Gurye is a picturesque farming town in the province of Jeollanam-do in South Korea. Last year, I was there for the first time to support a teammate who did (and finished) his first full Ironman.
The IRONMAN Triathlon (tri) race is a 3.8 KM swim, a 180 KM bike ride, and a 42 KM run with only 17 hours to complete all three legs of the race.
What I remembered most of the event was the swim leg. While watching the athletes lining up and seeding themselves for their predicted swim time, it was in that moment I knew I would be ready to do my first full distance (226 KMS) with more or less a year of preparation.
And so I signed up for 2018 IRONMAN Gurye. My goal was to make it at the finish line, except I didn’t.
As part of my tri training and in order to build endurance, I registered for Cebu Marathon, Tigasin Triathlon in Pangasinan (standard distance), and two stand-alone cycling events of Tour de Bintan in Indonesia: the 17 KM Individual Time Trial and Classic 144 KM races (this will be another blog story soon).
The Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) Gran Fondo World Series is a series of UCI-sanctioned races held all over the world. Tour de Bintan is one of those.
To top it off, it was indeed helpful to have a tri coach for my Gurye race. The online tri training via Training Peaks app was offered pro bono by tri coach and cycling aficionado Coach Andy. Training sessions commenced in October 2017.
I wore a tri kit under my wetsuit for the swim. The beauty of wearing a tri-specific race suit is that you can wear it throughout the entire event. Most tri kits are designed to be worn during the swim, bike, and run. Well, ideally. It’s a whole other story in cold weather.
On race morning, race officials and volunteers directed all participants to self-seed based on their projected swim time. The weather that day affected water temperature and a blanket of fog covered the lake. While waiting for the gun start, we danced to these perfect upbeat tempos to warm up.
Not being used to cold water swimming (even after having the test swim the day before), I struggled to find my breath within moments of entering the lake and stopped swimming for a minute or two to blow bubbles. The water was way too cold even with a wetsuit. Endured intermittent painful calf cramps on the course. I tried to relax my cramped leg and kept moving forward. As I was on my way back after a U-turn point, a fellow participant accidentally hit the side of my head, just above my ear with his hand as I was rolling my head to breathe. I tried not to feel panicky while trying to reach for the lane rope to pull myself together. After swimming the last 500 meters using only my arms because both of my legs cramped already, what a relief it was to be out of the water, finally! I was thrilled to bits hearing my name announced by the host while on my way to T1 or the swim-to-bike transition area.
Transitioning from cold water to cycling was a huge challenge. The air was chilly while moving out from T1. Not having fully recovered from the swim, yet there I was faced with significant climbs in the next kilometers. Quads cramped. First time it happened. Then I saw a lady participant who got off her bike and walked the hill. Me! No way!
Was in luck to build up some speed on the way down and saved some energy by maintaining a good tempo while coasting some of the kilometers leading to the main Y-shaped bike course.
The three-lap Y-shaped bike course took participants to a scenic route passing through rice fields, rivers, waterways, hills, tree-lined streets, and mountain ranges.
On the course, aid stations provided muscle cramp relief spray and sunscreen. They were also well stocked with a variety of snacks, bananas, energy gels, and half-full bottles filled either with cold water or energy drink prepared by awesome volunteers. Toilet stop is not a problem since it is equipped with tissue and water. What more could I ask for?
I was almost done with my second lap, on a path under a shady canopy of trees, when I saw this lady rider ahead of me wobbled, fell off her bike on the right side of the road, and accidentally slammed her head on the highway guardrail. Her feet were still attached to the pedals when I stopped to check if she had injuries. I was figuring out a way to break the language barrier and continued to speak proper English telling her not to move. She may have simply not caught everything I said while waiting for her teammate to make a turn on the road and park his bike so he can assist her before I continued to roll on.
Done with two laps and was about to do my third when I noticed volunteers have left the road intersection, with the U-turn signage for third lap gone and replaced with a straight-on directional sign. With his right arm waving in the air, one race official shouted inaudible words to all bikers and pointed his other arm to the road straight ahead. I followed, and then hesitated. Realized I’m not finished yet. One more loop. But, it was in this leg where my race that day ended. I had to talk to a race official and surrendered my timing chip because I really didn’t think I was going to make the race cutoff. It was so close. Difficult as it was, but I made the decision.
