It’s a distinct possibility that Hels and I would have stayed longer on Ko Lanta but we had a date with destiny…and a certain Dr Eleanor Quested!
Back in October 2014, I received an email from Ironman Asia-Pacific. Now, I would usually consign this sort of semi-spam to the junk folder but I looked at it for maybe a nanosecond too long and an idea formed in my mind. ‘Where are we going to be on April 5th?’ I asked Helena tentatively. ‘Somewhere in South East Asia,’ came the reply, ‘Why?’ Then I uttered the fatal words, ‘How do you fancy a half Ironman in Malaysia…’
Now, as most of you probably know, both Helena and myself have been competing in various distances of triathlon for the past few years as part of the awesome BRAT Club (Birmingham Running Athletics and Triathlon). So when my half-joking question was met with one of those semi-playful, semi-excited looks from Hels and a, ‘You want to..?’ I knew this could be a possibility. Fast-forward to April 2015 and we find ourselves in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, with our BRAT tri-suits, a pair of trainers and a pair of goggles each in our back packs. Now, I know what you’re thinking … we were missing a few bits of crucial kit from our triathlon kit bags, not least a bike each! Enter Steve Lumley: Black Country triathlete, ex-head coach of Birmingham University Triathlon Team, 35-time Ironman finisher including 4 trips to the hallowed lava fields of Kona, Hawaii for the Ironman World Championships, now living and coaching in Kuala Lumpur with his wonderful wife Jane. After a speculative (and very cheeky) few messages from me asking for advice about where we may find bikes and where was good to stay, Steve not only offered to supply us with bikes to race on, he also offered his home up for us to stay in. We were overwhelmed by his kindness but accepted the offer gratefully!
The final character in this little episode of our year travelling is Eleanor Quested. El is also a BRAT but has just moved to Perth in Western Australia on a three year work contract. We’d had some messages about meeting up on the East coast of Oz later in the year but when El heard about the race she was tempted, got herself an entry, and the plan fell neatly into place. The only difference between us and EQ was that she’d been training regularly in Perth with her new club. Well, some call it ‘training’, Helena and I call it ‘cheating’!
Our first impressions of Malaysia (as we were still travelling despite being only days away from racing) were mixed. We spent a very pleasant couple of days on Penang, a large island off the north western coast of the Malaysian peninsula, renowned for its food and arty feel. We got a good helping of both, visiting various street-stalls across Georgetown and taking in the famous wall paintings and cast iron sculptures that give Penang a very trendy vibe. Add to that a load of coffee shops and bars and your could easily be in an up and coming suburb of London, or Moseley/Harborne for all you Birmingham based readers. Oh, and the other thing that makes it feel like home is the rain!
Yes, rain! And lots of it! In both Penang and Kuala Lumpur we were in the midst of various frequent and very sudden downpours. We were a bit miffed – we’d seen a bit of drizzle in Hanoi and some overcast misty sort of weather in Varanasi, but apart from that, nothing. Not a drop! We were neither physically not emotionally preparied to deal with this sort of development! But, with nothing better to do during a deluge, we would quite often dive into a coffee shop for coffee and cake – so it’s not all bad!
Kuala Lumpur also took a bit of getting used to – we hadn’t been in a city since Bangkok a month earlier. We opted for a hotel in Chinatown which is the centre of hustle, bustle and street stalls galore. In all honesty, we were a bit hampered by the weather and feeling the loss of our southern Thailand island lifestyle quite keenly, so KL all felt a bit much: busy, noisy, dirtier than we were used to, not so friendly and a bit of an unwieldy beast.
The day before we met El however, we sort of got into the KL groove, wandering around to see some of the sights, Merdeka Square, the National Mosque (although we weren’t allowed in, but that did mean Helena was spared another shawl!), Islamic History Museum and then of course the Petronas Towers and the Kuala Lumpur tower.
Despite being an iconic image seen many times, the Petronas Towers are a very impressive structure, especially because of the park at the rear of their base complete with lakes, trees, fountains and a dedicated running loop. Watching the sun go down from the top of the KL tower was also amazing, with the sun dappling light down onto the fading streets as the neon and electric glare of the city took over the landscape. The sky here was also incredible; mixing patches of dimming blue sky with swathes of stormy clouds and an entire palette of greys, yellows, oranges and reds.
After a dash to a shuttle bus, we met Eleanor at KL’s international airport (which is nowhere near KL at all) and stopped over at a hotel that had advertised itself as being ‘close to the airport’. After 45 minutes in our transfer van, we were beginning to wonder at the Malaysian concept of distance! We didn’t mind though because it gave us an opportunity to catch up with EQ which kind of involved having a conversation about ten different topics simultaneously.
