THE TOUGH GETS TOUGHER: 2012 Cobra Ironman 70.3 Philippines Race Report

The sun hadn't even risen yet but the parking lot of the Mactan Shangri-La Resort was busier than Baclaran on a Wednesday.  Athletes were scrambling to make last minute adjustments to their bikes--pumping tires, tightening bolts, filling water bottles.  The frenzied atmosphere was a sign of things to come on the fourth running of Ironman 70.3 Philippines.

After three successful years in Cam Sur, this year's race took place in Cebu. A new race course meant new challenges for all.  Cebuano triathletes aside, no one knew what lay in store on the new 70.3 mile course.  Unlike CWC in Cam Sur, the Cebu swim leg was an open water swim.  The bike course took athletes from Lapu-Lapu City to Talisay City on the main island and back.  The run course would be 2 loops of an unforgiving 10 kilometer course to Punta Engaño on the north end of Mactan.

Shangrila Mactan Resort, this year's host of Ironman 70.3 Philippines.

After a heavy breakfast at 4 a.m., my teammates and I headed down to the transition area for our own pre-race preps--double-check tire pressure, make sure all bolts on the bike are tight, secure gels to the bike with duct tape, lay out all race gear for a quick transition and lastly, body marking.  With all that done, we then headed down to the beach to wait for the 6 a.m. gun start.  This was the largest turnout for a local triathlon to date, and seeing so many triathletes all primed and ready to go brought forth feelings of excitement and apprehension.  It was the inaugural Cebu race so I was pumped up to be part of it but because swimming is my weakest discipline, the thought of lining up against 1,200 other athletes was something I wasn't really too keen about.

With just a few minutes before the gun start, I had to put those apprehensions behind me and focus on my race.  Ten seconds to go, and I found a position near the front of the pack.  Not that I could match the faster swimmers stroke for stroke, but I was hoping I could draft off a faster swimmer and maybe save some energy in the process.

BANG!  As the gun erupted, so did the arms and legs around me.  I always liken a triathlon start to the sight of a fishing net being hoisted with its load.  Bodies flailing, limbs all over the place, faces poking out of the water for a quick gasp of air before disappearing into the melee.   This swim start was, for lack of a better description, full-contact triathlon.  I got kicked, elbowed, scratched and that we weren't even 100 meters into the swim leg!  The best you could do in situations like this is just go with the flow, so that I did.  After around 200 meters, we rounded the first buoy for the long swim against the current.

As soon as the gun went off, all hell broke loose. Photo by Anthony Yu

The swim course was a rectangular 1.9 kilometer course parallel to the shore, with the longest stretch going against the current.  It felt like an eternity but there was so much marine life to keep us preoccupied. That and numerous bancas and marshals on kayaks shouting directions to triathletes who were oblivious to things going on around them.  Before I knew it, I was past the second turnaround and on the home stretch.  Thirty four minutes later, I was peeling off my swim skin as I jogged into the transition area.  It would turn out to be my fastest half Ironman swim split ever, thanks to the current.

Preparing for the bike leg of a triathlon isn't as simple as some people might think.  There's more to just ripping off the swim cap and goggles, grabbing the bike and making a run for it.  Everything needed for the bike leg has to be laid out carefully and if you're even more anal about it, in the proper sequence that each is to be worn.  First, the headgear.  Helmets must be placed upside down on the handle bars with the straps spread out.  Shades are placed inside the helmet if you are wearing one.  I wasn't wearing one for this race so I kept those in my run gear.  The race belt goes on next.  I took a quick drink and rinsed off with my water bottle before I grabbed my Specialized Shiv and started running for the mount line.  My shoes were already clipped into my pedals to save time (and save the shoes from unnecessary wear).  As I mounted my bike and began strapping into my shoes, I realized I had forgotten to remove my swim skin before setting off!  This was my first race wearing one and I had committed the grave sin of not practicing EVERYTHING you plan to do on race day beforehand, including taking it off in transition!  Noob mistake!  I just tucked the top in and hoped it would survive the bike ride and, more importantly, not hamper my movement on the bike.

We heard so much about the new bike course and riding through it for the first time, I found most of the hearsay to be true.  First, they said the course was mostly flat, the only climb being the Fernan Bridge.  Check!  Second, some riders posted comments about some sections that were still uneven and difficult to ride in the aero position.  They were right!  Then in the days leading up to the race, some teammates warned us that we would have to face a mean headwind on the highway from Cebu City to Talisay.  True enough, upon exiting the Cebu South Coastal Road (CSCR) Tunnel, not only were we greeted by long (but gradual) climbs, we also had to ride against a steady headwind that slowed us down considerably.  We were warned about penalties during the race briefing so I was busy maintaining the required 10 meter gap between myself and the rider in front of me, and staying on the right side of the road unless I was passing someone.  In a triathlon, the rules on the bike course are enforced by Draft Marshals on motorcycles and I saw a few riders pulled over for infractions.  I've never been a fan or proponent of open exhaust pipes on underbones because of the racket they create but this time, I was glad that the marshals were riding motorcycles with open pipes because we could hear them from a mile away.  This gave me time to put even more space in between myself and those ahead just to be safe.

