Ironman China 2009 Race Report 

What a day and what a race!! For those who followed the race on-line or read post race reports know about the insane conditions. For those who don’t know much about the race, I’ll give you the run-down here. The temperatures got up to 113 degrees F (45 degrees C) with a heat index over 122 degrees F (50 degrees C). It was nothing short of pure misery and insanity. Running the marathon portion of the race in that heat and humidity was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in my life. Our Austin, Texas summer training feels cool and refreshing compared to that race. That said, I was really happy with my overall performance with a 6th place finish in the male professional field. There were a few others who beat me, but another top-ten again in an Ironman. So overall I was really happy considering everything.

 


A few more stats and quotes on the day:

  • Drop out rate was 30%
  • This was my close buddy’s,  Stephan Schwarze, 37th full Ironman and he said it was by far the toughest he’s experienced. His quote of the day on the run: “Kona is a cool walk in the park compared to this”
  • Hillary Biscay, a professional triathlete with 34 Ironmans to her name told me after the race it was her toughest ever.
  • Petr Vabrusek, a professional with over 80 Ironmans to his name and 60+ top-10 finishes said it was the hardest Ironman he’s ever experienced.
  • Chris McCormack, “Macca”, former winner of the Ironman World Championships in Kona, raced the half-Ironman that the race organizers hosted during the full-Ironman. Afterwards, he said it was the hardest race he’s ever done. And then was quoted on Ironman’s website saying “I have no idea how these guys are doing an Ironman.
  • Also from the Ironman website: Chandran, "the race director of Ironman Malaysia (you know, that race that is considered the hottest Ironman in the world?), spent most of the day in his hotel room because it was "too hot" here in China." 

I agree with all of the above. It was nothing short of nasty. So, how did the day play out for me?


The swim was in a river that had a pretty swift current. The race director modified the course to have us exit the water and run ~200M on each lap to avoid swimming the long up-current section. The fear was that some of the weaker swimmers would not be able to even complete the swim against the current. The day before the race, it thunder stormed all day which made the current even stronger. It was somewhere around 2 mph. On race day, the current was so strong that to have a person on a paddle-board at the pyramid-shaped buoys holding on to them because the current was flipping them over.

The water was really warm, probably around 80 degrees. It was non-wetsuit swim for the pros but wet-suit legal for amateurs. They had us start in one big wave which is annoying when the age-groupers have a different set of rules that gives them a several minute swim advantage with the wetsuits. If we’re racing with a different set of rules and a disadvantage on the swim, then we should have a separate wave. But it is what it is. In retrospect, I’m really glad we didn’t have wetsuits because I think in that warm of water it would have been really easy to overheat.


When the gun went off, I started pretty well. We went straight into the rising sun so visibility was pretty bad. They put the first turn buoy at about 200M, so only a few minutes into the race everyone was in a giant mess still at the first turn. This made for some nasty fighting on the turn. Then the second buoy was still into the sun. We were swimming perpendicular to the current. So the group I was hanging on the back of swam way off course down-stream. Those leading the group didn’t compensate for the current. With the glare of the sun and the current we undershot the turn buoy by about 75M. So we had to turn against the current and swim upstream to make the turn. Because the swim was slow against the current, I lost a good couple minutes with that mistake, so when I was only about 5-8 minutes into the swim, I had already lost several minutes worth of time. It was really frustrating. I knew it was bad because when I got back to the turn, the people who were on course were WAY slower than me. I knew I had really messed up blindly following that group. From then on I didn’t have a group, I was pretty much alone. I was passing people like crazy on the swim (rather odd for me). When we turned down-stream it was like time-warp speed. Then we turned perpendicular again and I misjudged the current and added another minute or two by ending up way downstream. When we turnd up-stream and had about 150M into the current, I felt like I was standing still. This swim course really favored strong swimmers because they could power through the up-current section with a much higher relative rate than the weaker swimmers. I swear that the 150M upstream took me about 10 minutes. Then we exited the water and ran 200M before entering the water for our second loop. I was pretty much alone. I was so angry, because I knew I was so far back when I could see the guys way ahead of me on their second loop. I swam the second loop solo and I just did what I could.

 

People were all over the swim course. There were tons of people just cutting buoys and cutting the course. I don’t know how many people actually swam the right course!? About 2/3 of the way through the swim I wanted to drop out of the race and call it a day. I was so frustrated. I work so hard on my swimming and then I swam like a complete muppet. My swim time was the same as in Malaysia, but there, I was only 9 minutes down from the lead swimmer. Here, with the goofy currents and course I was 18 minutes down on the leader!!!!!!!!!! I haven’t had a swim time gap like that since my first year in triathlon, 6 YEARS AGO!!!! I was so so angry, I mean really frustrated. It was bar none, the worst swim of my life. It made me really question the amount of time and effort I put into my swimming. I could spend a lot less time and effort at swim practices and still swim the same times. Why not put that extra time and effort into biking and running. I’m over it now and will continue my swim development plans, just realizing that since I didn’t take my first swim stroke until I was 25 years old that I just have to work harder for my swim gains than most.