The last stretch of the course leading up to T2 is a 20-kilometer highway with a low-gradient climb as a ruler’s edge. With no shade and as straight as it was, it was the last mental test in the bike course. Heavy-hearted, there I was pedaling slowly back to transition, reliving the moment, and thinking of what had just happened. This: A DNF (did not finish) at my first full IRONMAN race. I was devastated.
Choose to be positive and have a grateful attitude.
The support I got from friends, family, siblings, and relatives was overwhelming.
My nephew who’s based in Hawaii messaged me, “It’s OK Auntie there are still many races.” Or, my niece’s message, “Proud niece here!” Or, to my coach who said, “You did better than many other people out there. Just showing up and doing what you could despite all the challenges was brave and already an achievement. Congratulations nonetheless and keep your chin up. You’ll get there one day.” Or, my sister who sent me extra money for whatever stuff I needed to buy. Or, my supervisor who wished me well and asked me to come back in one piece after the race. Or, friends and teammates who gave their time to send me (and another teammate) off at the airport and supported this endeavor in whatever they could.
Sometimes you win. Sometimes you make it. Sometimes you LEARN.
Every athlete, no matter how ready or well trained, will one day have a race that is disappointing, or not perfect. I may have missed hearing these words “You are an Ironman!” or receiving the finisher’s medal, but again, it is only a race. There are still plenty of races out there, but there’s only one life.
Sportsmanship goes beyond the game. Accept the outcome of the game.
I have swum (3.8KMS) and biked (over 100KMS) the race by its rules. “Finished or not finished, pass your papers!” That’s part of sportsmanship. Sportsmanship or the golden rule in sports and competition means handling both victory and defeat graciously and taking it all in stride by following the rules of the game, respecting the officials, and treating fellow participants with respect. Win or lose (or not being able to finish), it is all part of sportsmanship.
Let it go. Then, move on.
Dreaming big, or shooting for the star. Setting goals and trying to achieve them the best way possible.
Rising to challenges and managing personal and work-related stressors. Spending a huge chunk of time (aside from having to work eight hours a day) training at night and on weekends—rain or shine—with dedication for that goal. Believing in “me” and having that can-do attitude.
Showing up on race day at the starting line ready to battle what’s ahead (in spite of dealing with ongoing pain).
Well, these things I considered as huge accomplishments already.
It’s OK to be sad for a while. But don’t beat yourself up. The most important part is to figure out what’s needed to be done. In time, pick up your plan where you left off and come back strong. Stronger and better than ever before.
Earlier this year the invite came from runner-blogger and Busan-based Del aka Argonaut Quest, who advised me that the best time to go to Busan, South Korea would either be in April in time to see those beautiful sakura flowers blossoming just about everywhere, or in the autumn months between October and November where leaves are changing from the vibrant greens of summer to a colorful palette of yellow, orange, red, and cooling temperatures. I was a bit hesitant to say yes not because I didn’t want to, but because of some important stuff.
Since triathlon (tri) off-season was also underway, a few weeks off from my last big races would mean some time doing other activities, eg household chores, filing stuff, and a lot of catching up on life. But what the heck! The call to come to Gurye (pronounced gu-re or gu-ræ) to support teammate Raffy’s IRONMAN (IM) Gurye quest at the same time get to watch the IM event was too much to ignore that I found myself securing needed documents, crossing my fingers that I could get through the dreaded visa process. To my surprise, getting one was not bad at all. Funny, too, the flights were booked way ahead of time. Super thanks to Tri Taft and Team Ninja Jerome for making it possible for Raffy and me. Well, I got mine just a few hours earlier than that of teammate Raffy. Obviously, wasn’t too excited, right? Yay!
