Dispatch: The Final Baker’s Dozen From Phuket

Holly Bennett writes about race No. 13 of her ambitious 2013 race schedule.

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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.

Back in January when I concocted a plan of racing once a month, plus one, throughout 2013, I had a wish list of potential races to reach that tally — and Challenge Laguna Phuket figured prominently. I’d raced in Phuket previously, in 2010 when the race was under the Ironman 70.3 banner, and it fast became my favorite half-distance event. Racing in Laguna Phuket is a blend of everything that makes long-course triathlon a legendary life experience — the paradisiacal destination, the people (those sharing the course, on the sidelines and behind the scenes) that are drawn to visit, work and live in such a special location and the merciless course itself, wherein only the most tenacious athletes prevail. I kept my fingers crossed that I’d be invited back, and sure enough, a few months ago the invitation arrived. I had a little fist-bump celebration with myself, knowing it would be the perfect place to wrap up 12 months of racing in sweat-drenched, stalwart style.

While my first few days in Phuket — during the lead up to the Laguna Phuket Triathlon, one week prior to Challenge — were plastered with rain and wind, the week leading into Challenge Laguna Phuket was primarily sunny, with afternoon thunderstorms rolling in for only an hour or so each day. The race day forecast promised to be the hottest yet, and for once the Weather Channel was right; temperatures reached 90, the sun blazed and the humidity was extra high because of all the recent rain. I’d raced in Asia a handful of times previously but always with slightly overcast skies; finally it seemed I was in for a doozy of a sweltering day, and I couldn’t have been more excited about it.

At the warm up for the swim start, Emmy-award-winning television producer Peter Henning turned his camera on me, asking what I was looking forward to the most that day. “Everything!” I gushed, “Because whatever happens, whether there’s rain or heat or whatever awaits out there, this race is guaranteed to be an adventure.” Really, that’s the reason I race, and the reason I’m particularly fond of far-flung venues. No matter how well or how poorly I might perform, the experience element is what makes events like Challenge Laguna Phuket extra special. The adventure can be scary for sure, but embracing that fear and swimming off into the unknown makes me feel more alert than ever to life. It’s downright awesome.

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Don’t get me wrong, though: I was in it for the experience but I also wanted to race well. In fact, after reaching the podium in the prior weekend’s race and earning one of Laguna Phuket’s iconic elephant trophies, I was privately determined to double my winnings and bring home a pair of mini mastodons. I had learned from the first race that staying strong, steady and slightly in control was the key to a successful race in Asia, where every element of the environmental conditions and the pain and suffering of competition is magnified far more so than in temperate regions. And I knew this would especially hold true in the longer distance I was about to tackle. Keeping my wits about me and making wise decisions on the go would prove critical if I had any hope of earning another podium spot.

The Swim

The swim went much like most of my triathlon swims — slow. But no matter — I always consider the swim as a warm up for the rest of the day, and the further back I emerge the more rabbits I can try to chase down on the road ahead. Once onto the bike I could already feel the temperature climbing. Every inch of my body was drenched in sweat and it stayed that way all day. Droplets formed like a beard at the bottom of my chin, splashing off as I rocked in slow motion to and fro up each climb.

The Bike

On the first short ascent I wondered if something was wrong with my bike because it seemed oddly sluggish. But the race mechanics had tuned my machine mid-week and I knew it was mechanically sound. It was the legs attached to my bike that were lacking oomph, fatigued from the prior week’s effort. So that’s what back-to-back racing feels like! I knew if the first hill hurt I’d surely lack finesse on the remaining harder climbs, but I was determined to try. A number of athletes in Phuket simply stop and walk the minute the road rises, but I hoped to get up each steep hill without dismounting. I knew that would require choosing precisely the right line, as a number of the hills incorporate hairpin turns and require that you tackle them just so — a distinct challenge when the road can be cluttered with other athletes in wobbly-walk mode.

The first truly hard hill hits just after the 40-kilometer mark, and I headed into it with confidence. That is, until I got out of the saddle on one of the steepest sections, lost my momentum, momentarily panicked that I wouldn’t be able to keep pedaling forward, unsuccessfully attempted to unclip my foot and toppled over like a turtle. Yup, I fell up. But it was a lesson learned — aside from the associated ego bruise it doesn’t hurt to crash uphill.

