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Taking on triathlon, part 1: So, I signed up for the Half Ironman in Goa, and…

Updated on:4 January 2020, 16:05pm IST
Almost two kilometres of swimming, 90 kilometres on the bike, and 21 kilometres of running–this was SuYin’s challenge for her first-ever triathlon.
SuYin Kalia-Ong
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Meet SuYin, who ran her very first triathlon–the Ironman 70.3–in Goa last year. Image courtesy: SuYin Kalia-Ong

This is the first in a four-part series, chronicling SuYin’s conquest at the Ironman 70.3 in Goa in 2019.

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It sounds almost dubious, and precariously tipping into the realms of a humble brag, but living on a tropical island can be a little… unexciting. While my husband and I we were moving out of the Andamans to set up another dive center, we both craved a challenge. And as serendipity would have it, Ironman announced their first-ever triathlon event in India.

So what is a triathlon? As the name implies, it is an event where the participants swim, bike and run consecutively over certain distances. These distances vary–from the Sprint (750 m swim, 20km bike, 5k run) and Standard/Olympic (1.5 km swim, 40 km bike, 10k run), Half/70.3 Ironman (1.9km swim, 90km bike, 21km run), to the Full/140.6 Ironman (3.8km swim, 180km bike, 42km run). Ironman is the gold standard of triathlon, with the 70.3 and 140.6 events hosted all over the world.

The Goa event was “only” a 70.3 and in my head, the distances all seemed doable–I had recently taken up cycling and done longer climbs in the Alps. I used to be a lifeguard in college and while I had never run such a long distance, I had also recently picked up running.

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In a surge of confidence, I attempted the run distance soon after signing up. Except this was more plodding than running: I could barely complete half of the distance, never mind the swim and bike that comes before the run! This obliterated all remnants of confidence. I hit the panic button, hard!

Ironman Goa
Triathlon is a great excuse to spend time outdoors, and be closer to nature. Image courtesy: SuYin Kalia-Ong

But there is no better motivation than fear. This panic spearheaded a drive to improve my fitness level and I started training in a structured manner. Essentially this meant going to bed by 10 pm on a Friday night and rising at ungodly hours so I could complete a two-and-a-half hours on the bike followed by a one-and-a-half hours of running on Saturday morning, instead of sleeping in like sensible folks.

Why a triathlon?
The good thing about doing a triathlon is the varied nature of the workouts and cross training benefit. Unlike a single sport, where the training may get monotonous sometimes, triathlon provides a lot of variety in training–the three sports individually, as well as strength training and stretching/flexibility. Feet sore from prolonged impact on a long run? Give your legs a break and work on swim techniques. Body sore from weights? Do a nice conditioning with stretches and some yoga.

Triathlon is also a social sport–cycling communities, running groups are friendly and enthusiastic bunch. Weekend group rides motivate one another, and long rides feel short.

I stumbled upon an unexpected aspect of the sport only when I started training: strategising. The half-Iron distance can last anytime between between four to eight hours, it becomes crucial to have a game plan, strategise and execute–output effort, fueling and nutrition, transitioning, equipment, and much more. For example, how hard should you go on the bike leg so that you still have enough energy to run afterwards? How do you balance your nutritional needs on the bike and run, while going fast? What equipment gives you the best bang for the buck in terms of improving performance? The list goes on.

Ironman Goa
Our weekend group rides end with an incentive–ghee roast dosas! Image courtesy: SuYin Kalia-Ong

Triathlons are also a great way to build mental toughness and discipline–the same motivation that makes you get up at stupid o’clock for a workout when you would rather sleep also builds ability to soldier on, and a can do attitude that transfers to work, and personal life.

I once had a three-hour bike ride planned for a Saturday morning. The night before, as I start to prepare the bike, everything seemed to be going wrong – the chain ring got stuck, tires punctured, and had to be changed. Finally, after much fussing around and hunting for tools–the bike was ready. I got up early the next day… and it was pouring! At that moment, it felt like everything was conspired against me. To say I was annoyed, was putting it mildly. In a fit of defiance, I went out to complete the ride. I was soaked to the core, but I was rewarded, not only with an increased confidence riding in wet road conditions, but also the satisfaction of triumphing in the face of adversity: a high that stayed with me all day.

The best part about triathlon is that it is accessible to everyone: barring a few elites, most people are in fact only racing against themselves. It doesn’t matter whether you are a sub-five hour athlete or a seven-plus hour athlete: you are only trying to perform to the best of your own abilities.

Getting started is a lot easier than it sounds. Literally, grab a pair of shoes and head out for a run (or mix in running and walking, if you can’t run yet). Borrow a friend’s bike and do a short spin. Sign up for some swimming classes. Start on the smaller distances to build confidence and get a feel of the sport.

The triathlon community is incredibly supportive and very soon, you will be hooked: whether your goal is to emerge as the top 10% of the race, or to set a personal best or to just finish, there is something in the sport for everyone.

SuYin Kalia-Ong SuYin Kalia-Ong

SuYin is a Malaysian ex-offshore geophysicist who met her husband while diving in the Andamans. Since then, she has called India her home. She is a triathlete, a pastry chef, and also a rescue scuba diver for DIVEIndia (in no particular order!).