A Dream Reached
For the first time, I really don’t know where to start this one. I really can’t even begin to describe how I ended up here. My first World Championship experience was a surreal and humbling one. I've had a week to let it sit and sink in. I will apologize now for the probably super long write up (edit: it ended up being super long). As always, the purpose of these is for me to look back years down the road and remember or be re-inspired by these events... Or to cringe at the dated references and linguistics. If anyone can benefit from these, all the better! I've split this race report summary lets call it a diary entry, into two manageable chunks; a prologue outlining my journey to get to worlds and a main article elaborating on race week itself.
I had a fantastic week. I came down to Cozumel, Mexico to compete in 2 races: the Aquathlon Age-Group World Championship and the Olympic (Standard) Age-Group World Chapionship. The aquathlon on Wednesday was a novel experience that I had never competed in before, nor trained specifically for. I finished 26/32 M20-24 competitors with a 8:31 2.5km run (3:24/km), 18:40 1000m swim (1:52/100m) and 11:56 2.5km run (4:46/km). Definitely not anywhere close to my PB times, but it was a good opportunity to apprehend the climate and better plan for the Standard race on Sunday, which was my main objective of the week. I completed the Standard WC triathlon in 2:10.58 with a 24:15 1250m* swim (1:56/100m), 1:00.52 40km bike (39.4kmh) and a 41:30 10km run (4:09 min/km). This put me 35 36/70 athletes in contention in the M20-24 AG. Overall, I was happy with my performance given all the circumstances and I proved to myself that I could compete with some of the best athletes in the world.
I should preface this by saying I don’t claim to be a pro by any means. I can’t even fathom how I ended up on the start line of a World Championship event surrounded by some of the best athletes from around the world. Realistically, I know my times aren't the best - or even close to pro-levels so to be able to compete in a field such as this was a huge honour. It wasn’t so long ago (I calculate it at 6 years, apparently) that I struggled through my first Give-it-a-Tri at Toronto Island back in 2010. With my crappy steel frame Miele, Adidas “gym” shoes and a race belt so big I had to wear around my shoulders like a satchel (not a man purse!), its crazy to see where I’ve ended up.
In my very first cross country race in high school I finished within the bottom 10. That feeling of defeat and failure made me strive for success even more. Slowly but surely I improved to eventually become captain of my high school team (fine, co-captain). I had the same experience once again in collegiate cross country and now I am still slowly improving to the level where I can kind of run to the standard of the field. My point here is this whole triathlon and running thing never came naturally to me, as it doesn’t for most. This is a sport that I believe absolutely anyone can succeed in and in which anyone can reach his or her goals. There was a very long stretch of time where I would finish in the bottom quarter/bottom half of the field and be happy with my races because it was something that I loved to do. Overall positions and splits were not even on my radar. Completing an Ironman or competing at an international level weren’t even a consideration. Eventually, something clicked and I saw marked improvements in my performances (which may or may not have been the sound of 3Sixty5 wheel hubs spinning out below me). #shamelesssponsorshipplug). Some of these still baffle me today; the capabilities of the human body are amazing when they are pushed and tested.
My build-up to worlds really started 15 months ago when I was doing my final build to TTF 2015. I had attempted to qualify for Edmonton 2014 in the 2013 season and again for Chicago 2015 in 2014, but just didn’t have the times to qualify. For those unfamiliar with the qualification process, you must be a member of your provincial triathlon association (Triathlon Ontario for myself) and place top 3 in your AG at a qualification race. In the case of qualifying for Edmonton in 2013, 10 spots per AG were allotted since we were the host country. These qualification races are typically way more competitive as athletes travel great distances to bid for a spot. During TTF 2013, I didn’t even come top 10 in the AG!
Heading in to TTF 2015, I felt like I had an outside chance at nabbing a spot. I had a solid training block leading into the race and finished 2nd in AG in a time of 2:15. This beat my previous TTF PB of 2:21. Ecstatic that I had qualified, I drew out a long 14 month training plan (which would change drastically over the following months) culminating in Cozumel 2016. I finished out the 2015 racing season, dove into varsity XC, varsity track, varsity swimming, OYL group rides (#oylcycling @oylcycling #anothershamelessplug) all while training with the UW Triathlon Club. Over the past year I have had an amazing group of athletes and mentors helping me along the way getting me to where I am today, to whom I am so grateful. As I will soon describe, I went through literal blood, sweat and tears on my journey to Cozumel.
