Tuesday, March 29, 2011

2011 Aviva Ironman 70.3 Singapore - Race Report

T - 2 Days

The first thing on the schedule was a "Swim Course Familiarization Session."  Unfortunately I never managed to find the swim course on my first attempt as I turned the wrong way when I arrived at the water front and walked about 4 kilometers in the opposite direction.  According to my iphone navigator I seemed to be walking in the general direction of the race registration (around 14 kilometers away from the race transition area).  I decided to keep walking toward registration.  In hindsight I would have been better off taking a taxi because what turned out to be a 10K walk in 31°C / 84% humidity had me drenched in sweat.

I saw Faris Al-Sultan out on the road for a run and was a bit star struck.  It was just days ago that I was watching his slow motion swim exit on a downloaded copy of the NBC Ironman World Championships special.  I don't think I could sprint as fast as he was jogging.

It turns out I wasn't the only lost boy scout.  In the days leading up to the race, here are some examples of the questions asked to me or those that I overheard together with the answers that I had to figure out for myself:

-Where is transition?  Transition is along the bicycle path near Bedok Jetty.  Bedok Jetty is about the only thing you will find on any map that will get you close to where you want to go.  Getting to the bicycle path itself can be a bit tricky as it involves locating underground tunnels that get you beyond the East Coast Pkwy and out toward the Singapore Strait.  If you have given yourself enough time for getting lost then biking there should not be too difficult.  Otherwise I recommend hiring a van from your hotel and they can, hopefully, drive you to where you need to go as long as you have printed out a map.
-Do we have separate bike and run transition bags? No.  There is only one "transition bag" but interestingly enough it is not used.  See related answer below.
-Where is registration? Suntec Exhibition Center.  Unless you are staying nearby, take a taxi.
-Where do I collect my timing chip?  Timing chips are not distributed with the material collected at registration.  They are given out during the bike check in at transition.  This little detail was only mentioned in the digital copy of the race guide.
-Is it true that we have to run 500 meters after existing the water on the first swim lap?  No.  After exiting the water after the first swim lap, it is a short out-and-back 20 - 30 meter jog around a barrier and then back into the water for the second lap.  There were cups of water held out for a quick drink before swimming again.
-Are there changing tents in transition? Not that I saw but apparently they were there somewhere. For future reference note that public nudity is illegal in Singapore.
-Where do we leave our transition bags?  There is no rack for transition bags.  It is also not permitted to leave the bags in the transition area next to your bike.  So what is the bag for you ask?  I have no idea but I saw some people use it as a transition mat (despite the warning on the loudspeaker about leaving bags in transition).  All of the bike and run gear needed for the race should be laid out as you wish next to your bike.  Personally I like this kind of transition setup because its fast.  
-Where is the personal bag storage check in?  Just keep asking everyone until you find it.  It is difficult to give clear directions as its in the middle of a grass field.  You can use your "transition bag" to check in any items on race morning that you want access to immediately after the race.  Athletes are given two stickers that have your last name and race number on them.  These are to be attached to each side of the transition bag.  You would think that the race number and last name would be used for identification purposes but when I checked in my personal bag on race morning I was given a tiny slip of white paper with an entirely new number on it.  I asked the volunteer what I was supposed to do with this paper as I was about to race and she suggested that I try to memorize it.  Wow.  Brilliant.  I stuffed it next to my, errr, family jewels.  I was happy to find it still there after 70.3 miles.
-Where are the carbohydrates? (Asked at the official "carbo loading dinner").  They are officially located at any Italian restaurant of your choice but not at the "Carbo Dinner."

Here's a 2 minute map production to give you an idea where things are:
Perhaps next year we can get really creative and have race registration in Malaysia, and the Expo in the Philippines.
In order to keep this report somewhere short of a novel I'll need to bullet-point some issues that I'm otherwise tempted to go on and on about:

-Race Expo: Gigantic Banner was misleading.  The expo inside was jammed into three tiny rooms that were not much larger than a Hong Kong restroom.  Come on folks--you can't call that an "expo." Couldn't find any IM bling other than a heftily priced cycling kit.

