Why South Korea?
A little over a year ago I participated in Ironman Brazil (May 2008), my first Ironman. It was one of my proudest accomplishments and I was very eager to sign up for another within hours of crossing the finish line. I quickly started researching what things I could do to make myself more successful in this sport. The first thing I understood was that the more I read and learned, the more I realized there was to learn.
There is so much more to Iron distance racing than just swimming, biking, and running a lot…It’s a lifestyle. Biking for 6 hours is the easy part believe it or not. Making sure you eat healthy, sleep an average of 8 hours a night, keep injury free stretching/yoga/massage therapy etc, and time management are the real challenges. Not to mention keeping your friends, family, work, and yourself happy and having some kind of social life too.
As I trained for my next Ironman race I had many questions. My friend John Salt, who coached me through my first Ironman, suggested I call his coach Richard Pady to ask him a few questions. It was my original intent to be a self coached athlete but I decided to make the call. After listening to Rich talk about the sport for somewhere around an hour I realized 2 things.
- If I don’t ask him specific questions he will never stop talking….ha sorry Rich!
- He was a plethora of experience and information I would really benefit from.
I signed up for his coaching services and was very eager to start training. At this point I didn’t have any specific race in mind but knew I wanted to be competitive this time. The first Ironman was more about finishing in one piece. I was considering Brazil and a few others. The choice was ultimately made once my girlfriend Taryn moved to Korea to teach English for a year, Ironman Korea here I come.
With some convincing and help from my coworkers, I was fortunate enough to get permission to work remotely overseas for 3 months without having to give up my job. All the pieces were falling into place and all that was left to do was get through 2.5 months of training in Korea. I must admit that I was a little worried about the quality of the training grounds in a country that is 1/10 the size of Ontario and holds 50 million people. It is one of the most densely populated areas on the planet. I was even considering bringing my computrainer so that I could get through on indoor riding if necessary. It put me way over my travel weight limit so I had to leave it behind.
As fate would have it, Korea turned out to be a great training environment. I was lucky enough to come across a group of American soldiers who also do Ironman. They mapped out some detailed rides for me in the surrounding area and helped me get on my way. I also met the local triathlon club in Bundang and they helped me out too. One of the guys speaks pretty good English and welcomed me into their club. I joined them for some open water swims and they even carpooled Taryn, her sister, and I to a race in Samchok about 3 hours away. The food is very healthy and fresh so nutrition is not a problem. The country is made up of 70% mountains, and a series of long rivers with bike and running paths and workout parks along them which is ideal for running.
I did many long rides going up and down mountains which really helped strengthen my legs. Living in London, Ontario you don’t have much in the way of climbing, a 5 minute climb is considered a monster. In Korea you are fortunate to find one that takes less than 20 minutes and can easily find some that take 45 mins or longer if you want to try and conquer them. I did a long course race in Samcheok that was an 80km uphill bike ride. The hills however proved to be a necessary prerequisite to Ironman Korea which has you climbing the base of the volcano Halla-San.
Living and training in Korea has not been without its challenges. From over crowded pools (averaging about 15 people per lane), to crazy hot and humid days, to monsoons and not being able to communicate with the vast majority of the population all presented several problems for me. Overcoming these obstacles all added to the satisfaction of getting the job done.
The Race report – Ironman Korea “the toughest day in sports”
Jeju Island is a volcanic island, dominated by Halla-san (Halla Mountain): a volcano 1,950 metres high. The island is situated approximately 100 kilometers south of the Southern coast of South Korea…that’s a lot of south! Jeju has played host to Ironman Korea for 10 years now. The race was part of the WTC (Ironman) series for 8 years and in 2008 went independent for reasons unknown and irrelevant to my report, the course however remains unchanged.