So, I got out of the water completely frustrated. To add insult to injury, there wer sharp underwater rocks leading up to the finish. I tripped and stumbled and fell about 3-4 times on the run out of the water and got some nice gashes on my feet, legs, and hands. I talked to a girl today (2 days after the race) who actually broker her toe stumbling on the same rocks while exiting the water. She had to drop out of the race because of it. When I did get on the bike, I looked down and was bleeding from 5 different places. I had a good 2 inch long gash on my right index finger that stung for the rest of the day. Sports drink, gu, sugar, sweat, and gripping bike handle bars does not feel good on an open gash.

 

I gave myself the “it’s a long day, one step at a time” pep-talk. Even though I felt like I was completely out of the race, I went with the “fake it till you make it strategy.”

 

About 2 minutes after the finish, a volunteer dumps a bottle of cold water on me while my buddy Rasmus Henning (the race winner) watches.

The bike course was pretty much flat a highway and then there was a few mile section through some small villages where it was pretty hilly. We came back to transition and then repeated the loop. It was really windy, reminding me of the couple times I’ve done Ironman Arizona. I think it was in the 20mph range, but it’s hard to tell. You always feel like its worse than it actually is. Most of the time it was a cross wind with a few sections of head and tail wind, but never longer than 15-20 minutes of each. The cross wind was a little in your face in one direction, and a little with you in the other. The bike course was completely closed to traffic and the roads were smooth and well swept. I really liked this course. Just when you were sick of sitting in your aero-bars, you went through the hilly villages and got out of the saddle to climb some hills. The villages were packed with people cheering, beating drums, chanting. It was one of the cooler Ironman experiences.

 

I started passing a bunch of people right at the beginning of the bike. I was so mad and was just biking with pure anger. Many of the people I passed, I couldn’t he/she had swam faster than me. I biked really solid. In Malaysia I passed my first male pro after about 15 min on the bike. In this race, I didn’t see my first male pro until 2 hours into the bike. THAT’S HOW FAR BEHIND I WAS!!!

 

But once I was about an hour into the bike, the anger and frustration was gone, my spirits were high and I started having fun again. The nice part about a slow swim was that I had A LOT of people to pass. That kept my head in the game. There was always someone on the horizon ahead for me to key off of, reel in, then pass. I ended up having the second fastest bike split of the whole race. Rasmus (the winner) was the only person who out-biked me.

 

It started getting really hot on the second loop of the bike, but it felt a lot like Malaysia. I was managing my calories and hydration really well. My energy was good but my stomach was not too full so I knew I had fixed a few of my fueling issues from Malaysia. The wind was for sure stronger on the second loop so I knew the combination of that and the general fatigue of the second loop would really hurt a lot of people. I came through the first loop in 2:18, which if I had even split, put me on course for a 4:36 bike. But, the fatigue and wind for sure slowed me a bit on the second loop. I also decided to relax more on the second loop so I wasn’t completely torched starting the run. The last hour of the bike, I definitely backed off quite a bit to give my legs a little respite. I came off the bike in 4:45, my second fastest bike time to date.

 

At one point I had passed a bunch of pros and I saw two of the favorites on the shoulder sitting up and pedaling easy back towards the start. They had black marker X through their race numbers which means DQ’d. The draft marshal came by me and I asked if he knew what place I was in. I thought I may have been in 10th-12th. He said that I was 4th or 5th and that he had DQ’d two guys for cutting the course. They had accidentally gone off course for several miles, when they came back to the course, instead of completing the legit course, they looked at their bike computers and since it was the same distance, they decided it was fair and would cut out a section of the real course to make it so they rode the same distance.

 

After the marshal told me my place, I was really excited. I could tell it was really hot and I was getting a bit of a headache, but my legs felt really solid. I was excited to run and ready to go. I came into transition strong and I think I passed Joseph Major from Hungary in transition, because I didn’t see him on the bike, but I came out of the tent ahead of him. He won Ironman Arizona last year with a 2:47 marathon off the bike and I know he’s run some 2:45 marathons off the bike. He came out on the run just about 20 yards behind me. I heard his footsteps and breathing and he came by my pretty strong. My legs actually felt pretty strong. He passed me and put about 20 yards into me, but then I kept up and just hung there. For about 2-2.5 miles I just hung there behind him. As my legs came around after the bike, I started feeling good.

 

Then it got hot, I mean the hottest I’ve ever felt. Going through an aid station, I was having a hard time keeping my breathing under control and my heart-rate down. There was about a 2-2.5 mile stretch where the race had NO AID STATION. I thought I may actually pass-out on that stretch. It must have gotten to Joseph too, because when we got to the next aid station, he started walking. I stopped for about a minute, drank as much as I could, then grabbed 6 sponges soaked in cold water and shoved them in my jersey. I thought I was going to pass out from a heat stroke, I couldn’t keep my core temperature down and my breathing was as hard and labored as if I had just done wind-sprints. I always made fun of people who ran with sponges in their jerseys because it looks goofy and swore I would never do it. But I couldn’t keep my core temp down and having the cold sponges shoved down my chest and back were the only way I could stop from passing out. There was absolutely NO SHADE WHATSOEVER. We ran under one highway bridge and every fan was crowded under there in the only bit of shade.

