Monday, March 1, 2010

The year I raced amongst IRONMEN

This blog is one year in the making.

The scene was 1 March 2009. We had just finished the 2009 IM, Langkawi the day before and I had injured my foot. So, complete with crunches, Arif and I met a group of other IM finishers at Sunba in Chenang. As we excitedly exchanged our race adventures, the topic turned to feelings we had at the finishing line. Naturally, the common feeling was exhilarating and totally emotional.

Exempt one comment: “I don’t know why, but I feel nothing special or emotionally overwhelming as I cross the finish line. Sure, I’m happy, but it’s just another finish to me.”

That started my one year of understanding this comment.

Over the year, the comment flashed in my memory, especially the day before and after any race I’ve participated. While I’m sure it was a passing remark and one made by a person well deserving the IM title. It still haunted me. Thoughts ranged from “wow.. that was mechanical” to “am I overreacting?” to “maybe it is overrated after all, and only true IM finishers feel like it’s just another day. Newbies have higher tendencies of being exposed to cheap thrills”.

By mid of 2009, I have concluded that perhaps there is a difference between IM finishers and an Ironman. But I toyed with this concept without much substance for the remaining of the year..

..until last Saturday.

Last Saturday, I started and finished my fourth Ironman Langkawi (3rd if you’re anal about timing). And somewhere between 100k and 110k on the bike, the answer to my concept was revealed. It was later confirmed during the run.

To be an IM finisher you must SWIM 3.8k within 2:20, BIKE 180k within 10:30 hours from start, and RUN 42.2k within the 17 hours cut off. In between, there are intermediate cut off times for the bike and the run. Whether you train like mad or train like me (ZERO!!), you are subjected to these race regulations in order to qualify. Your materialistic rewards are a medal, finisher T, a cert and a towel. Whatever the speed, whatever the time, you just have to cross the finishing line within those time zones.

An Ironman, is a different story altogether.

Now, before I start, don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing small about being an IM finisher. It’s a big feat and I admire anyone who’s at the start line regardless of how their race turned out. Like all my other entries, this is just my point of view and sharing of experience.

An Ironman, by my personal definition, is one who understands the spirit of the race.

The spirit of IM that encompasses fear, anxiety, camaraderie, compassion, support and shared glory.. just to name a few.

Because of the race distance, there is only so far your physical body can take you. Once in motion, it becomes automatic and what drives you then, is your determination and mental strength. And while we all have our purchased nutrition to keep our bodies fuelled, we only have one way to truly fuel our determination and mental strength on such distance races.

They are called supporters.

Loved ones, best buddies, strangers. Whoever they may be to you, they are out there because of you. I doubt any of them would choose a hot day of stress, paying to go to race venue just to lose they voice from cheering if they didn’t share the passion… or in this case, understood the spirit of the race.

For example, my bestest friend in the world has never supported me at Langkawi. The closest she came, was 2 hours at Putrajaya Half Ironman last October. Even then, it was only after putting her on a guilt trip for months. She watched me on my bike leg, but didn’t stay till I finished. Do I still love her? SURE! Does she love me? ALWAYS.. but some things, she just doesn’t understand.

So, back to supporters.

I had a relatively hard swim with the strong currents. My minimal training on the bike made the 180k even tougher. This was the year many heroes fell. One by one, news of IM hopefuls calling it a day was communicated to me through supporters doing their rounds. Even more surprising was when I rode one lap with a buddy, only to have him cheer me on during the next lap in a supporter car.

This was also the year of strange requests from me.

After the 100k mark, I checked my timing only to find that my watch had ‘kaput-ed’. Within the next 10k I bumped into Bandit and Arif. Arif had decided to call it a day and good thing he did as the day's temperature checked in at 46 degrees and he could not keep any of his nutrition down. ON TOP OF THAT, water stations have started to run out of water and bottles. One particular station even offered to clean a recycled Gatorade bottle buried in mud and fill it with tap water for me! Horror!

As I approached Bandit, the familiar shouts of “water?! Gatorade?! Food?! What do you need?! What do you need?!” started.

My reply: I need a watch!

Two seconds of silence..

His reply: OK! Take mine.

We exchanged watches, gave Arif my love and went on my way.

I made it back to transition with good time to spare and started on my run, which was of course, more of a walk.