I flew over to Jeju on Wednesday July 8th, and stayed in the Hyatt hotel situated on the southern coastline of the island right beside Jungmun beach. This is where the swim portion of the race took place. Every morning I would wake up and go look over the cliff to the beach and stare at the ocean. Mid July happens to be the start of monsoon season in Korea and it rained every day. As race day approached I kept my spirits high and hoped for good weather on Sunday. I took it easy and enjoyed kicking back on the beach, explored some of surrounding area, and just enjoyed my time with Taryn. I put in a few short workouts to stay sharp and made sure all of my gear was working perfectly. I got plenty of sleep and waited for Sunday to come.
The race expo was pretty much non existent. There was only something like 3 tents with various products available. Far from what I had experienced in Brazil and I was a little disappointed. I came to the expo expecting to see PowerBar one of Ironman’s major sponsor’s…they weren’t there. This was a big problem as I was relying on using PowerBar gels during the run. A big no no is showing up to an event unprepared. I had to adjust my run nutrition plan. Not a good thing days before the race. I have become well practised in Korea in not getting my way. It’s very hard to negotiate with people when you can’t speak their language. So, I had to accept my situation as I have had to do many times before.
4:30 am Sunday morning I woke up after a good 7hrs of lying in bed. I felt well rested and went over the race plan I had made with Rich while sipping on some coffee. I grabbed my bags and headed over to T1 to get set up. Once everything was in place I headed down to the beach for a quick warm up and had a few laughs with Taryn about the current swimming conditions. The waves were the biggest we had seen yet. I asked a race official if this was going to be a problem and they said no. I have seen many races in Canada get cancelled for conditions far more favorable than this. I must admit though…I really wanted to get out into the water. Most triathletes do not enjoy getting a duathlon thrown on them at the last minute.
The swim consisted of 2 laps. 800m out, a right turn with a 300m parallel swim to the shore, another right turn and another 800m back to shore. Then repeat. It was a blast. The waves were enormous and you had to duck underneath them. Some of the inexperienced swimmers were not aware of this technique and their day was over before it even began. They simply could not make it out past the surf. I was fortunate enough to spot one of the pros Dan Brown from Australia right in front of me and so I jumped on his feet. I have heard time and time again that drafting in the water is the way to go. After swimming behind Dan for a while I realized it was true. I kept bumping into him but struggled to pass him. So I just sat back and enjoyed the ride around lap 1.
The 800m swim back to shore was very interesting. Once you got to about the 300m mark from shore the current pulled so strongly with the waves that you stopped moving. You were simply swimming on the spot. We had to time our strokes with the waves and swim hard at the right time to catch a wave. Then you just body surfed right into shore….trying not to get pushed into the rocks left over from volcanic eruptions on the ocean floor.
I came out of lap 1 in 7th place in 29 and ½ minutes. I jogged around the turn point to start my 2nd lap. Dan managed to catch a wave back to shore just ahead of me so I was alone for the 2nd loop. It was more of the same as the first lap until a big wave knocked the turn around buoy over as I was passing it. It hit me in the head and spun me around. I resumed swimming a little shaken up and promptly realized I was swimming in the wrong direction! I looked around, figured out where I went wrong and got back on track. The only other thing worth mentioning during the swim was the giant jellyfish that were floating around. They were as big as your entire head if not slightly bigger and there were a few smaller ones around too. I was lucky enough to get stung by one of the smaller ones in the neck. Wasn’t so bad but definitely got me moving.
I came out of the water in 7th place after a 1:04:30 swim time and jogged my way up to the 60m hill to T1. I took my time to put on my socks and jumped out on my bike.
The first 70km were amazing. The sun came out for the first time since I had arrived on the island. I did the first 70k in just under 2hrs all the while in Z1/2. It was a very scenic 2hrs along the coastline of the island. Also worth mentioning, as this race is no longer WTC is has less resources available to it. This means basically no marshals on the bike course. I wanted to keep it honest and avoid drafting…others however did not. This happens in every race and I have come to accept it. One guy passed me on the other side of the pylons drafting off a large bus in the designated traffic lane. I was going 45km/h with a tail wind and he must have been going close to 60 and barely pedalling. A few others did similar things. I counted 12 people that passed me during the bike but kept my cool as I had my race plan which didn’t include drafting off of traffic or small pelotons that formed along the way.
