In the Heat of the Night

Race Report Ironman Triathlon Langkawi, Malaysia – by Thomas Brackmann

There are many Triathlons which label themselves as a “race in paradise”, such as the Ocean Triathlon in Mauritius, the Laguna Phuket Triathlon in Thailand, and the Ironman of Aruba. Among these great races, Ironman Langkawi in Malaysia definitely fits the bill. So, in November this year I decided to take a holiday to experience it for myself. This is my story.

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Race Preparation 4 Weeks Build Up

To balance out all my other hobbies I believed due to experience in training and nutrition, that I needed to pull out a good 4-6 weeks training before the race. Even having some setbacks with catching a cold and other excuses would be enough to finish in around an easy 12 hours (ish) time, and of course I’m always dreaming about a personal best. Experience, mental strength and craziness would help make it. In any case: holiday race mode was on for Ironman finish number 5.

Travel with the Bike

Unlike in Challenge Wanaka (January 2017) or Ironman Mallorca (September 2016) I planned to take my own bike with me, even knowing it’s a flight from Riyadh via Abu Dhabi and Kuala Lumpur – just for 3 days. A longer weekend with 2 days extra paid leave. Since there is always room for failure with flying and having lack of trust to the airlines, I ordered as backup a rental bike via phone beforehand. In addition, I took TT handlebars in my hand luggage. Just in case. Travelling only with hand luggage and bike case is fair enough. Most important equipment that I didn’t want to buy or rent if luggage gets lost: bike shoes, helmet, tri-suits, goggles, compression socks, charger for phone and race watch etc. All in hand luggage. Better safe than sorry.

Race Conditions

On arrival: own bike didn’t come through, and case got stuck in Abu Dhabi or Kuala Lumpur. I was unlucky like so many other triathletes from around the globe. Backup solution comes into play. Rental bike marsh, marsh! Planning is everything. Weather: 30 degrees Celsius, with 90% humidity. Forecast for rain nearly every day. It will be the sweaty, wet, tough race I presumed. On a happier note: monkeys and friendly people all the way. On the same day 70.3 and the full distance were conducted. Nevertheless, the beauty of the hotel resorts and beaches gave a push for the upcoming race.

Calm Salty Swim

Swim in open water. No wetsuit. 28 degrees Celsius in salt water. Bay protected swim course with Australian exit after 1.9km. Swim was a rolling start, meaning people right next to you had a similar expected swim time. This makes it smoother and easier to find your pace. In fact, for me as an average swim performer it went well. Water was as nice as it could be: clear, warm and no waves. Great! Australian exit with 20 metres beach run in a good time of around 40 minutes. The organisers provided drinking water on the short run part. Good stuff! I was happy, since I was on the way to my best time in swimming. Had a good start on that day! Even cramping up after around 2.5km I bypassed others which indicates I am speeding up, or they are slowing down. New PB after swim: 1.25. “Let’s build up on that”, I thought. But I knew that the day would be long, and triathlons are not won just by swimming. Running at the end will decide, like in so many other races.

Monkey Bike Leg

Jumping onto the bike. Plan: every 5km drinking, every 20km gel, bar, or banana. Plus, every average 20km taking the aid stations with extra isotonic drinks. Hot and humid conditions were harsh. Very important to fuel with minerals and liquid in the right balance, otherwise either pie stops or vomiting would follow. So far the plan was all ok. I could keep a descent bike pace above 30km an hour on the hilly rollercoaster course. Flying through little villages with the smiling faces of the Malay people, jungle like regions with monkeys next to the road watching the cyclists, and permanently changing scenery of rice fields and palm tree filled yellow beaches. Rushing through paradise.

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Too Much Rain Over Paradise

Soon the clouds went dark, darker, and darker. Between 120 and 160km it started raining. Cool. But dangerous as well. Now the little pot holes on the streets were full of water and not easy to spot. Flying with 60km or more downhill combined with rain splashed sunglasses. Not a good idea. Sun glasses came off and praying whilst speeding downhill. The breaks for the carbo wheels didn’t work properly. Fast and furious feelings came up. A crash would lead to hospital and an extension of stay. Breathing was heavy, sight was limited due to hard rain. I never saw people pushing their bikes up the hills. Maybe a sign of weakness. But cleverness as well, pushing the bike is sometimes faster, plus energy saving because at the end, as long you go forward that’s the most important thing.

All in on the Bike

In all my previous Ironman races I had to stop minimum once on the bike part for a pie stop, but on that day only once during the running later on. That showed me that all the fluid I took in on that day, the body needed desperately. However, I slipped with my timings away from my best bike time I had booked before. Nevertheless, it was the 2nd personal best on my bike in all my 5 Ironmans. Still in happy mode. Last bit my strength, the running part would come.

Ice Bucket Challenge on the Run

I planned a running time below my personal best of 4 hours, but I could only beat the virtual pacemaker on my GPS watch on the first kilometre after Transition 2, coming out of the big AC cooled building. Soon I realised I had to use every aid station for a little walk. Every 2km apparently. All the time taking 2 water bottles, 2 sponges and taking a handful of iced water out of a big bucket. Cooling down the body was key, especially as my thighs were in pain and needed cold water, and even cooling spray. The volunteers at each aid station had them ready for the athletes.  My pace was more than 1 minute slower than I wanted. It was just the heat and the humidity that caused the slow pace. In moments like that I was wondering how I could have survived the Double Ironman last summer and how I will manage the Triple Iron distance in 2018. But when I looked into the faces of the other triathletes I quickly realised: when I suffer, the others do as well.

Results: Bad but better

When you go to an Ironman race you have different goals: best time, just finish, or winning. But at the end it’s also enjoyment. Depending on race conditions (flat, hilly, wetsuit – non wetsuit, fresh vs. salt water, etc.) it has an impact on your time and performance. Even when not having the best day, your competitors can have a worse day. At the end you can end up with a very good result. If you suffer – they might do as well. So I finished with a slow run pace and a overall disappointing finish time, 30 minutes behind my average Ironman finishing times and 1 hour slower than my personal best. But in the end I finished with the best result in comparison to the triathletes in my age group. 48 out of 200. Maybe the others had to suffer more than me. Perhaps the competition in Asia wasn’t as strong as in other regions or I just improved overall? However: the positives to take away are a personal best on the swim, 2nd best personal best on bike and top 25% overall in my age group. This was a good result and I have some great memories of this beautiful weekend vacation race.

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Summary and Outlook

If you aim for a holiday and closure race season, Ironman Langkawi is the place to go. It’s not necessarily a course for getting a new personal best, but it may offer better chances of higher rankings, especially when you are used to the heat. Only some expats and triathletes from Europe take part. But these fellows had experience of more than 10 Ironman races in their career already. I had nice talks with such peeps about blood, sweat, and tears. Even when the Asian competitors qualify for Kona they might not go due lack of holidays, money or other reasons. The organisational team does a great job based on Malay hospitality, experience and Asian efficiency. Best is to spend around one week in the place to enjoy all the beauty of the nice island. Next Iron distance will come for certain. It looks like in 2018 aiming for Ironman South Africa in spring, Challenge Roth in July and / or Ironman Cozumel in November. But highlight will be the Triple Iron distance end of July. Sounds crazy. But after speaking to a guy having finished a DECA-Iron distance anything seems possible.

Thomas Brackmann

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