Who are these handsome people I hear you ask? Carry on reading to find out.

In 2015, when I decided that I would give up work and cycle the world the only question mark was whether I had the level of fitness required to actually enjoy cycling through 27 countries and across 4 continents as I clocked up around 25000 km’s.  To ensure that I was in tip top condition I set myself a challenge – to complete all 4 major triathlon distances in the 12 months before I set off.

So how did I get on I hear you say – well put the kettle on, get comfy and carry on reading to find out….

Let me start by introducing the people that I have cycled with for the last few years since moving to Ho Chi Minh City  – the Saigon Velominati Cycling Club.  The club is organised by a great guy called Xavier, he is French, slightly grumpy but keeps us all in line when needed.  There is a good mix of ages and nationalities and the main rides are at the weekends.  The cyclists who ride as part of this club are a great bunch of people.

The standard of rider is fairly high and a typical weekend ride will be +/- 100km, with an average speed of over 30kmph.  The cycle routes that the club tend to ride take you out of the city in either an easterly direction through the rubber and pepper plantations, southerly towards the Mekong Delta or even down to the ‘Western Super Mare’ of Vietnam – Vung Tau. For newer riders who think that they may not up to this standard don’t worry as for most rides different groupings are organised with a coffee stop at the half way point for all riders to regroup.

Saigon Velominati Cycling Club, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

There is always time for a coffee stop at the half-way point

If you are in Ho Chi Minh and fancy joining them for a ride then email the groupcheck out their facebook page, or just turn up at An Phu Supermarket in Thao Dien at 6am on any Saturday morning.

So how fit do you actually need to be to cycle 25000 km in a year?  Do you need to train hard or just hoist your leg over a bike and go?  After researching this topic there seems to be two distinct schools of thought amongst tour cyclists about the level of fitness required:

  1.  You have the ‘speedsters’ who spend many hours a week pedaling around in circles in order to train for that upcoming bike tour.
  2.  You have the ‘laid back’ approach where you just get on the bike and start pedaling – start gently and within 6 weeks or so you will be as fit as you’ll ever need to be to cycle +/-100 km a day.

The drawback with option 2 is that it can take a couple of months before you are fit enough to really enjoy cycling +/- 600 km week in and week out. As my time is limited to just 12 months I decided that when I leave Ho Chi Minh City on July the 4th 2016 that I would try to be as fit as possible in order to really enjoy every precious day of the time that I had been given to complete my cycle.

When I was in my 20’s I loved to cycle, and I spent a year cycling through India and Thailand and had a ball.  The smells, colours and sounds were surreal and since then I have always felt that is the only real way to see and experience a country. At the end of this trip, I cycled right up to the day before my flight and then donated the bike I was riding to a beggar at a bus station somewhere in Eastern Thailand. The bike was only worth about $50 as I had bought it second hand, but the man I donated it to was overjoyed with it.

For me, cycling was more than just exercise though – it was ‘free travel’, which was important as I never seemed to have any money, and so my main modes of travel were by bike or by thumb. I think, perhaps more importantly, travelling by bicycle allows you to have a much better appreciation of the  places that you are passing through – be it kids (and dogs!!!) that chase you everywhere or the locals who want to offer you some food and accommodation – I definitely saw and experienced more of the local culture and life than I would have by any other form of travel.  

As you can hopefully see, exercise for me was really a means to an end, and so once I hit my 30’s and had a ‘real job’ in teaching, the cycling went out of the window and a sedentary lifestyle took over – 40 cigarettes a day, no gym membership and a love of fast food took its toll. Not really sure if it was a mid life crisis or what, but as I neared my 40’s overnight I decided that I was going to stop smoking and get healthy; and that is what I did. I was living in Dorset, in the UK, at the time, and so to get healthy I bought a bike from Halfords and was soon cycling in the New Forest at weekends.

Cycling in the New Forest is a pretty unique experience as you share it with ‘wild’ horses, pigs and cattle that roam freely throughout the forest. England is full of weird and wonderful bye-laws and one of these is called pannage. Pannage is one of the rights attached to various properties in and around the New Forest that allows ‘commoners’ to graze livestock in the forest.

Pannage in the New Forest, England, UK

Pannage in the New Forest, England, UK

Traditionally pannage enabled ‘commoners’ to fatten their pigs prior to slaughter in the winter by letting the pigs loose to hoover up fallen acorns. Today, this tradition continues and homeowners within the forest boundary pay a token fee for each animal they turn out. For example, each pig is marked with an identity tag in its ear and has a ring put through its nose to reduce the damage to the forest caused by rooting as they forage for food.  

As I became fitter, I started running a couple of evenings a week along the beach between Boscombe where I lived and Bournemouth. There and back was was a 5km loop, which was a great way to unwind after a day at work. In a way I was hooked, and so one thing led to another and about 8 years ago I learnt to swim properly and started to enter short distance triathlons.  

In 2015, when I finally took the plunge, and made up my mind that I was going to be taking a year off to get back on the bike, I decided that in order to achieve the fitness level that I wanted to reach I would set myself a challenge – to complete each of the 4 main triathlon distances in the 12 months before I set off:

  1. Sprint Triathlon – 750m swim, 20km cycle and 5km run.
  2. Olympic/International triathlon – 1.5km swim, 40km cycle and 10km run
  3. Half Ironman – 1.9 km swim, 90km cycle and 21.1km run
  4. Full Ironman – 3.8km swim, 180 km cycle and 42.2 km run

For those of you who are unfamiliar with triathlon it involves the completion of three continuous and sequential endurance disciplines. Whilst there are many variations of the sport, triathlon, in its most popular form involves – swimming, cycling and running. The roots of triathlon as a sport can be traced back to the beginning of the 20th century in France where it was known as “Les trois sports” (the three sports), “La Course des Debrouillards” (the race of experts) and “La course des Touche a Tout (the race that touches everything).

In many parts of the developed world triathlon, and especially Ironman, are now getting to be fairly mainstream events with people of all ages, and all shapes and sizes, taking part. In Asia, however, there is still very much an apparent apathy towards excessive physical exercise. I think that this is mainly due to the heat and humidity,  but the general reaction that you get from locals is that they just laugh at you when you run past them in the street. On one of my many cycle adventures in the region, I cycled from Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam to Bangkok in Thailand. This was a 6 day solo cycle which passed through Cambodia en route.

Whilst cycling through the northern part of Cambodia heading towards Siem Reap I had stopped for a drink at a stall by the side of the road. A coach pulled up to buy some snacks and I got talking with one of the passengers. She asked me where I was cycling to and I told her that I was on my way to Bangkok. She then said “Are you that poor that you cannot afford the bus?” She really couldn’t understand that I was doing it for fun. Mad dogs and Englishmen and all that?

In Asia, the popularity of Triathlon is increasing, but compared to Europe the races are few and far between. When I moved to Vietnam 5 years ago there definitely was a lack of events to choose from and even though now it is gaining popularity you still only have a few triathlon races to pick from, and need to fly to different countries in order to race. This meant that whilst planning the 4 triathlon events that I would complete I did not exactly have many events to choose from; as I had to fit them in during school holidays even less.  After looking at the calendar and researching the different possibilities the events that I initially decided to enter were:

  1. Sprint Triathlon – Lydney, UK
  2. Olympic Triathlon – Penang, Malaysia
  3. Ironman 70.3 – Da Nang, Vietnam
  4. Ironman – Frankfurt, Germany

If you continue to read on you will see that for various reasons I had to change to a number of alternative races, but I had a fantastic adventure and met some wonderful people along the way.

