What a great race and trip!! I finished 6th place in the professional field and had an overall personal best Ironman finish time of 8:51, my best by 9 minutes. I also had a breakthrough on the bike by cycling 4:33, almost a 15 minute personal best for a full Ironman bike leg of the race. Overall I was very happy to start off my 2009 season in such a positive way, especially after ending 2008 with a disappointing performance at the World Championships in Kona. Throughout most of the 2008 season I struggled, never feeling like I put things together to have a solid race. I trained hard this whole winter hoping to turn things around. I really feel excited now for the rest of 2009 after this race in Malaysia.
Ironman Malaysia was just an amazing race and location. I have to say that this was my favorite race I've done to date. Kona is a special race because of it's history and because it is the big show, but Malaysia just had such a welcoming feel from the race staff, to the competitors, to the locals. The race didn't have the aggressive nervous energy around the race you often feel at North American Ironman races. The country and island of Langkawi is just really a cool place to visit. It just made for a great race and trip.
I left Austin two weeks before the race to get to Langkawi 11 days early in order to acclimate to the heat and humidity. In Austin we had a "warm" winter, but it's nothing compared to the nasty jungle heat and humidity of Southeast Asia. Malaysia is hot, I mean stinking hot. It makes Hawaii feel air conditioned. Most days I was there the temperature hovered around 95 degrees but with about 95% humidity. It would be like racing an Ironman in Houston or Georgia in August. Just sticky hot. Then add in the tropical sun, which because you're at a latitude of about 5 degrees from the equator, makes that sun feel like it's pounding you. It makes for gnarley conditions to race.
View of the start of the bike and run course
My plan was to arrive early enough to have some solid heat acclimation time and allow my body to adjust after the travel. The trip itself was crazy long. I drove from Austin to Houston, because my flight was about $300 cheaper flying from Houston (2.5hr), flew Houston to San Francisco (5hrs), 2.5 hour layover, San Fran to Taiwan (13.5 hours), 3.5 hour layover, Taiwan to Kuala Lumpur (5 hours), 3 hour layover, KL to Langkawi (1hr) = LONG TRIP. I left Austin on Monday afternoon and arrived at my hotel in Langkawi on Wednesday night.
The big issue on the trip was when the airlines lost my bike on the trip over!! When I arrived in Kuala Lumpur, I had to pick up my bike and bags, then transfer terminals and airlines. However, my bags arrived, but NO BIKE!! This is always the biggest fear of any athlete traveling to a race. I filed a report at the airport and went on with my trip. The bike fiasco would come to occupy me for the next 5 days. The first day or two I really didn't worry because usually a lost bag takes a day or two to track down and deliver. But after two days when the airlines still had no clue where my bike was located, I started worrying. I was calling the airport in Kuala Lumpur 3 times a day but was getting no where. Then my parents stepped in. My mom got on the phone in the states. She was on the phone constantly with Continental Airlines and China Airlines, working her way through the bureaucratic mess and "standard corporate responses" until she found an amazingly helpful person at Continental Airlines, Christina. She worked with my mom to track down the bike. At one point, the issue got escalated to the offices of the CEOs of China Airlines and Continental Airlines, because the two airlines were having trouble communicating. It was a big mess, but I eventually got my bike after all the hard work of my mom and Christina. I left Houston on Monday and did not get my bike until the following Sunday night!! I love paying the extra $100 bike fee each way on my flight and having the airlines not be able to deliver on their end for that extra fee!!!! The best I can figure out how the error occurred was because TSA pulled my bike aside for another screening in San Fran (it had already been screened in Houston mind you and never left their custody, please!). My flight into San Fran had been delayed, so when the bike was being transferred over to my next flight, TSA pulled it aside and caused it to miss my flight. Then because it was lost between the custody of two different airlines, throw a little government agency in the mix, and voila no one can find the bike for a week. Again, I am very thankful to my family and friends who all chipped in to help shake the bike loose from the system and to the customer service people at Continental who once the issue was escalated took the personal attention to find the bike.
So I took a full week off biking, but once the bike fiasco was solved, I was all the more excited to race. Luckily I had traveled early enough, I was able to get in a couple easy bike rides to prepare for the race. The remainder of pre-race week was pretty standard. Warm-up workouts, rest, eat, hydration, drive the course, try to spend time in the heat to acclimate, but not in the sun.
View of the swim course
Finish line site
I thought the race course was really fun. The way it was set up really made it easy to mentally break the race up into smaller chunks. The swim was a single loop course in the ocean. Langkawi is actually an archipelago of 100 islands, so the swim course is completely sheltered by barrier islands. It was as calm as any lake swim I've ever swum. There was not a single wave or swell. The water was really warm so no wetsuits were allowed. I love warm water, so I didn't mind and I had an Xterra Speed Suit for the swim. There was one problem with the water though.....little stingers!! A few people told me they were jellyfish. One person said they were sea lice. Whatever they were, they were stinging little buggers. During the warm-up swims in the week before the race, you'd get hundreds of pin-prick like stings. There were times it was like swimming through a pin cushion. I was happy to have the speed suit because it covered my torso and thighs. It would have been really painful without the speed suit. On race day, right before the race, the race staff swept the course with boats and jet skis and it greatly decreased the number of little stingers. I think I only got one sting during the race versus hundreds during a practice. They hurt, but were somewhat tolerable. Some people would get little welts like mosquito bites, but most didn't have marks after swimming. I guess it was dependent on your sensitivity to the stings.