The send-off party attended by Endure teammates and some friends put Raffy in a good mood days before the trip. The occasion was also made extra special in a way that only a videoke can! The final night before flight next day, I still managed to sneak time to meet Endure teammates Jemai and Vic for Raffy’s IM finisher’s poster including helmet and bike stickers. Super thanks, Jemai and Vic!
Everything went well as planned. We were picked up from Busan airport right on time by Del, or around 8 PM local time. Manila is one hour behind Busan. Then we immediately went to his place for a quick stop to bring our luggage in. Del was letting us stay in his place during our short visit in Busan.
It was a good idea to start the night with a short walk. Seeing the lights and buildings, my initial impression of life in Busan was the city had a more laid back atmosphere and perhaps a more beautiful city at night than it was during the day. We visited a nearby restaurant for Thursday dinner and enjoyed a spicy Korean soup with rice, fish and kikiam cakes partnered with (to my relief) fried chicken, potato fries, and cola drink. Super thanks Del for the welcome dinner. Simple things yet they have transformed our arrival in Busan extra special.
We agreed to do a short run around the nearby area early next day. Del maintained a daily routine that is, squeezing in some morning run workouts before going to work. Who could resist such cool morning where the sun added an unbelievable light to the already foggy mountain range. I so wanted to stop running for a few minutes to savor the view, but I didn’t want to lose sight of Del and Raffy who were running ahead of me. The partly shaded flat run around the block worked wonders, which eventually led us to Eulseok Island, a paradise for migratory birds and happened to be home to one of the most runner or cyclist friendly paths in the city. The amazing view would always be imprinted on my mind.
We left Busan on Friday evening for Gurye and had a short stop to grab something to eat at a restaurant along the expressway. County Gurye is a two and a half to three-hour drive from Busan. We arrived late in the evening to our hotel, and soon as we stepped out of the car, we were greeted by the chilly mountain air. After some initial confusion about our reservation, the staff at the front desk immediately sorted it out with smiles and a bit of humor. Visiting Gurye for the first time, I found the locals to be quite friendly and helpful. “This is it!” I said to myself. I would have to wear many hats in the next two days—as a teammate, support crew, cheerer, overseer, spectator athlete, la la la. We went to our rooms and decided to meet up early next day (and in our minds) to officially kickoff race weekend.
We all got up early on Saturday morning and headed to the swim venue for the official swim practice. I was mesmerized by the breathtaking views of the town of Gurye. It was simply amazing! It was a cold foggy morning at Jirisan Lake, and the fog looked like steam rising off from the lake water.
As participants trickled in, some were engaged in conversation and others were busy changing into their wetsuits. I saw familiar faces including friends Maximus owner coach Andy, RaceDay Triathlon Monching, recent Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc® or UTMB CCC finisher Erick, Jay, and Doc Art among others. Swim practice didn’t take long for Raffy, except for Del who decided to swim, well, almost the full course. Whoa! Go, Del!
After the swim, we had to meet some members of the Philippine IM Gurye KOREA delegation for a quick photo op, and the four of us then proceeded to claim race kits at the race expo. There were clearly people that had arrived at the expo, which was at another location accessible either by walking or by car.
The expo where participants pick up their race packets, have photo ops, register or listen to race briefing, is a triathlete’s dream place. Couldn’t help but feel a twinge of envy after seeing Raffy’s, Del’s, and Yap’s race kits. In my mind, “I wish I were a participant, omgee!” LOL to myself. Kit claiming is one of my favorite race-day moments. In Gurye it was orderly, organized, and most importantly, it happened real quickly. We got the opportunity to take some time to check out race items and see what the vendors had to offer. After all, it was not a bit silly to try other goodies on offer, and they were reasonably priced, too. And if you were lucky enough, you could even get a substantial or good discount. The guys bought some race essentials and IM Gurye mementos. We also watched a bit of the IRONKIDS Gurye wave start.
Since all bikes and transition bags must be racked on Saturday, after having brunch, we went back to the hotel to prepare the bikes and pack gear and transition bags for check-in later in the afternoon. Del drove his car so he and I could go straight to the gear/bike check-in area, while Raffy and Yap biked their way to the expo to see a bike mechanic for last minute bike checkup.
