HOW WAS I T FOR YOU?
With an Andaman Sea swim and passionate support, Ironman Malaysia has been drawing athletes to Langkawi since 2000. But should it be on your schedule in 2019?
Irun through the surf. My first strokes are a blur. Whoever I was talking to is totally gone and left mid-sentence on the beach, now in another place, time and dimension. All I can see is the murky sea, bubbles and heels in front of me. I’m racing Ironman Malaysia before I know it. It’s now just me, my thoughts and a giant body of water that’s infinitely stronger than me.
I think of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and how the titular Old Man, though an experienced fisherman, was pulled around for days by a fish that was stronger than he was. And when he finally pulled it aboard, sharks ate it, making his trip a failure. I wonder if, like the Old Man, I’ll be at the mercy of the sea or if my training will prevail. Or will luck conquer all? “Luck is a thing that comes in many forms and who can recognise her?” writes Hemingway. To me, luck would be hitting a swim time of 1:20.
THE IRONMAN & THE SEA
After racing my first Ironman in Busselton, Australia, in 2017 (where the swim was cancelled due to a shark sighting), I wanted to race a few casual 70.3s this season. But so began a slippery slope of training, unintentionally leading up to Ironman Malaysia on Langkawi island. This year marks the 19th edition of the race and it’s long been known as one of the hottest and hardest Ironmans on the circuit. But, for UK athletes wanting an end-of-season Ironman, there’s plenty of appeal, including a cheap destination and 50 Kona qualifying slots ready for the taking (and times tend to be slower in SE Asia).
The 3.8km swim circumnavigates a large triangle twice. It’s in a calm harbour, but overhead the tempestuous sky is exploding in flashes of lightning. The first 1km is civilised. No kicks, punches or wrestling. But near that second corner I receive kicks and claws and unintentionally administer a few myself. The last 800m of the first lap go really fast and I’m sighting forward, keeping one eye on the red roofs of the Danna Hotel.
Soon enough the beach approaches. I keep on stroking until my fingers dig into the sand, pulling me forward faster than I could walk, and my face is almost eating beach. Then I can wade through puddle-deep waves onto the beach. A quick glance at my watch reveals a beautiful sight: 38:20 for 1.9km. I could be in for a 1:17 swim time. My face contorts into an involuntary smile. Time for another lap.
Again, the first 400m is pretty easy. But halfway into the second stretch, my stroke becomes sloppy. I feel my heart racing as my technique degrades. A few deep breaths later and I’m back on, eyeing the second buoy. The field has thinned and I mentally prepare for the bike leg. I remember I haven’t turned my Scoche heart rate monitor on. And I’d better remember to take my swimskin off as I’ve already made that painful mistake in a 70.3. Also, the Velcro of the timing chip’s strap is digging into my ankle, and a bit of Vaseline would cure that. Finally, I need to get my Garmin bike computer running early to grab a signal before I start. So I came up with a chant, ‘Scoche, suit, Vaseline, Garmin’. And Repeat.
Within minutes I’m approaching the beach again. I know my second lap is slower. I hit stop before looking at the time. 1:22. Still awesome! Up onto the beach. Highfives from people I don’t know and from some I do. Total elation. ‘Scoche, suit, Vaseline, Garmin’. I grab bag 918 off the hanger and rush into the tent. Hit the Scoche button. Unzip the swimskin. Slather Vaseline over places that chafe. Spread sunscreen across my Saxon-Teutonic nose and prance over to my bike. I start the Garmin and pop three salt tabs. I look up. Dark clouds and no sun. And then drip, drop. Big, fat raindrops start falling. This is good news for me because it means a cooler ride.
NOTHING ELSE MATTERS
Onto the bike and my focus is to hold 190-195 watts the entire ride. On a hilly course such as this there’ll be huge fluctuations, but this doesn’t bode well for the run afterwards. I’ll only be able to
afford to do a few huge power spikes before I burn all my matches and will be guaranteed a death-march of a run. Ironman isn’t a time trial or a single-sport event, but a tactically-complex series of races; the performance of each contingent on the performance of the prior.
Within the first 5-10km, the course goes up a series of steep hills towards Datai. Before the first lungbusting hill, there are two shirtless Japanese guys cheering madly by the road. They’re jumping up and down like teenage girls at a concert. I return some cheers and they run alongside me. They’re living in the moment and so am I. Nothing else matters. Not the hills ahead for me – the walk home for them.