My summer training blocks consisted of an endurance base block to shake out the body after the longish winter, a speed/power block to build up my threshold ability, a tempo block to merge my endurance and speed work and ended with a race specific training block (the "sweat"). The endurance block consisted of pretty unorganized training at any chance I got. I went through some personal obstacles (the "tears") towards the beginning of the summer, which inspired me to really dive into my job and into my training to keep my head clear. This forcedmotivated me to do doubles, triples and even some quad session on most days. The speed/power sessions were filled with short efforts at close to max effort (think Tabata or Fartlek). Tempo sessions were more race pace efforts at longer distances (3x3k running or 4x20min on the bike). Finally race specific training was focusing on race distance workouts and bricks.
In May, I also had the opportunity to travel to Cozumel ahead of the race, since it was a port on our summer cruise vacation. I got to recon the run and bike course, as well as check out the swim conditions. I can't say that it really affected my training, but it was good to have an idea of where the course was and I always had it in the back of my mind. If anything, running in the heat scared me into prepping for it better.
Between my speed/power and tempo blocks, I returned to TTF to test my development over the past 12 months. My initial goals for the year were to get as close to a 2 hour Standard distance as possible, including a sub-hour bike (40kph) and a sub-40 run. At TTF 2016 I yielded a 2:05 finish including 4th overall and 1st in my AG. This was 10 minutes faster than the previous year, and 16 minutes faster than the year before that. I rode a 40kph bike split (#shutupalexanderdossantos) and ran a 39:30 10k. This boosted my confidence and had me optimistic for worlds. To me, this validated my position on the team Canada AG team and proved to myself that all of my training had been paying off. I remember in my first years as a competitor, looking at the results page and being in awe at the 40kph bike splits or the runs in the 3min/k’s only hoping to one day get there. In absolute terms, I know these aren’t crazy fast splits, but relative to my goals, they are accomplishments to me.
My 2016 season consisted of very minimal racing, due to both logistics and my decision to train through the races and stick as closely to my training protocol as possible. My only other race of the summer was the Tour de Terra Cotta road race. This is my favourite bike race, and one that traditionally I have done very well at (12th(?) in 2013, 4th in 2014 and 5th in 2015). I have never crashed in a race, nor DNF’d (hubris, huh?). I have my own opinions on what happened that I won’t publish here, for various reasons, but what occurred during the race was a huge clusterf. I was in the Masters 78km race and after 77.8km on the finishing straightaway, a rider cut across the road and clipped someone’s wheel taking out a group of 5. Obviously, I was in that group of 5. I became unclipped and ate the asphalt (the "blood"). I went to the hospital with road rash to both elbows, both knees, my shoulder and a broken heart because of the condition of my new bike. I had serious worries that I had broken my elbow (ok fine, my radial head at the proximal forearm, to be kinesiologically correct) since I could barely move it. Worlds was in exactly 6 weeks. After 14 months of preparation, this was how I thought it was going to end. I was gutted. I couldn’t even comprehend the situation. The x-rays came out clear with a concern for an invisible hairline fracture. Essentially, the results were inconclusive and we could only wait and see. Soon the pain of the road rash set in, and I found it painful to bend my arms and legs, since the cuts would re-open with every movement. Frustrated with the situation, I gave myself one week. One week before I would commence training no matter how I felt. The pain and swelling in my elbow eventually subsided and after 7 days I was back on the bike and running. I was running normally before I was walking normally because somehow running hurt less. As it would turn out, the week that I was forced to completely shut it down ended up to be beneficial as I came back to training feeling really fresh. I guess that week gave my body time to recover from the tough summer of training.
Every triathlon season I have ever done has culminated in a race in late August/early September, whether it be a 70.3, Ironman or series final. This gives my season focus and something to work towards. I always find it funny how in the winter and early spring, I am itching to get outside and train. It could be -10 outside, but as long as the roads are clear (I hesitate to ride/run in slippery conditions) I fight to get out. However, I always notice a conflicting feeling around the end of summer. I always feel burnt out, so to speak, leading up to my season closing races. It’s a struggle to convince myself to go for a tough ride or long run. Just as that feeling was creeping up on me this year, some personal issues (the "more tears") arose that once again forced motivated me to bury myself in my job and in my training, just as it did earlier on in the year. I didn’t encounter that mid-season hump and found another gear to train on. When life gets hard, run harder right?
