Sabahan’s Ironman experience
Published on: Sunday, November 22, 2020
By: Heng Tseng Wen
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Giving well- wishers high-fives at the finishing chute.
AT this time last year, I did the Triathlon of a lifetime. A year on, in the midst of a pandemic and a series of cancelled events, coupled with countless hours of boredom in a locked down world, now is an opportune moment to reflect on the training, the event, and the people.

I will start by admitting that I am not particularly fit. In fact, I would even say I’m less than average. I am not a fast runner, I don’t have the endurance, and I certainly don’t have the experience. But what I can say, is that I am very lucky.  And this phenomenally absurd stroke of luck accidentally landed me in the Ironman 70.3 World Championships, 2019 in Nice, France.

It started with a simple Olympic distance triathlon in 2017 at Port Dickson. It was a 1.5km swim, 40km cycle and then a 10km run. It took me a dreadful three and a half hours to complete this distance, landing me in the lower echelons of my age group category. I returned a year later with an equally appalling time. But, tragic as that was, I was hooked. Four months later and 10kg lighter, I took part in the 2018 Langkawi Ironman 70.3.

For the unfamiliar, an Ironman 70.3 is half the distance of a full Ironman. It consists of a 1.9km swim, a 90km cycle and finally a Half Marathon 21km run. The professionals would finish in three to four hours, while the cut off time would be around eight and a half hours. 

To many, just finishing it is an achievement. My timing for the Langkawi 70.3 was a very leisurely 7:09, but I was elated that I had even completed it. So much so, in fact, that I signed up for another in Davao, Philippines in March 2019, where I finished with only a slight improvement of 6:44.

At each Ironman 70.3 race, there are qualifying spots given out for the World Championships. Each age group is given a number of slots depending on the number of participants. These qualifying spots are usually given out at the awards ceremony at the end of each race, during the post-race celebratory dinner. 

The slot is offered automatically to the winner, who must be there in person to claim it. If they are not there, then it goes to the second-place finisher, and if still unclaimed, to the third-place finisher and so on. It keeps rolling down the list until someone claims it, failing which, the slot is given to a different age group.

After the Davao race, my category was announced, with one qualifying slot for the World Championship. When no one claimed the spot for my category, the announcement was made, asking if anyone in the hall was in that age group.

Now, many questions should have been asked before signing up for a non-refundable race on the other side of the world. But sense and sensibility had taken a back seat. After a 3am wake up, almost 7 hours of racing, and running 21km through the searing streets of Davao, my mind and body was filled with a concoction of sunburn, probable dehydration, adrenaline, energy gels, salt water I accidentally gulped, hunger and sleep deprivation.

So, I, sitting on a very lazy 48th position out of 85 in my category (less than average, as promised), put up my hand, swallowed my food, and took the slot to the World Championships in Nice.

A trick of the (triathlete) trade, is to check the course profile for the cycle and run before signing up for the event; each racer has their preference. The luxury of choice is not afforded to the World Champs. The course is already dictated and the date set. You’re either in or out. Without checking, I had recklessly signed up.

Usually triathlons are done on fairly flat courses. So imagine the shock when I found out that the World Championship somehow had a mountain in it!  I am not joking. Within the 90km cycle, there is 1,367m of elevation. For perspective, this puts the amount of climbing somewhere between the height of Kokol Hill (825m) and Kinabalu National Park (1,563m). For cycling enthusiasts, Col de Vence is a Category 1 climb, frequented by the Tour de France. Luckily, the Run after the cycle was pancake flat on the promenade along the beaches of Nice. Armed with this disarming information, I began the training.

During the 6 months of training, there was a whirlwind of events. As luck struck once more, I was accepted to a PhD programme in London starting 2 weeks after the race. I left my job as a lawyer in KL and went home to Kota Kinabalu, then bought a one-way ticket to London. In between, I trained. I researched running techniques, cycling skills, nutrition, recovery, brick sessions, and how to disassemble and reassemble a bicycle. I learned a whole new language of fitness, and with it, a whole new world of aches and pain.

During this time, anyone and everyone whom I told that I was training for the race, called me crazy, then immediately tried to help in any way possible. My brother happily swapped bicycles with me, as his was more suited for hills. Not a top end mountain bicycle but a second hand one which was better than mine! Uncle Asgari, in his unfathomable generosity, organised indoor cycling training for me with Cycology in KL, and cycled 90km with me almost every weekend leading up to the race. Wen Shan joined the long cycles and kept me company with late night brick runs around his park. Amy and Anslem shared their immeasurable knowledge and experience for tips and tricks for training, lent me bicycles and had running sessions with me when I was back in KK. They even put me in touch with Amy’s sister Veron, in West Malaysia, who also qualified for Nice in Davao. Anyone and everyone I met in the swimming, cycling, and running community were overwhelmingly kind and helped in every way possible. But despite 6 months of training and preparation, nothing could have prepared me for the race.

