21 April 2015

Ironman Taiwan Race Report, Part One: Pre-Race and the Swim

At the race expo two days before the big event.

For this Sunday race, my family and I drove down to Kenting on Friday morning. It’s about a five and a half hour drive from our house. On Thursday night before leaving, I stayed up a bit late doing laundry and organizing all the stuff I would need to bring to the race: I had separate backpacks loaded with all the gear I would need for each event. I only managed about five hours of sleep, but I felt great Friday morning nonetheless. Unfortunately, this short night of sleep would begin a long stretch with little sleep.

We encountered a lot of rain during the first half of our drive, but we finished with sunny skies. We stayed at the Howard Beach Resort, which was also where the Ironman Expo and start took place. While Tisha checked us in, I picked up my race packet. After getting our bags into our room, we all went to check out the expo. It’s hard not to get excited about a race while touring the expo. We took some photos and bought the kids cowbells to ring while watching the race.

We had to get up early on Saturday morning because my older daughter Ruby was racing in the Ironkids aquathon: a 90m swim followed by a 1500m run, so Friday night we shut the lights out at about 10:00, which was fine for a 6:00 wake up. However, I began thinking too much about the race, and I wasn’t able to fall asleep until after midnight. That would make two nights in a row of only five hours of sleep. I know I don’t sleep well the night before races, but I told myself not to worry because I could nap with my son Henry Saturday afternoon.

I was disappointed that the Ironkids race was not timed. Each kid had a number tattooed on his/her arm, and I remember seeing a number 49, so there were about that many kids racing. The swim start was staggered. Race organizers released each swimmer into the water at about four or five second intervals in race-number order. By the time Ruby entered the water, some kids had already finished their swim. Nonethless, Ruby only finished behind three other athletes, numbers one, seven, and eight. If they were keeping time, I think she would have been the overall winner, boy or girl.

After the race, we ate breakfast, and I told Tisha that I wanted to get into my wetsuit and give the ocean swim a try. Except for a few 20-stroke sessions during a family day trip to the beach, I had no open water training leading up to the race, and I had no previous experience swimming in the ocean. I had done some training in my wetsuit in the pool, but I wanted to put the wetsuit and the ocean together. While training for the only other triathlon I have done, Ironman Antwerp 70.3, I discovered I had panic attacks in the open water, and it took me about five or six open-water sessions to get over them. Luckily, all went well during my test run, so I enjoyed some time with the family on the beach, ate lunch, and then failed to nap.

The entire family lay down to nap on Saturday afternoon, and everyone in the family but for me fell asleep. I began to worry a little about how little sleep I had had. But I’m used to racing on short sleep. The second marathon I ever completed, and the first I completed without walking, I did on zero sleep the night before. However, this was beginning to be the least amount of sleep I had had, and it was before the biggest race I had ever entered.

While the family finished their naps, I went to the pre-race briefing. There I found that the swim was wetsuit legal for age groupers. (The water was 23C—73F.) Otherwise, the race briefing wasn’t all that informative.

After the race briefing, the family and I went to dinner, where I ate chips and salsa followed by pasta. Odd, but that was what I had a hankering for. I considered a glass of wine with supper because I had read that a couple of pros drink a glass of wine before dinner the night before an Ironman to help calm nerves. Reflecting back, maybe I shouldn’t have abstained, but I did, and I didn’t fall asleep at all that night.

I lay in bed most of the night trying to focus on my breathing, trying to meditate, trying to clear my mind. Nothing worked. My wife and kids did a great job of settling in and getting quiet by 10:00, but I could do nothing to take advantage of their good deed. I just couldn’t sleep. And as the clock crept closer to my 3:30 a.m. wake up time, I started thinking about the fact that by the race start time of 6 a.m. I will have been awake for 24 hours and out of the last 72 hours I will have been awake for 62 of them.

However, when I got out of bed and started prepping for the race, I didn’t seem all that tired. I also put the lack of sleep behind me. I could do nothing about it, so why dwell on it? This calm approach to race morning would be something that would carry me through what turned out to be a very challenging day.

Tisha awoke at 4:00 to help me get my number tattooed on my arm. I wish she had put Ruby’s number on the day before, as my race number went on perfectly. I cannot thank Tisha enough for all the help she gave me during the day. I have a few friends who wanted updates about how I was doing, and she did a stellar job of taking photos and uploading photos and comments to Facebook, all while cheering me on at different locations on the course and watching our three kids. My Ironman experience would have never been as successful as it was without her.

The perfect tattoo, applied by my wonderful wife.

After getting my tattoo, I went to T1 to drop off my bags and to make sure my bike was ready to go. I then went to breakfast. Normally before a big training day or race, I will eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a banana. Unfortunately, and I don’t know if this had to do with the lack of sleep, I just wasn’t hungry. Nonetheless, I ate a banana and had an extra cup of coffee. (I’m a big fan of caffeine on race day.)