I stayed at the waiting area or near the M dot for Del to rack up his bike and gear first, then I scanned the crowd to check whether Raffy or Yap had already arrived. From afar, I watched officials checked helmets as athletes entered the transition area. It took sometime before Raffy and Yap could join us. It turned out, Raffy’s bike was thoroughly checked for other mechanical problems. Once everyone was done, we all headed back to our hotel and opted to go out again to have an early dinner.
Raffy and I joined Greenhills Tri James at a nearby local restaurant frequented by some Pinoy triathletes. Del and Yap opted to check out foods from other restaurants. Afterwards, Raffy and I joined Del and Yap, and together we bought some groceries at a nearby convenient store.
Raffy and I went back to our hotel to prepare other race essentials: (1) race number tattoo, checked; (2) transition bag for special needs, checked; (3) timing chip, checked; (4) wetsuit, checked; (5) goggles and cap, checked; (6) outfit of the day (OOTD) pre-race, checked; and, (7) OOTD post-race, checked. We agreed for an early night on Saturday to get that well-deserved rest because we had a BIG day planned for next day, but Raffy had difficulty falling asleep. My thoughts, “I so can relate. Race jitters here you go!” Deep breathing exercise didn’t help him either. I just said to Raffy this, “Don’t worry about bad sleep; having good sleep days before the trip is what matters. Being a little nervous for tomorrow’s race means you cared about your performance and have put in a lot of hard training to prepare.”
The day has finally arrived!
On race morning, Raffy and I availed of the hotel’s breakfast, which was specially prepared for IM participants. It was a fairly early start as we all had to travel to race venue with a bit of time for the guys to check their gear in the transition area. Race suit on, transition bag ready, bike Tomoe race ready, I believe Raffy was focused. A good sign!
The early dawn silence was suddenly broken by the booming and energetic voice of IM race announcer. In a few hours, the starting line would soon be filled with that too-pumped feeling, pre-race jitters, and adrenaline! Looking up at the sky, it was cloudless, clear, and purely beautiful. I told Del about it and was a bit surprised when he replied, “Just wait. It would be foggy in a few minutes.” Finally, it was time for them to go to start!
From afar, I could see IM officials supervising all participants during the self-seeding for age-group rolling start. It was like watching penguins congregating at the water’s edge since most athletes wore wetsuits, and diving one by one into the cold water. In reality, one by one racers jumped off the dock to get round the first buoy. Then what Del said earlier happened. The fog crept by and had slowly enveloped the swim course. Not more than ten minutes after the race had started; a swimmer had veered completely off course, and tried to go back while kayak safety marshals looked on. A few minutes later, two swimmers asked to be rescued and were aided by race marshals at the dock. I think, it was a DNF for these two athletes.
I could hardly see anyone out there in the water now. Even kayak marshals and the biggest IM buoy disappeared into the fog. It wasn’t too cold, but the evaporation fog over the lake made it look like a scene from a movie where a predator could come out any time soon of the mist in front of us. Then came emcee’s voice on the mic again announcing that the swim might be cut short to bring the swimmers to safety due to the thick fog. Spectators muttered as he was announcing this. As I watched the scene before me, I prayed hard for the safety of the participants and my friends. After a few seconds, perhaps an answered prayer, emcee’s voice came again and jubilantly announced that the swim would continue after all! We cheered and clapped our hands! I was positioned for a good view of athletes as they came out of the water. Spectators encouraged participants with cheers. I saw who came out first. It was a Caucasian, perhaps from the US. Then followed by more athletes now out of the water. I stood there for almost two hours and waited not only for Raffy, but also for other friends to come out of the water. And, when they finally did, it was a huge relief!
In the next moment, who would have thought that you could hear the emcee shouting an athlete’s name followed by a dialect of your own language in this foreign land, “Philippines! Astiiiiiig!” LOL! By the way, there were over a hundred Pinoys who joined this year’s IM Gurye Korea, third biggest contingent, if I were not mistaken. Thanks to Tri Taft JR Hizon for doing much of the coordination and for making this possible for our Pinoy triathletes. Also, great thanks to Yap for leaving his pocket WiFi with me. Because of it, I was able to share race-day highlights to Endure teammates in Manila.
