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Will Race For Elephants: The 70.3 Phuket Experience

Thailand to-do’s and tips on traveling to and competing in far-flung destination events.

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In late 2011, Triathlete contributor Holly Bennett traveled to Phuket, Thailand, as a guest of the Laguna Phuket Resorts & Hotels to participate in the second annual Ironman 70.3 Asia-Pacific Championship and to experience the unique culture and spellbinding scenery of the island nation known as the “Land of Smiles.” The Ironman 70.3 marks the headline event hosted by Laguna Phuket, a 1,000-acre tropical beachfront parkland including seven luxury hotel and residential villa properties. The Laguna Phuket Triathlon, now in its 19th year, features a weeklong multisport festival that culminates with the Ironman 70.3 race and acclaimed “Black Tie and Board Shorts” after-party. Here, Bennett shares excerpts from her travel journal along with Thailand to-do’s and tips on traveling to and competing in far-flung destination events. The 2012 version of the race is set to take place this Sunday, Dec. 2.

» Sun, Nov. 27: Arrived in Phuket 28 hours after leaving home (Boulder, Colo.). Too excited by the sights, sounds and smells to let exhaustion sink in. Pulling into the resort, my taxi passed the transition area where the final finisher of the Laguna Phuket Triathlon (takes place prior to the 70.3 race)—a guy in the 70-plus age group—was heralded by his fellow competitors. Still in the cab yet already inspired!

» Mon, Nov. 28: Shook off jetlag with a run on jungle roads around the backside of the resort. The heat was thick and delicious. Enjoyed the first of many lingering breakfast buffets: eggs, potatoes, grilled tomatoes and plate upon plate of fresh tropical fruit. Walked the length of breathtaking Bang Tao Beach, then paid 500 Thai Baht (roughly $16) for an hour-long open-air beachside massage.

» Tue, Nov. 29: Checked out the swim course: 1,280 meters in the salt-saturated sparkling Andaman Sea, a run up and over a steep soft-sand berm, and a final 620 meters in a freshwater lagoon. Given that the bike course includes twice traversing a pedestrian bridge plus two sections of mind-bendingly steep climbs and descents (said to be 20–22 percent grades), and the run covers sandy trails, golf course grass and cobblestone paths along with proper pavement, the race promises to be part Ironman, part adventure race. Bring it on! With the spirit of adventure front of mind, traveled with friends to nearby Patong for a night out on bustling Bangla Road, punctuated by spicy green curry, colorful street stalls and a booming bar scene.

» Wed, Nov. 30: On the tourist track, joined a speedboat day-trip to various sights in Pahng Nga Bay, including James Bond Island (made famous in the film “The Man with the Golden Gun”) and stunning limestone sea caves. Prior to de-boarding for lunch at the floating Muslim fishing village of Koh Pannyi, we were given strict instructions from our guide: “Women, no sexy!” We respectfully donned our swim cover-ups during the meal.

» Thu, Dec. 1: Fine-tuned my bike with help from eager mechanics at the expo. Said hello to the hundred or so cyclists gearing up for a police-escorted preview ride, led by Ironman champion and race marshal Jurgen Zack. Opted out of the pack and instead rode only the final portion of the course, the famed Nai Thon Beach hills—more than enough to know this would be one tough bike! Meandered back toward town, gladly getting a little lost among the village’s twists and turns. Found K-Swiss-clad Michael Raelert, similarly lost but happily exploring on his bike. Headed back to the beach for another splash and massage, then cheered athletes competing in an open-water swim competition on the triathlon course. Rehydrated with fresh coconut water prior to attending a hilariously entertaining “sports quiz” trivia show, broadcast live on local radio and featuring the race’s headlining pros.

» Fri, Dec. 2: Met an age-group athlete from Holland preparing to race his first ever triathlon. Said he sought a positive adventure to mark the close of a personally challenging year. My guess is he came to the right place! Also met 3-year-old Meena, one of the resort’s resident baby elephants and a certain allurement for my trip to Thailand. Elephants are revered here, their grace and magical good charm entrancing everyone they touch. I watched in awe as Meena, accompanied by her mahout (trainer) cruised down the beach, crashed through the waves and bodysurfed as only a 700-plus-pound baby elephant could. The day’s enchantment carried into evening, when a sunset cocktail party honoring the pro athletes was capped with a lighted lantern release, signaling good luck.

» Sat, Dec. 3: The usual pre-race scurry, turning in transition bags and bike. Then nothing left to do but relax, feet up, listening to the rain. Down it came, starting slowly in late afternoon and building, monsoon-like, throughout the evening. It rained and rained and rained some more.