I spent three days in London before flying to Nice, dropping off my stuff for Uni and picking up a wetsuit I bought on eBay. The wetsuit remained untested until Nice itself. The flight on Wednesday to Nice was delayed. The carousel had broken down in Gatwick so my bicycle didn’t arrive until Friday. There was no need to panic, the race was on Sunday. I concentrated on acclimatising to the Mediterranean weather with some casual runs and swims.

That week, the gorgeous City of Nice was flooded with over five thousand of possibly the fittest people in the world, along with their family and friends. The city was transformed into a festival with athletes from over 50 countries sporting their sponsorship logos and speaking different languages. The Ironman Expo had stalls upon stalls of merchandise, new technology, the fastest wheels, the newest shoes, the most aero bicycle etc. The Promenade des Anglais was filled with people doing shake out runs, the hills were packed with course reconnaissance and the stunning turquoise waters of the Riviera had wetsuits dotted far beyond the usual swimming lines.

My parents arrived on Friday under the guise of watching me race, coincidentally having organised a holiday along the French Riviera. My mum said she was comparing all the guys to me, to see if I can be faster than any, and very quickly decided that I didn’t have a chance against any of them, regardless of age. This included the categories that go to above 80 years old for men! She then compared me to the women and quickly come to the same conclusion – I still couldn’t possibly be faster than any of them (Women categories go to above 75 years old)!

This was with good reason. Each and every athlete is a lean, mean fitness machine, and a winner in their race for their age groups. Only the top 2pc of triathletes – and for some crazy reason, me – made it to the 70.3 World Champs. I spoke to many who had qualified for the 70.3 World Champs multiple times, and some who have raced in Kona, the full Ironman World Championships. Walking into the 70.3 World

Championships for a person like me is equivalent to a person who plays basketball in high school toeing the line in the NBA. I was way out of my league, I was not even close, nor do I think I ever will be.

Despite this difference in skill, chatting to anyone was easy. The giveaway race wristbands on each person’s wrist always gave you the easy opening line, ‘Where did you qualify?’ A hint of imposter syndrome had set in, as that line of inquiry inevitably meant ‘Where did you win?’, which did not apply with my luck of the draw. No one actually asked if you won or not – it was assumed that you did. Regardless, I shamelessly chatted away and got very interesting tips regarding the bike course and the currents and the tides on race day itself. A chance encounter with Veron and Wendy, fellow Malaysians who qualified via the proper avenues, confirmed my fears – the bike course was tougher than it looked on paper. I was advised to add an hour or more to the predicted time.

After watching the women’s race on Saturday, it was my turn on Sunday. The morning itself, they announced that wetsuits were not required. A huge relief as I only had 2 days’ worth of practice, of putting it on, jumping in the sea, then taking it off, then repeating the action numerous times, to the amusement of the onlookers at the beach. Wetsuit placed aside, I prepared for the race.

Different to usual triathlon formats, the athletes were released in waves based on age groups, compared to the usual where they are released in waves based on estimated swim speed. There was only one estimated swim speed here – fast. While waiting for the start with my parents, I met a fellow Malaysian Richard Tang: a veteran of the Ironman world with innumerable accolades to his name, enough to have a big MYS on his race suit. That made the introduction very easy. He had a good laugh at my qualifying time and offered me the best advice I could possibly have at the start line “Enjoy it”.

The race itself, was abysmal.

I thought I was a decent swimmer. Swimming was my childhood sport all through high school. It even accumulated with playing water polo for Sabah in 2012 and the Kapas–Marang open water swim in 2018. However, this was a completely different world. I started in Wave 11. I came out with at the end of Wave 13! A whole wave swam past, both around and over me. My dad kept following the wrong person thinking it was me, wondering what was taking so long. We have a video of a 6-foot-tall blonde guy running out of the water before my parents realised it wasn’t me!

While waiting for me to come out of the water, my mum overheard the guy next to her saying he was tracking two friends of his in my category, who are Tour de France cyclists. You would have needed to train like one to remain relevant in the race. Through all the conversations I had, one thing was clear, everyone’s focus was the cycle, while aiming to just maintain the run for a good time. Without the 6 solid months of cycling training with Uncle Asgari, Vong in Cycology and Shan, I would not have made the intermediate cut off point. The sights were gorgeous, but the slow grind of the pedals up the hill was excruciating. 