Kms 70-150 were annihilating in short. That wonderful 35+km/h wind was now directly in front of us. My speed plummeted to 15km/h and I was working pretty hard. We reached Halla-San and had to climb 400 vertical metres over 20kms with some climbs over 10% grade. But what goes up must come down! After finally getting to the top of the mountain we were in the clouds. It started raining and visibility was limited to around 10-15feet. Great time to be flying down a mountain at speeds near 70km/h. That wind I had mentioned earlier was now a crosswind and riding in the aero position was not an option. You had to hold on for dear life and feather the brakes when a speed wobble would start to pick up momentum….pretty darn scary and a very good workout on the triceps. At the bottom of the mountain at least you could see again. This was really good because there was 3 cows standing in the middle of the road. This race really did have a bit of everything!
The last 15k of the bike were fast again. The wind was back on our tails and cruising towards the T2 was great.
T2 is very cool because it is the Jeju World Cup Stadium. This is where the 2002 FIFA world cup was held and the enormous soccer stadium looms in the background as you approach it. I came off the bike after 5:59:30 and quickly jogged over to the changing tent. I put on some fresh socks and my hat and headed out for the marathon. I had saved some “legs” for the run and was looking forward to it.
The run consists of 3 – 14km loops on the main stretch of road near T2 with a series of rolling hills. 7Kms one way and 7kms back to the World Cup Stadium with 3 noteworthy climbs and 2 smaller ones. Do these hills twice per loop and multiply by 3 laps. This is a lot of hills. The temperature was around 30+ degrees and the humidity was out in full force.
The race just went from challenging to downright nasty. My plan was to run easy and settle into a good rhythm over time. Take a gel every 30 minutes and drink water. Keep it easy and relaxed. As I was exiting the tent I hear someone yell “You are 2 minutes off the leader of your age group”. Great I thought. Things are going really well. I started by running my fastest kilometer of the day in 4:15. About 45 seconds too fast for the first km. I also didn’t have any gels with me as I had planned. I was heading straight towards the unknown.
At the end of the first lap my feet were soaked. I didn’t understand why since it wasn’t raining. Must have been the humidity and my sweat. My feet were blistering already. I stopped at the special needs tent and grabbed my fresh socks, thanks Rich for the advise! At least now my feet were dry again.
After sipping on my bike nutrition for the first 15km and running fairly well I started to get tired. How can I be tired after only 15k I was thinking? My stomach wasn’t enjoying the drink any longer and I was slowing down big time. I was even hearing the little voice saying “what are you doing man?…stop already”. At km 18 things were now mission critical. I was using all my will power to keep running to planned pace. I decided my 3:30 marathon was 0% chance of happening as I was feeling faint. I threw away my bottle and stopped at the aid station. I submerged my head in the bucket of ice water as most people were doing and stretched my legs. I drank coke, water, and ate a banana. I did a light shuffle for the next 3 kms and started to feel a bit better. Once again however my feet were drenched. I was being careful not to get water on them…but to no avail. I was out of socks now too.
Jan Rehula, who ended up winning the day, was on his final lap here and was moving at a good pace. I gave him the thumbs up and continued along. I ran the 2nd lap pretty slowly. Stopping at every aid station along the way to submerge my head in the icy water which was really now my strategy. Keep moving and you get to dunk your head! Keep shuffling and don’t walk. I have never seen so many athletes walking in my life. Cameron Watt was walking, Dan Brown was walking (both pros) and 75% of the field was moving slow enough to be considered walking. I refused to walk because I feared I wouldn’t be able to start running again. I kept my shuffle going and kept looking forward to the aid stations. My blisters were now aching with every step.