 

Once I had the sponges, I could actually run. I passed Joseph and started running decent. I had seen the other guys coming from the out-n-back and knew I was now in 3rd place in the pro field and the 2nd place guy was only maybe 5 min ahead of me. I felt like in the heat that anyone could pop at any time.



I needed two volunteers helping me to stand after this one!

The second time through the 2.5 mile no-aid station stretch, I ran by a guy named Ian Anderson. He was working for the race, but he’s won the Eco-Challenge (8 day extreme adventure race) more times than anyone in that sport’s history and I think he’s a 3x world champion kayaker.  I asked him how hot it was and that’s when he told me that it was over 110 degrees with a heat index of 122 (he told me in Celsius, but I entertained myself for a half a mile doing the conversion in my head). That’s when I told myself that anything could happen in this race, anyone in front or behind could drop at any second. The person who just kept moving forward, either walking or running could finish well. This was truly a battle of attrition race; running talent or speed meant absolutely nothing. He who could keep moving and walk the least would do well. AND I was in my highest position ever in an Ironman. So I was really excited.

 

 Then from mile 3 until about 13 I actually felt about as good as one can in those conditions. My run pace was really solid. I’d still lose about 30-45 seconds at every aid station stopping to fill up on fluids and swapping sponges for new cold ones. I actually thought through those miles that I was going to run myself into 2nd. I was really positive and thought I could do it. Then just after mile 13, I just had to stop and walk. I was completely toasted. I tried to jog a bit, but every time thought I may pass out. So I walked pretty much from mile 13-19. I was taking in as much fluids and calories as I could. I felt like the race was over for me, but I was going to walk it in to not have to drop out. I was passing the transition area at about mile 17 and my buddy Stephan was walking my direction. So we walked together for 3 miles.

 

He had been so dehydrated on the bike because of the heat, that his whole body cramped up and he fell on the road. He writhed around on the ground and a guy stopped to help Stephan. Then that guy’s whole body cramped up and he fell over. Stephan spent an hour and a half in an ambulance. They wouldn’t give him an IV, so he took the IV solution AND DRANK IT!!!! After that hour and a half, he somehow convinced the medics he was okay to continue. He got back on his bike (he was only about 10 miles to the bike finish), easy pedaled back to the bike finish, changed, and then decided to walk the run. He happened to be just starting when I came by. He told me Lon (our other friend from Austin) had dropped out.

 

When Stephan and I were walking, 3 male pros passed me. Joseph Major caught me again, Byung Hoon Park from Korea, and a Japanese pro all came by me. I thought, well I’m still in 6th place in the men’s pro race and that’s still in the prize money. I could still finish in the top-10 and take home a pay check. I didn’t think there was any way I could run. At one point another guy joined Stephan and I for our walk. I was so trashed, I couldn’t keep up with the walking pace!!! I yelled up to them “hey guys, you’re dropping me on the walk!”

 

I came around the last turn-around with about 7 miles to go and Petr Vabrusek from Czech Republic was only a few minutes behind me and another German pro was another minute or two behind him. I thought “okay I need to make some money and make today worth the suffering” so I bucked up and started running again. I think because I had been drinking a ton of fluids, taking electrolytes, and gels on my 6 mile walk and continuing to use sponges, my core was about as cool as it could get out in the 113 degree heat and I was pretty well fueled.

 

After about 5 minutes of running, my legs felt manageable. I still did my sponge thing and stopped at every aid station to walk for a minute. I passed a few age groupers who had passed me while I had been walking. One aid station, a guy gave me a bag of ice, so I walked and jogged while tucking it under each arm pit, on the back of my neck, and on my forehead to keep me cool. It was miserable. My feet were all blisters by then so every step felt like each foot was on fire.

 
Lon took a picture of my nasty mangled feet after the race, nice!

To keep my head out of the game, for the last hour I counted to 20 in my head with each foot-fall and repeated over and over to kind-of hypnotize myself. I put about 10 minutes into Petr in that last 7 miles.

 

I was so happy to be done with that race. It was the most miserable experience of my life. Nothing I’ve ever done can compare with that misery. I cannot wait to do a race where it’s maybe in the 80s or 90s for temperature. It’ll feel nice and cool compared to that death march of a race. When I walked a 4:14 marathon and could still finish in the top-10, you know it was an insane day.

 

So all-in-all I’m happy to be done with that race. It was nothing like I’ve ever experienced in my life. I was really happy with the final result of the day and happy I gutted it out on the run. It was a great victory in terms of not quitting when 1-in-3 of those who started didn’t finish the race. It did make me start dread the summer heat in Austin that’s coming soon though : )

 

I’m heading back to Austin from China in a few days and will be properly recovering for another couple weeks. Then I’ll be ramping up more on my speed work to get ready for the three 70.3 races I have planned in June and July. I’m already excited and chomping at the bit to start getting ready for Ironman Wisconsin in September!!

 

Pat

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