With all of the hard work behind me, all that was left to do was run the good race.
I had a fantastic week. I came down to Cozumel, Mexico to compete in 2 races: the Aquathlon Age-Group World Championship and the Olympic (Standard) Age-Group World Chapionship. The aquathlon on Wednesday was a novel experience that I had never competed in before, nor trained specifically for. I finished 26/32 M20-24 competitors with a 8:31 2.5km run (3:24/km), 18:40 1000m swim (1:52/100m) and 11:56 2.5km run (4:46/km). Definitely not anywhere close to my PB times, but it was a good opportunity to apprehend the climate and better plan for the Standard race on Sunday, which was my main objective of the week. I completed the standard WC triathlon in 2:10.58 with a 24:15 1250m* swim (1:56/100m), 1:00.52 40km bike (39.4kmh) and a 41:30 10km run (4:09 min/km). This put me 35 36/70 athletes in contention in the M20-24 AG. Overall, I was happy with my performance given all the circumstances and I proved to myself that I could compete with some of the best athletes in the world.
My taper to WC race week started on the flight to Cozumel, as I trained hard right up until the flight on Monday morning. A few short light runs and rides on the island kept me activated for my race Wednesday morning. For those of you unfamiliar, as I was before given the option to register for the race, the Aquathlon is a 2.5km run, 1km swim, followed by a 2.5km run - basically a duathlon with swimming instead of cycling. Swimming is not my strong suit, so I wasn’t expecting much of this race. This was just my warm-up race for fun, as my main focus was the standard triathlon. Thus, I didn’t think to specifically train for running to swimming or from swimming to running (the transitions for an aquathlon). I thought it would involve the same adaptations as swimming to biking or biking to running as in a triathlon, right? Boy was I wrong.
My running had felt strong going into race week, so my game plan was to attempt to stick to the leaders on the first run, get through the swim (swimming is my weakest link) and hammer home the last run. I had nothing to lose so I erred on the aggressive side. As we gathered at the line, so many emotions and thoughts were buzzing through my mind. It’s tough to put it into words, but it was sort of a mix of pride, intimidation, nervousness, and excitement with a little kick of adrenaline. I was stood there facing the acronyms AUS, NZL, RSA, BRA, MEX, POR, USA, GER, GBR, among others, hearing all kinds of dialects and accents. I think that’s when it really sunk in, I was standing among some of the most talented athletes in the world. Some travelled across half the world to toe the line. I could not believe that I was amid them. The magnitude and significance of the Grand Final had hit me.
At 8:30, we were called to the line as the first wave and the gun went off. Holy crap it was FAST. The first km felt comfortable at a 3:24/km pace as a group of 10 Mexicans led out front. After the first km the pack started to splinter and I came into T1 in 8:30, about a minute back from the leaders. Aquathlon T1 is weird. Shoes off, goggles and wet cap on. In a triathlon, you start the race wearing goggles and a wet cap, where you can take your time before the race. During a race, with shaky hands and a high HR after basically sprinting 2.5km posed a challenge, especially after never rushing to put them on. Jogging to the water fumbling around like an idiot, I managed to get them on somewhat stably and moderately comfortably. As soon as I dove into the water off the paddock and took a few strokes, it was like my body completely shut down. I had no sense of how fast I was going, but I knew it did not feel good. Every pull felt especially laboured, my legs burned with every kick. I knew I had run hard, but I had run plenty of 2-3km repeats in training before and felt fine then. What was wrong now? Could it be the heat? I was in water, so probably not. Could it be the salt water? Salt water makes you more buoyant so no. Could it be the currents? Everyone was flying by me, so it couldn’t be that either. I knew I wasn’t the strongest swimmer, but to go backwards in a field and to feel so crappy must have meant something was off. I struggled through the swim, being optimistic for the next run. But as soon as my feet touched the exit ramp from the water, my legs felt like lead. I headed out on the second run never breaking 4:00/km’s. My splits were 8:31 for the first 2.5km run, 18:40 for the 1km swim, and 11:56 for the second 2.5km run. I didn’t cross the line with the feeling and emotions that I had dreamt about feeling. No arms up, no smile, I was frustrated. I was disappointed. I didn’t know why. Aside from the fact that I felt like crap, I knew I had no expectations for the race and I went into the race knowing that. I suppose the competitive side of me doesn’t like failure. I thought I would have done better, I know I could have done better. So what went wrong? Is my form not what I thought it was? Was this a precursor for the rest of my week?