-Carbo Loading Dinner: Held 2 days prior to race.  The only carbohydrates I could find was fried rice.  The rest was straight from a Chinese take out menu.

T - 1 Day
Longer that ideal day of easy training:  2 hours of cycling, 30 minutes running, 30 minutes swimming--all in HR Zone 1.  If I could go back and do it again I would probably have cut the time on the bike in half.  I don't think that extra hour did me any particular good.

I packed everything I would need for the race into the single transition bag I was given and then jumped on the bike for the ride over to transition.  On the ride over the sky open up a piss storm.  I ran into the Japanese pros Maki and Hiro Nishiuchi on the way over and they were standing under shelter waiting for the rain to subside. (By the way, to learn more about how you can help the victims of the Japan quake, check out Hiro's blog.)  Looking up at the sky I guessed that it would rain for quite a long time and I needed to make sure I had enough time to get everything done in transition before it closed.  Out into the rain I went.

I arrived at transition and took a spot in a long queue to collect my timing chip.  There was no cover from the rain and I was standing barefoot in what was formerly a grass field but had turned into a muddy marsh.  40 minutes later I was asked to confirm my details on a laptop screen and then I was handed a timing chip.  Next stop, bike check-in.  The "safety check" consisted of a front and back wheel spin with a brake check.  I passed. Since it was still raining, I decided to leave only my bike and helmet in transition.  I took everything else with me back to the hotel in order to keep it dry.  I'd be sure to arrive early in the morning with enough time to set up my transition.

Having spent quite a bit of time out in the hot sun I was not as hydrated as I should have been.  Even with the afternoon rain it was still hot.  At around 6pm I finally started taking on water with a purpose.

For dinner I had a small pizza and a plate of pasta from Pastamania at Parkway Parade mall.  It was more or less fast "mock-Italian" food but it was close to my hotel and got the job done.  JoggerJoel ran into a friend from Hong Kong that had arranged van transport from the hotel to transition in the morning and offered us both seats.  Departure time 6am sharp.  Perfect!

Back at the hotel I laid out my race equipment on the bed and double checked that everything was present and in working order.

-Zoggs Predator goggles with mirrored lenses (anticipating bright sun)
-Body Glide
-Swim Cap
-Tri Suit
-Garmin 310 XT w/ HR Strap
-Bike Shoes
-Race belt with number attached
-Bike Nutrition: 4 Gu Gels, 3 Gu Chomps, salt tablets
-Rubber bands (for bike shoes)
-Sun glasses
-Chamois cream
-Race belt #2 with additional race number and 4 Gu gels attached
-Running shoes
-Baby powder
Post Race:
-Flip flops
What I should have packed but didn't:

As I laid down to bed I was sipping water and going over the race in my head.  I felt that this race would be a bit more difficult than my previous 70.3--mainly with the swim leg as my training volume was way down.  My race plan was the following: Enjoy the swim, race my bike with guts and survive the run.

On a side note, I had done a lot of work on getting into decent bike shape since my previous 70.3.  I invested in a Cervelo P3, Lemond Revolution trainer and dialed in my bike fit with the expert advice of the folks running Ttbikefit.com.  After trial and error at local fits in Hong Kong I finally found a solution.  Two thumbs up to these fitters!  I have never felt so comfortable in such an aggressive position.  Also, my "time in the saddle" in the months prior to the race was close to double what it was before 70.3 Phuket.

By 10:30pm I was finally asleep.

Race Morning

4:00am alarm. 5.5hrs sleep. Not ideal but I felt rested and ready.  I immediately continued hydrating.  In addition to my usual 2 cups of coffee (I brought my own this time instead of relying on Nescafe Instant), i gulped down just over a liter of Nuun enhanced water.  As always I didn't have anything to eat.  I know that this is not the healthiest of habits and I should start integrating breakfast into my life but it also didn't make too much sense to change anything on race morning.

