HOW WAS IT FOR YOU?
Head out to an exotic race location, bag a world champs slot and have an amazing holiday to celebrate. Simple, right? Absolutely not, as Jack Sexty found out at Sri Lanka’s Ironman 70.3 Colombo
Jack Sexty ventures 5,000 miles to race Ironman 70.3 Colombo
Emerging from the sea feeling right as rain, save for an unwanted gulp of Indian Ocean salt water, I cleanly make it through T1 and hop on my bike without as much as a wobble. I get ready to lay down some mega-watts… when the mother of all cramps sears up my right leg and lodges a bullet right in my hip flexors: “Hello, old friend.” My GPS tells me barely 3km of the bike course is through. It’s going to be a hell of a long way to the finish…
Ironman 70.3 Colombo is no ordinary race. It’s currently the only M-Dot event in the South Asia region, and when I heard about it, I thought Sri Lanka didn’t really do sport beyond cricket, let alone triathlon, and I was absolutely right. Multisport is very new in Sri Lanka, and the capital city of Colombo only got its first triathlon club in 2017. The financial barrier for the everyman in a developing country that’s still recounting the costs of a 26-year civil war will undoubtedly have much to do with it, plus Colombo’s roads are simply crazy for cycling.
There was in fact an ‘Ironman 70.3 Sri Lanka’ held in pretty much the same location as the new race back in 2012, which suffered some teething problems via uneffective road closures, massive potholes, wild dogs chasing runners... Common wisdom tells me that five years of trying to get it back should mean the same won’t happen again, so four months out I’m set on going. The event is age-group only and the promise of super flat traffic-free bike and run courses around Colombo’s port district seems ideal. There are also 70.3 World Championship slots up for grabs.
URGE TO EXPLORE
Warm-weather race prep feels peculiar in February. The smell of sunscreen, energy products, browsing stationary shops to acquire perfectly-formed elastic bands… none of these things are usually on my radar until late April, and I get a wave of summery excitement in the week before the race. It’s literally a case of blowing away the cobwebs from my tri bike. Waters of 27°C means no wetsuits, so after standing motionless thinking there’s something missing (passport, it turns out, which I hastily stuff in my jeans) I set off for Heathrow and arrive at Colombo’s Bandaranaike International Airport on Friday morning, just two days before the race.
If you haven’t been to Colombo, it’s madness! The urge to explore every bustling market, every food quarter and every temple is hugely tempting, but knowing there’s a job to do first I opt for a driven city tour, which would have been relaxing if not for the high probability of been taken out by a tuk-tuk. A bike recce is a no-no then, except for a brief spin on a hotel gym bike, and I breeze through registration and rack on Saturday with plenty of time to spare.
We’re promised at race HQ that the 2012 issues have been ironed out and, while we should expect the volunteers to be inexperienced, they’ll be well-drilled and extremely willing to help; almost too willing, as comically detailed in the race director’s swim briefing: “Sri Lankans by their nature just want to help, but if you want to finish the swim without a DNF, you’re just going to have to turn them down on this occasion!” I potter around the expo, spotting a few local lads getting their bikes checked. “Exited”? I ask one. “Nervous!”, he replies. All three appear to have the same bike and kit, with some sort of sponsorship involved to get these boys to the start line. This is a country where a good meal will set you back a quid, and the cost of the event is over £200; so any sponsorship can only be a good thing to get more Sri Lankans involved.
87KM OF CRAMP
Race morning arrives, and I’ve managed about two hours sleep. The hotel I’m staying at appears to have no idea about the race, so getting breakfast at 4.30am is out of the question. I wolf down some pastries swiped from yesterday’s buffet and as much instant coffee as possible, join some fellow triathletes in badgering a beleaguered hotel
supervisor for a swim warm-up in the pool (“Chemicals, no till 6am!” he argues, before eventually giving in) and make the trip down to the swim start at Galle Face Green.
Final prep finished and all lined up for the swim with 30mins to spare, we’re treated to Sri Lanka’s funky national anthem before the rolling start commences. I plunge into the warm Indian Ocean water a couple of rows back and start picking off some over-ambitious swimmers in the first few hundred meters. As the sun’s only just coming up, it’s misty and difficult to see. I dread to think how many extra metres I’m swimming while making a pig’s ear of navigating the 1.9km one-loop course. I exit 10th in 27:42mins, further back than I’d have liked from the better-sighting swim leaders.