After chatting to a few other Canadians around the island over the following days about their experience, I formulated a hypothesis.
1. I know I may have gone out a bit too hard, which obviously led to my fatigue. That may have just been attributed to the jitters and adrenaline of a mass run start and the atmosphere of the crowd that overloaded my sense to run within myself. I can accept that.
2. This is the main key to my struggle during the race, I believe. When swimming, especially longer distances, you typically have a relatively lower HR (compared to other endurance activities) as well as a very slow, rhythmic breath rate. My heart rate is around 140-150 BPM and a breath every 3 strokes (or 1 breath every second or two and you must hold your breath between inhales. We can call this discontinued breathing, so-to-speak). Conversely, while running at a close to max pace (as was my case), your HR is close to max and your breathing is very rapid. My HR is typically 170-190 during hard intervals and my breathing is very fast and deep (almost a panting or continuous breathing). The problem that I came to realize is during a normal triathlon, you start in the water where you can slowly elevate your HR and BR to active levels. Then you go on to the bike and run where your HR and BR can increase at will. However, in an aquathlon, after my hard run, my HR was shot way up and my BR was probably out of control (especially in the cooking Mexican heat). To dive into the water and start swimming, my BR had to instantaneously reduce to a slow and rhythmic rate. That was what I was not prepared for. With my HR still so high, and my BR being forced to reduce and my muscles still striving for oxygen to function and to recover after the fast run, my body went into an oxygen debt. I believe it would be akin to running an all out 3km running race while holding each breath for 5 seconds (maybe? I have no objective proof for this). I think to better prepare for this, my training adaptations may have come from obviously practicing hard runs to swims (to reduce my HR quicker), or to pull up from the last 500m-750m of the run and let my HR lower a bit to prepare for the swim.
It took me a bit of time to swallow the events of the aquathlon but in the end it was a great experience and a great learning opportunity leading up to the big race on Sunday.
In the three days between races, I took full advantage of the group training sessions and tried to better acclimatize to the heat.
My race wave started at 6:45am. Transition was open between 5:00 and 6:30 to set up your kit for the race. To avoid the hassle of finding a cab at 5:00am, we rented scooters the previous day and drove ourselves to the race site. Zipping down the main road in the pitch black at 5:00am definitely woke me up with a fist full of wind in my face. It sort of gave me time to think about the race and get my head in the zone. Luckily I got to the race site unharmed and on 2 wheels. Race prep and warm-up went smoothly and before I knew it, I was standing in the corral for the first wave of the 2016 ITU Age Group World Championship. Whereas there were 30 people from primarily 4 countries in the aquathlon wave, here, there were over 100 athletes from over a dozen countries. The atmosphere was unreal. So many thoughts and emotions were running through my head, but unlike during the aquathlon, I feel they were more subdued and I was more in the zone and ready to race.
Race day could have ended very badly, very quickly!
A common thought that I always have on the start line of or night before a big race is “did I train enough?”. I always question my preparations and training. I think back to that one Sunday where I slept in and couldn’t make my long run or when I was just simply too tired to go for a ride. I start to worry that I hadn’t trained enough or didn’t train hard enough even though deep down I know I am always prepared to the best of my abilities. Once I start racing, I feel fine and confident again, but the nerves before the race are the worst. This time, for my biggest race ever, I had no such feelings. I spent the summer training with the UW varsity swim team 3 times per week and logged all of my bike and run km’s on Strava. That was head and shoulders more than I have ever swam before, so I was confident in my swim. According to Strava, since January, I logged 3,677km of cycling at 5 rides per week and 507km of running at 4 times per week. These stats don’t include my indoor training on the spin bikes or treadmill runs where the bulk of my winter training was. This year I focused solely on the Olympic distance so my quality work was relatively short and intense. I had no doubt in my mind that I had prepared all that I could for this race. Standing in the corral, surrounded by some of the best athletes in the world, I thought back to a quote that my grade 9 science teacher, Mr. Levack, told my class before our first ever high school final: “Relax, there is no more preparation that you can do now. All of your studying has been done. All you can do it focus on the task at hand and do your best”. Those words have stuck with me and are so relevant to many aspects of life.