After a final re-check of my transition bag I was out the door for the van ride to transition.

I went straight to my bike and carefully laid out my gear for the transitions.  In past triathlons I have balanced my helmet on the aerobars with my race number and sun glasses inside.  Since this time I was using a Xlab torpedo mount water bottle, my helmet didn't have a spot on the bike to balance safely.  Rather than risk it getting bumped off I decided to set it on the ground with my glasses and race number inside.  I added a bit of baby powder to the rim of my running shoes so that my sweaty feet would slide in a bit easier, stocked my bike with nutrition, rubber banded my bike shoes to the bike frame in horizontal position and voila I was done.

I lined up for body marking and then headed over to the swim warm up area.

Swim - Singapore Strait (1.9K)

This was a two lap swim course.  Each lap was lined with rope. The first lap was inside and smaller than the second on the outside.  This was a waved start with 7 separate start times.  This ensured both an even flow of bringing all competitors into the race and total carnage as waves were still starting literally right over the top of swimmers trying to exit their first swim lap.  Here is my parody version of the swim course:

I jumped in the water for a bit of easy swimming to warm up and get the blood flowing in my arms. There was plenty of space to warm up outside of the swim course. I put Body Glide around my neck, armpits, shoulders and just underneath all of the edges of my trisuit hoping to avoid the friction burns I developed during the Phuket swim. The water was a toasty 27°C--perfect by my standards. Visibility was very low. I guess it was around 1 meter. That wasn't a major issue anyway since I wasn't planning on sightseeing.

I walked over toward the swim start to watch the elites and the 5 other waves before me take off.  As the women were exiting the water from their first swim lap, the horn sounded for the start of of the Men's 30 - 34 group.  There wasn't really a clear distinction between the exiting area and the start so this resulted in the women getting completely pummeled head on in the water by the early 30s men.  I tried to imagine what it must have been like to be one of them.  I would have been looking forward to reaching the beach and starting my final lap, stroke, stroke, stroke, breathe...then SLAM!!...a 85Kg body drops on top of me, then another and another...I can't see anything but white wash and become completely disoriented..struggling for air I finally see the shoreline but more bodies are coming directly at me.  Wow.  Must have sucked to be them.
Photo by Federico D'Incà

Watching the chaos unfold on the swim course I almost forgot about my own start.
I scrambled over to the staging area but was near the very back. I knew it was going to be like swimming in spaghetti from the start since we were all compressed into a narrow lane. Since it was a counter clockwise course I chose to stay on the right. I figured I would have the rope boundary at my shoulder for most of the first lap.

On a side note: According to a post-race statement on the IM Singapore website, it seems they have no plans to change the wrestling, oops i mean swimming, course for 2012: "We'll further improve but keep the compact and unique two-lap, two-lane swim route..."  If I race this again next year I will change tactics entirely and start near the front and go out hard.  I don't know if I have the speed to hold on to that position but I it must be better than swimming back in the body blender.

Photo by Federico D'Incà

Although in the weeks building up to the race I was very nervous about my swim having fallen completely off form during the winter (see February race report) I was surprised to be feeling fairly relaxed with 60 seconds until the start of my wave. I think I felt a good degree of confidence knowing I had put in some work toward getting back into basic swim shape. Also, it was nice to look around and discover that I was physically larger than the majority of my competitors--thus making the the swim start slightly easier to navigate.

