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Dispatch: Xie Xie, Challenge Taiwan

Holly Bennett shares her race report from the iron-distance Challenge Taiwan triathlon.

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Holly Bennett shares her race report from the iron-distance Challenge Taiwan triathlon.

I stood at the swim start at Flowing Lake in Taitung, Taiwan and only one thought filled my head: How lucky! I get to do this for the next 12 hours at least! Trust me, that’s the best way to start an iron-distance race–grateful, eager and not too serious.

As you may know from this previous post, I chose to race Challenge Taiwan last-minute, relying on mental strength over physical preparation. I went into the race significantly undertrained, a great benefit of which was avoiding any opportunity for burnout. I had zero expectations aside from finishing, enjoying the experience and staying mentally tough and on track. And best of all, I wasn’t the least bit stressed or nervous. In fact, when I received an email from Linsey Corbin–always one of my greatest cheerleaders–a few days before the race asking how I was feeling, I responded, “I’ve barely even thought about the actual race!” I was excited, of course, but totally relaxed.

Challenge Taiwan was a different experience for me from every other iron-distance adventure I’ve tackled. Sure, the 11th-hour approach seemed a bit #hollycrazy, but it panned out fine (albeit slightly painful in the moment), both in terms of pure enjoyment and my finish time, which was remarkably similar to races I’ve done after months of preparation (I went 12:43 in Taiwan, as compared to my four best iron-distance races ranging from 11:58-12:17). For anyone wanting to know more about my chill build-up to the start line, I’ve included some notes at the end of this article. But first, here’s a recap of what happened once the bamboo canon fired–one of my favorite race days on record.

I’m a pretty slow swimmer and I knew that with my lack of training the 3.8 kilometers would feel long. But I had a secret weapon to sweeten my swim–a brand new Helix wetsuit from BlueSeventy. I’ve never felt so comfortably clad head to toe in rubber–the stretchy suit truly gave me a boost and kept my arms from tiring. I was also buoyed midway through the race by the pro men’s results. I knew they were close to finishing the swim as I rounded the turn into the second lap, thus I treaded water long enough to hear race announcer Whit Raymond confirming that Dylan McNeice had a sizable lead. I was stoked for the defending champion–his talent and humble attitude making him especially deserving of success in my book–so the news gave me extra fire for lap two, as well as a mental note for my pro race report (I was multi-tasking with media duties while on the move).

Like the swim, the bike was two out-and-back laps, so I broke both down into quarters to make them manageable in my mind. I entertained myself by watching the pro athletes’ progress (we passed three times, a prime vantage point that gave me additional content for my post-race report) and sharing cheers of encouragement across the highway. The bike was the one leg of the race I was concerned about, unsure as to how I would handle the full 112 miles, but the out portion of lap number one boded well. If I could keep up that pace, which felt perfectly possible at that point, I’d be on track to PR! But as soon as I had that thought I cautioned myself: Don’t be an idiot. It was early in the day, thus the temperature was cool and the wind had not yet picked up, nor was my body yet fatigued. If I allowed myself ideas of grandeur only a few hours into the race–as I have often done in the past–I’d surely set myself up for disaster and disappointment later on. Forget the time, I told myself. Just focus on the ride.

Sure enough, the wind did pick up, along with the heat, the traffic and the pain in my feet. The sun blared down on me for the rest of the bike, and a headwind on the return laps increased in intensity as the day wore on. The breeze was actually a welcome cooling relief when I turned into it for the final leg back to town–despite my dismal drop to 10-mph pace. That section seemed to last forever! The heightened traffic also impacted my ride. The entire course sports a wide bike/scooter lane, however the road is not closed to traffic and a profusion of tour buses and trucks made it difficult to put my head down and hammer without concern. But even worse than the wind and traffic were the nagging hot spots in my feet. Normally in a longer race my right foot starts hurting like clockwork at mile 80, but here the pain set in around mile 30–surely due to lack of conditioning–and spread to both feet. It hurt to put pressure on my pedals and I tried, without much success, to shift my feet in my shoes and get some relief.

