My father passed away in January. It took me some time to recover from the blow. This affected my training for the Goa Triathlon scheduled in February. Swimming was going to be my weakest link.
This was going to be my first swim in the sea. We were required to go 750m out and 750m back.
I began my swim with breaststrokes. It took me just 10min to cover 400m which was way faster than my regular speed. Instead of gliding through the waters I was flailing my arms and legs. I had reached the anaerobic zone too quickly.
Unlike other triathlons, we didn’t have guiding ropes or tubes to hold on to. Instead there were kayaks on the route for support. The nearest one from me was 50m away. I swam desperately towards the kayak, pounced upon it and climbed in. There was still 250m to go and then another 750m back. I gave up. This was my first Did-Not-Finish (DNF) ever. I was defeated in the mind.
Sitting in the kayak I saw many others struggling too. But they dealt with the situation differently. They would swim for a while, hold on to the kayak and swim again. They completed the swim and progressed further. I was heart-broken because I knew I had given up too soon.
Getting ready for Chennai
After the fiasco in Goa, I had to shake myself up and prepare for the Chennai Half Iron Triathlon. I only had 10 days to do so.
During those 10 days I focused entirely on swimming. Rajesh Kelkar sir from Chaitanya Health Club pointed out a few mistakes in my breaststroke. During final practice a 2km swim in less than 1 hour helped my confidence.
I booked my flight tickets. I enquired around to rent a road bike in Chennai. Surprisingly, there weren’t any available. Eventually I had to settle for an ‘Indian’ road bike, as the owner from Balaji Cycle World called it.
Day before the Race
I reached Chennai safely and headed to Balaji Cycle World to pick up my bike. The store looked very traditional and old-fashioned. The first sight of my bike gave me a good fright. It was a hybrid bike with fork and handlebar changed to convert it into a makeshift road bike. Brakes were in horrible shape.
The bike fit wasn’t appropriate. I was leaning too far ahead when I held on to the top of the handlebar. If I dropped on the drop bar I just couldn’t control the bike.
I had to travel 30km to reach Agni College, the venue. With a heavy bag on my shoulder and the dense traffic to encounter, 4km of cycling was all I could endure. I needed to stay fresh for the next day. So I hired an auto who demanded an astronomical Rs.500. Not good but no choice.
The sleeping arrangements were modest. It was a large open room in the hostel with benches everywhere. Luckily, I found the last bench available.
There was no mattress so I laid out a towel.
At dinner time we went out in search of food in this remote area. My bad pre-race preparation was complete when we finally got egg fried rice from a shady roadside Chinese food stall. A tiring flight journey, no proper hydration or carb loading, a long auto ride, a sad dinner and a joke for a bed. I prayed that it shouldn’t be an indication of things to come.
And it did dawn way earlier for me than planned. The alarm was set for 3:45am since we had to reach the venue at 5:00am. But I was up at 2:30am and just couldn’t go back to sleep.
We left the hostel riding our bikes. It was dark, the road had many potholes and my bike had no lights. I was lucky to reach the lake without a puncture.
There was excitement all around. I parked my bike upside down because, (surprise, surprise) it didn’t have a stand.
As the sun rose, the lake turned into a sight to behold.
I was confident of completing the triathlon but I was nervous because my target completion time was 7hrs 30min. Breakup: 1 hour for the 1.9km swim, 3hrs 30min for the 90km cycle ride, 2hrs 45min to run the half marathon. 15min buffer for changing clothes.
I started off with a good dive into the lake. The water was warm, clean and 40-50m deep. It was clear water in a beautiful setting. I was swimming slightly slower than usual but it was an effortless swim.
There was a guiding rope in the middle of the lake with tubes every 25 meters. With kayaks on both sides, there was nothing to worry about either. However, this time I was determined not to stop or hold onto the tubes.
I finished the 1.9km in a strong timing of 1hour 6min.
I was feeling fresh as I kicked off the cycling leg.
The recent Chennai floods had ravaged the roads leaving behind lots of gravel, loose sand and many potholes. My bike’s brakes were unreliable.
I was still wet from the swim so the cool breeze felt blissful. Two kilometres later disaster struck.
I had to navigate a sharp left turn. I veered off too far to the right through a thorny bush and then BAM! Face down, down into a ditch! The palm were protected by the gloves but my chest, left knee and chin bore the brunt of the fall.
The rider behind me a a few locals rushed to help me.
I was visibly shaken but determined. I was bleeding at a few places and my knee and ribs were hurting a lot. But I decided to brazen it out and not quit no matter what.
Much to the onlookers’ amazement soon I was back on the bike on my way.
The road conditions got worse for the next 10km and I had to slow down to 22-23 kmph. I then made a big decision. I decided not to go after the 7:30 finish and instead focus on finishing well. The knee was hurting and there was a half marathon run to follow.
The the ride now was t1hrough heavy traffic. I once swore at someone in Marathi much to the chap’s amusement who understood nothing of what I said.
I had to stop at the next aid station 20km to wash off the blood. The volunteers were shocked to see my condition and suggested I do the Olympic distance. No way, I said. The volunteers were great though, they took good care of me. Can’t thank them enough.
The ride from here on the Old Mahabalipuram road was calm but slow. I was averaging 25-26kmph instead of 30+.
I reached the 45km turnaround point and refuelled well. The 45km ride back was without accidents but now I had to deal with the weather. The temperature and humidity had increased significantly.
It took me just over 4 hours to complete the 90km cycle ride.
Running in the Heat
I took a recovery break of a few minutes and began the half marathon run.
The heat and humidity had reached unbearable levels. There was no shade on the route as I trudged along the way.
My pace was reduced to 8min 30 sec per km. It took me 1 hour 50min to reach the half way point (10.5km).
A quick calculation told me that a Sub-9 hour finish was going to be tough. So I decided to up the effort in the second half of the run. The breaks were fewer and the run was faster.
After the 18km point I increased my pace to 7min 30sec per km. I had to put in all the mental and physical energy left inside me as I finished the triathlon in 8hrs 58min!
This was way over my 7hrs 30min target. It also overshot my previous best of 8hrs 35min. But this was a victory like no other.
The feeling of pride after having completed the half iron event after a horrible fall in such gruelling weather conditions is indescribable. The satisfaction level was multiplied a few times because this came soon after the Goa fiasco.
I can’t thank the organizers enough and especially Peter Van Geit for his selfless contribution in organizing the Chennai triathlon at such a low price! Where else can you get a very well supported half iron event for only 600 Rs ($10!).
In hindsight, here are a few lessons that I learnt from the day –
1. Think twice, thrice before participating in an event in Chennai in March.
2. Running in hot conditions needs good practice.
3. While the breaststroke practice before the event helped a lot, I ned to learn and improve freestyle swimming to better my overall timing.
4. Pay attention to details regarding the logistics. I had messed up the pre-race dinner, local transport and bike choice.
5. Never rent the bike from Balaji! I saw a few really good bikes from Deppak Babu from Just Rent bikes. He got road bikes from Madras Randonneurs which were in very good shape.
6. Slow down on bad roads A fall can do more damage than just your timing. PS: I had to x-ray my knee and ribs and luckily no fracture … but took me a couple of weeks to recover from these injuries and get back on track.
7. The biggest positive was the never-say-die will to complete. I have now proved to myself that the Goa DNF was just an aberration.
Mihir Sambhus is based in Pune.
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