Challenge 1 – Sprint Triathlon Lydney, England – 26th April 2015

I managed to fit this race in during a visit back to the UK during the two week ‘Easter’ holiday from school.  April in the UK is spring time and due to the cold weather this time of year the majority of triathlons are sprint distances as the swim needs to be held indoors.   This race was held at Lydney Leisure Centre in the Forest of Dean. It was a great event with around 200 entries with a wide range of abilities from novices wanting to try the sport for the first time to more experienced triathletes looking to start their season off with a short and friendly race.

Sprint Triathlon Swim Leg – 600 m

The swim was 400m, which was 16 laps of the 25m pool.  For indoor events 400 – 600m are the normal distances due to the extended time it takes to get all of the swimmers to complete the swim leg. When I initially entered the event I had to give an approximate time that I thought that I would complete the swim in.  Participants were then grouped into ‘waves’ of 24 swimmers and allocated the same start time.

On the day of the race, I arrived at the poolside 10 minutes before my swim start time and was further split into one of 4 swimming lanes, with 6 swimmers in each.  Swimmers are then set off at 5 second intervals and swim the 16 laps before exiting the pool and running to the bike transition.  As the lanes are narrow the etiquette is that if you are faster than the person in front of you, and catch them up, then you tap their foot and they let you pass them at end of that length.  This system works well but it does mean that you are not able to go flat out and can easily lose time. There is a race marshal allocated to each swim lane, and they are responsible for counting laps and will indicate to you when you have 2 lengths left to swim.

Sprint Triathlon Bike Leg – 22km

The bike leg was a scenic 22km hilly loop on back roads from Lydney towards Bream.  The out section takes you initially through Lydney town centre before heading onto a side road which follows the track of a steam railway along the contours of the valley towards Bream.  Once in Bream, you cross over to the next valley and have a fast downhill return to transition back at the swimming pool in Lydney.

Sprint Triathlon Run Leg – 5km

In a sprint triathlon, energy reserves and cramping are not a concern given the short distance and cool temperatures, it is flat out running all the way.  The 5km run was an out and back run with 2 loops of a fishing lake in the centre of Lydney.  Not sure that the fishermen were expecting 200 runners to be disturbing their fishing on this particular Sunday morning but they seemed happy enough with the distraction.

Sprint Triathlon Results

Time per legAverage speed
Leg 1 - 400 m swim8 min2 min / 100 m
Leg 2 - 22 km bike45 min30 km/h
Leg 3 - 5.5 km run25 min4 min 32 / km
Total time (inc transition)1 hour 22 min

My total time was just over 1 hour 20 minutes and placed me 8th in the over 40’s category, which I was more than happy with.  The benefit of competing in a sprint triathlon is that it really is over within just over an hour as opposed to a full Ironman triathlon which takes some people upwards of 18 hours to complete; the drawback of the shorter distance triathlons being that you cannot really get into any rhythm on each of the individual legs.

Challenge 2 – Ironman 70.3 Da Nang, Vietnam – 10th May 2015

Ideally, I would have liked to have completed an Olympic triathlon next as this is roughly double the distance of the sprint triathlon, but I could not find one in Asia that I could get to over just a weekend. Although teachers do get a lot of holidays, any days off outside of these times are frowned upon; you can’t exactly pull a sickie on a Friday in order to catch a flight to compete in a triathlon.  Instead, two weeks after returning to Vietnam I finished work and caught a flight to Da Nang for the weekend to complete the Half Ironman distance triathlon. 

A half Ironman event consists of a 1.9km swim, a 90 km cycle and a 21.1 km run, and really was a step up in distance from the first race; the biggest challenge of this race though was not the distance but the climate – I started the half marathon run around 11am in 40 degree temperatures, 80% humidity and no shade.  It really is a war of attrition racing anywhere in the tropics and even getting to the finish line in one piece is an achievement, let alone trying to finish with a PB.

In Vietnam, there is only 1 real triathlon race per year, and this has always been held either in or around the city of Da Nang.  It is the countries third largest city, and is located on the Eastern Sea coast, midway between Hanoi in the north and Ho Chi Minh in the south.   The city itself has neither the atmosphere of Hanoi nor the hustle-bustle of Ho Chi Minh City, but is the location of the main airport for the region.  The beaches of Da Nang really are spectacular, and as the shiny new city develops it is fast becoming a popular vacation hub for those looking to explore the attractions of central Vietnam and experience the charms of Hoi An or the imperial city of Hue.

The previous year, 3 of us had flown from Ho Chi Minh City and had taken part in the Lang Co triathlon which was the forerunner to this event. There had been a grand total of 80 of us in the race. This year though, the event had been taken over by the Ironman brand and just the name alone had attracted a field of over 800 participants.  

As it seems with most things triathlon it is all about the branding. As a fairly level headed adult, unless you add whiskey to the mix then anything can happen, I thought that I was beyond the age of caring about branding but when it comes to triathlon it really is – if it ain’t an Ironman race it doesn’t count. Now, to even enter an Ironman event you are going to be spending a lot of money – to enter this race cost me 200 GBP and to enter a full Ironman race it costs around 400 GBP. Then of course, there are the cost of flights, car hire, accommodation, and, perhaps most importantly of all, the overpriced merchandise that you will buy just to remind yourself of the actual achievement, and the physical pain that you put your body through.  

The ultimate goal for many participants in each individual Ironman triathlon race is to get a qualifying spot for the annual ‘World Championships’ in Kona, Hawaii. It is a bit like the Americans calling their baseball league the ‘world series’ when they are really the only nation competing. The way that Ironman works is that in your age category there are normally ‘world championship’ slots available for the 5 fastest finishers. If some, or all, of the first 5 finishers do not take the slot then the offer is rolled down to the 6th place finisher and so on until all of the slots are taken. If you take the slot then you have to pay around 650 GBP in order to secure your place.

A friend, Todd Gilmore, in Ho Chi Minh recently qualified for the world championships by finishing just off the podium in his age category at Ironman Langkawi in Malaysia. He estimates that the entry fee, flights for him and his family, accommodation at the race hotel and merchandise is going to cost him in excess of 6,000 GBP to take part in this event. Little wonder that a Chinese consortium recently purchased the Ironman brand for a whopping 400 million GBP. I take my hat off to the original founders as they really did an impeccable marketing job to be able to sell what is effectively just an events company for that price.

Ironman 70.3 Triathlon Swim Leg – 1.9 km

Due to the bath like sea temperatures that you find in the tropics triathlon races tend to be non-wetsuit swims.  In the early-to-mid 1990’s, the use of the wetsuit emerged as a source of controversy in the sport of triathlon. Originally, the wetsuit was introduced to the sport as a safety tool to help triathletes survive cold waters and prevent hypothermia during the swimming portion of a race. The theory goes something like this – when a swimmer is submerged in water, the water flows into the suit settling between the rubber and the body.  Initially, the natural temperature of the body will warm the entrapped water.  As the triathlete begins to swim, the body temperature rises, causing the temperature of the water inside the suit to rise as well.  Thus, the increased water temperature keeps the swimmer warm during the event.

However, it was quickly discovered that the wetsuit provided the necessary buoyancy to lift a swimmer high enough in the water to enhance the overall swim performance. There is no doubt that I personally swim a few minutes faster for less effort in a wetsuit. This is because the wetsuit provides buoyancy and the higher you are in the water, the less water resistance when swimming, and the faster the overall swim performance.  This means that weaker swimmers, with poorer technique, definitely benefit.

The swim leg in this race was a 1.9km open water sea swim from the beautiful white sand beach in front of the Hyatt Hotel in Da Nang.  The sea conditions really could not have been more perfect – flat calm turquoise water with the faintest hint of a ripple.  The sea was so clear that even at the furthest point from the shore I could clearly see all the way to ocean floor.