At exactly 6:40 we were called down to the paddock starting line and we hopped in. It was a breezy 27 degrees. Due to the strong tides/currents in the water that morning, the swim was announced to have been shortened to 1250m! I thought this benefitted me, since swimming is my weak discipline, however I was wrong. The swim course was a rectangular box with its longest side parallel to the shore, so most of the swimming was done in a north-south/south-north direction. The current was flowing such that the longest straight section of the swim was against the current. I didn’t feel to beat up by the waves but the swim was definitely a hectic one. The tides had affected me since I felt really strong in the swim, but ended up finishing close to a minute slower than my 1500m best, despite the shortened course. I had never been in a swim so tight and so aggressive for so long. Typically swims disperse after the first few hundred meters, but here people in my group were clawing each other right to the exit ramp. I feel the shortened swim benefitted the stronger swimmers, who knew how to adapt to the stronger tides and could push through. The fastest swimmer still swam a 17:12. On a side note, apparently the currents got so bad towards the later waves, athletes were swimming and not making up any ground - some said they were going backwards! Some swims clocked in at 55 minutes! Some in the last waves even had to be pulled out of the water because they could not physically make it to shore. Luckily, they were allowed to finish the race, given the circumstances, albeit with a huge asterisk beside their time.
Out of the water and on to the bike, The Cozumel bike course is on a dedicated bike path down the western side of the island. It is pancake flat with minimal turns. My game plan was the same as from TTF: manage the swim, ride over 40kph on the bike and run a sub-40 run. We had a tailwind out and head wind in. With the anticipated heat on the run, I decided that I was going to sit up a little for the last ~5km of the bike to let my legs recover a little bit. As planned, I took one eLoad gel at the turnaround and had 1 bottle of water on the bike and 1 bottle of eLoad Endurance formula, which I polished dry.
I settled into the bike averaging in the low 40’s with an Aussie, a Brit and the lead woman from Team GB who has swam up the 3 minute stagger deficit, making sure to keep a 12 meter drafting box between myself and the rider ahead. I held that pace, until the turn around where the slight headwind lowered my speed slightly to 38-40kph. As planned, around 5km I started to shut it down and rode a less aggressive pace to T2.
I am not going to get into a discussion on drafting in non-draft legal racing as I agree with the two recent posts by both Lionel Sanders and Kristen Marchant, who both explained the topic meticulously. All I will say is from what I saw and heard from other athletes and spectators, it didn’t seem like everyone was holding a 12 meter drafting box, specifically at the sharp end of the race.
My goal was to ride a sub-hour bike split. Given the climate, wind and decision to pull up for the last ~10 minutes, finishing 56 seconds up is an objective accomplished in my books.
Like the bike, the run was also pancake flat, except the course was totally exposed to the sun with only about 100m worth of tree shade over the 2x5km loops. My plan here was to take out the first 6km at a comfortable pace and hammer home the last 4km (depending on how I felt). It was a very technical course, but well marked and easy to follow. The majority of the road was slippery, patterned concrete with a kind of cement shoulder that provided a bit more grip (especially when cornering). On a pretty uneventful run, I got to the 6km mark on schedule averaging around 4:00/km. At every aid station, I grabbed all of the water I could and jammed ice into every crevice I could find. At the 1km/6km mark, however was a very long 2-2.5km stretch of course in the middle of the highway, with no tree shade and direct exposure to all of the elements. Just as I started to pick up my pace, as planned, I began to fall apart. The heat was finally taking its toll on me and I felt myself begin to overheat and fatigue. All of the water and ice that I could grab wasn’t enough to cool me down and my pace slowly reverted modestly to 4:20min/km. It was a struggle, but to my surprise the group that I had been running with also slowed the pace, probably a coincidence. I was met with a spur of the moment dilemma: do I push through to hold my pacing schedule and risk blowing up, or continue to run at a relative comfortable pace and unload whatever I had left for the finish?