As the evening turned to night, I was getting lonely and still on my second loop. 3 hours had passed and I haven’t completed 16k yet. I was in big trouble of missing cutoff. Even the cheers I got from the side walk wasn’t motivating me enough to move faster.

Crestfallen, tired and feeling defeated I heard a familiar voice.

He said: Did you think I would let you do this alone? I will not leave you now!

I looked to my right and my knight in shining amour beamed. I had met Ishsal on top of Bkt Hantu during my last loop on the bike and was surprised he called it a day and chose to instead hand out a variety of drinks: water, cincau, ice lemon tea. I did not expect him to find me on the run, but was very glad he did.

And so our mission to make me finish the race within cutoff begins. Ishsal provided time calculations while I provided the strength to just plough through and holding back on tears of defeated so it doesn’t stress the situation any further.

As we walked, he motivated and congratulated me on small feats like making the turnaround faster than the estimated time (even when it was only 3 minutes faster!). We passed Arif and his boys at the end of each loop towards SeaView hotel. And although they were sweet to hang around and cheer, I could only muster a wave. Pity I was too slow as his elder decided to call it a night rather than watch the finish line.

Somewhere during the 3rd loop, Ishsal asked if there was anything else I needed.

I replied: A cheeseburger would be nice.

Another familiar two seconds of silence..

His reply: OK! Can!

He made his call to his sayang Zee, and it was all arranged. In less than 30minutes, I had a cheeseburger – hand delivered to me. I have NEVER EVER been treated so royally in any race! Imagine that.. wearing Bandit’s watch and now Zee goes through the challenge of closed roads to get me a cheeseburger!

I slowly ate the cheeseburger in parts and it lasted for the last 20k odd.

As cutoff closed in on us, my mind started playing tricks on me. I asked nonsensical questions like “can I cover 3k in 45 mins?” and “Do you think there’s still people waiting for me at the finishing line?” (this at 200m left and there’s clearly music pumping and crowd cheering.)

Ishsal knew I had lost it but kept his calm. Words like “do it for dad”, “imagine the glory” even “just 4 more milestones – may yi restaurant, the bridge, seaview, finish line”. I repeated after him like a mantra. He kept his comments coming to keep me in focus. Anything and everything just to keep me going.. including pouring bottles of cold water every few minutes in the dead on night!

Zee was no less a great support as she kept Kam company and pulled him through to finish ahead of me. And also accompanying Stupe who was behind me.

This year was the first time I’ve ever walked to the finish line. Stupe had made great time by jogging and caught up with me. In his gentleman way, he gave me a small nudge to let me finish first. However, given the situation and wobbly legs, the nudge almost toppled me!

Crossing the finish line was indeed everything that I had told myself. The proud smile on dad’s face and warm embrace from mom.

As the organizer gave me my materialistic rewards for finishing within cutoff, I only felt one thing: gratitude.

I am grateful that I have friends who share my passion and understand the spirit of the race more than I do, even though they did not race. Friends who go through endless last minute planning and coordination to make sure not only me, but all under their watch on raceday experience the best race they possibly can. And more gallantly, actually make it their personal mission to drag us pass the finish line within cutoff as if there is a silent code of “whatever it takes and no one gets left behind”.

Every year, every race is a new lesson. My lesson this year is there IS a difference between an IM finisher and an Ironman.

An Ironman is a belief, a passion. Whether you finished as an Ironman is irrelevant as long as your heart understood what it takes to be one when the flare went off. Whether you RACED or SUPPORTED is irrelevant as well. Because on either side of the spectrum, you understand the passion and you drive a common goal.

My lesson this year is I am an IM Finisher but I am an IRONMAN because of my IRONMAN SUPPORTERS.
Special Thank yous:
Arif – For bringing the boys out to cheer for me, and doing what you’ve never done before: leaving them unattended in the hotel room to see me after I finish.
Bandit – For your fussing and watch. You are by far my favourite IRONMAN SUPPORTER
Edwin – For sharing your water on the bike
Ishsal – For making sure I finish within cutoff
Mac – For all that you do and so much more. Everything is a plan and you’re the best guy for the job
Shazly – for bringing me Gatorade
Zee – For the cheeseburger! It was a make or break time for me and you made it better!

Abang, Adik, Alisa, AJ, Julie, Nik, Omar, Shiraz, Adeline, Ai leen, Azura, Khun Tip, Abu, Patrick and many more – Thanks for the endless cheer and encouragement, would not have done it without you. :)