The circuit was essentially a clockwise rectangle swim which against the current on the way out and with it coming back.1.9km Ironman 70.3 Da Nang swim course, Vietnam

We swam out from the beach for around 300m and turned left. Then we swam another 300m with the current, turned right then 50m, turned right and swam a further 600m against the current, turned right and swam 50m, turned right and swam with the current for another 300m to complete the rectangle before a final left turn and a 300m sprint back to shore.

As was common up until the end of 2015 the swim start was by age category and was effectively a mass punch up for the first 300 m or so as faster swimmers went over the top of slower swimmers. A crazy, but memorable, part of Ironman races which has since largely been eliminated from races due to a change in the swim start procedures at most events.  Once I was beyond the first left turn then the speed and spacing of the swimmers naturally sorted itself out and I was able to get on with the business end of swimming 1.9km.

The course was well marked and the only difficulty I had was that I had set off in the third wave and so by the 700m mark I had caught the tail enders of the second wave swimmers and had to navigate passed them.  In Asia, the weaker swimmers tend to swim breaststroke, and where you come upon a breaststroker you have a few choices – swim around them,  grab hold of their legs to let them know you are there and hopefully avoid getting kicked in the face, or just swim over the top of them!!!!

The main difference between swimming in a pool and open water swimming is that you have to navigate and concentrate more upon swimming in a straight line.  This can be made all the more difficult for sea swims as you do not really have any fixed markers in the water to follow.  Instead, you tend to head towards a fixed point on the shore or a marker buoy in the water, and every 5 or 10 strokes you stick your head up to check that you are still on course. Although I was normally heading in the general direction I was supposed to be swimming my garmin 920 watch recorded my gps track for the swim at over 2km.Leg 1 completed - 1.9 km sea swim - 41 mins or 2 mins 11 secs / 100m

My aim going into this race was to complete the swim leg in around 40 minutes and I came out of the water in 41 minutes so was really happy.

Ironman 70.3 Triathlon Bike Leg – 90 km

Once I exited the sea there was a 2 minute run through the hotel gardens to reach the bike transition area. As most people, including myself, wore tri-suits then this really was just a case of slipping on my bike shoes, gloves and helmet and running with the bike to the mount line.

90 km Ironman 70.3 Da Nang bike course, Vietnam

 

The 90km bike course was a two-loop leg that hugged the pristine coastline. The first 15km on the bike was a straight run to the only elevated section – the impressive Thuan Phuoc Suspension Bridge  which spans the Han River; at just under 2 km long it is a fair bump in the road. Once over the bridge I cycled three loops of around 20 km and then crossed back over the bridge to return to the Hyatt and bike transition.

90 km bike course - 2 hours 41 mins - 33.4 km/h average speed

The first 20 minutes on the bike was all about settling into a pace that would post a sub 3 hour bike leg.  When I am training I normally find that once I am into a rhythm on the bike then I am able to completely switch off and my mind wanders to random things and I actually forget about what I’m doing.  In Vietnam, with the crazy nature of the roads this can be potentially quiet dangerous, but so far I have not succumbed to a serious accident.

The diagram below is a fair reflection of driving conditions in Vietnam, and so you really do take you life in your hands when you venture out on your push bike.  The diagram below explains Vietnamese traffic patterns better than words ever could.

The crazyness that exists on the roads of Vietnam. Surprisingly - it works well.

The bike leg was on ‘closed’ roads which was fairly well respected by the locals on all forms of transport, and I only had to navigate around a couple of motorbikes going the wrong way down the road who didn’t fancy their own side of the road, and instead decided to ‘play chicken’ out on the course.

I always find that the bike section is a fine balancing act between the need to push the limits whilst leaving enough in the tank to cope with the run off the bike. In this race I followed a pre-set plan based on getting in enough food, water electrolytes and salt tablets to enable me to not completely cramp up, or ‘bonk’, during the run.  As this was the first time that the event had been run then there were some issues with the placements of the drink stations on the bike course as one of the aide stations was located 20 m past a turn point and so nobody was stopping to use it.  This meant that on the second lap I ran out of water for a short while, but apart from this the route was fast and flat with beautiful scenery to look at.

Ironman races are non drafting which means that for age-group participants there has to be 10 metres between the leading edge of your front wheel and the back of the bike in front of you (in reality around five bike lengths of clear space between bikes).  An age-group athlete may enter the ‘draft zone’ of another athlete when passing and must continuously progress through the ‘draft zone’. A maximum of 20 seconds is allowed to pass through the zone of the cyclist in-front of you.  If not, then you are drafting by gaining an unfair advantage.  To prevent this there are marshals who patrol the course on motorbikes.  If you are caught drafting them you either receive a warning or for repeat offenders a time penalty.

A fairly funny part of this race which kept me amused throughout the bike leg were two of the marshals for this race. I know the two of them personally, but shall remain nameless, and the funny part was their totally different approach towards their role; one of them would go past you fairly oblivious to the drafting that was clearly going on whilst the other marshal was giving himself a hernia – completely red in the face screaming blue murder at all offenders and threatening to disqualify just about everybody he passed from the race.  It is strange the things that you find funny when you are pedalling around in circles at an average speed of 33 kmph for nearly 3 hours.

My plan going into this race was to complete the bike leg in under 3 hours and I came into transition in 2 hours 41 minutes which was an average speed of 33.4 kmh.  The bike leg for me is always the most enjoyable and I was really happy with the time.

Ironman 70.3 Triathlon Run Leg – 21.1 km 

If the bike was my favourite part of this race then the run was the part of the race that I was least looking forward too.  I came back into the bike transition at just after 10 am which meant that I would still be running at midday in the scorching sun, high humidity and with little shade.  Hopefully, the proverbial wheels would not fall off before I reached the finish.

For those of you who have never run the final leg of a half Ironman distance triathlon then I cannot really put into words the difference that exists between just going out on fresh legs and running a half marathon, and doing it after swimming 1.9 km and cycling 90 km.  It really is like taking part in completely different events. The prior activity makes you feel heavy-legged and uncoordinated when you start running. Issues like stitches and muscle cramps can have a devastating effect on your ability to sustain your run pace, and are far more common in triathlon than in pure running races, due to the fatigue you’re already experiencing when you get off the bike.  Even though in training you complete lots of ‘brick’ runs these issues will crop up, and managing them to minimise their impact is the main aim if they do.

As I tend to sweat buckets when doing any form of exercise then I find that my ‘best friends’ on the run are fluids, electrolytes and salt tablets.  Without these there is no way that I would make it through a half marathon run leg, let alone one set in the tropics.  If you have never experienced calf or thigh cramps then I really can’t describe the pain.  The only way to get rid of them when your whole muscle is ‘locked’ is to let it relax, which is actually very counter-intuitive.  Luckily, for me I managed to get through the run leg with only minor cramps.  Although, I did look a bit like a complete maniac when my leg ‘locked’ in the ice pools when enjoying a post race beer or two.

The run course was the first part of the bike course and consisted of a simple out and back run on the main road that followed the beach. The first 5km of the run went by in a breeze with my average pace being bang on 2 hour pace at 5 minutes 40 seconds per km.  By the 10 km mark, the complete exposure to the midday sun started to hit me; the air temperature was around 36C, but in direct sunlight, where we were running, it was well over 40C. Once past the turn point at the halfway mark my pace gradually dropped away, and my plan for a sub 2 hour run went out of the window.  It was now a combination of run / walk and my pace dropped to around 6 minutes 30 seconds per km.  By the 15km point I was starting to cramp and had slowed even further to over 7 minutes per km.  