I knew going into the race that the lowest point for me would likely be the last half of the bike (unlike most triathletes, I actually look forward to the marathon but tend to dread the long ride). I knew that’s where I would feel the most stress, both physically and mentally, so I was prepared when the combination of race conditions and excruciating feet made me somewhat cranky. But rather than let the difficulties derail me, I ignored them as best I could and focused on the positives. The views, for one, were astounding, with rugged mountains meeting the sea in postcard-perfect vistas. The volunteers at every aid station and intersection were over-the-top exuberant, and I soaked in their energy and cheers. I rallied my excitement for the run: You get to run a marathon! Start out slowly and build. Try to negative split. Go for it every moment that you feel good. Get through every moment that you don’t. And I savored one small treat that I had packed into my bento box last minute–a stick of spearmint gum that made me feel fully refreshed and happy over the last few miles of the bike (big ups to pro and fellow gum addict Meredith Kessler for that little trick)!

Normally I rush as fast as I can through transitions, but in Taiwan, in part because I had the women’s change tent as an oasis all to myself and in part because I really wasn’t racing, I took my time through both T1 and T2, making sure I was ready for the next leg. In T2 I rolled the balls of my feet around until they started to feel better while securing my SOAS visor and Rudy Project sunglasses on my head and packing my pockets with GU and salt capsules (my usual speedier method is to grab-and-go, getting everything in place as I run). I even allowed myself the luxury of a port-a-potty stop, knowing my marathon would feel that much better if I started off on empty!

The run course is two loops of the main tract, but first are two out-and-back jaunts and a half-lap around the lake, totaling about five miles. I decided to treat the start as a warm up while letting my body adapt and then pick up the pace when I reached the main circuit. My feet felt OK as they weathered the normal awkward adjustment to running off the bike–until I reached the part of the path that circuits the lake with its slightly bumpy surface of sealed gravel. Each tiny stone felt like a knife stabbing into my soles! I’m sure on any normal run one would barely notice the uneven surface, but in my hypersensitive state I found it agonizing. I tried running on the ground alongside the path, but that too was covered in small stones and felt torturous. I was on the brink of tears, wondering how I might magically levitate the mile or so remaining of the painful path, or somehow skip that portion of the run. But I remembered my pledge to stay tough. Just get through this, I told myself. You know you can HTFU!

Indeed, the discomfort decreased once the path turned smooth and I was able to ignore any further foot twinges, as well as the pain that intermittently pulsed through my legs, back and arms. The run remained more of a mental exercise than a physical effort, my body going through the motions by rote while I focused my mind on staying sharp in order to keep on top of my hydration, nutrition, salt and caffeine intake, improvising as needed in the increased heat and humidity. Since this was an experimental race of sorts, I also wanted to test some different nutrition techniques–taking more salt than normal, taking smaller portions of gel more frequently and carefully pacing my caffeine consumption before bumping it up sharply at the end of the run. I also stopped at every aid station (whereas normally I run through) to drink and douse myself with sponges and water, knowing that any time lost would pay off in terms of proper hydration. Calorie calculations and time reminders filled in my head, and I was thrilled to stay coherent–one of the greatest challenges in endurance racing, especially in the latter half of the marathon when it’s all too easy to fall apart.

I was determined to give my all in the final 10-kilometers, and my determination worked. I don’t know what pace I was running–there were no individual kilometer markers–but I know that I gave it everything I had and that I covered the second lap faster than the first. I felt as though I was flying in the final 10-km, and although one’s perception of “flying” during an iron-distance is usually a few minutes per mile faster than the reality on the clock, people along the course responded accordingly, reacting to my burst of energy and encouraging me to go even harder. The refrain of “Jaiyo! Jaiyo!” [Go! Go!] rang in my ears as I pushed as hard as possible to reach the finish. And when I did, I’m sure I surprised more than a few people–including myself–by reaching it well before the 17-hour cutoff.

