinges in my legs that were the early warning signs of cramps. So I tried to take care of that by drinking some more Gatorade. And then, at kilometer 80 of the bike leg, I needed to pee.
This was right before the last climb on those Seven Hills of Bataan. First I tried willing myself to pee while riding, but it wouldn’t come out. So I stopped by a roadside shack and asked if I could use their facilities. I needed to squat low to pee in the toilet. When I got up, that’s when the cramps went full-blown on my quads.
Thankfully the cramps happened right before I started on that climb, because if they had hit me while I was climbing, my legs could have locked and I could have crashed. I stopped on the roadside for five minutes or maybe longer, stretching my quads out as other riders passed by. Then Celma Hitalia, one of my longtime triathlon friends (I call her “Mamita”), rode past; seeing her boosted my spirits and spurred me to attempt the climb however slowly it would take me.
The bike leg took me 4 hours and 14 minutes to complete. Mamita and I rode toward transition together, but I was faster out onto the run because of a well-executed flying dismount and fast transition into my Mizuno Wave Sayonara shoes and Challenge Laguna Phuket visor.
I went at a fast clip for the first 500 meters or so, then came upon the steep hill leading into the jungle. I had to walk it, with legs still crampy from the bike leg. My pace swung wildly from sub-5 minutes per kilometer to 6:30 per kilometer as the course undulated with the terrain.
I was in a pretty dark place mentally and physically when Mamita caught up with me. Instead of running past me, she stuck by me and we spent the rest of that 21 kilometers running together, encouraging each other even if during the tough climbs walking in panting silence was all we could do. We overtook a lot of people on the course that day. My watch died at the 12th kilometer, and so we ran on feel the rest of the way.
watch died after the 12th kilometer 🙁
I saw my age-group competitor several times during that run, and under normal circumstances (had I been running alone) my competitive side would have made me give chase, and I would probably have keeled over and not been able to finish. But while running with Mamita, I realized this race was more about overcoming the struggle to quit. She needed me and I needed her, and I was happy to run with her and pace her to a podium finish (in her age group, there were three competitors).
After many false alarms thinking we were almost at the finish line, we finally made it out of the winding forest trails. Just before we entered the finish chute, we tidied ourselves up at the last aid station, then ran in and crossed the finish line hand-in-hand. My total time on the run leg was 2 hours 4 minutes, my slowest half-marathon in a long while. But I was happy to finish!
My parents had come to Subic to watch the race; I’d asked them to be there at the finish because I wanted to share that moment with them. So instead of me breaking into tears at the finish line, I had a huge smile on my face because I saw them and was able to give them sweaty hugs and kisses.
They then told me that I was third in my age group. So of course, I had to stay for the awarding ceremony that night.
Before any race, every triathlete you ask will tell you that they harbor a feeling that they haven’t trained enough. It’s because this sport is like a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, with each part shaped differently for each participant. You can practice putting together certain parts, but it’s only on race day when everything comes together: your swim, bike, run, transitions, nutrition, plus race-day adrenaline, conditions, and interacting with fellow competitors.
Especially in an inaugural race like Challenge Philippines, there are so many unknown factors. Stepping onto the starting line ready to give it your all is already something to celebrate.
I will mince no words. That race was unbelievably tough. Training for it cost me blood (from blisters), sweat (from workouts), and tears (from frustration) — and doing the race itself made me feel like I still hadn’t given enough in training!
Here are some of the lessons I learned from this particular race.
Lesson #1: Transition strategy and practice pays off. One thing I am very satisfied about for this race is my fast transition times. 1:32 for T1, and 1:15 for T2. The only reason T1 took so long is I put on gloves to help me brake better.
I’ve been practicing flying mounts and dismounts since Tri United 3, when all that separated me from first place was a few minutes I could have shaved off from transitions. I’d scouted the entry point to transition the day before the race, so I knew when to take my feet out of my bike shoes and coast to the dismount line. I had memorized where my transition area was so I didn’t waste precious moments being lost. So even if transition didn’t make or break my position at Challenge Philippines, it certainly made my race a lot smoother, and I didn’t lose focus.
Lesson #2: Don’t let your ego determine your pacing. The eventual second-placer in my age group was leapfrogging me throughout the ride towards the turnaround point. I’m not sure if it was deliberate mind games in play when she was being all social and friendly, saying, “You’re going up these hills way too fast!” and talking to the guy behind me saying, “I’d like to put a towline on her so she can pull me up.” But I bought into it, allowed myself to be flattered and goaded into riding up too fast. By the time I realized I was burning too many matches, it was too late and I’d overbiked myself to the point of cramping. Thankfully I caught myself just in time and was able to pull my effort back to save something for the run, albeit a painful run.
Lesson #3: Learn to pee on the fly. Or pee standing up. Well, I’m not quite sure that if I hadn’t stopped and sat to pee, I wouldn’t have gotten cramps in my quads. But it could have saved me precious time, and it’s a useful skill for when I attempt a full ironman. Then again, who wants to smell like pee?!
Lesson #4: Always offer encouragement to your fellow athletes. I didn’t realize how much a word of encouragement meant until I found myself struggling that day, and Mamita came by and we pushed each other to the finish line. And today I received a text message from a friend I’d passed on the run course. “Thank you for being supportive throughout the race especially when you caught me [on the] run. I appreciated the push.”
The rush of being first across the finish line fades, and soon enough your fellow athletes will forget that little fact. What they won’t forget is how you made them feel.
Challenge Philippines was warmly received by the Philippine triathlon community and looks poised to be a must-do race simply for the bragging rights to finishing one of the toughest half-ironman courses in the world.
I want to thank the people who worked hard to bring this to fruition. Granted there were some birthing pains, but I know these people have moved heaven and earth to make this race experience possible for the athletes. Roman Floesser, Laurence Hebel, Anna Stroh, Michael Dhulst, Dave Voth, Raymund Magdaluyo, a big thank you for the heroic effort and gamble. It paid off.
Thank you, fellow athletes, for braving this race. You are very much part of its success.
Chris “Macca” McCormack, thank you for gracing the inaugural race. You’re a great ambassador for the sport and you inspire everyone you meet and mentor. Thanks for spending so much time and energy with us at MaccaX. And thank you for being such a genuine person and friend.
Thank you to my sponsors Mizuno, Ceepo, Spyder, Salice, and yurbuds. Thank you to my ENDURE teammates — you are all warriors for getting out there on the course! Thank you to my parents and family for always being there for me.
Thank you, Lord, for a safe race. That’s all I asked for and You gave me more than that. 🙂