I then got a second wind and as the cramps subsided my pace picked back up for the final stretch.  The return leg really was a war of attrition and I was so happy when I passed through the transition area back at the Hyatt hotel. The finish line was on the beach and I had the biggest smile on my face as I crossed it in a time of 2 hours 15 minutes for the half marathon.   

At the finish of the 21.2 km half marathon run - 2 hours 18 mins

Normally, when you finish a race it is a case of collecting your finishers medal, getting your stuff together and heading home.  In Da Nang, they had set up ice pools on the beach and a free flow bar.

Finish line party with Rob, Eric and Marie - time to celebrate

Now that really is the way to finish a half ironman event.  After a couple of hours of free flow beer everybody moved away from the beach to where food was being served and the awards ceremony would take place.  Marie, in the photo above, who I train with in Ho Chi Minh City, placed 3rd in her age category and one of the lads I work with placed second in the over 55 age category which was  a brilliant end to a fantastic day.

Ironman 70.3 Triathlon Results

Time per legAverage speed
Leg 1 - 1.9km swim41 min2 min 11 / 100m
Leg 2 - 90 km bike2 hours 41 min33.4 km/h
Leg 3 - 21.1 km run2 hours 18 min6 min 34 / km
Total time (inc transition)5 hour 50 min

I had completed my first Half Ironman the previous year in Haugesund, Norway.  The time I posted in that race was 6 hours 1 min.  My aim going into this race in the tropics was firstly to finish in one piece and secondly to record a time under 6 hours.  With a finish time of 5 hours 50 minutes I had achieved both these aims and even placed 22nd in the my age category, which was a fantastic result all round.

Next up was the Full Ironman race, but at least this would be back in Europe and so the conditions should be more favourable.  For those people that I train with who race full Ironman distances in the tropics I really have no idea how they manage to get to the finish line in one piece.

Challenge 3 – Ironman Maastricht, Holland – 2nd August 2015

Completing a full Ironman really is the monster of all of the triathlon distances and involves you completing a 3.8km swim, a 180 km cycle (or for some reason – 184km in this particular race) and then running a marathon.  The professionals in the race often complete the course in around 8 hours, but for mere mortals some of the competitors will start the swim leg at 6:30 am and still be running at midnight.

Although I ended up completing the full Ironman in Maastricht, this was not the plan when I had flown from Asia to Europe at the beginning of July.  The actual Ironman race that I had trained for was the European Championships in Frankfurt which was held on the 5th of July.  I had arrived in Frankfurt on the Tuesday prior to the race so that I could experience all of the pre- race build up and take part in the organised bike and swim course reckees that are put on by the organisers.

Three friends were also taking part in the race and they would be flying in later in the week.  The day after I arrived in Frankfurt there was an organised bike ride of 90 km which took in one loop of the two loop bike course.  The meeting point was early in the morning at the bike transition point in the city centre, and so around 200 riders rode out of the city with full police escort.  The pace was slow and everybody was rolling along chatting and just really enjoying being out on the bike.  About half way around the course we stopped at a castle in Friedberg for a drinks stop.

Bike course reckee, Ironman Frankfurt, Germany

After 20 minutes, everybody mounted up and then cycled the return leg back to Frankfurt.  The scenery really was stunning on the way back but there was a stiff head wind and a few long inclines which would make the bike leg challenging come race day.

The 3.8km swim would take place at at Langener Waldsee which is a lake located about 15 km to the south of Frankfurt.  I met up with Per Erik, who had flown in to take part in the race, and we headed out to the lake for a practice swim.

Practice swim with Per Erik, Ironman Frankfurt, Germany

Given the normal water temperature in the lake this race is traditionally a wetsuit race which tends to give swimmers with poorer technique an advantage. (see earlier notes for explanation)  After completing an easy 1km swim it was apparent that with the heat wave that was currently happening across Europe that the water temperature was too warm for the race directors to allow wetsuits to be worn.  The cut off temperature was 24.5C and the water was easily warmer than that.  Without a wetsuit this would of added a few minutes to my time, but given that my aim was to cross the finish line in around 12 hours then I was not too concerned.

On the Thursday morning, I woke up and my lymph glands were inflamed and it was really painful to swallow.  I took myself off to the doctors to get it looked at and on inspection the doctor said that my tonsils were red and swollen and coated with white pus-filled spots.  The diagnosis was Tonsillitis which meant that I would not be racing come Sunday.  Instead, it was a course of antibiotics and rest.

As it turned out, I think I dodged a bullet with this event.  Come race day, the heatwave had not abated and the temperature on the course reached over 40C.  The DNF rate for competitors at Frankfurt was nearly double that of a normal Ironman race, and the scenes in the medical tents along the run route paid testament to the severe attrition rate of competitors.  The race even claimed the life of a 30 year old man from Scotland who collapsed at the finish line and was taken to a nearby hospital for an emergency operation. Sadly his condition continued to worsen and he died as a result of a brain haemorrhage due to hyponatremia.

Although, I was gutted by the news that I wouldn’t be able to compete in the race at Frankfurt the doctor had said that within a couple of weeks my body should fully recover.  We were booked to fly to the USA on the 10th of July for a couple of weeks holiday, and then would be returning to Europe to see family before heading back to Asia on the 11th of August.  This meant that I had a 3 week window to schedule in a different race and looking at the Ironman calendar a brand new event in Maastricht in The Netherlands on the 2nd of August was a race that would fit my schedule.

This meant that I would need to fly my bike to the USA with me to train, but by completing the race in a few weeks time at least I wouldn’t have to face starting from scratch and completing another 6 months of Ironman training. The training really is hard on your body especially when you are swimming over 8km, running over 30km and cycling over 2ookm each week with the final 6 weeks of training being totally full on.   Even getting to the start line for this event meant that I could hardly run due to an injury on my foot, so the additional few weeks before the Maastricht Ironman would help.

On the 10th of July,  my wife and I flew out to the USA for what had been planned as a total R&R holiday, but ended up with me still training.  I must admit that I really did enjoy the extra few weeks of training in the USA as they were a good change of scenery.  I had completed most of my training in the tropics where every session was the equivalent of exercising in a sauna.  Now that I was in the states, I got to run in cooler climates through New York city with the locals, cycle in the Everglade National Park  and cycle down through the Florida Keyes.

100 km training ride - Miami South beach to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA

Alligators on my 150km training ride through Everglades National Park, Florida, USA

The downside of the extra 3 weeks of training was that by now the injury to my foot was worse and I couldn’t run more than 5km without it feeling like somebody was sticking a needle into the heal of my foot.  In the past I have suffered from Plantar Fasciitus run with shaped insoles in my trainers for arch support.  With the necessary increase in both running intensity and distance that the Ironman training required it now meant that I had stopped running altogether and just concentrated on swim and bike training.  I was still going to complete the Maastriccht Ironman but was not certain whether my race would finish with a DNF somewhere on the run course or whether I would be able to get to the finish line.

The video below is highlights of the 2015 Maastricht Ironman race and will give you a flavour of what was to come.

I flew into Brussels in Belgium on the 30th of June and hired a car for the short trip across the border to Maastricht in The Netherands.  Maastricht is located on the river Maas at the very southern end of the country in the province of Limburg.  Many people may have heard of Maastricht as it is famous for a treaty which was signed in 1992.  The ‘Maastricht Treaty’ created what is commonly referred to as the ‘pillar structure‘ of the European Union and led to the creation of the Euro as a common currency.

Maastricht really is a beautiful city with the River Maas snaking its way through the centre of the city. It has a population of around 120,000 and is very picturesque with cobbled streets, street cafes, elegant restaurants, boutique shops and historic buildings.  