The next part of the adventure began with us picking up a hire car from the airport – super luxury for Helena and me to have access to our own transport – and making our way to Steve’s house. Following his instructions, we made it as far as the security gate of the housing complex that he lives in but then I couldn’t find his actual address and the security guys were looking at me very dubiously indeed, ‘You have come to visit Mr Steve but you don’t know his address? Well I am sorry sir, but there’s nothing we can do. You must understand that there are a lot of residents here. How are we supposed to know all of them?’ I was a bit stumped at this and was (after 25 mins of further discussion) about to go in search of an Internet cafe when one of the guards said, ‘Oh, you mean Mr Steven Lumley! Why, you should have said so..!’ A quick phone call was made and Steve arrived moments later on a bike. I have no idea what the limiting factor was here, but we came to enjoy meeting the security guys on our comings and goings over the next few days, particularly because they would salute as you passed by!
Steve’s house is lovely: spacious, high ceilings, clean lines, wooden/marble floors, next to a park/golf course…it gave Helena and I a sudden glimpse into an expat lifestyle that we could happily live with – no plans on that front as yet though. ‘Do you like cats?’ Steve said as we were welcomed in. ‘Yes, of course,’ we replied. ‘Well, that’s lucky because we have eight…’ This was no exaggeration, and although the four older cats spent most of their time out of the house, the four playful kittens turned out to be great fun, especially when trying to load a car or pack a bag – you would always find one or two of them turning up to ‘help’.
The other feature of Steve’s house is his bike collection. Eleanor had brought her bike from Perth, so she and I set about rebuilding it as Steve got Helena set up on the time trial bike that he’d arranged for her. Now, Helena hadn’t ridden a specific TT bike before, and was a little nervous, although you’d never have known. She took to it immediately and looked all too comfortable – I suspect we’ll be making a purchase soon after our return to the UK!
It’s not only bikes we needed though: ‘Do you have helmets?’ asked Steve. ‘Err, no,’ came my embarrassed reply. ‘Bike shoes…?’ ‘Hmm, nope!’ ‘Water bottles…?’ ‘Oh, hold on I think I may have a … no, no water bottles either. Sorry!’ Unflustered by our total lack of equipment, Steve selected suitable items from his own stock of kit and we soon found ourselves with everything we needed to race. We went for a little test bike, and a short jog around the golf course before having a beautiful dinner cooked by Jane with some particularly awesome home-made pesto and a glass of red wine.
The conversation moved onto the race as we were all racing. It was going to be Jane’s first triathlon, and she explained how Steve had bought her the entry as a Christmas present! Steve gave us a load of tips about the conditions and the course – the main factor affecting the entire day being the inevitable heat and humidity. The race was to be held in Putrajaya, a new purpose built city south of Kuala Lumpur which serves the administrative needs of the capital. The swim course would be a pretty simple straight out and back, with no wetsuits allowed as the water would be super warm (good for us as it was one less thing to try and source!) and then both the bike and the run would be fairly flat, so potentially fast, but with no cover anywhere so nowhere to hide from the sun. This would indeed prove to be a stifling and suffocating sufferfest of an experience that only got worse as the race progressed. Steve’s main piece of advice was: ‘You have to be conservative on the first lap of the bike and the run, otherwise you’ll pay for it.’ I did my best to lodge this idea into my mental race plan.
We did all of the pre-race logistics the day before the race, including a practise swim, bike test, racking the bikes, checking and re-checking tyre pressures, registering, checking out the ‘freebies’ and of course the mandatory buying of gels, gas canisters and various Iromman 70.3 merchandise from the expo. Whilst browsing, Eleanor was approached by another athlete from her age category who had somehow identified her (think it had something to do with El’s IM Western Australia t-shirt) and they got chatting. Very soon their conversation turned to each other’s relative experience, targets, pre-race prep and form; very friendly …? Perhaps…! It was pretty clear that it was a matter of scoping out the opposition and then, sure enough, a little mental game of ‘psych out the oppo’ ensued with the usual: ‘Yeah, I think I’m going ok but you never can tell’ and ‘I haven’t really been training that much’ or ‘I’m just not sure about the swim’ ending on the ultimate, ‘Well, good luck!’ (Accompanied, of course, with a big smile)
Race morning arrived, and yes, the air was cool but you could feel the bristling humidity just waiting to unleash. Although I can’t speak for EQ or Hels, for me, the excitement mixed with trepidation and adrenalin was brewing up a heady and potent cocktail in my veins. I’d never been this unprepared for a race, ever. Hels and I had been running throughout the last three months, but hardly swimming and as for riding a bike – forget it! The pre-race atmosphere was great and the announcer did well to get everybody excited. The swim start was to be an unusual ‘rolling start’ making it difficult to know tactically when to enter the water. We opted to just get in as near to the front as possible and before we knew it, we were on the pontoon and away…
For me, the swim went better than expected. I managed to weave in and out of the various speeds of swimmers, catching people and sitting in where I could, holding on as one or two came past, and before I knew it, I was jogging up to T1. Grabbing the bike, I headed out onto the course and was happy to feel that my legs sort of remembered how to ride! I also wasn’t getting overtaken too much, which was pleasing, and on the first short out and back section I spotted El about a minute behind me…but that didn’t last long!