Except for tidbits or stories shared by friends, I couldn’t say much for the bike leg. “Bike course wasn’t that too easy. It was like riding two Tagaytays,” according to coach Andy.“I was emotional and I even cried when family back home came into mind,” Raffy said. “I was careful while riding down the hills,” Del shared. And Yap said, “The best!”
After the swim leg, decided to walk to the other side of the lake to meet briefly coach Andy’s Mom and family who stayed at a place called Guest House Hotel. Spent time with them over a quick late breakfast then went back to my hotel to rest while the competitors were still on their bikes. The athlete IM tracker was a huge help to track my friends’ standing in the race including expected time to finish. Getting back to race venue or finish area was not a problem since shuttle bus services were made available until midnight on that day.
I arrived at the race venue at half past three in the afternoon, and positioned myself near the 17K/30K turnaround point so it would be easier for me to spot incoming athletes. Almost all participants looked so strong despite having had to finish biking a 180-kilometer distance. The 42-km run race was still on, and you’d never know what could possibly happen in the next few fours.
Finally, saw Raffy as he was approaching the 17-km mark and cheered on him. On the second time he was about to turn around it, having reached the 30-km distance, and as I was about to take a video of him to update teammates when suddenly he stopped running only to tell me he felt dizzy. Of course, in IM tri you couldn’t lend extra help to a participant for this would mean a DQ or DNF. I did try to seek help from the marshal, but the language barrier did not help. Looking at it positively, I believe it was a blessing for my asking help made Raffy continue his run. Though a bit worried for Raffy, my assessment was Raffy’s overworked muscle was getting into him. He was exhausted. I could see that. But it was up to him now. IRONMAN, as an endurance sport, is also mental. It’s mind over matter now for Raffy. From where I stood, I saw him ate something at the aid station, and ran again. Crossing my fingers and knowing how much Raffy prepared for this, I never for one reason or another doubted his capability to reach the finish line. He would be OK.
With only over 12 kilometers to go, expected time to finish was about sub-15 hours. A block away from the finish arch, I positioned myself at the corner. Readied the poster that teammate Jemai prepared for Raffy. With only 30 minutes to go, Raffy would, finally, be an IRONMAN! In those minutes, I kept shouting at the passing runners to cheer on them shouting, “You’re stronger than you think you are! You’re about to be an IRONMAN, go, go, go! Girl power! Your running form is still OK, you can do this! Still running strong!” It was like a litany while waiting for Raffy to arrive. In that moment, while watching them, a realization dawned on me that it was easier to be out there racing than to patiently wait. Omgee! LOL!I reminded myself, “RD, patience is a virtue.”
Finally, I spotted him a few meters back, he was slouching already and looked tired. As soon as he was near enough from where I was seated, I opened the tarp for him to see. Written on it was “IRONMAN (his complete name) CONGRATS! From your team ENDURE for conquering IRONMAN Gurye KOREA 09.10.17!” Entirely, I’ve noticed his stance changed. Now that was what I call second wind. I was running alongside him on the sidewalk now while holding the tarp, too excited and shouted, “Almost there … IRONMAN, ka na! Woohoo! Congrats!” till he reached the red carpet at the finish line. From outside the corral near the finish arch, I stood there waiting for the emcee to announce his name ending with these words, “… you’re an IRONMAN!” He crossed the finish line with a pretty impressive time for a first-time finisher! Nothing was easy, but anything was possible.
I was feeling happy during the race and I believe it had something to do with the fact that I was part of something big. Though some close friends back home thought that I would be racing full IM, no, not this time, not yet. My task has officially ended. Mission accomplished. Now I could finally relax and remove my invisible support crew hat.
Congratulations to all Pinoy triathletes who participated in year’s inaugural IM Gurye Korea! Kudos to IM Gurye Korea organizers, event partners, volunteers, cheerers, Gurye residents and officials, and to the many people for a job well done. You guys, rock! See you next time! Gurye saranghæ! Busan saranghæ!