I swore that I would never ever do a triathlon. They are too fast, too flat, and too fanatical. Well, at the end of August I changed my mind. I went down to Hoi An in the centre of Vietnam and did my first one.
The reason why I decided to do it was because I’m new to Vietnam. I wanted to meet other athletic people and see what the whole sport / racing scene is like in the country. But there doesn’t seem to be that many running or biking or even adventure racing events that take place. So when I looked around the only thing I found was this Vietnam International Triathlon.
The race took place just outside of Hoi An, a UNESCO protected heritage site. It’s a really pretty place, great to hang out in, with good food and bars and shopping. In fact, you can get yourself custom made suits and shoes there for less than normal prices at home: perfect for distracting your other half whilst you’re busy on the triathlon.
I didn’t have high expectations of doing well. I’ve not been training properly since June. And I wasn’t too sure how I’d cope with the heat reaching the mid thirties. Also I’d didn’t also have the proper triathlon gear with me (having said that, I did order it at the start of August online and even as of today, it still hasn’t arrived in the Vietnamese post).
In the end, the weekend turned out to be a great way to meet people. More than 300 athletes converged on the town for the triathlon. Competitors from afar afield as Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan flew in to attend. Numerous contingents arrived from Hanoi (where I live) and Ho Chi Minh too, everyone travelling to the centre of the country to race it out over Olympic distances in water, on wheels, and on foot.
Cua Dai beach proved the picture perfect location for the 1.5 km swim, 40 km bike, and 10 km run. With warm blue seas, palm trees, and golden sands, the scene was set for a photogenic start to the race. Strong winds however added some trepidation to the scene, causing some to wonder whether the stiff breeze would adversely affect the swim and bike sections.
At the stroke of 2.30 pm, racers rushed into the sea, filling it with bobbing, red hat wearing swimmers. The swim stage was from a sunny sandy beach laced with palm trees and crystal blue seas. And it was 29 degrees in the water so no need for any wetsuit or swimming in freezing waters. Australia’s Benjamin Lyons led comfortably out of the water with a sub 25 minute swim, an incredible 4 minutes faster than the next competitor. However, the afternoon winds whipped up the waters, turning the swim section into an epic battle against the waves. I heard later that eight guys gave up, one girl had to be rescued, and even one rescuer had to be rescued himself. In the meantime, I was battling it out on the surf. My goggles started leaking terribly. I wear contacts, so spent my time being really paranoid that my contacts were going to float away and leave me blind. And I drunk so much salt water that I couldn’t even stomach the pinch of salt I added to my camelbak for the cycle.
Times for the swim section were considerably more than in previous years. Even experienced tri-athletes were shaken by these sea conditions. But for some, like myself, this was their first ever triathlon. I had never swum so far in the sea before. I even met some competitors who had only learnt how to swim a few months before so as to compete in this event. It was a baptism of fire and water for many.
But when the going gets tough, the tough definitely got going. Once the swim section was completed, it was a sprint back up to the beach-based transition area to dump the red hat and goggles, and to grab bikes for the 40 kilometre ride. A peaceful road circuit was laid on for the bikes through expansive green paddy fields. Despite the peace, we were still all warned to be cautious of the erratic movements of Vietnamese traffic, especially with some cyclists reaching speeds in excess of 40 kilometres per hour.
Somehow I did ok in the swim. However, my bike time was terrible. I decided to hire a bike from the organisers, and though the bike was grand, it had big chunky mountain bike tyres on it. Picture the rest of the girls who had flown in from Singapore and Hong Kong with skinny tyres and super light bikes. They all left me for dead. It was really depressing. And then, despite all the pre-race warnings, I accidentally hit a motorcycle as it turned right when I thought it was turning left I ended up falling off my bike and badly scratching my knee.
I was so glad to finally get off the bike and get on to my favourite discipline: the run. The 10km run was three laps of a 3.3km loop through a neighbouring seaside fishing village. Local children were especially out in large numbers, cheering on the runners. The kids also took the chance to practice their one or two words of English, shouting them at the breathless runners. Some were particularly enterprising as they picked up the multiple plastic cups and sponges dropped by competitors trying to keep their temperature down. The organisers had laid on numerous well stocked drink stations to help avoid last year’s meltdown in extremely hot and humid conditions. They also had changed the event start time so that the run section would take place in the cooler late afternoon rather than under last year’s midday sun.
Despite having lead by over 9 minutes after the bike section Australia’s Benjamin Lyons, in only his second ever triathlon, had to dig deep at the end. The finish was a thrilling sprint, with Lyons nearly being pipped to the post by the UK female competitor, Tracy Cook. In the end, Lyons’ winning time was 2 hours 26 minutes 30 seconds, just one second faster than Cook, the first female home. Cook had originally been selected as part of the Women’s British Triathlon team to compete in the Gold Coast ITU Triathlon World Championships later in September. However a date clash prevents her from attending the race. She decided instead to come to Vietnam for a holiday and to compete in the Vietnam International Triathlon for fun.
But the event wasn’t all just about competitive experienced triathletes battling it out for the race spoils. The weekend was designed so that everyone could compete in some sort of event. Amateur athletes could complete the whole triathlon individually or as a member of a three-person relay team. Alternatively, there was also a sprint duathlon staged, with a 10 kilometre bike and 3 kilometre run for those interested more in speed rather than endurance. Local children were also invited for an aquathlon as part of the Tribob Hoi An Swimming Charity Programme. And for those who couldn’t get enough, there was even an optional Sunday spin of the surrounding historical sites, just a leisurely 60 or 120 kilometre warm-down bike ride the day after the race.
In the end, I came 53rd overall and 6th in my category in a time of 3 hours 8 minutes and 42 seconds. I enjoyed the race but learnt that triathlons aren’t really my style. I much prefer running and biking in the mountains rather than on roads, and hence think that adventure racing is much more my thing. Also I’m not a great fan of sports that are really dependent on how good the equipment is that you have. That’s what’s so great about running – even if you have crap shoes, if you’re a good runner, you’ll still do well. But in the end, it was a fun weekend away doing something new. And isn’t that exactly why I moved to Vietnam in the first place: to do something different and to enjoy myself at the same time!