Within fifteen minutes or so, she’d caught me up, looking very comfortable and very fast. We had a little chat about how we were feeling, what the swim was like and the impending heat before noticing that there was a motorbike marshal right next to us. ‘No blocking!’ he shouted at me. ‘Sorry!’ I called back, and dropped back as quickly as I could, desperate not to be given a penalty. He lingered for an uncomfortably long time however, and I was sure he was thinking about waving his card at me. Eventually he left though and the work began: ticking off the markers that came every 15km, catching as many riders as possible and trying to hang on to the quicker paced guys (and El!). El and I were relatively matched for pace it seemed, but at about 35km, we climbed a short hill and she dropped back. I continued as I was and soon arrived at the end of lap 1. On the repeat of the out and back, I spotted El in almost the exact same place she had been on lap 1, about a minute behind.
So I was feeling pretty happy with myself. This feeling lasted for about two more minutes, and then the wheels started to fall off. It was getting hotter. And hotter. And I realised I’d been going FAR too hard on the first lap (not unusual for me really!). I hadn’t heeded Steve’s warning and I had no training to fall back on. This was going to hurt.
As the aid stations came, I desperately grasped at gels and bottles of water and isotonic drinks to try and stave off the dehydration and exhaustion but it was futile. I was fading, fast. El caught me again, unsurprisingly, but this time, try as I might, I couldn’t hold on to her pace and she disappeared into the distance.
The remainder of the bike course was simply about surviving and mentally trying to prepare myself for the run. Well, I say run, but what I really mean is walk in the park (albeit a pretty painful rather than leisurely one) because that’s about all I could manage in the killer heat. El backed up her strong bike with an even stronger run, finishing with a 1:48 half marathon and first place in her age group with an overall time of 5:21. I finished over an hour later in 6:25 and Helena came across the line in 7:22. Hels had a great race all in all, topped off by beating my run split! Steve and Jane also both raced well, Jane in particular who finished very close to the top of her age group. Not bad for a first effort you might say!
So we had the pleasure of going to the awards ceremony and cheering as Eleanor received her trophy, standing next to the girl from the expo who had come second..! In addition to winning, however, El also gets to go and race at the Ironman 70.3 World Championships which this year are being held in Austria. The only catch here is that you not only have to decide on the spot if you want to go, you also have to pay your entry fee there and then! If you don’t want to go, or don’t attend, your place ‘rolls down’ to the next fastest competitor. El had been keen to attend the ‘roll-down’ as she knew she was in with a chance of being somewhere near the top and we were so pleased to see her on the top step. No chance roll-down needed!
Post-race is always great fun, even more so on this occasion as none of us were having to chase off anywhere or rush back to work. We headed back to Steve’s and went out for hearty burgers and beers. Well earned I’d say!
The following morning, we waved farewell to Steve and Jane and headed off for the second part of our Malaysian adventure with EQ.
As a side point to all of our race preparations, we’d been having various chats about what to do after the race. The idea of trekking through the Taman Negara National Park had been mooted and met with general approval all round, but as the post-race soreness began to set in, the idea of a jungle workout became less appealing and we ditched it in entirely (in a heartbeat!) when we spotted the beautiful Pulau Tioman off the south-eastern coast of peninsular Malaysia. A few days of beach time, swimming, snorkelling, diving, eating and drinking sounded perfect and that’s exactly what we did.
It took us about a day to get there – not that far but logistically tricky – but it was worth it. We were greeted by a very sleepy and relaxed island, and a noticeable lack of roads and vehicles. It was a quiet slice of paradise and we wondered what on earth we’d been thinking when we planned a jungle trip! We found a beautiful cabin on the beach, located a favourite spot for sunset happy hour beers, and became minor celebrities as everyone asked in awe about the numbers on our arms. The relaxation was punctuated with a dive trip for Hels and El, and we did actually go for a walk through the Tioman jungle on our penultimate day too. Just perfect!
So I know a ‘race report’ isn’t the usual content of a travelling blog, and there were many people back home who said ‘Why on earth would you want to do that? You’re on holiday!’ But that’s what we BRATs do for fun; and it was fun, a lot of fun. And we must thank Steve and Jane in particular for their superb hospitality and for making this chapter possible.