Dispatch: Lessons From Laguna Lang Co

Dispatch columnist Holly Bennett writes about the lessons she learned on her way to an age-group win at the Laguna Lang Co. Triathlon.

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Last weekend I had the good fortune of racing the Laguna Lang Co Vietnam Airlines Triathlon, a second-year race in a stunning beachfront location in central Vietnam. The distances were not too daunting–a 1.8-km swim, 62-km bike and 12-km run–but as I haven’t had much time or focus to dedicate to training, I really didn’t know how my race would unfold. The day turned out to be a good one for me (as evidenced by the first place trophy I tucked into my suitcase), and looking back I’ve culled a few lessons learned on course that I’ll be sure to apply to future events. Perhaps they’ll help you, too.

Go with the good feelings.
Not every moment in every race will feel fabulous. But on the flip side, certain moments surely will. Focus on those, and let those good feelings fuel you through the rough patches. The swim in any triathlon is normally my weak spot, but in Lang Co I felt great from the get-go. For one, it was hard to feel otherwise with a glorious sunrise dawning over the pleasantly chilled East Sea–a refreshing feeling that I recalled later during the mounting heat on the run. And, contrary to my usual swim struggles, I swam OK. My time wasn’t super fast, but I felt steady and smooth and stretched out. I even felt like I was swimming straight, a sharp contrast to my frequent tendency to stroke off course. So I focused on feeling good, which inevitably kept me swimming strong in the moment and set me up with a positive mental platform for the bike and run ahead.

Play into the pressure.
When I hit T1, a video camera and microphone were suddenly in my face. I was being filmed by none other than the man, the myth, the legend of triathlon lore, Emmy award-winning producer Peter Henning. Peter was on hand to produce a television program for the Vietnam race, featuring the world-class field of pro athletes and other persons of interest, of which apparently I was one. Let me tell you, nothing inspires you to make a quick and clean transition more than having your every movement filmed. Even my feet got a close-up cameo as I slipped on my Sidi cycling shoes (thank goodness I took time for a pre-race pedicure). I didn’t know whether the cameras would pop up again on the bike or run course, or whether they’d be all-consumed with the pro race, but I’ll admit I was motivated to push a little harder just in case. Obviously, Peter and his camera crew can’t follow each of us to every race, but other special spectators can. Be sure to encourage your own flock of followers to watch you compete–family members, friends, co-workers, romantic interests or anyone else you hope to impress. Knowing that they’re watching will surely add an extra spring to your step.

Latch onto the light moments.
With every race, there are moments that stick with you long after you reach the finish. These are the fleeting images of local life you catch along the course and the gestures of kindness from spectators and volunteers. And while they provide the memories that make each race in your triathlon history unique, they’re also important in the present as moments of lightness and levity to lessen the race day pain. In Lang Co, the images I latched onto were numerous. There was the unspoiled beauty of the bike course’s circuit around Lap An Lagoon­–a glimpse of what I imagine to be authentic old Vietnam. There was the water buffalo herdsman, tending to his beasts and waving me on with a bright toothless grin, a trucker hat emblazoned with the letters “FBI” perched atop his head. And there were the hundreds and hundreds of happy schoolchildren, screaming cheers for the racers and eagerly reaching for high-fives with one hand while wildly waving miniature red and gold flags of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam with the other. The gestures of kindness and caring were also abundant. One small stretch of the bike course goes along the main highway in Lang Co town, a slightly sketchy experience that demands a racer’s total attention, with car, scooter and pedestrian traffic creating potential hazards. When I hit the highway I heard the sound of a scooter behind me. A quick look back confirmed it was actually two scooters, local guys riding side by side and effectively watching my back, protecting me from any traffic that might approach from behind or get close enough to side swipe me. They also yelled warnings to any scooter drivers and pedestrians ahead of me looking to merge into my lane, thus preventing any accidents. Once we turned off the highway I gave them a thumbs up of thanks and they continued on ahead. Shortly after, I hit an aid station where I discarded an empty bottle and declined a new one, as I still had a second bottle for the remainder of the ride. One of my scooter escorts was watching at that aid station, and a quarter mile or so later I heard him pull up beside me. Sure enough, he had followed me with a full cold bottle, fearing that I’d missed taking one by mistake. (For the record, I turned it down with a smile, not wanting to risk an outside assistance penalty–but the gesture was one I’ll not soon forget!)

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Reel in your run in a training race.
When I hit T2 I knew I was leading the five other girls in my age group. Our empty bike rack was a dead giveaway! So I knew I didn’t need to run my fastest possible 12 km–I simply needed to stay in front. If I had been intent on clocking a personal best time in the race, I would have given it my all. But I had a two-fold purpose, totally unrelated to time on the clock. I wanted a solid training session in preparation for a larger race lurking on my calendar (Challenge Taiwan, three weeks later) and–I’m not going to lie–I wanted the age group win. So instead of running hard, I ran strategically. I kept my pace steady, I hydrated and cooled myself with sponges at every opportunity and I kept tabs on the field behind me. On the second loop I saw one of my rivals in a short out and back section–a little too close for comfort. So I picked up the pace, just enough to know that my cushion would hold. The final 3 km were a little uncomfortable, as I was dead set on staying in first, but I was able to absorb that discomfort with relative ease, as I didn’t kill myself in the early kilometers. Plus the steady training run paid off in a second way–my legs were fresh enough to still enjoy the after party that night!

There’s no single formula for racing success.
Everything about my race prep for Lang Co was upside down from what I would normally recommend. I barely had a chance to train before I traveled to Vietnam, nor did I log a single speed session in advance of the relatively short-course race. So tapering was also out. Instead, I rode and ran each of the three days I was on site in the lead up to race day. I didn’t do anything too hard or too long, but I certainly trained more than I would in a “normal” taper week. The drawback was that my legs were not 100 percent fresh on race morning, but the benefit–of feeling three days more fit than when I arrived at the venue–far outweighed that fact. My point being, the “reverse taper” was the right approach for me, for this particular situation. And every situation is unique. So weigh out where you’re at, what you’re capable of (in terms of both fitness and training time) and your race-specific goals and craft the best possible plan for success. It may be a plan that you’ll never repeat, but no matter–simply focus on what you need to do to maximize the moment, here and now.

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