The horn blasted and we were off...at least eventually after a bit of penguin waddling across the sand to the water's edge. There is a steep drop off once entering the water so there was no dolphin diving or running. By the time we hit knee-deep water we could feel the beginning of the drop and leaned forward into the swim. Unless you were in the front, diving was not possible because of the congestion of bodies. We had no choice but to lay down into the pile and try to make forward progression as best we could. The entire trip to the first buoy was slow and with constant contact with other swimmers. After rounding the buoy the pack opened up just enough to start proper swimming. I was just getting into a rhythm with my stroke when I was slammed in gut with the heel of a breast-stroker. It knocked the wind out of me and before I could rotate to try to catch a breath the same heel came back and hit me square in the left goggle lens. Fortunately the second blow was not as strong and I was able to catch a quick breath and swim out of his kick zone and then quickly past him. This was the only major incident on the swim but more or less the entirety of the 1,900 meters was full of physical contact. Nearing the exit of the first lap I noticed that I was passing some swimmers from the previous wave. Before I could reach over and pat my own back I also noticed that I too was being passed by swimmers from the wave after mine. We came out of the water for a short jog around a marker and then jumped back into the ocean. I noticed that my timing chip strap was loose (probably from the dozen or so times some other swimmer grabbed hold of my ankles). I quickly bent down to refasten the velcro and give it a bit of a twist for extra security.

The second lap being larger than the first, I planned on increasing my effort (and hopefully speed) after the first buoy. Things I was thinking 1 kilometer left to go:
-stay streamlined
-body rotation / "breathing from the hips"
-lean into the water with my chest
-relaxed recovery with fingers almost dragging the water surface
-patient catch
-hold the water
-high elbow pull
-maintain wide tracks

I was visualizing a swim form like the image below while trying to somehow replicate it but probably didn't come very close:

I felt strong throughout the remainder of the swim but only really made a major pace increase toward the last 100 meters. The pack was starting to congest again as we neared the finish. I sighted quickly and saw that there was a mass of bodies building up at about the time I was projected to exit. I dropped two gears and swam hard through, and a few times over, others in front of me.  This surge felt great and left me wondering if I could manage the entire distance with that kind of aggression. I think that a good portion of mid-pack swimmers probably take the approach that I have in the past. If I get bumped on the left I shift to the right. I am more or less like a courteous pedestrian walking down a crowded street saying excuse me, pardon me at every step. In that last 100 meters I think I figured out how to RACE in triathlon swim. I will experiment with this a bit in some local sprint races and see how it goes. The idea is to learn how to swim over bodies. Use legs, butts, backs, heads, arms or whatever and just pull myself forward. Its a race after all and there seem to be no specific rules against underwater brutality short of manslaughter. Don't get me wrong, I don't by any means intend to sacrifice the goal of achieving excellent swim technique. Technique is essential for speed and economy of effort.  I merely suggesting that technique is the base but with a thousand other swimmers around you it is helpful to also have the guts and ability to fight for your own space and stay calm throughout the process.

I came out of the water and looked at my watch. It didn't make any sense to me how the swim could have been so slow. Something was messed up but I didn't have time to figure out what it was. I let it go because I still had plenty of work to do on the bike and run.

Post-race chatter seems to hint that everyone was pulling slow swim times and it was either due to water current issues or an improperly measured swim distance.

Singapore 70.3 Swim time: 53:09
Overall Rank 676/1538 (Top 44%) Age Group Rank 161/294 (Top 55%)

Compared to Phuket 70.3: 43:43
Overall Rank Top 68% Age Group Rank Top 53%

Negative Improvement in Age Group: -2%


We had a bit of a jog from the swim exit to T1 but I enjoyed it because it gave me a moment to collect my thoughts and think through my bike transfer before arriving. I reached the bike, tossed my goggles and swim cap on the floor, put race belt, sun glasses and helmet on, splashed a bit of water on my feet to remove sand, un-racked the bike and jogged to the mounting line.There was a queue at the bike exit. Finally reaching the mount line I discovered a wall of riders in front of me that were straddling their bikes with shoes on trying to get their cleats to lock in place. Once I finally had a few meters of open rode I jumped on the bike, bare feet on top of pre-clipped pedals and immediately hit the gas to reach racing speed. Once at a decent pace it took me less than 10 seconds to slide my feet into my bike shoes and close the velcro strap.

Transition Time: 3:52

Compared to Phuket 70.3: 2:16

Bike (90K)

I felt strong on the bike from the very beginning and went out hard. After a few kilometers the road widened a bit and I downed a pack of Gu chomps and some water to replace fuel spent on the swim. After the Phuket 70.3 I felt that I could have gone harder on the bike without significantly impacting my run. The plan for this race was to go very hard on the bike as if I didn't need to save anything for the run. This would be a good experiment to learn how a hard bike effects my running ability under race conditions.