Onto the 90km bike after a solid T1, I get myself revved up and slowly build up to target power. I barely last a couple of minutes at the prescribed 255 watts, before that pain shoots up my right leg. “This must be a record,” I think to myself, as I wriggle uncomfortably atop of my saddle, resided to another 87km of fending off cramp.
The next couple of hours is probably the toughest I’ve ever had on a bike. It’s windy, up to 32°C by 9.30am, and I’m also frustrated that I’ve come all this way and my body won’t play ball. I see the Sri Lankan chap I spoke to at the expo yesterday nip past at 45km, and seemingly everyone else too. 70km down, and now to add insult to injury my foot’s cramping. I can’t get comfortable, and whenever there’s a downhill I’m forced to just sit up and roll.
I try soaking up the atmosphere, my reduced speed at least allowing me to observe some of the observers. It’s a fascinating combination of locals I see rolling out their front porches on the residential east side of the course, who don’t appear to have the first idea what’s going on, and excited folk shouting words of encouragement at every passing cyclist. Even if the words are mostly Sinhalese, the positivity transcends the language barrier.
BROKEN SOULS UNITE
I hit T2 after 2:48hrs, at least 20mins slower than what I anticipated. Hobbling into transition and barely able to get my run shoes on with the cramp in full swing, I make a feeble attempt to jog. I don’t even start the run course, and knowing that I could do myself more harm than good here, I accept my day is done. A marshal rushes over and offers me an arm, directing me to the only place good for me and not where I wanted my day to end up… the medical tent.
Three attentive medics fuss over me as I lie down and wonder what happened. Not that I’d wish it on my fellow triathletes, but the sight of the tent seemingly filling up quicker than the finish line made me feel less inadequate, with one broken soul after another either wobbling or being stretchered in, victims of the searing heat and humidity.
I stumble out of the tent, and in a nauseous daze watch as enthusiastic Sri Lankan media surround race winner Olivier Godard, who broke the tape only about 45mins after I finished my bike leg. While Olivier
lives and trains in Dubai, I still feel a mix of jealousy and bemusement as to how he looks so chipper.
My friend Paul, who also raced and is never short of an anecdote, had this to say to me after crossing the line and experiencing the exposed half marathon run course. “The heat was intense, it was like putting a duvet over you and then stepping into a sauna. In 35 years of racing I’ve never DNF’d so I told myself I had to get to the finish line. But improving my ‘personal worst’ 70.3 run split by 27mins to 2:25hrs tells you all you need to know about the conditions!”
FEW BETTER PLACES TO DNF
While this race was a dead duck for me, the ease of which it beat me was a big wake-up call. I now know that I can’t wing a 70.3 in the heat, and that I most likely suffer from electrolyte imbalance from not keeping to an even ratio of sports drink to water on race day. I look enviously at the pros’ social media accounts as they jet off to exotic locations for training camps, and less enviously at nutters such as Ali Brownlee as they train indoors surrounded by heaters to replicate a fiery furnace, thinking that’s just for the top guys and girls and the rest of us can manage. But there’s a solid reason behind the madness and, unless you’re a camel, acclimatisation and acceptance that you need to take things easier in the heat is just the way it is. It took Lionel Sanders three attempts to finally achieve the podium at Kona he’s been capable of, so I’m due a couple more learning curves before I achieve my own potential in the heat at 70.3 distance.
After I’d flushed out the last of the nausea, I headed out of Colombo to experience just a few of the incredible sights and experiences Sri Lanka has to offer. I can’t imagine how much sweeter it would have felt to do this having smashed the race but, after an elephant safari, riverboat trips, tea factory visits, amazing beach days and witnessing some of the most stunning countryside I’ve seen, I’d largely forgotten all about it. As a winter trip, Sri Lanka has it all.
The race itself was probably one of the best organised I’ve ever been to, which is phenomenal for a (sort of) debut event. No baggage issues, top-notch support and every volunteer couldn’t do enough to help. Sri Lankans are just wonderfully hospitable people, and it didn’t end at the medical tent for me. A week later at the airport, I hear: “You ok now, guy?” from behind; it’s the marshal, Amal, who helped me on that blurry Sunday morning. He now lives in Hong Kong but wanted to help out at the event because he was proud it was happening in his home city.
Ironman 70.3 Colombo easily has the potential to become one of the premier M-Dot events in Asia. A proper test in the heat, brilliantly organised and the option to bolt on the holiday of a lifetime. Even if, like me, you weren’t tough enough, it’s definitely still worth the 5,000 miles of travel to DNF!
Aero helmets were a brave choice on a hot and humid race course
Jack battles the mother of all cramps on the 90km bike leg in Sri Lanka