The race became steadily lonelier on the climb as everyone flew past, many of them dropping with words of encouragement, others even engrossed in their own casual conversation. Richard blew past me at one point, too focused to even notice me. After a 10km flat, 35km straight uphill, 35km downhill, then 10km flat back to the transition area, nothing was better than hearing my parents calling my name, shouting encouragement and cheering for me. It took me a shocking four and a half hours to complete the 90km cycle. Now it was only the Half Marathon left.

In any triathlon, it would take a few kilometres into the run for the muscles to loosen up from the cramped cycling position. This was no different. In 3km my legs started to ease out a little, but the heat was really beating down, and the course was almost empty. Water stations were every 2km and cups of water went straight over the head to cool down. Two loops of the Promenade des Anglais was all I needed to do. The crowds of Nice were incredible. All along the side-lines were people cheering. 

Though I’m certain the numbers had thinned out considerably as the bulk of the race had gone by, there were still many people around. The most heart-warming was my incredible AirBnB hosts: a lovely couple, Laurence and her husband Didier, who came out to support me, riding their bicycles alongside for the last 10km, constantly cheering me on and ringing a cowbell they had.

However, in the last 4km, I was spent. I slowed to a walk. Almost immediately, a lovely elderly man from China was beside me. This gentleman was in the 70+ age group. He had won his race in the Xiamen 70.3 to qualify for Nice.   Unfortunately, he was disqualified having missed the cut off for the swim by one minute, which was his weakest discipline. 

Still, he stayed around cheering everyone on until I came along, one of the last stragglers and ran three whole kilometres with me, chatting in Mandarin as we ran. In the last kilometre to the finish line, he said goodbye and left me to finish alone. In typical fashion of the world of endurance, a stranger appears for a short period in time of need and disappears forever. But it is to that person, whom you will be forever indebted for their encouragement and company.

The finish line was in sight, the crowds were cheering, they were announcing my name, my country, and my time. My parents were right by finishing arch. Down the carpeted chute, I stopped for a hug from dad and a kiss from mum, and at long last, crossed the finish line. The slowest of 6 Malaysians in this year’s iteration.

Time: 7:32:26

273 out of 273 in the 25-29 Age Group Category; 3,225 out of 3,256 for all men.

I limped off the racecourse with a sense of achievement greater than I have ever felt before. The holiday with the parents awaited, and was definitely well earned.

I was absolutely serious when I said I was not supposed to be there. In fact, I was so late they had already run out of the finishing medals, t-shirt and hats. Those were mailed to me some months later. Maybe I shouldn’t have taken the spot, and left it to someone else more qualified, more committed, and more experienced to take the slot and race. Indeed, for many triathletes out there, it is a dream to win their category and race in the World Championships. 

Regardless, I can confidently say that this whole experience was not purely due to my blind luck, but also a degree of shamelessness and foolhardiness to put myself far, far out of my comfort zone, and see where it took me. I admit I was still in a state of shock for months on end after the race, and my parents have yet to stop joking about how out of place I was.

In hindsight, I was crazy to jump into the deep end like that and it still surprises me that I went through with it. However, what was even more surprising, is the community that came around from it. 

An entirely new batch of friends, all helping out in any way they can. From buying the wetsuit, organising the bicycle bag, to training with them. Putting me in touch with training acquaintances, meeting helpful souls at the race, quick lines of encouragements on the race, cheers along the sidewalk, company for the run, and countless others who I have not accounted for. 

The entire experience spells wonder beyond imagination, and everyone will want to help you along the way. So be brave, try your luck, and see where that takes you.

To everyone who helped me along the way, you have my eternal gratitude. To the Malaysians in the upcoming 70.3 World Championships, or indeed any race at all, a wise man once said to me: Enjoy it!

- Heng Tseng Wen was 28 years old when he took part in the 70.3 lronman. He is from Kota Kinabalu, attended Chung Hwa Primary School and Tshung Tshin Secondary School before going overseas to pursue his law degree and Masters. He worked in Kuala Lumpur before pursuing his PhD in Queen Mary College on lntcllcctual Property. He was awarded a scholarship by Faccbook.  He is the first Sabahan to have competed in the lronman World Championship.

All in Nice

Finding name in a ‘haystack’.

The Ironman 70.3 in Nice, France in 2019. 

Qualifying in Davao. 

Wetsuit tests.

Running with Chinese friend. 


With Airbnb hosts after the race. 

Bicycle test ride.

At the starting line with Richard. 

During the run. 

At the start of the run. 

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