Cobbled streets and cafe culture, Maastricht, Netherlands

Cobbled streets and cafe culture, Maastricht, Netherlands

It is considered by historians to be the oldest city in the The Netherlands. An amazing backdrop for the Ironman finish line party that would be taking place in the city in 3 days time. 

When I booked onto this event I thought that as it was being held in The Netherlands that the 180 km bike leg would be completely flat.  Little did I know that this part of the country is uncharacteristically hilly and Maastricht is situated in the “Dutch Mountains”, where compared to the rest of The Netherlands, the hills are mountain-like.   There is a famous cycling race which is held here every year – The Amstel Gold Race – which used to finish on the iconic ‘Cauberg’.  

'The Cauberg', Amstel Gold Race, Netherlands. I would cycle this twice in the Ironman.

The length of the climb is just over 1.3km with a maximum gradient of 12%.  This climb was included in the bike route for the Ironman, and as the circuit was a two loop affair we would get to cycle the Cauberg twice.  

Race day dawned clear, and with a promise of a warm, cloudless day of about 26 C. The swim was a wetsuit swim in the River Maas.  The river is a ‘working’ river with lots of shipping coursing its length, and the main channel had been ‘shut’ for a couple of hours just for the swim leg.  This meant that there had been no opportunity for a pre-swim prior to race day, and as this was the inaugural race in Maastricht then there were no previous reviews of the swim course.

Ironman Maastricht Swim Leg – 3.8 km

The only information that we had prior to the day of the swim was a video and course map (see below) that the race organisers had emailed to give us an overview of the 3.8 km swim course:

3.8 km Maastricht Ironman swim course, Netherlands

One hour before the official race start they opened the swim course to allow us to have a practice swim and to make final adjustments to the wetsuit to ensure it fit snugly in all the right places.  I had never experienced a river swim in a triathlon before and so was not really sure what to expect in terms of the strength of the current and water temperature.  Once I was finally able to get into the water I was happy that the current did not feel to be running too fast and the water was surprisingly clear.

The 3.8 km swim course was an out and back loop.  I started by swimming 1.8km against the current towards a small island in the river channel where there was an ‘Australian exit’.  Here I had to exit the water, run 100m across the island, re-enter the water and swim back 1.9km with the current.

Another first for me in this race was the actual swim start.  I am used to the ‘mass punchup’ method when the horn sounds and everybody just heads into the water.  For this event it was going to be a rolling start.  A rolling swim start is where competitors line up behind different timing signs to form a continuous line i.e. if you anticipate that the swim will take you 1 hour 30 minutes then this is the sign you queue behind.  Once all competitors have seeded them selves any gaps are closed by walking the line forwards to meet the back of those queueing for a slightly faster time.  The line is about 4 people wide and so when the starter gun sounds the line feeds forward at a continuous pace until you reach the water and start your swim.

Although the race officially starts when the hooter sounds, or in this race a cannon is fired, your individual time only starts as you cross the timing line a couple of seconds before you enter the water.  As all participants wear a timing chip on their ankle then your timings automatically reflect this.  The only real disadvantage to this system is that it can take up to 15 minutes to get everybody into the water and so later in the race you are not sure if you are racing the person in front of you for a position or not.  However, in this race this would be of no concern given the fact that I was not certain that I would even make the finish line.

The swim start was right next to a bridge which connected the two sides of Maastricht and there was a great atmosphere as the bridge was packed with supporters.  Lots of singing and cheering as an actual cannon was set off to mark the start of the race.   The  rolling swim start made the swim a lot more pleasant with hardly any ‘punching’ in the initial few hundred metres.

The river is 200 – 300 metres wide and was fairly shallow at the sides with a gentle slope out into the centre of the river.  Once we were under way I had to swim a good 20 or 30 metres away from the bank to avoid getting my hands and feet tangled in the long reeds which were growing under the water.  The only other real difficulty that I had on the 1.9km out leg was that the race start was just after sunrise, and as I was using the nearshore bank as my marker, every time I turned to breathe to this side I was blinded by the sun. If I raced this event again, I would definitely wear tinted goggles.

As I am not a strong swimmer I find the monotony of swimming a long distance always the hardest.  To cover ths 3.8 km I knew that I would be in the water for around an hour and a half and so it was important to break down the swim into ‘mental’ sections.  On the course, I had to swim under 3 bridges in each direction and so used these and the island at the halfway point as my ‘mental’ markers which I ticked off as I passed them.

Ten years ago, when I first learnt to swim again, like nearly everybody else, the swim leg of a triathlon was the part that I dreaded the most. If you had asked me back then if I would take part in an Ironman I would have laughed. When we lived in Dorset my wife’s cousin came to stay with us from Sweden as her husband was taking part in an Ironman race in Sherborne, which was close to where we lived. At the time I thought he was slightly crazy and would have said that the reality of me swimming nearly 4 km was impossible.  Fast forward a few years and the 1.8km out leg, which was against the current, had not been too bad and I was actually looking forward to the return leg.

I wear a Garmin 920 watch for triathlons which shows my overall time, my swim pace per 100 m and my splits per km.  Again due to the rising sun I was having difficulty reading my pace and so it was not until I reached the halfway point at the island that I had any idea whether I was on my 90 minute swim schedule.  On the 100 m run across the island I was able to read my watch and this gave my time at just over 35 minutes.  As the river was so shallow where I was swimming then this really negated the affect of any current which was flowing in the river; combine this with ‘the wetsuit’ effect and I was around 5 minutes ahead of my own predicted time.

Strangely, the 1.9 km return leg, which was swimming with the current, proved much more challenging than the out leg and I had real difficulty staying on course and swimming in a straight line.  We had to move out towards the middle of the river to avoid the swimmers who were still on their out leg, and as the river channel curved the force of the water flow was naturally pushing me towards the outside bank.  This meant that I was never sure whether I was swimming in a direct line or not, and had to frequently stop and re-sight.

Exiting the 3.8 km river swim - 1 hour 26 mins or 2 mins 16 / 100m

To achieve the 3.8km distance we had to swim about 100m past the transition point and then turn to swim back upstream to exit the river.  After being in the water for so long I could really feel the affect of the current on this final 100 m. In the pool my training times had been around 2 mins 10 sec / 100m.  I thought that I would not be able to match this given the swim was in a river but I wanted to get as close to this as possible.  

On the return leg the difficulties that I had swimming in a straight line had slowed my pace and the time that I had made up on the way out had been significantly eroded. When I exited the river my Garmin had recorded a swim distance of 4km in a time of 1 hour 26 minutes.  This was 2 mins 11 sec / 100m and so as I ran the 200m or so to transition I was really happy with my time.

Transition 1

Transition area - Maastricht Ironman, Netherlands

Bike transition - bikes are racked the day before the race

Transitions really are the fourth discipline when it comes to triathlon.  In a wetsuit race you use the time on the run from the water to the transition area to get your wetsuit unzipped and your arms out of the wetsuit.  In most races, once you reach the transition area then there are people there to help you to get the wetsuit off by yanking it over your ankles as you lie on your back with your feet in the air.  Again, just one more sight that is unique to the sport of triathlon.  Once I had my wetsuit off it was time to collect the bike bag that I had prepared the night before and head for the large unisex change tents and get changed into my cycling clothes.

After nearly an hour and a half in the water it was also an opportunity to get some much needed food down.  Once set I needed to repack my wetsuit and goggles, re-rack the bag and then run to find my bike.  Try doing this knowing that the clock is ticking away and it actually is quite stressful.  My time in transition was 9 minutes which was not the fastest but nor the slowest.

