Dispatch: The Baker’s Dozen–A 20-Year Tradition In Thailand

Dispatch columnist Holly Bennett writes about her 12th race in her 2013 Baker's Dozen series.

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“Dispatch” is an online column from Triathlete Editor-at-Large Holly Bennett that features pro updates, industry news, happenings afield and otherwise random reports related to multi-sport. Look for “Dispatch” every Thursday on Triathlete.com. Look back on the other “Baker’s Dozen” entries from Bennett.

When I received a media invitation to cover and race the inaugural Challenge Laguna Phuket on Dec. 1, I was thrilled. I competed in Phuket two years ago (when the event was on the 70.3 circuit), and it’s remained my all-time favorite half iron-distance race. The last time I traveled to Phuket, I arrived on the Sunday prior to the half, just as the final finishers of the Laguna Phuket Triathlon (a slightly shorter 1.8-kilometer swim, 55-kilometer bike and 12-kilometer competition that takes place the week prior to the half) were crossing the line. Later that evening, at the awards banquet, I learned that many athletes compete in both races, which seemed a little crazy. And a whole lot awesome. I wanted in.

I wanted to know what it would feel like to race back-to-back weekends on a seriously tough, hot and humid course. I wanted to be a part of LPT’s 20th anniversary event. And the 2013 race dates happened to fall the last weekend of November and the first weekend of December, meaning I could use the Asian racing adventure to tick the final two boxes of my 2013 Baker’s Dozen project (wherein I’ve raced at least once each month, plus one, throughout the year).

Leaving snowy Boulder behind, I hopped the long-haul flight to Thailand, eager for some Southeast Asia sunshine. Instead I arrived to rainy conditions, which worsened daily as the race drew near. On Saturday, the weather downright sucked–the pouring rain and gusting wind seemed unlikely to pass by morning, making all the athletes fearful of the saturated roads. I had a handful of panic attacks imagining the slippery climbs and descents and wondering whether I’d even survive. But sure enough, I also had my usual pre-race pep-talk-to-self, the one that goes something like this:

You didn’t come here because you lack a sense of adventure! In Asia, more than anywhere, it seems adverse conditions are thrown smack in your face. You just have to roll with it. Embrace the elements and embrace the challenge. (i.e. Suck it up!)

By race morning I was prepared for the worst, yet pleasantly surprised when Mother Nature stopped messing with my psyche and delivered rapidly clearing skies. My first dunk in the Andaman Sea (where two-thirds of the swim takes place) cemented the smile on my face. The water was blissfully warm and buoyant, and there was just enough swell to keep things interesting. Yet again I was reminded of my incredible good fortune for having the chance to race in a far-flung paradise, propelled by my love of gritty, gorgeous experiences. It was game on!

Upon exiting the sea, I ran up and over the deep sand berm to the second swim segment–a fresh water lagoon leading to the transition area. Swimming in the lagoon is a stark contrast to the azure salt water–athletes emerge looking like swamp creatures covered in wet weeds, adding visual punch to the race’s adventurous appeal.

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Even though I chose not to pre-ride the bike course, I felt in familiar territory straight away–the two-year time lapse washed away as I pedaled roads I’d practiced and raced on during my first trip to Phuket. I felt very much at home, despite the still-saturated pavement and the flip-flop logic of cycling in the left lane and passing to the right. The course’s killer climbs come within the first 10 kilometers, and I was thrilled to get through them all without once having to dismount (a majority of athletes walked the hills, halted either by fear or by front wheel spin out). I simply kept telling myself: Keep your body weight down, keep your momentum up–because the moment you raise one or drop the other, you’re in real trouble. Descending was a comical exercise in white-knuckled cowardice–I’d be surprised if I clocked anything faster than 5 mph. But my caution kept me safe, and once I was past the Nai Thon Beach hills I let myself breathe a little easier, knowing it would be smooth going all the way to T2.

Onto the run course and into the mud! I sloshed my way through the initial off-road section, gathering a few tiny rocks right inside the tops of my shoes. The rocks were quite irritating, but I consciously ignored them–it seemed like a wimpy worry, and I was focused on staying tough. Only after I finished would I realize the rocks had rubbed the skin raw around my ankles, a stinging pain I’m sure I’ll relive with every step of next weekend’s race.

The two-loop run course was a steam bath of post-storm humidity–I couldn’t swallow fluids and grab fistfuls of sponges fast enough. I took in what I could at every single aid station, and while I didn’t feel I was running particularly fast, smart and steady seemed to prevail and I ended up on the podium in my age group.

More important than my time splits, though, are the fresh batch of memories that make the Laguna Phuket Triathlon a bucket list adventure I’d recommend to any triathlete. There was the monk in bright orange robes strolling one section of the bike course; the requisite water buffalo, dogs and scooters by the dozen–all thankfully keeping a safe distance; the massive number of well-versed volunteers; the large groups of local school kids cheering at the top of their lungs; the ocean vistas, rubber plantations, vibrant village markets and jungly back roads that all contribute to the course’s iconic scenery; the pair of elephants passed in the final stretch of the run; the fabulous spread of Thai food at the finish; the elephant sculpture trophy that I’ll forever cherish–these are just a few of the reasons that–although I have yet to feel the full pain of my back-to-back racing plan–I’m already hopeful I’ll return for many years to come to Laguna Phuket.

Read about Bennett’s other “Baker’s Dozen” races.

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