But then the hill comes. I have to shift down to the granny ring to make it up without spiking my power. Once crested, the rain feels like thousands of needles hitting my face on the descent. There are loads of accidents. Half a dozen guys look like they’ve had fights with belt sanders, and lost.
The road meanders up and down, through a rock tunnel, past kampungs and small towns, along well-paved but not pristine rural roads. Onto the biggest climb on the course. A cheering group of Singaporeans line the right side of the road, a cheering group of Japanese the left. It’s so steep I only make it 30m before my speed precipitously decreases, front derailleur motors straining to align with the seldom-used cog-line. Shift too late and I’ll fall over. I look at an athlete walking up the hill in his socks, shoes still clipped into the pedals, feet sloshing in the wet. He’s way smarter than me.
981, LEVERS, SODIUM...
And yet it’s been pretty comfortable so far. All those long training rides, all those cumulative miles, all that time in the saddle have added up. But onto lap two and my power numbers start slipping. 186. Too low. I want closer to 190. But it’s too late to do anything about it. From now on, the ride is a blur. Some 40km of village roads, past a cement factory, the same loyal volunteers and police at the corners. A 10-yearold BMW broken down in somebody’s yard, algae growing on the inside of the windshield, wheels missing. Children walking unsupervised on busy streets. Some in groups, others alone. Many no older than five. The road opens up to wide rice paddies with mountains in the background.
In anticipation of the run, my mind starts playing a pre-recorded track. ‘981, levers, sodium.’ 981 is my race number and I have to find that red bag in T2. Levers is to remind me to dump the tyre levers in my tri-suit pockets. Sodium is
“Village roads. Past a cement factory and a broken down BMW in somebody’s yard, algae growing on the windshield, wheels missing”
to remind me to take three salt tablets. I scan the aisles to find 981. A sea of red. I find mine and jump on a chair. Off with the shoes. Put the levers away. Slip the running shoes on. Oh, that feels nice. I pop three sodium pills out of the blister pack and devour them at once, sans water. The air con inside the exhibition centre is wonderful.
PIROUETTE OF TRIUMPH
Exiting T2, I feel like a million bucks. Capering about along the red carpet in the cool air con, elated to have finished the bike. On the other side of the steel dividers yelling spectators line the way. The energy has me moving too fast, too hyped. I see the shirtless Japanese. “I love you guys,” I scream. I’m now more their fan than they are mine. “Go, go, go,” they yell, running alongside me, grabbing my hand and raising it skywards. Again, living like nothing else matters.
Leaving the building, the sun is glaring. Where is the storm? This is real heat. Unapologetic. Relentless. 35°C. My watch vibrates. 4:59 for the first km. Too fast. The first few aid stations have bottles of water. I grab two and keep moving. The 42.2km run is three loops from the exhibition centre into town and through the Meritus Hotel by the beach. My pace drops to 5:30min/km, close to where I should be. I do the maths in my head. Swim of 1:22 plus 5:40 for the ride is 7hrs. Then another 4hrs for the run? Eleven hours? Is it possible? I can’t let the pace slip.
I approach the finishing chute, wishing I could veer right and become an Ironman. Get my medal. Towel. Pasta. Beer? Nope, take a left. Then silence. I’m behind the finishing tent, alone. Schlepping along at 6min pace. I walk most aid stations. It becomes a ritual. ‘Sponge, water, gel, sodium’. I douse myself with a giant plastic ladle full of cold water.
I enter the air con refuge, this time with less enthusiasm. I take it easy. If I’m going to go slow it’ll be in the AC, not the sun. The run goes on, blurring from aid station to station. My time is slipping away. It’s going to be 4:15. Then 4:20. Maybe 4:30? It’s now dark. Normally I’ll push through the pain, but I’m content to have made it this far. Then I hear the clamour of cowbells, and see my wife Eda and our kids, Ezio and Elka, cheering on the corner. I stretch out my hand and smack whoever’s is there. This gives me a real boost. My watch reads 39.8km. I pick up the pace. Eda and the kids will be at the finish chute by now. And I’ll be there soon.
The blare of the music and the unmistakable voice of compere Pete Murray dominates. Nearing the chute I slow down. Once the guy in front is clear, I enter, smiling, red carpet at my feet, painted with dancing lights of all colours. I’ve tunnel vision as I make my way to the line and cross it after 11:49:06 of racing. I spin around in celebration, a clumsy pirouette of triumph. Somewhere in there, Pete has uttered those words, “Andrew Patterson, you are an Ironman!” but I don’t hear them. But it’s okay. I know I’m now an Ironman….
Andrew Patterson braves the relentless heat of the Ironman Malaysia run