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.


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.


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.


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!”


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

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