Ironman Maastricht Bike Leg – 184 km

184 km bike course route, Maastricht Ironman, NetherlandsThe bike course was slightly longer than the standard 180 km distance and was split into two loops of 92 km each. As this was the inaugural Maastricht Ironman there were not any online reviews of the bike course and so I was not too sure what to expect.  I had driven part of the course in my hire car the day before the race, but the maps that competitors were given in the official race pack (see map on the left) were not detailed enough to follow if you did not know the area.  

At the race briefing the only additional information that had been given about the bike leg was that it would be a very technical course with quite a few cobbled sections, and three main climbs per lap including the famous Cauberg  where the Amstel Gold Cycle Race concludes. 

The actual bike course was really something else and nothing like I had ever experienced in a triathlon.  I am used to competing in Asia where the bike course tends to be an out and back monotonous affair along wide roads which are often more like duel carriageways.  

Well this was definitely not what was delivered  in Maastricht. There were multiple blind bends, descents with sharp corners at the bottom followed by a climb, sections of cobbles through town squares, cattle grids, roads covered in gravel, and even sections on farm tracks.  Apparently many of the locals had not received the memo that a race was taking place and when they saw roads completely closed off to traffic they decided that meant that it was their chance to enjoy the roads.

Numerous locals on bikes were out on the course going in both directions, which sometimes was quite dangerous especially when you’re going 35 km/h  downhill around a bend only to encounter a bicycle coming from the other direction, or even cycling round a corner to be confronted by people walking 4 abreast as they were out for a stroll in the countryside.  The cobbled sections easily added up to about 3 or 4 km per loop and were reminiscent of the infamous Paris-Roubax cycle route.  Without doubt a unique Ironman bike course if there ever was one.  

Tight bends and cobbles made for a difficult bike course

A different style of course - down country lanes, Maastricht Ironman, Netherlands

Despite the issues with the technical nature of the course the 184 km bike route was actually very enjoyable and as the weather was fairly cool (it was 26C but as I live in Asia I considered this to be cool !!!)  it was not too uncomfortable.   As I exited the swim transition, the winds were light and the first 20km of the course were as flat as a pancake; the only real elevation being the man-made levees that the route continually criss crossed.  At the 20km mark the course turned towards the hills and  this was where the route became more technical and lumpier.  

I expected the Cauberg in Valkenberg to be the most taxing hill on the course and although this was where the granny ring was most valuable there were a few longer hills before that were actually more energy sapping.  The Cauberg though was the point where many competitors walked with their bikes as it had a 12% incline in parts.  I was determined not too get off my bike and on the first lap I managed to grind up it without any real difficulty.  

I completed the first lap in just under 3 hours 10 minutes.  This was behind my goal of a sub 3 hour lap, but given the nature of the bike course I had found it difficult to get into a sustained rhythm as the cobbles, twists and sharp turns led to a constant loss of momentum.  I think that I had probably spent less than half of the lap tucked into the aero position and if I cycled this course again I think that I will bring my normal racing bike rather than my tri-bike.

Out on the 184 km bike course, Maastricht Ironman, Netherlands

By the start of the second lap the wind had picked up which slowed my pace even further on the 20 km flat open section.  The hills had also started to take their toll and so by the time that I got to the Cauberg for the second time my left calf and thigh were constantly cramping.  I was determined to crest the hill without having to walk my bike and so about 10 km before I had taken 5 salt tablets which had considerably eased the cramps.  The first 500m of the climb was a constant 5% gradient and as the road kinked right the gradient ramped up to its 12% maximum.  

The crowds along this section were huge and there was only a couple of metres width of the road left in which to cycle. The energy from the crowd really helped and I crested the Cauberg for the second time without having to resort to getting off the bike.  It really is these small challenges and ‘mini victories’ which got me through the 184 km bike leg. Once over the top of the Cauberg it was time to refuel at the final aid station before the final 20 km section and back into the transition area for the last time.

Bike refuelling station just after cresting the Cauberg

Maastricht Ironman 184 km bike course - 6 hours 25 mins or 28.3 km/h

My final time for the 184 km bike leg was 6 hours 25 minutes which was well outside the sub 6 hour time that I had hoped to ride coming into this race.  Given the nature of the bike course though I was not too unhappy with this time, and talking to people after the race the majority were around 40 minutes down on their own predicted times. For the pros in the race their bike times were also much slower than normal.

For context, the men’s winner Bas Diederen rode the course in 4 hours 43 minutes, which was the quickest ride of the day; his time on the bike course at Ironman Frankfurt 4 weeks earlier had been over 25 minutes faster at 4 hours 18 minutes.  Likewise, Yvonne van Vlerken, who won the women’s race, rode 5.16 at Maastricht and 4.47 at the Ironman distance Challenge Roth 3 weeks earlier.

Just out of personal interest when I was writing this review I looked at the course that they had set for the 2016 Maastricht Ironan race, and not surprisingly they have completely changed the route of the bike course. Instead of following the Amstel Gold Cycle Race course to the west the new cycle route will take riders eastwards from Maastricht and across the border into Belgium where they will cycle the majority of the bike leg.  At least I can not only say that I have cycled the Cauberg but that I did it twice as part of the 184 km bike leg of an Ironman.

Ironman Maastricht Run Leg – 42.2 km

42.2 km marathon run course, Maastricht Ironman, Netherlands

The run was the part of the race that I had been worried about in the months leading into this race.  I have a recurring issue with Plantar Fasciitis in my feet which always flares up when I train intensively.  When I got off the bike I genuinely did not know whether I would finish the Ironman or have to drop out.  My plan to deal with the pain on the run was  fairly stupid but would be the only way for me to have any chance of getting around the course – ibuprofen.   The recommended dosage per day is around 1200 – 1600 mg per day.  However, for patients with severe conditions like osteoarthritis then the maximum dosage was 3200 mg.  So this was the limit that I had set myself for the run which was 16 x 200 mg tablets.  

I had never completed a marathon at the end of a triathlon before but I have previously completed just a full marathon in under 4 hours;  so in a full Ironman I thought the run would be nearer to 5 hours and with my injury I had set a target of around 6.  This meant that I could take 1 ibuprofen every 30 minutes to subdue the pain.  Mad I know but it was now or never as I would not have enough time to allow my foot to recover and then to get the necessary training completed before I set off on my world bike ride.

With my personal race clock ticking to just under 8 hours I set off from transition determined to cover the 42.2 km run even if I had to walk the course.  The run was three loops of 14 km with each loop virtually crossing the finish line in the very centre of Maastricht. This meant “running” on cobbles for over 2km on each lap which was very painful, but the most torturous part of the run was seeing others crossing the finish line whilst I knew that I had another few hours of running ahead of me.

Out on the run course - 42.2 km marathon - 5 hours 23 mins

The run really was hell on earth,  an agonising nightmare that didn’t seem to want to end.  I knew I was in trouble straight away as I left transition as even before I had completed the first km I had to take another ibuprofen to dull the pain in my foot.  My pace was somewhere around the 7 mins per km mark and slowing.   The aid stations were set about 2 km apart and so my plan now was to just try and run between each one and then walk through the aid station.  

The aid stations really were a smorgasbord of a feast.  You have energy gels, bananas, oranges, a few varieties of cake, energy drinks, coke, water and sweets.  I knew from previous races that I would not be hungry or thirsty and that it was important that I made myself take on the nutrition and fluids that I needed to sustain me through the 27 degree heat and 42.2 km without bonking.

The only real hill on the course came at the 4km mark and was aptly named ‘The Hell of St Petersberg”.  It was somewhere between 4-6% but thankfully not too long.  We then headed out of Maasticht through the suburbs and continued to the turn around point.  The crowds on the course were amazing and each different neighbourhood I ran through had a party on the go – live music, a beer tent and a bbq.  The locals really had turned out in force to applaud and cheer along the route.  Seeing as this was the inaugural event then the locals really did put on a great show.  The 3 loop course meant that the crowds were fairly condensed, and by the third lap I knew where the lively cheering groups would be which definitely helped me to pick up my pace.