On the first lap (30K) I must have passed at least a hundred riders. Nearing the end of the first lap I was starting to feel the effects of the effort. If my quadriceps could talk they would have said, "hey there superman, we're cool for the moment but how long do you plan on keeping this up?" I decided to ignore my legs' warning and hold the pace. It was easy to distract myself from the suffering as there was always something interesting unfolding on the course. At the aid stations riders were trying to grab bottles at 30kmph and would of course fail. This resulted in flying bottles and careful dodging for anyone behind. I have to admit missing a couple of my own first attempts at grabbing bottles. I saw a few people stranded at the side of the road after a crash or flat. One guy must have just crashed as I passed because his bike looked to be in pieces all over the road and he was laying on his back with half of his face covered in blood. Ouch. I saw that he was coherent and moving so I kept going. I was extremely happy to see that same guy later on the run route struggling to finish with bandages wrapped around his head. If you are out there and reading this mate, you inspired me and I'm sure many others. I applaud your uncommon courage and determination.

As with my last 70.3, despite the warnings against drafting during the race brief, I saw plenty of violations and outright pelaton formations. I suppose this is something that I will have to get used to since I see it in every race.

 On the second lap I set a target to keep passing riders at the same frequency as the first lap. There were a couple of other guys in my vicinity that seemed to have the same idea as we continued to leap frog one another all the way to the finish. I'd look ahead and see a string of riders and then open space ahead of them then surge through the pass and then hold that pace about another 30 seconds to create a small gap and then settle back to race pace. Then usually around 5 minutes later someone else would pass me and do the same. Again, 5 minutes later I would pass that same rider again. This became a bit of a game to see who could outlast the other.

On the final lap I made the most aggressive move of the entire bike leg. A peleton of drafters passed me and then eased off the pace just in front of me. They did this in a relatively narrow section of road and were then blocking me from counter passing by riding side by side. After a kilometer or so the road widened and I took off. I dropped a gear, slid a half inch forward in the saddle to bring the entirety of my quads into play and passed the pack of cheaters and then just kept hammering for 5K. I wanted to open up an unrecoverable gap and demonstrate to these wankers that one guy alone against the wind could annihilate their team effort. I looked over my shoulder and saw nothing but empty road. That burst had my heart rate sailing and legs aching but I knew that I had to stay on pace. Easing off too much to recover would negate the effort i had just made. I gritted my teeth and kept the cadence and speed on target. I was taking Gu Chomps or Gels about every 20K but as I started to get closer toward the bike exit I took a bit more nutrition and fluids in in order to be ready for the run.

 On another side note, I read an interesting article from PacificHealth Laboratories the other day suggesting that its a bad idea to increase fuel intake during the latter part of the bike:

"...with around 30 minutes remaining in the bike leg you must sharply reduce your rate of nutrition intake and allow your stomach volume to come down to a level that is manageable for the run. I recommend taking an energy gel with water or a few swigs of a sports drink with 30 minutes to go and another drink with 15 minutes to go, and that’s all. If it’s especially hot, drink at 30 minutes, 20 minutes, and 10 minutes.  This advice is precisely the opposite of what I hear many coaches and triathletes preaching. They encourage long-distance triathletes to “stock up” on nutrition towards the end of the bike leg..." Full article here.

As I approached the finish of the bike I slid my feet out of my shoes but left them clipped to the pedals. I reached the dismount line and with a swing of the leg I was on my feet and jogging side by side with Storm (my bike's name in case you missed the earlier blog introduction). At the Phuket 70.3 we had volunteers to grab the bikes from us but here we had to re-rack our own bikes--not necessarily a bad thing. The first few steps jogging into transition were rough as my legs were feeling like jello. But after a few seconds the wobbles subsided and I started to feel stronger on my feet.