Up until this point, I was running a very net positive race. By that I mean I was consistently making up ground on the field after the swim. On the bike, 1 person in my AG passed me, while I passed a handful. On the run, 1 or 2 people in my AG passed me, while I passed even more than on the bike. On the run, I noticed a lot of people ahead of me walking and even stopping at the side of the course. The heat was clearly impacting a lot of people very severely (as seem here). Clearly, I wasn’t running quite as fast as him nor had as much at stake, but I feel in hindsight, had I been pushing the same relative percent max effort, I may have experienced the same fate. I erred on the conservative side (learning from my aquathlon blow up) and controlled my pace through km 8 and 9. In the final km I knew where I was and threw down every last bit of energy that I had. In the final 500m, even though my speed may not have shown it, I felt weightless. I crossed the line with the feeling and emotions that I had dreamt about feeling. This time arms up, smile on my face, I was ecstatic.
At this point, I could go into all kinds of analysis of the splits and statistics of the race. In the simplest of ways, I was 6 minutes slower than my distance PB, despite the botched swim (where no real comparisons can be made), heat and moderately busy week preceding the race. It is tough to compare the swim due to the wetsuit illegal swim, salt water, tides, shortened course, etc. My bike was 58 seconds slower than planned and my run 90 seconds slower than planned. Counting how many things could have gone wrong race day, I have to chalk that one up as a win. I was never going into the race expecting to win or even come top 10. My objectives were to race for the experience of racing with some of the top athletes in the world. My finishing time was 2:10.58, which I’ll be the first to admit isn’t blazing fast by any means but relative to the field, finishing 36/70 far exceeded my expectations.
I attribute much of my success to my heat training and advice from Cody Beals, who shared some of his heat training protocol wisdom with me earlier in the year. I won’t dwell into the details of what Cody prescribed, but I did wear a long sleeve or sweater for most workouts throughout the year (indoor and outdoors) as well as take full advantage of my 2 pairs of sauna suits during workouts as well. Everyone looked at me like I had 3 heads in this record high summer and at the time, I had no idea if any of it would have been beneficial come race day. It did, I suppose. Even though km 8 and 9 of the run were slower, it didn’t really drastically change my pace; ~20 seconds per kilometer. It’s a far cry from hitting the wall. I feel the heat training allowed me to control the race better and if anything, delayed my suffering to the heat. Even just standing and lounging around the island, people whom I was with were complaining about the heat and I felt totally cool.
To finally wrap up this stupidly long race report/blog/diary entry (again, sorry if you’ve stuck along this long!) my week in Cozumel for the 2016 ITU World Championship was surreal. The atmosphere on the island and the camaraderie amongst all of the athletes has to be unparalleled anywhere else. The athletes parade and opening ceremonies wasn’t unlike the Olympics with thousands of athletes gathering together to share photos, stories and experiences. It was great to be surrounded by so many like-minded individuals who all share a passion for the same thing and where, even in the brutal heat of competition, unity and union as a community shone through. Running onto the blue carpet is a dream of every triathlete - second only to running down Ali'i Drive in Kona. Putting on the Canadian kit and hitting the blue carpet was an honour and dream come true.
I would like to give a huge thank you to my sponsor 3Sixty5 Cycling for their continued support of my athletic endeavors. I raced on a set of Platinum 88 wheels with 3Sixty5’s proprietary hubs. Also to my countless training partners who pushed and paced me through crazy workouts all year long. Lastly to my family, who have supported me through this long and arduous journey.
Just like after my Ironman, I am at a loss at where to go from here. I feel like I have achieved all of my goals and have no idea where to focus my attention on next. I have spent the last 15 months swimming, biking or running in my down time in preparation for Cozumel. I think I’ll put the bike and goggles away for a while and focus on the cross country season. Then I will sit down, assess my grad school schedule and pick out my next target. I am a person who likes to be driven by goals and achievements. I always like to be working towards something; a tangible, definite end. Previously, it was my Ironman, then Worlds. With no goal set in my scope, I feel lost. It’s a weird feeling. They say it’s not about the destination; it’s about the journey taken to get there. It’s the journey that drives me everyday, and it always starts with the first step.
Written by Tyler Chuang
Tyler is currently racing for the T1Triathlon High Performance Team, and preparing to qualify for the 2018 ITU World Championships in the Gold Coast, Australia.