The last lap:
The only reason I was able to complete this lap was because it was the last lap! I kept saying to myself. “You NEVER have to step on this piece of pavement again!” with each step I got closer to the finish. The first 7k of this lap I continued to stop at the aid stations and drink whatever I felt I needed at the time. All strategy was out the window. This was a test of will power now. Dunk your head and start moving again. I no longer saw Cameron Watt walking as he was forced to DNF. I passed Dan Brown as he was walking and asked him to join me in my shuffle for motivation. He was cramping and had to decline.
At the turn around I made myself a deal. I would continue to trot along until the end….no stopping no matter what. I didn’t even stop for the ice baths as I was having to much trouble getting going again. I would grab a sponge at the aid station and take it along with me.
The first place female, Jocelyn Wong (Team TBB), was closing the gap on me and at 38k she passed me smiling ear to ear. There was no way I could keep up with her so I wished her luck and thought about personal motivation. Such as people I knew who finished races in bad shape and ended up in the medical tents but still pushed on through. I never understood how someone could go wrong during a race and need medical attention. I figured that if you knew what you were doing you would be ok. This is not always the case. Sometimes things don’t go your way and all you can do it persevere. I now have a new respect for all the DNFs and people who ended up in the medical tents. I wanted to finish more than ever. I saw the sign for 39k and got excited…I also got dizzy. Uh oh I thought. I have never felt this way before…..don’t care! Keep moving. Finally at the 2km mark I got really excited and was to move at a speed considered jogging again.
With 1km to go I started running as fast I could muster. Once I saw the finish strip I slowed down and enjoyed my run to the finish.
Micheal, the English announcer was away when I was approaching the finish so the Korean announcer had to take over. She never got my name quite right but it didn’t matter. I couldn’t hear her anyways. I was done! 11Hrs 23 minutes and 22 seconds.
Ironman Jeju really was “the toughest day in sports” as far as I’m concerned. I learned some very valuable lessons and a lot about myself. Once I crossed the line I was instantly mangled. I wobbled over to the massage tent with Taryn supporting most of my weight. I crashed on the floor and literally could not move. I was awake but felt like I was made of led. All I managed to say to Taryn was “I need salt”. She put some pringles in front of me and a 6 pack of chocolate milk. I love this lady I thought!
30 minutes later I was recovered enough to get up and walk around and shake hands with everyone I suffered with throughout the day. Took some pictures and had many laughs. All things considered…this was my greatest accomplishment to date and I was proud.
Initially I was disappointed in my marathon of 4:13:15, it turned out to be the fastest of the day in my age group and 22nd fastest run overall. Everyone felt the wrath of the course that day.
Jan Rehula, the winner and bronze medallist of the Sydney Olympics, ran a 3:25. My goal of running a 3:30 was not taking into consideration all the variables that went into the day.
I ended up finishing first in my age group by a margin of 40 minutes and 13th place overall of 575 competitors. I received 2 prizes. 1st in my age group and fastest non-pro foreigner. I walked away with 2 trophies, 2 certificates, and 300 bucks. Not too shabby!
In closing I just want to say thank you very much to everyone who has helped with their support and generosity. This year I wanted to give back to the community somehow and chose Rich’s charity Race 4 Kids as a means of doing so. These little guys have to battle cancer and next to them what I did was a stroll through the park. Thinking of them keeps you pushing through those last ridiculous ks of the run. More than $32,000 has been raised for POGO by Rich’s 2009 Ironman athletes. So thank you very much for donating and making a difference in their lives.
Thank you to my family, friends, coworkers and my coach who helped pave the road for me to follow, and a special thank you to my girlfriend Taryn who has been very supportive of me through all of the training, for waking up at 4:30am with me and for cheering me on for 11+ hours on race day. I am very fortunate to be surrounded by such a great group of people and look forward to seeing you all again when I return back home.
Kombe (cheers) from South Korea!