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A bit later in the bike I had a WWJD moment — meaning what would Justin (Granger) do? Pro Justin and his wife Belinda race often in Asia, and we’ve become good pals during many shared adventures overseas. While Belinda is the most outspoken of the pair, Justin tends toward the quiet side — but when he does speak it’s with purpose. I’ve asked him for a fair amount of advice when we’ve raced together (some of his tips are published here), which he doles out with understated wisdom. It occurred to me as I was riding and recalling his tips that he’s sort of a sports sage, a Buddha of bike wisdom if you will. So when I flew over a particularly rough section of road and my freshly filled aero bottle went flying out of its holder and into a jungle ditch, I asked myself: What would Justin do? While contemplating this question I continued to ride several hundred meters ahead. It was a fast, flat section and I had recently passed two women that I thought might be contenders in my age group, so I really didn’t want to turn back and lose any ground. But I also knew I couldn’t afford to miss the drink in that bottle. It’s imperative to take in a steady stream of fluids in such a hot and humid race. I’d already emptied one of the other bottles on my bike and I wasn’t sure whether there was another aid station. I turned back to retrieve the bottle, refusing to let it sting when the women I had passed previously went flying by. I held firm to the belief that smarts would trump speed over the long haul, and steadily regained my pace.

The rest of the bike went relatively well — despite joining the ranks of walkers on the final steep hill, having lost my climbing confidence after my turtle maneuver. I even managed (without falling over) to high-five a handful of school kids who came out to cheer. My bike split was slow but I reminded myself of my smarts vs. sprint strategy, and I had a hunch that if I was slow in the heat I was likely not alone.

The Run

Before I hit T2 I prepped my plan for the half marathon: It’s going to hurt. You won’t feel fast. You’ll probably want to stop. Be prepared and don’t let the dark moments derail you. Step back from them and stay in control. The lows will happen — just keep moving forward as best you can. The highs will happen — make the most of every minute you feel good. And no matter what, don’t look at your watch. Pace is irrelevant at this point. Just try to run faster than everyone else.

It’s hard to describe how the heat and humidity of Asia hits you on the run. The air was thick, soupy and saturated with moisture, and the sun continued to cook along the mostly exposed course. I normally have some pep in my stride post-bike, as running is easily my best discipline, but the run in Phuket is more about survival than anything resembling speed. The low moments were there without doubt, but while I slowed in those spots I didn’t let my lagging pace upset me. I simply kept myself going with self-talk: Don’t go there. You’ll come around. This is your final race of the season (and your favorite), so enjoy it and make it count!

I thought a lot about my triathlete friends who had raced particularly inspiring performances over the past year, and drew on their toughness of character during the roughest patches. I thought about Hillary Biscay, who at that very moment was partway through the three-day challenge of racing (and ultimately winning) the Ultraman World Championship, and I sucked up whatever little pains I was suffering. I doused myself with sponges at every aid station, and I drank more than I ever imagined I could stomach on the go. I swallowed water, sports drink, Coke, Sprite and some sort of neon green fizzy stuff that I didn’t recognize (or like). I took twice as many salt tablets as I’ve ever tried before, and I forced down my GU even though hunger was the furthest thing from my mind. I felt hydrated and fueled — and fat! I thought about an interview I did with a pro prior to Kona, asking about body consciousness, where she talked about making the mistake of trying to hold her race-bloated belly in tight for the camera. My belly felt embarrassingly big, but I didn’t care. I knew that loading up on liquids and electrolytes was my lifeline to the finish and I downed every drop I possibly could. Bottoms up, babe!

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Fortunately for me, the final few miles were a fairly steady high on my running roller coaster. I was able to pick up my pace considerably, surely propelled by the enormous amount of caffeine I’d consumed. I did make a slight backtrack at the 18km mark to give my Rudy Project sunglasses to one of the sweet local boys helping at an aid station, a tradition I started the last time I raced in Phuket. It was simply one small way of saying thanks for welcoming us athletes so warmly to the island.

When I crossed the line and finally saw the clock, I figured I’d surely missed a podium spot; my time was one of the slowest I’ve ever seen over the half distance. I wasn’t about to let myself feel frustrated, though. I’d raced one of my smartest races ever, learning lessons on the fly and keeping my head focused the whole way, so I was absolutely pleased and proud. But as stories swirled around me of other athletes’ slow times, I started to wonder. When the results were posted I couldn’t squash a tiny scream. I’d have to make room in my suitcase for another elephant — I’d finished second!

That’s a wrap on my 2013 Baker’s Dozen project — 13 races ranging from a four-mile run to the full-distance Challenge Penticton, some right down the road at home and others in venues as exotic and exciting as Thailand, Vietnam, Taiwan, Costa Rica, Canada and Germany. Thinking back, it’s been an unbelievable year. Looking forward, I’m excited for what comes next. I’m not yet sure what I’ll tackle in 2014 but whatever I do, adventure will surely play a part.

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