Singapore 70.3 Bike Time:
30K Split: 51:12 (35.16 km/h)
60K Split: 50.45 (35.47 km/h)
90K Split: 51:37 (34.87 km/h)
Total: 2:33:34 (35.16 km/h)
Overall Rank: 439/1538 (Top 29%)
Age Group Rank: 111/294 (Top 38%)

Phuket 70.3:
Total: 3:07:42 (28.77 km/h)
Overall Rank: 362/641 (Top 56%)
Age Group Rank: 61/128 (Top 48%)

Improvement in Age Group: 10%


In the 2 minutes and 13 seconds that I was in transition, i managed to do the following:
-rack bike
-remove helmet
-remove bike race belt
-put on run race belt
-put on running shoes
-put on visor
-rub a gob of chamois cream on my sore bits (tugged up the right leg of my Tri suit in case someone is curious how I managed that)
-downed a big swig of water

Time: 2:13
Phuket: 2:42

Run (21.1K)

There isn't much I can say about the run other than it was flat and very hot. My first kilometer splits were far to fast but I'm starting to think that it wouldn't have mattered anyway as the long run in the sun would make me it's slave in the end.  At the first aid station they had ice cold sponges and as soon as I squeezed one over my head I knew that these sponges from heaven were the only things that were going to get me through to the finish. I soon learned that it wasn't going to be that easy. Only a handful of the aid stations were equipped with sponges.  I needed to find something else to get me to the finish and it would have to be my legs. The interim stations carried water, sports drink and occasionally some gels, coke or bananas. I was getting increasingly frustrated because I was sufficiently hydrated and needed to cool down much more than I needed a tiny dixie cup of water. Message to the organizers: more sponges please!!

 At 16 kilometers I finally had to slow to a walk. This wasn't an easy decision but the heat was making me dizzy and I felt it was the safest thing to do to ensure finishing. I limited my walking to about 2 minutes at each aid station. I had 5k to go and I planned to run station to station to the finish.  I picked up the pace for the final 2K and then it was done. The finishing experience was not nearly as grand as in Phuket. Nobody placed a medal around my neck or cooled me off with cold sponges. A girl handed me the finisher medal wrapped in a plastic bag and said ,"Here you are." Within minutes of finishing the clouds opened up another piss storm on Singapore.  It would have been nice if it had done that during my run!

Photo by Emma Bishop of BeyondTransition
As I walked away from the finishing area I thought of my family back in Hong Kong. I wished they we there but at the same time knew that it was not an ideal race for spectators due to the heat and rain.  I will, though, definitely be counting on their support to get me to the starting line of IM France and to collect what is left of me at the finish!

Singapore 70.3 Run Time:
4K Split: 21:04 (5:16/k)
14K Split: 1:07:52 (6:47/k)
Total: 2:12:36 (6:17/k)
Overall Rank: 450/1538: (Top 29%)
Age Group Rank: 110/294: (Top 37%)

Phuket 70.3:
Total: 2:05:45 5:57/k
Overall Rank: 310/641 48%
Age Group Rank: 55/128: 43%

Improvement in Age Group: 6%

All in all I'm fairly satisfied with this result.  Comparing Singapore and Phuket times, I was slower on both the swim and run but faster on the bike.  I think that it doesn't make too much sense to compare times between two different events since the factors like climate and terrain have too much variance to be comparable.  I suppose the most accurate indicator of improvement between one race and another is age group position.  I'm guessing that the athletes toeing the start line of these races vary much less than the course and conditions.

Total Aviva Ironman 70.3 Singapore 70.3 Time:  5:45:24 *PR
Overall Rank: 450/1538: (Top 29%)
Age Group Rank: 110/294: (Top 37%)

Phuket 70.3 Time: 6:02:08
Overall Rank: 310/641 48%
Age Group Rank: 55/128: 43%

Improvement in Age Group: 6%


  1. Well Done Mr. McFee, You are a '1/2' Ironman!

  2. So qrazy..

    Doesnt mtter