I've survived my Ironman race, here's how to survive yours

Yahoo Singapore contributor Cheryl Tay during her Ironman race in Langkawi. (PHOTO: Cheryl Tay)

Yahoo Singapore contributor Cheryl Tay (@cheryltaysg) recently took part in her first full Ironman triathlon in Langkawi, Malaysia – comprising a 2.4 mile (3.86km) swim, 112 mile (180km) cycle and 26.2 mile (42.195km) run. Here is an account of her race experience, as well as tips on how to tackle the gruelling race.

I could feel the late afternoon sun burning on my back, I was surrounded by fellow triathletes in spandex, all with pained expressions, and my watch showed that I still have 34 kilometres more to run.

“Why, why am I doing this to myself?” the thought crept into my mind several times throughout the day, as I was in the midst of my first full Ironman race at Langkawi, Malaysia, last November.

An Ironman race consists of a 3.86km swim, an 180km bike ride and a full marathon of 42.195km done consecutively. The very thought of it was intimidating, but after completing eight Ironman 70.3 (half-Ironman distances) races, I felt that it was time to do this so I can finally call myself an Ironman.

The Langkawi event flagged off at about 8am, and I jumped into the sea for the first segment of the race – the 3.86km swim (two loops of about 1.9km). Fortunately, the sea conditions were calm, so I had a fairly good swim, apart from the occasional slap and kick from other swimmers.

Gruelling from second bike lap onwards

On to the bike next, and this was the longest segment of the race – I had to ride two loops of 90km. It doesn’t help that Langkawi is known to be a challenging course, with a series of steep hills. A bout of torrential rain came down at the start of the ride and I was soaked through, but the sun came out strong and scorching after to dry me up.

Yahoo Singapore contributor Cheryl Tay during the bike segment of her Ironman race in Langkawi. (PHOTO: Cheryl Tay)

The first lap was bearable, but the second lap was no joke. The hills seemed steeper as my legs became more weary. At certain points, I was alone with no one in sight, and I just prayed I was going on the right route.

When I finally dismounted after completing the bike segment, I nearly fell over – my legs were so wobbly from fatigue that I could hardly stand up. I wasn’t looking forward to the run, but at the same time, this was the last segment, and so I was getting nearer to the finish line.

Relief, exhaustion and joy at finish line

The run route was torturous because we had to do five laps of slightly over 8km each. Half of the lap goes around the airport runway fencing, with mainly empty land with no shade and hardly any supporters.

But as I entered the village where the hotels were, I saw my sister and some of my friends cheering enthusiastically for me, but I could barely respond to them. I was focused on just getting one foot in front of the other; at times I really wanted to cry.

Yahoo Singapore contributor Cheryl Tay crossing the finish line in her Ironman race in Langkawi (PHOTO: Cheryl Tay)

I eventually crossed the finish line after 12 hours and 46 minutes. The mix of relief, exhaustion and joy brought tears to my eyes when the finisher medal was hung around my neck. I did it – I am an Ironman.

Pointers for Ironman participants

During the course of the day, I had a lot of time to process thoughts, while trying to ignore the physical pain and mental anguish. Here are some of the insights I’ve gained after this life-changing experience:

You have only one job: You have only one task to complete – get to the finish line. Whether it is a running race, a cycling race or a triathlon, you just need to focus on getting yourself to the end. It sounds so simple, but the process will be tough. So whenever things get hard, just keep telling yourself that you just want to get to the finish line. Focus on the goal.

Adapt quickly to the situation: In endurance races especially, many things can happen over the extended duration of time. You can go into the race with a plan, but be prepared that anything can happen and be ready to find a solution quickly. It’s normal to panic, but don’t insist, and be willing to make changes or even throw your plan out completely.

Break it down into smaller goals: When I first started the run segment, the thought that I had a full marathon distance of 42.195km ahead of me was really daunting. Don’t scare yourself like that – break it down into smaller targets, so you can achieve them quicker and not feel so intimidated. You can aim for the next aid station, or aim for a visible landmark in the near distance.

Find comfort in discomfort: I’m not going to lie – this will hurt, both physically and mentally. You will be thrown out of your comfort zone entirely. It will be hot, you will be tired, your muscles will be screaming – and you probably will entertain thoughts of giving up and going home to your cosy bedroom with the air-conditioning switched on. But guess what? You’re stuck in that awful situation anyway, so suck it up and try to find some peace in that suffering. Of course, if you are in serious pain and need to seek medical attention, please stop. Other than that, find a way to be positive.

The only fight you have is within yourself: Don’t get your head all messed up by comparing yourself to others, or pressuring yourself with your target time. Each race will vary in conditions – for example, the sea might be choppier, or there might be more headwind on the bike course. So don’t use your friend’s timing from the race a year ago as a yardstick, or even your timing from other races. Each race is unique and the race is your own.

You’re not the only one suffering: When you are feeling the pain, tell yourself that you’re not the only one. There are many others out there feeling the same or worse. Look around you – everyone is going through the same. If they can do it, so can you.

Be mighty proud of your body: Our body is capable of achieving amazing things. Two years ago I didn’t think I would be able to complete an Ironman. Five years ago, when I didn’t even know what Ironman is (other than the Marvel character), I would have thought you’re utterly insane for even thinking of attempting this. But now, I am already thinking of my next Ironman race. Realise how much potential your body has and be grateful that you have a healthy body to do the things that you want. Love your body and take care of it well.

Don’t be afraid of setting big goals: Someone recently told me, “Set a goal so big you cannot achieve, until you become the person who can.” And I thought this really hits the spot. Don’t be afraid of dreaming big, because anything is possible, so long as you set your mind to it.

Yahoo Singapore contributor Cheryl Tay with her finisher’s medal after completing her Ironman race in Langkawi (PHOTO: Cheryl Tay)