By the start of the second lap I was still popping ibuprofen and the pain in my foot was not showing any signs of subsiding.  My pace had dropped towards 9 mins per km as I was forced to run for a bit and then walk for a short distance.  All thoughts of a sub 12 hour finish time had gone out of the window which seemed to actually help as I was not under any pressure and not watching my watch and pushing each km.

I went through the half marathon distance in under 2 hours 30 which I was ecstatic with.   I now knew that I would make the finish line and so was just trotting along enjoying the atmosphere.  The final lap came and I entered into countdown mode – only 11, 10, 9km to go… I’ve run 8km so many times, 5 km left which is just my normal Tuesday brick run etc.  Towards the end I was probably walking more than running as both of my legs were cramping badly.  I was then on the cobbled section and knew that it was 2 km to the finish.  It was just after 8pm and the restaurants were full; as with most European cities diners were eating al fresco on the pavements and without fail I would get a round of applause as I ran past each restaurant.

Crowds lining the finish chute to cheer home the finishersThe finish line was in the main square and the crowds were still ringing their cowbells and waiting for their loved ones to finish the race.  My feelings as I entered the finish chute were a mix of ecstasy knowing that all the effort that I had put into getting to the start line had been worth it and relief that the end was only a matter of metres away. I snaked my way down the IM red carpet receiving high fives from the crowd and finally crossed the line in a run time of 5 hours and 23 minutes.

A real sense of both relief and ecstasy as I ran down the finishing chute

I was so happy as I took in the applause from the crowds

After 13 hours 28 minutes and 28 seconds I was an IronmanThis was easily the hardest single thing that I have ever completed.  Prior to this race I had finished a couple of half Ironman races in Norway and Vietnam but there is absolutely no comparison with the level of effort and mental strength that it takes to complete a 3.8 km swim, 184 km ride and then finish with a full marathon 42.2 km run.

Ironman Maastricht Triathlon Results

Time per legAverage speed
Leg 1 - 3.8 km swim1 hour 26 mins2 mins 16 / 100m
Transition 19 mins 10 sec
Leg 2 - 184 km bike6 hours 25 mins28.3 km/h
Transition 26 mins 40 secs
Leg 3 - 42.2 km run5 hours 23 mins7 mins 40 / km
Total time (inc transition)13 hour 32 mins

When I began training six months prior to this was my aim was to finish with a sub 12 hour time.  With the injury to my foot this had reverted to getting to the finish line in one piece, which I had duly done with the help of 14 ibuprofen.  My final time was 13 hours and 32 minutes, I had started the race at 7 am in the morning and had finally crossed the finish line at just after 8.30 pm in the evening.

A mind boggling crazy day which I look back on with so many happy memories.  If you had asked me a few days or weeks after I had crossed the finish line whether I would do another one I would probably have told you to f*** off.  Sat here now in the comfort of my house typing up this review I am actually considering doing another one after I have completed my round the world cycle.

Challenge 4 – Olympic Triathlon Location: Cheltenham, UK – 17th April  2016

After finishing the Ironman race in Maastricht it was definitely time to have a holiday and take a complete break from training to give my body a well earned rest.  A couple of days after the race I flew to Ireland to join my wife and her family in Dingle, in County Kerry.  Every year most of her family – aunties, uncles and cousins – descend here en-mass for one large family holiday.

The Dingle Peninsula protrudes from the southeast of Ireland and is immediately above its more famous neighbour – the Ring of Kerry.  It runs 60 km from Tralee to Slea Head, the point in Europe that is closest to North America.  Its highest peak is Mount Brandon, which at just over 100m is the country’s second tallest mountain.  In the summer tourists descend on the area and some of the most noteworthy stops on a tour of the Peninsula include the village of Inch, which has a glorious beach, the now uninhabited Blasket Islands, and the Gaelic-speaking Ballydavid and Ballyferriter.

If you ever get the chance to visit this area I would highly recommend seeing the views from a saddle rather than out of a car window as it really is a spectacular cycle ride.  You may need to plan your route carefully though as some of the road signs can be a bit confusing:

Looks a bit Irish to me...

Dingle really is a picturesque town where the pace of life seems unaffected by the rest of the world and with over 50 pubs you are never short on a choice of where to while away the evenings.  After a couple of weeks complete relaxation and over indulgence it was time to fly back to Vietnam to go back to work.

Just one of the 55 or so pubs in Dingle Town, County Kerry, Ireland

I knew from experience that I would need to give my body a rest as I had been completing around 15 hours of hard training a week for the last 6 months, and so the plan was that I would take a few weeks off.  The Maastricht Ironman was on the 2nd of August.  The couple of weeks off training expanded to a couple of months as my foot had still not recovered and so I was unable to run.  Towards the end of September I decided that so as to not totally lose the the fitness that I had gained from completing the sprint, half and full Ironman races that I would enter a pure cycling race.  I found a race in Rayong, Eastern Thailand that I could get to over a weekend and so my new goal was  – no swimming, no running and just instead too concentrate on cycling

The race was held on the 8th of November 2015.  This gave me a full 7 weeks of training to prepare which would be enough time to get my race face on, but after a couple of months of doing absolutely nothing it would still leave me under cooked come race day.

On the 5th of November I flew to Bangkok and hired a car to drive the 100 km to Rayong.  Despite having lived in Asia for the past 5 years this was my first experience of driving a car.  In Vietnam, I own two motorbikes and wherever I go on holiday I normally just hire a motorbike, or for extended holidays a car with a driver.  When I first cycled through this part of Thailand in the 1990’s it was a very dusty affair as they were busy putting in the start of the current road infrastructure.  Back then if you were overtaken by a truck you would have to stop to avoid chocking on the plumes of dust given off.  Today, the roads are wide, smooth and fast.  Not always a good combination where driving standards tend to be adhoc at best.

The cycle race was a 150 km loop which started in Rayong and headed through Chanthaburi towards the border with Cambodia before returning back to Rayong.

Getting the bike tuned up prior to the 150 km bike race, Rayong, Thailand

Having mainly completed cycle legs as part of triathlon races I really enjoy the thrill I get at the start of pure cycling race.  I knew that I could leave everything out on the course as I did not have to get off the bike and complete a run.  Instead,  after crossing the finish line I could just rack the bike and enjoy a few beers.

At the start line, Rayong, Thailand

The race was held on ‘closed’ roads and the route followed the coast line.  In my race category there were around 150 riders and the race started with a neutral first 5km before the field reformed for the proper race start.  The race was very well organised with all junctions manned by either the police or military.  Aid stations staffed by volunteers and were located every 30 km or so.  

There were a few crashes on the out leg which mainly happened at junctions where the peloton concertinaed and then surged.  The other main issue in the initial opening 30 km’s was that the peloton was very disorganised with many riders failing to hold their line and drifting randomly across the road.  The main peloton rolled along together for the first 50 km with all attempted breakaways covered.  

The 50 km mark was the point we entered the hilly section and I knew these were coming as all of the teams in the race formed up towards the front of the peloton.  This was where they all seemed to have had the same idea and would try to break away.  Although, I knew what was planned there was little I could do but hold on as the speed was upwards of 60kmph as we hit the base of the first climb.  As predicted the peloton fell apart and the main teams and semi pros in the race rapidly opened a large gap as they broke away.  