After breakfast, I went back up to my room and put my race kit on and the bottom half of my two-piece wetsuit. The kids were still sleeping, so I quietly kissed each one goodbye, gave Tisha a big hug and kiss, and made my way down to the beach for the start of the swim. So far a lack of sleep was the only difficulty I encountered and I felt ready to get things started.

The wait to get into the relatively calm water was short, and the temperature was mild, in the low 70sF. I spent the time talking to a woman who I had met on a group ride here in Taipei. Having someone to talk to while waiting for a race start is an excellent way to calm your nerves. The swim start was not a mass of hundreds of people making a break for the water like a bunch of newborn sea turtles. Rather, we went through a rolling start, during which six or so swimmers were sent off at five-second intervals.

Even with the rolling start, the swim course was crowded and body contact was inevitable. However, for most of my life I played contact sports and actually like that aspect of an Ironman swim. A little jostling here and there helps me get into the race.

I'm somewhere in that mass of bodies.

We had to swim two laps of a 1900m course, exiting the water after the first lap and crossing a timing mat. During my first lap I concentrated on staying relaxed, which is easy for me in a wetsuit. For some reason I can’t kick when I’m in a wetsuit, so my legs just lolled along behind me as my upper body did all the work. Along with staying relaxed, I just wanted to swim straight. I’m a slow swimmer and I didn’t want to swim anymore than I had to.

I actually swam straight from buoy to buoy for most of the first lap. Not until about 600m left in the first lap, did I find myself alone. I thought I had found some smooth, traffic-free water to swim in. Unfortunately, when I looked up, I noticed that I was about 10-15m away from where I should have been. I quickly got back on track.

I only had four other small difficulties during my first lap. At some point about half way into the first lap, I got a little water in my right goggle. And because I breathe mostly to my right, the little bit of water was getting in my eye and causing it to sting each time I turned to breathe. To me, though, the pain wasn’t bad enough to stop swimming and empty my goggles. I decided just to deal with my irritant. However, I didn’t have to deal with it that long. Shortly after that, another swimmer’s arm knocked my goggles off and I had to stop and put them back on.

The other two minor problems I encountered was a wave that smashed me in the face as I turned to breathe, forcing me to swallow a mouthful of seawater, and my timing chip was a little loose around my ankle and I could feel it move up and down ever so slightly. The seawater I laughed off, remembering that I don’t believe in taking salt tablets during a race and thinking about just how many salt tablets are in a mouthful of seawater. The timing chip I would adjust after getting finished with the first lap. I just made an effort to check that it was there every few minutes. I noted earlier that remaining calm would be a theme for me during this race, and the thing I am most proud of is how easily I took on these minor problems. Never once did I grow angry or flustered about these inconveniences. I even made a note of my attitude during the race and reminded myself to keep this same temperament all day.

The first half of my swim was swum at a 2:00/100m pace, which I did not know until after the race and which for me was the pace I thought I could swim if I swam well. I did not think that I could swim that well and remain as relaxed as I had.

Upon exiting the water, I crossed the timing mat, and then I stepped off to the side to tighten my timing chip. I also got a cup of water and waved to my family before beginning my second lap.

My second lap was swum at a 2:07/100m pace, and the slower time was a product of my having to readjust my timing chip in between laps, my inability to swim straight and site buoys, and a terrible calf cramp. I don’t know if the lack of sleep had anything to do with this, but I just couldn’t focus on buoys during my second lap. Every time I looked up, I saw other swimmers and their splashing, but I couldn’t see the big buoys I needed to swim toward. I spent too much time swimming like Tarzan while my eyes tried to focus on the big orange object floating in the water. After a while, rather than spotting buoys, I tried to follow other swimmers. However, things had spread out a bit and often it wasn’t possible to see other swimmers. Needless to say, I swam 10m or so off course on at least three separate occasions during the second lap.

The only other problem during the swim was an awful calf cramp with only about 600m to go. I had a small one at first that went away as soon as I got vertical in the water. However, seconds after beginning to swim again, my left calf just knotted up into a fist and wouldn’t release. I let out a pretty loud growl, loud enough that a volunteer in a kayak asked me if I was okay. I told him it was just a calf cramp and then I turned to float on my back. While on my back, I concentrated on relaxing my whole body and in about 30 seconds my calf cramp had released and I went back to swimming. My calf didn’t bother me again the whole day, but after the race, my calf felt like one big bruise.

Again, while swimming off course and while dealing with a painful cramp, I never got angry or frustrated. When I discovered I was swimming in the wrong direction, I merely swam back toward where I needed to be. When I got my calf cramp, I remained collected and solved the problem. While my swim time was slower than I had wanted it to be: 1:20.27 (341 out of almost 1000 finishers), there was a lot to be proud of during my first leg of my first Ironman triathlon. Not only did I remain composed in the face of adversity, I overcame what I thought was a fear of swimming in the ocean. (I might have been ten years old when I first watched Jaws. That movie stays with you.) Besides, my swim was nowhere near as slow as my time through T1.


  1. How great adrenaline worked on your body! Did you feel cold in the seawater?

    1. No, Fumiko, I wore a wetsuit, so I had no problems with the water temperature.