Dan and I relax before the swim start
The bike course was a 4 loop course which broke it up nicely for the race. It was hillier than I expected, but because the road surface was very smooth, lack of wind, and positioning of the hills, it ended up to be a fast course. The biggest issue on the bike course was again the heat. As the sun came out, it got particularly hot. It was so important to stay on top of hydration. The race had aid stations handing up water bottles every 10k (6 miles), so I slowed down and picked up a water bottle almost every station. Because of all of the loops, spectators could see competitors many times. The craziest part about the bike course was that it was COMPLETELY open to traffic. Yes, that's right. There were no road closures. We shared the road with cars, trucks, and hundreds of motorbikes. Then add in that there were monkeys running around the roads, water buffalos, and cows crossing the roads, it made the bike course pure chaos. Once you embraced the chaos, it made the bike really fun!! It was Malaysian road rules, which means anything goes: weave around slow cars, cut off a motorbike with a family of four riding on it, cross into oncoming traffic to dodge a car turning in front of you....no problem. It was as much an adventure race as anything else. I loved it.
Cows on the bike course while driving the route
The run was nasty hot and we supposedly had a "cool year". It was a 5 loop, out-n-back course. So after a 1k bit from transition we race 2.5 miles out, turn around, 2.5 miles back, 5 times! It was really great because spectators saw us more times than any other Ironman. It was also nice to be able to see your competition frequently to see how each looked, their running speeds, etc. Clouds rolled in during my last 2 loops of the run which resulted in it being a "cool" year. The first three loops were still nasty hot.
Race morning was really relaxed. I really didn't have much pre-race anxiety. It was super humid, probably 85 degrees at 5:30 in the morning. I was already drenched in sweat just from the 1/2 mile walk to transition from the hotel. Going into the swim, a friend of mine, Nicole Leder had out-swam me in Kona by about 3 minutes last October. So, I told her before the start that I was going to glue myself to her in on the swim. I found her at the start and did it. I stuck right behind her the entire swim. I was smarter at the swim start than at any race last year. I stayed really controlled and never went lactic. I stayed really relaxed and in control and was able to catch on the back of Nicole's group. I think there were about 6 or 8 of us. I was hanging on the back by my fingernails but was still comfortable and aerobic. A couple times I almost got dropped around turns or after veering off course, but was able to put in short surges to catch back up. It wasn't a rough swim in terms of beating each other up. So when I got out of the water with Nicole's group and saw 58:22 on a non-wetsuit swim, I was really happy and I felt really good. The most important part was that I wasn't tired at all. During my January training, my swim coach at University of Texas, Whitney, had given me specific swim workouts that I really think made a huge difference in my swim strength and endurance. They weren't easy at the time, but I think they made a difference on race day. Also, the stroke technique work I did with Whitney over the winter made a difference. The fact that I could swim with people who just a few months earlier could greatly out swim me was really encouraging.
I got on the bike and was alone, but my legs felt great. Last season it always took me 30-40 min in a race before my legs would feel good. I think it was a muscle recruitment and strength issue. So this winter I spent a lot of time doing strength work on the bike. Within 2-3 min of the swim, I felt like I could turn the gears. Because of the layout of the bike course, there were no out-n-backs so you could never tell what place you were in. I kept trying to hold back, but then said "forget this, I'm going for it." I decided to throw down and see what I could do. I decided to relax up the hills and but hammer the flats. By the start of the the second loop, I started passing agegroupers on their first loops. With the other cyclists, motorbikes, cows, cars, trucks, and monkeys, there was plenty to keep your attention and keep your head in the game. You had to to have your head on a swivel the whole time.
I passed about 5 or 6 pros but was still riding alone and didn't know what place I was in. Then I came around a turn and caught a huge pack of pros, there were about 8 in a big drafting (illegal) line. They appeared to be 1-2 bike lengths apart when you're supposed to be 4-5 bike lengths. They were all just sitting behind Petr Vabrusek's who was working at the front of the train. I felt bad that he was doing all the work and all those clowns were just sitting on him. I came up on them and thought, well if I come by, they're all just going to use me, so I better go hard so they have to work if they want to stick with me. I put in a 10 min surge left the group. Petr tried to come with me, but eventually I was alone again. He used the opportunity to break away from the drafters behind him.