Racing Challenge Taiwan was indeed an experiment–a test of mental mettle over physical strength and an opportunity to see whether, on nearly any given day, I might tackle an iron-distance just for kicks. I’ve always had a hunch it would be possible, and I proved my hunch correct. And while I went into the race without any time goals, I can’t hide the satisfaction of having accomplished it quicker than expected, especially in response to the folks that wondered why I would want to do such a thing. To me, the opportunity for adventure and forging into the unknown is always something better answered with, “Why not?” So “xie xie” [thank you], Challenge Taiwan, for the awesome experience. I cherished every single painful step.

Several people have asked me specifically what I did in terms of my abbreviated training for this race. And since @TheRealStarky has already unfollowed me, there’s no risk in sharing the details. If you find training tallies dull, the short summary is this: I did more than nothing, but not a whole lot. Nearly all of it, aside from a short-distance race and a handful of 100-yard sprints on speed day at masters, was at a slow and easy pace. None of it followed any plan in terms of heart rate, power or intervals–there was no point in getting complicated for such a short period of time!

As background, my winter training December-February was minimal: a handful of masters swim sessions, three easy one-hour trainer rides (that’s an average of one per month) and three-four easy weekly runs, from 30-45 minutes, save for one at two hours. The final weekend in February I attended Hillary Biscay’s training camp in Tucson, where I did log some significant sessions: three rides (the longest was 90 miles), three runs (the longest was 13 miles) and two swims (one was 5200 yards, one was short and technique focused).

Shortly thereafter, five weeks out from race day, I registered for Challenge Taiwan. My schedule included several days off while traveling to and from Vietnam, where I raced a 1.8k swim/58k bike/12k run triathlon–my single speed session! Prior to that trip, I logged one 70-mile ride and one 13-mile run. On my return from Vietnam, after a few more days off to recover from jet lag, I had exactly one week to pack in as much training as possible before flying back to Asia. The sum total, starting two weeks out from race day, looked like this:

Swim: four masters sessions and one 4-km solo swim

Bike: one 70-miler, one 40-miler and three 60-90-minute spins

Run: one at 2:30, one at 1:30 and three at 30-45 minutes

It was a big load to fit into one week, but a minimal amount compared to the months of training one would normally log for such a race.

Race Weight
Having recently completed a feature article for our print magazine (Weighty Matters, on newsstands now) that focuses on race weight and body image issues in triathlon, the topic has been central in my thoughts. I’m 10 pounds heavier now than when I raced my last iron-distance (Challenge Penticton in August 2013)–my normal fluctuation range between being race fit and “regular”–and I feel every ounce of it when running and riding. But I reached that race weight for Penticton over several months of dedicated training (and while eating a lot). I would have loved to feel lighter in Taiwan, but I knew that the only way I would drop significant weight in a matter of weeks would be to crash diet, something I’m adamantly opposed to doing. I chose to fuel my body properly and race strong, even if lugging an extra load, rather than start off lean and quick, only to crash and burn halfway through the race.

Tapering and Race Week
My race week in Taiwan was filled with activity. After arriving on Saturday night I spent a day and half traipsing around the city on foot to sightsee. I stayed up too late and struggled with insomnia. I got a deep tissue massage, enjoyed several delicious, if unusual, meals, and I didn’t fret too much about what I ate the day before the race. I caught up with my world-traveling triathlon colleagues and friends, I busied myself with media duties and I logged some lovely short training rides, runs and swims. In fact, I rode and ran more than I normally would in a taper week, simply because my race week roommate, Hillary Biscay, arrived to the venue several days later than me and the opportunity to share a social ride and run with her was far more appealing than putting my feet up alone. So I packed a lot in–everything except for nerves and angst. It turns out a relaxed mental attitude is a rewarding way to go!

More “Dispatch.”