» Sun, Dec. 4 (Race Day!): Racing in Phuket is a lot like racing in Kona, in that you will face adverse conditions of one sort or another—whether heat, humidity, wind, rain or some combination therein. Add to that stray dogs (I lost count at 11), scuttling chickens and zippy moped riders on a bike course winding around wildly overgrown hairpin turns and you’ll know you’re in Asia. It will be one of the coolest adventures of your racing career! At times the skies cleared; at times they turned on full-blast like a faucet. The “cooling” rain meant temperatures capped in the mid-80s and moist, mucky air. But in the midst of Mother Nature’s chaos, we raced one of the best-run events I’ve ever experienced. The course was perfectly marked with colored arrows. Smiling, rain-sodden volunteers packed every corner, preventing any possible confusion at the turns. Yellow flag zones neutralized the cycling pace in the steepest, slipperiest sections. Aid station hand-offs were flawless, and especially fun as I tried to say, “Kop khun ka!” (Thai for “thank you”) each time I was handed sustenance or an ice-soaked sponge. And while we athletes felt genuinely welcomed in Phuket everywhere we went, nothing communicated this sentiment more clearly than the throngs of local schoolchildren, strategically staged throughout the course, dressed in their own sport uniforms, waving emphatically and cheering their hearts out. Heading into the Nai Thon climbs, I passed two locals on rather rickety bikes, each with a freshly killed duck hanging from the handlebars. Dinner was apparently on! The heat was rising once I reached the run course; sucking up salt tablets and fluids—water, fizzy 100Plus sport drink, Coke or Fanta Orange soda—was key to survival. At the start and finish, the two-lap course passed through the elephant’s park, empty of the beautiful beasts on my first go-around. (One of the babies greets the top professional finishers, a common feature of the race’s photography, but in the interest of elephant well-being she doesn’t stay all day in the finish chute.) I had joked with a friend at the start line, saying, “I won’t rest until I reach the elephants!” Sure enough, as I rounded the final corner, there they were, back home in the park, their majestic silhouettes gracing the horizon.

Take it From Holly: Tips & to-do’s while in Phuket

Hydrate like mad. Electrolyte tablets are ideal—they’ll boost sodium and potassium levels without overloading carbohydrates. Even tastier: Try the natural isotonic properties of fresh coconut water. The fruit can be slashed open to order at any beachside stand.

Go for easy gearing. Even super cyclist Chris Lieto reported he would prefer a 26-tooth chainring after pre-riding the course.

Don’t stress. You’re bound to forget something—be prepared to be less than 100 percent prepared. Most items can be easily replaced at the expo. Or ask around. Your fellow triathletes are a helpful bunch.

Attend the athlete meeting. Especially in an unfamiliar venue, you’ll want to have your questions answered and any concerns allayed.

Introduce yourself to other athletes. With the common bond of triathlon, you’ll make international friends for life.

Treat your tastebuds with local cuisine. Favorite spots include Lotus or Tom Yam Gung (Bang Tao Beach), Tawai (Phuket town), Tropica (Patong) or any of numerous resort restaurants. It was my mission to sample Thai green curry everywhere I ate, each dish proving more delectable than the last.

Consider a cooking class to hone your own Thai culinary talent. Laguna Phuket’s Dusit Thani hotel offers four-course meal classes; that’s where pro Belinda Granger was coached in crafting her favorite dessert, mango sticky rice.

Explore! There’s a diverse and vibrant country beyond the swim, bike and run course.

Give back. As a guest of the host community, do your part to support local charitable initiatives. In 2011, Laguna Phuket launched Laguna’s Swim Survival Program, designed to teach Thai children lifesaving swim lessons, and tied a fundraising element to the race for athletes wishing to help.

Return to train at Thanyapura Sports & Leisure Club (a 20-minute drive from Laguna Phuket), a world-class luxury sports facility complete with a 50-meter pool and organic café, where Ironman legend Jurgen Zack serves as director of the triathlon academy.

Smile and show appreciation everywhere you go. The “Land of Smiles” locals will reward you in kind with friendliness beyond compare.

Asia-Pacific Race Tips From the Pros

Justin Granger (AUS): The races in Asia are some of the hardest you’ll ever do in your life. The heat is just one factor. The courses are very difficult. They seem to build roads over any sort of mountain or hill—they just throw them in anywhere. You need to be wary of the obstacles on the race course: dogs, buffalo, locals on mopeds. But once you get into it, once you get here and just go with the flow, it becomes normal.

Emma-Kate Lidbury (GBR): Really keep on top of your nutrition with electrolytes. Also, you have to be pretty careful with the food—the local diet is very spicy and isn’t necessarily what we’re used to in the Western world. Try to keep out of the sun near race day. You want to get used to the sun, but stay out of it in the middle of the day. You’ll get plenty during the race!

Belinda Granger (AUS): Either get completely acclimatized, or just come in blind. This is advice Brett Sutton gave me and it’s worked for me every time. If you arrive late, make sure you stay really hydrated on the airplane. And then stay a few days afterward so you can actually enjoy the place. That’s the best part.

Chris Lieto (USA): It’s really only a month before this race that it starts to get cold in most of the U.S. You could do some bathroom heat training to prepare. Once or twice a week, do at least 30–45 minutes. Put your trainer in the bathroom, bring in a space heater, turn on the shower, shut the door and ride. It gets very moist in there, that’s for sure!

Melissa Hauschildt (AUS): On the plane I always wear my Compressport so I arrive feeling better. I do eat the airline’s food, but I always take my own food as well to be sure that I have enough.