Triathletes in need a boost just worked the crowd for energy!  Photo by Anthony Yu

The CSCR was a test in mental toughness in itself.  With 2 lanes on each side, we had to travel the full length of the coastal road on each lane in an M-shaped pattern for a total of around 60 kilometers on the same stretch of road.  At the halfway point of the bike leg, I began to feel my quads twitch, the first sign of a cramp!  I followed my nutrition plan to the T, so I just put my faith in my plan and hoped for the best.  As I neared the end of the CSCR loop, my legs were at their worst--both were now cramping badly but I only had around 15 kilometers to go so I just kept pedaling.  Climbing the Fernan Bridge was not as easy as I had hoped.  It was at this point that I wish I had done more heavy gear workouts in my training.  Luckily, I made it over the top of the bridge despite the cramps and just coasted down.  From here, it was simply a matter of "survival cycling"--spinning in a light yet fast enough gear to make it back to transition.

Formula 1 Driver Jenson Button was one of the superstars to experience the new race venue …

Entering transition the second time, I took a quick assessment of my condition and it was not good.  Cramps were still there.  I couldn't stretch my legs nor bend them, either would trigger cramps on the opposite side of the stretch.  No need to panic, I told myself, as I pulled on my run gear one at a time.  Less than 4 minutes later, I was out of the transition area and on the run course.  An easy jog for the first kilometer or so turned into a walk as the cramps wouldn't go away.  My initial plan to target a 2-hour run was out the window because of the pain traveling through my legs.  Now, it was all about damage control and minimizing losses.

Many coaches and books will tell you that mental toughness plays an important role in endurance sports, even more than physical conditioning.  When you're in a damaged state and have to face the fact that your race isn't going as planned, it becomes a mental game.  You begin to hear voices in your head that tell you to quit.  Or they start throwing questions at you.  "Can you do this?  What are you doing to yourself?"  Physical training can prepare the body for the abuse you have to go through in endurance sports but none of that can ready the mind for the kind of abuse it will go through as you battle with self-doubt during a race.  The pain that riddled through my legs with every other step I took sent constant reminders to my brain, telling me to stop.  It doesn't matter what the books say, there's simply no way to ignore the pain.  What you could do is accept it and work with it.  The cramps wouldn't let me run so I adapted a run-walk strategy.  As long as I was in constant motion, I was happy.  The pain also went away with a little help from ice so at every aid station that had ice blocks, I took a few pieces and stuffed them down my shorts.  Most important thing that kept me going was the constant stream of encouragement exchanged between myself and fellow triathletes--teammates, friends and complete strangers.  On that day, we were one in pain.  Small words of encouragement like, "Looking good", "Great form" or my new favorite courtesy of my friends at Fil Am Tri, "Rock this mother!" will do great things to boost your performance even if you know you look and feel like shit.

Despite the tough conditions, I'm sure all participants would agree with me that the crowd support throughout the race--from the friends and families at the swim start and finish line to the Cebuanos who lined the streets all the way from Lapu-Lapu to Talisay--was a sight and sound to behold.  Apart from sports drinks, energy gels and salt capsules, I fed off the energy of the crowd the same way a basketball player would work up the crowd at crunch time.  The roar of the crowd as we rode by was literally deafening!  A little wave to the crowd was all it took to get them to scream.  Strike a muscle man pose and the screams would be even louder.  Everyone on the race course that day was a rock star.  It was just what I needed to get my battered legs to the finish line.

In the end, I finished ten minutes slower than my target time.  Disappointed?  I'd be lying if I said no.  Of course I would've wanted to PR but this was a tough race in tougher conditions against an even tougher field.  No matter how meticulously you plan for a race, anything can go wrong and on this day, I faced that fact head-on.

Pete Jacobs crosses the line in 4 hours and 7 minutes 38 seconds.  This was his third straight Ironman 70.3 Philippines …

Caroline Steffen from Switzerland was the first female pro to cross the line.  Photo by Anthony Yu

That said, I've got a score to settle with Cebu.  Next year.  Just you wait, Cebu.  Just you wait.

Shout out and huge THANK YOU to Anthony Yu for the amazing race photos.