Soon after, I came around to friends cheering on the course and they yelled to me I was in either 5th or 6th place. Since there weren't any out-n-backs on the course I hadn't known my placement, so I was really excited to know I was in the top-10 that early into the race.
The 4th bike loop the normal fatigue was setting in. I noticed my legs weren't as springy through the hilly section of each loop. I made sure to relax up the hills and work the flat sections. The heat became very noticeable on the 3rd and 4th loops. The areo helmet started to really boil after mile 80 on the bike. I felt like I could still push strong through the last hour of the bike. I came into transition and could see the guys starting the run in front of me, so I knew I was indeed in 5th place. I also saw 4:30-something on my bike split and it was the best I've felt on the bike ever in an Ironman. Previous to this race my best Ironman bike split was 4:48, so a 15 min best was really exciting.
I came into transition excited and feeling good. Starting out the run, the first half mile or so I felt really good, but that was the excitement of the race. Several minutes in, I got some really bad side stitches. I thought I had stayed on top of my hydration and electrolyte intake pretty well on the bike, so I was surprised to have bad side stitches. They're not a game ender by any means, but require management. The aid stations were handing out water bottles rather than the regular little cups, so I could pick up a bottle and run with it. This way the athletes could take in more fluid in the heat. For the first couple miles, I slowed down, focused on deep breathing, ran with a water bottle to take in more fluids, and ran while digging my fingers up under my rib cage. After a few miles, all these little things helped me to kick the side stitches. Problem 1 resolved.
The second major issue that developed early in the run was that my stomach became very full and bloated. Looking back now, I realize that I took in too many calories during the bike. I had planned on the bike taking much longer, so when I took in the calories and salt for a 5 hour bike split in a 4:15 time period, I overloaded my GI system and all the fluid and calories just sat there. I was SOOOOO bloated. I felt like I was running pregnant! Three different times during the first 8 miles of the run I stopped and tried to make myself throw up to empty out my stomach. I couldn't get myself to throw up, so I just ran completely bloated. Now I know what it would feel like to try to do a long run after Thanksgiving dinner!! After about 10 miles, my stomach started to settle so I could finally get into my run pace. My legs were a little more fatigued than I would have liked, but I think by backing off on the bike by 2-5min in the future could solve that problem.
On the run trying to manage bloated gut and oppressive heat (see tossing icewater sponges, right)
I ran the first 2.5 miles at almost 1 min/mile slower than the rest of the race. I was really happy I could manage the issues I had. Staying on the mental game when you're not feeling too hot is definitely the challenge. Getting off the bike, when you're feeling good and wanting to race is a far cry from my mental attitude about a mile into the run. I was in the mode of "let's just maintain this position, don't let anyone pass you, and DON'T WALK," all very tough to keep your head around when the race is deep into the run. Even though I felt I was just shuffling along, I caught Collucci at mile 4 which moved me into 4th place. I saw Petr and Matt O'holleran running strong together and they caught and passed me at about mile 6. They had made up about a 4 min gap I had on them starting the run. I tried for about 30 seconds to pick up the pace and go with them, but it wasn't happening. Over the next 4 miles they slowly pulled ahead and put a good 300m into me, but then the gap seemed to stay pretty steady for a few miles. Then Matt slowed up and Petr went ahead. It took me another 2 miles to catch Matt again, but starting the 3rd loop had moved back into 5th.
Looking behind me there were another 3-5 guys all within about 5 minutes. Two of them were running like crazy and quickly closing the gap. One had been on Japan's olympic team. He passed me and went on to run himself into 4th place. He had a solid race. The other guy, Gernot Seidel from Austria was running like a demon and moved into 4th place past myself and Petr.
With 3 miles to go, I felt like I had 7th wrapped up. Petr was about 2-3 minutes ahead of me so I knew that would be tough to bridge. Another Austrian guy (last year's 3rd place finisher) was sitting pretty close behind. I timed my gap at the turn-around to know how deep I'd have to dig to hold my place. I had about 2:40 over him at the last turn around with 3 miles to go, so I knew he couldn't gain 50 sec per mile as long as I didn't bonk or dilly dally. Then with less than a 1/2 mile to go, I was making the last turn heading down the last stretch and Gernot who had been in 4th place was walking and staggering on the road. He had absolutely imploded. His girlfriend was standing on the side of the road just trying to point him to the finish. In the last 1/2 mile he slipped from 4th to 8th place. It's a lesson that there are no definites in Ironman, even a 1/2 mile to the finish! He was severely dehydrated and was taken to the medical tent in a wheel chair. I talked to him later and the next morning and was feeling better and in high spirits.
I was really happy with my race. I got to experience a new and exciting place and race. I was able to swim with people who had swam 3 min faster than me last year. I had a 15 min best on the bike and an overall 9 min best finish time, capped off with a top-10 overall finish. It was a really great experience! This race really has me excited for 2009.
After racing for 9 hours in the 95 degree jungle, I went straight from the finish line for a slurpee!!