After 15km of short sharp inclines and rapid descents the hills were behind us and we joined the coastal road back to Rayong.  By now, I was riding with a group of about 10 riders and gradually over the next 15km this group expanded as we caught riders in front of us, who did not have the legs to keep with the leading bunch, and riders from behind us caught up.  With about 35 km to go the bunch I was riding with had grown to about 50 riders and the pace was once again picking up as we were rolling along upwards of 40 kmph.  The closer we got to the finish the faster the pace was cranked up.  

The heat and lack of training finally caught up with me and with about 15km to go I could not hold the pace and got dropped by the main bunch and eventually rolled home with a group of about 6 riders. By now the weather was brutally hot and one of the Thai riders that I had been cycling with for the entire race had his front tyre literally explode 5 km from the finish. 

As I said earlier, the part that I think I enjoyed the most about the whole race was that when I crossed the finish line on the bike I did not have to go for a run.  Instead, I could join the other riders on the beach for a cold beer which was so refreshing.  My finish time was just under 4 and a half hours which put my time for the 150 km at 1 min 47 secs / km with an average speed of over 34 kmph.  I was more than happy with this.

I found that when I got back to Ho Chi Minh City after this race I was both mentally and physically over all of the early morning training sessions and dealing with the smothering heat and humidity.  I decided to take a couple of months off from training and so apart from the race in Rayong I did no exercise whatsoever for the whole of November and December.  Instead, I got back to normal life and enjoyed being able to have a beer after work and go out at weekends without worrying about having to get up at 4am to train.

By the January of 2016, I had gained over a stone in weight and was ready to get back in training. It was time to get back on with finishing my challenge and getting race fit for the final part which was the Olympic triathlon.  The race that I had identified to compete in was located in Penang, Malaysia on the 17th of April.  This would put me 7 days inside my 12 month time frame for completing all 4 main triathlon race distances.  

As with some of the other races that I had originally planned on completing this race plan did not pan out.  Instead, in April I found myself back in the UK as I needed to fly home to decorate one of the houses that I rent out.  If you have managed to read through all of this thread from the beginning you will know that April in the UK is the very start of the triathlon season, and so virtually all triathlon races at this time of year are sprint triathlons with pool based swims.  

As I could not find an official triathlon race to enter I instead planned to complete my challenge by creating my own Olympic distance course – a 1.5km openwater swim at Cotswold Country Park near Cirencester, which was about 20km from my house.  The transitions for the 40km bike and 10 km run would be from the back of my car in the car park.  In preparation, I had flown my wetsuit back to the uk with me knowing that the the water temperatures were still a tad chilly in spring.

There is nothing quite like the thrill of an open water swim

Once again though, unseen forces seemed to conspire against me and as the saying goes ‘the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry’.   On the Sunday morning I woke to an artic front that was sweeping its way across Britain from the north.  When I went outside to load the car the windscreen was completely frozen and the air temperature well below freezing.  Even though I had a wetsuit with me an open water swim was definitely out of the question given the temperature.  Instead, I drove to the swimming baths in Cheltenham where I knew that they had lane swimming between 7am and 9am.  So, this would be the new venue for the final leg of my challenge.  Not quite as beautiful, or perhaps as memorable, as an open water swim but after a few months of not competing in triathlons it was going to be fun non the less

As I had not planned to be completing the 1.5 km swim leg at Pitville Leisure Centre I had not completed a reckee for a suitable bike and run course.  As I had grown up in the area what I decided to do was to set off on each leg and just complete the distances using the gps on my garmin watch – I would complete 20km and 5km respectively and then turn to retrace the exact route back to make up the 40km cycle and 10km run distance. 

The swimming pool at Cheltenham is an indoor 33m pool, and for lane swimming the pool is ‘roped off’ into 3 slower lanes and 1 fast lane.  Each of these lanes are 4 or 5m wide which allows plenty of room down the centre of each lane for overtaking where required.  Instead of completing a 1500m swim, which is the official distance for an olympic triathlon I wanted to swim 1900m as when I returned to Vietnam I had already registered to repeat the half Ironman event that I had completed the previous year in Da Nang as part of this challenge.  The swim was completed without any difficulties and I came out of the pool in 40 mins 07 secs which was 2 mins 06 / 100m.

It was then time to get out on the bike.  I knew that it would be cooler than cycling in the tropics but I was not expecting sub zero temperatures.  I set off on the bike with the plan of cycling on the main roads in the general direction of Evesham and then turning once I had gone 20km.  I set off at my normal pace and as traffic was light I did not get held up.  After about 20 minutes on the bike I could not feel my hands or feet and my cheeks were frozen.  Not having leggings or a long sleeve top was definitely not the best decision.  

I had cycled to nearly the outskirts of Evesham when my Garmin ticked over to the 20km mark and then it was time to retrace my steps back to the swimming pool.  What really surprised me was the road conditions; not only were there lots of potholes and cracks but the actual surface was surprisingly rough.  In Asia where you do not get ice or cold weather the roads are smooth and slick which means there is much less rolling resistance.  In the Uk , where they tend to get lots of rain and freezing temperatures in winter then the road surface needs to provide more ‘grip’ , and so for the top layer of roads they mix coarse stones with the tarmac.  This really does ramp up the rolling resistance and affects the effort that you have to put in to cover the same distance.  Anyway, at least my legs were spinning like little hamsters on a wheel to keep me warm.

By the time I got back to the swimming pool I was frozen but I was thankful that the ride was over.  I think that the cold weather was reflected in my time as at just over 1 hour 20 minutes with an overage speed of 29.8km/h I can’t remember the last time that I cycled that slowly over a 40km distance.  My normal pace over this distance is more like 35 km/h which would be at least 10 minutes faster.

It was now to get out on the run.  This is where the cold conditions were appreciated.  The run after coming off the bike is always hard but after training in the tropics it really did seem like a breeze; there was no losing over 2kg of weight in sweat, no need for salt tabs, no real loss of cadence or heavy legs towards the end of the run, no wanting to walk – just a nice run out towards Cheltenham race track and back.  I even joined a couple of brothers who were out running near the turn point and explained how amazing it was to run in the cold weather;  on reflection I’m sure they just thought I was a bit weird.  My aim going into the run leg had been to complete it in a sub 5 mins 30 sec per  km pace and by completing the 10km run in just under 54 minutes I successfully achieved this aim. 

When I crossed the imaginary finish line I gave myself a small cheer as not only had I just completed the Olympic triathlon but I had also finished my own personal challenge of completing all four triathlon distances within a 12 month period – a sprint, an olympic, a half Ironman 70.3 and, the mother of them all, a full distance Ironman.  

The aim of this challenge was to ultimately improve upon my own levels of fitness and endurance in order to really enjoy every precious day of the time that I had been given to complete my 25000 km round the world cycle ride. Having trained hard and completed the 4 triathlon distances I now felt more than ready for the 4th of July departure.

Having completed the challenge and given myself a final pat on the back it was time to get changed and head into town to meet friends and go for an all you can eat Chinese buffet.  Does life really get any better…..

Thank you for taking the time to read about my fitness adventures and if you have managed to stay with me and have read through the whole of my efforts to get fit then I applaud both your tenacity and dedication.  Now that you have reached the end, hopefully without losing the will to live, you may even want to find out what I get up to once I start my world cycle in July.  If so, then please add your email address to the form at the foot of this page and once a week we can virtually ‘share’ breakfast or lunch together as my blog updates get sent direct to your inbox.

One thought on “Getting Fit

  • July 30, 2017 at 5:16 pm
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    Hi Stew, I enjoyed your report of the Maastricht race but was a little surprised to see two of my photographs that have come from my website, including one which now has your watermark on it! I’m happy if you leave the photos up but can you please remove your watermark and correctly attribute the photo source? Thanks

    Reply

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